Opinionista Peter Benjamin 1 June 2017

If men don’t like hearing #MenAreTrash, change South Africa, not the hashtag

I am a man and I don’t like hearing that men are trash. The obvious reaction is to object, “No, I’m not”, and very quickly there is an argument about that particular man, a discussion on how nice or nasty the guy is (we love the conversation being about ourselves). But this reaction is deaf to what is actually being said.

Someone can’t tell anyone else that their perceptions are wrong. A fact might be wrong, but a perception is someone’s own. Why has this hashtag received such support? It’s obvious – it reflects the lived reality of millions of women in South Africa. Many men might not be comfortable with words like patriarchy, feminism or intersectionality, but can’t we hear the anguish distilled in this phrase?

The research in South Africa on women abuse and femicide is horrific. Rachel Jewkes’ study in the Eastern Cape showed that a quarter of men had committed rape sometime in their life. The study that Sonke Gender Justice and Wits University did last year in Diepsloot suggested that around 56% of men (more than half!) had raped or beaten a woman in the past year. Why isn’t this the greatest scandal in SA? Why are we more interested in Nkandla or the Gautrain – this terrorises half the population? Why do men see this as a women’s issue? The high percentage of men directly involved in gender violence justifies the labelling of the whole gender.

And what of the men who have never been violent to women? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) taught us that in abusive power systems there are not just perpetrators and victims. There are also beneficiaries who might not commit any violence themselves, but get great privilege because of the violence of others (and even better, they can say their hands are clean). It feels terrible to say, but I am a beneficiary of gender violence. For example, I don’t feel threatened by a woman walking behind me in the street – I know that she knows I could hit her if she hassles me.

Men reinforce this situation when we laugh along with sexist jokes (or stay silent); when we “don’t notice” the sounds of domestic violence next door; when we don’t boycott taxis where women are undressed and humiliated; when we don’t speak out publicly against everyday sexism; when we don’t step in when we see a woman threatened; when we don’t demand more funding for rape crisis centres, sanitary pads in schools or crèche facilities.

I am a privileged white able-bodied male. I may choose not to attack, abuse or rape a woman. But no one else need assume this. I have the physical strength to overpower most women (certainly not all). With the levels of gender violence in the country, of course a woman should think that I am a potential threat. I hate this, but that’s the reality.

Are men who get angry when a woman says or texts #MenAreTrash doing anything but proving the point?

No, I don’t like being told that men are trash. But this discomfort is nothing compared to the fear most women live with in such a violently misogynist country. We men should treat this phrase as a challenge, not an insult. It is asking us, “What are you doing to change yourself and other men so that your sisters aren’t made to feel that men are trash in South Africa?” DM

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