Anyone who has spent time in a feminist Mormon housewives discussion forum knows how frequently arguments break out over whether a new member has mansplained. So when I saw that the fMh blog had published an article addressed exclusively to wannabe male feminists, I hoped they would publish advice to help new members avoid these miscommunications. Instead, Reese Dixon managed to produce one of the most sexist and narrow-minded articles I’ve yet to see from a contemporary Mormon feminist.
In the article Dixon offers a list of advice for male feminists, most of which boils down to one repeated phrase: it’s not about you. Whether the issue is domestic violence or sexual violence, Dixon argues, it’s not about men. It’s about women. But is that really the message we want to send to new feminists?
Don’t get me wrong – I understand why Dixon wrote the article, and some of her advice is good for anyone who is new to a discussion, especially for a new member whose privilege can blind them to the issues the group is fighting. And I’ve heard unmerited complaints of feminist sexism too. But most of those complaints come from the kind of miscommunication that happens when a person is new to a discussion and doesn’t understand the group dynamics.
So here’s my advice to any new feminist, particularly feminists who happen to be male:
1. First and Foremost, Listen.
When I first encountered the Womanist movement, which focuses on issues that impact women of color, I felt just as hurt as many men feel when they’re new to feminism. Womanist articles seemed to generalize unfairly about white people, and I felt like nothing I said was interpreted the way I meant it. And yeah, it was tempting to storm off and write off womanism altogether. But here’s what I did instead: I listened. I followed womanist blogs and read womanist articles for two years, without commenting. I just read. By the end of those two years, I understood that complaints about “whiteness” weren’t about me as an individual. And I understood why claiming “but I’m color blind; I don’t see race” was a sign of ignorance, not of superiority. And I understood how to enter the conversation.
I’m not saying you should take two years before speaking up online, but just keep in mind that the internet can make even neutral comments sound like rage, so it’s a really good idea to take at least two months to observe the conversation before you jump in.
2. Discuss Male Victimhood, with Sincerity.
Some of the best and worst advice from Dixon’s piece shows up in the same paragraph. On the topic of male victimhood, she says:
“So in a conversation about sexual harassment, quell the impulse to relate issues of male victimhood. It can happen, but with no where NEAR the frequency of female victimhood. So stop derailing the conversation.”
The problem with this advice is that men have every right to discuss male victimhood within a feminist setting. In fact, I think we need to spend more time talking about male victimhood. Why?
- Because sexual assault is sexual assault, and it’s wrong no matter who it happens to.
- Because studies show that male victims of sexual assault have trauma that is compounded by the fallacious stereotype that sexual assault only happens to women.
- Because male victims of sexual assault are more likely to be victimized by other men, and feminists know what it’s like to be victimized by powerful men.
- Because there is no other movement as widespread as the feminist movement that does address how men are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
3. Open Conversations, Instead of Closing Them.
One of the most important things to remember if you’re new to a social movement, is that one person’s victimhood does not negate that of another. So before bringing up an example of how men have been victims of women, it’s a good idea to ask yourself, “what am I trying to accomplish?”
Hint: if the answer is, “convince women that their trauma is insignificant,” you should probably just back away from the computer and take a breather. If you’re trying to add to the conversation, however, and open it up further, try to make that clear. Remember, most people in the discussion don’t know you, so they lack context to guess your intentions.
4. Pay Attention to Who’s Talking.
There are two pieces of advice in Dixon’s post that I’m 100% behind. The first is that you should never assume that being a feminist gives you the right to touch women without their consent. The second? That it’s a good idea to watch how much you’re talking, and back off a little if men are starting to dominate the discussion.
Why do I agree with Dixon here? Well, numerous studies have found that even when they are the minority in a group, American men have a tendency to start taking over the conversation. It’s not intentional in most cases, and even women don’t usually notice. In fact, if you ask most people who talks more in a group, many will likely say “women” based on stereotypes about so-called chatty Cathy’s. But this problem is easily resolved when men occasionally take stock of how often they’re talking.
5. Please, do not Mansplain.
What exactly is mansplaining? It is not, as some feminists (male and female) occasionally think, simply speaking up on gender while you happen to be male. It’s coming into a conversation about gender and trying to correct all the silly feminists who have everything wrong and only need to “hear things from a man’s perspective.” I’ve seen all sorts of men do it, and they usually have awesome intentions, but here’s the thing: feminists are generally much more familiar with that generic “man’s perspective” which the mansplainer is offering than he is with theirs. So, please don’t mansplain.
6. Clarify when Criticized.
No matter how well you put the last five tips into action, there will come a time when someone will think you’re derailing a conversation, or mansplaining, or ignorant, etc. etc. The same goes for me when I’m in a conversation about womanism. And on the occasion when that happens, the best thing to do is clarify and perhaps apologize for the misunderstanding. Not necessarily because you’re at fault while the other person is blameless – just because saying, “Sorry for the confusion. What I meant with that last comment…” does a lot more to open the conversation than blowing up ever will.
Bottom line: come to the feminist conversation, listen carefully, and join in thoughtfully.