The Penis Perspective: Bright Boys and Stupid Sexism

‘Sir, this Dworkin woman. She’s not exactly the biggest barrel of laughs, is she?’

‘No, Phil, she is not. This is a speech about rape [Dworkin’s speech ‘I Want A 24-Hour Truce In Which There Is No Rape]. One-liners might have detracted slightly from the message.’

‘No, I get that, but, like, she’s a full-on man-hating feminist, isn’t she Sir? I mean, obviously rape is terrible, but … well, I’m looking at this photo of her on Google and seriously Sir, do you think she’d be so feminist if she looked, you know … a bit fitter.’


I teach at an all-boys school which regularly gets some of the highest average grades in the country. I am privileged to work with extremely energetic, intelligent, engaged, entertaining and often, whether intentionally or not, hysterically funny teenage boys on a daily basis. I love my job. It’s ace. But every now and then, there are moments which make me question whether I’m actually just part of some fucked-up patriarchy factory disguised as a place of learning. The above conversation was one of those moments.

Phil isn’t really called Phil. But the rest of that conversation really happened. The thing is, ‘Phil’ is not a moron. Phil is predicted, and will very likely get, straight As in his A Levels. ‘Phil’ is not completely ignorant of the principles of feminism, and I have read and marked excellent essays written by him in which he has interwoven fairly dense academic feminist theory with close readings of texts. Phil is actually a really nice kid. The problem is that for Phil, for the rest of the class, for the rest of the school, feminism is just that: academic. Feminism is a theoretical position, an interesting intellectual folly but as real, immediate or important as the Bohr Model of Atoms or The Battle of Crecy. 

This has started to bother me. What bothers me is not the level or nature of the sexism of the boys I teach – which is for the most part no worse than you find in any other workplace (which now I think about it isn’t exactly glowing praise) – but rather that the people I work with are young, they are highly educated, and they are highly intelligent. 

On a basic level, I attribute much of any form of prejudice to age, ignorance and stupidity. The person spitting tiny flecks of spittle as he preaches The Gospel of Them Muslims Are Taking Over This Country, Mate – I hear, and I think: ‘Well, clearly, you are a fucking idiot.’ And then wipe my face, shrug, and move on. ‘Idiots have always found comfort in the certainty of right-wing bullshit,’ I think, ‘spending forty years in the company of similarly ill-informed fuckwits has got to be a powerful shaper of beliefs, and since their only source of information on the subject is The Daily Mail, it’s hardly surprising they’re spouting a crock of shit. Never mind, nobody with a brain will ever take them seriously, and the fact that you spend your life teaching means you are doing your bit to combat such ignorant twattery.’

However, this isn’t that. I live in constant fear that half these boys will discover they are actually brighter than I am. When discussing a coursework essay with one of them recently, I spent the whole time nodding shrewdly and saying, ‘hmm, yes, of course’ while secretly thinking, ‘I have not the slightest fucking clue what you’re talking about and I’ve never even *heard* of half this research.’ Intelligence and ignorance are not the issues here. Similarly, the kids I’m talking about here are sixteen and seventeen. Can they really have learned patriarchy already?

Yes. Of course they can, and they have. Even while there are no women present, boys in my school still assert their masculine identity and gain status through treating women as second-class humans. 

‘Phil’, a week earlier, had made some joke about ‘women should be in the kitchen.’ Now, I know that he doesn’t actually believe this, because when I nearly took his fucking head off for saying it, he told me it was supposed to be an ironic joke, and became hugely embarrassed and apologetic. But the point is, it got a laugh from the room. He, and the rest of the class, *already know that misogyny is ‘cool’* and whether they believe it or not, demonstrating it makes them more of a man. This, at a school where ‘being a man’ is the same thing as ‘being somebody’ is a dangerous and terrifying thing. As for where they learned this shit from, see The Entire Rest of History and Culture (and the rest of The Vagenda), but the thought that got me was, ‘Seriously? Here? This young? These kids? Fuck.’

After a few of these comments, I decided to sack off the curriculum for a lesson and do the whole lesson exploring attitudes to gender. What I found, was that they viewed women and girls as essentially Other – a strange, mysterious and separate branch of people. Some of this may be a lack of exposure to real women, predictable teenage boy fear and idealising of The Girl. But for them, though they can intellectually understand feminism and can rationally concede ‘women don’t always have it easy’, they simply do not see women as having thoughts, emotions and ideas in the same way that they do. When, halfway through my lesson on feminism I floated the notion that feminism was, at its heart, the idea that women are human to precisely the degree that men are – that women are, variously, clever, funny, creative, insecure, imperfect, contradictory, multi-identitied, and real to *exactly the degree that they are* earned a sea of blank, ox-like blinking stares. The concept is alien to them. 

It was one of my most depressing moments in teaching. 

At this point, I realised I’d had completely the wrong tactic with these boys. Their problem wasn’t the theory, it was the reality. The flesh and blood stuff. I spoke to them from personal experience about how and when I got out of the Man-Bubble of Misogyny as Male-Bonding, about living abroad and seeing real, unarguable evidence of seeing women treated as second-class humans, which enabled me to see the degree to which pretty much all societies have and continue to curtail the intellectual, cultural, societal and physical freedom of women, and, just as importantly for me, meeting some *awesome* women for myself. 

This, they did respond to. When I told them to go away and come back in twenty minutes with a one-minute presentation on the coolest woman they could find, the end of that lesson was awesome. One of them told me about Amelia Earhart. One of them, a brilliant and passionate young scientist, came back and told me he was astonished to discover Rosalind Franklin basically discovered DNA. Another came back shocked that his favourite film, The Hurt Locker, was directed by Kathryn Bigelow. When one of them began talking about Mila Kunis, I wondered whether he had tragically misunderstood everything I was trying to do here, until he spoke about how her voice work in The Family Guy cracked him up. 

It was one of my favourite moments in teaching.