To: Boners Everywhere
Re: You & Feminism
Hey there Boners. How you doing? I couldn't help but notice that Feministe has a blog post called "Feminism Makes Boners Sad," about an article by Doctors Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam in Psychology Today called "Why Feminism is the Anti-Viagra." I was concerned that you might be sad and getting misinformed by Psychology Today, so I wanted to give you a bit of straight talk:
Now, Boners, I get it: a Boner is a pretty self-centered thing. I can't say that I have a whole lot of intellectual control over my own. Sometimes it happens when I want it to; sometimes it doesn't when I do. I bring up that you're selfish to make this simple point: I understand Boners aren't intrinsically feminist. I'm pretty sure I can safely say that you don't ascribe to any ideology. So the Boner doesn't care if something that turns it on is feminist, or misogynist, or anything else. The Boner is undiscriminating. It takes all comers. It is an equal opportunity employer. I've written before about how I think feminism for men means that the sex will be better, but I've never really addressed my points to you specifically.
With that said, let us begin, Boners:
Anyone who got any semblance of sexual assault education probably knows this statistic: one in four women who attends college have been victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. So, Boners, I understand you're self-centered and well, unfeeling (emotionally speaking), so I'm going to talk to your baser instincts. Having sex with people who have been victims can be very hard. People often need a lot of help and support, professional and otherwise, to be comfortable with themselves sexually again. You know who you have to thank for that? Feminism.
I'm gong to shoot straight with you Boners, a lot of people in this country get some pretty effed up sexual education, where they end up ashamed of their sexuality, afraid to engage in their own pleasure, unwilling to try anything but the most vanilla things with the most vanilla frequently, and well, Boners, that kind of sucks (and not in the good way). But there's people out there Boners who want everyone to be comfortable with their sexuality, to do what turns them on safely and consensually, and well, give dudes Boners. That's Feminism there for you.
Now Boners, I don't mean to be a downer or deflate the otherwise happy note of this conversation, but as we all know, not every Boner has a happy ending. We all know that sometimes Boners can get all sorts of diseases from all sorts of places and things, but luckily, there's way to prevent that with prophylactics that can prevent the spread of STIs and HIV. You know who's out there spreading the word, distributing contraceptives to low-income people, and pushing for more progressive policies on family planning? Feminists.
Even though we all came from a Boner some time or another, from every Boner, a child is not made. But despite our best efforts, sometimes we have unplanned pregnancies, or planned pregnancies that don't progress the way they should. And the only reason that abortion is an option for women who need them is because of, well, you know who, Feminists.
Now, I know that the average lifespan of a Boner isn't very long, but if we can stretch our minds back a bit, we can probably remember times when we couldn't even talk about sex openly, when sex education was non-existent, or even to times when people believed that sexual activity for non-procreative purposes was sinful. I mean, I didn't count back then, but I think there were a lot fewer Boners in those days. It really sounds pretty shitty (and not the kind of shitty that's sometimes the byproduct of well ... a certain former Senator from Pennsylvania).
So Boners, I hope I've been able to get my point across. Feminism has done an awful lot of awesome stuff to gives lots of dudes Boners. And If really at the end of the day, you need some good ol' Victorian misogyny to get the blood flowing, well, there's all sorts of roleplay for that, which you know, is only really acceptable due to a lot of work by, well ... you know who.
Jeff & His Boner
Conforming to gender stereotypes is pretty silly. What if a dude doesn't like football? Or maybe he wants to knit? Or maybe he likes going to his kids' plays more than their sports games?
Society impresses upon us that there are certain things "real men" must like and do and things we simply cannot do. We cannot enjoy dancing. We can't care about our appearance a lot. We have to act certain ways, and there are things we can and cannot say.
Men aren't really allowed to talk about their feelings. Men aren't really allowed to have feelings, beyond some certain base ones (e.g. horny, rage, anger), and certainly nothing nuanced. We're allowed to have relationships with other men, but we can't really talk about emotions with them. We're not really allowed to bring guy friends together with girl friends (other than to hook up). A lot of men would say you can't even have "girl friends," since all women are romantic/sexual objects, ultimately.
Isn't that incredibly limiting? Isn't it insulting and degrading?
I don't mean to get too preachy, and I don't want to push the rhetoric too far when I say that feminism can be liberating for men, but it's capacity as a tool for self-advancement is powerful. When you can see how society has molded your own personality, your patterns of behavior and even your friends around expectations of gender conformity, it truly can be eye-opening to break free of that kind of gender conformity.
Now as I've written in the past, I think there's positive things that men are expected to conform to. But be it in shredding the bad or embracing the good, I find that I live much more intelligently and with much more self-respect when I've made those choices, rather than being forced into them.
So if you need another reason to be a male feminist, here it is: buck society's gendered expectations of what it means to be a "man," and be whoever you want to be, do whatever you want to do, but do it because you want to do it.
So You Think You're a Male Feminist #3
As Michael Kimmel (author of the excellent book, Guyland) recently wrote on Ms. Magainze's blog: a big part of masculinity of homophobia. We're men, and the popular cultural conception of masculinity is a heterosexual one. Heterosexuality and masculinity are so intertwined that when man faces the homosexual man, he denies him his masculinity.
Homophobia starts from a young age. Men who deviate from societal expectations of masculinity can't be men. To acknowledge to alternative forms of masculinity would weaken the concept of a monolithic, one-size-fits-all sense of "man." So we label outliers from traditional masculinity as something "other" something that's not man, and that something in our modern society is frequently "gay." In a binary society one that acknowledges only "man" and "woman," the "gay man" confounds the popular conceptions of masculinity. And something that confounds is a threat.
Kimmel's post talks specifically about how gayness diminishes masculinity, and how the term "gay" is used for just about anything bad among teenagers and young people. He contrasts the gay bashing that has recently caused several teenage boys to commit suicide and analyzes why it does not seem to occur among girls. I don't know if I have an answer as to why anti-gay bullying (as opposed to anti-lesbian bullying) seems more virulent, or at least results in more tragic suicides, but it does seem to me that one of the reasons why teenaged boys so zealously guard their masculinity is that masculinity has not fundamentally altered itself along the lines of any social movements in the past decades as femininity has.
Think about it. 50 years ago, the traditional caricature of an American woman was one where women did not work, did not participate in politics, was a caregiver, a mother, a spouse, a daughter, something that was always in relation to man. Although few feminists would say that we've come as far as we need to, we've certainly come very far.
I don't think that traditional ideas of masculinity have progressed as radically as femininity has. The vision of man as a provider, as dominant, as aggressive hasn't really given way as much. I talk a little a bit about how feminism for men frequently critiques traditional masculinity, but has not advanced, or is only really beginning to advance new notions of feminist masculinity in a post here.
So how is that relevant to this discussion? Well, the gay man, the queer man, or the kid who just doesn't fit in at school, is, for many teenagers, the first blow against their traditional notions of masculinity. Whereas women in modern society can see lots of examples of both women who follow traditional gender norms and women who defy men, most prominent examples of men in the media, politics, culture, etc., etc., are men who follow traditional norms. So whereas perhaps a teenaged girl sees a woman who defies more of those norms, she might know of at least a few examples in popular culture or politics, I don't know if the teenaged boy does for men.
But to bring this discussion back to "So You Think You're a Feminist," and how to apply some of these ideas to our own lives: although Michael Kimmel's article focuses on the current outbreak of bullying of teenagers, it's important to remember that it doesn't end once you get into your teens. Men joking with each other something being "gay" or calling each other a "fag" or criticizing a men for being "pussy whipped" are all ways to denigrating a man's masculinity and a manifestation of homophobia.
Something that male feminists have to do is acknowledge homophobia in their own lives, and when they see it occur, firmly voice their disapproval. It's easier said than done, as these things can come up in socially awkward situations, maybe with old friends, or in the workplace, but even if it's hard, it's important to speak up. Because it is hard, it's important to speak up. And for many men, this might be the first time they've heard someone speak up, because as Kimmel's article and research in Guyland suggests, homophobic boys certainly aren't hearing any of their peers speak up against gay bashing while they're in school. Although we're not in high school anymore, we have to start somewhere.
Okay, so you're a feminist, or at least you think that's where you're going.
You might be thinking that now's the time to jump in! Go to a feminist discussion, a book group, see some speakers, read some books, comments on some feminist blogs!
It's good to be eager, but as a beginning feminist, it's best to be a passive consumer of feminism when you're first going into feminist safe spaces.
Now that might be a new phrase for you, "safe space." What is it? Well, it's one of those things that men generally don't have to worry about -- a place where everyone who is present feels safe and comfortable expressing themselves about whatever topic they might want: feminism, queer theory, racial issues, etc., etc. The mainstream man can always talk about just about whatever he wants. (On the other hand, the queer man, the feminist man, the man of color, they can't, but remember, we're talking about "majority men" right now).
Sometimes, when a male feminist newly becomes interested in feminism, they want to join a group, maybe on a college campus, maybe a local book club, or just start commenting on blogs and forums, and begin discussing feminist issues! It's great to be eager, but remember, you're going into someone else's established safe space, knowing a lot less than they do. People aren't interested, generally, in spending a lot of time going off topic of whatever it was they wanted to talk about to educate you about what feminism is. If you really feel a need to go to a group like that and can't hold yourself: be a passive consumer. Listen.
Before you go out and participate, try to make sure you've done as much educating of yourself as reasonably possible. Be familiar with Feminism 101, read some FAQs, learn a bit of jargon, and then when you have at least a basic vocabulary of self-expression, along with the wisdom to know that it's not all about you in these types of groups, then go to a group and talk about issues.
But always remember, most women have years if not decades of experience acknowledging, discussing and experiencing first-hand a real-world system and a philosophy of ideas that we've only just been introduced to. That's not to say men can't make substantial contributions to feminism (indeed, we do), but I doubt a female feminist ever came out of a feminist group having met a man and thought, "That guy was too humble and timid." It isn't feminists' responsibility to tolerate us coming in and messing up their stuff; we need to self-educate ourselves as best as we can before we participate in the movement.
#1: You're Probably Not
If you think you're a male feminist, well, you're probably not. Not yet anyways.
Let me explain.
If you're reading this post, remember, I'm writing from the perspective of a male feminist, writing to the newly awakened feminist.
As you're perhaps discovering feminism, I've found one of the more useful metaphors is that of the recovering alcoholic. Perhaps you've had a epiphany, some moment, large or small, where you observed something of the patriarchy, something misogynist, or some chauvinist twit that just make you think, "Gee, I don't like that, and I don't want to be that."
Well, now that you've seen a glimpse, soon you'll see it everywhere. And like the recovering alcoholic who slowly realizes that their personal life was structured around their disease, you might too begin questioning some of the ways your own life has gone.
You see, the difference between the male feminist and the female feminist is that we have a privilege, a privilege of not being subject to a system that subtly or brutally oppresses women. It's a darn great privilege not to have to worry about that. But for women, well it's staring them in their face, unblinking, from the moment they reach a tender age where they experience some discrimination, or violence, or some other manifestation of the system in which we live (so I'm told).
Most women, regardless of how whether or not they self-identify as feminists are the products of feminism. Even a Sarah Palin or Ann Coulter, rabid anti-feminists both, could not have survived and persisted in the world of their mothers or grandmothers, though they might deny it. We know (and perhaps they do too) that their positions in society aren't the same as their forbearers, and that they are breaking a mold in achieving what they have done.
But we men don't have that experience. Feminism is rarely something that lives with us in our everyday lives from a young age. We don't have many self-identifying male feminist role models, and we don't have the kind of experiences that deeply and profoundly affect us at a young age as women do.
So when a man comes to feminism, even with an "Aha!" moment, it's sometimes a slow progression of realization of the system. Maybe you once made sexist jokes and catch yourself now. Maybe you never really liked some of the activities you once did, or some of the TV, movies, books or culture you once consumed. But as this realization slowly creeps up on you, remember, we're not really feminists, not yet anyways -- we're recovering chauvinists, striving to achieve a feminism we hardly know.
So take that with you, as you begin exploring feminism, and be cognizant of our ignorance, of our privilege, and the chauvinism that intentionally or not, we still possess.
As part of the continuing column, "Why Be A Male Feminist?" I present reason #2:
The Sex is Better
With the first reason being a little abstract, I figured I should hit off the second reason with something visceral: as a male feminist, the sex will be better.
A central tenant of feminism is sexual autonomy. This has the obvious broad policy implications, such as pro-choice policies and sex education. It has social and cultural implications, such as reducing frequent media practices like slut-shaming and objectification of people.
But as described in the first entry in this feature, feminism is more than broad based policy, but also individual lifestyle. Part of sexual autonomy means acknowledging the myriad influences that society has on our sexual choices and making those choices because we want to make them, rather than from societal pressure.
So, let's talk about what this all means practically. Well, if you're willing to acknowledge societal pressures to do or not do things, you can overcome those pressures or succumb to them, however you choose. It means communicating with your partner(s), respecting what they do and do not want. If you're able to communicate (and it takes practice), then you're able to achieve a very healthy openness.
Let's say it plain: if you can talk about sex openly with your partner, your sex will be better. Even though it isn't always easy, if you're both able and willing to talk about what you want, what you like, what you don't like, and give each other feedback, it gets better. A lot better.
It Makes You a Better Person
I have to admit that it sounds rather cliché, but being a male feminist makes you a better human being.
Let me explain.
There is a sort of spectrum among "men who accept feminism." It can perhaps be described in the simple phrase of "think globally, act locally." There are men who only think globally and do not act locally and those who do both.
Of the globally thinking: there are those who accept the political beliefs and policy positions behind feminism, such as pro-choice policies, equal wages, and other legislative remedies. That is perhaps what one might call the "least" feminism side of the spectrum.
Of those doing both: there are persons who have accepted feminism as a sort of lifestyle to guide their own personal actions, hence the "local." And for them, feminism is a way to become a better human being. Once you accept that feminism is an ideology or a way of looking at the world that is applicable to your own life, you cannot but accept that is an ideology of self-improvement.
Being a male feminist of that sort is like being a recovering alcoholic. If you read the descriptions of an "awakening" moment of a recovering alcoholic, you read how they realize that their very own lifestyle, from where they live, where they work, with whom they are friends, is based around their disease: alcoholic. So too, is the male feminist not truly a feminist, but a recovering chauvinist.
Our society is one built around chauvinism and misogyny, and it is the feminist who acts locally that realizes that their life too, is but a microcosm of that same system. And thus, the feminist realizes this, and begins acting, like the alcoholic, to slowly change even the tiniest parts of the world they inhabit into something better. By making things better, by fighting a system that denies humanity to others, they improve themselves, and they bring themselves closer to the humanity that society denies them as well.