Mansplaining, explained: ‘Just ask an expert. Who is not a lady’

Author Rebecca Solnit admits that even penning a book titled ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ doesn’t stop some men

Jessica Valenti, Friday 6 June 2014

    • Rebecca Solnit is a prolific author (she’s working now on her sixteenth and seventeenth books), historian, activist and a contributing editor to Harper’s. Her most recent book, Men Explain Things to Me, is a collection of Solnit’s essays, including the title piece that launched a million memes. Solnit, on the road in Seattle, took some time to explain “mansplaining”, writing and how the post-Isla Vista misogyny conversation is a little like climate denialism.

JESSICA VALENTI: How do you feel about being considered the creator of the concept of “mansplaining”? Your now-famous essay – which really gave women language to talk about the condescending interactions they’ve had with men – certainly gave birth to the term, but you write in the book that you didn’t actually make up the word.

REBECCA SOLNIT: A really smart young woman changed my mind about it. I used to be ambivalent, worrying primarily about typecasting men with the term. (I have spent most of my life tiptoeing around the delicate sensibilities of men, though of course the book Men Explain Things to Me is what happens when I set that exhausting, doomed project aside.) Then in March a PhD candidate said to me, No, you need to look at how much we needed this word, how this word let us describe an experience every woman has but we didn’t have language for.

And that’s something I’m really interested in: naming experience and how what has no name cannot be acknowledged or shared. Words are power. So if this word allowed us to talk about something that goes on all the time, then I’m really glad it exists and slightly amazed that not only have I contributed about a million published words to the conversation but maybe, indirectly, one new word.

Do men still explain things to you?

Do they ever! Social media are to mansplainers what dogs are to fleas, and this recent feminist conversation has brought them out in droves. I mean, guys explain ridiculous things to me like that the Louisiana Purchase gave the United States a Pacific Coast. But more than anything since I wrote Men Explain Things to Me, they’ve explained women’s experience to me and other women. With this explosive new conversation since the Isla Vista murders, there’s been a dramatic uptick in guys mansplaining feminism and women’s experience or just denying that we need feminism and we actually had those experiences.

If there were awards to be handed out, one might go to the man who told me and a woman friend that 1) women actually like all those catcalls 2) as a man who’s spent time in men’s-only locker rooms, he knows men don’t actually speak to women that way. So we like street harassment, but that doesn’t actually exist, because we’re just crazy that way, us subjective, imaginative, unreliable ladies. Just ask an expert. Who is not a lady.

Speaking of Isla Vista, in the wake of that tragedy there’s been a lot of talk about masculinity and toxic masculinity. The misogyny was so obvious – we have a mass murderer saying hatred for women is the reason for his attack – and yet some people still argue that these murders had nothing to do with sexism. What do you make of this?

There are a lot of ideologies out there passionately devoted to not connecting dots. There are climate denialists who think that 97% of all the scientists on earth are in conspiracy to spread lies and the weather is just fine; there are people who don’t want to know that American foreign policy makes us, to say the least, a little unpopular in some places; and there are people who find that thinking about misogyny and violence against women is uncomfortable and think that they have a God-given or Constitutional right to eternal comfortableness, as far as I can tell.

Right now I think that a lot of people get it and a lot of people are getting more engaged with the ideas, with the issues, and with the urgency of the situation. I feel like I’ve been waiting all my life for women to be talking the way we are right now, and that many men have joined in the conversation or support from the sidelines or get it is magnificent and inspiriting. (And then, yeah, those other guys. “Not all men”.)

Your essay “The Longest War” is about sexual assault and, this week, we just found out about yet another gang rape at a high school. What do you think it will take for our culture to take rape – and the notion that this is an epidemic of violence against women – seriously?

Part of what was shocking about the Steubenville sexual assault – one of the 2012 crimes that has opened up a new conversation about rape culture and sexual entitlement – is that the boys evidently thought that violating and humiliating a helpless human being made them cool. Where the hell did they get that idea from? And how do we take them out of that lad culture (in which it is indeed cool) and back to civilization where it’s horrible and you’d be despised and regarded as repulsive (by enough of us if, sadly, far from all of us)? I think the culture at large is getting – post-New-Delhi and Steubenville, and post a lot of great speaking and writing by feminists like you – the idea.

But how do we undermine the lad culture, that jeering, tittering, competing, struggling realm of young men left to themselves and to the worst notions of what it means to be a man, or undermine the segregation in our culture that leaves the young to socialize as though they were another species? I mean, in some small and rural places and other cultures, teenage is not a distinct ethnicity or caste or pariah group, and teenagers are not left largely to their own devices.

Too, I think we need to make blatant misogyny widely regarded as gross and despicable and ignorant the way we have racism, and this time that we means men. And a lot of men are, as never before, stepping up. Only men can dissuade men from a misogyny that discounts a woman’s right to speak, let alone what she says. The sexual assault that just happened in Tennessee: this time the authorities are responding fairly appropriately and a local male columnist wrote a column about it – a tough, clear, no-excuses for assault analysis that any feminist could love.

Finally, I think feminism has made astonishing progress over the past 50 years, so I think both that it’s going to take a long time and we’re well on our way.

What are your thoughts about online harassment – specifically the online harassment of outspoken women? I used to to think of just abandoning the Internet, but it’s as much a public space as the street these days… there’s no avoiding it and it’s my space too!

There are a lot of ways the Internet needs to be democratized and made into a public commons: when it comes to protecting our privacy and not monetizing our data for advertisers or sharing it with the NSA; and not letting advertising drive what everyone does and sees and makes; as well as not letting haters try to scare women into silence or make their lives miserable. The whole raison d’être needs to be reinvented, and I’d be all for not nationalizing but some form of internationalizing (or regulating for the public good) some of the more universally used sites (Siva Vaidhyanathan has a very good book about doing that with Google’s ubiquitous search engine).

My friend Astra Taylor points out in her new book, The People’s Platform, “Those posting with female usernames, researchers were shocked to discover, received 25 times as many malicious messages as those whose designations were masculine or ambiguous.” Way too many sites tolerate, maybe even feed, really vile forms of misogyny – from Twitter to a lot of supposedly progressive news sites – because it’s all about getting the clicks or traffic that convince advertisers to give them money. Hate is profitable. And human beings are chameleons; I think that some of these sites, groups, spaces, threads, don’t just give misogyny an outlet; they breed and feed and cultivate misogyny.

Two things, though: men intent on silencing women like you truly believe that you are a threat. They believe your voice matters, that you’re part of changing the world, and they don’t want it changed that way. So there’s a weird kind of validation in it, but one I’m sure you and Mary Beard and the rest of the women under attack could live without.

The other thing is: these haters seem to be pretty irony-deficient. Helen Lewis created Lewis’s Law on Twitter in 2012: “Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.” You go to #YesAllWomen on Twitter and see so many guys now showing up to mock, sneer, harass, and threaten, to just try to piss on the party, and you realize they have no idea they’re demonstrating why we need feminism. We need it because some men hate women; want to violate and silence and annihilate us; can’t stand us telling our truths; don’t think we have any rights; think they’re more important and sole holders of the truth. And they are those men. It’s a parade of excellent specimens. Unfortunately.

If you could explain one thing to one man, what and who would it be?

My beloved has, with time and patience and a lot of going over the same ground again and again and some digging-in of heels, come to accept that I really need two cups of tea in the morning (and one won’t do). So I’ve already succeeded hugely on that front.