When women share their experiences of sexism or harassment, whether in person or online, there’s a regular refrain we hear: “But not all men…” It’s so common that it’s been characterized and lampooned by the #NotAllMen hashtag. But why is saying this so problematic, and why should we choose to challenge it whenever we hear it?
Firstly, it’s an incredibly patronising thing for men to say to women. Most of us are lucky enough to have positive examples of manhood in our lives – fathers, brothers, partners, friends. We know that not every man is a sexual abuser, a predator or an unreconstructed misogynist. However, one in four women in the UK will experience domestic abuse and one in five will experience sexual assault during her lifetime, according to the Home Office. The Trades Union Congress found last year that one in two women has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, while USDAW, the union representing retail workers, found that nine in ten young women they surveyed had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the preceding twelve months. Assuming that there isn’t just one man out there who’s kept extremely busy by mistreating women, these statistics mean that a lot of men are behaving in a way that could most kindly be described as suboptimal, and less kindly as deeply misogynist.
Secondly, starting a conversation with a negative like “But not all men…” can be read as a lack of belief in or sympathy for what women are saying. Often, women telling their stories of gendered harassment, bullying or abuse are having to tackle intense feelings of shame, embarrassment and fear in doing so. Just bringing up these issues can reawaken trauma. When we know that many women never come forward to report their abusers, it’s vital that we are creating a culture through the language we use that believes and supports women who speak up.
Finally, and most importantly, #NotAllMen creates an environment that foregrounds men’s discomfort at the expense of women’s lived experience. When a man says, “But not all men…”, the implication is clear to women – that he specifically wants absolution from any suggestion that he personally has done anything wrong before listening to his partner/sister/friend’s story. It’s not all about you; on the contrary it’s irresponsible for men to place themselves at the centre of a narrative that may be incredibly painful for women to share.
So the next time you’re online and see a reply-guy in a woman’s social media feed or in the comments section using those three words, choose to challenge them. If we all do this, we’re helping to create an environment where the issues that still affect women can be discussed openly and with respect, which in turn will help us to find solutions.