In April 2014, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives named Edmonton the worst Canadian city to be a woman. Among its numerous indicators, the study specifically names Edmonton’s higher than average reports to police of intimate partner violence and the city’s ranking among the highest incidents of police-reported sexual assaults. While these indicators cannot include forms of violence that go unreported or are ignored by police in the cities studied, the findings consist (almost laughably) with the overall sense of unease that I have experienced as a woman and as a feminist since moving to Edmonton in 2012.
Edmonton is home to a vibrant and active feminist community, and one that earned the city international recognition with its innovative approach to combatting sexual assault, the “Don’t Be That Guy” poster campaign, first launched in 2010. But Edmonton is also home to a vocal and aggressive men’s rights association that likewise earned the city international fame for its anti-feminist parody campaign, “Don’t Be That Girl.” Taglines like “Just because you regret your life choices doesn’t mean it’s rape” and “Just because she’s easy doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fear false criminal accusations” demonstrate the especially misogynist, rape-apologist approach taken by Men’s Rights Edmonton in championing men’s interests.
Further, this misogyny is complemented by outbursts of threatening anti-feminist graffiti throughout the city. For example, along Saskatchewan Drive — an area heavily populated by the University of Alberta community — a poster from the feminist art project Stop Telling Women to Smile, depicting a woman’s face and captioned “You can keep your thoughts on my body to yourself,” was recently defaced with red paint emulating blood. Adjacent to the poster was a stenciled image of a knight holding a bloody sword; the red paint used to denote blood on the sword was the same red paint that had been smeared across the image of the woman’s face.
When resident Rebecca Blakey saw the anti-feminist graffiti she contacted the relevant members of the municipal government, including Edmonton’s only female city councillor, Bev Esslinger; Mayor Don Iveson; and the city’s graffiti management program, Capital City Clean Up, asking how the city intended to deal with the misogynist graffiti. The responses she received failed entirely to address the graffiti’s violence and its implied threat to Blakey and other women; Councillor Esslinger informed Blakey that her inquiry had been (redundantly) forwarded to Capital City Clean Up, and Mayor Iveson deflected by asking what Blakey suggested the city do.
“I fail to understand,” says an exasperated Blakey, “how you can see the images that were being graffitied — that continue to be graffitied in Edmonton — of that fucking knight, and not think to yourself ‘Oh, this originated in a violent, misogynistic context; maybe this is an issue.'”
The trifecta of Edmonton City Council’s failure to respond to misogyny and anti-feminism as hate crimes, the high rates of gender-based violence, and the activity of Men’s Rights Edmonton indicates a citywide culture tolerant of misogyny. But, of course, men’s rights associations are not unique to Edmonton. The Canada-wide rise of the men’s rights movement is thoughtfully discussed by Cynthia Spring in her recent article for the web-based GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine, “Charitable Misogyny.”
The movement’s increasing popularity, Spring notes, has largely been the result of its ability to stake a claim in promoting “a more inclusive understanding of equality” in opposition to feminism’s alleged exclusivity. That is, men’s rights associations have been able to publicly distinguish their activism as representing a common good against the tyranny of a feminist minority. In doing so, men’s rights associations draw on centuries of marginalizing women’s issues (and voices) as merely “special interest” and therefore not concerning the general public.
Despite its publicly stated aims, Men’s Rights Edmonton activists employ tactics that draw on a much longer and more insidious history of silencing women: instilling fear. The misogynist defacing of a feminist art project is only one example.
Blakey and her roommate Sylvie Vigneux described for me how a handful of men’s rights activists patrolled the perimeter of Edmonton’s Slut Walk in May, dressed in combat gear and carrying signs that read “Rape culture is a myth.” Vigneux explained that though these protesters were few in number, “they were very much there and everyone knew.” This is consistent with Edmonton men’s rights activism in general. A few thoroughly organized members are able to achieve the false impression of a citywide investment in anti-feminism. The speed and coverage of their poster campaigns alone encourages feminists to feel outnumbered and vulnerable. And we are tired of being made to feel afraid.
In closing “Charitable Misogyny,” Spring identifies the difficulty in responding to men’s rights activism, emphasizing the importance of collectively interrogating the persistence of misogyny in Canada. Given the failure of our municipal government to act as an ally in the fight against misogyny here in Edmonton, feminists resort to impromptu ways of fighting back against the fear and violence perpetuated by men’s rights activists. We remain vigilant and respond anonymously to anti-feminist propaganda, often tearing down hundreds of misogynist posters within hours of their appearance.
Activists like Blakey and Vigneux choose to “edit” (their term) the content of these posters instead of removing them. Using rudimentary tools (a stool, pink nail polish, multi-coloured markers), they add images of vulvas to the elaborate colour-printed posters or satirically alter the MRA message and logo. Memorably, Blakey returned to the stenciled bloody knight on Saskatchewan Drive, coated it in white-out and wrote “enjoy my cervical mucus” beside it.
The intent of these acts is to fight fear through ridicule; to draw attention to the fundamental hatred of women and our bodies inherent in MRA anti-feminist propaganda, and then make it absurd. “I’m trying to speak to people,” says Vigneux. “So if you see this poster and you’re like, ‘Ugh, this is awful, I hate it,’ and then you see what we’ve written on it, you say: A) that’s hilarious and it gives me joy, and B) thank god, I’m not the only one.”
And such creative resistance reignites participation within the often already exhausted feminist community. One mutual friend described seeing Vigneux and Blakey editing some men’s rights posters as “entirely salvaging [her] day.” This resistance is community-building, sparking “an online conversation with us and our friends,” says Vigneux. “Knowing when new [posters] were put up; being able to say, ‘Don’t worry, we already dealt with this.’ […] Knowing we had allies.”
Yet even in our communities, and especially during our resistance, we are nevertheless acutely aware of our vulnerability. I literally shake with fear when I tear down misogynist posters because I am afraid I will be verbally or physically assaulted for doing so. And this fills me with rage because I know it’s exactly how I am intended to feel.
Moreover, those of us who can and do act often rely on various kinds of privilege to protect us in the event we are attacked for our resistance; we have loved ones who will support us; we have relatively clean criminal records; we are educated and familiar with the legal system or can access those who are. But there are many women without these privileges who are likewise made vulnerable, both directly and indirectly, by the actions and propaganda of men’s rights organizations. We should not need to put ourselves at risk to stop the spread of misogyny; we should not need to act alone.
Marcelle Kosman is a rabid feminist and PhD student at the University of Alberta.
Photo: Hannah McGregor