Thomas MacAulay Millar on Feminist Men

The role of men in the feminist movement is a constant point of contention on the Sexist (a blog at the Washington City Paper).

We most recently revisited the issue yesterday, after a study showed that women who observe public acts of sexism—like sexual harassment against other women—tend to direct more anger at men in general. The study demonstrates (among other things) that when men sexually harass women, they also hurt men who are not harassers. Pointing out ways that sexism affects men can provide men with a valuable access-point to feminist issues. It can also be seen as an invitation to throw a pity party for male victimhood.

As one commenter on the story wrote, “Here we go again. The poor menz! They have to experience the suspicion/scrutiny of women who have been put down, kept down, abused emotionally, fiscally, professionally, sometimes physically, yadayadayada.” I don’t think this is about feeling sorry for men; I think it’s about recognizing that men can be valuable allies in working against women being put down, kept down, harassed, and abused. Is it fair that women have to first show men how sexism affects them in order to get them to care about how it affects us? No. But it sure is helpful.

So without any further ado, I’d like to introduce the first installment in a new Sexist feature: Interviews with experts on the subjects that most vex us around here. First up: Thomas MacAulay Millar, my favorite feminist writer who is also a man. Millar, which is not his real name, is a New-York based attorney and feminist writer. You may remember him for his essay condemning the comodification of sexuality, “Toward a Performance Model of Sex,” which appeared in the Yes Means Yes! anthology last year, or from his work on the wonderful Yes Means Yes! blog. Below, Millar on the beginnings of a feminist man, how to find feminist access-points for boys, and what it’s like to be a feminist with male privilege.

What personal experiences in your life contributed to your identification as a feminist?

TMM: My mom was a feminist, and raised me to understand that the world was unfair in big, structural ways, so I was in large part raised with it. She wasn’t an overtly ideological parent. She just believed in telling me how things really were, and I drew a lot of my own conclusions. I remember her telling me that my cousin (who was an evangelical), terminated two pregnancies. She was a clinic protester. But when it was her life, she thought it was different. Another cousin was molested, and when she wouldn’t stop complaining, she was sent away to live in another state. (Eventually, she sued her abuser and got some justice.) My mother would tell me the parts of the stories in real life that people try to hide from children. I can’t possibly thank her enough for that. I mean I literally can’t, because she died a decade ago. I thanked her a lot for being a great mom, but never enough.

As I got into high school, I started seeing issues like sex education and reproductive freedom through lenses heavily influenced by my women friends. I took my first women’s studies class in high school, read some Steinem and some other feminist writing in high school. My mother had a bunch of feminist writing around the house that I read. And I started to see GLB issues through the prism of my friends’ lives, and to see sexuality and sex education as my friends and I developed.

In my teens, too, I began a long process of growing into BDSM and figuring out what that meant for identity, and one of the early things I figured out what that there was a sort of mainstream position that wasn’t overtly anti-sex in my area, but that was sort of very pro-partriarchally constrained models of sexuality, and that I was necessarily a dissident to that, and that I was therefore a natural ally to anyone else who didn’t feel the official model fit them. So, in my mind, the idea especially around sexuality and gender expression that dissenters and dissidents should be in solidarity with each other developed early. So it was a pretty direct line from there to being active in college on choice and GLBT issues and doing my first minor in women’s studies. And also, people telling me when I said stupid things and learning from that, rinse, repeat.

I think most importantly, I began to hear one story after another about how women — mostly my women friends, and also some relatives — were molested and groped and raped (some men, too, but I didn’t become aware of that until later). Women friends told me they had been raped, and not infrequently they had never told anyone else. The thing that stuck with me then and still does is how little space they had to safely process and heal. They felt that they couldn’t say what had happened, let alone talk about how they felt, without being judged and shamed. And I think they were right about that, sad to say. They couldn’t tell people. The reactions they would have gotten from parents and peers would have done damage. So they stayed silent, which is a very hard way to deal with trauma. Unfortunately, that’s not something I see changing. Women I know are still telling me that they were raped, or that something happened that was rape but that they can’t label, and that they have not or cannot talk about to anyone else. And I have a daughter and that scares the shit out of me.

How can we get more men and boys interested in the feminist movement?

TMM: Well, we can bullshit them and tell them that it’s all upside, and that fighting for their relative privilege in an awful system that’s no good for them doesn’t have any benefits. But they’ll quickly realize that’s not true. And we can tell them that there are no downsides to participating in a movement where they have to confront their privilege and change how they do things. But they’d quickly find that that isn’t true.

You can’t sell a movement to cure structural unfairness to the beneficiaries of the unfairness unless there’s already a point of access. That means they have to really have a grievance against the way things are, for themselves or for people they love. But there are a lot of those. There are a lot of guys whose sister has needed an abortion, or whose wife was raped, or whose brother is transitioning, or who feel that the masculinity imposed on them is crushing them. If someone who knows that guy finds that point of access, like a pinhole in the patriarchal curtain, and starts pulling at it, eventually the hole gets so big that they accept that it’s not a matter of stitching the hole, it’s a whole panel or whole curtain that needs to be replaced. (And roman shades would look better in this room. Also, this paint is kinda tired. Let’s see how far I can stretch this metaphor ….*snap* Oops.)

. . . Or we can get them young and try to build into them a sense of fairness that is actually fair, and not one based on a set of artificially assigned roles based on two categories. I’m working on that. I’ll let you know how I did in about twenty years.

How does male privilege affect the way you approach feminist issues?

TMM: First, it means I don’t know everything and my personal leanings and experiences are not a trustworthy guide. I just have to accept that I’m going to be wrong and mess things up, and be gracious when people tell me what a schmuck I am. Because I am.

Second, it means forever keeping one eye on the dynamics of speaking for. In some ways it’s easier, as an affluent educated able bodied cis het white man, because I don’t have to think about the relative issues of when I’m privileged and when I’m not. I’m virtually always in the advantaged side of the structural issue, so I can keep the “I have an unfair advantage” light permanently on.

It’s something I talk about with friends a fair amount. In writing, a lot of what I do is talk about what something means for men, how men should read or deal with something, what it means as a parent, etc., where I’m interpreting my own experience and the experiences I have a better handle on, in light of the dynamics I’m talking about.

But I don’t do that with everything. Some of what I write is overarching theorizing, like Toward A Performance Model of Sex. I realize I don’t have any kind of omniscience, and my privilege informs what I write. I think there are three things I can do about it. I can decide that my understanding is so constrained by the limits of my experience and the dictates of my privilege that I should just shut up (some posts have ended their lives in the delete folder for that reason); I can try to learn and educate myself and improve and beat back my own privilege, which I’m forever trying to do and never fast enough; and I can put what I can out there and try to be as humble as I can about the limitations of it and then not get defensive when people move the discussion forward by pointing out the flaws in what I’ve done. I’ve edited a lot of posts to say, “I messed up, see comments.”

Do you think there are some feminist issues that are more readily accessible to men and boys than others?

TMM: There are things that should be feminist issues that are more the province of men and boys. Masculinity and manhood are becoming contested terrain, and that’s important. The most common discourse on masculinity reads to me like this: “I don’t know what it should look like. What we have is terrible in the following ways, and we should fix it. But I don’t know what it looks like when it gets fixed.” I have both so much and so little to say about that. Masculinity isn’t just “what men do,” but it is bound up with manhood. So we need women in that conversation, both those interested in masculinity and those that in some ways perform it. And we need people who reject binary identifications like “man” to weigh in. But mostly, whether cis- or trans-, the folks we need to help define masculinity are the people who perform it most, and that’s people who identify as men.

Also, there are angles and spaces that men have on feminist issues, where their understanding may be deeply limited by privilege, but where their position in the structural distribution of power is such that they can do more to make change. Men can do feminist work, even if they don’t apply the label to it, if they use what’s at their disposal to do the fair thing. Just as one example, George Tiller was a great hero for reproductive self-determination, not because he freed himself from male privilege, but because he was a doctor who would do that work, under the most terrifying circumstances. I know a guy who says the most awful shit, often to wind me up. But he also once physically intervened to prevent several men from raping a woman who was so intoxicated she didn’t know who she was with or what was going on. Security wouldn’t act, so he just started throwing punches. It worked, at significant cost to him which I won’t describe. That’s not a guy who self-identifies as feminist, but it was a deeply feminist act.

Less dramatically, just calling out rape jokes and rape-apology is something where guys’ views can influence other men a great deal. A guy who mentors younger women colleagues and makes sure their work is considered on its merits may not identify as feminist, or may have a very poor ability to check his own privilege, but that guy can to a lot of good with what he has, where he is.

So I guess I’d say that we need men to be situational allies where they can be, even if they are not (yet) able to make broader connections. Getting them to understand and see the unfairness of a specific situation or act is the first stage. If that creates the gateway for that guy to see those kinds of dynamics as pervasive, and pervasively unfair, great. If not, one person doing the right thing in one situation is better than not.

Are men in the position to play any unique roles in the feminist movement?

TMM: Leaving aside doing what we can with what we have where we are, because I don’t think that’s what the question calls for, I think the primary area where men have something specific and important to bring to feminism is in defining men and masculinity.

Those issues ripple through a lot. To take a particular class-specific issue, for example, take an opposite-sex couple with the same degree, working, say, as lawyers. They may have met in law school, gotten BigLaw jobs, proceeded on parallel tracks through the associate years, and then … that world is not perfect on treating women equally, but I see the social dynamics as the real hold-back. It’s very difficult for both partners to be driven professionals. They can pay for childcare solutions that leave them both free to work long and irregular hours and to travel, but many folks don’t want to do that for a lot of good reasons. Usually, someone takes a step back in professional responsibilities to parent. It’s almost always the woman. Some folks will tell you it has to do with women’s innate desire to mother, but I’m very skeptical of those explanations. Some people want to parent more than others, but I’m not going to accept anyone’s glib generalization that because it’s true for them, it’s an innate sex difference. Instead, I think it has a great deal to do with men’s unwillingness to take that step back. How men see their selves and role, and how their female partners will see them, and how they think their female partners will see them, is all about masculinity.

Of course, it’s more often the case that by the time a middle-class opposite sex couple decide to have kids, they are already in different careers with different compensation, and whoever makes less money becomes the parent with less professional responsibilities. And that has everything to do with the social construction or gender and work roles, tracking of women, conflation of some work identities with masculinity and femininity, etc.

All that is a narrow and class-bound analysis that leaves a lot out; a full treatment of just that example is a book topic. But that’s just one of many ways that construction of masculinity flows through work and distributional issues and other things that seem far removed from the direct performance of gender. I don’t think we can fully understand how much about masculinity is assumed until men start trying to take it apart, examine it and refashion it. And it’s principally men’s job to do that.

E-mail interview has been condensed. . . . a tiny bit.

(Reprinted with the permission of Amanda Hess. Check out her blog, The Sexist.)