Speaking Out and Listening: The Complexities of Male Feminism

Speaking Out and Listening: The Complexities of Male Feminism January 4, 2016

I originally posted this on Sincere Kirabo’s OldPiano blog before he moved to Patheos. Since his old blog is no longer online, I decided to share this here. You can find Sincere Kirabo’s awesome Notes from an Apostate blog by clicking this link!



What is feminism?

A feminist is simply someone who believes in social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Feminism strives to allow people to live freely regardless of gender. Some may feel like feminism is obsolete, but unfortunately we still need feminism as widespread gender inequality exists even today. Men who are aware of these systemic inequalities may wonder how they can promote feminist goals. I do believe that men can be great assets to the feminist movement because they offer a unique perspective. From my experiences, being a good ally stems from the interplay of both speaking up and listening. Male feminists can help women and also reduce some of the struggles men deal with as well. However, this is a complicated dynamic that men need to be mindful of to be effective allies.

My experiences speaking out as a male feminist

One way I promote feminist goals is by volunteering for my local sexual trauma center, where I educate the community about our organization and the prevention of sexual violence. After I gave my first presentation at a church, a young woman thanked me for coming to speak to their group. She then expressed it was really nice to see a man speak out about preventing sexual violence as it is often seen as a ‘woman’s issue.’ I was taken aback by this because men are the majority of sexual violence perpetrators, so obviously they should take an active role in stopping sexual violence. It dawned on me that speaking up and challenging other men when they make sexist remarks is one important way men can be feminist allies. Since men are the primary perpetrators of sexual violence, the responsibility is on the good men to utilize their unique role by standing up to their peers and correcting harmful myths they may have about rape. I try to speak to groups of men as much as possible and every semester I speak to the incoming group of fraternity men at my university about sexual violence prevention, bystander intervention, and consent.

Of course, speaking up can become more complicated as men should never speak for or over other women. Last year, I provided scientific testimony against a proposed South Carolina bill which attempted to reduce women’s access to getting abortions. Women currently can get abortions before their 24th week of pregnancy and this bill tried to cut it to 20 weeks on the premise they fetuses can feel pain at that time (they can’t). One interesting part of this experience was that I was a man speaking to an all-male panel of legislators. Thus, because of my male privilege, I could reframe abortion access as a human rights issue that both men and women can support, instead of only a women’s issue.

Importantly, I never once in my testimony attempted to speak on behalf of women or to assume I knew what it was like to go through an abortion. I simply stated to the male legislators that women should have the right to choose and the scientific support of this bill was faulty. Notably, the Senate Medical Affairs Committee debated my testimony at length. This led to some legislators managing to convince others who supported the bill (and the faulty science behind it), to consider the bill’s flaws given the scientific data I presented. Ultimately, my disabuse on the issue coupled with the scientific research I presented resulted in enough legislators to doubt the bill’s merits. The bill was consequently delayed and not voted on in time to become a law. The delay was made possible due to my reframing of this bill, and the other arguments put forth by other medical and legal professionals. So while my experience shows that male feminists can have a great deal of influence when speaking to other men regarding feminist issues, it is important to remember that we should listen to women first on areas we cannot possibly relate to.

Listening as a male feminist

As a man, I obviously cannot understand what it would be like to be a woman in our society. However, I can actively listen to the experiences of women to try to understand what they go through. I don’t know what it is like to go through an abortion, but I can listen to those who have gone through them explain the importance of choice. I am not a survivor of sexual violence, but I can listen to those who are on how I can support them. The vital part of actively listening is to understand how we do not know what other people go through. No one is the arbiter of other people’s emotions and we should be empathetic by default, not judgmental.

Men can listen and be empathetic to the struggles women face while still acknowledging the struggles men deal with because empathy is not a zero sum game. Self-reflection is vital for this process as it allows us to challenge our previously held beliefs and adapt them to future evidence. There are systematic barriers that only women face and men should try to help eliminate them if they care about their fellow humans and want to live in a more peaceful world. An important thing to consider is by promoting gender equality men will actually help themselves as well by dismantling patriarchy.

How feminism helps men

A central tenant of feminist theory is the concept of patriarchy. I define patriarchy as a culturally-enabled distribution of power which, taken on the whole, favors maleness and masculinity, to the disempowerment of all. Some patriarchal ideals can sometimes create an unhealthy version of masculinity for men like always having to act tough and never showing weakness. Thus, while men may benefit from some patriarchal ideals like being viewed as tough and competent, they are also hurt by them when they turn into a version of toxic masculinity. By disassembling patriarchy, men can be free to express a full and healthy range of emotions, be viewed as competent parents, and have violence against them taken more seriously. Promoting gender equality helps men because it reduces the rigid and unfair gender roles that men have to deal with as well. Some may argue that there should be a men’s rights group, but I explain why feminism is the way to go for men in this article. While feminism is for everyone, it is important for men to understand how joining a movement which promotes gender equality is complicated when they already have a lot of privilege from their gender.

The complexities of male feminism

The influence I have speaking out against sexual violence and had speaking against the anti-abortion bill also illustrates the complexity of male feminism. The unique ability men have to make a difference in feminism operates from the same system where men can have power over women. In other words, male privilege can be used to help women because our voices are heard more clearly sometimes; however, by speaking out we are still perpetuating certain power dynamics. Because of this complicated dynamic, male feminist allies must constantly self-reflect and actively listen to the women we are trying to help out.

Because there is still social, political, and economic inequality of the sexes – we still need feminism. Men can play a vital role in the feminist movement because they have the ability to speak to other men as peers. They can confront sexist behavior and challenge societal norms which oppress women. Additionally, promoting gender equality also helps men as it undercuts harmful aspects of patriarchy. It’s still important to remember to actively listen to women regarding their experiences and never attempt to speak for women. Moreover, male feminists should constantly be mindful of the gendered power dynamic they are a part of. When male feminists step up to reduce gender inequality, it allows for greater liberation of both women and men.

Featured image from Flazingo under Creative Commons 2.0

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