Monday, 26 November 2012

On Men's Place In Feminism: Part One (Probably)

Congratulations, Maureen! You are the fourth winner in the Feminist Ryan Gosling book contest.

I’m giving away one more book this week - check back to see if you’ve won!
Give me back that hammer.
About six weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a conference about how to engage male allies in the fight to end gendered violence, namely violence against women. I was there as a volunteer-in-training for the very awesome Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region, which boasts one of the very few Male Ally programs in the country*; a program which, it turns out, is at least as comprehensive as the programs espoused by the speaker of the conference, Rus Ervin Funk. Go team!

That conference happened to coincide with the latest round of debates over Hugo Schwyzer, a discussion about the right of this one character to proclaim himself a feminist and speak to and for feminism that flares up with some regularity (here's some background). This time it was mostly contained in this article at Persephone** and this one at XOJane, but the reappearance of his name and the discomfort I felt at this conference conflated to make me think more broadly about men's place in feminism, especially when they appear to be leading.

First: I think we can take it as a matter of necessity that men must be involved in ending the violence for which they are mostly responsible, and that more generally they must be involved in ending the sexism for which they are also mostly responsible. As a matter of practicality, ending abuse and violence in the lives of people of all genders requires men to step up. End of.

As a matter of philosophy, though, I find it deeply troubling. It makes me very uncomfortable that men's voices are required, though I also believe less in equality than in liberation, which would of course include men. I also think it's important here to recognize that it is a matter of privilege for me, as someone not suffering from, and statistically less likely to suffer from, intimate partner violence, to talk theoretically about how men are involved and how it makes me feel to have men involved. But as anyone involved in direct care knows, sometimes you have a different fight on the ground than you do in theory; I can both continue to try to engage men to end violence and sexism as a way to save women's lives, while thinking and feeling deeply troubled by the continued upholding of male voices as the important ones.

And I was particularly troubled by this man at this conference, though not for the reasons I had thought I would be, before I went. Or at least, not only for the reasons I had thought; that is, I was troubled not only by the ways he didn't get it, but also by the ways that he did.

The things he didn't get were seemingly minor: a photo of himself at 3, a well-cared-for blond boy next to a scruffy dog and a mud puddle, which he used to illustrate the point that at 3 years old, we are equally likely to abuse or be abused, and that gendered messages had not yet begun (NOT TRUE. Obviously.); a story about getting his men's groups to help out at a shelter and the trials he experienced trying to “convince the women there that we were OK”; his oddly petulant delight at “fooling” a feminist march that he and his men's group had attended to support, but that appeared very sinister to the women in the march (and duh; a phalanx of shouting men approaching a feminist rally has rarely boded well for the women on the scene); a tendency to situate men's responsibility to end male violence in terms of fatherhood or husband-hood, as in “how would you feel about your daughter being beaten up” and “raise your son to be the kind of man you'd want your daughter to date”, which is all very heteronormative and man-as-protector and also implies that one can only be against violence if they can relate it happening to someone they love, not just because people should have the right to not have cultural and legal structures set up to facilitate their abuse whether you can relate to them or not. In the grand scheme of horrible things that people say about women, domestic violence, and feminism, my issue with these may seem pedantic, but they indicate to me all the tiny crannies that privilege sluices into, clouding our view, and how hard we have to work, how vigilant in our language, we must be, to fight it.

But what really got me were the things he said that were things I would have said if I'd been leading that workshop, or even if the Sexual Assault Support Centre had been leading the workshop, I was surprised to discover. Things like telling the upstream parable, talking about education and involving teenagers (though mixed in with that was a lot of “you've been doing it wrong and that's why men aren't receptive”), even his totally correct and necessary assertion that violence against women – indeed, all violence committed by men – is rooted in sexism. I'm glad he knows these things, and I'm glad he's talking about them, but ... I know. And in a room two-thirds full of women, in a room at least half full of direct-care workers, we all knew. We knew better than he did. He literally did not say one thing in six hours that I – and everyone at my table – did not already know. And without any kind of acknowledgement that we had all been doing work just like this, and talking about these ideas, for years, it was pretty uncomfortable. And not for him.

Maybe there's no way around that, and who knows how I would have felt if he were trying to introduce something new to the discourse, but it did make me think: maybe there's just no way that this situation isn't going to be problematic. It will always be at least a little condescending, at least a little 'splainy, at least a little offensive. Because what's offensive, of course, no matter what he got right or wrong, is that we needed him there at all. That we should require, after all this time, a man's voice, no matter how clumsy, to make credible what women have been talking about with nuance and compassion for a century, is terribly sexist. And any real understanding of privilege would have led Mr Funk, and any other men who talk about these things, to say something like this:

I think it’s really important for me to own that a big part of the reason for [this post on the myth of misandry's] popularity is my privilege as a guy. That’s huge. So many women replying to this are saying “I’ve been saying this for years” and they are completely right and that is the whole problem. When I talk about this stuff, a lot more people are willing to listen for the sole reason that I’m a guy. That IS misogyny! (emphasis mine)

*This post is written by me as a feminist critic, not as a volunteer, and has nothing whatever to do with the views of SASC or their Male Allies.

** Oh my god, this article. The mansplaining! I've been on the fence about Schwyzer before now, and I hate the term "mansplaining", but this just killed me:
What would your response be to claims that you’re “mansplaining,” in particular with the article on facials?
HS: The simplest definition of mansplaining is when a man explains a woman’s experience to her. That article on facials has been severely misrepresented. If you read it, I’m not telling women they need to let men cum on their faces. I’m explaining a couple of different theories about why men like doing it, and how it grew to be so popular. (Worth noting: I never get to pick my own titles or my own images for my pieces.) I say it very clearly in the piece: “No one should be obligated to endure humiliation for the sake of someone else’s longing for validation.” A lot of readers ignored that, perhaps deliberately.
He mansplains his response to a question about mansplaining! Argh! I can't even. I'm off the fence now, and off Schwyzer. Also read that article about facials here. No surprise to me that it's on Jezebel.

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