On the Accessibility of Feminism (revised)

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4]

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.”

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

18 Responses to “On the Accessibility of Feminism (revised)”

  1. If we’re men and we support feminism, I think we should demonstrate it instead of talking about it. At least that’s been part of my experience since, just like you, I’ve seen all these ad hominem attacks on men because of feminism, of how we don’t get it because we’re, well, not women.

    Actions speak louder than words. Words can cause you to convey the wrong meaning, to upset those whom you tried to sympathize with. Actions maybe not so much.

  2. Although I enjoy your discussion thoroughly, I do feel there are a few issues that need to be discussed.
    Firstly, I think you are considering feminists to be one whole group – one that identifies with with clear opinions and arguments. Feminism has undergone many changes – first wave, second, post – and today continues to evolve. There are varying arguments of thought in feminist discourses e.g. Connell’s learnt behaviour v Butler’s performativity. As a result there are many different types of feminist and feminism. Perhaps you could add to your metaphor that you may have to choose between several toilet cubicles to knock on before entry.
    Secondly, I think it is fantastic that you openly identify with being a feminist. I would suggest that the reason your metaphor got such bad reception is that you associated feminism with taking a shit. I’m sure you could understand why vocal feminists would find that distasteful – although the metaphor is perhaps true – it is not an agreeable one.
    Finally, your final comments highlight the need to change negative perspectives and stereotypes toward feminism – which I hate to tell you, yours tends to be. It is great that such a discussion as yours exists. However I feel that yours is somewhat blinkered – one must remember that factors of class, race and sexuality intersect with gender, it is not quite so clear cut a path to gender equality. Additionally you fail to fully recognise male sexism – despite clearly being subjected to it.

    • Thanks for your points. I think your first one is a good one. I’m aware that Feminism as a body of thought has gone through significant changes. Here I’m simply looking at my contemporary experience.

      I agree with you about the need to change negative perspectives and stereotypes around Feminism, and I’m aware that I risk here contributing to a stereotype around Feminism – that of the ‘Feminazi’. I don’t want to perpetuate the idea of the hate-filled Feminist, and I tried in this post to be quite even-handed in discussing it. I feel that, however, the existence of this stereotype can partly be attributed to how people have experienced Feminism and interactions with feminists. While it may be ‘unfair’, I think feminists ought to consider what they can do differently to make others interactions with them less likely to add to the stereotype.

  3. I feel like this post is about a guy who was asked to confront his privilege and hasn’t. Try again.

    • Thanks Gem. The discussion this post has started has been helpful for thinking about this further. In particular, I found Cath’s comment here valuable.

      Another useful lens that is occurring to me now is that of “rank”. “Privilege” is a useful concept but potentially can be one-dimensional as it does not take situation in to account. I think of “rank” as “the amount of power you have in a given situation.” As a man, I’m more privileged than a woman, all else being equal. In terms of rank however, if I attended a Feminist conference I would have less rank than many other participants. I think that Feminists, myself included, can benefit by thinking about rank and how it intersects with privilege, and what the implications of this are.

  4. I have several issues with this article and I am going to try and address them all.

    There are several problems in your metaphor about the toilet door that women would take issue with and the mistake that you made largely comes out of a place of privilege. For a straight man, the chances you are going to experience gendered violence or your consent be ignored is extremely minimal. So to say that consent is knocking on a toilet door is ignoring the fact that consent exists throughout sex and consent can be withdrawn at any time. Rape often happens this way, and many women have experienced rape this way. So yes, it was offensive.

    Pro feminist men need to accept that much of their thinking comes from a place of privilege and accept that if they are going to participate in feminist movements, that women are going to challenge their ways of thinking. This is obviously going to be difficult, but you cannot expect that women are going to ignore flawed statements on consent that are actually dangerous to notions of consent that put us at risk of rape. We are not going to ignore flawed dangerous statements because we want to make feminism more accessible. That would be against feminisms aims and goals. Feminism isn’t accessible because privilege is hard to challenge and people don’t like to give up their privilege, and you being offended about being called out demonstrates your privileged thinking.

    Your statement: ‘You’d think that feminism would be grateful’. I’m sorry? Grateful that you, a man, is talking about consent?! Why should we be grateful? Men seeking consent throughout sex and speaking about the importance of consent should be a given.

    ‘As a consequence of this rebuke, I’m less sympathetic to feminism and less likely to engage in thinking about issues of consent’. Think about what i’ve just said about privilege before and now think about how that statement reads. it reads ‘Feminists called me out and now i am not going to even think about consent’. Really, when you are called out you should think more deeply about the problems of your statement and THINK DEEPER about consent and gendered privilege rather than dismissing your flawed statement and saying ‘the feminists were mean to me’. Sure some women might have come across as mean, but in this article you have demonstrated how you are not going to listen to feminists or engage with feminism because you tried and you found it hard. Understanding your privilege is hard. At the risk of sounding mean, deal with it and learn from it, because feminists will continue to call you out and you can choose whether or not to listen. If you don’t listen, you are really not trying to engage with gender equality in a real and true way.

    ‘What most got under my skin about the incident with the toilet metaphor was the insidious implication that I was inferior’. Seriously, this is the most ridiculous statement in the whole article. You got challenged. You are going to feel some challenges in accepting you are privileged, this would come with an acceptance that you are not superior but equal and open to criticism and understanding that sometimes statements require being called out.

    Finally, ‘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.” Well actually, you don’t know what it feels like to be a woman, and you do not hold all the wisdom. There needs to be a whole lot of listening and understanding involved and you seem to not have put this action forward at all.

    • Thanks Cath. I’m totally open to exploring this and appreciate your addition.

      From what you’ve said I can understand how the metaphor is not only flawed, but dangerous. Thank you for explaining that. Further, is it this dangerous flaw that makes it offensive? Or is it offensive because I could only obliviously share such a flawed metaphor because I am coming from a place of privilege? And can I get a stronger sense of what you mean by “offensive”: is something “offensive” inherently, because it offends someone, or because it is capable of offending someone? What puzzles me is that none of the three women I mentioned spoke of being offended.

      In your comment you talk about my being “called out”. I hadn’t thought of it like that at the time but I can see what you mean. If however, this was an attempt to call me out, it was very unskillfully done. I agree with you that calling out in general should be an opportunity to think more deeply about privilege and the issue at hand. This should be the spirit in which a person is called out. Given that our society is patriarchal and I am a product of that, I fail to see how someone’s telling me I have blinkers on implicitly enables me to remove my blinkers. I don’t think it’s enough to demand that I “deal with it and learn from it.” I want to learn from it, and this requires people to do as you have done and be willing to discuss it and help me to understand. For this to be effective, it must be done in the spirit of collaboration.

    • I’m also wondering about your use of the phrase “pro feminist men”. What do you prefer about this phrasing compared with “feminist men”?

  5. Wonderful J, I’m really excited you are thinking about this! As the individual who called the metaphor ‘horrible’ without explaining why (was busy with an essay and agreed with the comments on progressive consent) and as a person, woman and feminist, I would love to add a few points.

    Cath’s points on why the metaphor was offensive I agree with. Without going over it all, I think you can understand why people took issue with it. My issue was the same – once off consent is not a blank check. I do see what you were trying to do, in so much as make it accessible, which can be great, but I think you compromised too much with this metaphor for it to have a net positive effect.

    WRT how it made you feel – I believe your feelings are valid. Period. I have also experienced reactions to not being informed enough about, for example, aboriginal or queer issues. What I try to do now is talk to people who’s opinion I respect who identify and share with them ideas or writing before putting it out there publicly. I recently did this with a piece I wrote on white privilege with some aboriginal friends, and decided not to publicly post it because it didn’t, from what I can gather, capture the complexity of the situation. This is pretty understandable given I have never done aboriginal studies or lived in an aboriginal community.

    Some might consider this silly – not to post – but I don’t think ‘something is better than nothing’ – not from someone who has the capacity and responsibility to have a very clear and sensitive response to such a complex issue.

    This brings me to my main point – I think something to recognize is that you are well respected within the community and on social issues, have a responsibility to ensure the opinions you put forward are sensitive and well informed. You have won many awards and have done some wonderful work. You are, I think, one of the most informed people I know.

    I think it’s wonderful you are engaging on this, but I really don’t want feminism to be scary to men! I try really hard NOT to judge men on their feminist ideas, they are often, like mine are, a work in progress, and I can image it’s really hard to understand feminism when you haven’t experienced common types of sexism. I think a new approach could work where you, as you say, collaborate more. I’m very happy to read things and comment :) As a woman and feminist, I am thrilled when men self- identify and want to contribute to discussion. Love xo

    • Thanks Heather! I knew I could trust you.

      I’m struck by your idea about knowing when not to post. I think what you say is right. In many ways my growing more mature has correlated with sharing less of what occurs to me. As you say, some ideas are simply too half-baked or ill-formed to launch, and need some closet scrutiny first. Even just after posting the toilet metaphor I realised it was pretty half-baked; I definitely see that now.

      I don’t often think of myself as a leader in the way you describe, so it’s useful to hear that you from. I’ll aim to do better to think about how my comments or behaviour might influence others.

      I really appreciate your commenting, engaging with the heart of what I’ve said, and making a lot of this much clearer.

  6. Hi Joel,

    I just got linked through to your blog via a friend’s facebook feed. Just wanted to pick up on one assumption that I came across in your post that I found a little dismissive.

    From your line of argument, it seems that you’re saying that feminism has no mainstream purchase because its not relatable and normal people aren’t into it. As such, lots of men need to take feminism seriously, so that they can lend it legitimacy. Because, let’s face it, no one listens to ‘crop haired lesbians’.

    To the contrary, I would argue that a big problem is that so-called ‘cropped haired lesbians’ are still read as illegitimate, and not taken seriously. Their concerns are seen as niche, unimportant or unreasonable. We need to change people’s thinking so that they DO take women and lesbians seriously, so that ‘cropped haired lesbian’ isn’t a pejorative which insinuates someone who shouldn’t be listened to.

    It’s not that Men need to nobly lend feminism their privilege, so that we can be seen as legitimate, it’s that men ACTUALLY need to take us seriously, and see us as legitimate people.

    I’m sorry if you feel that this is just another example of feminism telling you off, but I would really like you to think deeply about the assumption behind your post. Yes, maybe it’s embarrassing for someone to disagree with you on the internet, but think about how embarrassing and degrading it is for someone to insinuate that, because you aren’t a straight man, your opinion is worth less, and you are less legitimate. The reality is that men are taken more seriously than lesbians. But this is a dynamic that needs to be challenged, not something that feminism should be playing in to.

    As for being made to feel inferior, to me it just looked like a few people disagreed with your facebook status, no one was rude about it, a few people explained why they disagreed, and even offered to explain more. Of course, realising that you can make mistakes, or than you don’t know everything, can be embarrassing, but it happens to all of us. When people disagree with us, it can be uncomfortable. I totally understand this feeling from being called out about white privilege and cis privilege, because often you are being called out about things you hadn’t really thought about, that are resting on a whole lot of assumptions you’ve carried with you and haven’t unpacked yet. Of course it is unintentional, because if you already knew, you wouldn’t have said it.

    Getting used to the feeling of being wrong, and making mistakes is part of becoming a better ally. How on earth could we change anything if we didn’t challenge people’s thinking and their behaviour? To do that, someone’s gonna have to feel a little uncomfortable at some stage. I think one useful thing to remember, which always helps me, is that making mistakes doesn’t mean you’re immoral, it doesn’t make you a bad person, it just shows the privilege that you have from occupying a particular place in a system. Yes, as someone committed to social justice, you have a responsibility to self educate, and to become a better ally, but getting it wrong is inevitable, because you actually are operating on a whole lot of privileged assumptions.

    I hope this was helpful.

    Thanks,

    Aimee

  7. Joel,

    While some of the above commenters have responded in far more depth than I could hope to do, I feel compelled to point out that you’ve jumped from feeling “less sympathetic to feminism and less likely to feel comfortable publicly engaging with issues of consent” to implying that the reasons that make you feel this way make feminism less accessible to men in general. It’s a logical fallacy – an extrapolation based on anecdotal evidence.

    You’ve also jumped from three people calling you out on a poor comment to semi-rejecting an entire concept/movement. That doesn’t make logical sense either.

    To take it further, this article could be interpreted as a claim that an experience of the nature you have described makes feminism less effective as a whole. Does it? If you think that is true, you need to provide evidence beyond your own experience before you start making over-arching conclusions about “accessibility” in general.

    Tom

  8. Some really great comments on this article and I’m glad to see, Joel, that you are engaging with them and thinking deeper about the issues raised in your original post.

    I would like to put my ‘2 cents’ into the discussion about the consent metaphor. Consent is a really hard thing to conceptualise and I think attempts to make it easier to understand are fantastic and vital to helping more people challenge violence against women. However, the consent metaphor you proposed is horrible and dangerous- sorry, but I’m not going to put it any nicer than this. I agree with Cath’s summary but I’d also like to add another point. The metaphor is a comparison between an embarrassing/awkward situation that is socially unacceptable (seeing someone else on the toilet and challenging their personal space) and a deliberate, violent act that breaks someone’s control over their own body in a fundamental way. Rape can tear apart a person’s mental and physical health and has a lasting, often detrimental, impact their relationships for the rest of their lives. Rape also happens to (approx.) 1 in 3 women Australia. That is why this metaphor is offensive. It fails to recognize the nature and reality of rape or capture the importance of consent as a process.

    I’m going to assume that you haven’t (or hadn’t) done much research into the issue of violence against women. Like every other issue, people need some level of knowledge before they can adequately interpret it and contribute to discussions about the issue. To not recognize this, shows a lack of respect for feminism and women’s rights. I believe that everyone has valuable and important contributions to make in discussions about how the world can be a less sexist, racist and homophobic place. However, I, like Heather, would never assume that because I’ve read about the Stolen Generations, I can talk intimately about the history of Indigenous people in Australia. And if I did and an Indigenous person said I’d gotten it wrong, would it be okay for me to say that Indigenous people should make it easier for white people to talk about their lives? No.

    It always sucks to get ‘shut down’. It’s embarrassing and sometimes, can be confusing. The people who commented on your idea could have explained their objections so that you understood, but that doesn’t mean that feminists should be ‘grateful’ for you having a go. Maybe, also, if you reflected on your own position (as someone who really doesn’t know that much about the topic) instead of assuming that it’s everyone else (feminists) that have the problem, you could learn a lot more about feminism and the scholarship on rape and consent. You said: ‘my actions represented my own attempt to intellectually grapple with issues of consent and… to find ways of communicating these ideas with a broader audience.’ Awesome! Many others are already doing this work, check it out and learn from it.

    This brings me to my next point – men and feminism. Personally, I celebrate the contributions of many men in feminism and I am excited to see men taking an active role in preventing violence. However, I do not believe that men should have a privileged role in feminism. I also don’t believe that women should make feminism ‘easier’ for men. For example, while I was happy to see a small group of men present at the International Women’s Day march, I did not think it was necessary for every speaker to spend the first part of their speech acknowledging the few men that showed up. Women on International Women’s Day shouldn’t have to feel honoured by the presence of men supporting their cause, men should feel honoured to be part that group of women. Other commenters have made this point, but in my opinion, men, coming into feminism and trying to make a difference to sexism in society, need to confront their own privilege. As a man, part of this is accepting that you do not know all the answers and that they will not be handed to you. It is hard. It is confusing. Challenging sexism, like challenging racism or heteronormativity, involves the people who have never had to think about and experience the detrimental effects of those power structures (whether they be men, white or straight) engaging with the people who have and the detrimental effects they’ve experienced. It involves us all working together to find solutions. In feminism and women’s rights issues, this involves men listening, learning and taking responsibility, not women handing them all the answers. You didn’t have a nice experience with an engagement with something feminist, that doesn’t mean that feminism rejects or alienates men.

    Here’s a great quote from Khary Lazarre-White: “The issues of gender inequity, of structural sexism, of misogyny and the objectifying of women as commerce and property… will not be deconstructed merely by women talking with girls. Men must take responsibility as well for this work. And we should not be commended for it. It is what evolved, ethical, moral men should be expected to do.” (http://www.xyonline.net/sites/default/files/van%20Deven,%20Is%20feminism%20men's%20work,%20too%2009.pdf)

    Joel, if you’re interested in feminism, have a read of the work of some other men who are feminists to see how they negotiate this issue. I agree with Gem, try again.

    http://www.theconsensualproject.com/ – fantastic resource on consent.

    http://www.xyonline.net/

    http://www.theroot.com/views/why-i-am-male-feminist

    http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2011/01/black-male-feminist-what-feminism-means-to-me/

  9. Hi Joel

    For what it is worth, I just wanted to say a couple of things. I have read the facebook comments and most of the comments here. I would like to say, as a feminist myself, that I have appreciated your open/public struggle with this situation. While I don’t think feminists should be grateful for you, I do think we should celebrate your engagement. It takes a great deal of courage to openly admit when you have mistaken something or struggled with understanding feminism and I was so impressed with some of your responses to some really harsh criticism.
    I won’t go into detail, but I can appreciate you feeling like withdrawing from feminism when faced with comments like you have. I grew up surrounded by strong feminists as my mother was a staunch community activist for my whole life. When I went to university the first thing I did was seek out feminist groups and get involved in the uni feminist network. I can honestly say that it was the most aggressive and unwelcoming environment of women I had ever encountered. I think it is ok to make mistakes when people to try to engage with concepts that are complex and as a community we should not be attacking people for doing this. The problem with mistakes only comes when people refuse to take on the experience and knowledge of those who are more informed. I don’t think you have done this – in fact you have done the opposite.
    I have loved the discussion that your original comment created and it is actually wonderful to see people engaging in feminist debate. Good on you Joel for putting it out there and for showing maturity to some uncalled for responses.

    Michelle :)

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  1. A blog post on this blog about blog posts on this blog | Scit Necessitas - October 23, 2012

    […] my writing has given things to others. There have been lows, such as the furore caused by my post on the accessibility of Feminism. And there have been highs, such as when “On Love and Loss” was ‘Freshly Pressed’ – a […]

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