men, masculinities and gender politics

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Some introductory thoughts on involving men in feminism

Every so often, someone asks me how men should get involved in feminism. It’s not that surprising, as I’m a sociologist of gender and social movements, specializing in men and feminism. Still, I always struggle with how to respond because there are a huge number of ways men can get involved in feminism: teaching other guys about the issues, fundraising, volunteering at a sexual assault/domestic violence center or other women’s rights organization, and advocating for feminist policies in school, at work, as well as at the local, state, and federal government levels. There have been men engaging in women’s rights movements since the first days of the women's rights movement in the United States, and probably before. There are organizations dedicated to exactly this project, throughout the United States (Men Can Stop Rape, Men Against Violence, A Call to Men, etc.) and all over the world (MenEngage Network, Sonke Gender Justice Network, White Ribbon Campaign, etc.)!

The tricky part, though, is that they all start with genuinely listening to feminist women (the internet is great for this), unlearning the sexist socialization that everyone has, and standing up for the women around you—which can often mean standing up to the guys around you. It takes time and guidance to unlearn the sexist things we've been taught, but it’s necessary because they get in the way of being able to do a good job. If you are beginning to get involved, here are some key things to remember:

  • you have to believe women about their experiences of sexism—just because you don't see it, doesn't mean it doesn't happen.
  • because women usually have much more direct experiences of sexism, they should usually be the ones calling the shots; especially when you’re still learning, be prepared to play a supporting role, and don’t make yourself the center of attention.
  • sexism isn't just about being mean to someone because of their sex, it's about a whole system of power and privilege in society. This means that we should prioritize the ways the system harms women, because women are disproportionately hurt by it, but that guys will benefit from ending sexism, too.
  • if the conversation gets uncomfortable to you, it's probably because you're starting to recognize that things you've been taught, maybe even things you've done, are sexist. Now you have to decide if you're going to use that as an excuse to exit the conversation or as an opportunity to become a better person.
  • male privilege is real, and until you learn to recognize and curtail it, you should definitely spend a lot more time listening and learning than talking and acting.

That last point is simultaneously crucial, difficult, and often very frustrating for new allies. Often when men first begin to recognize and acknowledge the existence of male privilege we want to get rid of it, overcome it, quit it, and thereby absolve ourselves of the guilt and responsibility of contributing to (and benefiting from) gender inequality. Unfortunately, “overcoming" privilege isn't a thing, because privilege doesn't only happen when you interrupt a woman or take up more than your fair share of space; it also happens when other people assume that you're smarter, more capable, more professional, etc. because of your gender (or race, or class, etc.), and when you benefit from the way society was set up by people of your gender (or race, or class, etc.). Because you can't control what other people are thinking about you or how they treat you, let alone how society was set up before you were born, you can't personally 'overcome' privilege (sociologists describe this by saying it's a structural issue, not only an individual one).

What we can do is learn how to reduce our own behaviors that reinforce our privilege, how to respond when we notice we're benefitting from privilege, and how to undermine other peoples' tendency to privilege us over women and girls. With this knowledge we can then leverage our privilege to support marginalized groups and create societal change that reduces gender inequality overall.

(Many thanks to all the women and men in my life who helped me learn this stuff and encouraged me to pass it along to others, and especially to Taylor Malone, Lilith Brouwers, Will Donaldson, and Michael Flood for their direct input here)