A response to a review of Chauvo-Feminism in The Erotic Review
Authors should never respond to reviews: this is advice I’ve been given again and again. And it is more unusual, I admit, for an author to respond to a good review of their work. A recent review of Chauvo-Feminism in The Erotic Review was largely positive: ‘Her arguments are logical, coherent and well-structured’. However, I did want to respond to one element of the review, which involves an analysis of my encounter with an abusive chauvo-feminist called R., which I feel is misrepresented.
The review begins by stating that my book’s ‘basic premise is essentially that the #MeToo movement has been co-opted by abusers’, which is one of the themes of Chauvo-Feminism. The term itself refers to abusive men who use feminism as a smokescreen to conceal their bad behaviour; the day after a typical chauvo-feminist subjects a woman to emotional abuse, he will tweet or put up a post on Facebook about how supportive he is of female empowerment and the destruction of the patriarchy. However, much of the abuse I explore in the essay occurred before MeToo; I believe that MeToo played a key part in shining a spotlight on the gap between their public ‘feminist’ personas and behaviour. Harvey Weinstein as one example. He once went on a women’s march at Sundance, marching in the same vicinity as the hotel where he’d allegedly raped Rose McGowan years earlier; he helped to endow a faculty chair at Rutgers University in the name of feminist icon Gloria Steinem. After the allegations against Weinstein were made public, he made of a point of highlighting that he was setting up a foundation to give scholarships to women directors at the University of Southern California, assuring us that: ‘While this might seem coincidental, it has been in the works for a year . . . ’
My book also explores my experience of dealing with an abuser who wore a feminist cloak. I first met ‘R’ at a party in Manchester, an American academic visiting a British university. ‘He tells her he doesn’t want their relationship to be exclusive’, says the review, but the fact is, R and I never dated. We had a one night stand. We flirted briefly afterwards, with the possibility of repeating the experience, but after some dubious behaviour I decided – as I state in the book – that ‘I had had enough’ and friendship was an easier option.
A one night stand with a dodgy guy would have been the end of the story, had R and I not both been in the literary world – a small and incestuous place. And this is where the trouble began. It would have been easy to cut off at this point. He would have simply been a tosser I slept with, a caricature in my mind, the evening an amusing mistake, and I would have moved on with my life and forgotten him. However, it was impossible to cut him out of my life. If I went to any literary event that summer, he was there, and our social circle overlapped. What followed was a pattern of emotional abuse from R that was subtle, slippery, insidious, hard to pin down and easy, at first, to wonder if it was my imagination, which he was quick to play with and gaslight me; over time, I realised he was a dangerous figure, willing to undermine me and attack my career.
Then the reviewer says ‘his behaviour should really demand the end of their friendship but she continues engaging in email conversation with him. It’s frustrating but not surprising – women are used to giving men multiple chances and this story is no different’. But this is a rather simplistic summary of a complex situation. Aside from the issue of gaslighting – which is not mentioned in the review at all – I found myself in a situation where I inhabited the same small world as R; with a man who was powerful and was hurting my career; he was also popular; his feminist persona had weight and everyone I knew bought into it, to the degree that I found it very hard to explain my predicament to people, who cast doubt on my assertions of his behaviour; he was, in effect, gaslighting an entire social circle. Given that he was beginning to damage my career for no reason even when we were on ‘good terms’, I was fearful of what would happen if I cut him off or became an enemy. This not the same as giving a man ‘multiple chances’ or me playing Mother Teresa (the review states that I try to be empathetic and understanding towards him, ‘to a fault’) and making a martyr of myself on the cross of his misogyny. As I illustrate in the book, R succeeded in the ultimate aim of any gaslighter – he had got under my skin and into my head. His power, coupled with flashes of destructive behaviour towards my career, made me increasingly concerned as to how to manage an unpredictable and malicious character. It was a no-win situation. Whether I attempted to maintain a friendship with him in order to keep things cordial and minimise his damaging behaviour or whether I confronted him made little difference. Either way, he carried on being destructive towards me. If anything, after I confronted him he got worse, attacking my career with the result that I lost freelance work and income.
The word empowerment is bandied around a lot these days. Often we are told that things can be solved simply and quickly by that assertive action: you stand up to a guy who’s trying to grope by giving him a slap, or you tell the guy who’s giving you a hard time to stop it and assert yourself like a badass heroine. I can see a pattern, time and time again, in response to the stories of women who were abused by Weinstein: ‘why didn’t they stand up to him’, or ‘why did this actress get photographed with him after he was alleged to have assaulted her’ or ‘where was their agency?’ But often life is, sadly, far more complex than that. Prior to MeToo, many women who suffered harassment in the workplace and tried to retaliate or reform their environment came up against retaliation themselves. When Christie Van suffered harassment at the Ford Co where she worked she was assaulted in the carpark afterwards and called a ‘black snitch bitch’. When Lauren O’Connor wrote a searing memo reporting on the ‘toxic environment to women’ at Weinstein and sent the memo to HR, she was asked not to come back to the office. She was offered an NDA for her exit and silence. When Ambra Gutierrez worked with the New York Police on a sting operation, wearing a wire to record Weinstein admitting he’d groped her, there was no prosecution. She was smeared in the press, depicted as a model who was desperate for fame and used Weinstein as a vehicle to get there; effectively, the media painted her as a prostitute, and she had to leave New York in exile. Sometimes having agency is not enough, if the cultural environment that you’re coming up against has no sympathy or interest in your predicament. MeToo was a watershed moment for women and I found that it was instrumental in R changing his behaviour. Once he became nervous of social censure, of being outed by the women he was treating badly, his abuse towards me ceased as he realised he could no longer get away with it.
The statement that ‘women are used to giving men multiple chances’ is too simplistic for me as a commentary on women. I devote a chapter to the book on gaslighting, exploring its subtleties and complexities. R did succeed in gaslighting me, initially, and as stated, I was not in a relationship with him; however, some women do end up ensnared in relationships with gaslighters and find it a tremendous struggle to escape. This is not necessarily due to a simple situation whereby they give an abusive partner multiple chances, however, or are too empathetic. Whilst it is true that women are more prone to being gaslighted than men, a woman may stay in such a relationship for many reasons. One might be because to leave is too dangerous – 50 to 70 % of domestic violence murders occur at the point of break up or after she has left her partner.
I was keen not to caricature either R or any of the more famous abusers that I explore in the book. ‘Mills is just a little too concerned with giving abusers the benefit of the doubt, of allowing them to avoid the worst consequences of their actions’, says the review. The essay was written at length before Weinstein’s trial was held. Having written extensively about the result of his sickening actions on the women he assaulted, the women whose careers he destroyed, the women he traumatised, I cannot tell you how pleased I was to see that he was charged and sentenced to 23 years in jail.
There is a vital difference – which I believe the reviewer missed – between wanting to be understanding towards an abuser and wanting to understand. Wanting to analyse and consider where the roots of misogyny lie, and how our society might support it; to think about socialisation, environment, cultural attitudes and how those might shape an individual and his attitude towards women. It would have been easy in my essay to simply portray R as a monster. But that would have been a lie. I had to portray him in all his complexities, which I think will help readers to better understand how to recognise a man like him in real life. Likewise, I did not want to present myself as a flawless victim or heroine in the essay either, but to consider my own vulnerabilities and flaws and how they played out in the situation. I wanted this to be a polemic, but I also wanted it to be nuanced, because the subject I am exploring is so complex.
I am conscious that I have put my story into the world and therefore I have to accept that others may interpret it as they wish. There are those will like the book and those who criticise it. I accept that and want to engage in a dialogue about the issues I bring up. But, having suffered a trauma, my narrative is important to me and it is painful for me to see it misrepresented.