I recently worked with Imran Siddiquee to create a video for Feminist Frequency highlighting 5 simple ways men can help end sexism. Because some things are inevitably cut or changed during the video production process I’ve posted our full text version of the script below. Click here to see the final video.
5 WAYS MEN CAN HELP END SEXISM
Everyday more and more men are starting to realize that there is something very wrong with the status quo. This has been tremendously encouraging to see. Still, for many men, it can be hard to know exactly what role we can or should play in working towards an end to sexism. How can men help; and how much or how little should we be helping? In this video we will explore answers to those questions and share a few suggestions for how men can respectfully approach feminism and – critically – explain why it’s beneficial for men to be involved.
First things first, because there’s so much misinformation about feminism floating around out there in the cultural aether, it’s useful to quickly define what that term actually means. Feminism is a sociopolitical movement with the central goal of ending sexism and dismantling gender-based oppression. So contrary to common misconceptions, feminism is not about “man hating” or “female supremacy.” It’s important to note that the feminist endeavor, as it has been defined by women like bell hooks, does not simply seek equal access for women within current systems of power, instead it seeks to transform these systems of power and the values associated with them.
So where do men fit into all this? Well, women have long been pointing out the ways in which men can benefit from feminism and actively calling for men’s participation in working towards ending sexism.
As hooks writes in her landmark book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, “Like women, men have been socialized to passively accept sexist ideology. While they need not blame themselves for accepting sexism, they must assume responsibility for eliminating it. [. . .] Men are not exploited or oppressed by sexism, but there are ways in which they suffer as a result of it. This suffering should not be ignored. While it in no way diminishes the seriousness of male abuse and oppression of women, or negates male responsibility for exploitative actions, the pain men experience can serve as a catalyst calling attention to the need for change.”
That bears repeating: Men are NOT exploited or oppressed by sexism, but there are ways in which WE suffer as a result of it. This is an especially important point, because it succinctly addresses an apparent contradiction. It’s true that the cultural constraints placed on women are much more restrictive than those placed on men, but there are still a myriad of ways in which living in a sexist society does indeed limit and harm men. There is a term within feminism for this social system that perpetuates damaging gender norms for all people – and that word is patriarchy.
WHY IS FEMINISM IMPORTANT FOR MEN?
It is our patriarchal culture that sets up a hierarchy of competing masculinities that not only subordinates women but also works to demean men who dare to present themselves in ways stereotypically associated with femininity. We are taught early on that “boys don’t cry,” that to show sensitivity or emotional vulnerability is a sign of weakness. Men are discouraged from practicing nurturing, caregiving, compassion and compromise for the same reason. So there is an enormous amount of pressure placed on men to “prove our manhood” by acting tough, projecting strength and repressing our emotions so as to appear in control at all times. We are pushed to go-it-alone and to refuse to ask for or accept help, even when it’s badly needed. Which leads many men to “play through the pain” and take unnecessary risks that can put ourselves and others in harm’s way. This is compounded by the fact that men are often more admired for being aggressive, dominant and violent than for being cooperative, vulnerable or empathetic. Not only is all of this damaging behavior encouraged in individual men, but those same values are also reflected in our larger political and military institutions, often to disastrous effect.
So while men, as a group, are afforded gender-based privileges at the expense of women, a byproduct of patriarchy is that it also causes real harm to men’s well being. Everything I’ve just described may seem so entrenched as to be insurmountable, but it’s important to remember that these conceptions about how to “be a real man” are socially constructed – meaning they are not predetermined by nature or biology – and that’s good news because it means they can be changed, in fact the whole system of sexism cannot continue without our participation.
5 TIPS FOR MEN INTERESTED IN ENDING SEXISM
Oaky, so if we’re on board with ending sexism: what specifically can we do as men to be helpful? Here’s our quick list of 5 tips for respectfully engaging with feminism as a man.
1. Listen to women
It might seem obvious, but too often men have a hard time just listening to what women have to say – and respecting women’s knowledge and experiences. Because of the way we’re socialized to think our voices are most important, men have a tendency to interrupt and interject ourselves into conversations and then dominate those interactions. This behavior is so ingrained that men often don’t even realize we are doing it. Which is why it’s critical to consciously learn to take a step back – to try not to interrupt and instead actively listen and absorb what is being said before responding. Now, of course, this does not then mean that you have to agree with everything every individual woman says – no one person’s perspective can ever represent all of feminism or the experiences of all women – it simply means that, as men, we’re not in a position to define feminism for women, and so, we should actively pay attention to women’s voices. Because for so long women’s experiences, perspectives and ideas – have been dismissed, ignored and silenced it’s especially vital to listen to women of color, particularly black and indigenous women. As feminist scholars have long pointed out, sexism is compounded when it’s combined with racism and/or other forms of oppression – back in 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” as part of her theory to describe these layered experiences that leave some women more disenfranchised than others.
2. Educate yourself
It’s important for us, as men, to acknowledge that when we talk about feminism, we follow the lead of women. Yet while we should acknowledge that our ideas in this arena originate with women, this does not mean it is the responsibility of women to teach all men about sexism. So we shouldn’t go around interrogating or demanding answers from women. As men, we should instead be proactive in doing the work ourselves by committing to continuous, lifelong learning. Luckily for us, over the past century feminist scholars have written volumes on the topic. So with that in mind here are some suggested readings about understanding feminism, intersectionality and how patriarchy operates as a social system:
- Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks
- The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love by bell hooks
- The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy by Allan G Johnson
- Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
- This Bridge Called My Back edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa
- Masculinities by R.W. Connell
- The Men and the Boys by R.W. Connell
3. Challenge other men on sexism
The place where men can be most helpful in regards to feminism is first within ourselves, and then amongst other men. Patriarchy encourages men to buy into sexist thinking and at the very least remain complacent in sexism through our silence. So instead dare to step off the path of least resistance – dare to make yourself and other men uncomfortable about sexism. When you see sexual harassment, speak up. When you see women being disrespected, speak up. Let other men around you know that their sexist behavior is not ok. When you stand up and say that a joke, for example, is not funny and that it perpetuates sexism, the men telling the sexist joke can no longer be assured that they will go unchallenged the next time they tell it. In other words, those men can no longer count on other men to accept or go along with their sexism. They have to think twice, look over their shoulder and consider how others might react to their words. Interrupting the sexist status quo is a simple yet powerful thing that all men can do to make a difference.
4. Don’t get defensive
If you make a comment and a woman dismisses or disagrees with you, don’t take it personally. She doesn’t owe you anything and her disagreement does not necessarily mean that she herself is “angry” or frustrated with you as an individual. That being said, it is completely understandable for women to express anger about sexism (sexism should make everyone angry). After all, most women have firsthand experience with violence, harassment or mistreatment at the hands of men. Sometimes even from men who claim to be allies. So don’t get defensive if individual women don’t want to engage with you, and remember that it’s definitely not our job to police the ways women may choose to speak up about sexism. Similarly, men’s support of feminism should not be seen as some kind of favor to women. As we have discussed, dismantling the system of sexism benefits people of all genders, and moreover, men shouldn’t expect a reward for deciding not to participate in a terrible system of oppression. Or as many feminist women have said before, “you don’t get a cookie for being a decent human being.”
5. Learn from your mistakes
It’s hard to break years of socialization overnight, so messing up is inevitable. I’ve certainly made my fair share of mistakes. The key is what you do next, we always have a choice as to how we respond to our mistakes: be humble, examine your own actions at every turn, acknowledge failings and continue to learn how to be better and more supportive. Sexism is not necessarily something that’s done consciously and overtly, it’s something we are socialized to think is normal, and as such it is something we often perpetuate and participate in without meaning to. This is why challenging ourselves and reflecting on our own actions is a vital step in the process. Remember to be compassionate and patient with yourself and keep working at it!
Now, that was by no means an exhaustive list of advice, but it should give you a place to start.
If you’re feeling a little uneasy at this point that might actually be a good sign. As men, the process of honestly reexamining our own assumptions and questioning our participation in a system that maintains sexism, may often feel uncomfortable. No matter how committed we are to it, we will never fully understand what it’s like to exist in the world as a woman – just as white people (like myself) will never know what it’s like to exist in the world as a person of color.
We have inherited this oppressive system of patriarchy, and even though we, as individual men, didn’t create that system, it does manifest itself in almost every aspect of our lives. So as men, we have a responsibility to challenge sexism and keep working to transform ourselves. Remember bell hooks’ point that “All men support and perpetuate sexism and sexist oppression in one form or another.” But that nevertheless, “men can lead life-affirming, meaningful lives without exploiting and oppressing women.”
We must always recall our own potential for positive impact in the world. And be involved in this work not out of personal guilt or shame, but because, as we have discussed in this video, the desired outcome is ending gender oppression and in so doing make the world better for people of all genders.