I’m home from Denver and the National Women’s Studies Association meeting. It was a great four days in Colorado, with the chance to connect with many wonderful colleagues and the chance to get fresh inspiration for my own writing, teaching, mentoring, and personal growth.
Though my own panel on men (with my colleagues Robert Buelow, Tal Peretz, and Brian Jara) was far less well-attended than last year, I was pleased with the discussion we had. (Our presentation was recorded, and I will have a link to it eventually.) We continued last year’s Atlanta discussion on the problems with and potential for men in feminist spaces and men in anti-violence activism.
Though I’ve got more to say about our panel discussion — including my focus on reconciling male sexual desire and feminism, the subject of so much of our recent debates around here –I want to start with the experience that deeply impacted those of us who presented in Denver.
Three of us were deeply influenced by a panel we’d gone to a day earlier, presented by Chris Linder of Colorado State University and one of her graduate students. Their presentation looked at the experiences of women who had worked with self-described male feminists on college campuses, mostly young men doing anti-violence work. Their research findings were sobering; Linder and her graduate researcher, Rachel Johnson, found that a great many women whom they surveyed reported serious boundary violations (including sexual assault) at the hands of male feminist allies. Anecdotes turned into hard data (the study is unpublished, but we were given a summary of the findings) and that hard data revealed that the problem of misconduct by men who claim to be doing feminist work is far more serious than we had previously imagined.
I wrote a couple of years ago about the disturbing story of Kyle Payne, the progressive feminist blogger and anti-rape activist who sexually assaulted a woman on his Iowa campus and went to jail as a consequence. Apparently, after being released on parole, Payne was rearrested this summer for possession of child pornography. As tempting as it is to dismiss Payne as an unhappy anomaly, most of us have known anecdotally of other similar situations. And now, the Linder/Johnson study validates our concerns. Though not all boundary violations are as violent as Payne’s, Linder and Johnson suggested we think in terms of a spectrum of problematic male feminist behaviors, ranging from appropriating feminist work to grandstanding to what they termed “micro-aggressions”, the sometimes subtle but always unmistakable use of male power to intimidate or silence or decenter women — even in feminist spaces!
What’s the takeaway from all this? As Linder and Johnson suggested, and as those of us who do this work have pointed out ourselves, we’re often so eager to bring in male allies that we fail to ask hard questions about the men who come to do this work. While some separatists suggest that there simply is no place for men in gender justice work, most acknowledge the need for male allies — including straight, cisgendered, male allies who may have particular credibility with other men. Most advocates for gender justice are practical, after all — as my colleague Tal Peretz points out, the social structure that gives men extra weight with other males is obviously sexist. But it is the structure with which we all live; we can’t take off our socialization like an unwanted sweater. We do need to be focused on outcome as well as on process — and the evidence suggests that having male allies as participants in and occasionally leaders of anti-violence work tends to produce a good outcome in terms of getting buy-in from other men.
But the cost of this focus on outcome is clearly too high if it means ignoring the need for rigorous accountability for men in anti-sexist activism. We may or may not need background checks (in some cases, they’re a very good idea), but we do need to set up better training and monitoring for men who want to do this work. We need, as I’ve written many times, to encourage men to check their motives, particularly their tendencies towards “white knight” or “rescuer” behavior. We need to return the theme of “stepping up while stepping back”, and be much more explicit about how to put that idea into practice.
Listening to the Linder/Johnson presentation, I kept thinking of the Marine Corps recruiting slogan: “we’re looking for a few good men.” (I know some anti-violence outfits on college campuses have openly used that catch line.) The Marines don’t take every applicant, and they do impose a rigorous series of tests on those who want to join them. The Marines believe the laziness and “softness” of contemporary culture has to be stripped away in boot camp, and they do a reasonable job of rapid transformation (though whether that’s always for the better is a debate for another day.) The point is, they’re selective, and they require that recruits learn a radical new way of thinking in order to remain in boot camp.
Male privilege and sexist social structures are difficult to unlearn, often nearly impossible to relinquish. But the least we can ask is that the men we bring in to do this work be made aware of the nearly infinite facets of their unmerited (and, at least in some cases, unsought) privilege. We can hold them and ourselves accountable. And clearly, we haven’t been doing so sufficiently.