Every so often, a woman makes up a new word that changes the conversation for all of us. TLC gave us “scrub” and Rebecca Solnit gave us “mansplaining” . . . even though she never actually said it. Her 2008 essay, Men Explain Things to Me, which starts with an anecdote about a man at a party who once explained her own book to her, went viral because it struck a chord with women who were all too used to be spoken down to by men. Solnit credits younger feminists with coining the term “mansplaining” for the phenomenon. The essay, Men Explain Things to Me, is now the title of Solnit’s latest book, a collection of her best feminist essays. Witchslapped called her at her home in California to ask her about mansplaining, #YesAllWomen, and why an opinion is the short skirt of the internet.
Your essays in the book touch on a huge range of human rights issues and different women’s issues. Why’d you choose “Men Explain Things to Me” as the title of such a wide-ranging collection?
You know, we decided to put together all my feminist essays, the strongest ones, because Men Explain Things to Me had such an extraordinary life since we released it in 2008. I had no anticipation of how viral and long-lived it would be for years afterwards with a big revival in 2012. Hardly a week went by that I didn’t see it referenced, circulated, or quoted in some way. So that essay in particular really seemed to become part of the culture in a meaningful way. All the essays have this in common: they’re really about violence against women and women in public space, and questions about the struggle over power. The other reason we put it on the cover is that women are having a great deal of pleasure reading Men Explain Things to Me in public and waving it around. Occasionally it substitutes for things they want to say so I’m happy we called it that. I don’t think I’d want to have a book called A Rape a Minute out there.
How is a man explaining things to a woman on a regular day related to the sexual violence and other violence against women that goes on?
Something I felt that was really important to try to discuss is that it’s all connected, that it’s a slippery slope. We tend to talk about murder, separately from rape, separately from domestic violence, separately from street harassment, separately from workplace harassment, separately from campus sex crimes, but they’re all crimes of entitlement. Behind all of them is the sexual entitlement we started talking about in earnest after the Isla Vista massacre—the assumption that his rights are so important she doesn’t have any at all. You can see a small, polite version of it when a man interrupts, talks over, dismisses a woman, when he makes the assumption that she’s an empty vessel to be filled with his knowledge—that she doesn’t know things although she does, even when she’s the expert. And I’m not equating being boorish at the dinner table with rape, except that some of the same assumptions about privilege and rights and who matters and who should be in charge prevail in both those situations.
Emma is one of probably many women who’s taken pleasure in asking for this book at the store.
That leads to my next question. I saw an interview with you where you said that the phrase “sexual entitlement” was a fairly new thing that hadn’t been used widely until Elliot Rodger. Why is it so important that this new phrase has come to exist and be commonly used?
It did exist, I think it was coined by a male therapist in the 1970s. It circulated a little bit and I was quite riveted when I saw it used in a 2013 BBC report on rape in Asia, saying that we had to get rid of all these silly ideas that it’s about passion and loss of control, etc. and that it’s really about sexual entitlement—he has the right to her whether or not she consented. And the wonderful feminist writer Soraya Chemaly used it a few years ago in a really important piece. Suddenly, because of the manifesto that the Isla Vista killer left behind that so many people looked at, which asserted that women owed him something and he had the right to hate them and punish them for not giving it to him, we really saw this extreme example of something that’s present every day. You know, that in some ways only recently became outlawed—a man could rape his wife until very recently because he owned her, she had no rights. And I think that feminism has proceeded partially by coining new words. We didn’t talk about domestic violence, we didn’t talk about marital rape, we didn’t talk about sexual harassment, we didn’t even have those phrases until relatively recently. They were all coined by feminists as part of trying to identify the nature of oppression against women as a means of overcoming it. The diagnosis always has to come before we proceed with a cure. Until you diagnose these problems you can’t really address them.
You mention in the book that a woman is beaten every nine seconds in the United States, and the death toll there from spousal homicide tops the 9/11 death toll every three years. Where does the reluctance to talk about it come from when it’s obviously such a huge problem?
One thing of course is that with something like 9/11 suddenly thousands of people are dead and that’s very easy to focus on. These are crimes that are hidden. I always joke that in suburbia no one can hear you scream. These crimes happen behind closed doors. And also a lot of the time, out of shame or fear, women don’t talk about them. But I also think another reason that we don’t take it seriously is that it’s been normalized as part of the sexual privilege and male privilege problem. We’ve so normalized violence against women that we’ve also kind of made it titillating and cool in rock videos and television and movies, etc. or we blame the victim. I think to really address how serious it is is to address how problematic patriarchy is. Patriarchy doesn’t intend to give up its power and doesn’t like being critiqued, let alone dismantled. In some ways I think it’s the last taboo territory and we need to go in and take it apart. Men need to imagine all the excellent and lovely ways they can be men without that kind of vile privilege. One of the other things that’s emerged lately is the idea that these changes, of necessity, are men’s responsibility. Women aren’t going to change the men who specifically don’t listen to women and don’t believe women should have voices. We need to re-conceptualize what it means to be male without assuming these privileges and identities. And quite a lot of men do, but then there are the rest of them, which is why we have these epidemics of rape and domestic violence and street harassment.
Another thing I wanted to ask about was one quote you mention from Laurie Penny saying “an opinion is the short skirt of the internet.”
Sometimes I think the internet was made only as a utopia for the most male, fairly young guys who made it. It’s notorious for the levels of trolling, harassment, threats, misogyny that outspoken women deal with. And the people who made the internet, the world of Silicon Valley, is infamous for its huge gender imbalance and hostile working environments for women. I haven’t been subjected to it, but a lot of feminist women have gotten rape threats, death threats, harassment, etc. and a lot of the corporations and sites where these things happen, notably Twitter, aren’t very interested in trying to prevent them. So, it’s thought of as virtual violence but you never know if a death threat is real or not, if a rape threat is real or not. But it’s real enough.
One of the odd things with the #YesAllWomen Twitter tag which I’ve been following since it began, the day after the Isla Vista deaths, is that quite a number of people, apparently mostly males, have gone online to threaten women and make awful rape jokes, post pornographic pictures, dismiss feminism and feminists and otherwise be hostile and churlish. You want to say to these guys that if you wanted to demonstrate why we need feminism, you’re giving us perfect examples.
On that note of #YesAllWomen, do you also see the internet as something that holds potential for feminism?
The internet has been such a strange beast these past 20 years or so, in that it has been tremendously powerful in organizing from below–seemingly the Seattle W20 shut down in 1999 was organized a lot by email, you see things like the Zapatistas, and a lot of popular movements and uprising using various forums of social media—the Arab Spring quite famously—but it’s important not to mistake the medium for the message or the means. It really requires the bravery of human beings showing up in public to change the world. But it’s a great source for people to be able to talk outside of the mainstream media and form alternative media . . . At the same time the internet has headed toward tremendous consolidation of power, violations of ordinary human beings’ privacy, notably by Google, Facebook, and Apple, but really by so many sites, and it’s not just tolerated but encouraged a vitriolic, intimidating speech that I think is hostile to truly free speech. And of course, it has created vast new empires of porn, a lot of which is pretty aggressively misogynist. So the internet has specific aspects in which it’s gendered in some ugly ways, and on a much larger scale I think it’s got really destructive power dynamics for the consolidation of power and for putting vast quantities of our private data in the hands of small groups of billionaires.
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