Feminism: A Primer for Men

What is feminism and why should men care about it? The word “feminism” refers to a diverse array of thought and action. While recognizing this diversity, a concise definition of feminism is provided by the author bell hooks:

Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.

Generally speaking, feminism seeks to understand and address the ways in which our society’s institutions (political, economic, familial, etc.), culture, and ways of thinking influence how power and inequality affect men and women and how these dynamics interact with other forms of oppression such as racism and homophobia. Thankfully, the idea that feminism entails hating or blaming men is simply wrong.

Why Should Men Care About Feminism?

Given this broad and somewhat fuzzy definition, why should men care about feminism? There are many reasons. First, sexism constrains the lives of women and men–denying everyone the full expression of their humanity. Second, the oppression of women should be fought by all people of conscience. You should care about the mothers, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers in your life, but their value should not be contingent on their relationship to you or other men. All people have inherent worth and deserve to be treated with respect. Finally, as the main perpetrators and beneficiaries of the sexist oppression of women, men have both a unique capacity and responsibility to help end it.

 A few facts highlight the pervasive reality of systemic, gender-based oppression:

  • A 2011 survey by the U.S. Government states that, “Nearly one in five women surveyed said they had been raped or had experienced an attempted rape at some point” in their lives;1
  • Women earn only 77 cents for every dollar that men earn2;
  • “Somewhere in America a woman is battered, usually by her intimate partner, every 15 seconds;”3
  • “An estimated 50,000 women and children are trafficked into the United States annually for sexual exploitation or forced labor;”4

In light of these figures, the chances are that someone you know has been intimately affected by sexist oppression.

Sexist Oppression Affects Men Too

In addition to exacting a terrible price on the lives of women, sexism affects men too. One way it does so is through gender roles. Men, like women, are taught, explicitly or implicitly, how to act, think, feel, and relate to others and themselves, based on their gender. This “socialization” can take many forms, from dinner table discussion to the messages communicated by T.V. shows and movies.

What is gender? To put it simply, sex refers to our biology, “what’s between your legs,” while gender refers to the meanings and status we associate with masculinity and femininity. Often, we take those things that are associated with masculinity and femininity and we assume that they are just as natural and permanent as our biology appears to be. We might assume that men are naturally drawn to the color blue and women, the color pink. Or we think it natural that men are drawn to football and that women are drawn to paint their nails. This assumption, that differences between men and women are permanent and independent of historical, cultural, and social contexts is called biological determinism. Instead, feminists argue that gender is something that we learn and perform (for instance, by dressing baby boys in blue clothing) and would not exist apart from our performances of it. “We might come into this world with a penis or vagina,” writes author Shira Tarrant, “but, we’re not born wanting to fix things with a hammer or carry a purse.”

OK, so whats the big deal? Well, as the writer Michael Kimmel has stated, “We live in a culture in which half of all traits and behaviors [are] coded as feminine and half [are] coded as masculine.” The outcome of this gendered categorization of human experience is eloquently expressed in an adaptation of a poem by Nancy Smith:

For every girl who is tired of acting weak when she is strong, there is a boy tired of appearing strong when he feels vulnerable. For every boy who is burdened with the constant expectation of knowing everything, there is a girl tired of people not trusting her intelligence. For every girl who is tired of being called over-sensitive, there is a boy who fears to be gentle, to weep. For every boy for whom competition is the only way to prove his masculinity, there is a girl who is called unfeminine when she competes. … For every boy struggling not to let advertising dictate his desires, there is a girl facing the ad industry’s attacks on her self esteem…

In other words, men should care about feminism because gender stereotypes, or the sexist scripts that we are all expected to perform, constrain the lives of both women and men. Such stereotypes affect how men relate to women, how they relate to other men, even how they relate to themselves. As Shira Tarrant writes, in seeking to abolish gender stereotypes, feminism is concerned with “maximizing liberty and minimizing arbitrary constraints” by allowing men and women to enjoy their full humanity. Granted, the case should not be overstated. As the writer Robert Jenson reminds us, “there’s a big difference between women dealing with the constant threat of being raped, beaten, and killed by the men in their lives, and men not being able to cry.”

In addition, men’s humanity can be affected in other, darker, ways by sexism: oppression warps the humanity of the oppressor. For example, as the group Men Can Stop Rape has written, “The great majority of all sexually violent crimes are committed by males. Even when men are sexually victimized, other men are most often the perpetrators.” Similarly, based on the numbers, there isn’t a “domestic violence” problem in the U.S. so much as a “male violence against women” problem (note how our use of language obscures the role of men). What these examples show is that, as the main perpetrators of the oppression of women, men have both a unique capacity and responsibility to help end it. 

However, a piece of the picture is missing. While acknowledging the agency of individual rapists and batterers, we must also ask ourselves, what kind of a society do we live in that produces the men who commit such atrocities? Why are the levels of such abhorrent behavior so much higher in the U.S. than in other nations? In order to answer such questions, a systemic perspective is required.

Guilt, Blame, and Patriarchy as a System5

Many people think that feminists hate men. Or, that in discussions of feminism, men are to be blamed and should feel guilty. This is not the case. Really, feminists hate patriarchy, which is any system based on domination and control, in which men hold a disproportionate amount of power, highly valued attributes or qualities are identified with men, and men or masculinity are taken to be the norm or natural center of attention. Now, patriarchy does not mean that all men are in a position of power. It does mean, however, that when you look at people in power, they are more likely to be men. Similarly, feminists do not want merely to replace patriarchy with “matriarchy,” or put women in power either. Instead, feminists seek to end all sexist domination and oppression.

The key word in the paragraph above is “system.” What makes a system unique is that it is more than the sum of its parts. Systems cannot be reduced to their components (or their participants). In other words, men are not patriarchy. So when feminists attack patriarchy, men should not feel under attack as well. While it is certainly true that individual men can be sexist or oppressive and should be held accountable for their actions, in discussions of patriarchy feminists oppose a system that produces oppressive outcomes.

The flipside of the fact that patriarchy is a system, however, is that it can produce oppressive outcomes without any ill will or intention on the part of those who participate in it. In the same way that the rules of “Monopoly” compel players (whether they are generous people or not) to act greedy by accumulating property, patriarchy sets up “paths of least resistance” that guide our actions and constrain what we think is appropriate or possible. This is done through numerous institutions (such as the media, family dynamics, and the educational system) that influence power relations and common conceptions of what is “natural” for men and women to do and be. When a man hears another man tell a sexist joke, for example, the path of least resistance is to simply laugh along. The fact that other courses of action are available might not even occur to him. As the author Allan Johnson explains, because of systemic factors that act like paths of least resistance:

Patriarchy can exist without men having “oppressive personalities” or actively conspiring with one another to defend male privilege. […] When oppression is woven into the fabric of everyday life, we don’t need to go out of our way to be overtly oppressive in order for an oppressive system to produce oppressive consequences. As the saying goes, what evil requires is simply that ordinary people do nothing.

Patriarchy is a system we have all inherited. We did not choose it. However, we all have a choice in terms of how we participate in it: whether we work to support the system, perpetuate its unjust outcomes through inaction, or struggle against it.

Male Privilege

Anytime one group is oppressed, through systems such as patriarchy, another group is necessarily privileged. Privilege can be loosely defined as unearned advantages or opportunities. These privileges are often seen as natural and are therefore often invisible to those who enjoy them. These are just a few examples of male privilege:

  • men, as a group, are much less likely to face sexual harassment in the workplace
  • men, as a group, can have many sexual partners without being degraded as “sluts”
  • men, as a group, do not face a constant media and advertising bombardment that objectifies them, while promoting impossible standards and negative body images
  • individual men (who are poor drivers or careless with their money, for example) are rarely taken as representatives of men as a whole

Once again, men did not ask for such privileges. Unfortunately, we cannot just “give them back” either. That would require somehow stepping outside of the patriarchal structure of our society. Therefore, we must recognize that as the main beneficiaries of patriarchy, men have a unique responsibility to do all that we can to help end it. This responsibility does not mean that men need to “save” women (thereby co-opting their own political struggles), or should attempt to speak for them, or claim to understand their experiences. Instead, men should recognize their privileged place in society and the responsibility that this privilege entails.

It should also be noted that because people have multiple and layered identities, someone can be privileged in one respect, while being simultaneously oppressed in another. For instance, a low-income, gay, white male can experience white, male privilege while also facing economic disadvantage and homophobia. Indeed, different identities interact to produce different experiences of privilege and oppression. Thus, because people have multifaceted identities and because systems of oppression are intimately intertwined, men as a group can be privileged while individual men have unique experiences of both privilege and oppression.

The same dynamic affects those subject to systemic oppression. To truly understand how patriarchy operates requires understanding how it interacts with other systems like white supremacy. For example, while women on average earn about 77 cents to the dollar that men earn, African American women earn about 65 cents and Latina women about 58 cents for every dollar a man earns. This is because systems of oppression are intertwined, they are intersectional. Seeing the ways that systems of oppression feed off each other is an indispensable part of facing their true reality–and fighting them effectively.

What is to be Done?

Given that sexism destroys the lives of the women we love, that it prevents the full expression of our humanity, and that men are the main perpetrators and beneficiaries of the sexist oppression of women, what concrete steps can men take to act as allies in feminist struggle? Three simple steps are self-education, practicing awareness, and speaking out. Regarding education, men must recognize that it is our own responsibility to educate ourselves. Three great starting points for learning more about men and feminism are bell hooks’ “Feminism is for Everybody,” Shira Tarrant’s “Men and Feminism,” and Allan Johnson’s “The Gender Knot.”

In addition to education, we can also be more aware of how the dynamics of gender play out in our everyday lives. Our gendered upbringing, or socialization, has profound and subtle consequences for the way we think and behave. It can even influence something as simple as a conversation. The next time you’re part of a group, be aware of who does most of the talking. Be aware of who is interrupted, who does the interrupting, and who is silent. Being aware of gender dynamics, particularly our own actions, is one of the most important steps men can take in being allies.

Finally, when you see something that doesn’t seem right, do something about it. Speak out! As bell hooks has said, “men have a tremendous contribution to make to feminist struggle in the area of exposing, confronting, opposing, and transforming the sexism of their male peers.” Granted, this is easier said than done. However, working to subvert patriarchy can be as simple as not laughing at a sexist joke or questioning someone as to why they said what they just did. Recognize that we have to meet folks where they are and that people are starting out at varying levels of understanding sexism.

* * *

“If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

–Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s

Steps Men Can Take to End Sexism and Be an Ally (adapted from N.O.M.A.S.)

1. Don’t interrupt women when they speak, control their space, or assume they need your protection. Focus on the effect of your actions, rather than on the intent.

2. Support women’s leadership and help elect progressive women to political office.

3. Support women’s equality in education, sports, and in the workplace.

4. Be willing to make mistakes. Be willing to make yourself and others uncomfortable.

5. Don’t condone, laugh at, or tell sexist (racist or homophobic) jokes or stories.

6. Model other behaviors by deviating from paths of least resistance.

7. Listen, believe, and be accountable to women and their stories. When confronted on your own sexism (racism, homohobia, etc.) listen instead of getting defensive.

8. Tell the women and men in your life that you love them, out loud.

9. Take responsibility for birth control and reproductive health and safety.

10. Speak up when you see violence or abuse directed at women or children, in real life, or in the media. Donate to a local rape crisis, sexual assault, and domestic violence program.

Notes

1 Roni Caryn Rabin, “Nearly 1 in 5 Women in U.S. Survey Say They Have Been Sexually Assaulted,” New York Times, 12/14/2011

2 Annual median earnings in 2008, US Census Bureau

3 Quoted from http://www.feminist.com/antiviolence/facts.html, UN Study On The Status of Women, Year 2000

4 Quoted from http://www.feminist.com/antiviolence/facts.html, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, 2000

5 The following section is almost entirely derived from Allan Johnson’s excellent essay Patriarchy, The System, found in Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives by Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey.

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