Social attitudes: What is needed to end sexism and misogyny?

Photos: Paul Mattsson, Socialist Party, James English/CC
Photos: Paul Mattsson, Socialist Party, James English/CC

Amy Sage, Bristol North Socialist Party

A recent Daily Mail article proclaims “teenage boys are turning into homophobic sexists who abuse their own mothers”. The article then goes on to explain how the ‘king of toxic masculinity’ Andrew Tate is brainwashing teenage boys into adopting homophobic and misogynistic ideas.

It is undeniable that Tate, who is under investigation over allegations of rape and human trafficking and is due to be extradited to the UK, has had some impact on attitudes towards women, but he cannot be said to be the root cause of sexist and misogynistic ideas. Whilst recent studies do show that there is a growing gender divide in attitudes towards feminism and equality among younger generations, is it true to say that young men are becoming more misogynistic?

Researchers at King’s College London surveyed 3,716 adults aged 16 or older across the United Kingdom in August 2023, to gather opinions on feminism and divisive figures such as misogynist social media ‘influencer’ Tate.

43% of respondents thought ‘feminism’ had done more good than harm to society, with little overall difference between the genders. However, the gender division for respondents aged 16-29 was quite stark – one in six men stated that feminism has done more harm than good, compared with one in 11 women.

21% of male respondents aged 16-29, who said they have heard of Andrew Tate, had a favourable opinion of him. This was true for 7% of young female respondents.

In a different study, conducted by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), 3,000 participants were surveyed on their attitudes towards and understanding of rape and sexual assault. The CPS found that backward attitudes and rape myths were more pronounced among young people.

For instance, overall, 74% of respondents understood that it can still be rape if a victim doesn’t resist or fight back. However, this number fell to just 53% of 18-24-year-olds.

Where does sexism come from?

While it’s understandable that these statistics can appear as alarming, it’s important to keep them in perspective. Overall, societal attitudes towards women have transformed over time and those holding sexist and misogynistic attitudes still represent only a small proportion of those surveyed. That doesn’t mean that these statistics should be ignored or written off. Instead, it’s important to understand why this gender divide exists and what can be done about it.

There are capitalist commentators who have tried to blame social media itself for sexism and misogyny. However, while social media creates a platform for these ideas, and 24/7 access and algorithms that prioritise misogynist content amplify the voices of those who hold and promote sexist and misogynistic ideas, it cannot be said to be the cause. Rather, these attitudes are a hangover of ideas that go back thousands of years, to when class societies and private property first arose, and women and their bodies became the property of men within the family, under their authority and control. These ideas, at the root of discrimination, sexism and abuse, are perpetuated by the capitalist system that is itself based on inequalities of power and wealth.

Women class fighters

The position of women in society has undoubtedly improved in the last few decades. Now, women make up a significant and important part of the workforce, they also make up over half of trade union membership in the UK, and have been some of the fiercest class fighters for improvements in the lives and working conditions of both men and women. However, as these studies have revealed, there is still a layer within society that holds problematic attitudes and beliefs towards women, which can also be rooted in material conditions.

There is a section of men who can be particularly susceptible to the divisive and misogynistic ideas promoted by figures like Tate. The King’s College study also revealed that 30% of men aged between 16 and 29 think that it will be harder to be a man than a women in 20 years’ time. Young men falling behind in both education engagement and outcomes – who see only a bleak future of dead-end, low-paid jobs, without the hope of renting, let alone buying, their own place – could be led to believe that women and feminism are the root cause of their problems, rather than a capitalist system based upon exploitation and inequality.

Fighting against division

As long as the capitalist system remains in place, the material and ideological basis for divisive ideas, discrimination, sexism and abuse will continue. That is not to say, however, that struggles cannot be waged in the here and now to challenge sexist and misogynistic ideas. In schools for example, relationship and sex education in schools, dispelling harmful stereotypes about gender and promoting relationships based on equality and consent, can play a role; although this needs to be adequately funded and under the democratic control of teachers and students.

Terms such as ‘male privilege’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, for example, are not helpful, as 41% of respondents in the King’s College survey felt. They can themselves be divisive, tarring all men as ‘toxic’ and fuelling the very misogynistic and anti-feminist attitudes that they are meant to confront. However, that is not to say that the attitudes and behaviour towards women that the term ‘toxic masculinity’ normally describes do not need to be addressed. All sexist and abusive behaviour must be challenged, all incidents should be properly investigated and appropriate action taken against those found guilty.

The trade unions have a role to play in fighting for changes in attitudes, in the law, and in organising and campaigning against sexual harassment and abusive behaviour in workplaces, including schools, colleges and universities. This means ensuring that adequate procedures are in place for dealing with harassment, and that they are actually implemented in practice, with proper training available for all trade union representatives and staff.

But the basis for ending discrimination, sexism and abuse lays in bringing an end to class society. That means fighting for socialist change, and a society with values based on equality, cooperation and solidarity, in which the major companies are publicly owned, including the media and social media, and society can be democratically planned in the interests of the majority.

The trade unions are also central to building a party that can unite the working class with a programme that can fight for such fundamental socialist change. This would enable the provision of high-quality public services, decent and affordable housing, a living minimum wage – reforms that would eliminate the material basis for gender inequality, provide a future free from poverty, hopelessness and despair for all, and lay the basis for an end to sexism, gender violence and abuse.