This essay was commissioned for The University of Edinburgh's Dangerous Women project which released 365 pieces of new work between International Women's Day 2016 and 2017. More details here.
We live in a dangerous world, and that danger comes from male violence. It is hardly radical to point this out, as it’s a fact: governments know it, the police know it, crime reporters know it, judges know it and victim support workers know it. Statistically, this violence is perpetrated by men and boys against women, girls, other men and other boys. Statistically, it is males who rape, traffic, terrorise, buy and sell and rent, harass, exploit, use and abuse females and sometimes other males. Statistically, it is men who physically beat and brutalise women and other men.
This abuse is supported by an inescapable network of macho social and cultural misogyny in which male authority figures with money and power head up every area, be it politics or the arts, finance or the charity sector, medicine or academia, law or engineering. Meanwhile, but for some few exceptions, women are kept in the lower echelons of each organisation and often paid less for the same work as men, discriminated against, sexually harassed, dismissed through ageism, punished for becoming mothers and overlooked for promotions.
In a patriarchal society like this, women are punished through comparison with negative stereotypes, impossible ideals and hypocritical double standards which sexist men invent and reinforce among themselves to ensure their own dominance (although many women have absorbed and internalised the same values): an assertive woman is shrill while her male counterpart is assertive; a friendly woman is a tease who deserves what is done to her by any men who abuse her while a friendly man has easy charm; a child-free woman is a selfish careerist while a new mother is a matronly sap who can’t be trusted to concentrate at work, whereas a man with kids is a ‘family man’ even if he does no actual parenting and leaves the childcare labour to the mother or a female nanny. And so on.
In culture and in the mass media women are ignored, sidelined or under-represented as writers, directors, artists, experts, architects, designers, photographers, composers, conductors, panel speakers, whatever it is. If it involves money, influence, self-expression, the power to influence images and narratives, to create great spectacles and show the world our creative vision, we are kept out, whether that’s making films or getting on best-of lists or prize shortlists or receiving big commissions and exciting work trips as DJs, as scientists, as academics, as poets, or whatever it might be. Those who are not ‘lucky’ to be treated like this in full-time, middle class professional employment are struggling as exploited workers in ‘flexible’ jobs which offer no pension, no stability, no progression and no safeguards.
At the same time, in the home, many men still use women’s labour as cleaners, cooks, child-raisers, sexual service providers, family admin organisers and parent-carers. And yet providing all of these free services for a man who does far less than 50% of all the work does not mean that a woman will not be beaten, raped, bullied, controlled, deceived or betrayed by him; two women a week are killed by their male partner or ex partner. And when a woman is abused, and she speaks about it, she will be told she is lying. Women are cornered and trapped in their lives by severe funding cuts which have affected domestic violence, rape, legal aid, housing, early years education and elderly care charities. Women are bearing the brunt of a macho government’s sadistic ‘austerity’, where those at the bottom of society – always women, and in particular women of colour – are punished again and again and sometimes kept in abusive situations through lack of a way out, because the Chancellor doesn’t what to tax rich white chaps like himself.
Yet it is not we who are the liars. Narratives and images about women in mass culture from films to music videos to adverts do not derive from reality but are chock full of malicious lies and patronising, belittling insults. So often, the stories we ingest as part of our daily entertainment are full of slanders against women, and give us a pantheon of females who represent everything that sexist men really think about us. At the very best we can hope to be sexually objectified as a ‘hot’ body to be used and then discarded or a crying and desperate kidnap victim to be saved. We can be turned into pornography and masturbated over, or rented and used by the hour to give a man sexual gratification and a feeling of power and control. We can be patronised as an infantile and endlessly supportive love interest or pityingly leered over as a murdered prostitute on a mortuary slab. There is the useless frump, the nagging wife, the interfering mother in law, the hard-faced police detective, the petty fusspot, the pathetic yet predatory ‘cougar’. We are either stupid bimbos to be used then ignored or scheming, dried-up witches to be mocked then ignored. When our very youthful beauty fades the true hatred and derision felt for us is revealed.
And at the very worst, we are represented as dangerous women who will destroy the world out of our irrational malice if we are not stopped. The succubus, the ugly hag, the sinister crone, the cold bitch who can’t take a joke, the demonic castrator, the shrill feminist who overreacts to every tiny thing, the dried-up spinster aunt, the baby-hungry obsessed woman, the demanding high-maintenance girlfriend, the shallow high-maintenance wife, the ‘psycho’ ex wife, the scheming harridan, the un-maternal career woman ‘ballbreaker’, the embittered former beauty queen, the vengeful stalker who’s mad, sad and bad and lives to emasculate men.
These images bleed out of the arts and culture and are used to judge and attack all women in public life, especially in politics and business leadership. Women who aim for power of any kind, in any area, are represented as ravenously ambitious, selfish, inhuman witches who want to take something away from men. Actually forget about trying to get power; when a woman wants justice, basic justice in law, against a man who has harmed her, and is strong enough to go to the police and even through a court to get it, it is she who is put on trial, said to be lying, psychologically exposed, cross-examined and destroyed in front of strangers.
There are many dangers for a woman who dares to claim more than what is offered to her. More than a life of drudgery and abuse, of being objectified or belittled or ignored or exploited or undermined or treated as stupid. More than a world in which women are only tolerated when we can be used, and where we encounter verbal violence, structural violence or physical violence when we test the limits set down for us.
But what does it mean to be a truly dangerous woman, in this dangerous world? Forget about film and TV myths for a moment. In a womanhating, woman-exploiting, woman-abusing, perpetrator-excusing world, a dangerous woman is one who points out the obvious. A dangerous woman is a woman who is made, like all of us, to go through the gauntlet of misogyny all day every day, who sees perpetrators lionised as pillars of society and victims tortured and punished, and like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, shouts out that something isn’t quite right and wonders why everyone is colluding with the illusion. The sheer amount of slander directed at women who do this is simply a way of deflecting attention from the obvious truth about the perpetrators of virtually all the violence and abuse in the world. The slander and resistance are themselves a form of abuse.
You wouldn’t think that words alone could make you a dangerous woman. In a militarised, violent, capitalistic world individuals are considered dangerous if they have ammunition of a literal or metaphorical kind: if they are carrying a gun or have a lot of economic or political power, or if they have a record of hurting others. Yet if I were to put this article up on my own site I would immediately receive emails and Tweets from abusive men enraged by my claims about abusive men. I am only pointing out what is obvious and ubiquitous and endemic – what is, indeed, on the front pages of news sites every single day – and yet simply to say it causes them such blistering panic that they immediately lose their minds and confirm exactly what I am saying. I have become, in their eyes, a dangerous woman who must be shut up and hounded out, just for using language to express the truth.
At the very best they would call me mentally stupid or physically hideous. At medium they would say I am mad, which is sexist men’s most malicious and longest-standing insult against women. And at worst I would receive threats of rape and death; these are clever threats, given that men’s raping of women is endemic and perpetrated with impunity in societies all over the world, from war zones to university campuses.
That is all it takes to become a dangerous woman. When women tell the truth about what they have experienced and witnessed, from casual workplace misogyny to gang rape, men (not all men; just enough for every single woman commentator on the planet to have experienced it countless times) say that we are mad. I am certainly mad, as in very angry. And that anger gives me energy and immense, anarchic power.
You become a dangerous woman when you decide that you’ve had it, when your anger pushes you out of your silence, out of your head, out of your room and into the world to express your fury and woe and to begin changing things. A woman becomes dangerous when she threatens the status quo.
A woman makes herself dangerous, and gains power, when she throws off the shackles of propriety, feminine decorum and modest silence – all of which protect perpetrators – and instead opens her mouth and speaks frankly about what she has gone through, what she’s seen, what she thinks and what she feels. A woman becomes dangerous when she talks about her mother’s life, her sister’s life, her daughter’s life. A woman is dangerous when she points out what is hiding in plain sight. She is dangerous when she speaks the simple truth about what she has survived. And she is dangerous when she stands with other women in her words and in her deeds, against abusive men and against the macho misogyny which oppresses us and makes us feel afraid, with just cause, even when we are taking the ten minute walk home from the station to our house.
To continue with that image, despite the dangers a woman senses on that walk home, sometimes a woman is herself considered dangerous simply for going from A to B. To be out in the world is to claim space and a woman is dangerous when she claims space. A woman is considered dangerous when she dares to occupy the workplace, public transport and the street. In all three of these places sexual harassment by men, insulting casual misogyny by men and intimidation by men (such as following, hissing, sexual noises, baiting and outright assault) are endemic. The perpetrators harass us not because they admire our beauty and long to be friends with us but because they gain a sadistic enjoyment from our confusion, fear or fury and because, ultimately, they want to drive us out of these places and back into the home where we supposedly belong, cleaning up men’s dirt and bringing up men’s babies for free.
A woman is dangerous when she challenges what patriarchal culture says about us and about other women. A few years back I wrote an essay called Emotional Violence and Social Power. It described in horrific psychological detail how an industry peer, a feminist, socialist man well-known and well-liked by many, groomed and sexually exploited me. Ten thousand people have read that article and many other victims and witnesses got in touch with me; all the witnesses and many of the other victims are well-known in their fields. I learned that he is a compulsive abuser with a long history.
Writing the piece, which was the absolute truth, felt like slashing a line straight through the female silence and male cronyism that protected the perpetrator. The piece – just a piece of writing – felt as though had power in itself, because it was true. It was dangerous, the truth was dangerous, to a terrifyingly two-faced perpetrator. It was so dangerous that he teamed up with a male lawyer and together, nightmarishly, they threatened me. There is nothing more horrific than receiving a scathingly aggressive and sexually detailed letter from a male stranger in the law profession, in which he stands shoulder to shoulder with the man who abused you, in full fraternal support and belief and power and money and misogyny, as if they are longtime friends. They threatened me because they said I had damaged the perpetrator – because I had told the truth about him and the truth about him was terrible and damning and caused decades-long scars. For his victims. It is a mark of the cowardice and self-pity of narcissistic abusive men that what they fear most is one of their own victims showing them a mirror; the most dangerous thing they can envisage is simply the truth about themselves becoming known.
A woman is dangerous when her desire to express her rage and pain begins to outweigh all other reservations. It is men, not women, who get hysterical when women tell the truth. Yet there are so many of us, writing articles like this, that the same old arguments which used to be deployed shut us up no longer work: the claims that we are mad, or malicious, or mistaken, or exaggerating.
A dangerous woman holds something in her hands which does not cost anything but is priceless. When she reveals it openly, the world shakes subtly on its axis, even though she may not think it has and even if she is destroyed in the process.