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 â€œa more just and life-affirming culture of sexualityâ€ 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 Payneâ€™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.