On Unicorns and Cleaning the Stable: Why Even “Male Feminists” Need to Actively Check Their Privilege

My two most recent posts have both been about the missteps of allies within social justice (specifically, the notion that they deserve equal attention/say in minority issues and on how they damage the cause through privileged platitudes). They’re both applicable to most any marginalized group, but this entry I want to specifically aim at “male feminists,” and how they contribute to female marginalization.

I moderate an online feminist community, in which I recently shared a blog entry on ways that men support rape. The author states elsewhere that she writes to a feminist audience, and thus there are certain assumptions she makes about her readers. Still, this particular article went a bit viral, and she got a lot of comments from those who do not identify as feminists. She does a fantastic job of explaining her stance in the comments, and I highly suggest reading them.

One point the author makes in comments is that her list primarily exists as an outline for how men contribute to what many feminists (myself included) refer to as “rape culture.” But she also expresses her distaste for this term, explaining that she “think[s] [it] is limited, because it removes personal accountability and turns it into something more vague and abstract (‘society’).” It’s a point I hadn’t thought much on previously, but I understand her misgivings. I still plan to continue referring to rape culture, largely out of convenience, as it’s a term easily understood in feminist circles and, in a way, just makes communication easier. Still, her comment rung in my brain for a bit, and I’ve decided that regardless of whether or not I continue to use the term, I also need to start demanding personal accountability from those men who–regardless of their high-minded intentions–support the systemic oppression of women.

Part of this determination is because I don’t think anyone who considers themselves an “ally” should allow themselves to become complacent in that role, though many do. This has proven particularly true in my experience with “male feminists”–they claim the label, they acknowledge that they have male privilege, and so when they subsequently abuse that privilege, they think they deserve just a slap on the wrist, because clearly such a slight isn’t so bad from a feminist! They didn’t intend harm, and we should know that, because they’re feminists…right? But in reality, it’s simply painful on another level, because those men have, through declaring themselves feminists, lulled us into a false sense of security. And worse, it sets those men up to shrug off the consequences of their actions more easily, and makes us feel guilty for calling them on their misogyny.

This is a very real problem for a woman in rape recovery, because it cycles back to guilt. We feel guilty for calling out a “feminist,” for insulting an “ally” when there are so many Big Bad Rapists and Big Bad Rape Apologists out there who we’re told we should be focusing on instead. And guilt is a very real part of our daily lives, because we have been guilted by society for our very violations. We’re told that our behavior somehow welcomed rape, that we dressed/spoke/acted in such a way that our attacks were our fault. And no level of academic understanding of how false that is can relieve us of the social pressure to constantly question ourselves.

That’s why this list and its wording are so important, and something that “male feminists” in particular need to take a long look at. Note, this list calls out the actions of rape supporters–not rapists, not rape apologists. But what’s the difference? Rapist…that label is pretty obvious. (Or at least one would hope, though very often even rapists think they’ve never raped.) Rape apologists are those people who make excuses for the rapist, a rape apologist says that women “ask for it” through dress or behavior, they say partner rape isn’t “real” rape, they come up with bullshit excuses for why the very real act of rape wasn’t actually rape, or why it should be accepted anyway. Rape supporters are those who contribute to rape culture, they are the people who create a society in which rape is normalized, accepted. A rape supporter can be someone who finds the act of rape absolutely abhorrent, who would never forgive a rapist his actions or a rape apologist their excuses. But, by contributing to the systemic marginalization of women, a rape supporter helps form the culture that allows those people to do those things, hold those views, and go largely uncondemned by society. Basically, a rape supporter is a misogynist, because misogyny is the lifeblood of rape culture.

Rape culture isn’t about a world in which every man actively supports rapists and maybe is a rapist himself, at that. It’s about a society where rape is normalized, where the objectification of women is accepted and its consequences ignored. Every time a man does something on that list to oppress me and women like me, he is lending direct support to the cultural norms that make my rape acceptable, that prevent me from ever having justice. He is directly contributing to the social conditioning that has convinced my rapist that he’s not even a rapist, because I “deserved” to be attacked by merit of my behavior. A man who engages in the items on that list is granting comfort to my rapist, at my expense, because that’s what rape culture does, and it shouldn’t have to be something we talk about in theories with platitudes. I and other women (especially rape survivors) shouldn’t be required to consider the delicate feelings of men when confronted with their demonstrations of misogyny. And by objecting, by demanding special consideration for being “feminists,” those men are telling us that our victimization matters less than their delicate ally feelings. When any man engages in the objectification or marginalization of women, they are directly oppressing me by supporting the social constructs that allowed my rape to happen, forced me to stay silent, and will forever deprive me of justice. Yet I’m expected to be delicate when confronting them. The hypocrisy would be laughable if it wasn’t so damn painful.

The biggest obstacle in tearing down rape culture is that most people do not recognize how they contribute to it. And while women can certainly engage in internalized misogyny, women do not have the social power to oppress other women, which is why lists like this focus on men. It’s not about how men are the evilest of evil sexes, about how any man who engages in an activity on that list is out to personally destroy women. It’s about how without challenging their privilege, and actively rejecting it, men are contributing to our oppression through passive acceptance of it. And any man who decries this as too harsh a judgment is holding himself to paltry standards. I believe they can handle challenging their privilege; maybe they should believe so strongly in themselves as well.

I’ve never known a man who did not demonstrate misogyny. Period. I believe the truly “feminist” man to be a unicorn, that mythical creature whispered about in social justice that everyone’s heard of but no one’s ever actually seen and touched. Can men intend to be feminists, intend to never engage in misogyny? Of course, but (as always), intent isn’t magic, and privilege is a subversive beast, quick to convince its host that they’re being completely reasonable and fair, and not marginalizing anyone at all, even if a minority objects to their behavior. It’s why I suggest that men who self-identify as feminists take a step back and reevaluate their own actions. It’s not about your intentions, your beliefs in equality, your moral code or dedication; it’s about how insidious privilege is, and how easy it is to succumb to prejudice without even realizing it. It’s about me, as a woman, asking you, my “ally,” to accept that you will fuck up, that you will demonstrate privilege, and that you will contribute to my oppression, or outright oppress me. It doesn’t mean I think you’re a bad person, and it’s not about me or other women being “man-haters.” It’s about you recognizing your own humanity, and therefore your own fallibility.

Now, I will reiterate, none of this means that I think all men are irredeemable. I can read through that list with specific men in mind, men whom I love, and recognize ways that they do or have in the past contributed to rape culture. But the important part is whether or not they are challenging these actions, if they actively seek to cease privilged behavior, listen to the words of women and rape survivors, and respect our voices as more experienced on the topic of our own marginalization. A man who throws on a Rosie the Riveter tee shirt while still actively engaging in these activities is allowing his privileged ignorance to continue oppressing women; a man who stops screaming “I’M A FEMINIST” so that he can actually hear the words of women is on the right track.

And yes, I’m angry. Actually, I am fucking furious. And I have every reason to be, because I have spent years being silenced. And as far as my personal perspective goes, any man who can read this and think they have the right to be angry with me over their hurt feelings, rather than being introspective and acknowledging that my pain and frustration are legitimate, that they do fuck up and do oppress me…well those men can go to hell. I’ve had enough of those men in my life, and they do nothing but slow recovery, they do nothing but make me feel selfish because I have the unmitigated gall to be traumatized by my rape. So sorry to inconvenience you with my feminism, but truly, do you think your discomfort outweighs my own? Do you think I’m overreacting? Do you think being accused of misogyny is worse than being the victim of it? Do you think that being accused of supporting rape is more traumatic and damaging than being raped?

Please do think on that a moment. Because there is precisely one answer that will make you a decent human being.

About bunnika

shout at the brick wall; if it doesn't hear you, shout louder
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One Response to On Unicorns and Cleaning the Stable: Why Even “Male Feminists” Need to Actively Check Their Privilege

  1. robertsloan2 says:

    Makes sense to me. You’re right. I will be ignorant on something that I haven’t been aware of till you point it out. Or even when I do think you’re right, I’ll have a bad day, the fibro fog will set in and I’ll turn into a whiny teenager reacting the way I did as a stupid kid – I learned the hard way with my fibromyalgia that I can no longer even trust my mind. We’re all human and all make mistakes. You’ve made yourself a good source for your stuff. Where relevant I might share a story or two but I’ll try to keep them short as this is your blog.

    Warning, on sick days I run on at length and lose my editing capacity. That also tends to ramble all over the place. I was pleasantly surprised that reading this didn’t hurt – my editor has beaten my brains in with reality checks well enough that nothing in it was a painful surprise. Tiny flinch at “You will fuck up” but yeah, I will and I have and I have to accept that. I need to quit being that perfectionist. Just aware that if I’m called on something, hear you out. And be polite if I’m on the other end of that about my own trans experience.

    Which is not the same as other people’s trans experience, as I’ve found out there is a whole lot of variety. Don’t take me as normative for trans men, I’m only me. The one I am.

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