Author Sam Mills coined the term ‘chauvo-feminist’ to explain men whose public feminism works to advance their career and status, while their private selves exhibit age-old chauvinistic tactics. And, she says, everybody knows a chauvo-feminist.
I first encountered a chauvo-feminist a few summers ago. We met at a party in Manchester.
’R’ – as I shall call him - was very charming, an academic based at an American university who was renting a flat in London for the summer. When he invited me over, I thought it was probably a date; we had been exchanging dozens of intimate emails online.
R and I shared kisses on his couch. Then caresses. We were slipping into a dream haze when he suddenly drew out his mobile phone. He showed me a picture of a blonde woman he had been seeing for the past few weeks. She had wanted a relationship, R explained, but he hadn’t been interested. There was a narcissistic pride in the way he was showcasing his ex to me, like the photographs you see of a man who enjoys shooting wildlife and stands next to the carcass of a beautiful slain lioness.
Realising he wanted a one night stand, I decided to have fun and go with the flow. But in the middle of having sex, R revealed to me that he had slept with a close friend of mine. After he had climaxed, he elaborated on their story. He’d been keen to just be friends with her, so it had been very awkward for him when she’d come on to him. He had yielded. Had sex with her. He didn’t want it to happen again. But he did add the postscript: “I don’t think there are many men who can say they’ve slept with two writers who are good friends.” I concealed my hurt with nonchalance.
Despite his bad behaviour, I hoped that R and I could still be friends. We both knew numerous people in the publishing world and bumped into each other many times that summer. And we followed each other online. I noticed that he regularly tweeted links to feminist articles and positioned himself as a male warrior keen to battle chauvinism and misogyny.
A few weeks on, I encountered R at a bookshop reading in London. In the afterparty at the local pub, R approached and clumsily introduced me to an important figure in the literary world. “I’ve been dying to matchmake you all night,” he said, italicising the word ‘matchmake’ with pointed innuendo.
I saw the glint of a wedding ring on the man’s hand and panicked. He looked uneasy, too, as though R was a pimp who had brought him a courtesan he hadn’t asked for. I blurted out a story about having a boyfriend, he blurted back that he had a wife. We both attempted thereafter to have a conversation about literary matters, but it was stilted and ridiculously polite. Angry with R, I brought up his odd behaviour over email. His swift response was, “It’s all in your head.” R had succeeded in making me rewrite events so that they fitted with his narrative. I thought to myself: he meant well, it was just cross purposes. I brushed away all doubts with the conviction that I had been paranoid, mistaken, oversensitive. In the meantime, he was still merrily retweeting feminist articles online.
Whenever I saw him that summer he swerved from being cool and critical to effusively warm and pleasant. Sometimes we still flirted; he still had a certain hold over me. But I grew tired of his game-playing, and I kept encountering women who’d had a hard time with him.
The moment I pulled away from R, everything changed. I mentioned to him that I had gone on a date and kissed another man. I thought it would make no difference to him; he was, after all, sleeping with numerous other women, including my close friend, who was finding him ‘difficult’. But R seemed to intuit that he had lost his hold over me. I remember the moment clearly: I saw R at a social event, and he had his back to me. I went up to him and tapped him on the shoulder. When he turned to face me, his expression was one of complete and utter disgust and fury.
His attacks on me kept coming. They bewildered me. One evening, he saw me chatting to a playwright at an event, took him aside and slated me to him, losing me the opportunity of a potential stage adaptation; later, I found out about another freelance job I’d lost from his badmouthing. I realised that if R carried on like this, he could wreak considerable damage on my career. Fear became a backdrop to my life. I was plagued by whispers of worry. Who else might he be speaking to? Finally, R had achieved the ultimate aim of any gaslighter: he had got under my skin and into my head.
I tried to explain what was going on to a few friends. But it wasn’t easy: it was all so psychological, subtle, insidious. A few thought I was just being paranoid – after all, R. was a ‘lovely’ guy and wasn’t he a ‘passionate feminist’? Surely I’d just misunderstood things.
It was then that I coined a term for R – a chauvo-feminist.
When I mentioned this to my female friends, they revealed that they’d all experienced one in recent years. The guy who publicly declares that Weinstein is sick and #MeToo is a movement of crucial importance, but in his private life abuses and gaslights women. The guy who puts up on posts on social media supporting feminist causes, who RTs slogans by Greer and de Beauvoir, but lies to women and sleeps around using his woke persona as a chat-up line. I have nothing against men who do champion feminism with sincerity, but men who simply use feminism as a shield to obscure their bad behaviour suck. Watch out for the chauvo-feminist: at some point in your life, you’ll probably encounter one.
Chauvo-Feminism by Sam Mills is published on 11 February 2021 by The Indigo Press and is available to buy on theindigopress.com.
Images: Tara Moore/Getty and book cover provided by Indigo Press.