As part of She’s Right’s participation in 16 days of activism to end violence against women, each article will be dedicated to a woman who has lost her life due to gender-based violence. This article is dedicated to Diana Carolina Raygoza Montes, killed by a man on 24 May 2020, at the age of 21.
By Patrick McTague.
Edited by Jessica Sutton.
Somewhere in the world every day, a woman is discussing how men’s behaviour, attitudes, or violence affects her life. And every day a man is telling her that it’s not all men. Not all men, the call of the wild misogynist. Not all men, the defensive cry of a man who’s feeling attacked. Not all men, the distraction from the real conversation.
“Not all men” is shorthand for saying, “not all men are like that”, typically in reply to a feminist conversation or criticism of behaviour predominately exhibited by men. It is used in pop culture as shorthand for men interrupting conversations with an unnecessary defence of their gender. This behaviour has likely been around for as long as women have been active against gender inequality. It was even used in a 1985 short feminist novel by Joanna Russ, On Strike Against God.
The phrase has sparked several viral internet moments over the years as a satirical take on men’s defensive behaviour against feminism. Arguably the earliest viral moment was from a tweet by Shafiqah Hudson in 2013. And in 2014, Matt Lubchanky published a comic depicting Not-All-Man, a satirical character who interrupts a woman’s conversation in the middle of a sentence.  This was shared by several celebrities and went viral sparking a flurry of articles analysing the point.
Often men online will not explicitly say the phrase “Not all men”, but the rhetoric of this will exist in their responses. Someone might then reply with #NotAllMen to point out the truth behind their words. Typically, men feign sincerity in these arguments, claiming to point out the truth or defend “the bulk” of men. However, what they are really doing is four things: distracting from the original conversation, detracting from the legitimacy of the point being made, disrespecting the person talking, and entering a defensive position where they are not receptive to rational argument. Further, saying “Not all men” cloaks the reality of gender-based violence, by implying that only a tiny minority of men are violent. This perpetuates the view that rapists and men who commit domestic violence can only be ‘monsters’, rather than our family, friends, and colleagues.
“Not all men” received such prominence online and in pop culture, that it sparked a countermovement. #YesAllWomen was developed in 2014 after the Isla Vista killings, an explicitly misogynist-fuelled mass murder. It is a movement to raise awareness of women’s experiences of sexism, ranging from catcalling to rape and other violence against women. #YesAllWomen shows us exactly where the conversation needs to be. No, not all men are sexist or have done abhorrent things, but yes, all women have been victims of sexism. And the victimisation of women should be the primary issue of any discussion.
As a grassroots movement #YesAllWomen didn’t have a defined set of goals, but the likely aim was to give women a focal point to share sexist experiences, allowing a picture of the extent of violent misogyny to come to light. The hope is that wider society will see the harm women experience, realize the work that needs to be done, and make changes. However, the difficulty of making change in a sexist society became apparent, as the originator of the hashtag reportedly “shut down her account after saying that she had been repeatedly harassed online over the weekend”. Popularization of #YesAllWomen as a response to #NotAllMen also came at least two years before #MeToo and #TimesUp, showing how little progress has been made.
So what is the real problem with saying “Not all men”?
When women speak out about problematic male behaviour, they are making a point which deserves to be heard. Responding with “Not all men” attempts to shift the conversation to a male agenda. Whether saying “Not all men” is factually correct is not the issue, though men typically claim it is. The issue is these men do not give women the respect of listening to them without injecting their own narrative. These men demand that women acknowledge all the “good guys” before making their point. The thing is, if a man feels the need to interrupt a woman talking about male violence to insist that she compliments “all the really good guys out there”, he isn’t a good guy. A “good guy” recognises that without a man inserting his take on the conversation, women can be fully heard and seen. A “good guy” recognises that women should feel empowered to speak their truth without the need for caveats. If men are feeling defensive because a woman is speaking openly about her experiences, they need to do some serious introspection as to why that is.
Trying to advocate for gender equality and women’s rights is difficult in our patriarchal society. There are often many nuances to explore and a lot of contentious discussion about the best way to reach our goals. Men stomping through these conversations and making the issue about them, is misogyny at work. “Not all men” demands discussion of the male perspective where it is not wanted, needed, or welcome. In this way, it is perfectly representative of feminism’s battle with misogyny in contemporary society.
I have never seen a situation in which “Not all men” needed saying. It’s always either implied and therefore superfluous to the conversation, or simply not true. Either way it is a waste of time and is aimed at obstructing real progress. It is not feminists’ responsibility to engage with the nit-picking of defensive men, let alone teach them something as simple as the implied caveats in general statements. It’s men’s responsibility to confront their own privilege, meet women on their level, and really listen to them.
Being distracted by these men, stopping to clarify, or including their perspective to pacify them, is exactly their goal. It’s imperative to not give them oxygen. So, when you get a “Not all men”, treat it with the same respect shown to you and your point. You could respond with a hashtag or make it a joke, but don’t engage it seriously. Not all men take feminism seriously, so why should we do them the honour?