A few good men? New research on problems with male “allies”

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 Anecdotes turned into hard data (the study is unpublished, but we were given a summary of the findings) and that hard data revealed that the problem of misconduct by men who claim to be doing feminist work is far more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.

37 thoughts on “A few good men? New research on problems with male “allies”

  1. I wonder about the notion of people going into psychology because they themselves have psych issues they want to work on. (I tend not to believe it is a frequent thing, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.) Maybe that kind of self-protection is at work with a lot of men who want to immunize themselves against an upbringing that encouraged violent or sexist tendencies, so they get really into feminism.

  2. “I wonder about the notion of people going into psychology because they themselves have psych issues they want to work on. (I tend not to believe it is a frequent thing, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.) Maybe that kind of self-protection is at work with a lot of men who want to immunize themselves against an upbringing that encouraged violent or sexist tendencies, so they get really into feminism.”

    It is my general belief that nobody does something for someone that won’t benefit them in some way shape and form, and anyone who claims otherwise is displaying an untrustworthy facade. It’s okay to be selfish, as long as it’s not stepping on other people’s boundaries…and it’s not fair when other people don’t establish their boundaries and leave the other person “guessing” as to what those boundaries may be. As complex animals, there is NO way we are completely selfless, and kidding yourself into thinking you are doesn’t do any good, for anyone…I’m not saying I’m suspicious of everyone, I suspicious of someone who says they aren’t selfish no matter how minute that selfishness is…everyone has it.

  3. “The Marines don’t take every applicant, and they do impose a
    rigorous series of tests on those who want to join them. ”

    For instance back when the militia movement was in full swing, they were very careful about those guys. If a recruiter had the merest intuition of a prospect being involved, that kid just never got called back. No explanation, nothing. The recruiter culd fail his recruiting mission for the month if that’s what it took.

    Maybe misogynists are attracted to feminism groups the way pedophiles are attracted to work with kids.

  4. I think the first comment, SA’s, gets at something quite real that Hugo downplays–the possibility that there’s a non-accidental correlation between male feminist identification & a tendency towards boundary violations. Disaggregating SA’s hypothesized mechanism a bit, we can imagine two plausible causal pathways: 1, a common cause (an abusive father, say) predisposes the guy both to be extra-aware of The Patriarchy and to have impulse control / general violence issues; 2, a guy’s recognition of his own predisposition towards anti-feminist behavior/sentiment leads him towards feminist self-identification, without necessarily eradicating the original predisposition (beliefs being easier to change than the tendencies we’re talking about here).

    Note that neither case involves anything particularly sinister or premeditated about the feminist self-identification–as opposed to the boundary violations, which are obviously wrongful–beyond a failure to fully recognize the person’s own weaknesses. Anyway, a very important and sobering post.

  5. “Maybe misogynists are attracted to feminism groups the way pedophiles are attracted to work with kids.”

    They certainly seem to be attracted to feminist blogs!

  6. I’d like to ask whether the men who get involved in feminism are cynical from the start–they just want to get women to trust them–or if they start out sincere, or at least think they are. We all know about snakes in the grass and wolves dressed as sheep, but the sincere guys seem more interesting. Imagine a man with genuinely good intentions who thinks that he likes women, when in reality he’s harboring unpleasant urges that he can’t keep down for ever. Monsters from the Id, or an Id that’s monstrous? It leads to the next question, that if this kind of thing is common, how can we know who’s at risk, and how can we know (this is the most hideous part) if it’s inside ourselves? Because if self-professing male feminists can turn around and betray women, we’ve got to be ready to take a pretty careful look at ourselves. This isn’t nice stuff.

  7. @Kristina I want to be an optimist and say that I think there are people who are truly self-less in the world, but I doubt I would have had any interest in feminist theory if I didn’t have a young daughter, and wasn’t concerned about the ideas about gender roles she was getting from other kids at school. I doubt very much I would think about spousal abuse or marital rape if I hadn’t had personal experiences.

    I’ve found out one person who I believed to be a feminist ally was, in actuality, pretty darned sexist behind closed doors, so skepticism is warranted. Never look a gift horse in the mouth, but consider the intentions of the Greeks bearing those gift horses.

  8. I saw this exact presentation this spring and the definition of “feminist man” seemed rather arbitrary to me when they presented. My memory may be fuzzy but I felt that any man involved in work related to feminism was defined as one, but I haven’t seen their exact methodology so I can’t speak to that.

    I agree with the gist of their presentation, that men can be issues when it comes to feminist work, but I see my major concern being with “men’s rights” advocates and other people trying to usurp funding and focus on women’s issues by saying “well, we need to educate men and that will solve things!” It’s not that simple, and Linder made a good point during her presentation (when I was there) that ally work is not something you do by labeling yourself, you earn that label every day. But they’re labeling feminist men as issues here, sometimes, I feel, unduly. But that could just be my privilege in reaction to someone painting me as similar to other men that I find myself very dissimilar from.

  9. I actually thought about my comment of selflessness being improbable, and postulated myself how would a father feel about me saying that? I came to the conclusion from various cultural sayings like “When you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” that family IS yourself…just an extension of it, so yeah..even though on the surface it is selfless…it’s not really….extending upon this….men who are fathers and still do things that would hurt their daughters if it had been done to them, in my humble opinion…are purely selfish… Like I said, selfishness isn’t necessarily a bad thing…it’s when you have no consideration for others that it is a real issue…and society is obfuscating the issue by the implication that selfishness is pure evil…

  10. “Never look a gift horse in the mouth, but consider the intentions of the Greeks bearing those gift horses.” Of course I’m considering the intentions…I’m saying selfish isn’t bad..society says it is…I think it’s not so black and white, unless you are hurting someone else in which case is essentially denying your own selfishness (unwilling to see the pain of someone else in order to preserve your “selflessness”)

  11. @Kristina The thing is, men who do things to hurt their family often think they’re being self-less. Teaching their children rigid gender roles is seen as a positive thing in mainstream. Coding everything pink or blue, telling boys not to be sissies, telling girls not to be tough, so on and so forth. As you said, doing damage which has been done to them. Sexism is mostly passed from parent to child, as is racism.

  12. I totally agree thefremen.. they do think they’re being selfless…it’s a bias we all possess, and when you can’t recognize that everyone has selfish tendencies, you leave it conveniently unavailable to criticize your own short comings… When my husband accuses me of being selfish, the first thing I say is, yes I am… I’m not being cold and proud of my selfish behavior…I’m making it clear to myself that I am, and I need to re-examine my actions…it usually leads to me apologizing. :P

  13. Thanks for this, Hugo. Please post a follow-up when Linder et al. finish and publish their research.

  14. Robin of Berkely, who has a series of columns beginning with her conversion, refers to liberal men (not the same as feminist allies) in somewhat similar terms. She’s a shrink, btw, so her insights are not at all superficial.
    In my view, being instructed in playing a socially-approved role has a fairly high likelihood of actually working in the relevant circumstances. That’s why it’s done.
    If a guy is taught that one of his responsiblities as a man is to protect women–irrespective of what that says about women’s place–then the chances are that he may well, given the opportunity.
    If a guy is taught that thinking that way is stupid and misognynistic, he may believe that, too.
    It would be interesting to find out the actual nature of the boundary issues referred to. The example of Kyle Payne could be considered one end of the spectrum. At what point does the other end of the spectrum become clumsy dating moves? Why would one expect young men, moving in an unfamiliar milieu, to be any smarter than any other young men?

  15. Do you think these feminist allies violate boundaries *more* often than guys that don’t profess to be feminist? Or is it just about the same?

    The explanation might be simple: it’s one thing to read a couple feminist books, think they’re on to something, and self-profess that you want to join the club. It’s a different, harder thing to change your lived everyday actions.

    Once I dated / lived with a self-professed male feminist. He didn’t approach the badness of someone who would sexually assault someone. But nonetheless, it was me and our female housemate who did all the cooking, cleaning, kitchen randomness, grocery shopping, shared laundry. Occasionally he’d try to call our feminist credentials into question, like anyone carries a card. My current partner won’t touch the term “feminist” with a ten-foot pole, but he does more than his share around that house and somehow failed to absorb all the stereotypes. Last night he said “wait, I thought girls were supposed to be better at math than guys?”

    Actions speak louder than words. Any jerk can read a book and recite back the ideas in it.

  16. Her via a link form a twitter friend. I’d imagine that feminist allies might cross boundaries more often because they get let into places where they’re trusted with those boundaries.

  17. “My current partner won’t touch the term “feminist” with a ten-foot pole, but he does more than his share around that house and somehow failed to absorb all the stereotypes. Last night he said “wait, I thought girls were supposed to be better at math than guys?””

    My guy is kind of like that…but he still needs some work… He tends to project his issues a little bit..

  18. “I’d imagine that feminist allies might cross boundaries more often because they get let into places where they’re trusted with those boundaries.”

    That may have some merit…radical feminists basically say the same thing… or namely, that in order to prevent men from crossing those boundaries accidentally and causing harm to women and gain credibility for themselves it might be best that they stay out, at least out of feminist spheres…not to say that they can’t discuss the issues of an imperfect society that would be able to mesh with feminism, but that in order to be sure their intentions were clear (not trying to impress women…which would benefit women and men)they should be able to do so in a separate, yet still feminist friendly space.

  19. “It’s a different, harder thing to change your lived everyday actions.”

    Such as the issue of consent, and the idea that male sexuality is “toxic” and needs to be addressed by feminists instead of changing your notions of consent?

  20. Listening to the Linder/Johnson presentation, I kept thinking of the Marine Corps recruiting slogan: “we’re looking for a few good men.”

    Of course these days, we’ve generally used the more inclusive “The Few, The Proud” (that Tom Cruise movie didn’t help the old slogan’s popularity either). In all seriousness, though, probably the most important thing that I learned early and often in the Marines was that every Marine was personally responsible for living up to and being a part of what the Corps is about and holding each other accountable for the same, and that it was on each of us to take the initiative in doing that. Glean from that what you will.

  21. Okay…so it’s okay for the marines to have a set standard of behavior, and that standard of behavior doesn’t get challenged..but if feminist discourse provides a standard for behavior it is accused of being intolerant? I simply can’t wrap my head around this… I’m really starting to think I’m just biased.

  22. I agree, “Uncomfortable”, that it is hard to hear this stuff as a man who does feminist work. It’s a sobering reminder that sexism is encoded in our culture; it’s not something we can easily discard. Lots of well-meaning men tend to think of their acculturation as being like a jacket they can slip off. They often find that it’s been stapled on.

  23. I’m unclear on whether the study finds that feminist-identified men have a greater rate of boundary transgression than the mainstream, or just greater than one would suspect.

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it were in-line with the general population, and can even imagine that if the reported rate of incidence is higher, that it may be due to some extent to feminist-identified women being who they’re in contact with, and more confident in their right ti protest or report their ill-treatment.

    However if none of that explaons it… shudder.

  24. Jesse – given the methodology described, it seems pretty unlikely they can tease out how the rate experienced compares with what you’d expect from a complete regression to the mean, so I don’t think you’re likely to get that answer (especially because yes, the underreporting may be different).

    There might be any number of selection effects, (and I could certainly imagine those that’d push the rates either way), but I don’t think this study will be able to address that.

  25. Stapled on by whom though, I think is a good question…

    No, that’s the path Yoda warns against. “Where’s a prybar for these staples?” is the good question. The answer to “Stapled on by whom?” is something like “everybody” anyways, but in practice it’ll be received and re-enforced along the lines of “You did it to yourself.”, which is unproductive and only leads to depression, guilt, brooding.

  26. Well… This makes lots of sense. And I suspect that the men who are most guilty of this will never recognoize the behavior in themselves.

    For example, I seem to remember YOU throwing your white male privilege around quite a bit to defend J. Valenti a few years back against some very valid critiques being made by WOC– IN FEMINIST SPACES.

    Don’t you also have a history of violence against women?

    Hmmm…
    The irony is almost too much.

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  28. This research should come as no surprise. Feminist organizations on campus should be for women only. Men need to form their own feminist spaces, and any man who comes into women’s territory, in my book is suspect. Since men don’t get the training –I’d set up reeducation camps and ship the guys off for a few years of intensive anti-woman hating training, for example. You can’t just have men waltz into groups, because all men are dangers to women. Especially in college, where women need time to find their own voices without male interference. It’s why separatism in a feminist context is essential. Men might be allies to women, but I see no clear evidense of this IRL. All along, lesbian feminists have warned about the presense of men in our social justice organizing. And I violently object to men teaching women women’s studies classes too. Men need to get out of women’s way, and educate themselves. They need to form their own organizations and police other men, and I really don’t give a damn what they do, as long as they stay the hell out of my life and politics. Men need to organize on college campuses to stop rape, to stop date rape, and if they want to form gangs and beat the shit out of male rapists, hey, I’m down with that. That’s right sexist men get the shit beat out of them by other male feminists. Women go off and do our own work, concentrate on our own intellectual development, and eventually overthrow male rule worldwide. And I will continue saying this till the end of time: MEN ARE A DANGER TO WOMEN, and no man should ever be trusted given the history of men in the world!

  29. Agourial, you’re welcome to your views, but be careful not to characterise all lesbian feminists as separatists. Many lesbians have been my mentors as a male ally, and — particularly among younger queer feminist women — I see little passion for separatism. Heck, even the late great Jill Johnston recanted (gently) her earlier insistence on separate spheres.

  30. As a gay feminist male, much to think about here for me. Surprised so much of the conversation is heternormative/non-inclusive, but still seems like such a valuable topic. I’ve worked as a feminist ally in academic, national political, and community organizing contexts and have so often been the only man involved/engaged that I may have seen less of these dynamics, but know they are there. I was embraced by many but encouraged by many more, including a Women’s Studies graduate program I turned down, to work exclusively with men on ending sexism. I found that to silo me into groups and, frankly, to place me in spaces where being gay was at times the bigger challenge to working together. I also found it overwhelmingly complex at times to try to first relate to heterosexual pro-feminist men and then to connect on issues.

    At the end of the day, I keep holding onto the knowledge that voiced, empowered, self-determining women functioning in an equal system is the goal and my husband and I have to keep trying to be better allies and deep listeners.

    Much to think about.

  31. “No, that’s the path Yoda warns against. “Where’s a prybar for these staples?” is the good question. The answer to “Stapled on by whom?” is something like “everybody” anyways, but in practice it’ll be received and re-enforced along the lines of “You did it to yourself.”, which is unproductive and only leads to depression, guilt, brooding.”

    Brian…love the star wars reference (my oldest son is named Jedi)…I think the overall picture as you suggest is a good way…but I also think if change is to occur patterns have to be recognized, and responsibility needs to be taken for one’s actions (such as removing the staples)… My nephew can dig himself out of his drug addiction for a couple of weeks or months or years, but if he continues in self-loathing and passing the blame, he’ll never recover.

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