Living a Pro-feminist Life

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Schmidt, Antisexist - Cover

I’ve happily worn my pro-feminist politics like a badge for nearly twenty years. I joined an anti-sexist men’s group at age 20, did Women’s and Gender Studies at university and completed a PhD in Gender and Sexuality Studies. I founded the pro-feminist magazine XY and ran it for seven years before turning it into a major website. I continue to research issues of men, masculinity and sexuality, and I’m involved in activism and education particularly on men’s violence against women. Writing all this makes me sound like I’m saying, ‘I’m so good. I’m a pro-feminist guru.’ I don’t believe that; I know that my own efforts to be pro-feminist are as messy as anyone else’s. Along the way I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve made mistakes. But I have developed a profound commitment to profeminism, and it has brought both joys and challenges.

The pleasures of profeminism

Becoming pro-feminist has been of profound personal benefit. Above all, it has shaped an inspired and confident sense of self, and it’s deepened and strengthened my sexual and intimate involvements. I was probably going to be a happy and enthusiastic person anyway, but profeminism has sown my life with passion and purpose. I work as an academic at a university in Australia, doing research on men, gender, and violence. I have the fortune and privilege of doing work I enjoy, on issues with which I’m fascinated.

Profeminism also has enriched my relationships and friendships, and improved my emotional fluency and literacy. Part of the feminist critique of gender is a questioning of traditional masculine ways of being, including emotional incompetence and emotional constipation. I’ve become more adept at both hearing and expressing emotions, including vulnerable ones. Profeminism has enhanced my emotional skills and that’s been invaluable whether I’m listening to a friend talk about a problem or nutting out a conflict with my partner.

Being pro-feminist means striving for egalitarian relations with women. And happily enough, that means better relationships as well. The evidence is that both women and men in egalitarian sexual relationships find more enjoyment and fulfillment than those in male-dominated relationships. And the sex is better, too. I treat my partner like a human being, ask or talk before taking sexual initiatives, and treat her with respect and fairness, and all that builds emotional closeness and sexual intimacy.

Rejecting some traditionally masculine ways of relating has also enhanced my friendships. It has allowed greater intimacy than might have been possible had I held onto dominant ways of being male. Among heterosexual men, homophobia – fear and hostility towards gay men and lesbians – is the greatest threat to close friendships. Because I don’t see male-male intimacy as suspect, and I’m unafraid of being seen as gay, I’ve had more room to express tenderness and closeness. And it’s often male friends who have helped me wrestle with the sticky questions of emotion, gender, and sexuality.

Many men’s friendships with women are limited by the beliefs that women are of interest only as sexual objects and close friendships with women are dangerously feminizing and homosexualizing. Instead, I’ve found friendships with women that are delightful, challenging, and playful. What is more, my involvement in feminist networks has helped me find a wider community of friends and allies. I’ve met lovely men who share a passion for social justice and change who’ve become buddies and mentors, and I’ve found connections with amazing and inspiring women. So, profeminism has brought the richness and joy of friendships, relationships, and political alliances with women and men.

Why Feminism?

Pro-feminist men support feminism first and foremost because we believe that we must. Given the fact of our unjust privilege, men have an ethical obligation to work to eliminate that privilege. There is a simple moral imperative that men give up their unjust share of power. But self-sacrificing altruism isn’t a sufficient basis for a political movement, and there are obvious ways that men will benefit from supporting feminism and advancing towards gender equality. Men have a stake in a feminist future; feminism is also for men.

Men tend to pay heavy costs — in the form of shallow relationships, poor health, and early death — for conformity with narrow definitions of masculinity. Men and boys live in social relationships with women and girls, and the quality of every man’s life depends to a large extent on the quality of those relationships. Many men who support efforts towards gender equality do so because of their concern, hopes, and love for the women in their lives. The communities in which men live benefit from gender reform; from flexibility in divisions of labor, improvements in women’s health and well-being, and declines in male-to-male and male-to-female violence.

Making change

Being pro-feminist for me has meant trying to be a good person and working to change the world. These intertwined ethical goals capture the two central tasks for pro-feminist men: to live an ethical life, and to work towards a gender-equal society.

Profeminism invites men to develop egalitarian relations with women and to avoid oppressive or abusive practices. One of the key processes here is critical reflection: developing an awareness of the ways in which our actions and attitudes can be harmful to women and other men. Another is taking responsibility: acknowledging when we’ve made mistakes, and making amends. A third is building an alternative, developing healthy and just ways of seeing and being.

Gender and gender inequalities saturate every area of our lives. Building gender justice requires personal change in all areas. For example, I’ve tried to ensure real consent in my sexual relations and to take or share responsibility for preventing pregnancy and disease. I use non-sexist language: I talk about ‘firefighters’ and ‘access holes’, not ‘firemen’ and ‘manholes’ and about finding someone to ‘chair’ the meeting or ‘staff’ (not ‘man’) the stall, and I never use ‘bitch’ or ‘woman’ or ‘cocksucker’ as insults. I share in the house cleaning and the washing up. And in my relationship I try to share the emotional division of labor too – by listening and empathizing, talking and sharing. I try not to fund or support sexist culture such as films or music portraying girls or women in degrading or abusive ways. I support measures to promote equal opportunity in the workplace. I’m trying to raise my children in non-gender-stereotyped ways. I vote for political candidates and parties committed to gender equality, or at least less committed to propping up inequality.

Some of these changes have come pretty easily to me, as they fit within the broad orientation towards social justice I have long had. But others are harder. They involve reconstructing some of my deepest desires and attractions, consciously missing out on privileges I would otherwise be granted as a man, or taking on more of the burdens that otherwise would be lumped on women, such as domestic and caring work.

Individual strategies are important in making personal changes.  I monitor and change my behavior, keep a diary in which I’m totally and brutally honest with myself, talk to friends and others, and read feminist works. But I’ve also found more collective strategies to be invaluable.

At age 20 I joined my first men’s group. I’d gone to a public meeting for men advertised at a local community center, and I and a handful of other men with pro-feminist politics gravitated to one corner and ended up forming a men’s anti-sexist consciousness-raising group. About eight of us met for three hours every week, for 18 months until the group disbanded. Inspired by the classic feminist insight that ‘the personal is political’, we explored a wide range of issues, from violence and pornography to homophobia and fathering. As far as men’s groups go, ours was unusual. It adopted an explicitly pro-feminist politics, many of its members were young, and half were gay or bisexual. The group involved both substantial personal reflection and disclosure and some public political activism. For me it was a profound experience, and crucial to the formation of my passionate anti-sexist politics.

Making personal change can be complex, challenging, and ambivalent. There are certainly areas of my personal life I feel like I’ve pretty much sorted out, such as sexual consent. Through that early men’s group, I’d realized that there were times when I’d used emotional blackmail and guilt to try to get my female partner to have sex. I’d not threatened her or ignored her refusals, but I would behave in a way that is on a continuum with other forms of sexual pressure and coercion. This was the most gut-wrenching of the revelations I had in that group, but an invaluable one. I’ve since developed a very strong commitment to sexual consent and respect, and a range of honest, playful and sexy ways to negotiate consent in sexual interactions.

I’ve gotten better at doing my fair share of the housework. Issues of domestic labor were flagged for me early on. As a student, I was involved in a left-wing group on campus, and some of the women in the group asked, ‘Why is it always the women who are left to clean up after the meeting?’ I also benefited from years of living in group houses with women.

My partner and I have been living together for six years now, and our domestic divisions of labor are pretty good. We used to have a rigid system of turn-taking for cooking and washing up, and this is still pretty fair. But I do find myself, in classically masculine fashion, sustaining some inequalities. For example, if I have cleaned the bathroom, several times over the next few days I’ll mention how clean it looks, while not giving the same recognition to her efforts. With a 15-month-old baby, domestic work has increased dramatically, and the domestic inequalities have worsened, as is typical in heterosexual couples. Negotiating our domestic divisions of labor is harder too, as broken nights’ sleep makes us tired and grumpy. Becoming parents has made the work my partner does that I’d taken for granted more visible to me, and it’s pushed me to pull my weight more.

Anti-sexist, not non-sexist

The defining belief for pro-feminist men is that we have a responsibility to try to change our own sexist behaviors and attitudes and those of other men. There can never be a point at which a pro-feminist man says, ‘There, I’ve done it. I’m free of sexism.’ This is partly because our personal training in sexism is deep and complex, and there is always more we can do to build gender-just identities and relations. But it’s also because no individual man can be free of sexism in a sexist society.

Men can rightly claim to be anti-sexist, but it is a mistake to claim to be non-sexist. In this patriarchal society, all men learn sexist thoughts and behaviors, all receive patriarchal privileges whether we want to or not, and all are complicit to some degree in sexism. Men can rid ourselves of particular sexist assumptions and behaviors, but in a sexist culture we will still receive patriarchal privileges. Our voices and beliefs will usually be given more authority, we will be assumed to be more competent and promotable workers than women, and we will experience levels of physical and sexual freedom denied to many women.

Everyday anti-sexism

How does an everyday commitment to anti-sexism play out? I challenge male acquaintances’ sexist remarks and jokes. I question them when they use sexist insults. I support female friends in naming the daily intrusions and harassments they experience or in recovering from abuse.

A few times I’ve tried to intervene when I’ve seen men assaulting women.  The results of this are always the same. The man says “it’s none of your f*!kin’ business,” he reacts with threats of violence, and you’re left wondering if your intervention has done anything to lessen his violence. Still, this kind of intervention is important. It can slow down or stop the immediate violence already under way. It sends a message to the woman that others do not condone the violence she experiences and will try to support her. And it tells the man that at least one other man thinks his behavior is unacceptable.

Most of my interventions into other men’s sexist or abusive behavior are more low-key and involve far less risk of injury to myself. Typically, I’m risking social awkwardness and embarrassment at most.

Anti-male?

The idea that feminism is anti-male is the most pernicious lie with which pro-feminist men must deal. Feminism is anti-sexist, not anti-male. Feminism is founded on a critique of the injustices and abuses of sexism. This critique is based on the fundamental belief that first, these inequalities are socially constructed, not biologically determined, and second, they can be changed. In fact, feminism would be meaningless without its hope; the fundamental belief that the relations between women and men can be democratic and liberatory.

Pro-feminist men, like feminist women, are not anti-male. We believe that men are perfectly capable of being loving, nurturing and non-oppressive human beings. We reject the idea that men are somehow intrinsically bad or oppressive. We are committed to enhancing men’s lives. We believe that men can change and we support every man’s efforts at positive change.

The seductions of domination

Despite all the reflection and all the experience I’ve described, there are many things I need to change and things I need to watch for. Gender relations are in a constant state of flux, and new forms of inequality (and equality) emerge which pro-feminist men will need to address. Examples include the ‘pornification’ of mainstream culture, shifts in workplace relations and the energetic backlash by anti-feminist men’s groups.

Sexism is seductive. Men are constantly invited into forms of domination over women. We’re invited by advertising and pornography to see women only as objects and orifices. We’re invited by male acquaintances to let women’s interests come second to ours: ‘Don’t be wrapped around her finger.’ Indeed, sometimes we’re invited by women themselves to be the one who makes the rules. Only good habits or vigilance prevent us from accepting these invitations into inequality. Either we resist because we live habitually gender-just lives in which we see such behaviors as unthinkable or even incomprehensible, or we resist because we recognize that here is a moment when we can choose sexist inequality or justice, and we choose justice.

I’ve said that there are some areas of personal life in which I feel like I’ve still got some work to do. One involves voyeurism and objectification. In my mid-teens I amassed a collection of about fifty soft-core porn magazines. I kept them hidden in my room, swapped them with the boy next door, and of course, masturbated with them. While using porn is now something I’d never do, I still think that this early experience has influenced my sexual desires. I continue to feel attracted to the porno-style images of women I sometimes see, such as on magazine covers, and I’ve been tempted to use porn when masturbating. Doing an academic project on young people’s exposure to internet porn a couple of years ago, including documenting the range of sexual content that youth and adults alike can find online, didn’t help. But this research also intensified my hostility to pornography; it showed me more clearly than ever how so much porn is built on contempt for women, and how some porn makes violence ‘sexy’.

I know that pornography is not a simple issue for feminism. But for me, using porn does seem antithetical to the profeminism for which I stand. So, while it has been tempting sometimes to ‘give in’ to the desires that still linger, I do not. Instead, I find other, more egalitarian and respectful ways to express sexual desire and experience sexual passion. I construct fantasies of mutual pleasure rather than using porn’s fantasies of patriarchal domination. And when having sex, rather than imagining one of pornography’s willing, grateful servant women, I open my eyes and engage with my partner as fully human. All this means that the sex I have does not leave me feeling soiled, guilty, and deadened, but connected, inspired, and alive.

Just as our deepest desires can be negatively shaped by social processes and experiences, they can also be shaped in positive ways. An important task for profeminism is to teach men to ‘get off’ on equality: to be aroused by consent, respect, and mutual pleasure.

Conclusion

There is so much more that I could say about profeminism. While I’ve focused on personal change, participating in social activism is deeply personal, too. And some of the key challenges of pro-feminist men’s activism – How do we engage and change ‘ordinary’ men? How do we build alliances and partnerships with women? How do we deal with anti-feminist backlash? – are also deeply personal ones. But let me leave these questions for another day. There is much to do, and we have only just begun.

5 tips for pro-feminist men

  • Do the personal work, putting your own house in order. Walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk. But remember that you don’t have to wait to be perfect before you can act.
  • When you get it wrong, as we all inevitably do at some point, own it. Acknowledge your mistakes, make amends, and move on.
  • Remind yourself of what you are for. Hold to your heart a positive feminist vision of a better world, and of how you and others benefit from progress towards gender equality.
  • Be bold. Develop a passionate ethic that you can and will contribute to social change, guided by strong ideals and by connections to other advocates.
  • Find and build communities of support, through friends, groups and networks. You can’t go it alone. Make connections with other like-minded men and women so that your advocacy is sustainable and, not only that, enjoyable.

Citation:

Flood, Michael. (2022). Living a Pro-feminist Life. In Antisexist: Challenge sexism, champion women’s rights, and create equality, Ed. Lynn Schmidt. Bobo Publishing.

Biography

Dr Michael Flood is a researcher on men, masculinities, gender equality, and violence prevention. He is the author of the book Engaging Men and Boys in Violence Prevention (2019), and the lead editor of Engaging Men in Building Gender Equality (2015) and The International Encyclopedia of Men and Masculinities (2007). Michael also is an educator and advocate, with a long involvement in men’s antiviolence work and pro-feminist activism. He runs the pro-feminist men’s website www.xyonline.net. Note: this essay was first written in 2007.