The past few weeks have raised some interesting questions to me about my understanding of the feminism I both practice and preach, namely the place that men have in a movement that aims to liberate women.
After years of trying practice complete equality, I have come to realize that maybe positive discrimination needs to come into play a little.
Maybe men’s voices need to quieten a little in feminist settings, in order to give us women the opportunity to speak for ourselves, to dictate our own narrative, and to share our own experiences with each other rather than merely listen to a patriarchal interpretation of disenfranchisement.
A little background – the feminism that I engage with does not discriminate on any grounds, and that extends to gender.
I see gender, sex and sexuality as constructed and so it makes no sense to me to say that women can attend a feminist rally and men cannot; I don’t think one should ever be required to qualify gender in order to participate in something, not only because it leaves very little room for those who do not exist within the oft-assumed-all-encompassing gender binary.
The feminism I practice is about ‘gender equality’ and being liberated from stereotype surrounding sex, gender and sexuality rather than exclusively about the promotion of women (although that is obviously necessary).
I strongly believe that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes a woman’, in 3rd wave constructivism and in existing outside of a gender binary (shoutout to Judith Butler) – and so to define the movement by promotion of a singular gender seems reductive.
A long time ago, I made a decision that I wouldn’t be a part of political organizations that existed as ‘women only’ or operated in officially gender-exclusive spaces, except when I have deemed it necessary – rape crisis or domestic violence shelters, for example (disclaimer - I determine the necessity on my own terms, I don’t have a rule book for it).
Academically, this idea of complete inclusivity works very well and makes a lot of sense – to practice the complete equality that I preach, to never determine who is entitled to participate in anything because that merely lays precedence for discrimination further along the line, to exist, unflinchingly, on my own theoretical terms.
However, when I try to apply militant third wave rhetoric into my real life, things get a little more complicated.
In my first rehab, once a week we had group therapy segregated by gender. I wouldn’t participate, on the grounds that I politically objected to this lack of inclusivity.
What would happen if someone who didn’t identify as either male or female was on the programme (they weren’t)? Why was it assumed that I would find identification and affinity with women that extended deeper than that which I felt with men (I did)?
I was told I ought to go to a female-only treatment center for a further 6 months. I felt like I was being expected to compromise my values but really I was being asked to practice flexibility for my own benefit.
Connecting with other women helped me work through some things I needed to, particularly with regards to some of the issues around sex and relationships that I was asked to address (and desperately needed to).
I talk about this stuff because I think it is important for me to explain how rigid my belief system was. I was in a mental hospital after a suicide attempt, on a drug detox, asked to address my relationship issues and I was still screaming that I was going to sue the nurse who told me I wasn’t allowed to watch Harry Potter in one of the military men’s bedrooms because it was inappropriate. He called it inappropriate, I called it discrimination.
I slowly learnt to stop trying to operate as a one-woman-paradigm-of-change.
I remember once going out in a short skirt to a notoriously dangerous area in Paris, a boyfriend telling me that he was worried about me, so escorted me to the party. ‘Why are you manipulating me into compromising my liberty?’ I screamed at him. ‘Why are you trying to fight these battles alone?’ he asked.
For me, how I have grown to feel about the space that men have in feminism boils down to that conversation. As someone very eloquently stated in the comments sections of xoJane, ‘Men are allies. They are not the voice of this movement’.
Negotiating privilege within my own life is something that I try to exercise with caution, something which sites like xoJJane help me with. I am a white, middle-class, cis-gendered woman who presents as straight.
My disabilities, if I choose to label them as such, are not immediately apparent upon meeting me and are not physically restrictive in the ‘traditional’ sense – if I can’t get out of bed, it isn’t because of physical impairment but due to mental illness.
When I read the writing of women who do not bear these privileges, I am often surprised by the violence of my emotional reactions. I am not surprised by how upset I am by stories of inequality - I tend to emotionally invest in narratives of disenfranchisement and I’m super sensitive.
However, I am often stunned by the frequency and violence of others’ experiences.
I am surprised by how unfamiliar I am with stories of racism, homophobia, transphobia. However many stories I read, or hear, or rallies I march, I cannot understand what it is like to be discriminated against on those grounds because it has never happened to me, outside of a bit of graffiti about my sex life on a few bathroom walls.
I am capable of empathy but not, I don’t think, with the full spectrum of understanding that would entitle me to speak with authority on those subjects, so I don’t.
With regard to experience that are not my own, I choose to listen.
This is sort of how I have felt about this whole Schwyzer debacle, both on xoJane and Jezebel.
I actively visit websites for women because female voices are marginalized in journalism in general, and I like to hear other women.
However, I enjoy reading Allan Mott’s writing because he does an awesome Pretty in the Past post and I wouldn’t want him to be excluded from participating simply because he is a man. I adore Tynan’s beauty posts, because he loves makeup as much as I do.
But something funny has arisen when I have read Hugo in these ‘female’ arenas, and I don’t necessarily think that it is just because he is a man, but rather because of the attitude he presents as a pioneer of feminism.
I don’t want this to exclusively be a piece on Hugo Schwyzer, because there are a million of those about of late, but I do think that he operates as an interesting catalyst for these questions – not just because of his past as an abuser.
I attend a variety of 12-Step fellowships, where I exist alongside men who have openly admitted to having battered their wives, assaulted women or, in some cases, molested children. These are subjects that speak to me very personally, and can sometimes be hard to be around.
Being in a room when usually women are in a minority, where men are sharing the shame they feel around having abused their partners in addiction can be triggering, and can make me feel a little scared. However, it has actually been a helpful way for me to process my own experiences.
I’m not at the point where I include people who have assaulted me in my nightly prayers, but learning to see abusers as people has helped me connect with experiences that I have needed to re-connect with in order to let go.
But remember, these are groups that operate to assist in managing manifestations of addiction, not ‘feminist’ spaces. They are not arenas that exist to promote equality of women or the diversity of female experience.
Being lectured on positive-body-image by any man, who by virtue of his gender cannot understand female internalization of misogyny, is hard for me to swallow.
I am perfectly happy to hear about why Emily likes letting men come on her face, because it is her choice to experience sexual gratification however she likes. However, I don’t feel particularly comfortable reading Hugo’s slightly bizarre defense of facials as a way of making men feel accepted.
It is a pathologising of a fetish that is absolutely fine between consenting adults and doesn’t need a caveat added onto it. The implication is that women who don’t engage with facials are being unaccepting of male sexuality.
What it comes down to, for me, is that yes, everyone needs to be on board in order for feminism to become normalized in the same way that misogyny and patriarchy have been. Women are only half of the people on the planet and, unless the other half gets on board, we are fighting a losing battle.
Without the help of men, suffrage wouldn’t have been established in the UK in the same way that without straight people marching gay prides when they started, they would have been a lot emptier.
But when it comes to didactic journalism, workshops, discussions on internalisation of oppression and experiences of disenfranchisement, I don’t want to have to listen to someone who doesn’t experience the daily shit that I automatically experience as a woman.
Of course men can care about how safe I am walking down the street wearing whatever I like, and they should. Of course I want them marching next to me on Slutwalk. But I don’t think they can understand the fear or the shame that I feel when I am called out as a whore for my short skirt on a daily basis, simply because they do not experience it.
Yes, they may experience their own oppressions and yes, I feel that intersectionality is a vital part of contemporary political liberation movements, but they do not know what it is to be a woman, and how rife with complications negotiating that existence can be (for me, at least).
This feeling of not-quite-getting-it is substantiated by things like Hugo describing his addict girlfriend’s rape as ‘paying a debt’ to her dealer, of her ‘smelling of sex’ afterwards – these are phrases that make my stomach turn, make me want to cry.
I just don’t think those things would have been written by a woman who has experienced or risked experiencing sexual assault. I don’t think they would have been written by most men, to be fair, but again – it raises an interesting point.
What it comes down to is that I have come to realize, over the past few weeks, that yes men can advocate the equality of women and of course they can call themselves feminists, in the same way I can call out racial discrimination and protest against it, but they cannot teach me what I experience or the way I ought process that.
And I think that’s why it makes my stomach turn. I have grown up accustomed to internalizing male experience, to listening to a patriarchal voice, and I want something a little different with my feminism.
This might mean ‘compromising’ on my critical theory and asking men to listen rather than speak in a feminist setting. I think it is something that I am ready to do.