We’ve had more than 90 comments below this post examining the degree to which women’s wariness of men is justified. It’s a fairly good discussion, for which I am grateful.
I wrote a few years ago a post called Words are not fists: some thoughts on how men work to defuse feminist anger. An excerpt:
Part of being a pro-feminist man, Iâ€™ve come to realize in recent years, is being willing to face the real anger of real women. Far too many men spend a great deal of time trying to talk women out of their anger, or by creating social pressures that remind women of the consequences of expressing that anger. Many men, frankly, are profoundly frightened by women who will directly challenge them. In a classroom, they donâ€™t really fear being struck or hit. But by comparing a verbal attack on their own sexist attitudes towards physical violence, they hope to defuse the verbal expression of very real female pain and frustration. I know that itâ€™s hard to be a young man in a feminist setting for the first time, and I know, (oh, how I know) how difficult it is to sit and listen to someone challenge you on your most basic beliefs about your identity, your sexuality, your behavior, and your beliefs about gender. Itâ€™s difficult to take the risk to speak up and push back a bit, and itâ€™s scary to realize just how infuriating your views really are to other people, especially women.
The first task of the pro-feminist male in this situation is to accept the reality and the legitimacy of the frustration and disappointment and anger that so many women have with men, and to accept it without making light of it or trying to defuse it or trying to soothe it. Pro-feminist men must work to confront their own fears about being the target of those feelings.
I’d like to say a bit more about how men can do this last bit, as it’s not something I addressed in the original piece. I don’t want to imply that I think that a feminist man simply “stands there and takes it”. One of the ideals of traditional American masculinity is of the man as “sturdy oak”, able to withstand any tempest, even that of a woman’s righteous anger. That comes dangerously close to reinforcing the notion that women are “naturally” more volatile (at least emotionally), perhaps even hysterical (a dangerous word, given its origins) — and that is a “real man’s” job to hold his ground, silently, in the face of what will be a formidable, but (it is to be hoped) brief feminine storm. Though I’d like to believe my readers of the original post didn’t infer that I was reifying this myth, it’s important to clarify how I think we ought to help men respond to women’s anger.
Feminist men need to know that it’s “not all their fault.” We live in a system, call it patriarchy or kyriarchy or what-you-will, that gives men (as a class) power over women (as a class). That doesn’t mean that every man is more powerful than every woman; there is abundant evidence to the contrary. But the fact that today some African-Americans are wealthier than some whites doesn’t prove that there aren’t still gross economic disparities, rooted in racism, that privilege whites at black expense. When it comes to rape and sexual abuse, men as well as women can be victims. But more women than men are victimized, and in any event the vast majority of rapists are men. Outside of a prison setting , men generally enjoy a freedom from the fear of being raped that women do not. Women’s anger at the frequency of man-on-woman sexual violence is a justified anger, and it is rightly directed towards men as a class and towards the system that permits that sexual violence to flourish. It’s also rightly directed towards individual men who do rape, assault, molest, or harass women.
Faced with this righteous anger, feminist men need to remember that possession of a penis alone doesn’t automatically indicate complicity with the Great Crime. At the same time, “not raping” isn’t good enough to avoid complicity: if you quietly acquiesce to the inevitability of bad male behavior, or cosign sexism by remaining silent when it presents itself, you are a passive passenger on the patriarchy express. Ya might need to hear a little righteous rage to rattle you out of that quietism.
Feminist men don’t believe all women are right all the time. There’s a caricature, largely spread by anti-feminist media, that men who embrace gender justice are timid, filled with self-loathing, and utterly unwilling to call out any woman on her misbehavior at any time. Feminist men, so the myth suggests, not-so-secretly believe in the superiority of the be-vulvaed, and thus never challenge the women in their lives. The recognition that oppression and sexism are real, and that women — more than any other group — are the ones who suffer the consequences doesn’t mean that individual women are invariably right in every one of their criticisms, while men are invariably wrong in their responses to women’s anger. Living in a system of oppression gives you a different perspective, particularly when yours is the class being oppressed. But mistreatment doesn’t automatically create wisdom; suffering doesn’t invariably lead to superior insight.
It’s okay to fight. Really. As any relationship counselor will tell you, healthy relationships are not characterized by the absence of conflict but by the tactics used within the relationship to resolve conflict. There is such a thing, after all, as “fighting fair”. You can find lists of fair fighting rules all over the place, here’s one such summary. We think of these rules as applicable primarily to couples, but they’re useful for classroom exchanges about hot-button topics as well.
One really important fair fighting rule: don’t clam up. Many men, confronted with women’s righteous rage, grow impassive, trying to imitate a stone wall or a diving submarine or the aforementioned sturdy oak. It’s an infuriating tactic because it refuses the other person the response which is their due. In a fight, the silent participant uses a refusal to engage verbally as a tactic with which to assert what they think is moral superiority: “You may get out of control and all, but look at me. I’m not saying anything, just waiting for your little tantrum to end.” It infantilizes and disrespects the person with whom you’re in conflict.
Many men who are reluctant, for any number of reasons, to embrace the label “feminist” for themselves, prefer the term “ally.” I often identify in groups as a “feminist ally”. An ally is in a very real sense a partner, and no partnership is worthy of the name if either member thereof feels as if he or she has no right to speak, to engage, to fight back. If men are to play a constructive role in the feminist movement, we must be authentic partners — and partners know how to engage in, rather than avoid or attempt to defuse, conflict with their allies and friends.
Lastly: do your own work. Most men have been raised to be far less verbally adept than their sisters. Because boys are shamed out of crying (or displaying any emotion other than rage or sexual excitement), many men grow up numb, with little vocabulary for their own inner terrain. For more on what “doing your own work” looks like, check out this trio of posts on the subject of male transformation. Yes, men can become as insightful and intuitive as the women in their lives. Toxic programming can be unlearned, though the process isn’t easy or quick. And we can learn — trust me on this if you trust me on nothing else — to engage with others using a whole palette of emotions, beyond the familar and limited ones like numbness, rage, fear, lust, exhaustion and despair.