Artillery Row

The Penny drops

The feminist fix: The only way to avoid humiliation is to admit when you’ve got it wrong

“The Penny drops” is the latest article in Julie Bindel’s online column for The Critic, “The feminist fix”, which explores feminism’s answer to today’s challenges. The previous article, on internalised police misogyny, can be read here.

Nobody likes to admit that they made a mistake; but everybody, including me, gets it wrong sometimes. So, what is the feminist fix for admitting your error, and how can you avoid being humiliated, slated, disowned and dishonoured?

When I was first involved in feminism as a bolshie 17-year-old, I picked up some extreme views and habits; I decided that the behaviour of men was so abhorrent that I would embrace separatism and viewed them all as the enemy. I would take it to such extremes that I would refuse to go on a bus if it driven by a man (it was 1980, so almost all were) and go bonkers if I were called “love” or “darling”, even though I lived in Yorkshire and, more often than not, men used those terms of endearment for each other.

I learned, and realised that, a) I wanted to live in the real world and seek to change men for the better rather than pretend they didn’t exist, and b) there was nothing inherently flawed in boys and men, some of them chose to be decent rather than sexist douchebags, and it was quite rude to shout at a bloke in the greengrocers just because he innocently asked, “What can I get you, my darling?”

I repented, gradually denouncing separatism and openly admitting it was a daft phase. I was challenged at conferences and down the pub by both sides. Some women considered me a turncoat because I had left the separatist fold and had even made a couple of gay male friends; others would ask what on earth had led me to being so unthinkingly man-hating. I rode it out, being as honest as I could. Getting things wrong, rethinking and adjusting your course is not an uncommon experience for most people. That’s life — and that, dear reader, is politics.

But some people seem to be immune to this kind of self-scrutiny and become entrenched in views that even they know are ludicrous. As a young blogger back in 2007, and alongside countless other transatlantic millennials, author Laurie Penny signed up to a raft of fashionable ideologies. She swallowed whole the “trans women are women” and “sex work is work” version of feminism that benefits men way more than it does women. She adopted a harsh and unfair critique of actual feminism, and began promoting “progressive” politics, “sex positive” feminism, and trans rights (a raft of views amounting to a men’s rights platform). Penny is currently identifying as a genderqueer, pansexual, polyamorous feminist, and using an ever-changing set of personal pronouns.

Penny has spent the past few weeks publicly displaying disquiet over a number of heavily critical book reviews of her latest offering, the first having been written by me for The Critic. The book was panned because it was supposedly about feminism, but in fact only covered Penny’s version which bears little or no resemblance to the original.

The peak of her outrage came on Monday this week when she appeared to suggest that the bad reviews had either caused or triggered her CPTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Disorder). I went berserk, having worked with and interviewed scores of women who genuinely do suffer from PTSD — a condition brought on by a terrifying, near-death experience, such as armed combat or rape and attempted murder. Penny was roundly trounced, and I tweeted a joke about it all that the outstanding feminist JK Rowling responded to. All hell broke loose and the internet went wild. So, what did Penny do? She picked up a spade and dug a deep trench.

Here’s the thing, I don’t think that even Penny believes what she’s spouting at this point. I think she may have adopted the position on CPTSD to protect herself from criticism — and it has backfired. Now she doesn’t know how to redeem herself because she has burned her bridges on both sides. But, even at this point, Penny has options. She could grow a pair of ovaries, take a deep breath and do the right thing: she could admit she was wrong and move on. Simple as that.

It is far easier to go along with the in-crowd

There is always a worry, when changing one’s mind, that the bridges you burned cannot be rebuilt. I would like to reassure Penny that, like most reasonable people, I respect those with the courage to admit they’re wrong. For example, I have been delighted to receive several emails from former students apologising for their role in de-platforming me from university events. Some of them — all female — even turned up at my book launch last September to apologise in person. They had been coerced into the blue-fringed brigade of faux feminists to which Penny belongs.

In short, these students had fallen in with a bad crowd of bearded blokes and anti-feminist women who had decided I was a bigoted Hitlerite who tortured trans people for fun. They were informed I was “whorephobic” because I write about prostitution as violence against women, and “transphobic” on account that I do not believe women should share prison wings, refuges or rape crisis centres with natal males who claim to be female.

But human nature can play a funny trick sometimes and make us mortals question what we once considered to be a sacred orthodoxy. As Lianne* said to me by email, “I was told you were a monster, and that you would cause harm to students by appearing on campus, and I joined in because I knew I would come in for the same treatment as you if I stood up and said what I really believed.”

Lianne decided that “enough is enough” after an email was circulated by the male chair of the LGBTQQIA+ Society, admonishing a member for circulating an article about the low conviction rates for rape in the UK and how we should address this problem. The issue with the article was not its content, but its author. Me. “That was when I realised these men and their handmaidens were not fighting discrimination against trans people or women in prostitution,” wrote Lianne, “but rather organising witch-hunts against feminists that have a go about men’s shitty behaviour.”

My respect and admiration for women such as Lianne is immense. If only the likes of Penny could find some of their courage and admit they got it wrong. It is far easier to go along with the in-crowd, accepting the odd cookie. When we dig in our heels and refuse to admit we took a wrong turn, surely it is better to own up than sell your soul for the sake of ego?

*Lianne is not her real name.

Julie Bindel’s latest book, Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation, was published in September 2021.

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