Can men be feminists?

Men have a vital role to play in improving relations between the sexes. But Michael Flood is not sure that they can be feminists.

Men’s lives have changed in profound ways over the last three decades. The women’s movements and feminism have questioned the meanings given to being female and male. They have criticised gender inequalities and injustices and tried to create a better and fairer world for both women and men. Their efforts, plus other social changes, have shifted the possibilities of men’s lives.

Men now face new expectations from their girlfriends and partners, their friends, their sisters and daughters, and other men. Some traditional forms of manhood — based on being emotionally shut-down, dominating others, work-obsessed and aggressive — are often seen now as out of date and unhealthy. Men’s domination of the upper levels of work and politics is no longer taken for granted. And men are being encouraged to change their behaviour in the kitchen, the bedroom, the classroom and on the street. Men are expected to be sensitive and knowledgeable lovers, to treat the women in their lives with respect, and to avoid sexist behaviours such as date rape and domestic violence.

Alongside these social changes, there are new images of masculinity: images of the "New Man" and the "Sensitive New Age Guy" or "SNAG"; gay, bisexual and queer men; the "New Lad", and "Wussy boys". These images open up new spaces for rethinking what it means to be a man. At the same time, they jostle for space with images which celebrate a more traditional masculinity — films which represent men’s violence against other men or against women as normal, legitimate, as a good way to get what you want, and as exciting and even sexy; pornography which teaches boys and men to see women only as sexual objects; and so on.

Many men are benefiting from the changes I’ve described. They are enjoying having more trusting, respectful and egalitarian relationships with their girlfriends and wives, having greater connections with female and male friends, and being involved fathers to their new babies and children. Young men in particular are benefiting from the loosening of the bonds of traditional manhood (while some older men feel lost and confused). As rigid divisions between stereotypically feminine and masculine behaviours crumble, men can choose a wider range of ways of living. And as heterosexual men’s homophobia (their fear of and hostility towards homosexuality) declines, there is less pressure on men to behave in macho ways to prove their heterosexuality.

Many men have responded in positive ways to feminism and the women’s movements. Men increasingly support women’s paid work outside the home, young men are taking greater responsibility for contraception and safe sex, fewer men agree with myths about domestic violence, and there is increased attention to the quality of fathering. However, very few men have really sought to challenge the systematic gender inequalities which still characterise Australian society.

If we are to create a society based on fair, pleasurable and respectful relations between women and men, men have a crucial role to play. If men’s behaviours and attitudes do not change, then gender equality or gender justice is simply impossible. Men are part of the problem, but they are also part of the solution.

Many men have a vague support for the principle of gender equality and try to avoid the more obvious forms of sexist behaviour, at least when in women’s company. But most men have not really questioned their own and other men’s involvement in sexism. And some men are openly hostile to feminism — a few men resent the challenge to their traditional privileges represented by feminism, and most men have been fed a highly distorted and negative media stereotype of feminism as man-hating and blaming. (The truth is that feminism is hopeful about change and optimistic about the possibilities for women’s and men’s lives.)

On the other hand, in most countries around the world small numbers of men have dedicated themselves to supporting the goals of gender equality and justice. They try to behave in egalitarian and respectful ways in their daily lives, and they participate in community education and political activism through such groups as Men Against Sexual Assault. Profeminist men work, often alongside women, to create relations between men and women which are peaceful, egalitarian, trusting and joyous, and to create roles for men which are healthy, life-loving and non-oppressive.

There are a thousand everyday ways in which men can and should support gender justice. Respect and support the women in your life. Check out the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which you’ve learnt to ignore or dismiss women’s opinions and experiences. Don’t go along with friends’ sexist or homophobic comments and jokes. In sex, take "no" for an answer, make sure that the sex you have is always consenting, and reject the idea that having sex is about proving yourself or getting status among men. Clean the bathroom. Avoid pornography. Inform yourself: take Gender Studies and read feminist literature. And when you do stuff up and you are criticised, listen, accept responsibility, and learn.

So far I’ve said that men’s involvement is crucial if we are to achieve gender equality, and that men can and do support feminism. Does this mean that men can use the label "feminist" for themselves? Some people say yes: men just have to live up to the same standards as women who are feminists—to support the equality of women and men. (Or some such thing: there are plenty of varieties of feminism, and lots of healthy disagreement over the specifics of feminist theory.)

Others say no, men shouldn’t use this label. It is understandable that some women are nervous about men’s involvement in feminism and men’s use of the label "feminist". Some men have tried to take over women’s spaces, they’ve set themselves up as experts on women and they’ve arrogantly claimed to be better feminists than feminist women. I prefer to use the terms "profeminist" or "anti-sexist" for myself and other men.

Feminism is a good thing, not just for women, but for men too. Feminism offers men the possibility of freedom from a way of life that has been isolating, violent, obsessively competitive, emotionally shut down and physically unhealthy. Sure, it demands that men let go of our unfair privileges too, but that is a small price to pay for the promise of more trusting, honest, pleasurable and fair relations with women. And with kids too. Women and men are in this together, and the reconstruction of gender requires our shared commitment and involvement.

Michael Flood teaches in Women’s and Gender Studies at the Australian National University. His PhD thesis was on young heterosexual men and safe/unsafe sex. Michael has been involved in profeminist men’s activism since 1987. This article was originally written for the Australian National University Women’s Handbook, Canberra, Australia, 31 July 2001.