Close to home: sexism in a teenage boy

Because Sisyphus is real I spent a fair bit of energy this week trying to persuade by text an angry 17-year-old boy I care about that loving, equal partnership with women is a real possibility and they are not by nature evil manipulatrixes (there’s a word for ya).

I feel gutted that his response was powerfully sexist and hewed so closely to the stereotype of a filter-bubbled radical Men’s Rights Activist (MRA) that it is actually boring to re-read, because I’ve read it before and it’s practically Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V. I have an anonymised transcript of our chat, but I don’t think it is worth posting. But for illustration’s sake, verbatim and edited only for spelling:

Feminism is literally man hating
They want the nice things about being equal without the bad stuff
Women use sex to control men but limiting in to if they’ve been wined and dined
Women only consent when you pay for it

Obviously, this is false (and very offensive, but I just want to note the offense and continue to think about it). It’s easy and understandable to mock the feelings and other interiorities that give rise to these sentiments, but I think that’s only useful to a point. What’s almost certainly necessary — if we’re interested in affecting them, as I think we clearly are — is to understand them.

I often feel when reading MRAs that they are deeply, deeply wounded and bitterly angry. They are terribly in need of compassion but mostly unable to drop the argument and admit it. But I think such intensity of gendered mistrust doesn’t come naturally to a human being. It must be something one learns.

In this case, because I personally know the person advancing these ideas, it’s much easier to see that there’s a world of hurt behind those words: my young friend’s childhood contained abuse by his mother. I think he learned to fear and mistrust the primary woman in his life as a survival strategy, and that grew into a general wariness and suspicion of women. That conditioning was ripe for rationalisation via some misogynistic theory-crafting. It is in many ways a portrait of generational cycles of abuse.

I want to think this is a very sad but not a representative case, to doubt his attitudes are representative of his age group, but I could so very easily be wrong. I mean, this country‘s rates of gender-based violence are so bad they should be declared a national emergency. It is appallingly routine for South Africa’s men to be sexist in the coarsest, most violent of ways. Would it really be surprising if this boy’s thoughts were more the norm than I’d think?

Part of me thinks he’s too intelligent to believe this shit for long. Part of me wonders whether his childhood wounds won’t always beget a degree of gendered dysfunction. Overall, I feel very sad and concerned about him and the women he’ll have relationships with.

I’ve undertaken my own inner (partial, perpetual) excavation of the inevitable wounds of not-enough-maternal-love (and my mother is wonderful; is there ever enough?) and grappled within the painful gendered conditioning of this society. It’s been a fucking struggle and obviously continues to be — though not as lonely a struggle as it used to be. I want to work with boys to help them uncover and heal the cuts of not-enough-maternal-love before they can become wounds that are vulnerable to misogynistic conditioning. Like a kind of internal vaccine against prejudice. The earlier in life we can find, affirm and relate from a commonly recognised human goodness, the less we need fear the people who aren’t like ourselves. Right?