A breakdown of #NotAllMen and why it is problematic

**Trigger warning: harassment, assault**

My friend was cat-called. ‘What were you wearing?’, asked her father, ‘Don’t walk alone at night again. Not all men are like that but there are a few creeps around’. 

Women everywhere are familiar with these sorts of conversations; it is a cultural expectation that women and girls must adjust their behaviour to avoid the so-called ‘creeps’ my friend’s father mentions. But why? Why are women expected to alter their behaviour to avoid harassment from men?

Until victim-blaming stops being normalised, #NotAllMen should not be considered as a viable response to female harassment. 

Many by now have heard of, and been shocked by, the murder of Sarah Everard.

After walking back from a friend’s house on 3 March at around 9pm, the 33 year old marketing assistant never returned home. A week later, Everard’s body was discovered in a woodland near Kent on March 10, and the arrest of policeman Wayne Couzens, under charges of kidnapping and murder, swiftly followed. Sarah has been described by friends and colleagues as a ‘beautiful and kind soul’ and ‘the kindest, sweetest and most fabulous human’. 

Leeds Reclaim The Streets vigil in memory of Sarah Everard // credit: Gerard Binks

Sarah did the things that women are constantly told to do to keep safe by friends, parents and partners. She took a well-lit route, she wore modest clothing, she spoke to her boyfriend on her mobile phone. Yet she was still a victim, dead at the hands of a man with a duty to keep the streets safe – a policeman. 

Following Sarah’s murder, thousands of women have been breaking their silence on their own experiences of gender-based harassment.

‘I’ve been sent unsolicited photos & begged for some in return. I’ve been verbally objectified in locker rooms. I got catcalled while walking less than 100 steps from my car to an apartment last weekend. I’ve been yelled at & followed. I’ve been scared for my safety & my life.’

Many are using social media to raise awareness and share their solidarity with women. But alas, this recent outcry for awareness has not been received without backlash – this backlash taking the form of #NotAllMen.  

‘What is the definition of #NotAllMen?’ If we are to type this into Google, the first thing to show up is the Wikipedia definition in big bold lettering – ‘#NotAllMen is an expression commonly used as a rebuttal to generalized statements and prejudice’.  Without context, this definition suggests that #NotAllMen pushes for social justice. In practice, #NotAllMen has the opposite effect. 

The hashtag is widely used in response to the discussion of female harassment. The #NotAllMen advocate will read the papers, hear the stories and watch the news about violence towards women and all the while be resisting the overwhelming compulsion to declare that ‘not all men are bad’, or, in other words, shift attention away from the darker problem – the normalisation of female harassment. 

The response to Sarah Everard’s murder has made it difficult to open social media without seeing the tragic facts and figures about female harassment and so it is understandable that men do not want to be associated with the perpatrators causing so much harm to women. But after reading a stranger’s experience with sexual assault or listening to your girlfriend’s fear of walking the streets alone, responding with ‘not all men are like this’ ignores women’s experiences and instead prioritises male vanity. 

An expert in the field of gender studies, Harvard graduate, Evelyn, explains her understanding of #NotAllMen on TikTok. Firstly she states that #NotAllMen is not protecting ‘good guys’, because ‘in a patriarchy, everyone has internalised misogyny, sexism and oppressive ways of treating women and therefore everyone needs to learn patriarchal ways of behaving’. Therefore ‘good guys’ should not be using the #NotAllMen tag, but rather make a conscious effort to notice and change patriarchal behaviours. 

Evelyn continues, ‘#NotAllMen comes from a need to control women’s voices by giving women, especially those speaking out about their experiences, a ‘bad name’. As a result, women’s issues are dismissed and instead male harassers, rapists and abusers are protected. 

The final point that Evelyn makes is that use of #NotAllMen is often fuelled by a ‘male superiority complex’, whereby men attempt to distance themselves from harassers and instead present themselves as figures women can ‘depend on’. The activist says, ‘this installs in women a fear of independence and that the real solution to male violence is another man’.

I spoke to a fellow female student about this issue. ‘What do you think about #NotAllMen?’ I ask. ‘The whole concept of #NotAllMen shifts public focus away from the fact that most women have suffered some form of harassment from men. I would be afraid to walk alone at night whereas men generally don’t have to give a second thought to these things.’ She then continued, ‘I’m not saying that men don’t experience assault, but that is a separate issue.’

Female harassment is an issue that directly harms women, so it is understandable why many women are frustrated about the hashtag. But how are men feeling about the #NotAllMen?

I spoke to a male acquaintance to gather some scope on what #NotAllMen means for him. “The tag really does damage women’s movements’ he tells me, ‘when tragedies such as the Sarah Everard tragedy happen, a lot of people jump to say ‘what about men’s issues?’ I think a lot of men feel this is because male issues are generally not in the spotlight. But it is wrong that these problems are about in relation to female harassment because male issues are totally separate.’  

According to a study launched by YouGov, 67% of young men aged between 18-24 feel the need to adopt ‘hyper-masculine behaviours’ in tough situations, whilst 55% viewed crying in front of others as emasculating. This social expectation for men to adopt traditional masculine qualities, such as insensitivity and aggression, are perhaps one reason for why #NotAllMen is such a popular response among men when it comes to female harassment. 

Perhaps then, there is an element of discomfort that men feel when it comes to discussing sensitive topics which stems from a culture of toxic masculinity in the UK.

“Often I don’t want to say the wrong thing”, my male friend says, to which I nod. 

“I personally feel there needs to be more laws in place to keep women safe. Whenever I go clubbing there are always bouncers kicking drunk girls out onto the street and finding it hilarious. I think things like this definitely contribute to a culture of female harassment and yet it is such a normal part of UK nightlife – things like this need to be made illegal. Responding to women’s experiences of harassment with #NotAllMen will only hold the movement back.”

Since Sarah Everard’s death, more than £500k has been raised for women’s charities – an outstanding achievement. Nevertheless, amidst people coming together to share their stories, raise awareness and do some good, #NotAllMen remains a popular hashtag on social media. Whilst the tag should be condemned for the way it undermines female trauma, it shows that the UK is in need of a cultural revolution when it comes to attitudes about gender and rather than accepting male detachment from issues, we need to teach men to engage with issues, both concerning themselves and others.