Is It Acceptable To Use The Phrase “Men Are Trash”?

In any garden-variety conversation between millennial women who date (or, indeed, don’t date) men, you can almost guarantee that the phrase "men are trash" will come up. It’s an in-joke that women share, a pithy way of expressing the impact that hundreds of interactions with men – personal and professional – have had on them. In recent years, it feels like someone has posted the phrase somewhere on social media every few seconds. And whenever it is used it is met with two polar responses: nodding agreement (mostly) from women and indignant complaints of 'reverse sexism' from men. 
The phrase "men are trash" has taken on a more political role since 2017, in the wake of the global #MeToo movement. As women mourned collectively, it became a show of solidarity, a means of expressing shared frustrations and anger. The comedian Marcia Belsky was banned from Facebook for 30 days after commenting "men are scum" underneath a post about sexual assault. 
Nonetheless, the phrase remains so divisive that in 2019 the Brazilian gamer and streamer Gabriela Cattuzzo was dropped by her sponsor (a gaming hardware manufacturing company called Razr) for using it in response to a sexist remark. Elsewhere, its use is also being policed. As Instagrammer and writer Salma El-Wardany has written for Refinery29 UK, her posts and stories containing the phrase disappear – they are deleted by Instagram as a violation of the platform’s community guidelines. Facebook (which owns Instagram) censors the phrase under its moderation of hate speech. 
Now, "men are trash" is clearly a generalisation. You might argue that it is a lazy and reductive catch-all term for the complex power imbalances between men and women. But is it hate speech? Urban Dictionary is less than fond of this terminology, defining it as "a generalizing and hateful phrase coined by a movement claiming to fight hate and bigotry." The movement referred to here is, one must suppose, feminism. However, the origins of "men are trash" are unclear. Its etymology cannot be easily traced. While it is undeniably associated with popular feminism – a nebulous politics that lives largely online – the phrase has certainly not been coined by any official feminist organisation or politician. 

'Men are trash' is clearly a generalisation. You might argue that it is a lazy and reductive catch-all term for the complex power imbalances between men and women. But is it hate speech?

On the other hand, surely the phrase speaks to something more profound, providing women with the shorthand for a litany of injustices which are hard to articulate simply or succinctly? When it is used by women to express their personal anger, hurt and frustration, it speaks to a complex web of experience which is borne out in data about male violence. In the UK, a woman is killed by a man every three days. On top of that, 97% of women aged 18 to 24 have been sexually harassed. Most of them say they have lost faith that this abuse will be dealt with if they report it. Women are more likely than men to experience rape. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16 – that’s equivalent to 3.4 million female and 631,000 male victims. Women are also more likely to experience domestic abuse. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), for the year ending March 2019, it is estimated that 1.6 million women and 786,000 men aged 16 to 74 experienced domestic violence. That’s seven in 100 women and four in 100 men.
Based on these statistics is it reasonable to conclude that "men are trash" and denounce them as such? This is where a flimsy exercise in whataboutery as a defence against structural sexism and misogyny comes into play: the hashtag #notallmen. Of course, not everyone who identifies as a man is going to be "trash" but that’s not the point this hashtag ever tries to make. It seems only ever to seek to distract from the data on male violence by talking about those men who are not perpetrators rather than amplifying the voices of women who try, not always with ease, to express their pain. 

If someone says 'men are trash' as a reaction to someone else sharing their experience of sexual assault online, for example, or reacting to some statistics about male violence, then it's not inciting hatred. 

Dr Piotr Godzisz
Facebook in particular has faced heavy criticism in recent years for failing to address hate speech and disinformation on the social network. In 2019 it made the right-wing website Breitbart News a "trusted news source" despite its history of working with white nationalists and neo-Nazis. It has also been called out for failing to remove Holocaust denial posts. But is censoring the use of "men are trash" an appropriate way to right these wrongs? I asked Instagram and Facebook to confirm their current policy when it comes to censoring the use of "men are trash". They told me that they have clear policies against hate speech, which prohibit attacks against people based on their protected characteristics. These protected characteristics include sex, gender identity and sexual orientation. They said that they treat all of these protected characteristics equally. 
Under their hate speech policy, Instagram and Facebook said they "remove dehumanising speech against people based on these protected characteristics. That means, in the same way as 'women are trash' violates this policy, so does 'men are trash'."  
Well intentioned as this policy might sound, is there a danger that women’s freedom of expression is undermined by the relegation of "men are trash" to the realm of hate speech? Dr Piotr Godzisz is a lecturer in criminology at Birmingham City University’s school of social sciences. He specialises in hate speech and he’s unconvinced that the term can be made equivalent to a man saying "women are trash" because of the fundamental power imbalances between the two genders. There is, he points out, "no one universal definition of hate speech that would be accepted internationally." So policing it on global social media platforms is tricky and, perhaps inevitably, clumsy as a result. 
Broadly, though, Piotr says that hate speech is using words "as an attack against someone because of their personal characteristics which can be related to sexuality, race, religion, gender or nationality." Attacking someone because of one of these characteristics, he adds, "may be considered hate speech if your aim is to cause harm or dehumanise them and, particularly, if your aim is to incite hatred or violence."
However, he says that context is key. Piotr notes that he has never seen an example of the phrase "men are trash" being used in a context where it was actively inciting violence against men. It has, for example, never been used by a group which is organising a targeted attack on men. 
"There would," he confirms, "be a difference if you had a public gathering or a riot where people were saying 'men are trash, let’s go to a place where men congregate, like a gym or a gentleman’s club'. But I have never seen such an example."
On the other hand, Piotr points out that vile comments made online by men’s rights activists and incels about women do sometimes result in violence. He’s right. The so-called "manifestos" of three male mass shooters who killed people across the world in 2019 were hosted on 8chan: the El Paso shooter (who left 20 people dead and many more wounded), the Poway shooter (who opened fire at a synagogue in California in April that year) and the Christchurch shooter (who killed 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand in March).
"It’s not just about what is being said," Piotr concludes, "it’s about where it is being said and why. If someone says 'men are trash' as a reaction to someone else sharing their experience of sexual assault online, for example, or reacting to some statistics about male violence, then it’s not inciting hatred." 
Where does this all end? As we continue to navigate gendered violence and inequality, it will continue to be a provocation to say "men are trash". But at the same time it will remain a vital means of expression because, as things stand, very little has changed since 2017 and #MeToo. In fact, as the statistics and shootings show, women are in as much danger as they ever were. 

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