Hi Guys,

I have to get something off my chest with you. It’s not easy to say, but I think some of you need to hear it, so I hope you’ll hear me out.

Lately I’m feeling a bit fed up about sexism. I’m not gonna tell you sexism is a massive overt contributing factor in my life; it’s not. But it is, mostly subtly, but sometimes not at all subtly, present at all times.

Just recently I’ve noticed something I think a lot of women can sympathise with, I dunno if you’ve noticed. Whenever I, or another woman I know, has posted something on social media about feminism or sexism, or woman’s issues, typically the first person to speak up is a man.

This is not, in and of itself, a problem. Men need to be part of this conversation. But they need to be part of the conversation in a way that is appropriate, helpful, and moves the conversation forward, rather than what is often the case; blame, denial, defensiveness, abuse, claims of “reverse sexism”, silencing women’s voices, and an assertion that they know better than a woman about a woman’s issue. (On the last, you could almost be forgiven since this is what politicians do every time they deny women the right to birth control or access to sexual health, which happens all the time.)

I suspect a lot of men are a bit confused about what’s appropriate and what’s not. I think a lot of men have been trained, at least a bit, to think that men’s opinions are more valid and worthy of respect, than women’s. I know that opinionated women can be, at best, incredibly challenging to a lot of men.

I understand that discussing sexism, or in fact any systemic privilege, is a challenge (or worse, a threat) to those who benefit from that system. Because for me to say that you are the beneficiary of a system that unfairly privileges you for no good reason? And that you don’t even notice it? And that this same system discriminates against others? It’s hard for me to say that without making it sound like I’m blaming you, right?

Well, I want to draw a line in the sand right here. I’m not blaming anyone. But what I am doing is asking you to be accountable. I’m asking you to be a thinking, critical human being, who is willing to hear people out when they have something to say, and willing to see the bigger picture, as well as the tiny details (which we tend to get side-tracked by and lost in when it comes to conversations about feminist issues).

So men who call themselves feminists, or allies, or whatever the new terminology is right now, here’s the deal: you don’t get to call yourself a feminist or an ally if you don’t act like it. You don’t get to do and say whatever you want all the time and then just excuse it by saying “But I love women!” or “But I’m a feminist!”

If this seems unfair, welcome to adulthood. We don’t always get to do and say whatever we like all the time with no repercussions. If you want to say demeaning things about women, then you can do that, but you can’t also claim to be a feminist. And men, you have got to stop claiming to be victimised by feminists. It’s so played out. I don’t think anyone in the world ever has been convinced by claims of “reverse sexism” (or reverse racism for that matter).

Here’s a weird thing though, I’ve noticed that when men I know post things about sexism, the same thing does not happen. There’s no backlash, no dudes calling them man-haters, or bitches, or complaining that they’re being blamed for something they didn’t do.

Is this because men are taught that other men’s voices have more validity than women’s? Yes, in part (sorry guys, it’s true). But mostly I think it’s because when someone in a position of power points out inequality, their word is seen as more valid because they do not stand to gain by pointing it out.

Also, men can be seen as accepting a level of responsibility when they post about feminist issues in this way, which another man would find it hard to argue against. They can’t be man haters, because then they’d have to be self-haters, and that would be a weird accusation to level against someone. Important reasons to get men involved in conversations around gender, sexism and feminism, but by all means not the only reasons.

In New Zealand, we have one of the highest suicide rates in the world, with young men six times more likely to kill themselves than young women (this, despite the fact that women in developed nations the world over are twice as likely as men to suffer depression1). The New York Times’ claims the prevailing belief is that men “are trying to conform to exaggerated standards of masculinity that many cannot hope to meet.” 2

Wouldn’t it be nice if men could feel free to discuss their emotions with other people? Gosh darn it, let’s go crazy — what if they could discuss their emotions with other men? What if men being emotional wasn’t seen as weakness to the same degree as women expressing anger was seen as inappropriate and hysterical? 

These are feminist ideas guys. It’s not about hating men. It’s not about gaining power over men. It’s about taking these boxes we’ve been in for centuries and interrogating their usefulness and their truthfulness.

But I’ve got to say it again — when men involve themselves in these conversations in a respectful manner that allows women their voices and backs them up, rather than talking over them, we tend to get a lot further. You just need to learn how to do it guys!

And yes, it can feel like a quagmire at times, because different women will have different ideas about what is and isn’t okay. And you will need to listen more than you talk, and for a lot of men, this will be hard. And sometimes you’ll feel like you’re being blamed for something that’s not really your fault, and your instinct will be to get angry and defend yourself, but instead you’ll have to take a breath, and stay calm, and listen some more.

The first, but by no means easiest thing you can do, if you want to help and if you love women the way you say you do, is to tell your male friends when they’re being jerks if they use sexist or abusive language towards women — be it women in general or an individual woman — or even if they just sorta said something that’s a bit uncool. Even if it was just a joke. Even if there are no women around.

Scrap that — especially if there are no women around.

For myself, I’m adopting a zero-tolerance to internet disrespect (and I hope it should go without saying real life too). I’m going to be calling people out (as politely as possible) when they’re rude, or unsupportive. To me, or to other people I know. Because just lately, I’m feeling fed up, and I don’t want to keep feeling like I get less of a say, or more importantly, less of a hearing, because I happen to be attached to a vagina.

I’m sick of being told I’m “too opinionated”, despite that I may be no more or less opinionated than a male, who does not get the same accusations leveled at him.

I’m done with having my explanations or expositions attributed to my boyfriend right after I’ve just finished speaking, because … well, that one I don’t understand at all, but man, it annoys me!

I’m over living in a world where a woman can’t suggest that maybe the key to ending rape is to teach men not to rape without … wait for it … getting death threats3.

And I’m not going to pretend that feminism isn’t a reaction against a historically-rooted system that has oppressed women (and sorry about this guys) way more than it ever has (white) men. But guys, if you love women, this is something that you’ll need to accept. Denying it (and its effects) should be akin to denying the holocaust; something good people just don’t do.

You guys, if you have a female friend who posts something online about sexism, feminism, women’s issues, this is an opportunity for you to join the discussion. But, please, don’t do this at the expense of silencing someone else, or shouting them down. This could be a learning opportunity for you. Here’s something a very wise (male) friend of mine said to me about this issue: “I feel like by being at the top of the privilege ladder in many ways I need to be very careful that I understand something well before making any kind of point.”

But we do want you to participate in the conversation. We just want you to learn how to do it respectfully. And I thought maybe some of you could use a few pointers.

A few guidelines for men entering women’s conversations:

Before you talk, ask yourself

  • Have you really understood what the other person was saying? Are you sure? Have you kept all points in their context?
  • Is what you want to say emotionally motivated? What emotion is driving it? Would it be better if you were able to disengage from the emotional reaction you’re having? Are you feeling offended? Is it defensive?
  • Is the thing you want to say on topic? Does it move the conversation forward? Is it supportive? Could it be taken another way than how you intend it? Could it be considered dismissive, or rude? Can you rephrase it so it’s clearer?
  • Why do you want to say it? Is it because it relates, or is it to serve your ego? Does it relate to the subject matter? Does your story silence other voices?
  • Do you really need to say your piece?

Make sure you

  • Respect other people’s experiences.
  • Respect others’ right to talk.
  • Realise that you have a lot to learn.
  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Correctly attribute people’s statements.
  • Try not to take things out of context.
  • Have adopted an inclusive attitude.

Always

  • Stand up for women to other men, whether or not there are any women to witness it.
  • Try to consider any privileges you may have and how they might have helped craft your thinking. Challenge them.

But whatever you do, don’t

  • Take things too personally if someone disagrees with you.
  • “White knight” people, and think that you can somehow “save” them — allow them the dignity of agency.
  • assume you know exactly what someone else knows or has experienced, or that you know more than them.
  • Make rape jokes. Ever.
  • Play “oppression olympics” — stories of oppression are not competitions.
  • Make personal remarks — stick to the topic.
  • Be afraid to ask questions (in a supportive way), especially if you think you haven’t understood someone.

These guidelines could probably apply to groups outside the feminist/women’s sphere.

I really hope you can take this onboard. I think it might help.

Thanks

_________________
Footnotes
1 James, O.W., 2007, Selfish Capitalist Origins of Mental Illness, London: Vermilion.
2 Shenon, P., 1995, in the New York Times, 15 July, p.3, “New Zealand seeks causes of suicides by young”. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1995/07/15/world/new-zealand-seeks-causes-of-suicides-by-young.html
3 Goodman, A., Gonzalez, J., Maxwell, Z., 2013, on Alternet, 15 March, “Survivor Zerlina Maxwell Defies Racist Death Threats After Speaking Out on Fox News”. Retrieved from http://www.alternet.org/gender/survivor-zerlina-maxwell-defies-racist-death-threats-after-speaking-out-fox-news

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