Feminism 101: Helpful Hints for Dudes, Part I

Sometimes, and rather frequently in recent weeks, privileged men (here, generally meaning straight cis men) email me asking advice on how to interact with the women in their lives. I get questions on everything from how to be a feminist husband to how to navigate intimacy with a survivor of sexual assault, and so I'm starting a new series that offers Helpful Hints to privileged men who genuinely want advice about how to be a more feminist-friendly dude.

I'm starting with the most basic—and often the most problematic—interaction between men and women: The Conversation. Lots of guys want to learn more about deconstructing their privilege, but are pretty awful about obtaining that information without upsetting the women with whom they're conversing.

This, then, is a very rudimentary, but also very straightforward, primer for dudes who want to communicate more effectively with female partners, friends, relatives, and colleagues during good faith conversations about feminist issues:

1. Every woman is an expert on her own life and experiences.

2. No woman speaks for all women.

3. No woman speaks for all feminists.

4. Because of the way cultural dominance/privilege works, marginalized people are, by necessity and unavoidability, more knowledgeable about the lives of privileged people than the other way around. Immersion in a culture where male is treated as the Norm (and female a deviation of that Norm), and where masculinity is treated as aspirational (and femininity as undesirable), and where men's stories are considered the Stories Worth Telling, and where manhood and mankind are so easily used as synonymous with personhood and humankind, and where everything down to the human forms on street signs reinforce the idea of maleness as default humanness, inevitably makes women de facto more conversant in male privilege than men are in female marginalization. That's the practical reality of any kind of privilege—the dominant group can exist without knowing anything about marginalized group, but the marginalized group cannot safely or effectively exist without knowing something about the privileged group and its norms and values.

5. Which is not to say that men can't become fluent, with effort. But it is important to remember that it does take effort. Even though men's and women's lives can look so similar at first glance, it is shocking how very different they can actually be. (For example.)

6. A woman with intersectional marginalizations cannot wrench herself into parts. Asking a woman to set aside her race, or disability, or sexuality, or body size, or stature, or whatever, in order to discuss a "woman's issue," is to fail to understand that one's womanhood is inextricably linked to the other aspects of one's identity.

7. It is similarly unfair to ask a woman to leave aside her personal experience and discuss feminist issues in the abstract. You are discussing the stuff of her life. Asking her to "not make it personal" is to ask her to wrench her womanhood from her personhood.

8. You are not objective on women's issues because you're not a woman. Your perception is just as subjective as hers is, but for a different reason. Either we stand to be marginalized by privilege or stand to benefit from it. That's the reality of institutional bias; it compromises us all.

9. Don't play Devil's advocate. Seriously. Just don't.

10. Listen.

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