Feminism is for men too

Kate Bystrova

Global Insight Women

Feminism is an emotive term that many people – men and women – don’t want to be associated with. That’s just because its meaning has been lost through so much petty squabbling

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The term feminism has a bad rap in some arenas. When it comes to discussing it, many articles in the Western media begin with the question “why is feminism a dirty word?” – and there is good reason for this. Speaking with young women in the UK you will often hear that yes, they believe in equality, but “I’m not a feminist”.

“The problem with feminism isn’t with the idea itself, but everything that surrounds it. From the misunderstanding of what the term actually means, to the idea that it is only for women,” writes Jack Fletcher in The Huffington Post. “In fact, feminism is a threat to the way things have been for centuries, one which affects the demographic I belong to particularly: the white, straight, middle-class male.”

The dictionary definition of feminism states its aim as achieving equality between men and women. But there is a distinct difference between the dictionary definition of feminism and how it is perceived and sometimes practised in the real world. As with all groups, feminists encompass different schools of thought, from extremists to those who loudly advocate for the cause without actually understanding its premise. For instance, a graduate I met in 2014, who identified as a feminist rather vocally, often went headfirst into gender-related discussions by loudly announcing: “Women are better than men”. That is not what feminism is.

Even in its heyday, feminism was never that popular, as playwright and pastor Kristine Holmgren writes in The Guardian: “Make no mistake, the work we did to bring about social change was done at great personal sacrifice. Every time a woman rose to speak for freedom of choice, a personal reputation was ruined. Even so, my generation of women thought nothing of defending the rights of other women at the price of our own futures.”

For many people, feminism is synonymous with pedantry, misandry and overreaction. In the West many think that we reached and then overshot equality, with women instead receiving preferential treatment.

This perception of feminism as driving forward rights for women while crushing men underfoot has led to the creation of various men’s rights groups, some of which raise perfectly valid points and draw attention to men’s interests in fields where they may be compromised. For instance, UK organisation Fathers for Justice advocates men’s rights for access to their children while Whiteribbon.org raises awareness on domestic violence regardless of gender and age.

“We are living in a world of huge double standards when it comes to domestic violence and our men are on the bad end of the deal,” reads a post on Whiteribbon.org. “When a man commits domestic violence he is punished very harshly. But when a woman commits domestic violence she gets cheers, chuckles or is all too often ignored.”

The idea that violence against men is not taken seriously is a common theme for those advocating men’s rights.

“Male victims are almost invisible to the authorities such as the police, who rarely can be prevailed upon to take the man’s side,” John Mays of men’s rights campaign group Parity told The Guardian. “Their plight is largely overlooked by the media, in official reports and in government policy, for example in the provision of refuge places – 7,500 for females in England and Wales but only 60 for men.”

In 25 per cent of reported incidents of partner abuse, police took no action.

“It’s important to remember that domestic violence, the type of abuse where you are living in utter fear of your partner, isn’t a one-off incident: it’s about ongoing and repeated violence. Women make up 89 per cent of those who experience four or more incidents of domestic violence,” writes Polly Neate, chief executive of the UK’s national women’s domestic violence charity Women’s Aid, in The Telegraph.

“We have been told by local Women’s Aid federation organisations that they are funded locally on the basis they have to provide services to male victims, and they are rarely used despite putting time and money into promoting this. This is happening at the same time that female victims and their children are being turned away because of a lack of space and funding,” says Neate, while emphasising that domestic violence is never acceptable, regardless of who it’s happening to.

“It still surprises me that often when I am talking to someone about the lifesaving work that we do at Women’s Aid, the response that I usually get is ‘but what about the men?’”

But the problem with many, if not the majority, of men’s rights groups is that they partake in a wilfully blind critique of feminism, using the movement as a scapegoat for their problems while ignoring the fact that we still live in a patriarchy. It is the reaction of a privileged group to having some of those privileges officially revoked.

The National Coalition for Men (NCFM) in the USA, for example, argues that sex discrimination affects males as well as females. Coalition member Alan Millard wrote the following about the 2014 Santa Barbara shooting carried out by 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, who had released a YouTube manifesto which outlined his resentment of women, racial minorities and interracial couples prior to the shooting; had been seeing a therapist since the age of eight; and had been consistently bullied by classmates since ninth grade.

“Female bullying of young men/older boys is a problem – commonly conveyed through rejection and humiliation in movies, other media, and is evident on college campuses – just as any other form of bullying,” writes Millard. “The counterpart hatred of men is the cause of [Rodger’s] condition, no different than the other forms of bullying that have resulted in school killings. Women are commonly cruel in rejecting males, and why is this female counterpart to the issue not acknowledged and addressed?

“Some feminist sources even try to say in response that males are taught they are entitled to sex with women. However, this is as ridiculous as saying women are taught they need food to be healthy.”

Too often, instead of working through a discussion, people become defensive for the simple reason that they feel they are being targeted or personally reprimanded – whichever side of the gender-rights fence they are on. And then the conversation devolves into a contest of “who’s more oppressed?”.

A male student told The Guardian in 2012: “I feel like ‘feminism’ is often used as a cloak for thinly veiled attacks on men. Many – not all – people who identify themselves as feminists seem to be self-serving and employ double standards. Feminism doesn’t seem to be about equal rights any more. Women, legally speaking, have equal rights. Discrimination still exists but the feminist movement has moved to a point where the aim isn’t equality, it’s empowerment. They want to gain power and ‘punish’ men.”

The NotAllMen hashtag that was popular in 2013-14, which had at its heart responses to the effect of “well I don’t do those things”, was a prime example of people taking an immediate defensive stance against what they saw as personal confrontation instead of listening and participating in a discussion about how our society treats different groups.

“Feminists pretend to be for equality, I never heard them fight against MGM [male genital mutilation], while they love to pretend men have full rights over their own bodies,” reads a post on Men’s Rights Halifax, a Nova Scotian men’s rights group, attacking feminists rather than the issue of MGM that it claims to address.

Laura Bates wrote in The Guardian about three recent instances of gender inequality and the reactions to them: “Each features somebody grappling with the accusation of inequality and, instead of reflecting on that problem, seeking to blame or ridicule the voices pointing it out. Flailing wildly against feminism for vocally pointing out sexual violence and gender inequality is a last-gasp attempt to retain a privilege that is being threatened. And these ridiculous arguments only start to come out when that privilege begins to be eroded – in other words, this backlash is a sign that things are changing.”

I’m not saying that women’s rights groups are innocent in taking similarly defensive stances – far from it. It’s a problem that comes with subscribing to any set of ideals. But here’s the thing: we live in a society that was designed to put men first. Whether or not a person is wilfully sexist, they were still born into a society where one gender – or race or social class – is held in greater regard. We have all been influenced by the structure into which we were born and, while this is gradually changing, things are by no means equal.

Globally, women “hold top political offices, lead major companies, wield considerable economic power as entrepreneurs and consumers, and are even, as a group, better educated than their male peers,” reads A Wake-Up Call for Female Leadership in Europe, a study by McKinsey and Company. “Yet in most European countries, women are employed at rates far lower than men are. They are also underrepresented in positions of leadership: women continue to be conspicuously absent in Europe’s parliaments and board rooms.”

Journalist and radio talk show host Rebecca Juro told The Huffington Post that she knew her transition from male to female was finally visible when men began looking down on her.

“I used to say that the way I know I’m being accepted as a woman is when the average men’s estimation of my intelligence drops by 50 per cent,” said Juro. “When I was living as male, I didn’t have a problem with acceptance. I didn’t have a problem being respected on the job or any of those kinds of things. And then when I transitioned, I lost what people call ‘male privilege’, which is a certain level of acceptance and respect you get just because you are a male.”

She said that when she worked in retail, pre-transition, her authority was rarely questioned.

“I would go in and say, ‘Okay, here’s how we’re gonna do this’, and there was never a question. There was never a problem,” she says. “When I started working as a woman a few years later [people were like], ‘Well, wait a minute – what about this and what about that?’”

I once heard someone explain it like this: imagine a city where the roads are built to accommodate cars. Now, there are cars and bicycles using these roads, but, because the infrastructure was built around cars’ needs, it is significantly harder for cycles to get around. Narrowing the roads by painting in cycle paths is the quick and easy solution because it doesn’t require much of an alteration to the existing system – which is still based around the car – but what is needed is a complete restructuring of the infrastructure so that both groups are accommodated for based upon their own needs.

Well-known American feminist, ethicist and psychologist Carol Gilligan described the problem of how we raise girls and boys in an interview with Feminism.com:

“Patriarchy is used now as sort of a code word to mean men’s oppression of women – it’s not! It’s a system, a hierarchy where hieros means priest and where the priest (the hieros) is a father (pater). It’s an order of living where a father, or some fathers control access to truth, or salvation, or knowledge,” says Gilligan. “And it affects men as well as women.

“My research shows it affects men at a much earlier age – the pressure on little boys to internalise a patriarchal voice occurs around five. And the pressure – the shaming of boys – ‘you’re gay, you’re a girl, you’re a mama’s boy’ – it’s almost like a strategy of the patriarchy to characterise it as though men are the victors and women are the losers. It’s a system of oppression that cuts off everyone from parts of themselves. It makes a line between men and women, and between men and boys, between men and children, between some men and other men.”

In order to change the way that we treat one another, we must first become aware of who we are. There is a big problem with just labelling oneself as a something-ist, because once this happens the something-ism becomes part of one’s identity. As a result, any discussion of the values involved in the concept can be perceived as a personal affront, an attack on who that person is. Immediately there is a personal and collective expectation that, as a member of a group, you represent the values of that group.

Instead of continuing to exist as a person with millions of individual ideas, one’s identity becomes compartmentalised into set parts – feminist, capitalist, vegetarian – each of which have their own assumed beliefs and ideas. What this means is that it’s easy for a person to find themselves defending issues that they don’t personally agree with simply on a misguided principle. Everything else becomes the evil ‘other’ that should not even be considered.

This submergence in group identity in which the loudest rule can easily lead to a distortion of ideas or a loss of personal perspective. It becomes harder and harder to identify the flaws in one’s ideology and the urge to defend such flaws increases. And this is a problem.

But if we look past the ‘-isms’ it becomes evident that so many of our problems stem from an inability to approach people as individuals. Our problem is that people, all people, are still born into roles that are defined by factors such as gender. Tony Porter, founder of violence prevention organisation A Call to Men, said the following about his experience growing up in a set of expectations as a man:

“I grew up in New York City, between Harlem and the Bronx. Growing up as a boy, we were taught that men had to be tough, had to be strong, had to be courageous, dominating – no pain, no emotions, with the exception of anger – and definitely no fear; that men are in charge, which means women are not; that men lead, and you should just follow and do what we say; that men are superior; women are inferior; that men are strong; women are weak; that women are of less value, property of men, and objects, particularly sexual objects. I’ve later come to know that to be the collective socialisation of men, better known as the ‘man box’.

“See this man box has in it all the ingredients of how we define what it means to be a man. Now I also want to say, without a doubt, there are some wonderful, wonderful, absolutely wonderful things about being a man. But at the same time, there’s some stuff that’s just straight up twisted, and we really need to begin to challenge, look at it and really get in the process of deconstructing, redefining, what we come to know as manhood.”

Of course, it isn’t only men who grow up into predetermined roles – we’re all familiar with the problems women face with societal expectations of beauty, demeanour, intelligence, submission and so on. But what is a major problem that is so often overlooked is that women are still so frequently seen as victims with no capacity for decision-making, people who are only capable of reacting to the actions of men. Even Emma Watson’s recent speech to the UN on behalf of the women’s rights organisation He For She illustrated such thinking:

“We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes, but I can see that they are, and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence. If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men didn’t control, women wouldn’t need to be controlled.”

Such thinking, proliferated even by well-intentioned gender rights groups, is harmful and takes power away from women by renouncing their autonomy and placing the blame on men. All this does is feed the feeling of confrontation and hostility that so many people already feel when they hear the word ‘feminism’.

Ingrained gender roles need to be identified and we must work to iron them out, starting with our children. We can’t continue to teach children that to ‘man up’ is strong and to be ‘a girl’ is weak.

“Join healthy resistance on the part of children, so it doesn’t go on for another generation,” says Carol Gilligan. “And doing that means becoming active in making the world one in which the capacities that are part of our human nature, that is, the relational capacities that are necessary for democracy and peace, can be educated, developed, flourish.

“And the children will change us – and that’s the part of doing this for the children, that’s the beauty of it, it’s almost built into the life cycle. If you really are serious about raising a healthy child, psychologically, you have to become an activist now.”

About the author:

Kate Bystrova is the features editor of Global - the International Briefing


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