I’m walking through King’s Cross station in central London. It’s about 6pm. Still daylight. There’s a stag do – a bachelor party to our American friends. We women know the drill: don’t get in their way, don’t make eye contact, don’t attract their attention. I stare with unlikely fascination into a coffee shop window until they’ve passed.
They’re wearing matching t-shirts with a picture of the groom slumped over a table of empty drinks. Once they pass me I can see the backs, emblazoned with ‘hilarious’ nicknames: Rohypnol Rob, Pedo Pete. I want to throw blankets over them so children won’t see this nastiness.
Who thinks this is a good idea? Who walks into a print shop ‘Do you do t-shirts? Great…’? What do they write on the invitation? ‘Eight til late, smart casual, party theme is: horrendous sex crimes!!’ Who are these people?
Online this cult, or one could argue ‘culture’, of toxic masculinity is highly visible. We read about self-styled ‘pick-up artists’ like Julien Blanc encouraging men to physically assault women. There are hundreds of Facebook pages sharing ‘jokes’ like Unilad’s notorious ‘And if the girl you’ve taken for a drink won’t “spread for your head”, think about this mathematical statistic: 85 per cent of rape cases go unreported. That seems to be fairly good odds.’
The conventional wisdom is that the anonymity available to internet users drives this outpouring of sexism. Sexism that the users – always assumed to be unattractive teenage boys in their parents basements – wouldn’t dream of expressing in front of ‘real’ people. But the last time my local police actually bothered to investigate a death threat I’d received we were all mildly surprised to discover the perpetrator was using his real, full name and year of birth as his social media handle. He’d only stopped short of adding his postcode and bank account details.
At the Edinburgh Fringe last month I sat in the audience of a late night cabaret while a comedian (one I’ve not worked with before and who hopefully will radically change his material before I ever do) told us ‘I watched the porn version of Sixth Sense, I knew she was dead all along.’ I started to pine for the good old days when jokes were just about mother-in-laws being grumpy and overweight. I winced at my friends and stared at the floor.
Negative attitudes towards women and misogynist ‘jokes’ are nothing new. Nor is domestic and sexual violence. But overt pride in trivialising sexual violence against women and children does feel new. What changed? Are we surprised that an internet spilling over with violent and degrading pornography, runaway ‘lad’ culture and the sort of ‘men’s rights’ activism that spends most of its time comparing feminism to cancer has left some guys under the impression that it’s normal to act in this grotesque way?
No-one is under the delusion that we can magic sexual violence away overnight. But when rape culture stares us that blatantly in the face, it has to be time to act. We need to stop staring into coffee shop windows or at our feet and start throwing more blankets.