As we come to the end of the first quarter of 2011, I note it’s been a personally challenging start to the year. I’ve had a series of health difficulties, mostly revolving around a respiratory infection that has lingered for the better part of two months. Last week, I popped out a rib while coughing; it popped right back but the pain was excruciating. Middle age is certainly upon me.
It’s also been a terrific three months in terms of reaching new audiences. In late January, I was hired as a featured columnist at the Good Men Project, and my pieces there are regularly syndicated at Alternet, the Huffington Post, and The Frisky. We’re putting the finishing touches on Beauty, Disrupted: The Carré Otis Story, a memoir on which I was privileged to serve as collaborator. I’ve been doing some more speaking. And next month, this website will undergo a dramatic transformation to reflect those changes.
And with the good fortune of becoming ever more public, the criticism grows harsher. The hate mail has increased exponentially in the past three months. I won’t link to them, but google my name with the search term “mangina” and you’ll find plenty of men’s rights advocates (MRAs) working themselves into venomous fits. Most of what’s out there is laughable, a little of it is disturbing, and all of it is is par for the course.
Last week, however, one well-known MRA posted a Youtube video about me. It’s a typical rant of the sort I’ve heard countless times before: veiled accusations of sexual impropriety, cheap psychoanalysis, and misogyny. What was different was that this MRA put up a sort of slide show during his ten-minute talk, mostly using photos of me and my friends that I’ve put up on Facebook. In two instances, he included pictures of me with young feminists, including a group shot taken and reposted widely as part of Feminist Coming Out Day. (Strangely, he didn’t include the pictures of me dressed as a White Swan, which I would have thought would have been a source of great delight to that crowd.)
Two of the students who were in those pictures contacted me (it was one of the ways I first found out about the MRA video). They were horrified and creeped out by what was said in the rant, as well as by seeing themselves on the screen in this way. “Why are people so hateful”? one asked.
I reminded my students that activism comes with a price. Sometimes, college campuses can seem like sanctuaries; we need to remember that in the outside world, progressive ideas are still regarded with contempt and suspicion. There is a small but vocal group of men who regard feminism as the single most destructive ideological force in the modern world. Frequently hiding behind pseudonyms, these guys will say truly hateful , hurtful things. The goal is to shame, the goal is to silence, the goal is to use a heckler’s veto to derail thoughtful discussion. And sadly, I know that it sometimes works. Some young activists will reconsider a life of public advocacy when they see what can happen. And while it’s easy to tell people to grow a thicker skin, it’s heartbreaking that some folks will and do decide it’s simply too high a price to pay.
I’m lucky. The MRAs can’t threaten my job. (My division dean tells me the college gets regular calls and letters complaining about me, but they’re always anonymous and never from my own students, so they get ignored.) Most people who do this work don’t have tenure, don’t have the security I have as well as the steadfast support of an entire community. When an indignant anti-feminist reads about my curriculum, he can say “I’m going to complain to your college”, and I’ll happily help him by providing him with the address. That’s a privilege others don’t enjoy. Threats to someone’s livelihood can be very, very real.
The MRAs do work tirelessly to threaten my reputation. I’ve made it clear time and again that I’ve been sober for nearly 13 years and that I haven’t slept with one of my students since that time. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: accuse me of something that happened before June 27, 1998, and it’s probably true. (I’ve forgotten a great deal, and remember other details all too well. One thing I will say is that my relationships with students, as unethical as they were, were with chronological peers, slightly younger or older. I wasn’t exactly a middle-aged lech chasing teens.) But while I am not perfect, I can proudly answer for my sexual boundaries since that date. Still, folks insinuate that I’m a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” yet (a common charge thrown at male feminists). And while that tired old charge doesn’t bother me, it does impact people around me.
One of my female mentees sent me a FB message yesterday. She asked if she should stop visiting my office hours so regularly. She’d seen the hate video, and though she wasn’t in it, had picked up on the cheesy intimation of sexual impropriety. She wrote:
You know I think you’re safe. I KNOW you’re safe. But I’m worried about your reputation and mine if I visit you so often. People see me coming into your office, or they see us walking to the Pass (where they sell sodas on campus). I worry that they’re talking about us and will think something is going on that isn’t. I still want to see you but I don’t want to damage your reputation. I also hate it that people might think something is going on that isn’t. I don’t want to be judged! What should I do?
I told her that of course she could continue to come. I also told her that if she’d rather talk more on email, that was fine too — she needed to assess her own comfort level. But it left me sad and angry, angry not at her but at the success this particular nasty tactic had had in rattling a young person.
If no one hates you, you’re not doing your job. I first heard that truism from the late Senator Alan Cranston, of all people, though the sentiment is millenia old. I’ve always been proud to have the friends I have — and proud to have the enemies I do as well. We judge people by the company they keep, and by those who won’t keep their company. By that calculus, I’m blessed.