How should we talk to men about sexism?
Laurie Penny and Martin Robbins are both writers, both feminists and both happened to be sitting alone at their computers on a Friday night when the question of ‘how to talk to men about sexism without scaring them off?’ came up on Twitter. Reasoning that the best way to encourage conversation is to start one, they did.
Martin: It’s tough being a male feminist, albeit far less tough than being a female one. Some women argue that, as a man, I shouldn’t be allowed to use the term to describe myself. There are men who say that I only support feminism to get laid. But the biggest problem I have persuading other men is one word: ‘patriarchy’. I’ve read the manual, I understand what patriarchy is, completely accept that it exists; but as a word it’s a disaster. It frames feminism in opposition to men, and it fails to capture that men too are victims of status quo. Feminists are fighting a centuries-old system of power that benefits nobody but the elite. If they win everyone benefits, and in an ideal world working- and middle-class men would be natural allies in the fight – one of the many reasons the “men’s rights” movement are so tragic. My frustration is that not enough people are getting this message across to them.
Laurie: What you’re talking about is structural violence, and the difficulty people have in understanding that there’s more to sexism than individual men doing individually nasty things to individual woman. In a world where we’re encouraged to see ourselves purely as atomised individuals with no relationship to any sort of broader social context, that’s a tough distinction to make. Ironically, structural violence is just what the word ‘patriarchy’ attempts to describe – but I think one reason men jerk away from the description ‘patriarchy’ is that it’s assumed to imply that you, individual man, have a lot of power, when you don’t.
Martin: Yes, exactly.
Laurie: The trouble is that patriarchy as a structure of violence is set up to produce precisely that reaction. It’s set up to make individual men feel guilty, ashamed and resentful at their place in a system of brutal hierarchy. Feminism is fighting a system of privilege in which class and gender work together so that only a small group of mostly-men – patriarchs – actually have power. Some of these patriarchs now wear skirt-suits, but that doesn’t make the whole thing much better. But let’s get back to that feeling of mistrust around ‘patriarchy’. Why does it hurt to be told you have gender privilege? By the way, let’s stay aware that we’re two internet-based middle-class British white kids talking about this!
Martin: Well, for me when I first encountered feminists using the term, I didn’t feel very privileged, personally. And that’s exacerbated if you’re a middle-class woman (or man) and you’re explaining to a checkout worker at the Co-op that he has privilege, you’re going to get looked at a bit funny. In terms of language it’s almost designed to frame things in terms of men vs. women, where the men are the villains, even if that’s not the intent. So naturally a first instinct is to go on the defensive.
Laurie: Okay. I think it’s important to recognise that privilege isn’t the same as power – and also to acknowledge the effect of shame here. Most if not all men think of themselves as basically decent blokes. They don’t want to be complicit in a system of gendered violence.
Martin: There’s a reflected shame too. It’s not pleasant knowing that women feel vulnerable because of the behaviour of a – substantial – minority of my gender.
Laurie: And that really does suck! It sucks that because of the behaviour of, as you say, a substantial minority of your gender, if we were strangers you couldn’t come up and introduce yourself to me on the Tube without my feeling a bit threatened – just for example.
Martin: Exactly. I’m six foot two, big build, I will literally change my route to avoid, for example, following a woman up an alley.
Martin: Absolutely. Or hang back at least, or try and walk past quickly so I’m ahead of them. I do the same with elderly people too. Or basically, anyone I think might be freaked out by a big guy following them up an alley!
Laurie: The thing is that, considerate though that is, it doesn’t actually help much in the long term – because the people we really need to worry about are never going to hang back. But if we can’t talk about structures of violence for fear of putting men on the defensive, then, what can we do? Is there actually any way of talking about feminism that doesn’t make men defensive, and should that be the aim?
Martin: Well, I think there’s a question that’s rarely asked or tackled seriously, and that’s how does patriarchy affect men.
Laurie: That’s true. Feminists often repeat the mantra that it does without properly devoting time to explaining why. I guess some of us feel like we’ve enough of our own problems to sort out, and rightly so. A lot of blokes ask me ‘why do you talk about feminism? Surely it’s about equality! If you said ‘equalism’ then we’d listen!’ But it’s about so much more than equality…
Martin: If you take rape, we’re – rightly – bombarded with statistics on the prevalence of rape, convictions, etc. What I see less discussion of is why so many men are raised to rape in the first place. There’s a very similar discussion to be had around suicide, the biggest killer of my demographic. Why do so many men come out at 18 ill-equipped to deal with civilised society around them?
Laurie: I’ve just read Hanna Rosin’s ‘The End of Men,’ in which she seems to echo a very familiar argument that men are somehow falling behind, not properly equipped or evolved for modern life, whilst women are racing ahead. And it’s absolutely true that a lot of our ideals of masculinity are still based around a social model which largely doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever did: of decently-paid, stable work, industrial jobs – but it doesn’t necessarily follow that life is getting commensurately better for women.
Martin: Well, again I think there’s a danger of framing this as men vs. women in that kind of discussion.
Laurie: And that’s what a lot of people seem keen to do. Phrasing the whole thing as a giant set of scales where there’s a fixed amount of power and the more women have the less men have is absurd, but it’s convincing. It’s an argument that undermines class consciousness. Actually patriarchy isn’t disappearing at all – it’s simply being concentrated amongst fewer and fewer people.
Martin: This is where I think ‘male privilege’, while accurate, can be a distraction – because the privilege really in modern society is that men are held back maybe 10% while women are held back more. Nobody is ‘winning’ any contest aside from a shrinking elite at the top of the pyramid who have an uncanny knack of getting the proles to fight among themselves.
Laurie: So I think this is our point of contention. I don’t think talking about male privilege distracts from class, because the two are related. Capitalism is a system built on the subjugation of women, and that’s still what it runs on. The nature of labour and its distribution are changing, and unfortunately our concept of masculinity is, has always been, so keyed into winning at capitalism or within its confines that if a man doesn’t – as is happening more and more right now – he feels de-gendered, unmanned, unable to cope. That’s always been the case. It’s why unemployment has always been such a huge mental health risk for men. And it’s also why times of high unemployment tend to see an increase in male-on-female domestic violence: gender is a way of dividing and distracting people from their own class condition, but nobody can fully understand class today unless they understand gender and power and how they interact. I’m trying to think of a word that works better than patriarchy and I just can’t. Personally I love men, but I loathe patriarchs. Margaret Thatcher was a patriarch; you’re not.
Martin: Well, yes and no. I think branding is an issue, but I do struggle with a better word for it. On the other hand, maybe we’re too obsessed with the right word. Maybe just explaining to people how the existing system is fucking them over is a better way to go. Everyone can relate to that.
Laurie: There’s something so grating about being told that men would take feminists seriously if only we’d be nicer about it, make them feel safe and important and not threatened.
Martin: It also removes from men the responsibility to educate themselves and be aware of their surroundings and place in society.
Laurie: So when blokes I like do sexist things, half of me wants to yell and rage and the other half of me wants to sit them down and make them a cup of tea and quietly, calmly explain where they’re going wrong.
Martin: But then that’s an education I think a lot of people could benefit from, it’s something that should be taught in schools.
Laurie: A lot of vile sexist – and homophobic, and racist – behaviour gets learned in schools and goes unchecked, and by the time people leave they have to un-learn it all.
Martin: Completely unchecked, and it’s not just the obvious stuff, by the time you’re 18 as a man you’ve been taught to define yourself by certain values. How hard you are, never crying, and so on. The male suicide rate is linked to jobs, but there’s also a horrible loneliness about being a man in your twenties. You’re not allowed to say you’re lonely and vulnerable; it’s hard to make close friends unless you keep them from university.
Laurie: Oh. Do you think it’s like that for everyone?
Martin: Nothing’s ever like that for everyone, but I think it’s like it for a lot of men. I think generally men without families don’t have the same support structures women do, on average.
Laurie: I’d eyebrow-raise at that, but then I hang out around a lot of touchy-feely, pinko-socialist queers who talk a lot about building communities, so forgive my ignorance. It does seem like it could be lonely, being a bloke.
Martin: And I think that’s a function of how we’re raised. Look at male role models in popular culture – they tend to be lone wolves or alpha males in a group. Loneliness can be hard to define. You can be surrounded by people and be alone. The NHS have some good research on men my age, one of the biggest problems is not being able to discuss their feelings, and an inability to seek help.
Laurie: Yes, although it wasn’t always like that. Again, the model of masculinity changes according to what success and power is supposed to look like. Sixty years ago it was being the head of a household, an important role in your organisation or company or union, a pillar of your community. Now success for men is far more likely to mean lonely entrepreneurism. Seeking help is seen as weak.
Martin: Batman wouldn’t seek help.
Laurie: Batman doesn’t need to seek help, he has a butler.
Martin: And a billion dollars.
Laurie: And an enormous tower with his name on it.
Martin: Yes. No issues there at all.
Laurie: But seriously, what about sex?
Martin: Well, I don’t know you that well.
Laurie: Hah. Seriously, sex is a huge sticking point when it comes to talking to men about sexism. Unfortunately, there are still a significant proportion of men and women whose only real intimate contact with the opposite sex is through dating, and through fucking. So, the misunderstanding, hurt and heartbreak that come with that often color men’s understanding of women, and vice versa – the romantic-industrial complex encourages heterosexual people, particularly men, to see every member of the opposite sex as potentially interchangeable – ‘all women are cruel’; ‘all men are bastards’.
Martin: Well sex and control/power are inextricably bound. If you’re brought up to believe you’re James Bond, and then women refuse to sleep with you, that doesn’t compute very easily. So then you have men who basically resent the power they believe women hold over them, which is dangerous. Look at how people are brought up with this. It’s no fucking wonder that the rates of sexual assault are where they are. On the one hand you have women who are told sexuality is the most important thing they can have/wield. On the other, men raised to cede control to their penises and told their value is measured in their ability to dominate their surroundings.
Laurie: I’ve had men tell me that actually it’s women who have all the power, because they have the power of sexual refusal. Women are also informed that this is the only power we have or are expected to want – and ironically, of course, when we do say ‘no’ we’re rarely believed. Sexual refusal is the battleground, and if that’s women’s main power, it’s a shit power to have – particularly as it mainly works for young, hot women. For a lot of men, though, it seems like ‘women who I want to have sex with’ are the only ones admitted into the category ‘woman’ in the first place. Sexual refusal as a limited, contingent form of control is double bullshit for women and girls, because it means that if we actually happen to like sex and seek it out, as most of us would were we free to do so, we’re judged harshly for it. We like to think we live in a hugely sexually free culture, but we don’t. We don’t.
Martin: Well, that’s another point I wanted to hit. With men’s magazines, say, we’ve developed this weird lad culture that’s almost grown up in opposite to feminism – except it’s counter-productive and infantilising. And in a weird way a lot of examples of ‘rape culture’ – Brendan O’Neil’s “how can I help wolf-whistling at women” for example – are immensely infantilising. It’s like being told you’re a dribbling animal, so weak-willed that you’re guided by your penis. This weird clique of writers at magazines gradually fading out of fashion have an almost hysterical need to define what is and isn’t allowed to be sexy, and it seems not to bear much relationship to what people choose in real life. I remember, growing up, a lot of pressure on finding the right type of woman attractive – namely FHM’s sexiest 100 women, which as an exercise is like asking all humanity what their favourite foods are and then blending all the results into a sort of bland gruel.
Laurie: I like that. Ever thought about writing for a living?
Martin: Not sure there’s any money in it!
Martin: But seriously, we talk about the objectification of women – on the flip side of that there’s a generation of men being told “these are the women you’re allowed to objectify.” Though I’m not claiming equivalency there in terms of harm done!
Laurie: So what you’re saying is that men are socialised to feel bad if they don’t participate in a culture that hurts and objectifies women?
Martin: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. They reach adulthood in the 21st century, equipped with a 20th century education. I can’t think of a men’s magazine that covers these issues. I can’t even think of a columnist that covers these issues. In fact when I wrote about the FHM list being insulting to men I think I may have been about the first male journalist to ever do so. Ask me to name outspoken feminist male writers and by golly gosh I’d struggle without spending an evening on Google. Feminism can be a daunting area for men. Feminism has its own language, codes, like any cliquey area of writing. I’m keenly aware of blundering in as a man and saying stupid things, it put me off writing about it for a long time until I had the confidence. I was nervous about this chat. I’m keenly aware that you could probably make mincemeat of me on this topic.
Laurie: Unfortunately, it is true that there’s a small but serious risk of getting painfully jumped on if you get something wrong, particularly with the internet.
Martin: You almost need a sort of training arena where you can say stupid things to feminists and not get shot down in public. When I was struggling to understand patriarchy, I found feminist blogs unhelpful. I was asking questions I now realise were a bit stupid, but out of naivety rather than anything else.
Laurie: I’ve thought about this a lot and unfortunately, I do think female feminists are going to have to be a bit more forgiving and generous in our corrections from time to time, if we can do that without diluting the message – firm but fair. Which of course sucks balls, because we’ve spent our lives being told to be forgiving and generous and make men feel better.
Martin: Well, it’s a balance, because while I agree with that, men also need to…er…man up, and accept that we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves. We do need male feminists, but it’s hard to know where to start, especially as a writer. Plus, feminism shouldn’t be just for women. I’ve had feminists tell me I’m not allowed to call myself a feminist, and I hate that.
Laurie: Feminists who treat feminism as a special club that only they get to decide membership of can bog off.
Martin: Why are more men not talking about this? Where are the spaces where men can stand up and say – actually, this is fucked up? I wish feminism was seen as a discipline in which we discussed men’s issues as much as women’s.
Laurie: We need some more outspoken male feminists. Maybe you should be one. I’ll train you, we can be like Pai Mei and Beatrix. I’m Pai Mei.
[Insert elaborate training montage where Martin is made to climb an enormous mountain of privilege-comprehension, dodge the tar-pits of in-fighting and finally destroy Rick Santorum in hand-to-hand combat armed only with a copy of The Dialectic of Sex ]
Martin: *gasps* I…I know feminism.
Laurie: Now you’re ready.Tagged in: class, domestic violence, feminism, gender, male privilege, mental health, patriarchy, rape, sex, sexism, suicide, women
Recent Posts on Notebook
- World Aids Day 2013: No time for complacency
- Barking Blondes: The health of the Hound Pound
- On the ground in the Philippines: It will be years until there’s even a semblance of normality for the people affected
- Barking Blondes: Chewing on technology
- The true cost of divorce: The growing problem of hidden assets
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter