There are buttons they can press

Victoria Smith has a brilliant piece about male anger and how women experience it.

Years ago, I lived with a man who hit me, though not most of the time. Sometimes he would only shout at me, but again, not most of the time. I couldn’t predict when things would go wrong, though I tried to work out a pattern. One day, you’d say something and it would be fine; the next, you could say the same thing and you’d know, instantly, that you’d ruined everything. 

Sometimes it would end in physical violence; sometimes it would not. This made little difference to the initial terror because, of course, you didn’t know. Afterwards, if no blows had actually been struck, it would be decreed that “nothing happened”.

I think a lot of women live with “nothing happening” an awful lot of the time. A man does not have to hit you more than once for all the occasions upon which he could have hit you to have the required effect. He might not have to hit you at all. One of the reasons why it has been so important for feminists to promote awareness of coercive control is that physical violence is not the only means by which men terrorise women. There are women who live in constant fear of men who can justifiably say, “I never even touched her.”

And, I think, there are women who live in something much less acute than constant fear, but still more than nothing. An aversion to male rage, if nothing else. I’ve mentioned a few times that I experienced very occasional male rage growing up (and after growing up), not the physical kind, only the shouty kind, but the shouty part alone was terrifying to me. It seems to me that men should know better than to do that. We can’t know ahead of time that the shouting isn’t going to proceed to violence, even if it never has in the past. It feels pre-violent.

Whilst very few men might risk treating a woman in public the way an abuser would treat her in private, there are buttons they can press, ways of occupying space that show an awareness of who has the upper hand. There can be an expectation of deference, and a belief that it is acceptable to treat insufficiently deferential — that is, insufficiently fearful — women as aggressors. 

An example of this would be the recent behaviour of Labour MPs Ben Bradshaw and Lloyd Russell-Moyle towards female MPs speaking about Scotland’s gender recognition reform bill. To many women, myself included, the shouting and bullying felt disturbingly familiar. 

Yes. Yes yes yes fucking yes. That contorted face on Russell-Moyle – how dare he?

The sense of moral superiority expressed by Russell-Moyle in the aftermath, claiming that his “passion” led him to adopt the wrong “tone”, was utterly predictable. She, Miriam Cates, made him do it. Anyone with principles would have done the same. Who could call that abusive? 

I know I am not the only woman who saw this and felt genuine dismay. This behaviour should have no place in public life. It should have been condemned by Keir Starmer rather than airily written off with platitudes about “respect”. Starmer claims to care about violence against women and girls but seems oblivious to the broader dynamics that underpin it. If nothing happened in the House of Commons, then nothing is happening in most abusive households either, until something does happen and we all have to pretend that nobody could have foreseen it. 


I do not like feeling the things I do when I see men shouting at women in ways I know they would never dare shout at men (no matter how “passionate” they are feeling). I would rather not make the connections I do. It is not opportunism. It is not a weapon I like to wield. In many ways I would rather un-feel all this, but I can’t. As long as I can’t, it enrages me that men who exploit the fear of women — who have enough insight into male dominance to exercise it, but not enough to acknowledge it — still have the nerve to tell women which men we “really” need to worry about. 

Along with everything else they feel like telling us.

I am quite aware that, just as I never found a way of backing out of a confrontation in the past, there is no way of expressing this persuasively to men who like yelling at women. To them, I am weaponising trauma. I am whiny and manipulative. I am playing the victim. I am seeing threats of violence everywhere. 

They will say “nothing happened”, and on a basic level they will be right. I think that “nothing” matters, though. I think that “nothing” deserves to be named. 

Victoria Smith is a stone cold genius.

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