I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other night who reads this blog, and she suggested an interesting topic:
Men who identify as feminists, but generally won't call themselves "feminist" to people they meet.
Well, I can imagine a few scenarios, specific men, so let's talk about them and unpack them. But before I do that, let me add a point: all the reasons that anyone might not want to identify as a feminist also apply to men. For instance, in our society, "the 'f' word" is a pretty bad word to begin with, no matter who's using it. So just to head off anyone who might note that I haven't included a number of examples of reasons why people would not identify as feminist, what I've written below is me trying to find reasons why men specifically would not want to identify as feminist.
1. Dudes Aren't Supposed to be Feminist
Men aren't supposed to be feminists. In the popular consciousness, men aren't feminists. Women are feminists. Gay men might be feminists. But straight men? Of course not! So there's a lot of disincentives for feminist men to identify as feminist to people they've just met, especially men. A lot of misogynist men will have never met someone who would call themselves a feminist, whatever their gender, and in a lot of social situations, it's not worth the risk of provoking a confrontation.
I think as well, particularly for feminist men who might be new to the movement, and less secure in their identity as a feminist, and less used to the attacks that feminists generally get and feminist men specifically get, it can be very disconcerting for the slurs that can come. It's not particularly fun to have your sexual orientation questioned, and it's usually not germane to a discussion about feminism.
2. A lot of "Liberal" and "Progressive" People Aren't Feminist
Shocking, I know. The issue is, you can be in what you might think would be a safe space for liberal and/or progressive politics. You're with a bunch of people who have similar thoughts on politics and policies, and you say, "Hey, I'm a feminist." The room goes quiet. Feminists are something else, and they're not always welcome in progressive movements.
History is replete with examples such as this. The abolition movement split over including women. Progressive/liberal organizations, such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), did not include "women's issues" as a priority when they were formed.
3. Sometimes Feminists are Suspicious of Feminist Men and Rightly So
I've written about this before, in the context of messing up other feminists' stuff. Male feminists can sometimes have a tendency to want to focus on their issues and what they think is interesting within the context of a mixed gender feminist group. That's not always a good thing, because sometimes male feminists, either unknowingly or intentionally (because they aren't feminist) try to subvert the goals of a feminist group. So a lot of feminists are frequently on guard for this. No one wants a "nice guy" coming in to their group whose only goal is to score, make some rhetorical point agains the group to feel good about himself, or just coming in to justify to himself his own misogynist views.
4. They Aren't Feminists
Ultimately, well, they just might not be a feminist. If you're a feminist and you know a male feminist who will only tell you that he's a feminist, and not anyone else, well, he probably isn't a feminist. He might be one of the guys I described in section three above. I think, particularly as a male feminist, and as a male feminist who I like to call a "majority man," (white, cis, hetero, middle class), which are among the harder types of men for feminism to reach, we have a responsibility to self-identify as feminists to act as an example for other men who might be afraid to identify too. I don't wish to overstate the matter, but being a "secret" feminist is a disservice to a movement that needs more vocal men talking to other men about feminism.
Moving Towards Positive Images of Masculinities
One of the great obstacles in front of male feminists is moving from a negative understand of masculinity to positive visions. We have a pretty good sense of what we don't like about masculinity: the violence, the homophobia, the bravado, the low expectations of parenting, the lack of expectations of communications, etc., etc.
But we don't have well-defined positive visions of masculinity. I mean, there's a few things most people can agree to put their finger on as something positive: male visions of being an involved parent is one I can think of. A sincere and good fatherhood is certainly a positive vision of masculinity (for those who want to choose fatherhood).
Part of this, I think is that many developing feminist men have deep misgivings about their own sexuality. It's difficult, or at least it was difficult for me, doing even a small amount of anti-violence work, not to internalize some of the negative attitudes towards male sexuality. After all, so much of male sexuality is violent and brutal, and that's a big part of what once is exposed to doing anti-sexual violence work. And hearing that, I suspect that a lot of men experience some self-loathing and question or fear their own sexuality.
(As an aside, some men interpret an attack from feminist women on male sexuality as an attack on them personally and all men, and rather than developing a shame or misgivings about their own sexuality, channel those feelings as anger against "man-hating" feminists. I merely point it out to demonstrate how I think different people respond differently to these things.)
While internalized misgivings and shame about male sexuality is problematic in and of itself, what's most problematic is that most men (feminist or not) don't have the tools to resolve and work through issues. Men are socialized not to talk about their feelings or sexuality with other men. So that means we either unload on women, who really shouldn't have to deal with nascent male feminists (or developed male feminists) working through their issues with them, or we suppress these unhealthy feelings.
Really the solution to all of this is to talk about these kinds of issues with other men. It sucks. And it's hard. We really don't have a vocabulary of self-expression for emotional issues, having been socialized that it's "unmanly" to talk about our or others' feelings. We have to develop one that we can use with each other. Part of that is developing safe spaces where we can discuss these issues. Though one might glibly reply that all spaces are safe spaces for men, it's intellectually dishonest to pretend to that those spaces are safe spaces for feminist men to discuss feminism. The world, while not as hostile to men who choose to express feminism as it is to women (who choose to express feminism or who simply try to exist), certainly is hostile to these kinds of discussions from anyone, men or women.
So men, we need to try to create safe spaces. I hope that this blog can serve as one, but I'd like to ask, what are other men using as safe spaces? Do you have other men you can talk to about these issues? Please let us know in the comments!
Sisters Make You Happier; Why Not Brothers?
As the linked article suggests, a lot of this has to do with communication: men don't communicate about emotional issues very well. So when a family has a daughter, she's able to emotionally communicate effectively with her siblings.
So I suppose it doesn't tell us anything that we don't already know, anecdotally, about men, which is that we're not very emotionally mature or communicative. This isn't particularly revelatory, and it certainly isn't particularly revelatory to women or to feminists, I imagine.
But it does have some interesting implications for talking to men about feminism. A lot of feminist issues are framed as emotional ones or have emotional aspects of them. I'd be hard-pressed to name a feminist issue for which I don't have an emotional and often visceral response to. Now the problem comes in is that when men are presented with feminist issues from a woman's perspective (as feminist issues usually are), men frequently have more difficulty understanding the issues because of the emotional content, or men are made uncomfortable talking about the issues because of the emotional content.
One of the reasons we're made uncomfortable talking about emotions is that we're pretty much taught that men have to suppress certain kinds of emotions. Sure, we can be happy and angry, but "boys don't cry," is pounded into us at a young age. We're not taught to embace any outward displays of affection, platonic or otherwise, to any people. We're not taught to give much thought to our feelings or others' feelings as it comes to things that bother us cause us concern.
I think a lot of feminism is talking about emotions, and feminist issues like identity and sexuality are intensely personal and require a certain emotional vocabulary that men don't traditionally have a lot of facility with. For male feminists, part of our strategies and tactics have to take into account overcoming this challenge. Male feminism needs to help men become more comfortable talking about feminist issues with an emotional aspect, and communicating with both men and women.
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.
A question I get, as a male feminist, is how I came to feminism. While it might seem a bit personal, and hard to extrapolate to a wider audience, I think my personal experience is very illustrative of something that all feminists need to do.
Although I didn't identify as a feminist probably until I was in high school or college, I always held the fundamental political beliefs of feminism. That is, I believed in equal wages, was in favor of laws banning forms of discrimination, and supported women politicians. I was a rather typical "liberal" and "nice guy" in that I believed in a great many abstract policy objectives, but I didn't incorporate any of those beliefs into my daily life.
As I moved to college, a bunch of my friends entered a men's feminist group and I sort of tagged along, though enthusiastically, and I learned a lot more about feminism. I starting reading a lot of feminist blogs, starting buying a few of the less academic-y books out there and reading those too.
But I still made sexist jokes among friends, I was still very much a "nice guy" (or so I think, in retrospect), and even though I had abstractly accepted feminism, I had not incorporated it into my personal life. I didn't view my world as a feminist, and I didn't treat my friends, women and men, as a feminist would.
One day, a friend of mine, a girl, who was then and still is one of my best friends, and I were hanging out. I couldn't tell you where or what we were doing, but I think we were perhaps on our way back from a party, or maybe going to one. She mentioned to me, very casually, "You know, Jeff, sometimes you make these sexist jokes, and they're hurtful."
It was in a very casual situation, and perhaps my remembrance of it gives it more weight than it really had, but that was my "click" moment. Somehow, that casual comment, even though I'd already read about and believed all these things about feminism, hammered home the fact that I was not living by the principles I purported to stand by. How I was living was hurting my friends, and not unlike other young people, my friends meant everything to me.
I've described it in a few other posts, but like a recovering alcoholic (chauvinist), I realized how my personal life was structured around the same societal forces I had read about. I won't pretend to now, and I certainly hadn't then, figured them all out, or struggled to remove them all, but I tried. And that was my "click" moment.
So there's a bit of a lesson here, even if only anecdotally. Speak up. If you have someone who says they're a liberal, a progressive, or even a feminist, and you see them engaged in a pattern (or even one instance) of sexist behavior or speech, call them out on it, but also tell them how it affects you. How you, their friend, someone in their life, is hurt by it.
That's something we all have to do, but especially male feminists. I say especially, because, unfortunately, a lot of guys will shrug off the protestations of their women friends when they call them out on sexism. While I didn't, in my anecdotal case, I know a lot of men who do, and I know that the pre-feminist me probably would have too.
I have to admit, I'm not particularly interested in the debate, which seems to spring up in the feminist blogosphere every now and then again, over whether or not men can be feminists, or if we should take on another title, such as "pro-feminist" or "feminist allies." I prefer "recovering chauvinist" myself, but I suspect it's not really a winner for image politics. Heh.
Should men expect to be treated as full members of (broadly speaking) the feminist community once they proclaim their self-identified feminism? Of course not. Feminists have every right to be wary of men purporting to be feminists and joining their community. I would suspect, though my experience is limited, that a lot of male feminists are just a slightly more mature or clever version of "nice guys," trying to get involved in feminism for purposes quite at odds with actual feminism.
But that is, in some ways, the point of this blog and creating a space like this: here's the place where men can talk about male feminism, about masculinities, about gender and the patriarchy. We don't need to subvert feminist safe spaces to engage in these kinds of discussions when we can create our own safe spaces, right here.
What's important to remember is male feminists aren't some sort of exception to the general rule of a patriarchy. We aren't outside the patriarchy. We're part of it, we participate in it and we contribute to it -- we just do so a bit more knowingly. However flip I might be in using the term recovering chauvinist, it's not an inaccurate description. Like a recovering alcoholic or drug addict, we're never "cured" of our addiction. But moreover, unlike a recovering addict, it's not as easy to become "recovering." If an alcoholic stops drinking, or a drug addict stops using, then they can begin the road to recovery. For men, there's no simple binary of ceasing to do a thing and thereby start recovering. Internalized and externalized sexism is not an easy foe to slay -- there's no "off" button to make it go away.
The sad truth of male feminism is that it never "goes away." No one person can conquer the patriarchy, and I would be very suspicious of any man who would claim to have bested the pressures of society and history and be "recovered."
But as to the point of this post: I can't say I really care for these arguments about whether or not men can call themselves feminist. A chauvinist man can no more call himself a feminist than Sarah Palin can. Feminism to me, means accepting certain principles of politics, culture, relationships, at the broadest society down to your own individual level, in a never-finished attempt to master the sexism that the system put in us. If you can give that a shot, any person can be a feminist.
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.
Talking to men about sexual assaults is probably one of the more difficult tasks of the male feminists. It's difficult in ways that really highlight the differences in strategies and tactics in bringing feminism to women and bringing it to men.
One of the central differences in this: talking to an oppressor is different than talking to the oppressed. The oppressed (women) are open to your arguments. They understand first-hand that they exist in a system that discriminates, from subtle forms of discrimination to brutal violence. While it would be incorrect to generalize and say that women are low-hanging fruit when it comes to feminism, they're certainly lower than men.
Men are the oppressor in this system. We are privileged. We see neither the forest nor the trees of this system. Feminism appears to us to be an ideology designed to weaken and change the traditional privileges and bonds of power we have exercised. We are skeptical. We are not easily won over. We are not low-hanging fruit.
When I was in college at a liberal arts school in New England, we had a program for all incoming first-year students about sexual education. It covered relationships, consent, assault and things of that nature. Students were divided into three or four groups and they all went through a program of two parts at different times during their orientation program. The first was a big ol' set of speakers where hundreds of students were talked to in a big auditorium. In the second part, that big group broke up into small, same-sex discussion groups of maybe 20-40 (though people were told that they could join with whatever group they identified with).
During the second part, there were student facilitators who ran a little program, held a discussion group and answered questions. I was one of those facilitators for several years and did maybe a dozen of those groups.
So, let's set the scene here. You have 20-40 18 year old men, all of whom are required to be present. So you know that you have a pretty mixed bag: there's probably some gay and queer men there, there's probably some out-and-out chauvinists, there's all sorts of people in between, but most of all, they're all probably a bit scared and generally speaking, pretty ignorant when it comes to formal education about sexuality and sexual assault. You're getting young men who may have had comprehensive sex education to those who had abstinence only to those who just had nothing at all.
When we facilitators got together to prepare for these types of groups, we tried to agree on strategies to deal with questions and guide discussions. A couple of those principles were pretty obvious: stay away from legal stuff. We had some handouts that simply contained the language of our State sexual assault and rape statutes, but it wasn't our place to be lawyers and take hypothetical questions from men in the group. There was almost always one would-be litigator who really wanted to parse the definitions, and that's not what the purpose of these groups was for.
One of those principles we agreed to guide our discussion was to be painfully honest with the group, and explain every issue thoroughly and explores its subtleties. This wasn't necessarily easy, and it might cause a bit of controversy among feminists.
For instance, when talking about consent, we first would cover the legality of it all. But the questions would quickly come and we'd have to wade into the nitty gritties of reality. "If me and my girlfriend, who have had sex before, go to dinner, have some wine and go home and have sex, is that rape?" "If I meet a girl at a party, and we both get drunk and have sex, is that rape?" We explained these types of issues to men in terms of risk, because the legality is all pretty clear. If either of the parties believes that they did not consent, then it was rape. The former situation obviously has far less risk than the latter.
Talking about these issues with nuance is necessary to impress upon young men that healthy, consensual sex is complicated and it takes a bit of work. The popular perception of feminism is that it is radical and deals in absolutes. The stereotype of the feminist is that they would simply answer that both of those situations are rape, without recognizing any nuance.
Let's talk about another example from these discussion groups before concluding. In these groups, invariably, someone would bring up an example of a "false rape allegation" from popular media. When I was doing this it was usually the Kobe Bryan case or the Duke Lacrosse case, but now I'd imagine it might be Ben Roethlisberger.
Now this is another example of any area of male feminist discussions where you have to be painfully truthful with the young non-feminist male. They would ask us, "Aren't these examples of false rape allegations? Can't this happen to me? Doesn't a woman have a lot to gain by this?"
Now, there's a lot of ways to start talking about this. You can take one of the specific incidents and start discussing it. Say the Kobe Bryant case (I had his post-settlement statement taped to a binder), where Kobe eventually says, "Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did." That's obviously a point pretty ripe for discussion. If I think I have consensual sex with someone, and the other party "does not view the incident the same way," then that means she does not view it as consensual. And that's rape.
You can also take the tact by discussing what's actually involved in a woman making a report of rape to law enforcement: rape kits, reliving a traumatic experience, slut-shaming if it goes public, the lack of rape shield laws in some jurisdictions, etc., etc., and show that women have a lot to lose by making those kinds of allegations. And of course, there's always the wry observation that if a woman made a rape allegation against me, or anyone else in the room, it's not because of our deep pockets or all the money she might gain out of it.
Now, there's some things I would not say in this situation, and this is really the crux of my thesis here: being painfully honest with these kinds of men. I would not say that it's impossible for a woman to make a false accusation. I would stress that for the crime of rape and/or sexual assault, false accusations are made at no greater rate than any other crime. I would stress that in any situation any of us might encounter, the most responsible and healthiest course of action is to believe any person who comes to us claiming to have been a victim, so that we can help them get help. But I would not flat out deny that false accusations are impossible.
Is there a possibility that some men will take that admission as permission to assume false accusations or justify pro-rape behavior? Yes, but I would say that those men probably were going to anyway, and what I said did not do much. I think, however, that far more likely, is that I buttress my own credibility in talking to men by being painfully truthful and acknowledging the nuances of issues, rather than taking absolutist stances on issues. In buttressing male feminists' credibility, we can better reach those men who are open to what we talk we about, and hopefully gain some converts, or at least make some young men think.
In popular media, violence against women is something you see a lot. It might be in the news, but it's also in feminist discussions. But you don't see it covered from a feminist perspective in the news, and when feminists discuss it, it's usually not from the non-perpetrator male perspective.
Not that I have a lot of experience as an activist, but I was at a conference once in Boston called EngageMen about getting men involved in movements to reduce violence against women. There was a great speaker there who talked about using the common experiences of men to talk about violence against women. When he talked about getting men involved in violence against women, he said not to use the common experiences of victims (women in this context), but to use the experiences of non-perpetrator men to talk about it:
Have you ever walked down a street at night, and seen a woman walking towards on your side of the street? Before she reaches you, however, she crosses the street, to get on the other side? Why does she do that? What does she think and assume about you? How does that make you feel?
These are questions men don't get asked a lot, but it's something most men can relate to. Yes, we've been in that situation. The woman crosses because she fears us. She fears that she might be attacked by us.
How does that make you feel is usually the interesting question for a group of men. Confused? Sad? All these things, but I frequently hear is angry. At whom? The woman? Society? Rapists who make her fear?
This is an example of what you might call recasting a traditional feminist issue from a masculine perspective. There's a lot written about rape and sexual assault in the media and feminism generally, but a lot of it is from a woman's perspective. It might talk about women fearing walking alone at night, or what the woman wore, or where she went, or how much she drank. These are experiences that don't resonate as well with a man because it's not experiences men share from our position of privilege. Men aren't afraid to walk at night. That's our privilege. Generally, we don't have to worry about drinking too much, at least not in terms of becoming victims of sexual assault.
But we have been in that position, where we see that woman crossing the street because she fears us. That's an experience we share, that's a commonality between men and it's something that can be used as a starting point into a discussion on sexual assault.
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.