This is a guest column written by Kevin Carty. Originally posted on Feminists-at-Large on 28 August, 2013.
For anyone who’s spent at least a minimal amount of time within the pages, blogs, feeds, and conversations of modern feminism, it should be more than apparent that feminism can no longer survive and succeed as a discrete, limited endeavor. Intersectionality has been a buzzword and important focal point of the movement for decades. Millions of feminists have come together to fight for the rights of the LGBTQ community. The best feminists today are inclusive of and fighting for the rights of trans individuals. And, altogether, if you’re a feminist today, it is unlikely that you are only focusing on the plight of women who are of your class, race, and orientation. And if you are so exclusive, it is likely that you are receiving endless, justified criticism.
No, hopefully, your feminism is broad, willing to include and appreciate the endlessly unique narratives of oppression that you will come to hear if you come to listen. And hopefully your feminism is humble too, willing to acknowledge the privileges and particularities of your own perspective whenever you weigh in on an issue.
These two directives are kind of the hard and fast rules of modern feminism, as far as I see them, and they exist for good reason. They are the modern effects of feminism’s past failures, the best responses that we feminists have to the blindnesses and biases which have afflicted our movement since the very beginning. Furthermore, for those of us who are privileged and who attempt to write about feminism, these are the rules by which we should live if we wish to be moral, modern feminists.
But, now that I have used ‘we’ and ‘our’ to talk about this ongoing movement, we get to the point where I should explain my own feminism, and my relationship to these rules. As a man, there are understandably a few questions that I receive whenever I call myself a feminist.
Does your feminism subtract, or detract from the efforts of female feminists?
Do you need to be a feminist?
Are you too privileged to write and act against social injustice?
Can you be a male feminist?
Or (worse) should you be a male feminist?
I can answer all these questions, or at least avoid them, through the hard and fast rules above. I can be broad; I can be humble; I can summarily check my privilege as best as possible. But, that doesn’t feel like enough in terms of an answer. Yeah, as long as I do these things, I can be a ‘good’ feminist even though I’m such a privileged man. But that doesn’t sufficiently explain why I identify as a feminist, and why I want to be one. I have a better answer for that question, and it has to do with the interconnectedness of gender justice.
Feminism has always been an action-oriented movement. The fight against disenfranchisement, domestic violence, the opposition to working women, sexual violence, the lack of reproductive healthcare and rights, the wage gap and the sexist exclusivity of the high-paying boys’ clubs of the world, these are the battles which prove the necessity of our movement and keep us going. But, additionally, we are a movement of ideas, because beneath those obvious violences also lurk the gendered ideologies and expectations which drive such injustice, ideas that are dominant, hurtful, and self-perpetuating. So, we attack the idea that women are meant to take supporting roles in life, the purity myth,the sexual double standard, and the socialized lies that women are disinclined to traditionally logical and mathematic endeavors.
And, here is where interconnectedness comes in. These violences and the concepts which undergird them are not simply perpetrated and maintained by men to the detriment of women. Additionally and accordingly, these violences exist alongside violences that men feel and inflict upon each other as a result of gender ideology, and these ideas were all developed in tandem with conceptions of masculinity that affect and hurt men just as related conceptions of femininity affect women.
For instance, consider the social expectations surrounding female virginity, the Madonna-Whore complex, slut-shaming and the double standard; consider the generalized ideas of female sexuality that constrain and hurt women, each of them based in the patriarchal belief that women are not interested in sex, and that they should be pure, angelic, virginal beings who are tainted by sex and sexuality. This paradigm of sexuality does not live in a vacuum; with it goes the belief that men are grossly sexual beings, defined by aggressive desires for release and horniness that they can’t control. And independent of the implications of this idea in regards to victim-blaming and leniency toward rapists, this idea that we men are wild sexual beasts has great and profoundly negative effects on the vast majority of us men who are not violently sexual.
It should go without saying, but we are in control of our sexual drives. Our horniness is not some monolithic presence that deprives us of personal choice. We are not wild, sexual animals. And when the culture around us works to make that argument again and again, demonizing our sexuality saying that women must always say no to us, that we all think with the ‘wrong head,’ and that rape and sexual harassment are built into our genes and driven by our hormones, that is profoundly, disgustingly disrespectful. And when we hear this again and again, I think that many of us come to believe its truth and unwillingly buy into this myth of male sexuality. Some of us might unwittingly feel that we can not and should not control ourselves, and some of us, I believe more of us, come to fear ourselves. If we are taught to believe that we are sexually aggressive beasts who act outside of conscious control, what reasonable response is there other than self-fear?
Likewise, think about the larger frames of social role and purpose that circumscribe work and family for women: the overwhelming share of domestic work that working women shoulder, the fact that women are underpaid relative to men by eighteen cents to the dollar, the dearth of women in leadership positions across industries. The understanding of femininity that argues for women to stay home and support is obviously also built upon a societal devotion to the male breadwinner, the chivalric man who provides for his woman and finds purpose in doing so.
To many, this role doesn’t seem to be obviously problematic for men, but I think that ignores quite a bit. Noah Berlatsky has written that feminism has given him more options because it has given his wife more opportunity. Because feminism continues to propel more women into the workforce, so is it ending the requirement that we men be nothing but the sole providers for our families, allowing us to be better dads, independent freelancers, stay-at-home parents, and loving and loved caregivers. Further, when men are seen, as is the case in patriarchal understandings of masculinity, as being needed because they provide for women, there is a long-term detrimental effect of that need to be needed. When that form of utility is the only role we are praised and heralded for, it becomes increasingly difficult to find other sources of meaning, whether they be in close fulfilling relationships, independent work, caring fatherhood, or even love itself. Noah Brand has written that because we only know how to be needed, we have trouble being wanted. We have trouble being truly, freely loved because we’ve only ever been needed.
And lastly, consider the rampancy of domestic and sexual violence, the vast majority of it committed by men. This phenomenon should be shocking. The numbers alone are unconscionable; one in two women have been victims of sexual violence and one in 5 have been victims of rape. Fighting gender violence has, up until now, been seen as a women’s issue. Not only should this be a men’s issue, as Jackson Katz argues in this video, because it is our friends, brothers, sons, and fathers who are acting out sexual violence and because it is in our power to stop and change them. But, moreover, this epidemic of violence is rooted in social structures that have hurt most of us men throughout our lives just as it has hurt the women around us.
The same all male groups which consciously and unconsciously maintain rape culture through rape jokes, sexist language, and the validation of rape myths, are the same male groups that maintain themselves through exclusionary, bullying behavior. The devaluation of women and womanhood that is a central part of rape and sexual violence is closely related to the devaluation, by men, of all those who are not masculine, whether they be female, gay, trans, or simply different. This need to otherize, victimize, and bully comes from the anxious state of masculinity as constructed, an identity which always need to be proven, and which is most easily proven by identifying those who are non-masculine as a sort of empty distraction. Many of us have experienced the aggression of these groups in our fraternities, high schools, military squads, and sports teams, and it can be an incredibly difficult, hurtful experience.
I am a feminist, ever-opposed to sexism, passionately supportive of reproductive freedom, an ally and supporter to all victims of sexual violence. I will march in SlutWalks, work against harassment and violence, use my privilege to raise the voices of my female friends and allies, and use my maleness to engage and the change the opinions of other men.
But, in addition to my ally-ship and active support of the women around me, I’m here for men too. The interconnectedness of the gender constructs that feminism is uniquely successful at identifying and fighting means that we have a direct interest in making gender justice a reality, for our girlfriends, female friends, daughters, mothers, and wives, but also for our sons fathers, friends, brothers, and fellow men the world over. I am a feminist, but I am more than a male ally. I am here for me, too.