Image credit: Ron Mader (cropped)

How to be a man in feminist spaces: 6 tips for male allies

I’m a feminist. As such, I spend the vast majority of my time stomping around in combat boots and kicking in the faces and testicles of any and all men with whom I come into contact (metaphorically speaking), and any leftover time perusing feminist-themed webpages, forums, and Facebook pages. 

Predominantly, these feminist-centered Internet spaces are populated by feminists who are passionate about dismantling the sexist social structure and who want to discuss culturally-ingrained sexism and patriarchy in open, honest, and inviting ways. Unfortunately, these feminist voices don’t quite drown out the angry misogynists who claim to hate feminism and feminists and yet can’t keep themselves away from feminist-centered Internet spaces. Visit any feminist website or Facebook page, and you’ll see a plethora of comments dismissing women’s experiences, accusing women of falsely seeing sexism where none actually exists, and reminding us yet again that “not all men” are rapists/abusers.

Some of these men are just misogynists who carry a deeply-ingrained hatred for women, and to them, I have nothing to say (you can’t dismantle that level of aggressive misogyny with logic and rationale). But some of these men are just uneducated about feminist theory and are unsure about the ways in which they should conduct themselves as men in feminist spaces. These men have the potential to be great allies and are in need of some simple guidelines for conducting themselves within the confines of feminist-dominated zones. For those men, I have a few basic tips.

1. Don’t attempt to dominate the conversation.

Here’s the deal, dudes: we want your input. Your input is valuable to us, and it would be impossible to create a social structure that is safe and enjoyable for people of all genders without your participation, since you, lovely dudes, are half of that population. That said, please keep in mind that while your input is valued in feminist spaces, there’s also a good chance that it won’t be heralded above input from women on the same topic (I can already hear angry anti-feminists rushing to their computers to quote this as irrefutable evidence of how sexist feminists are, so I’ll type a little louder to drown out their angry cries of “MISANDRY!”). This doesn’t mean that your input isn’t valuable, or wanted, or needed. It just means that you are not immune to cultural programming. As enlightened as you think you may be in terms of feminist rhetoric, please keep in mind that all of your opinions and perspectives have been shaped by your lived experiences as a man within our social ecosystem. It’s important for you to remember that while we definitely want your input and participation in feminist spaces, don’t assume that it will be regarded on a higher level than the input of those whose perspectives have been shaped by their experiences as women. Just as white folks should remember to remain humble and open in spaces dominated by people of color, men should remember to remain humble and intellectually malleable in feminist spaces.

2. Don’t discredit women’s experiences with knee-jerk skepticism.

“Women lie about being raped for the attention.” “Women who think compliments are ‘harassment’ are just overreacting.” “Were you actually raped, or did you just have consensual sex and regret it in the morning?” These and other similarly dismissive arguments are not uncommon in feminist spaces. A number of men react to women’s experiences with knee-jerk skepticism and doubt. This reaction only perpetuates the notion that women as a whole are overly sensitive and untrustworthy creatures. While there are undoubtedly women who are sensitive, emotional, and dramatic, it’s unfair and completely ridiculous to assume that all women can be accurately described with these three adjectives. Men can also be emotional and dramatic, but fortunately for men, individual instances of this don’t substantiate long-held regressive stereotypes. You shouldn’t automatically assume deceit when a woman shares her experiences, and you shouldn’t automatically assume that a woman is a melodramatic attention-seeker just because she’s a woman. Like I mentioned, I’m sure some women are melodramatic attention-seekers, but these women do not represent the majority of our demographic. Generally speaking, women are intelligent, logical, thoughtful individuals who are rational enough to separate experiences that perpetuate sexism and rape culture from minor inconveniences and misunderstandings. Give women the same benefit of the doubt that you afford other men by believing us when we share our lived experiences, instead of regressing to an antiquated belief that women are inherently irrational and untrustworthy.

3. Don’t “mansplain.”

A number of men get instantly defensive when they see the word “mansplain,” so I’d like to take a minute to explain exactly what this means. “Mansplaining” is not a word that is meant to describe any and every time a man tries to explain or deconstruct an idea. If you know a lot about cars, and you’d like to explain to me why my car smells like that, then by all means, share this knowledge with me! If you happen to know a lot about modern literature and you’d like to share some perspectives, please do! However, if a group of women are discussing street harassment, and you feel the need to step in explain away these instances by elucidating why these women have perceived the situation incorrectly and therefore their emotional reactions are invalid, then you, my friend, are guilty of mansplaining.

Mansplaining is a very specific act during which a man decides that he is somehow the authority on women’s lives and experiences and can use his superior knowledge to help disabuse poor, disillusioned women of their anger against sexism and sexist practices. Women have far more intimate knowledge of the female experience than men will ever have, just as men have far more intimate knowledge of the male experience than women will ever have. This isn’t because of any sort of biological disparities, but because our social ecosystem is structured in very specific and very different ways for men and for women. Men will never quite understand the female experience, and white folk will never quite understand the experiences of people of color, and able-bodied folk will never fully understand the experience of people with disabilities, and all of this is totally and completely okay. What isn’t okay is when men come into feminist spaces, or white folk come into spaces dominated by people of color, or able-bodied individuals come into spaces dominated by people with disabilities, and try to explain to the historically oppressed or marginalized group just what their problems really are and exactly how they should be handled.

Don’t do this. Let us have our discussions and exchange ideas without assuming that your culturally-imbued privilege somehow makes you the authority on our struggles.

4. Don’t tell women that their concerns are invalid because other women in the world have it worse.

I hear this one a lot. “American women need to shut up with this feminism crap because women in the Sudan are having their clits sliced off!” If you’re ever tasked with explaining the “fallacy of relative privation,” statements that dismiss instances of sexism in our culture by comparing them to worse instances of sexism in other cultures are a perfect example. The idea that I should be complacent with being sexually harassed on the street because women are being forcibly mutilated in other countries is completely ridiculous. Using the plight of women in third-world countries as a tactic to force complacency among American women is insulting to women the world over. I can continue to bring attention to culturally-perpetuated sexism and misogyny while simultaneously supporting and standing with women who are being mutilated, abused, or raped in all countries. Women are capable of simultaneously harboring passion for a multitude of issues, so don’t assume that any critique of sexism in our culture is somehow a dismissal of sexism in other cultures.

5. Don’t let any anger expressed in feminist spaces substantiate the stereotype that all feminists are angry and therefore feminism as a whole is invalid.

Sometimes, I’m an angry feminist. Sexism and misogyny make me angry, and that anger is justified. And you, dear allies, need to remember that this anger doesn’t invalidate feminism as a belief system. Systemically oppressed groups are allowed to be angry about their systemic oppression, and assuming that this anger completely invalidates the entire movement is to claim that our anger is somehow unwarranted or irrational. It’s not. This anger is justified, and don’t you dare suggest otherwise.

5. And please, for the love of all that is good, DON’T say “not all men.”

We fucking get it. Not all men are rapists, or abusers, or misogynists. We absolutely fucking get it. So can we please stop saying it? There is nothing to achieve by continuing to make this claim when it’s already well-established in feminist ideals that not all men are terrible, violent, women-hating beings. But you know what? Some of them are, and our bringing attention to the men that are shouldn’t be misconstrued as an allegation against every man on the planet of the same crimes. You’re not bringing any valuable or novel information to the table when you insist on repeating “not all men.” In fact, you’re only succeeding in pissing us off even further, and making yourself look utterly oblivious. So instead, just remind yourself that this is knowledge women already possess, and instead think of something valuable to contribute to the dialogue.

In short, dear allies, remain emotionally and intellectually malleable in feminist spaces, and don’t assume that we’re unable to effectively direct the dialogue on our own lived experiences. Give input, but don’t interrupt. Speak up, but don’t speak over.

Header image credit: Ron Mader/Flickr 

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

I am an actress, a musician, a feminist, an atheist, and I make decent enchiladas.

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