For all of us who are men who believe in social justice, who want healthy and beautiful lives for our loved ones, and who are working for positive change in the world, let us commit or re-commit to making feminism central in our lives, values, and actions.
– Chris Crass
A friend recently pointed out that in the wake of the Isla Vista shootings—and the feminist responses that followed—the silence from male allies has been deafening. As many feminists have explained, the Isla Vista killings were not an extraordinary occurrence; rather, they were a particularly violent and visible outcome of misogyny and male entitlement. My friend challenged me to write something in response to all this. I’m grateful for that challenge because the process of putting this piece together has reminded me how much I have to work on, and how important it is for men to do this work individually, interpersonally, and collectively. As Cecilia Winterfox writes:
It’s both exhausting and diversionary being expected to hash out the basics with men who haven’t bothered to think about their own privilege before. Men are not entitled to expect feminists to educate them. Real change will only happen when men accept that the burden of education is on them, not on women.
The burden of explaining and combatting patriarchy and misogyny consistently falls to women, and men can do more. I am not writing to convince anyone that patriarchy, misogyny and rape culture are real and they need to be challenged and dismantled. Women, queer and trans folks, and some men have explained and re-explained what these structures are and how they work, why it’s hard for men to see them, why all men are implicated, and some basic ways to change our behavior. The outpouring of feminist analysis that followed the Isla Vista shootings has created more space to have more radical, constructive, public conversations about misogyny, rape culture, patriarchy, and the role men can play in uprooting these systems. How can men take this as an opportunity to deepen our commitments to feminism? How can we be more vocal and active in addressing misogyny and patriarchy? If we were better at taking this on, what would we say and do? What are the obstacles? What are the potentials and pitfalls of this work? There are a bunch more questions below, drawn from feminist theory and practice. I don’t think these questions are asking for straightforward answers from men; they’re asking us to respond to them with integrity, openness, and uncertainty. These questions ask us to challenge ourselves and each other, without any guarantees or formulas. Sometimes what we need to do is embarrassingly simple, sometimes it’s complex, but it’s never easy, because easy isn’t transformative.
What are men waiting for?
It’s less risky for men—especially straight white men like me—to speak out against patriarchy: As Ben Atherton Zemon writes:
When I write about feminism and men’s violence against women, I often receive supportive comments. While some of the praise is earned, much of it gives me a lot of credit for doing very little.
Atherton-Zemon contrasts this experience with that of women he knows who are consistently stalked, verbally abused, and threatened with rape and murder for speaking out against patriarchy and misogyny. How can men be responsive to this? It’s absolutely crucial for men to interrupt patriarchal violence, and become more vocal in challenging sexism. But if we just join in feminist conversations, we can end up silencing the women who’ve been having them for a long time. How can we make more conversations happen, and help create more feminist spaces and conversations?
These questions aren’t new; they’re part of an ongoing, too-quiet, too-small conversation about men’s work: the ways men can challenge patriarchy and gender-based violence personally, interpersonally, among families and caregivers, and in broader communities and institutions where we live and work. I’m not an expert in feminism, or men’s work, or anything else I’m writing about here, but I am really lucky to have men in my life who are constantly modeling feminist practices to me, and to have inspiring women in my life who are holding me accountable and providing feminist leadership. At the end of this piece there’s a list of online feminist resources, which I’ve drawn on and quoted to write this.
This piece centers feminism—and the culprits of patriarchy and misogyny it confronts—and I’m writing primarily to men and other masculine-leaning folks, from my own experience as a white, educated, middle-class cis-man. While I’ve learned from people with very different experiences, my perspective and analysis are still shaped by a confluence of massive privilege, sheltered and benefitting from the everyday, layered violences of racism, ageism, ableism, colonialism, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy, among others. What I write will be most relevant to other white, heterosexual men. We are also the biggest perpetrators of violence and misogyny, which means engaging white hetero dudes is an urgent task, and we can and should develop an intersectional, anti-oppressive praxis. All men are starting from different places, with different experiences and things to work on, but we can learn a lot from sharing those experiences and trying to figure things out together. We can’t wait until we feel like experts, or until we’ve figured it all out, because unlearning and confronting patriarchy is a life-long project, full of mistakes.
How can we unlearn patriarchy and support the leadership of women?
Even among men who have are committed to feminism, women and trans folks are consistently silenced and marginalized, and men—especially white, middle-class, able-bodied, hetero-cis-men—end up in positions of leadership and recognition. When these problems are raised by women, men often get defensive. These problems aren’t new; feminists have been naming and resisting patriarchy for centuries. In the 60s and 70s, organizations like Movement for a New Society, a radical feminist anti-war organization, explored the ways that men tend to talk first, too much, too loud, and too often. Men take conversations over, we get defensive, restate what others have said, present our ideas as definitive, put down others’ ideas, intellectualize and avoid vulnerability, condescend and compete, and speak for others in meetings and conversations.
The fact that all of these behaviours are still widespread attests to the persistence of patriarchy. I struggle with these things all the time, and constantly find myself taking up more space in conversations with a lot of women in my life. It’s a life-long project to change our conduct by thinking relationally, being mindful of how our ways of speaking impact others (especially folks who aren’t white hetero men). How can we learn to listen and be more curious, vulnerable, and attuned to the ways we speak and hold ourselves? How can we create spaces of emotional connection and ongoing care—especially with other men—beyond mere exchanges of ideas or opinions?
What would it mean for men to root feminism in our everyday lives?
One way to move beyond conversation is to center care and the reproduction of everyday life, for which women are often responsible. I have been part of these patriarchal dynamics in activist collectives, shared houses, and intimate relationships, and it’s still one of the major things I need to be working on. Women and others not socialized into patriarchal masculinity are left with the less gratifying, less public, less visible forms of work, like sweeping floors in the house, caring for friends and family, and making a budget for the organization. Being mindful of what needs to get done to care for people and maintain collectives and communities in material ways—and doing it—is really basic and it’s embarrassingly difficult for me sometimes. It’s also not a question of good analysis: the male role models in my life haven’t developed these capacities by reading the right books, but by being proactive, vigilant, and accountable to the women in their lives. What do we do when nobody’s looking? I think these low-to-the-ground, quiet forms of feminism are among the most important. They tend to be less public and less celebrated, and they are absolutely crucial to creating space for women to take on more of the creative and visionary work of smashing patriarchy (and other things).
A consistent reminder from friends and mentors who read earlier versions of this piece was the reminder that as men, we’ll almost always benefit from taking on feminist practices: we will often be congratulated, recognized, and valued for doing work that others are always already doing. Being more vulnerable and emotionally available makes me a more attractive partner or lover; learning anti-oppressive practices makes me more hirable; developing a feminist analysis lends me authority and status; and I can be congratulated for doing childcare or housework just because it’s unexpected. Taking on feminism can shore up new forms of male privilege in weird ways. What are the implications of all this? I think part of it is a reminder there’s no endpoint: as C.B. Egret explains in Ex Masculus,
there also isn’t a plateau you are going to get to where you can brush your hands off, claiming to have reached official ally status. The work is life. It doesn’t end but only gets deeper and richer and fuller, like a lake in a thunderstorm.
Thunderstorms are powerful, exhilarating, dangerous, transformative, and humbling all at the same time, and there’s no shelter in the middle of a lake. I’m learning that there’s a deep ambivalence in taking on feminism as a man, especially a man who benefits from other layers of privilege. A lot of unlearning patriarchy—like becoming more vulnerable and emotionally available—can be a transformative, life-affirming process, and it can end up reinforcing patriarchy in all kinds of ways. Men can use emotional literacy to manipulate situations and center their own needs in new ways. We can allow ourselves to be celebrated as feminists, in ways that reinforce patriarchal, self-centered conditioning. But ambivalent doesn’t mean ineffective or unimportant: I think it means that feminism, for men, will always be tricky, full of pitfalls, and absolutely crucial. How can we be attuned to this ambivalence, and navigate it with integrity? How can we push ourselves to take on practices and roles that are unlikely to be celebrated or even noticed? How can we redirect recognition or privilege in ways that benefit or support others? How can we have more of these conversations with each other as men, and how can we support each other in deepening individual and collective feminist practices?
How can men work collectively to challenge patriarchy and misogyny?
I am just starting to think about how to engage other men beyond my circle of close friends, and even among friends, really uncomfortable transformative conversations are rare. I am often scared of this work with other men: scared of implicating myself, scared of letting down my defenses and being vulnerable, and scared that I’ll mess it all up or do it wrong somehow. One problem I grapple with—especially when I’m scared—is the tendency to distance myself from patriarchy and misogyny. Paul Kivel, a long-time men’s work activist, points to the pitfalls of talking down to other men about patriarchy:
[It] made us the “good” men with the “right” ideas and allowed us to feel powerful by attacking and berating other men. We became the best liberated men on the block, and that became another way of winning women’s approval and attention. It also allowed us to feel self-righteous toward other men.
It’s always easier for me to create distance, rather than finding a way to implicate myself in discussions about patriarchy and misogyny. Predictably, this shuts men down, and it makes the conversation safe for me, as long as I can stay on the “good” side of the good/bad men dichotomy. The worst part of this is that it makes it difficult to talk about and address misogyny and violence in a meaningful way: nobody wants to be the bad man.
Alexandra Brodsky writes about the urgent need to engage in uncomfortable conversations about “the texture of 20-something heterosexual sex in America, the insidious habits and habituations that look exactly like violence except, somehow, we’ve decided they aren’t violent.” It means having conversations about the ways we—as men—are implicated in blurring and crossing lines of consent, the ways we feel entitled to sex and the fulfillment of our fantasies, and how we let all this dissipate into the silences of rape culture and patriarchy. To address all this by implicating ourselves is profoundly uncomfortable. “We will have to disrupt the whole body, and though all men can help, most won’t want to. Today’s allies might think it’s easy not to be a rapist but find it harder to accept that their desires are not paramount,” Brodsky writes.
How can we engage each other in these conversations, as men? How can we create a shared language that helps us hold each other accountable? How can we support each other in setting goals, making commitments, and following through on them? One way that men have begun to do this is by holding men’s circles: intentional, pro-feminist gatherings of men to address patriarchy and misogyny among ourselves and in our communities. I recently found a zine called Ex Masculus: critical reflections on pro-feminist men’s groups, with writings from folks with a wide variety of experiences of men’s work. Toby explains the importance of men’s groups:
I know that in my life it’s been the times I’ve been with other guys (whether in formal groups or just hanging out and having real discussions) that have been the best times to work through my lifetime of socialization as a male. To some extent we know what the other person is going through, I am able to empathize with how hard it is to challenge those privileges and get to the bottom of why I treat people the way I do. It’s other guys who are able to support me when I make a mistake and need help figuring out what I did, and how not to do it again. Without some intentional space to make that possible it usually just doesn’t get talked about (p22).
The contributors in this zine share a broad array of insights into men’s work, and a common theme is the challenge to deepen our practices in these groups so that they are more accountable to women and actively challenge patriarchal violence. C.B. Egret explains that men’s groups can go wrong when they function as spaces “for other men to ‘confess’ their privileges and conditionings to one another, pay penance as such, pat one another on the back and go home feeling like good feminists” (51). Egret makes it clear that this is not about dismissing the ways that men’s groups can be spaces of care and healing. The point is that this work can be deepened, so that it’s more transformative for men involved, and leads to meaningful action beyond meetings. Vanessa, another Ex Masculus contributor, raises some crucial questions along these lines:
- how do we deal with situations that come up where people we like are perpetrating abuse and assault in our communities?
- how can we change our culture to begin to see confrontation as constructive?
- where in the depths of ourselves are we recognising a need for a men’s group? is there shame there? guilt? is there fear? what else?
- are we afraid of accountability processes?
Other contributors raise similar questions, pointing to the possibilities of using men’s groups to hold perpetrators accountable, provide support for survivors, and help create community healing and care. This is a high bar for men socialized into patriarchy—especially those new to feminism—and I read these as visionary goals that we can aspire to in men’s work.
Everything I’ve learned continually points me back to the recognition that there’s no universal formula, and we’re all coming at this with different experiences. Men’s groups are only one response among many that we can take to be more active in confronting patriarchy and misogyny on an everyday basis. How can we be more active in taking up the quiet work, the caring work, and the work that we won’t be recognized for? How can we engage with other men in ways that open space for transformative conversations about patriarchy and misogyny? How can we be accountable to women and trans folks and take leadership from them? What’s stopping us? I’ll end with some further questions by Vanessa, from Ex Masculus:
- who have you abused in your life? how?
- what comes to mind when you think about how the majority of the women and trans people you know could be survivors of sexual assault?
- what do you have to gain from talking about your life experiences with other people relating to having male privilege?
- what experiences have made you want to be accountable to people you have hurt?
- how has your gender socialisation shaped your practice of consent? your sense of entitlement?
- what makes you different from other “men”?
- have you ever used the rhetoric of feminist allyship to gain credibility, or to seem attractive, to feminists you thought were cool / hot?
- when you become down on yourself because of the amount of work you need to do to unlearn patriarchal indoctrination, how do you stay brave?
This piece wouldn’t have been possible without the feedback, edits, advice, and ongoing support and mentorship offered by Jeanette Sheehy, Kim Smith, Carla Bergman, Seb Bonet, and Dani Aiello. I wasn’t able to be responsive to all their insights, questions, and critiques, so I’m responsible for all the mistakes, omissions, problems, and other crappy bits.