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How To Be A Male-Identified Feminist And Mean It

Evan Pensis |
June 24, 2014 | 9:05 p.m. PDT



When I began working with fellow students to address sexual assault at USC, my eyes were opened in many ways. Heralding from a high school largely blind to feminism, I was suddenly introduced to a community with a keen awareness of microaggressions, nonspecific personal pronouns and a critical eye on every sentiment expressed within its vicinity. 

At USC, I found a group of highly educated, deeply passionate activists devoted to fighting innumerable forms of oppression, but as I began to work with a student group dedicated to supporting survivors of sexual violence, I noticed a growing trend.

Among the activists in the community, there appeared to be male self-proclaimed feminists who didn’t practice what they preached. A recent Black Girl Dangerous article recounted an extreme example of this situation, in which a feminist was raped by a person who identified himself as a male feminist and ally. The term feminist confers a level of trust among female activists and for this reason, has too often been denigrated by self-proclaimed male feminists into a pick-up line. Of the student leaders addressing campus sexual assault at USC, half of them disclosed to me that they had been preyed on by male, self-proclaimed feminists. Not only do actions like these delegitimize the feminist movement but they also reveal an all-too-familiar misinterpretation of marginalized voices.

SEE ALSO: 7 Famous Women Who Have Turned Their Backs On Feminism

Let’s talk about some national male activist movements that have garnered attention over the past year.

The most controversial group is called The Good Men Project and seemed to do some pretty awesome work—until founder Tom Matlack found himself in hot water as a Twitter comment thread revealed yet another gas-lighting male activist stomping out every feminist perspective by calling them irrational or dramatic.

Other responses to violence against women include Men Stopping Violence, Bro Models and the White Ribbon Campaign, which focus on programming specifically for men that examine ways to stop violence within their immediate worlds. Bro Models even makes a call to “mobilize” men to end violence against women, utilizing age-old war imagery to fabricate a masculinized approach to eradicating male violence. Apart from the situational irony of imbuing a movement that is, at its core, anti-misogyny with an inflamed sense of masculine power, “Bro Models” and projects like it all contribute to a much subtler element of misogyny as well. 

In theory, I understand the desire to segregate the approach to gender-based violence. A safe space in which men can honestly and openly discuss masculinity seems most easily achieved when the audience is limited solely to men. Additionally, this model counters the dated opinion that violence against women is somehow only a women’s issue.

Yet, rather than working to eliminate the boundaries prescribed by gender at large, these organizations have effectively risen to prominence by disavowing women’s (and people existing outside the gender binary) agency to stop gender-based violence. In this way, male activists of feminism can form protectorates to “save women,” end gender-based violence and instill progressive values about “nontraditional female roles” in society (to quote Men Stopping Violence’s recent Father’s Day Campaign).

SEE ALSO: Mormon Church Excommunicates Feminist

And while these outcomes seem positive, the underlying principle is that men must address gender-based violence because women don’t possess the power to address it. This is the same principle that fuels chivalry and perpetuates a continual mode of diminishing agency among every non-cis-gendered male. 

In fact, most discussions of misogyny that occur within exclusively male company are inevitably going to be narrow and flawed. As Hugo Schwyzer put it in his resignation letter to The Good Men Project, “power often conceals itself from those who possess it.”

In this way, even within spaces created for equality, misinterpretations can go undetected and gradually revert to oppressive jargon that further oppresses the cohort for whom such a space was even created (almost exactly how the GMP was tarnished). 

Feminist colleagues of mine have told me numerous times how, during discussions about sexism, they are not only distrusted or controverted (for making “mountains-out-of-molehills”), but are often force-fed an alternative reading of misogyny by male activists who tend to speak more than they listen. For similar publicized coverage, see here and here.

Only through a collective, inclusive dialogue will people be able to address the issues that continue to thwart us from reaching equality. Only when male activists accept that they can never experience misogyny in the same way as those whom it oppresses, can they strive to learn more about misogyny and how it harms women and trans-identified people. The majority role of male feminists should be listening, rather than speaking—to ensure that men’s voices have no way of crowding out the voices of the oppressed. Acknowledging one’s privilege is not a task accomplished in one day, nor is it exploiting a rarified moment of newfound awareness as a soapbox on which one speaks out, and thereby, over the voices of the oppressed. 

Following this inclusive approach to ending gender-based violence, A Call to Men promotes gender equality not only through programming specific to one gender’s experience, but by expanding that through programming focused on co-ed conversation. Furthermore, organizations like Hollaback demonstrate gender-inclusive approaches to eliminate street harassment and other degrading behavior. 

In my experience, allyship is more about providing a safe space for voices to be heard than trying to reinterpret the message of the voices themselves. While there is a necessity to use one’s privilege to amplify messages that are overlooked or ignored, I cannot stress enough the importance of listening—and most often, listening without an agenda. In this way, activists and allies can strive to eliminate systemic forms of oppression through a constant process of self-reflection and increased awareness.

If we are to change an environment in which gender-based violence and the fear of said violence fuels our interpersonal relations with men, women, womyn, trans-identifying, genderqueer and androgyne individuals, then we cannot limit the brainstorming to one “side” alone. 

Reach Contributor Evan Pensis here.



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