Feminism 101: Helpful Hints for Dudes, Part 2

Following is a primer for men who are interested in learning more about how to respect women's agency. Most of the information in this piece is, as always, generally applicable—i.e. women shouldn't treat other people's bodies as public property, either—but this has been written to be most accessible for men in keeping with the objective of the series.

[Trigger warning for objectification and dehumanization.]

Most blokes, whether they're trying to be more feminist-minded or not, don't consider themselves to be the sort of guy who disrespect women's agency, and yet there are still myriad ways in which men are socialized to express ownership of women.

Here, I'm going to explore three of the prominent ways in which male ownership of women is expressed (and visit some ways in which they can be avoided): Exceptionalism, Breach of Consent, and Failure to Respect Agency.


Some expressions of ownership are insidious, subtle but dangerous: Exceptionalism, which is singling out one woman as an exception to the rule—that is, saying she defies the stereotypes of womanhood—is a less obvious but no less pernicious expression of ownership.

A man who expresses exceptionalism about his mother, his sister, his wife, his girlfriend, his female friend(s)—"My [woman/women] aren't like those other women!"—is implicitly marking territory around women related to him, the boundary marked by women he is willing to see as individuals, and all other women, who are stripped of their individual humanity to be regarded as a monolith.

It can be difficult for men to accept that exceptionalism, which is often intended as a compliment (and frequently received as such!—because women are socialized to hate women just as much as men are), is, in fact, a profoundly damaging anti-feminist practice. But the flipside of "complimenting" individual women by detaching them from womankind is turning the vast majority of women into an indistinguishable horde with universally contemptible traits.

Exceptionalizing a woman can also, in the long term, serve to undermine her sense of self, as it obliquely encourages her, in a bid to retain her value as an Exceptional Woman, to reject any part of herself that might be seen as stereotypical of women. Even if not so intended, exceptionalism thus becomes a form of control, tacitly encouraging a woman to futilely try to wrench her personhood from her womanhood, which is impossible and thus ultimately breeds self-loathing and/or contempt for the man who exceptionalizes her.

If you find yourself thinking, "This woman is not like other women," consider how much your understanding of "other women" comes from intimate knowledge of multitudinous individual woman vs. cultural narratives about women as a whole. Consider as well whether meeting one woman who bucks those narratives might suggest, in fact, not that she is one in (literally) three billion, but instead that women are more individual than is routinely suggested in vast and diverse ways throughout our culture.

It doesn't undermine the specialness of a woman to regard her as a unique person well-suited to your personality and preferences and idiosyncrasies, as opposed to an Exceptional Woman. Indeed, it is more special to be regarded as a cool woman in a world full of cool women than it is the only cool woman on the planet.

Breach of Consent.

Some of the expressions of ownership are more obvious: Breach of consent is clearly an indication of someone who fails to respect the bodily autonomy of another individual. Generally, we associate breach of consent with sexual violence, but consent is something that ought to be respected in all interactions with another person.

We should always be mindful of the access we've been granted by another person: Just because we can find someone's home address, for example, doesn't mean we can assume consent to show up at hir house uninvited.

There are a variety of circumstances in which women's right of consent is routinely ignored, the most ubiquitous of which is casually touching a woman without her consent, as if her body is public property.

Generally, we collectively recognize the groping and grabbing that happens with alarming frequency on public transportation, for example, as problematic—but many of the men who rightfully disdain this behavior nonetheless engage in casual touching without consent in other contexts.

We euphemize nonconsensual but nonviolent touching as "making a pass" or even, simply, "being friendly." But it is not friendly; it is entitled.

This tends to be a point of contention for straight/bisexual men who can't imagine how it's possible to meet, date, flirt with, and eventually become sexually intimate with a woman without ever touching her without her consent. The worry tends to be expressed as, "It won't be sexy or smooth if I ask," but that's not true. Asking a woman, "May I take your arm?" or "May I kiss you?" is actually quite likely to be considered both sexy and smooth, with the additional bonus of being respectful.

What's decidedly not sexy and smooth, however, is making a woman feel uncomfortable, or even triggering her, if she's a trauma survivor, by touching her without her consent.

Communication about consent and boundaries does not have to be stilted and awkward. It just takes practice. In a moment when you think, "I want to touch her; I think she wants me to touch her; I'm going to go ahead and touch her and see what happens," instead of guessing what she wants, and instead of communicating what you want by doing it, try looking deep into her eyes and saying aloud, "I want to touch you; would that be all right?" If it is, asking isn't going to change her mind.

But not asking just might.

Asking, and really listening to the answer, is a key part of treating a woman as your equal and respecting her individual humanity and autonomy. Or: Treating her as though she owns herself.

Failure to Respect Agency.

Men's socialization includes strong disincentives against asking and listening, and strong incentives to reflexively prioritize their own judgment and perspective, which many narratives in our culture exist to (wrongly) assure them is Objective Truth. That is one of the grandest lies that privilege tells any of us—your perspective as a person of privilege is not subjective; you are better capable of assessing truth than anyone compromised by their marginalization.

But, as I said in Part One, institutional bias compromises all of us, whether we stand to benefit from or be marginalized by it.

This lie of objectivity causes many privileged people to disregard the value of asking and listening. Instead, sure of their own flawless capacity for discerning Objective Truth, they substitute their own assumptions for concrete knowledge of a marginalized person's opinions, experience, intentions, etc.

Thus, a man who does not ask his wife, for example, what she wants, what she needs, what she believes, what she is thinking, what she is feeling, but instead merely assumes what she wants, needs, believes, thinks, and feels, is robbing her of her autonomy.

Straight/bisexual men who engage in presumptive behavior will frequently find themselves in vicious fights with female partners, unable to understand what they view as their partner's disproportional fury over a simple misunderstanding. But it is not a simple misunderstanding to substitute your (erroneous, or even correct) assumptions for a good-faith acquisition of your partner's actual thoughts and desires. It is an implicit assertion that you know better and/or that don't respect your partner as an equal, self-governed, rights-bearing individual human.

To substitute your own assumptions for straightforward communication is to subvert her agency. And that is a very serious offense.

An offense which can only but easily be avoided by asking and listening, and then respecting what you hear.

Another grave breach of agency, which is related to the failure to acknowledge consent, boundaries, and autonomy, is telling a woman how to behave. One of the most common complaints among feminist women regarding failures to respect their agency is being told to smile.

(Or cheer up. Or be happy. Or some variation on that theme.)

Exhorting a woman to "Smile!" on demand simultaneously suggests ownership—that her existence is only to please you, to do what you want—and robs her entirely of agency. A woman who is not smiling has, as does every human being, reason to not be smiling. To bark a command, no matter how "charming," that she should ignore her own life experience and emotions in order to please like a performing pony, is just an absolute clusterfuck of contempt for agency by someone who, intentionally or not, positions himself as her master.

* * *

I frequently invoke the phrase "My rights end where yours begin" when discussing social justice and civil rights, particularly surrounding issues of choice—reproductive, marriage, or otherwise.

It is a simple phrase to remind myself that my rights extend only as far as they encroach on someone else's. I have a right, for example, to be an atheist; I do not have the right to force anyone else to share my belief. (Not that I would.)

It's a good guiding principle for progressives. (And ought to be for conservatives, but that's a whole other post.)

Similarly, "My agency ends where yours begins" is a good guiding principle for interactions with other people. That means I treat my partner as an individual—which is not to say I don't acknowledge his socialization as a man, but he is Iain first, man second.

It also means I respect his humanity, his dignity, and his right to consent at all times. We've been together almost 10 years, and we have a well-practiced shorthand, as all couples do. But shorthand is not a synonym for "implicit consent." There is no such thing. Our communication has been streamlined over time, but consent is always explicit, the right to say no is always respected, and there is never, ever any cajoling or coercion. Respecting each other's agency means respecting boundaries, and not pressuring one another to move those boundaries.

(As an aside, although the above sounds like I'm referring exclusively to sex, I am referring to any issue on which a partner might be inclined to badger another beyond the drawing of a firm boundary—whether it's spending money, having a child, getting a picture taken, or anything else.)

Finally, "My agency ends where yours begins" means I don't assume that I know more or better about my partner and his wants/needs than he does, and I don't believe I have ownership of his body, thoughts, or emotions.

And it begins with this thought: He is my equal.

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