Where Are The Revolutionary Men? Thoughts on denial, guilt, ownership and action, from an aspiring ally

Why did I write this? I wrote this piece so that men struggling with patriarchy could know there are others in the same position, other men who are trying to wade through the personal and collective bullshit that we as men have been spouting (and ignoring) for so long. There are so many articles, zines, magazines and websites by and for women struggling against patriarchy, while men largely remain silent. With a few notable exceptions, most of the material I have found by men speaking out against patriarchy is extremely academic, using language that is completely un-accessible. This piece is intended for all the men who are trying to unlearn their sexist behaviour and attitudes, who do not have the resources or time for a PhD. This is for men trying to change their behaviour, and change the behaviour of the other men in their lives. This is for men attempting to end patriarchy and dismantle male privilege. The title and inspiration for this piece came from an essay by Heather Ajini in “Our Culture, Our Resistance - People of Colour Speak Out On Anarchism, Race, Class and Gender”. In it Ajini says the common question, “where was the colour at (insert event here)?” should be replaced by the question, where are white people in the revolutionary struggle? By this she was asking where are the white allies, the white activists and anarchists acknowledging their privilege, deconstructing it and otherwise dealing with their bullshit? The same question could (and should) very well be asked of men. Where are the revolutionary men? Where are the men asking themselves tough questions about their privilege, deconstructing their sexist ways of thinking, and taking responsibility for their actions? Where the men fighting patriarchy? Recently I have been increasingly struggling with my identity as a male, particularly as a male aspiring to become a feminist ally (I cannot yet claim to have reached this goal). How do men acquire the values and behaviours that they do? How are we socialized to behave in a “masculine” way, and where is this concept of “masculinity” coming from? What does it mean to be a man in north amerikkka in the 21st century? While these are very complex questions to answer (and difficult for most men to even ask), they barely acknowledge, let alone challenge, the sexist and patriarchal essence of our society. Any one claiming to be against patriarchy should also be asking themselves why is it that men dominate every aspect of society? Why do we make more money than women for doing the same work? Why are only 20% of kkkanadian legislator’s women? Why are women still doing the vast majority of domestic work and child rearing? Why is this still not considered “real” work? Why are the movements against all forms of oppression, hierarchy and domination themselves dominated by males? Why is a women raped or sexually assaulted every 45 seconds? These are the questions any aspiring feminist ally should be asking themselves and those around them. This will, hopefully, be the first step in a difficult but absolutely necessary journey. In my experience, there a number of distinct phases. #1: Denying the existence of Patriarchy This is the reaction of the average man when someone tells him he is living in a system that grants him innumerable social, economic and political privileges over all other genders. It was certainly my reaction when first confronted with the fact, but I was lucky enough to have a friend with the patience to repeatedly, compassionately destroy my arguments to the contrary. It doesn’t help that most of the time it is a womyn who has to break the news. This leads immediately to accusations of bias and self-interest, outright denial of any facts that may be presented as evidence, and/or belittling or insulting the person. Sometimes the man will ignore the womyn, or walk away. This is one reason why it is so important for men to be actively involved in anti-patriarchy work: while all of this could still happen between two men, it is a lot less likely. Arguments by men to refute the existence of patriarchy go along a few well tread lines. Often the man will say something along the lines of, “While I admit that there was sexism in the past, the feminist movement has won the battle for women’s rights.” This reflects the commonly held view by men, and a few women, that today we are living in a gender blind society, with equal opportunities based on effort and skill, independent of sex. There are countless statistics on sexual assault, earnings, poverty and eating disorders to prove otherwise. This is why particularly chauvinistic and ignorant men see the current feminist movement as leading to the subordination of men by women. This is another common argument against the existence of patriarchy: That men, in fact, are now less powerful and less privileged then women are. The man may rattle off statistics about women’s university enrolment and grade levels, the attention given to women’s health issues, or the enshrined right to birth control and abortion. Tellingly, they will never say a word about the rate of sexual assault and rape, women’s poverty, or participation in higher levels of government and business. (These last two are not goals I would spend my time and energy working towards, but they are signs of our societies innate sexism.) A big part of the argument may revolve around how equal the genders are, since men cannot hit-on a women, or ask her on a date, “without being accused of sexual harassment”. The reality is that these men have not developed the social skills required to decently express there interest in someone or build an equitable relationship, and are not interested in doing so. As a last resort, the man may concede that while our society is sexist, things are rapidly changing. Maybe he will compare the status of women in north amerikkka with that of women in the Arab world, or certain African countries. Or, he might say that women have never had it so good before, pointing to women’s status only one hundred years ago. “After all”, he will insist, “change doesn’t happen over night”. All of these arguments are patently false and easy to disprove. The only challenge is getting the man to hang around long enough to hear you out. Men vastly outnumber women in the police force, especially in the top brass. Ditto for government and business. Men earn more money than women for the same work. Women are so much more likely than a man to be sexually assaulted, and 1/3rd of all women in canaduh will be raped in their lifetime. More than 90% of eating disorders affect women, and they are much more likely than men to have low self-esteem and a negative body image. Conversely men don’t have to see themselves displayed nearly naked in every advertisement, TV show and movie, or worry about being called a prude for saying no, or being called a slut for saying yes. I will never have to worry about someone slipping a knockout drug in my drink during a party, or about being raped on my way home late at night. A little research on the internet or in a library will come up with countless other examples and statistics proving the pervasiveness of patriarchy, sexism and male privilege in our society. Often times the man you’re talking with will be extremely stubborn, and become angry and defensive. Perhaps the next time you see him you can ask him if he’s changed his mind: These “shocking revelations” can take time to fully sink in, and will require persistence on the part of anyone trying to change minds. Don’t give up! #2: Denying Personal Implication and Responsibility For Patriarchy Let’s say that a man has admitted (conceded?) that we are living in a patriarchal society. Or maybe this man is already an activist, and readily admits that our society is sexist. In most cases, neither one of them will make the connection from the theoretical to the personal: that is to say, most men who admit the existence of patriarchy will never critically examine their own behaviour and beliefs, or consider the possibility that maybe they too are sexist. These are the men wearing feminist-fist patches at the affinity group meeting, where they are repeatedly interrupting and talking over women. These are the men who will talk about the need for creating safe spaces for women, right before making a sexist joke. These are the men listening to Bikini Kill and Lauren Hill, who still don’t understand the word “no”. Calling each other (and ourselves) on our sexist bullshit is the number one way men can challenge patriarchy in their day-to-day life. For instance, if he is straight you could ask this “non-sexist” man if he has ever ogled a women before. The vast majority of straight men, particularly young straight men, will sneak a stare in whenever they can. Be it when walking behind a woman, or facing them, it happens all the time. This is not to say that you can’t admire someone for their beauty, but when you stare at a women’s chest or ass, they will notice after a while, and this makes most women very uncomfortable. If it occurs in a space that is at all avoidable, and the ogler hangs out there a lot, they will try to avoid that space from then on. This is an example of how patriarchy operates. Or you could bring up how men take up more space on public transit (and in general), or dominate meetings. Ask him if he has ever done these things. And what about housework? If he lives with a girlfriend, or mother, ask who does most of the cooking and cleaning. If he is a father, ask who does most of the child rearing. Nine times out of ten, it wont be him. If your “non-sexist” male still refuses to admit to his own sexism, you could ask him how the media’s portrayal of women has affected his views and behaviours towards women. At first, he might rely on the tried and true tool men everywhere—denial. But there are a bunch of angles you can take to show him how wrong he is. When was the last time he saw a commercial for a cleaning product that was not starring a women? And how often does an action movie end with the brave women saving the helpless man? The answer to both is pretty close to never. There is no denying the fact that we are influenced by the constant media bombardment, but often it is best to speak from your own experiences. Personally, I could talk about my experience with pornography. The porn that I’ve watched overwhelmingly portray women as one-dimensional, sex starved nymphomaniacs, happy to perform any humiliating act for their big-dicked fucker (I refuse to use the word lover here). This is supposedly a fulfilment of the male viewers fantasy, to sexually dominate the willingly submissive women. Whether or not this is actually the viewer’s fantasy, it will certainly affect their behaviour, especially considering most teenaged males have way more sexual experience with porn than with actual human beings. He will seek out these sex-starved, submissive women, and when he can’t find them, he will project these qualities on any women he finds attractive. I am sure this has led to more than one case of rape. There are so many opportunities to call each other on our bullshit, and it requires nothing but courage and a bit of time. Of course, this may spark the man being challenged to be even more defensive than he was when confronted with the existence of patriarchy. No one wants to admit that they are an oppressor, but especially not men who are convinced that they are fighting oppression (or even claiming to be feminist!). This constant denial of personal responsibility has got to stop. The fact is that among men in general, and activist men in particular, there is a lot of talk, but precious little action. This is because us men have not been calling each other on the very personal, everyday sexist shit we pull. We have not organized to deal with our sexism the way women have. This brings up a very common question: Why don’t women take the time to educate men about sexism? Why aren’t men allowed in womyn’s only spaces? If we could sit in on these groups, we would be able to learn a lot about fighting sexism, wouldn’t we? This is a legitimate question, and I think a lot of aspiring allies are curious as to the answer. The truth is, women’s organizations don’t even have enough time and resources to reach all the women they would like to. I’ll bet not 1% of women in this country have been to an anti-oppression workshop, so why should we demand the women’s movement spend their energy on us? They would probably spend all their time simply proving to men that patriarchy exists, when this message would be a lot more effective coming from another man. It is not the responsibility of the oppressed to educate their oppressors, even if they had the time and resources to do it. Secondly, men and womyn are coming from opposite directions and have totally different work to do when it comes to fighting sexism. They are oppressed by it and we benefit from it, so it doesn’t really make sense for anti-sexist men to latch onto a womyn’s organization. This brings me to the third point, which is that we need to stop expecting a free ride from women. Anti-sexist men need do the work necessary to organize ourselves, putting time and energy into building an anti-patriarchal men’s movement, without diverting resources from the womyn’s movement. If they started from scratch, there is no reason we can’t or shouldn’t do the same. This is the only way large numbers of men will own up to their sexist behaviour. We need to be doing the one on one, man on man, everyday work if we want to see men change. Once again, this requires patience and persistence. A man may need to have the same conversation several times before he admits that his socialization in a sexist culture (through parents, friends, school and media) has brought him up to be sexist. #3: Guilt Any privileged person who has acknowledged their role in perpetuating a system of oppression is going to feel guilty. This is especially true for men confronting patriarchy, which is so pervasive in our society. Guilty feelings arise for many reasons. Some men feel guilty because they enjoy their privilege and don’t want to surrender it. Some feel guilty for all of the sexist and patriarchal things they have done throughout their lives. Other men feel guilty for deliberately suppressing internal thought or debate on the topic. Men who have fully acknowledged their role in patriarchy often feel guilty because they know they should be doing something, but are not. Guilt is in one sense the emotion associated with having a conscience. Every man who as owned up to his personal implication in, and responsibility for, patriarchy is going to feel guilty, and although it may be a natural reaction, it is not a positive or constructive one. Many feminists critique male guilt, for taking attention away from the effects of patriarchy and onto the man’s personal, emotional struggle. I would have to agree that guilt is completely counter-revolutionary. Feelings of guilt act as an insurmountable barrier for many men to getting involved in anti-sexist organizing. Men who have privately acknowledged their complicity with patriarchy do not want to draw public attention to it by organizing a workshop or protest: they would rather the whole thing be swept under the rug and be forgotten. These feelings of shame and guilt frequently paralyse otherwise anti-patriarchal men from actually doing something, or even from openly dealing with sexist behaviour. In other words, men who feel ashamed for their past actions use these feelings as an excuse to do nothing, which in turn makes them feel even more guilt and shame! It is important to remember that you do no have to be non-sexist to be anti-sexist. The fact is that if every man waited until he was perfectly non-sexist before doing any anti-sexism work, there would be no anti-sexist men. Every guilty man who has owned up to his part in patriarchy believes that when he feels a little bit more comfortable, he will do something. An ally would realize that for women, this is not an option. We men can choose when and where to deal with patriarchy and sexism. If it is inconvenient or embarrassing to do so, then we can simply put it off for another time. Women do not have this choice, and must deal with sexism and patriarchy 24 hours a day, every day. The only way to relieve feelings of guilt and shame around our privilege is to deal with it openly and often, and not just with our feminist or activist friends. Initially, after I realized how I benefited from, and passively gave support to patriarchy, I would discuss it with only two people: my best friend (an activist male, also struggling with the same issues) and a feminist women friend of mine. Even bringing up the topic of sexism with these two was painful. After a while I began making casual observations of patriarchy in my everyday life. I remember watching a movie with some friends and commenting on how all the women were quite passive and silent. Before I said it, I felt a surge of butterflies in my stomach! But as soon as it came out of my mouth I was glad, because I realized how easy it was. I am not going to say that I’ve entirely eliminated the butterflies in my stomach, but I can say that talking about patriarchy and privilege is much easier. For many men, there are certain topics they would not feel comfortable talking about with women, or even certain other men. This is why it is a good idea for us men to get together with other men that we trust, to talk about these issues. This doesn’t have to be something formal: there is no need to publicly announce a meeting or take minutes (although you can do that too if you want). Having a discussion with a few likeminded friends over a meal can really open things up. After recently holding two such discussions with friends, I can honestly say how much has been brought into the open. When you can admit your anxiety and guilt to friends, and they can do the same to you, everyone feels more at ease and willing to talk openly and honestly about our feelings and behaviour. Once you have gone over your own and others sexist behaviour a few times, you will feel much less guilty about drawing attention to sexist behaviour. Too often men give each other a free ride when it comes to our own sexism. But challenging each other to live up to our rhetoric about equality is very empowering. Challenging sexism in your everyday life is the most empowering thing you can do to eliminate feelings of shame and guilt around not challenging sexism! It can be something as simple as commenting that men have dominated a discussion or workshop, or wondering aloud why there are so few women present. My biggest fear used to be that someone would turn it around and accuse me of being sexist. Now, I do not worry about that, because my reply would be to say, “Yes, I have been sexist in the past, and I will probably be sexist in the future too, but I am trying to change my behaviour and unlearn sexism.” The most important thing you can do to overcome your guilt is to take ownership for all your actions, for better or worse, and make a real effort to change. #4: Taking Ownership and Taking Action Taking ownership for your actions is different than simply acknowledging them. Owning your actions means talking openly and honestly about what you have done in the past, and how you are trying to change your sexist behaviour in the future. It means understanding your behaviour, as well as the various manifestations of patriarchy in our society. Taking ownership means getting past guilt and shame, (which do nothing but paralyse us) and getting on with the grassroots face-to-face organizing and education needed to change lives and end sexism. After all, how can you expect to end sexist behaviour if you can’t talk about it openly? By talking candidly about your past sexist behaviour, other people will feel more comfortable discussing sexism and how we can deal with it. Many feminists assume men don’t care about fighting sexism, but my experience has been that when a womyn friend knows you are learning about and deconstructing your internalized sexism, they will help you out with resources, discussion, advice etc. They will call you out on your bullshit more often (which can only help), and will be more likely to challenge other people’s bullshit when you’re around. The men around you will also feel more comfortable discussing their behaviour, and even if they don’t, talking openly about (your) sexism will at least make them think about sexism and patriarchy differently. Men are in the best position to educate other men about sexism, because we have first hand knowledge of how it works and how we perpetuate it. Imagine a guest speaker addressing a classroom about domestic abuse. Who is going to be better able to reach the men in that room, a women or another man? A presentation by a womyn would inevitably lead to whispered insults and after class jokes. A man giving the same presentation might have the same result, but there is also the possibility of appealing to the students’ teenaged sense of manhood, and instilling in them the lesson that a “real man” doesn’t hit his girlfriend or wife. Hearing another man talk openly about his own sexist behaviour is a very powerful experience for other men, especially youth. Taking ownership means naming the problem – sexist and misogynist speech and action – and doing something to change it. There are so many ways we can take action to end patriarchy. If you have any younger brothers, nephews, or cousins, or if you have a son, make sure you are being a positive role model. Let them know it is ok for men to be loving and emotional. From the moment they’re born, boys are being indoctrinated to become a “real man”, and as we all know, real men do not love, cry, or care. The only legitimate feeling a “real man” can express is anger. Displaying a whole range of emotions in front of young boys lets them know that they don’t have to grow up to become a fire-fighter, a soldier or an action hero. Another thing you can do everyday, as I mentioned above, is to simply comment out loud whenever you observe a sexist act taking place, or a fucked up gender dynamic. Simply asking why there aren’t more women at an event/organization, or why none of the women present is speaking can lead to a positive discussion about sexism in your organization/club/whatever. Often times womyn are tired of constantly calling out sexism, challenging men to live up to the ideals they talk about. Having a man point out sexist behaviour is often a relief to the womyn present: the man committing this behaviour will not be able to blow it off as easily when men and women are saying the same thing. Obviously, the best thing to do when you witness sexist behaviour is to call the perpetrator on their bullshit then and there, but there are other things you can do as well. If you don’t want to, or cannot call someone out on their behaviour when it happens, try taking them aside afterwards. Using “I” statements (like, “I think what you said was really sexist” or “I think you made ____ feel really uncomfortable”) will increase your chances of having a positive outcome, and decrease the chances of the person blowing up at you. Another really important thing to do after witnessing a sexist incident is to talk with the womyn affected by it. This probably depends on how well you know her and the type of incident. You can ask her if she is OK, how she is feeling, and if she has had problems with this person before. Ask her how she would like to deal with this behaviour. Some women might want you or someone else to confront the perpetrator on their behaviour, or act as a go between. Some women might want to have a discussion with the perpetrator face to face, or with a moderator, while others will want a large group discussion with him there. The most important thing is to let her decide how she wants to deal with the situation, and to offer your help if she needs it. Even if no action is taken, knowing that other men are aware of the behaviour, and want it to end, can be a big relief to the victim. Educating yourself and others is vital. To this end, you could organize a bunch of your friends to get together once a week or one a month to discuss unlearning sexism and patriarchy. If you’re ambitious, you could have a reading club, and read one book a month on feminism or anti-sexism. If you’re really ambitious, you can organize public events about patriarchy and masculinity. How about screening a macho movie and then have a discussion afterwards? Or maybe you could invite a local women’s group to co-facilitate a workshop on unlearning sexism with you? The possibilities are endless. Conclusion: Men Are Not The Problem, Sexist Behaviour Is Being a man who is against patriarchy is not easy. You’re going to experience constant resistance from men who feel that you are a threat to them, especially if you call people on their bullshit behaviour. Other men could either ignore you or ostracize you if they think you have vendetta against them, and might accuse you of being a “man-hater” or “feminazi”. The important thing to remind these men is that you do not have a problem with them as a person, or with men in general. The problem is sexism, and sexist behaviour. It is so important to be able to separate a person from their behaviour. This might seem like an odd thing to say, but think about it: Feminism and Anti-sexism is ultimately based on the idea that sexist men can change. As anti-sexist men, changing the ways in which men think about and act towards women, and educating ourselves in order to change our own behaviour and beliefs, is the most important work we can do. Unfortunately, anti-sexist men are not only challenged by other men: Certain feminists and other women also resist the work we are doing. These women will insist that attempting to change a man’s behaviour is a complete waste of time, and that we shouldn’t waste our energy. Some will even claim that putting time and energy into educating men is itself sexist, since we should be concentrating on helping survivors of sexual assault and harassment. These are the same people who will insist that the only solution to a man who is constantly saying and doing sexist things is to kick him out from the group. Although certain situations will require a sexist man to be banned from a space or group, this should always be a last resort. Kicking him out will not change his behaviour, and will only mean that he’ll continue this behaviour somewhere else. While supporting survivors of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment is important work, it is equally vital to be educating men about how their sexist behaviour hurts women. This is the only way we will ever be able to prevent men from being sexist, whether that means interrupting womyn at a meeting, or committing rape. The key is to always remain male-positive. To be male-positive is to be affirming of men and optimistic about men, to believe that men can change and to support every man's efforts at positive change. To be male-positive is to build close relationships and supportive alliances among men. To be male-positive is to resist feeling hopeless about men and writing men off, and to reject the idea that men are essentially bad, oppressive or sexist. If a man displays sexism or homophobia, a male-positive response is to help him in trying to change this by challenging the behaviour instead of attacking that man. In my opinion, this is the essence of being an anti-sexist man: working with other men to collectively educate ourselves and change the way we think and act towards women. Nobody else is going to do it for us, and there is no point in waiting around for somebody to show us how its done, so lets roll up our sleeves and get the ball rolling. Source: AgainstAllAuthority - 16.04.2005 14:16 http://beirut.indymedia.org/ar/2005/04/2483.shtml, Accessed April 21, 2005. Author unknown