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Men Calling Themselves “Feminist”

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.


Male Sexual Agency

Much has been written about female sexual agency, and how according to traditional notions of sexuality, it's sublimated to the masculine.

Also, however, male sexual agency is reduced by traditional notions of sexuality.  Unlike women, whose sexual agency is always supposed to be "off" until a man wants it, men's sexual agency is always supposed to be "on."  We always want to have sex -- when it's appropriate, when it's not appropriate.  We're already supposed to be horny; we always want it.  Moreover, if a women wants sex, and we don't want it, something's very wrong with us.

I find that all very dehumanizing.  I have agency.  I can choose to do things, or I can not choose to do things.  I can want things, and I can not wants things.  Although I'm not a straight, cis woman, I would suspect that this might be the kind of feelings women have about their own agency.

But there's another argument to be made about all of this, and I'm intrigued in it, because it's the kind of the argument that appeals to the some of the emotions that I suspect are behind some of the Men's Rights Activists (MRA).  If you don't know about MRAs, well, they're, shall we say, interesting folk.  They're generally explicitly anti-feminist, anti-woman and pretty friggin misogynist.  Another male feminist, over at the blog Man Boobz, chronicles them very well.

So now, if you read a bit of the MRAs write, they're a pretty frustrated folk.  A lot of them want to get laid.  A lot them really hate women.  A lot of them have, or at least they write about, a lot of negative experiences they have with women.  Some try to use pick up lines to meet women, while others follow other stereotypes we feminists ascribe to men, just viewing women as objects.

But I think a lot of the source of these feelings is that these men (and most cisgendered straight men who aren't feminist) have bought into this notion that we're always horny, we always want to have sex, and we have to pursue it.  I think it's one of the reasons why you'll frequently hear men claim that men and women can't ever have a platonic relationship.  How can you, if the only thing on your mind is how you're going to screw this woman?  If we're always horny, how can we have genuine relationships with other men, who after all, are our competitors?

I don't know if arguments like that are really going to be effective with some of the MRAs.  My mantra is always: don't preach to the choir, don't preach to the damned, preach to those who can be saved.  But if some of those underlying emotions behind some of their anger towards women is from an inability to recognize that they don't have to be horny all the time, then maybe this is a kind of tactic that would be effective in reaching some men.


Dan Savage’s Straight Box & Male Feminist Strategies (h/t to Jeff @ Feminist Allies)

With a hat tip to Jeff at Feminist Allies: Dan Savage recently spoke about the "man box" for cis, straight men.

Now, Dan Savage gets a lot of crap from feminists sometimes, usually because he can insensitive on a number of issues (sexual assault victims, weight for instance).  And though those aren't inapt criticisms, I do admire Dan for generally acknowledging the criticism and correcting himself.

But I did want to write briefly about the "man box," and how that kind of rhetoric can be used to reach men.  Dan is correct in noting that men are constrained by a lot of expectations about what "men" are supposed to be like.  We're supposed to do certain things and not do other things (things that women, gay men, and other non-cisgendered persons).

There's an appeal to not having to act like the archetypal alpha male, and I think that if male feminism also framed itself in such a way, men might come to it more easily.  Few men are able to perform in such a way that aligns themselves properly with gendered expectations.

Savage perhaps explains it best in the context of sexuality.  Because unlike a lot of things that we can be cultured to accept or perform, or things that we can make conscience choices to adopt and perform in order to better align ourselves with a societal gender expectation, we have little control over our sexual desires (another frequent topic of Savage's writings).  So with sexuality, where we have little control over our own desires, we find (in Savage's context) that men are very frustrated.  But if we move beyond that into matters where because we have more conscience control, such as how we dress, what we like to do and such, and also realize that we're not bound by societal gendered expectations, I think we can persuade a lot of men that they would be happier as feminists.