When I moved down to London, on the morning of my 18th birthday, to become a young, idiotic, yet hopefully noble lady rock critic, I had a bin bag full of clothes, a laptop, a dog, and one terrible flaw — other than the tendency for my hair to assume an unflattering triangular shape if not frantically back-combed — I knew nothing about men. Nothing.
In this, of course, I was scarcely alone. There are no guidebooks about men: figuring out which are the nice ones, and which are the dangerous ones. What is acceptable behavior, and what is not. There are no manuals about being a fruity lady who wishes to have swashbuckling sex adventures with her peers, something which was very much on my “To Do” list. Sex, as I saw it, seemed like an excellent hobby, with little to no financial outlay, no chance of making me put on weight, and it doubled as an efficient way to get to know new people. I was pro doing it as much as possible.
So my man tabula was totally rasa. My sum total of knowledge about the opposite sex was what I’d gleaned from fictional characters: classic MGM musicals of the 1950s and a ferocious consumption of 19th-century literature. If I met three cheerful dancing sailors with just 24 hours’ shore leave (On the Town, 1952), I would be in my element. Likewise, if I fell for a stern, wealthy landowner with a mad wife locked up in a turret, I was on firm ground. I’d simply wait until his wife set fire to herself, blinding him in the process, and then we would wed. With Rochesters, you just have to play the long game. I knew that.
Alas, London in 1993 had absolutely no dancing sailors or emotionally repressed landowners. Or, if it did, their social lives never intersected with mine. My life was Blur gigs, the purchasing of bootleg Beatles rarities at Camden Market, Lemonheads aftershows, and editorial meetings. Also: booze, fewer drugs than you’d think, rock, and a lot of deadlines. Like Almost Famous — but without me being as successful as Cameron Crowe. Almost “Almost Famous” is the memoir title I’ve considered many times.
And the people in my orbit were all men. All men. Indie rock was made of men in those days. So there was sexism straight away. Like, the day I turned up — there it was. And the sexism was fine, to be honest. The sexism was kind of … the easy bit.
“Come and sit on my lap. Let’s talk about it,” an editor said, when I asked to write a cover feature. He patted his knee, temptingly. For a moment, I felt almost … proud. Back in Wolverhampton — as a fat hippy girl in chunky glasses — my primary interaction with eligible young bachelors was when, having spied my copy of the The Female Eunuch, they chased me across a wasteland, throwing gravel at me and shouting, “You fat lesbian!”
But here, now, in London, in my workplace, I was being sexually objectified! By any kind of metric, I’d surely risen: from “untouchable outcast” to “perv-able minor employee.” This chick was on the up!
I walked over to him, maintaining eye contact, and plonked my entire 14 stones onto his knee.
“Ugh?” he said doubtfully. This wasn’t the sexy-times he’d been anticipating.
I started bouncing up and down, heavily. Really thumping onto him — like he was laundry, and I was a rock, bashing out his awfulness.
“Hey, boys!” I said to the rest of the office. “This is fun! Does anyone else want to join in? I notice you’re all sitting on chairs, but it’s more fun on a knee! It shouldn’t just be for girls! You blokes should sit here, too! It’s awesome!”
“All right, Andrea Dworkin, you’ve made your point,” he said, tetchily. I stood up and curtseyed. I got the feature.
This kind of performative, public sexism I knew how to counter: You just treated the men like you would a younger brother. You shamed them in front of their peers. The cure for flamboyant public sexism was flamboyant public shaming.
What was difficult for me was desire, and love. Or, what claimed it was desire or love when it presented its papers at my borders. Love! I lost count of the men who expressed a desire for me (I didn’t; there were four between 1993 and 1995) — only for me to discover, once I was naked, that their actual desire was just to be unpleasant to a woman somewhere private.
There was the journalist I was dating who asked if I wanted to invite my 14-year-old sister — sleeping on my sofa — in for a threesome; the other journalist I was dating who said, “Do you want to experiment?” and, when I said “Yes,” reached over and pressed a lit cigarette on my arm. The boyfriend who tried to kick my bedroom door down when I refused to have sex with him — shouting “YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO ME!” at the top of his voice — and who continued bellowing and kicking, even after the police turned up. “It’s okay, she’s my girlfriend,” he said. They looked at me. I nodded, because it was true. They left.
These were all alarming experiences because they were alarming, obviously; but also because of how I interpreted them.
These were just the kind of things that must happen, I thought, if you are a young woman who expresses an interest in having sex or relationships with people you’ve talked to a dozen times at parties; who are friends with your friends; who you are dating. A bedroom is a place where a man can drop his veneer of civilization and charm — stop joking with you about shoes, stop finishing your favorite quotes from TV shows, as you both laugh — and become scary instead. And there are no jokey ways out. Then, when you’ve left the bedroom and try to tell other men what occurred there, they look you up and down, and say, “I’m surprised you let it happen — you seem like a feisty person,” or, “I’m sure you gave as good as you got,” or, most awfully of all, from a man I’d worked with for three years: Some kind of shutters slid down over his eyes before he declared, “You probably deserved it.”
The city, I observed, was like a coral reef. In the shallows, it was all sparkling, active fun — cheerful dudes of every shape and color swimming around much like I was: getting their work done, enjoying themselves, and enjoying hanging out with the lady-fish. There were so many nice men. I must make that clear. The majority of the men were good, and I ended up marrying one of them a couple of years later. That’s how lovely he was — and we enjoyed our modern, sexual, giggling times immensely.
But right on the edge of the reef, just where it shelves off into the deep, cold ocean, there were darker creatures with unblinking eyes and consistently observable habits. They’re in every town and city in the world. Charismatic, angry men who hover on the fringes of offices and parties, waiting until bright, young women who are new to town are alone. They show all the signs of human interest and engagement — teasing questions, flattery interspersed with flirty insults, so that you feel you have someone who’s really testing your mettle. Someone who has seen your vast, youthful potential and wants to play. Someone who — intrigued by you, your amazing you-ness — has rescued you from the anonymity of the room:
“I thought you’d be really annoying, but you’re not. You’re kind of … fascinating.”
“I bet other people say you’re ‘Too much’, huh? I like a woman who’s too much.”
“I find most people very boring. Not you.”
“You don’t behave like other fat girls.”
“Everyone else here is dull. Shall we go somewhere else?”
You will end up back at his flat, either that night or the next time you meet him or the next. Why? Because you are hopeful and want to be out in the world, having adventures. Why else? When someone intriguing shows some interest in you, you have to take a leap of faith. You have so little to compare it to.
Every woman I know has had a man like this; they’re a tollbooth you must pass through into true adulthood. The Classic Bad Man is a rite of passage. He should not have to be — it is not to womankind’s betterment that we learn to survive these things — but he is. And what I have observed is this: There are some men who simply desire to see unease and fear in a woman’s face. It is as if they get high off it. They huff it like cocaine. This is their addiction: making women scared. And they will spend their whole lives doing it. Do you know someone like this? I bet you do.
It was when I was going out with a famous, beautiful, troubled, awful musician that I started to notice another species on London’s coral reef: the women. These women had lesser jobs and less money and less power than the men but were there nonetheless, trying to make their way.
They’d approach me at parties as I stood, sad and drained, next to J. They’d approach me when he went to the bar, or left my side for some other reason.
“How’s it going?” they’d say, with significant looks. Or: “Is it all … normal?” — with heavy, heavy meaning.
It was 1994 — before Facebook and Twitter — but it was an internet of sorts: a web of women. On some occasions, you had only to mention his name for a woman to suddenly take you by the hand, look you hard in the eye, and say, “Darling, oh God, me too.”
I had one friend who, on seeing J. at parties with yet another young woman (his girlfriends always stayed the same age, as he got older) would run across the room, drag the new conquest into a corner and state, firmly, “That is one of the worst men in London. He has derailed every woman he’s been with. You must leave.”
And so gradually, we learned to avoid the bad men, the unhappy men, the men who were trouble looking for a place to happen. Now in our 30s and 40s, these men are our war stories; our tales we tell when we are together, marveling over how innocent we were back then. How unprepared. How defenseless. How unknowing.
We all know a lot more now — for, in 2018, we do have Twitter and Facebook. Women aren’t just waiting until they see another woman at a party with a bad man. They are blogging and vlogging and telling their stories to thousands, millions. We are finally talking about something that has been previously confined to urgent exchanges in bathrooms and over lunches with friends.
Each time a new story breaks, a new discussion follows it. And in this onrush of terrible reports — in this new dawn of talking about male and female relationships — it is incredibly important that we not make category errors, lest we confuse the issues. The coining of “#MeToo” as a descriptor, as a campaign, as a flag to march under has given us a powerful device to open up the whole topic of the way that men treat women. But #MeToo is about illegal acts, criminal and/or sexually discriminatory under the law. It is about rape, assault, bullying, and abuses of power in the workplace.
But the flood of stories that have come in its wake — the viral “Cat Person” short story; Aziz Ansari’s much-chronicled experience with Grace — these are different. They’re not about kicking doors in, or cigarettes being put out on arms. They’re about a second kind of bad experience: the unbidden spanking, the unkindness, the mindfucking, the joylessness. They’re about consenting women going home with men, who, out of impoliteness, sexual preferences, or lack of sexual knowledge, sour the experience and make women want to flee. They’re about men making mistakes because there is no guidebook on women, either.
This category of bad sexual experiences comes down to the fact that, at this point in history, men’s tabula for women is completely rasa, too. Every problem I had as a teenage girl, noncriminal men also have. There are no manuals about being a man who wishes to have swashbuckling sex adventures with his peers. There are no templates for how to approach a woman in a jolly and uplifting manner, discover her sexual preferences, get feedback while you’re rolling around naked, and learn from her without feeling oddly, horribly emasculated.
While my knowledge about the opposite sex came from MGM musicals and 19th-century literature, men’s tends to come from pornography and best-selling books by pickup artists. Men are working on the assumption they must either look like Burt Reynolds and bum a woman across a landing or else psychologically manipulate women into doing things they wouldn’t normally do, because sex is about, somehow, winning, rather than a collaboration between two people who delight in each other.
There are definitely men who discover a way to be with women that doesn’t inspire their former sexual partners to form a whole sociopolitical movement testifying to their awfulness, but I genuinely wonder how they’re managing this. Given how dolorous their sexual role models are, men essentially are having to invent sex from scratch. There are no men blogging honestly about sex. Women’s magazines have endless sex tips; men are informed how to buy watches and suits. Men can’t sit in the pub and have chortling, confessional conversations about the mechanics of sex — it has to be “legendary shagging anecdotes” or nothing. There is no men’s movement constructively analyzing the politics of sex to everyone’s benefit, merely men’s rights activists and incels furiously railing at women’s lack of sexual largesse. Hollywood would rather show a half dozen planets being blown up than a single, memorable kiss. Most kissing fans I know would agree we haven’t had a really classic one since Tobey MaGuire kissed Kirsten Dunst upside down in the rain in 2002 — and that’s not really a learning opportunity, unless your house is equipped with pulleys and a badass sprinkler system. Where can a man ask an honest, open, scared question about sex? We have not yet created a space for this. And so men just make do, with the scrappy cargo cult of sexual information they have received, and with dire consequences for everyone.
Laura Bates from the Everyday Sexism project tells a terrible story of a 16-year-old boy coming home in tears to his mother. Eventually he tells her why he is so distraught: He and his girlfriend tried to have sex for the first time and, at one point, he started strangling her. She started crying.
“Please don’t, I don’t like it!” she said.
“I don’t like it either!” he said, also bursting into tears. “I hate it! I just thought that was what you wanted! That’s what they do in porn!”
This is 21st-century male/female sexuality in a nutshell. Despite living in a world of every kind of niche pornography, strip clubs, Brazilians, sex toys, Fifty Shades of Grey, blow-job tips, sex education, contraception, anal-bleaching, designer vaginas, Viagra, pussy-grabbing scandals, and #MeToo; despite there being 6,500 spoken languages in the world allowed the infinite space of the internet; despite sex happening all the time, everywhere, we still — still! — haven’t found a way to talk about it that is truthful, open, informative, and not scaring the living daylights out of our young people. We seem not to have told them, at any point, how lovely it all should be. We’ve somehow managed to screw this up. Our tabula is still rasa.
Caitlin Moran’s new novel, How to Be Famous, was just published by Harper.