Following is a primer for men who are genuinely interested in learning about how to be a more feminist-friendly dude. Most of the information in this piece is, as always, generally applicable in terms of being decent to the people around you, but this has been written to be most accessible for men in keeping with the objective of the series, which is responding to commonly emailed questions from privileged men (here, generally meaning straight cis men) seeking advice on how to interact with the women in their lives.
[Trigger warning for misogyny; sexual violence; silencing.]
After Part One in this series ran, which recommended against playing Devil's Advocate, I received a number of emails from men who couldn't understand what the harm was in playing Devil's Advocate on feminist issues with women they care about, even if it upsets those women. Because, hey, shouldn't feminists be willing to have those fights?
I figured I should write a piece about how obliging women to play along with misogynist games can be incredibly alienating and, ultimately, a grave breach of trust, but I've already written one.
So, as part of this series, here's a re-run of "The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck," which was originally posted in August 2009.
Despite feminists' reputation, and contra my own individual reputation cultivated over almost seven years of public opinion-making, I am not a man-hater.
If I played by misogynists' rules, specifically the one that dictates it only takes one woman doing one Mean or Duplicitous or Disrespectful or Unlawful or otherwise Bad Thing to justify hatred of all women, I would have plenty of justification for hating men, if I were inclined to do that sort of thing.
Most of my threatening hate mail comes from men. The most unrelentingly trouble-making trolls have always been men. I've been cat-called and cow-called from moving vehicles countless times, and subjected to other forms of street harassment, and sexually harassed at work, always by men. I have been sexually assaulted—if one includes rape, attempted rape, unsolicited touching of breasts, buttocks, and/or genitals, nonconsensual frottage on public transportation, and flashing—by dozens of people during my lifetime, some known to me, some strangers, all men.
But I don't hate men, because I play by different rules. In fact, there are men in this world whom I love quite a lot.
There are also individual men in this world I would say I probably hate, or something close, men who I hold in unfathomable contempt, but it is not because they are men.
No, I don't hate men.
It would, however, be fair to say that I don't easily trust them.
My mistrust is not, as one might expect, primarily a result of the violent acts done on my body, nor the vicious humiliations done to my dignity. It is, instead, born of the multitude of mundane betrayals that mark my every relationship with a man—the casual rape joke, the use of a female slur, the careless demonization of the feminine in everyday conversation, the accusations of overreaction, the eyerolling and exasperated sighs in response to polite requests to please not use misogynist epithets in my presence or to please use non-gendered language ("humankind").
There are the insidious assumptions guiding our interactions—the supposition that I will regard being exceptionalized as a compliment ("you're not like those other women"), and the presumption that I am an ally against certain kinds of women. Surely, we're all in agreement that Britney Spears is a dirty slut who deserves nothing but a steady stream of misogynist vitriol whenever her name is mentioned, right? Always the subtle pressure to abandon my principles to trash this woman or that woman, as if I'll never twig to the reality that there's always a justification for unleashing the misogyny, for hating a woman in ways reserved only for women. I am exhorted to join in the cruel revelry, and when I refuse, suddenly the target is on my back. And so it goes.
There are the jokes about women, about wives, about mothers, about raising daughters, about female bosses. They are told in my presence by men who are meant to care about me, just to get a rise out of me, as though I am meant to find funny a reminder of my second-class status. I am meant to ignore that this is a bullying tactic, that the men telling these jokes derive their amusement specifically from knowing they upset me, piss me off, hurt me. They tell them and I can laugh, and they can thus feel superior, or I can not laugh, and they can thus feel superior. Heads they win, tails I lose. I am used as a prop in an ongoing game of patriarchal posturing, and then I am meant to believe it is true when some of the men who enjoy this sport, in which I am their pawn, tell me, "I love you." I love you, my daughter. I love you, my niece. I love you, my friend. I am meant to trust these words.
There are the occasions that men—intellectual men, clever men, engaged men—insist on playing devil's advocate, desirous of a debate on some aspect of feminist theory or reproductive rights or some other subject generally filed under the heading: Women's Issues. These intellectual, clever, engaged men want to endlessly probe my argument for weaknesses, want to wrestle over details, want to argue just for fun—and they wonder, these intellectual, clever, engaged men, why my voice keeps raising and why my face is flushed and why, after an hour of fighting my corner, hot tears burn the corners of my eyes. Why do you have to take this stuff so personally? ask the intellectual, clever, and engaged men, who have never considered that the content of the abstract exercise that's so much fun for them is the stuff of my life.
There is the perplexity at my fury that my life experience is not considered more relevant than the opinionated pronouncements of men who make a pastime of informal observation, like womanhood is an exotic locale which provides magnificent fodder for the amateur ethnographer. And there is the haughty dismissal of my assertion that being on the outside looking in doesn't make one more objective; it merely provides a different perspective.
There are the persistent, tiresome pronouncements of similitude between men's and women's experiences, the belligerent insistence that handsome men are objectified by women, too! that women pinch men's butts sometimes, too! that men are expected to look a certain way at work, too! that women rape, too! and other equivalencies that conveniently and stupidly ignore institutional inequities that mean X rarely equals Y. And there are the long-suffering groans that meet any attempt to contextualize sexism and refute the idea that such indignities, though grim they all may be, are not necessarily equally oppressive.
There are the stereotypes—oh, the abundant stereotypes!—about women, not me, of course, but other women, those women with their bad driving and their relentless shopping habits and their PMS and their disgusting vanity and their inability to stop talking and their disinterest in Important Things and their trying to trap men and their getting pregnant on purpose and their false rape accusations and their being bitches sluts whores cunts… And I am expected to nod in agreement, and I am nudged and admonished to agree. I am expected to say these things are not true of me, but are true of women (am I seceding from the union?); I am expected to put my stamp of token approval on the stereotypes. Yes, it's true. Between you and me, it's all true. That's what is wanted from me. Abdication of my principles and pride, in service to a patriarchal system that will only use my collusion to further subjugate me. This is a thing that is asked of me by men who purport to care for me.
There is the unwillingness to listen, a ferociously stubborn not getting it on so many things, so many important things. And the obdurate refusal to believe, to internalize, that my outrage is not manufactured and my injure not make-believe—an inflexible rejection of the possibility that my pain is authentic, in favor of the consolatory belief that I am angry because I'm a feminist (rather than the truth: that I'm a feminist because I'm angry).
And there is the denial about engaging in misogyny, even when it's evident, even when it's pointed out gently, softly, indulgently, carefully, with goodwill and the presumption that it was not intentional. There is the firm, fixed, unyielding denial—because it is better and easier to imply that I'm stupid or crazy, that I have imagined being insulted by someone about whom I care (just for the fun of it!), than it is to just admit a bloody mistake. Rather I am implied to be a hysteric than to say, simply, I'm sorry.
Not every man does all of these things, or even most of them, and certainly not all the time. But it only takes one, randomly and occasionally, exploding in a shower of cartoon stars like an unexpected punch in the nose, to send me staggering sideways, wondering what just happened.
Well. I certainly didn't see that coming…
These things, they are not the habits of deliberately, connivingly cruel men. They are, in fact, the habits of the men in this world I love quite a lot.
All of whom have given me reason to mistrust them, to use my distrust as a self-protection mechanism, as an essential tool to get through every day, because I never know when I might next get knocked off-kilter with something that puts me in the position, once again, of choosing between my dignity and the serenity of our relationship.
Swallow shit, or ruin the entire afternoon?
It can come out of nowhere, and usually does. Which leaves me mistrustful by both necessity and design. Not fearful; just resigned—and on my guard. More vulnerability than that allows for the possibility of wounds that do not heal. Wounds to our relationship, the sort of irreparable damage that leaves one unable to look in the eye someone that you loved once upon a time.
This, then, is the terrible bargain we have regretfully struck: Men are allowed the easy comfort of their unexamined privilege, but my regard will always be shot through with a steely, anxious bolt of caution.
A shitty bargain all around, really. But there it is.
There are men who will read this post and think, huffily, dismissively, that a person of color could write a post very much like this one about white people, about me. That's absolutely right. So could a lesbian, a gay man, a bisexual, an asexual. So could a trans or intersex person (which hardly makes a comprehensive list). I'm okay with that. I don't feel hated. I feel mistrusted—and I understand it; I respect it. It means, for me, I must be vigilant, must make myself trustworthy. Every day.
I hope those men will hear me when I say, again, I do not hate you. I mistrust you. You can tell yourselves that's a problem with me, some inherent flaw, some evidence that I am fucked up and broken and weird; you can choose to believe that the women in your lives are nothing like me.
Or you can be vigilant, can make yourselves trustworthy. Every day.
Just in case they're more like me than you think.