The comments on this post have been really great for helping me to think more deeply about this. Some parts of the original post I’ve edited to reflect my meaning better, or to soften plain inflammatory statements. I’ve also added footnotes to indicate how others’ comments have added to my understanding and perhaps changed my thinking – certainly don’t take the post as it stands to indicate how I feel at the present moment!
In some ways this blog is embarrassing for me – it has become clearer the extent to which it reflects blindness to my own privilege. There is a temptation to can it altogether. However, I know the scrutiny and subsequent discussion has been invaluable for me, and hopefully for others. So I’m going to let it stand, even if simply as an ironic illustration of my failing to check my privilege.
Jenny surveyed the room, making eye contact with each of the workshop participants. Her session on privilege and anti-oppression was concluding, and while it had run woefully overtime, it had sparked a challenging and stimulating dialogue. Amongst other issues, gender privilege had of course been discussed, and the men in the workshop prompted to reflect on their privilege.
In wrapping up, Jenny pointed out that it’s vitally important for men to openly identify as feminists. This is crucial to normalise feminism, to make it mainstream – to stop it from being the exclusive domain of cropped-hair lesbians, and to make it something that all can embrace.
If only it were so easy.
As it happens I agreed with Jenny and made an effort both to recognise that I was a feminist and to convey this when I could. But something held me back – there was always a certain unease. Something made me afraid to call myself a feminist and I couldn’t pin it down. I think I now have a better sense. And it isn’t because I’m worried how non-feminists will respond.
Not long ago I made the
putative mistake of metaphorically comparing active consent to the act of knocking on the toilet door before entering. This metaphor is not perfect: it fails to take into account the idea of progressive consent, and some people find toilets plain icky. That noted, I would argue it is a decent attempt at taking something alien to most people, and most men – active consent – and describing it in terms that people can understand – in the same way we knock first to find out if it is OK to enter a closed toilet, we should ask first before engaging in sexual activity. Regardless of the merit of the metaphor, however, my actions represented my own attempt to intellectually grapple with issues of consent and, more so, to find ways of communicating these ideas with a broader audience.
You’d think that
feminism would be grateful this should be encouraged.
Instead, a number of feminists, all women, whom I respect and admire, were critical of the metaphor, of my behaviour and, one might feel, of me. The metaphor was, I am to believe, “horrible”. Only one of my three critics deigned to discuss this with me further – she lectured me on how I was wrong and suggested I undertake ‘penance’. You see, I had sinned.
What might this tell us about feminism and its challenges?
As a consequence of this rebuke, I’m less sympathetic to feminism and less likely to
engage in thinking about feel comfortable publicly engaging with issues of consent. I’ve been implicitly told that I don’t understand enough to be a feminist, that I’m not allowed to talk about these issues like real feminists do. Ultimately, after all, I’m just a man. I tried to think about, to talk about an issue of consent, to consider ways of communicating the issue with more people. Instead I was shot down, spurned, and told to behave better next time. Presumably that means not to try.
The message I received was that I wasn’t able to call myself a feminist, or to act like a feminist, until I was perfect at feminism. This message certainly stops men from identifying as feminists; it also affects women. A friend I later discussed this with spoke of the same feeling – while she supported gender equality (of course!), she was wary of calling herself a feminist. She didn’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of Simone de Beauvoir and thus didn’t feel comfortable putting herself in the same camp as those who do, the self-identified feminists, the real feminists.
Recently, too, I heard about one firebrand feminist lecturer at Melbourne University. To classes that are 90% women, where only 20% of the men are heterosexual, this lecturer unleashes her peculiar brand of rhetoric. No doubt there are feminists in the class who love it. No doubt this sort of rhetoric does no favours to the cause. One man in the course simply stopped attending lectures. Not because he disagreed, but simply because he couldn’t stand the self-loathing they induced. What possible good could these lectures be achieving?
What most got under my skin about the incident with the toilet metaphor was the insidious implication that I was inferior. Throughout the discussion I felt there was an insinuation that I should be grateful that feminists would come down to my level and explain just why I was wrong. I was, clearly, an ass not to be able to figure it out myself. This isn’t the feminism we need.
For feminism to be successful, for progress towards gender equality to be better, what do we need? I would argue we still need the firebrands, the intellectuals, the rhetoricians. When Liberal senators sniff at the seats of female parliamentarians, when wife beaters are asked to present music awards or are, in fact, given awards, it is wrong. These wrongs evidence an ongoing and pernicious state of inequality in our society and it is vital and necessary that voices exist that bring this to our attention, that reveal the sexism inherent, that compel national scrutiny and bring about change.
In addition, we need hordes of people, men and women, who sort of get it and sort of don’t. We need women who choose to look like barbie while studying Mechanical Engineering. We need men who disagree with million-dollar payouts for sexual harassment cases while calling out their friends who insult female drivers. There are huge numbers of people who support gender equality, but who maybe don’t see eye to eye with self-identified feminists. We need these people. And we need them not in the spirit of “let us tell you how it really is”, but in the spirit of “you have wisdom.”
 I can now say that the metaphor is definitely horrible. I’m grateful to a number of commenters who have empathically expanded upon this further. I can note too that the metaphor is dangerous, and that although my intentions may have been benevolent, I was nontheless coming from a place of male privilege.
 I was definitely foolish in not re-reading the Facebook thread in question before writing this. Reading it now, I feel much less upset by it. I, however, can remember how I felt at the time and this is an accurate account of my emotions, whether they were reasonable or not.
 This statement has been criticised a lot. I’ve changed it to reflect reality better. To be even clearer – I’m not talking about a conscious, deliberative response. Because of what has happened my brain has created a physical association between an unpleasant experience and an interaction with feminists. Unavoidably this affects me – even if I consciously try to resist it.
It has been pointed out that calling somebody out for their privilege is necessary and shouldn’t be avoided simply to avoid giving people unpleasant experiences. I agree. I think, further, that this calling out is most effective (both for the target and the targeter) when it is cushioned and done collaboratively.
 Again, commenters have added a lot to this point. I think I misunderstood what happened and am basically now recanting this sentiment. In terms of this, it’s not that men shouldn’t engage with Feminism, but that they need to take great care to be aware of their own privilege and, potentially, obliviousness.