If women can’t win, everyone loses. That, at least, is the conclusion of several new studies into how gender attitudes are changing. One team of academics from Wharton, looking into how men and women negotiate, observed that since Donald Trump’s election there had been a marked “increase in men acting more aggressively toward women”. In lab sessions, young men were more inclined than previously to fight young women for a small amount of money that had to be split between them – and the net result was that everyone went home poorer.
This sounds like a neat modern morality tale, as do most psychological studies into sex and behaviour – at least the ones that get press attention. We tend to interpret such studies as we want to see them, which makes this sort of research only slightly more useful than reading palms or animal entrails – albeit a lot less fun, because after generations of painstaking psychological research, the one thing academics have conclusively proven is that students are endlessly willing to humiliate themselves for beer money.
What is clear, however, is that people are seeing changes in the way some men are behaving, changes that are intimate and hard to quantify and go far beyond the frightening crackdowns on reproductive rights and migrant safety. A backlash is on against the few gains that women and girls have made, slowly, painfully and with unnumbered sacrifices down the decades, as men and boys are encouraged to see women as their competitors in an unfriendly world. Trump and his vice president, Mike Pence, are the Mulder and Scully of modern misogyny: one messy, boorish bully and one priggish religious fanatic united by the belief that rich old white men should be in charge. Their victory is a reassurance that male mediocrity will still be rewarded – no matter who gets hurt.
Plenty of people do, according to another study, this time from the London School of Economics. It showed that companies with a strict 50-50 gender quota performed far better, partly because it meant men were expected to work harder to prove themselves – and fewer mediocre men ended up in positions of power. We do not need a study to demonstrate the dangers of letting over-promoted incompetents run the world. You just need to read the news. Go on, have a scroll through the rest of this paper and see how Team Patriarchy is handling things. I’ll wait.
Not reassuring, is it? It’s almost as if when angry, self-satisfied men finally get the ultimate power they feel entitled to, they’ve got no idea what to do with it.
The young men who took part in the Wharton study, however, weren’t offered ultimate power. The researchers observed that after the election, male students were more aggressive with women when they were asked to divide $20 between them, without the option to divide it fairly. The terms of that task sound uncannily like the world as young men are encouraged to imagine it: as a fight for limited resources, with some woman competing for a chunk of your share, where anything she gains is a loss for you. In the real world, the fight for resources – whether financial, social or romantic – is not between men and women but between the very rich and everyone else.
Trump has never had to compete with women for resources, and never will, unless he runs out of fake tan one lonely night in front of Fox News and sends his goons to raid Melania’s bathroom. The feeling, however, that women are getting above themselves and taking away the pride and power and pay that rightfully belong to men is endlessly useful to the new right, which feeds off the toxic resentment of white men who believe they have been denied their place in the world. This is how we got to a place where the image of power right now is one of rooms full of doughy old men in uniform haircuts grinning like they just bought shares in Viagra as they vote to strip away reproductive rights.
Now, if you are a man reading this, you may well ask what all this has to do with you. After all, you are almost certainly not a despot. You’re a nice person who reads the Guardian. You probably worry about whether or not to hold doors open for women, while the bloated old gropers in power are busy slamming them in our faces. You’ve got your flaws, sure, but you’re not one of those men. That, however, is the problem.
The problem is that suddenly the bar for decent blokehood has dropped with the dizzying speed of a guillotine. Suddenly, people have licence to be a bit ruder, a bit brasher, a bit less respectful. After all, they’re not as bad as Trump. That’s enough, right?
Wrong. It’s not enough. Simply not being horrifically sexist is no longer enough, if it ever was. I’m sorry about that, but blame Trump and Pence and the snake-oil salesmen standing behind them. What they’ve also done, by oozing into the halls of power in a pageant of patriarchy triumphant, is force you to pick a side.
There is no neutral ground any more in the cultural war between those who believe that women are people and deserve to be treated as such, and those who do not.
That’s not your fault, but it just became your responsibility. Pick a side. Have a good, hard think about how you’re going to explain all of this to your granddaughters, then pick a side, and decide what you’re going to do about it. You don’t have to march in the streets wearing an ugly pink hat, though it’s a fun day out for all the family. You do need to challenge sexist behaviour wherever you see it, especially if you see it in the mirror.
What sort of man are you going to be in this fearful, frustrated future? Are you going to be the sort of man who follows the example of the faithless fathers of the new right, convinced of his sick entitlement to claw back scraps of pride and prestige from all those scheming women who took feminism too far? Or the sort who believes in common humanity, who lives the conviction that women are human beings, knowing that there’ll be no reward for that sort of heroism apart from a better world for everyone?