Jessica Valenti Wants Us to Focus on the Bad Men

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Jessica Valenti is ready to look in a new direction. The founder and Guardian columnist has confirmed to the Cut that she has secured a deal with Holt for her sixth book, whose working title is The Misogynists: Who They Are, Why They Hate Us and How to Stop Them. In a slight shift from the project of empowering women that Valenti has focused on in previous books like Full-Frontal Feminism and The Purity Myth, this new book will hone in on what she believes is the root of the problem: the fact that “men are still hurting us.”

“I think we tend to forget that living in a misogynist world where women are raped and women are sexually harassed; those aren’t just issues or statistics, those are things that profoundly impact your life and ability to work and be a part of the public sphere,” says Valenti, pointing to feminist philosopher Dr. Kate Manne’s distinction between sexism and misogyny, in which sexism is the system but misogyny is the”‘enforcement mechanism” that keeps women subordinate. “So how can we expect women to be able to complete this tremendous feminist project, if in the meantime we are dealing with all different kinds of misogyny that are sometimes literally punching us in the face?”

While still in the early planning stages, the book aims to cover the many forms of violent misogyny permeating our culture, from school shooters to domestic abusers to incels who have been radicalized online. We called up Valenti to chat about her new book, the state of contemporary feminism, and where the movement can go from here.

Can you tell me more about this new book?

So much of feminism’s popularity right now is about uplifting women and uplifting women’s voices, and I’ve been a part of that project. But we’ve been so busy doing that, that we haven’t really focused in on the reason why we need to lift up women, and that’s because men are still hurting us. I really wanted to write something that explains who misogynists are, and how they operate, and the impact that they have in all sorts of ways.

To what extent is the violent misogyny that we’re seeing, in incel communities for example, a direct response to the rise in mainstream feminism?

It’s not a coincidence; I do think it’s a direct response. I think the election of Donald Trump and the rise of radical online communities is sort of the backlash to end all backlashes. The optimistic part of me would like to think of it as the powerful death throes of misogynists, but the more pessimistic part of me thinks it’s something more, that there’s going to be a lasting impact. At the same time, it’s not 95 percent of men, right? I do think that it’s useful to talk about the fact that this is just a small percentage of men, but a large percentage of us make it really easy for them to operate.

Rebecca Traister wrote a piece for us that seems to get shared every time there is a mass shooting, about how one of the most common predictors of mass shootings is domestic violence.

I’m working on the chapter right now about mass shooters. The fact that we don’t see misogyny and misogynist behavior as a red flag means that we’re not preventing crimes. Like the Santa Fe high school shooting in Texas where the kid was harassing a girl for months on end, that was just seen as normal male behavior. Oh, when a girl says no, like the guy just keeps asking her out. But what if we saw misogyny, or sexism, or domestic violence or whatever it is, as a warning sign and a big red flag and not just: Oh, that’s something that happens. Women shouldn’t have to be the canaries in the coal mines of violence and misogyny. But often we are. We burn first. While we do need to have a practical conversation about tangible things that we can do, I think part of the solution is recognizing that misogynists themselves are the problem.

Are you going to get into that in this book — tangible initiatives, practical things we could do?

I think there’s a real strategy to focusing in on men as a feminist project. Look at something like #MeToo. We’ve been talking for a long time about sexual harassment and sexual assault, but it didn’t have that sort of cultural power until women started saying, It wasn’t just that I’ve been raped, but this guy raped me. This guy did this. I’m naming names. Let’s hold the individual men responsible. We started out talking about systems and power and gender, those things are all still part of the conversation, but when we started talking about individual men’s bad behavior and holding them accountable, that’s when this became a seriously powerful cultural movement. Imagine if we could do something with all sorts of different types of misogyny. I want to make misogyny an offense that’s worthy of social ostracizing. I don’t want misogynists to be able to go out and eat dinner in peace. I don’t. If you hit your wife, you shouldn’t be able to eat dinner in peace.

I’m still trying to sort out how political versus how practical I’m going to be in the book. We do need those practical solutions. It’s one thing to say, yes, we need an alternate culture for young men and it’s an entirely different thing to create that. But I don’t know that it’s women’s responsibility to create those cultures. I also don’t know that if women create cultures for boys and young men that they’ll be likely to adhere to them. I feel like that initial initiative will be male-led. There’s plenty of male-led feminist organizations that are successful on local levels, and in schools and things like that, but we haven’t seen that big national thing yet that really speaks to boys and young men.

Again, I think it comes down to this idea that boys and men don’t need help, or that it’s like a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of thing, and that’s why we are seeing young men flock to folks like Jordan Peterson, or 4chan, or Reddit, or whatever it is. I see this as an indication that they have understandable questions, and concerns, and worries, and anxieties that we’re not doing a very good job of answering.

You mention Jordan Peterson. I’m from Toronto and I have been surprised at the number of men in my life who have sort of gravitated towards his ideas recently.

What I think is interesting is that he’s giving men an opportunity to feel proud of themselves, but he’s not giving them a forward-looking model of masculinity. He is attaching significant importance to a very stagnant model of masculinity that already exists. This idea that men should be strong, be bigger, the lobster, and all this sort of stuff — none of that is new, and none of what he’s saying actually requires them to do much introspection, or changing, or growing. It just requires them to hold on really tightly to the model of masculinity that’s already very popular. I think that that’s what is so attractive about it, because it allows them to feel like it’s okay to have this cultural and political power and privilege, and in fact it’s not only okay that they have those privileges — it’s meant to be, in this mythic worldly way.

Do you think the sort of “rah-rah” empowerment feminism that exists now can lead to a polluting of feminism’s aims and goals?

There’s not an easy answer to that. This is something a lot of modern feminism has been struggling with. This is what has happened over the last ten years, and I count myself among the people who made this happen. We worked so hard to make feminism accessible. We want so badly for more people to call themselves feminists, or understand what feminism was, and wanted to move feminism from being a fringe improvement to be a more mainstream concept, and that’s been accomplished, and it’s been wonderful in a lot of ways because of the cultural power that feminism holds now. But it also has been a watering-down of the message in the sense that products are selling themselves using feminist rhetoric, and the anti-choice movement is glomming on to feminist rhetoric, and conservative women are calling themselves feminists while trying to strip women of their rights. There is a downside of coming to the middle or making things more sellable. You do have to be really careful.

I don’t know if it’s a question of tone or something else, but I’m wondering if there are further concessions that feminists need to make on some issues to bring more people into the fold. To focus on the real issues that we’re dealing with, which is that a lot of women are still being raped and abused and killed by violent misogynists.

I think that’s a good point. I’m not thinking of it in terms of concessions, but I am thinking about it in terms of how to translate this issue well in this book, so that it’s not just women reading the book and preaching to the choir, so it is that men can pick up this book and think about it in a serious way. Men are thirsty for conversations like this and they are interested. I do think that a conversation that focuses on men’s bad behavior, while also bringing in men, is possible, and I think that the way to do that is to remember that when you talk about feminism, and when you talk about men’s issues, it’s ultimately about optimism. It’s about believing things can change, and believing that sort of change and a focus on men will actually be better for men too.

Jessica Valenti Wants Us to Focus on the Bad Men