The recent storm over Twitter rape threats has left many women with a weary sense of déjà vu – including myself.
In 1980 I was elected president of OUSU, the Oxford University Students Union. That same year Cambridge students also elected a young woman. Such an unusual flurry of feminism in the “Dreaming Spires” prompted a full-page feature in a daily London paper pronouncing us to be the first women student leaders in the history of our ancient universities (though later it emerged a forerunner of OUSU also had a female president.) I was not just female – but also the first “progressive” president. A broad-left campaign had succeeded in sinking political differences to end a long-running string of Conservative student presidents in Oxford.
What of it? Well, it was a tough year for a 20-year-old political rookie. If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, the rage of privileged and well-connected Young Conservatives beaten a year after the victory of their heroine Margaret Thatcher was eye-watering to behold. Not only had a stronghold been lost on their watch but the victors were two left-wing Scottish women (the deputy president hailed from Stirling). The battle plan was made clear to us from the start.
Every meeting and decision would be subject to legal challenge until we cracked. Since fathers of the beaten candidates included a disproportionately high number of top London lawyers, that’s exactly what happened. Half of each meeting was taken up with legal rigmarole until normal students peeled away, intimidated or bored by the whole nippy, self-indulgent spectacle. I read in a Fleet Street quality paper that I was apparently a member of the IRA – after joining a cross-community group campaigning for compromise to stop the death of hunger strikers in the Maze prison. The “story” was released to coincide with a speech at NUS conference during which opponents chanted “IRA” until I left the podium shaking.
Back in Oxford some days later, I chaired a general meeting, addressed by Fiona MacTaggart – now Labour MP for Slough, then a newly-elected official of the National Union of Students. A picture of us was published in the student magazine Cherwell captioned: “Could you rape these women? The unacceptable face of feminism.”
The controversy that followed attracted UK newspaper headlines, and prompted a third of Oxford colleges to boycott the student paper for a while – though its editor sent weekly updates to demonstrate how sales had soared elsewhere. My looks, personality, desirability and capacity to keep going were widely discussed … until something more interesting came along.
At the end of the sabbatical year I left “organised politics” completely, but not before witnessing a final moment of ignominy – triumph at the outgoing elections for the Bernadista Silly Party who stood on a slate of free beer at general meetings and a presidential candidate with a striking resemblance to Bernard Levin.
Of course what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – in some ways. I became aware of the pointless, ego-ridden fights about nothing that characterise much of modern public life – an early innoculation against politicians with large egos which was to prove useful in my later broadcasting career.
Doubtless, early disillusionment also provided the spur to get involved instead in community action and ten years later to set up the feminist magazine Harpies and Quines as a limited counterblast. But it all hurt – no question. And for what?
Thirty-three years later, here we are again, with prominent women sent rape threats as a way to silence and exclude them from the public world – a “so far and no further” alert delivered by the “manosphere” as it was once delivered by all powerful print media.
Once again, women at the receiving end – like Jane Austen banknote campaigner Caroline Criado Perez and her supporter Stella Creasey MP – are having to explain why rape threats constitute intimidation and are not boisterous lads “having a larf” to provoke a reaction. Indeed, it took an escalation to bomb threats against journalists and classicist Mary Beard – and a Twitter boycott yesterday to provoke any response from company bosses.
Plus ca change. I didn’t lie awake in fear of physical attack back in 1980 – but a vulnerable, degraded version of myself was planted in my own mind and in the public domain. To have to explain why it’s intimidating to be sized up for rape is to be further hurt and drawn into a prurient and destructive public debate.
Why is it still necessary the same week ten men were charged with rape, sexual assault and conspiracy to traffic five Coventry girls aged between 16 and 18? Why is it still necessary the day after the Bishop of Aberdeen has expressed his “horror and shame” at evidence of rape by monks at Fort Augustus and East Lothian Abbey Schools? Why in the wake of Stuart Hall and Jimmy Savile is it still necessary to explain rape isn’t a joke and failure to laugh is not evidence of being frigid, “ballbreaking” or humourless?
Yet, here we are again. Indeed with pornography infinitely more accessible online than it ever was in the 1980s, the confusion between women as sex objects and equal working colleagues has never been greater.
Women are less inclined to suffer in silence – witness the efforts of campaign UK Feminista to ban lads’ mags from shops – and ironically social media platforms like Twitter have made rape threats easier to “out” and campaigns easier to organise than ever before.
In a macho society men can’t reveal hurt, can’t look weak and can’t complain – though I’ve no doubt some men experience just as much abuse in the name of “rough and tumble” as women.
But one thing has to be said. Whether men or women are the victims of online, verbal or actual threats, men are almost invariably the perpetrators and a macho society is the underlying cause.
It’s a problem women may be freer to highlight – but men alone can resolve.
What is masculinity about in Scotland 2013? If it’s still about being tougher, harder, less co-operative, caring or emotional than women, then the public world will descend into a vicious battle zone where some men can continue to prove their macho mettle.
Is that what most of us really want?