Self-awareness good, navel-gazing bad: some thoughts on men, accountability, and the lesson of Kyle Payne

Cara, Jill, Belledame, Renegade Evolution and Jeff are just a few of the feminist bloggers to take on the disturbing story of Kyle Payne, a progressive feminist blogger and anti-pornography activist in Iowa. According to the Iowa Independent:

An Iowa blogger who claimed to use activism and education to promote “a more just and life-affirming culture of sexuality” for women, especially those women who have been victims of sexual violence, has pleaded guilty to photographing and filming a college student’s breasts without her consent.

Kyle D. Payne, 22 of Ida Grove, presented his guilty plea Monday in Iowa District Court for Buena Vista County. He agreed he was guilty of felony attempted burglary in the second degree and two counts of invasion of privacy, a serious misdemeanor.

At the time of the incident, Payne had been employed by Buena Vista University as a dormitory resident adviser. Police reports indicate that while attending to an intoxicated and unconscious female student, Payne reportedly assaulted and photographed her. The guilty plea entered Monday did not include assault charges. Tips received by police and campus security following the incident led to a 10-month investigation that resulted in Payne’s arrest in February.

There are other allegations on some of the blogs that Payne had child pornography on his computer as well, though I haven’t been able to find any substantiation — if anyone has more info on that aspect of this case, please include it in the comments.

It’s always immensely disheartening when any advocate for social justice is discovered living a life in contradiction to his or her professed values. In my initial comments on the subject at Jill’s, I wrongly implied that there was something particularly troubling about a “male feminist” betraying his commitments. I noted how angry I was that a young man who shares the same passion for sexual equality that I do had done such a thing, and I worried — and indeed still do worry — about the negative impact Kyle Payne’s appalling behavior will have on the public perception of feminist men. Some of the commenters on the thread pointed out that my concern was at least partly misplaced; Kyle’s real victim was the woman he attacked, and worrying about the impact on progressive men distorts the real impact of his actions. I think that’s right.

Jeff received some similar criticism for his post about Payne. Jeff wrote:

Because rapists don’t hang signs around their neck proclaiming themselves as such, because rapists don’t act like evil bastards all the time, because rapists indeed can comport themselves as friendly, helpful, even feminist, women must be on their guard until they believe that they have learned enough about a man that they can trust him. And even then, it’s a leap of faith, as anyone who’s experienced acquaintance rape can tell you.

And men like Payne make it harder for women to take that leap of faith, and that pisses me off. Because while I know I would not rape anyone under any circumstances, Kyle Payne was a person who would have said the same thing, even as he did.

Many of the commenters at Shakes take Jeff firmly to task for centering himself — and other men — in the Kyle Payne story. And while I take to heart the criticisms directed both to Jeff and to myself, I don’t think it’s wrong for men like ourselves to vent frustration at the Paynes of this world for the damage they do to the larger movement. Whether it’s fair or not, Kyle Payne represented himself as a male feminist activist — and then committed a serious crime of sexualized violence against a woman. We who are pro-feminist men, active in one way or another in the struggle for gender justice, will be impacted by public perceptions of how other feminist men “really” behave. And while Payne’s failings don’t compromise my credibility, or Jeff Fecke’s, or Bob Jensen’s, his crime does reinforce for some people the canard that those men who do do justice work do so out of an (ultimately futile) effort to overcome a dark aspect of themselves.

Men come to feminism for many reasons. Shira Tarrant’s marvelous anthology, Men Speak Out, contains many stories about how some of us came to feminism and how we practice radically egalitarian values in our lives today. And of course, as Robert Jensen has written about so powerfully, many men come to feminism with a keen sense that their own lives have been deeply damaged by patriarchal, sexist values. For many men, it is only once we start doing feminist work that we become aware of how deeply complicit we are with the oppression of women. At the risk of using purple prose, we come face to face with our own filth, our own narcissism, our own whopping entitlement and our own frequent cluelessness. As we go through this process of waking up, the feminist journey can be periodically agonizing, and the constant danger is that we become so focused on our own pain that we ignore the real point of feminism: to center women and their struggle in our lives and in our work.

I know some men who come to pro-feminist work with the “knight in shining armor syndrome.” I addressed that issue in this old post. And some men, myself included, come with a desire to expiate guilt. Early on in my feminist career (when I was perhaps even younger than the lamentable Mr. Payne), I certainly tried to play the Rescuer, confusing my political commitments with erotic fantasies about “saving” women from sexism and abuse. Lots of guys get stuck in this trap, and end up the famous Nice Guys(tm) of popular lore. Later on, I realized that a lot of my anti-sexism work was also tied to a certain amount of shame on my part about my poor behavior with women. Though I certainly never behaved as Kyle Payne did, I was a self-centered jerk much of the time in my twenties; I was frequently conscious that my volunteering and my teaching and my activism were at least in a small way linked to a desire to compensate for my selfish behavior with many of the women in my life.

But the good news is, we get to grow up. I’m not a rescuer today, at least not of people. (I get my “need to rescue the helpless” met by doing animal rights work.) And I don’t feel driven by a compulsion to compensate for private sin with displays of public virtue. But there was a time when my social justice work and my volunteering were at least partly tied to a desire to make amends for the bad things I had done (or was still continuing to do.) I don’t believe for a moment that all male feminist activists must go through that same stage, but I know at the same time that I’m not the only man to have been on this particularly difficult journey.

There’s a difficult balance to be maintained by men in the feminist movement. On the one hand, we’ve got to be self-aware. We live in a culture which discourages masculine self-reflection, after all; one way we stand in opposition to dominant patriarchal values is through a willingness to examine critically and regularly our thoughts, our feelings, our actions. The goal is not unproductive guilt, of course, but transformation — not for the sake of virtue alone, but for the sake of being more useful to the world around us and to the causes we believe in. On the other hand, we’ve got to avoid the temptation to navel-gaze. Our own self-awareness doesn’t automatically make the world a better place. Our desire to match our public pronouncements with our private behavior doesn’t do any particular good unless we also are engaged in public behavior that brings about tangible change in other people’s lives. Virtue without action isn’t really virtue. And if pro-feminism men’s work is about centering women’s struggle, then we’ve got to be constantly on guard against the temptation to confuse real progress for women with our own personal journey towards wholeness.

In the end, I’m a better women’s studies professor because I match my language and my life. I’m sure of that. I’m also a happier person because I don’t feel as if I live a life in compartments as I once did. But the purpose of feminism is not to make me — or any other man — feel special and virtuous. The purpose of feminism is to create a world where both men and women have the maximum number of possibilities for their lives, with none of those possibilities limited by their biological sex. As long as I’m cognizant that my personal transformation is only important to the degree that it moves the justice agenda forward, then I’m on solid ground. When I’m transforming for the sake of feeling good about transforming, then I’m missing the mark.

And of course, in devoting a whole post to this subject, I’m engaging in a nice session of navel-gazing. But I think that one of the functions of a blog — particularly the sort of blog that deliberately blurs the distinction between the personal and the political — is to provide a forum for a kind of navel-gazing that is inapppropriate elsewhere. I know that if I do this sort of musing out loud when I’m working with my women’s studies students (God forbid), then I am centering myself and my maleness in a discussion that ought to be about women and feminism. Trust me, I don’t teach the way I blog!

In the end, Kyle Payne’s real victims are those whom he abused. To suggest otherwise is unacceptable. At the same time, there’s no question that in a world which is so deeply (and, too often, rightly) suspicious of men and their “real agendas”, the actions of a man like Payne do go a long way towards making it even more difficult for pro-feminist males to do justice work. Our anger, however, should not just be directed at Payne. It should be directed at a culture that encourages shame and compartmentalization. And the most productive use of our anger in a situation like this is not merely to ensure that a man like Kyle Payne is punished, but to make sure that we are doing the best possible job we can to hold ourselves and other progresssive men accountable, for our own sakes and for the sakes of those for whom we are trying to fight.

37 thoughts on “Self-awareness good, navel-gazing bad: some thoughts on men, accountability, and the lesson of Kyle Payne

  1. So he’s a Hefner feminist – in other words, not so much interested in the equality of women as in the potential of ‘liberation’ to make sure there’s lots of pussy around.

  2. interesting piece, Hugo, and I can see why the Kyle Payne’s of the world do raise the ire of male feminist allies, he does, in fact, make it harder for others who are not guilty of the things he is.

    For the record though, before people come along and rip your head off for it, I don’t I.D. as a feminist. That, however, does not mean I don’t think Kyle Payne is scum and needed exposing for not only what he did but the way he used and misrepresented feminism to do it.

  3. FWIW, everything thing that is good and decent has been used by bad people to manipulate others. it’s what some people do. while this will make it harder for male feminists, if we are ever to advance as a people, it shouldn’t.

  4. In the end, Kyle Payne’s real victims are those whom he abused. To suggest otherwise is unacceptable.

    Of course, but it’s the broken finger principle – your broken arm doesn’t unbreak my finger or mean it doesn’t hurt. It also doesn’t take away from or minimise the pain of your broken arm to acknowledge that my finger got broken. Different injuries, same accident.

  5. Generally speaking, I hate much of what’s on your blog. However, this post is well done and I’m glad to see it from you. I agree that men, especially feminist ones, should be concerned about what the Payne case means for those of us (women) who have to deal with men in our activist work.

  6. I think your response is appropriate Hugo: you are acknwledging the seriousness of the event, but just via the implications it has to your own activities/image. I, personally, think it would be wrong of you, as a male feminist with a public voice, not to acknowledge the crime in this way. It’s not as if you are claiming degrees of injury.

  7. On the child pornography question, addressing the facts of the case as we have them, whether that sort of material is present in any particular investigation or not is not always clear, especially not at the outset. I don’t have any additional facts on the case at hand, but often in these sorts of investigations, there can be articles with youngish-looking individuals, or marked as “teens”, or whatever, that may or may not be child pornography. Making that determination often can only be done either by tracing the material back to its original production, or by comparing it against a database of materials seized in prior investigations (both the Postal Inspection Service and the FBI maintain such databases for that purpose).

  8. Thanks, folks, for the feedback (and Tom, thanks for a good point about an unsubstantiated aspect of this difficult case). Bint, I particularly appreciate your words, and am glad to see that so many voices from every corner of the feminist blogosphere have displayed solidarity on this front.

  9. I can see the dilemma you’re in, Hugo. On the one side, you don’t want to make it sound like you’re more upset with Payne for giving male feminists a bad name than you are with his actual vile behavor towards women. On the other, you and the very small cadre of men who do feminist work are often suspscted of being “wolves in sheep’s clothing”, and I know that that suspiscion compromises some of the work you are trying to do.

    When I was in your classes (both Humanities and 25B) you talked often about the “myth of male weakness”. It was hard then and still is hard now for me to fully accept that it is a myth. I’ve known so few men in my life with real integrity, with real compassion, with real self-restraint.

    Because of the messages I got in high school from a lot of boys and older men, I got the sense that if he got the chance, any straight man would sleep with me. I think of myself as an attractive woman, but I think that most women would agree with me that most of the men in their lives would “cross that line” if they were given the chance. And not to flatter you more than you already get flattered, but you were certainly the first male teacher I had who I knew, just KNEW, had no interest in crossing the line. You talked about such sensitive subjects without the slightest hint of uncomfortableness or flirtation. It was really relieving.

    On the other hand, sometimes I think your brand of feminism is as much about changing men as it is about helping women. And I know that in so many ways those issues are linked. But I think you must know that they are not identical. In class, you are much clearer about women’s empowement, but here on your blog you often talk more about what men need to do. It sets up, for me, some of that “knight in shining armour” dynamic you claim to dislike so much.

    God, I’m sorry for rambling on. I’m going to email you and find out if you have any time to meet this summer, if not I will see you in office hours in the fall!!

  10. It’s the Kyle Payne’s of the world that serve as the reason I cannot conjure any anger men or women generally for their suspicions of my aspirations to feminism. Even as a feminist activist of sorts, it’s still true: I fit the non-profile.

    All I can do is to speak out against these men, to always be up to every individual woman’s test to earn their trust, and be wise not to call men like Glenn Sacks a friend…

  11. Aerik, I’m not sure that a civil and warm relationship with an ideological opponent automatically vitiates one’s own feminist credentials. Teddy Kennedy is no less of a progressive because he gets along famously with Orrin Hatch. Your overall point is well-taken, however.

    Seana, thanks for your kind words. You’re right that there is a slight disconnect between how I teach and how I write, and the level of self-involvement in this forum is obviously higher. I can imagine that that is sometimes surprising to former students.

  12. I’m not sure that a civil and warm relationship with an ideological opponent automatically vitiates one’s own (Insert Ideology of your choice) credentials.

    It does when all you have is demonization types of argumentum ad hominem going for you.

  13. I have to wonder, reading this, if I’m some kind of monster.

    The kid is 22. He has fucked up. He will be punished – and if he is any kind of human being at all, he will punish himself long after any and all of us have forgotten he ever existed.

    I read your post about this a few days ago, Hugo, and shrugged. I didn’t think “boys will be boys” or “so much for male feminism”, I didn’t tar you with his brush, nor did I tar Gonzman with his brush. He fucked up.

    We all fuck up. This guy allegedly committed a crime. One criminal doesn’t make everyone in his or her interlocking ethnic/demographic/gender group a criminal.

    I do not identify as a Feminist male. I strive to be a decent, humane human being, which I hope, includes being a Feminist, otherwise, the fault lies with Feminism. I think Feminism is an integral part of any plan to increas human flourishing in our society. I can’t let the occasional/perennial fuck-ups distract me from the ongoing struggle to make life better for simply everybody.

  14. I think your response is appropriate to the situation and I can see the dilemma it posed. You have acknowledged the seriousness of the behaviors–alleged crimes. I’m in agreement with what greginak has already stated and matey.

  15. Oriscus – unforunately, the sad fact is that the majority of people who do this sort of thing are not usually any kind of human being – if by that you mean that they are in possession of a sense of concern for other human beings, and they don’t regret their actions. The impact on the girl in question will be enormous. I don’t think you are a monster, but I do think you are overly optimistic about certain sections of the human race.

    I have to add also that when I was younger I had a motto: ‘never trust a man who says he is a feminist’ and I don’t think I was alone in my thinking. I do think the perception of male feminists is an issue worth addressing and that this sort of incident is important in those terms. I think it’s essential that men are able to be feminists and to be trusted as such.

  16. “We all fuck up”? I think most of the guys I know have “fucked up” in the sense of being jerks occasionally, but really, not to the point of assaulting and taking pictures of women they’re supposed to be supervising.

  17. When considering the explosion feminism in accademia I find this post to be particularlly interesting. I know a number of falculty who teach queer theory or post calonial theory in their class room, but behave in ways that suggest they lack knowlege of such theories. I think this is because when feilds such as English critism addopted these theories they failed to addot the idea of personal accountablity that should be incorperated into the teaching of any of these theories despite the context. Ultimately I think a new pedagogical approach that adopts the idea of personally accountability needs to be implemented more widely in accademia.

  18. We all fuck up.

    Uh, this goes beyond fucking up. Fucking is being late with a care payment or forgetting to pay your cell phone bill. Fucking up doesn’t encompass deliberate sexual assault which you film.

    This guy allegedly committed a crime.

    I think the guilty plea rather dispenses with “allegedly”. And before you say anything about coercion etc, he’s from a family which is at least somewhat well to do, given that he’s a university student who didn’t have to work and was able to post $11000 bail money. He could afford a lawyer who wasn’t going to fall asleep in court.

  19. Mike, you silly person. It was a sexual crime committed against an intoxicated female. Therefore, it is impossible for the male to be actually guilty; either she’s a lying cunt, or he was railroaded, or whatever happened was consensual, or he was intoxicated too so it doesn’t count.

  20. well said Mike – I can see why Oriscus doesn’t identify as a feminist male …

  21. Oriscus your word choice “fuck up” is inappropriate and dismissive in this context. As mythago, Mike and matey have pointed out deliberate sexual assault and invasion of privacy goes way beyond a mere fuck up. Likewise, his actions, especially in this context, is NOT something we all do, like other less serious mistakes.

    He has already demonstrated at 22 that he is not the kind of human being who possesses a sense of concern for others–certainly not this girl and I doubt others. Perhaps you will forget he has existed, but I doubt she will.

    Mike, the quote from above says that “The guilty plea entered Monday did not include assault charges.” I don’t know why…In general, I also wonder why invasion of privacy is only considered a serious misdemeanor.

  22. Karen: Feh. Plea bargaining. Filthy practice. It’s actually illegal here in the UK to attempt to plea bargain, did you know that? We actually have a name for it – it’s called attempting to pervert the course of justice. /snark

    Mythago: It’s OK, because it’s outweighed by his feminist acts. I saw someone say that somewhere, for real.

  23. So does that mean that if I volunteer at a charity shop for an afternoon I can shoplift with impunity? (wouldn’t that be fun!!) Or that doctors and nurses have a license to kill? hhmmmmmm…

  24. Mike: Thanks for the info…I’m a big fan of Law & Order (especially the original & Criminal Intent). I agree with the definition and think it is perverting the course of justice. Wish it was illegal. Funny, I’ve known quite a few people who went to law school, but wound up disillusioned and chose other fields…

  25. Feh. Plea bargaining. Filthy practice. It’s actually illegal here in the UK to attempt to plea bargain, did you know that?

    I’m guessing the UK doesn’t suffer from the same sorts of problems as, say, LA County, where suspects already have to give up their right to a speedy trial in order to assert their right to a jury trial.

    Plus, plea bargaining is a great tool for a prosecutor who knows she simply does not have the evidence to prove the desired crime beyond a reasonable doubt – act like she’s doing the suspect a favor and she’ll get a reduced plea, and it’s a way better outcome than going to trial on a count you can’t win on. This happens more than people realize – if a prosecutor really, truly believes in her evidence and that she can win in court, and that obtaining the highest count is worth her limited time and resources, she’s less likely to plea bargain. It’s a strategy game that you can’t really comment on unless you have full disclosure of the evidence and what’s required for the jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt.

  26. I’m a big fan of Law & Order (especially the original & Criminal Intent).

    Just wanting to add – I’m not sure why you’re bringing up L&O, but please promise me you won’t confuse entertainment with real life. After all, there are soap operas and movies and books where women who are raped fall in love with their rapist. I’m sure most people would just love a guy who confused real life rape with this fantasy version and said, “BUT IT HAPPENS ON TV!” Matlock and L&O and Boston Legal are all great drama and entertainment, but they’re specifically written to be just that, not any indication of what really happens in the real world.

  27. I’m guessing the UK doesn’t suffer from the same sorts of problems as, say, LA County, where suspects already have to give up their right to a speedy trial in order to assert their right to a jury trial.

    Depends upon whether you’re Irish or not, hehehe… In all seriousness, though, I think even a Diplock court is better than internment; it’s a not very good compromise, but at least it’s a nod to justice and the rule of law. Plus, it has the advantage of criminalising terrorists and blunting their power to, well, terrify by making them no different to any other criminal. Sorry, sidetracked.

    It’s different systems. We have some problems, notably with the CPS, although if you look past newspaper sensationalism there are people doing a tough job and getting it right about half the time. No laurel wreaths for them, but they’re not utterly rubbish, either.

  28. I agree with the definition and think it is perverting the course of justice. Wish it was illegal.

    I once read that the key difference between our two legal systems is that in yours, prosecutors are required to win cases… Ours are tasked with making the case and presenting the evidence, and in theory, are as satisfied with seeing a just acquittal as a conviction. I suppose that you could say that the Crown is satisfied in that instance, if not its individual officers.

  29. Ours are tasked with making the case and presenting the evidence, and in theory, are as satisfied with seeing a just acquittal as a conviction.


    I find that interesting, as I’ve heard it applied to civil law countries (ie – most of Europe), but not the UK. Civil law countries don’t really regard legal proceedings as an “adversarial” process the way we in the US do. I’ve always seen the UK just lumped into the “common law” category, but from what you said it sounds like it might not fit that easily.

  30. We’re the original common law country :) The US, for example, is really a blend of Napoleonic-style law and English-style common law at both the Federal and State levels, although to varying degrees, of course.

    My hypothesis, completely undeveloped at this time, is that the adversarial mode is down to separation of powers… But I’d have to think further on it.

  31. B:

    “Just wanting to add – I’m not sure why you’re bringing up L&O, but please promise me you won’t confuse entertainment with real life.”

    I know the difference and no, I don’t confuse entertainment with real life. In my opinion it is great writing. more realistic (however not real life) and better entertainment than most.

  32. In retrospect, it seems pretty damned obvious that any man willing to weasel his way into a community which goes to extensive trouble to explain that he is not welcome there is probably going to have no problem handwaving away womens’ other objections.

    ‘Course, it’s easy to say that after the fact. Still, men who are vocally radical-feminist give me the screaming willies. It’s transparent cookie-seeking–if one wants to help, one should want to help just as much even without the recognition of how wonderfully! feminist! they are.

  33. Hi. I’ve been just a “lurker” here till now but I seem to have a few comments I’d like to make. The first is, I’m not particularly comfortable with men who call themselves “feminist”, though I realize there’s no totally rational basis for that, semantically speaking. My beef runs something along the lines of that of Ghandi when he asked a white Protestant Minister with whom he was dear friends to leave off working with him amongst Indians and go back to work among his own “constituency” so to speak. Ghandi knew that the movement for India’s independence had to belong to the people of India and I agree. The women’s movement, or feminism, belongs to women and I think that’s pretty basic, though I know some disagree.

    However, I don’t fight with men who call themselves feminist for that reason alone. I do tend to be a bit watchful of them but likely, no more watchful than I am of any man. For me, the point is, has there been or is there a willingness to examine “self” and society for its anti-womanness and how much willingness is there to take it on? Especially, among men.

    For me, that’s the point. “Among men”. I like the words pro-feminist men or feminist allies better, because I think that more clearly describes what I want – I want men to support feminists in their work and I want men to speak up among men, to be simplistic about it. I acknowledge that what I want is different from what many others think is ok.

    I want also to say that I’ve not yet a man who entirely “gets it”, but then, I sometimes don’t get it either, and I’m aware that I don’t always get it with respect to some WOC and POC issues. In fact, I’ve quite seriously messed up in that regard, more than once. I learned that it was inappropriate of me to lick my wounds with the people I’d offended, insulted, harmed, or to expect them to help me do it. As if there isn’t already enough to do! Same thing for me with men – when they feel they’ve messed up, I want them to take care of it themselves or with other men.

    All that said, I would have been wary of Kyle Payne from the start, even had he not committed a criminal offence against a women. I would have been wary of him till he won my trust and respect. I wouldn’t have felt warm and cosy with him just because of his apparent interests and “feminist creds”. In that regard, I don’t think pro-feminist men really have to worry that much about the effect Kyle Payne will have on the way feminists regard them. It’s not any different for me, post-Payne. It’s not impossible to gain my trust and respect, though neither is it simple or easy. And the process was infected with some of the problems brought to the fore by the Payne case long before he was even born.

    I’ve gone on much too long but before I leave, I must say that I enjoy your blog – you’ve been on my blogroll almost as long as I’ve had one. If men can’t work these sometimes circuitous problems out on their own blogs, I’m not sure where the appropriate place would be. So, thanks.

  34. It’s actually illegal here in the UK to attempt to plea bargain, did you know that?

    Probably because you don’t have a formal Constitution and therefore do not have courts clogged with that whole “right to a speedy trial” issue, I’m guessing? Plea bargaining is an unfortunate way to deal with the fact that if we took every criminal case to trial, the system would grind to a halt.

    Prosecutors in the US, unlike attorneys in the civil system, are tasked with upholding justice, not just with ‘winning’. So, in theory, the reason they aren’t just as happy with an acquittal is that if there was not enough evidence for a conviction, they shouldn’t have brought charges in the first place. (They’re also bound by a number of Constitution-related strictures that don’t apply to civil attorneys.)

    And please don’t rely on Law and Order for your view of what the US court systems are like. I like the police procedural part of the show, but as a lawyer, the courtroom scenes make me want to throw things at the TV. (Shouting stuff like “Go back to law school, you moron!” probably isn’t real healthy either.)

  35. Mythago, As already stated previously, no I don’t confuse Law and Order with real life or rely on it for a view of what the US court systems are like.

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