There’s no doubting the rage, pain and frustration behind the Twitter trend #YesAllWomen, in which women across the world have been sharing their own experiences of sexual harassment, violence and everyday misogyny. In a single period of 24 hours, more than 250,000 tweets were sent using the hashtag, which is intended as a defiant rejoinder to “Not All Men”, an online handle frequently used by men aggrieved by blanket accusations of sexism. Not all men may be guilty of misogynist behaviour, goes the thinking, but every single woman can cite an instance when she has been on the receiving end of it.
It all started after the killing spree carried out by Elliot Rodger in the California college town of Isla Vista on Friday night. A video emerged of Rodger claiming that he would “slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up blonde slut I see”. In a particularly distasteful development, the father of Monette Moio, a former schoolmate whom Rodger accused of ridiculing and rejecting him, found himself having to defend his daughter against insinuations that she might have played a part in Rodger’s descent into chaos, and might thus bear some responsibility for his murderous actions. Challenging this culture of blaming and shaming women, twisting the narrative to deflect male culpability, is exactly what the YesAllWomen campaign is all about.
And it’s true that there’s barely a woman alive who couldn’t come up with an example of sexist behaviour she has encountered, from the relatively trivial to the terminally damaging. We could all add something to this list. As I have found, something as simple as publicly giving your opinion – especially if it ventures into territory deemed to be exclusively male – can be enough to bring hideous threats and abuse crashing down on your head. The ancient urge to shut women up, or more accurately, to shut them out, to silence them completely, is still a potent force in society, lurking behind the required veneer of tolerance and respect.
But the sad fact remains that Twitter surges like YesAllWomen are useless weapons against endemic misogyny. They change nothing. You might as well go outside now, jump up and down in the street and yell “sexist men are bastards”. It’ll make about the same difference.
Such campaigns, if sustained and developed, are not entirely without benefit, of course. The Everyday Sexism online project, a similar initiative in which women share anecdotes about demeaning treatment they have come across, provides a forum for women to connect, finding comfort and solidarity in shared experiences. Sometimes they can even have a laugh about the blundering stupidity of the sexist barbarians, and that’s as cathartic and as encouraging as anything.
So why doesn’t YesAllWomen work? For a start, it’s a social media phenomenon: one of those angst-fuelled storms that tend to blow up out of nowhere, catch public attention for a moment, and then disappear again, forgotten while we hare after the next big outrage we need to get collectively offended about.
Another problem is authenticity. Who are the people making these claims of terrible oppression, and how do we know they are telling the truth? I have no doubt that many of the stories are genuine, and some will be verifiable, but quite a few could be pie in the sky. And then there’s the tendency for the whole thing to become one big melting-pot of indiscriminate whinge, a repository for every – tenuously sexist – negative experience that women have ever had. Certainly, it’s annoying when certain clothes shops don’t stock anything bigger than a size 16, when that’s the average dress size, but it’s hardly comparable to being sexually assaulted in your place of employment, is it?
Far from disturbing the sexist status quo, the YesAllWomen drive actually helps to maintain it. Blowing off steam, getting stuff off your chest, has a neutralising effect. It’s a bit like signing an online petition against injustices in other countries. You feel better, you’ve stood up for the values you believe in, but you haven’t actually changed anything, and the world – blithely indifferent to your bat-squeak of protest – goes spinning on exactly the same.