The male feminist: a contemporary player in the fight for women’s liberation

// 23 July 2012

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This is a guest post by Jacob Engelberg. Jacob is a student from London. He is currently studying English Literature and Film at the University of Sussex. He tweets here.

 Half a century ago, the idea of a male feminist would have been seen as laughable. The conflation of the words ‘male’ and ‘feminist’ was an oxymoron, why would a man concern himself with feminism? Isn’t it a women’s struggle? Today however, growing numbers of men are taking on the appellation and I am one of them. Whilst male feminists cannot share female experience, we can join women in the fight for justice and women’s liberation, as in fact every well-informed person should. I hope that the presence of male feminists will soon be as unsurprising as the white person fighting racism or the heterosexual opposing homophobia.

My engagement with feminism began around the age of sixteen. I slowly began to realise the myriad ways in which women are oppressed. In the demands women are expected to live up to in terms of their appearance, the misogynistic rhetoric which pervades everyday interaction, the offensive female archetypes which saturate our media and the statistics which demonstrate women’s repression in the workforce and lack of representation in positions of power. When a man undergoes all these realisations and sees that this condition is inherently wrong, he must recognise that which is often most difficult to come to terms with: his own male privilege. The privilege to not be ubiquitously judged in terms of our appearance, the privilege to be sexually autonomous, the privilege to speak our minds freely without being cast off as garrulous. The list goes on and on.

Alongside these are the slightly more easy-to-stomach realisations that patriarchy’s normative expectations are not good for men either. For example, with the idealisation of women as virginal, sexually uninterested beings comes the assertion that men should be libidinous creatures, constantly seeking sex in all its forms – a lack of sexual interest in a man is seen as laughable. In a patriarchal society, a man must uphold his position of oppressor in order to adhere to the rules of normality and ‘naturalness’. Masculinity and femininity are essentially patriarchal social constructs. In the same way feminists have attacked the notion of femininity as natural, we must too acknowledge that there is nothing natural about masculinity and its demands. To be a male feminist is to eschew the masculine mores that oppress women and seek a different path in our interaction with the opposite sex.

This being said, I do believe there are areas of feminism where it is unwise for a male feminist to concern himself: these are the issues of women’s personal choices. It is not a male feminist’s place to say, “A woman should not wear make up” or “Women should not shave their armpits”. This is frankly paternalistic tosh. It is counter-productive as one of the main issues behind the oppression of women is men’s interference with what are women’s own personal choices. When it comes to these issues, men must listen and learn from women about their variety of female experience. A male feminist advocates a woman’s own personal choice, he does not make those choices for her.

Feminism still has a long way to go in its efforts to emancipate women. It also has progress to be made as a movement which is inclusive of people of colour, the working class and transgender communities. The emergence of male feminists has the potential to be a landmark in the feminist movement in which men cast off the oppressive garb they have once worn in the name of masculinity and support women in their quest for justice. We must understand that if a female politician seeks to restrict women’s reproductive rights for example, this is not a triumph for feminism – she is a woman perpetuating patriarchal dogma. In the world we live in today, patriarchy consists of men and women and so does its feminist adversary. I envisage a future in which your position in the struggle will no longer be determined by your gender but by the way you think.

Photo of two men holding a banner that reads “Men against violence towards women”, supporting women marching at Take Back The Night, Ontario, Canada, by Toban Black, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

Claire123 // Posted 23 July 2012 at 11:40 am

This is a great read.

Lisa // Posted 23 July 2012 at 12:01 pm

Yes to men who believe in women’s liberation. With some caveats.

Some men use the word “feminist” but at the first sign of challenge from a woman who objects to the way they are doing their “feminism”, become defensive and bring their full male privilege to bear to make the stupid woman admit that she was wrong. Because there are so many of these men, I prefer that men who are genuinely committed to women’s liberation use the phrase “pro-feminist man” to describe themselves. I think this phrase is both less palatable to fauxminists and keeps in the foreground the challenges that men must negotiate when engaging with women’s liberation.

One of those challenges is not to “pick and choose” to advocate a feminism in a way which, when repeated by multiple men, distorts feminism as a movement. In his article, What Not To Do As An Ally, A.J.Withers describes the bad ally type of the Leadershopper (leadership shopper) who, “uses their knowledge of the divisions in a community to find people who will “lead” in the way they want to follow”.

For this reason and more I am extremely suspicious nowadays of pro-feminist men who find themselves inexorably drawn towards “sex-positive” feminist politics. Women are split on many issues of this type of politics, and without wanting to start a debate on which is “right”, I observe that a higher percentage of men come down on the “sex-positive” side than women, and I don’t think the reasons for that are too difficult to figure out. At its worst, I’ve heard statements like, “My girlfriend won’t have sex with me. Should I dump her for someone more sex-positive?” and even at its best, I see a lot of very tedious manarchist/manarxist ‘splaining about labour and capitalism injected where it isn’t always appropriate.

If a pro-feminist man has examined feminist work on sex, sexuality, abuse, pornography and similar in depth and has very deeply challenged his own privilege, masculinity and sexual entitlement and spoken to many women on the subject, and he still thinks that sex-positive politics is the right path, perhaps he should bear in mind that many, many more men only claim to have done that personal work and are really just simply advocating for male sexual access to women on any terms. Knowing that, perhaps the truly sex-positive pro-feminist man should be cautious about how he expresses himself, and work to keep his fellows in check.

Both these points flag up what I think a crucial role of pro-feminist men is in women’s liberation – to be aware of the behaviour of other men and to hold them to account. Sexist men believe that the word of a man about feminism is worth more than the word of a woman. I’d love to see them persuaded otherwise, but given the effort that can take, if they need a man to check them before they’ll stop talking and start thinking, I’ll take that.

Carrie Blant // Posted 23 July 2012 at 12:19 pm

Thank you for this!

Laura // Posted 23 July 2012 at 12:27 pm

Thanks for highlighting the importance of recognising male privilege and not telling women what to do when it comes to being a male feminist – I think these are crucial points. I’d personally go further and say that male feminists/pro-feminist men should not take on any kind of leadership positions within the feminist movement, and should focus on supporting the leadership and decisions of female feminists. Nothing galls me more than seeing a man “organising” a group that is 95% female – talk about perpetuating patriarchal hierarchies!

As you suggest, it is vitally important for men to tackle oppressive masculinities and find new, non-sexist ways of interacting with women, and I think male feminists should focus on educating other men in these areas. Those that don’t, and who are happy to take on leadership positions or tell female feminists how they should organise their events/activism need to take a massive step back.

Laura // Posted 23 July 2012 at 12:57 pm

Coincidentally, there’s a really interesting conversation on men and feminism in the Indie today, between Laurie Penny and Martin Robbins:

sianmarie // Posted 23 July 2012 at 1:08 pm

Laura – I agree. For me, men involved in feminism need to listen to women and to appreciate the need for women-centred organising and leadership. I’ve never met any male feminists or pro feminist men who don’t believe this thankfully. But at a recent pro choice demo a male anarchist tried to tell us how we ‘should’ be doing the demonstrating. I did not appreciate, as I’m sure you can imagine.

I really think that a vital role for men in feminism is in engaging men, so work like the Anti Porn Men Project and the White Ribbon Campaign are vital – where men and boys come together to share their experiences of how patriarchy harms and then acting to change it. More of this sort of thing, and less of pro feminist men telling women how they should be being feminists!

Thanks for your post Jacob.

Ruby Fruit // Posted 23 July 2012 at 1:36 pm

Women are oppressed, as a class, by men, as a class and, therefore, “gender” can never be irrelevant, as you claim. Oppressors do not liberate those they oppress, we have to fight for liberation ourselves.

I have no problem men being pro-feminists or allies of feminism but please do not come into our movement. It is a women’s movement for a reason – and that is we’ve had centuries of patriarchy taking over our words, truths, lives and fights and making them their own. All the while, de-politicising our struggles and rendering them liberal and harmless to patriarchy.

You may be genuinely committed to supporting women fight for liberation but, I can assure you, I have met plenty of men who have pretended to be so and, before long, have put forward MRA politics, or have taken over activism, or denied women’s truths within particular left movements – all in the name of being a “male feminist”

If you really believe women should be liberated from patriarchal rule, you’d leave the movement to us and support us when asked.

Justine Ossum // Posted 23 July 2012 at 4:42 pm

Broadly; yes. The world need more male feminists/pro-feminists. In my own, limited, experience though I’ve seen egregious behaviour from someone who claimed to be a feminist but didn’t see why that should limit his male privelege within personal relationships. I hope that that’s a rare exception, but it has made me wary of self-proclaimed male feminists. A bit more doing rather than being, perhaps? Not aiming that at the author of the post, btw.

Louise N // Posted 23 July 2012 at 5:34 pm

I think that male feminists are most effective when they are mutual allies and work against how patriachy affects them personally as well as affecting women. I’d love to see more male feminists fighting things like lad coulture and the effects of misogyny on feminine men.

Louise N // Posted 23 July 2012 at 5:55 pm

@sianmarie Even anti-pornography men can cause problems by being uncritically supportive of internet censorship schemes. For example not being aware of or taking seriously how censorship can class LGBT sites as adult content. This harms young LBTQ women and girls by making it harder for us to access information and forums.

LauraB // Posted 24 July 2012 at 8:14 am

I’m all up for men calling themselves feminists. I have met my fair share of men that are feminist in theory but then still can’t understand why on earth it might be their turn to do the washing up! It’s easy to remain unaware of privilege that directly benefits you.

My current boyfriend grew up with mum and dad both working fulltime and mum doing ALL of the housework as well, so he experienced that as normal before being old enough to question it. When I challenged it he was quite shocked and defensive at first, then a bit embarrassed, and then suddenly he was doing housework without being asked.

My feminism isn’t perfect and I’m learning about my own prejudice all of the time and that must be true for many feminists, male and female.

Ally Fogg // Posted 24 July 2012 at 10:49 am

I find the first paragraph here a bit bizarre. Never mind 50 years, it’s more than 150 years since John Stuart Mill wrote The Subjection of Women, 200 years since WIlliam Thompson co-wrote One Half the Human Race.

50 years ago, 1962, was the time of the birth of 2nd wave feminism (Feminine Mystique and all that), the tail end of the Beat Generation, and feminism was one of the key planks of the new radical liberalism that also included sexual permissiveness and politics of sexuality, the civil rights movement and everything else.

Certainly among young intellectuals and radicals you probably found a greater number of avowedly feminist men in 1962 than you would today.

Anyway, no big deal, consider that your patronising history lesson for today. :D

Jake McMillan // Posted 24 July 2012 at 11:22 am

As a man in his 30s who grew up with a feminist mum, I’ve always believed men and women are equal, but different. I have for many years proudly said I was a feminist. However, I don’t any more.

This is not because I don’t believe in the cause of equality of women with men, far from it, I am probably resolute about this aim than I have ever been. The world is very different from what it was 50 years ago and modern society has developed, evolved and become more complex and sophisticated. Unfortunately, I feel a lot of feminist argument and rhetoric (whether female or male) has not kept pace.

I don’t say I’m a feminist, I say I’m someone who wants gender equality. Also note that I didn’t used to describe myself as a male feminist, I was a feminist who happened to be a man. This is a key part of my concern with some of the feminist movement, that it has become so fragmented that it is losing its power and effectiveness. If we are debating over what a male or female feminist can or can’t say then how on earth are we going to achieve gender equality? We (human beings) need to look at the bigger picture to achieve our goals.

You can make a strong argument that feminism has been so successful that the argument and cause needs to evolve and become more sophisticated. Yes, there is still inequality against women, but there is also inequality against men. Feminism has closed the inequality gap to such a degree that solely focusing on the inequality of women in a blinkered way is no longer helpful. Looking at the bigger picture of both women AND men can only help to create better understanding and positive solutions to gender inequality wherever it may exist.

It’s 2012 and using old (and in my view out-dated) terminology such as patriarchal society and male privilege does a disservice to the cause as it merely preaches to the converted and to the lay-person can sound a bit like someone who is in a cult?! Language is very important here and I believe if we are going to achieve equality then perhaps we need new terminology? I want to participate in an intelligent debate and discussion about achieving gender inequality in a modern society where my or anyone else’s gender is irrelevant.

Laura // Posted 24 July 2012 at 11:36 am

Jake – But feminism hasn’t hugely closed the gender inequality gap – it’s gone some way, but women are still very much disadvantaged compared to men. We still need to focus on discrimination against women. The problems men face are not down to structural gender-based oppression. That doesn’t mean they should be ignored, but arguing that focusing on the oppression of women somehow distracts attention from men is illogical. Society as a whole is focused on men, and feminism is working to redress the balance by focusing on women. It’s kind of essential to the cause!

We can still all work together the tackle social and economic inequalities that affect us all, but we need to recognise that we experience these inequalities in different ways depending on our gender, as well as our sexuality, race, class and whether or not we are disabled, etc.

As for feminist language sounding cultic – we need to use specific terminology in order to describe the way discrimination and oppression works. Male privilege is a very real phenomena. It might be a term that most people are unfamiliar with, but Google is your friend – it’s not difficult to learn what it means. Offline, yes, feminists need to explain what they mean when using these kinds of terms to non-feminists, but that doesn’t make them redundant.

Jake McMillan // Posted 24 July 2012 at 3:27 pm

Hi Laura, thanks for replying! Apologies, but I’m going to disagree with some of the points you made. Your view of inequality in society comes across much more black and white than my view. We differ on our view of the achievements of feminism, the notion of male privilege and inequality against men, all of which are subjective areas rather than established fact.

I am in no way saying feminists should stop focusing on inequality against women, but feel it would be best served and has a better chance of success by also taking into account all gender inequality. Inequalities exist for both genders and if feminism focuses solely on redressing the inequalities of women and is successful, then society will not be completely equal as inequalities against men will still exist. Solving discrimination of women does not automatically solve discrimination of men.

You could argue that’s up to male rights’ activists to fight for men, but as the overall goal is to create equality between the sexes, it seems logical for both genders to work together to achieve this (and in so doing create better awareness and understanding), rather than each gender fighting for it’s own causes.

Laura // Posted 24 July 2012 at 4:41 pm

Jake – So can you name me some of these inequalities and discrimination that men face solely on the basis of gender? Those that I can think of are already being addressed by feminism, because gender-based issues are interlinked.

For example…

The kind of gender stereotyping in childhood that teaches boys they shouldn’t cry, like certain “girlie” things, or aren’t as good at caring/nurturing as women is recognised as harmful by feminists and is something most of us care deeply about – for the good of both girls and boys, and the men and women they will grow up to be. Note that these issues are linked into the devaluing of women – boys shouldn’t behave “like girls” because being a girl is looked down on.

The classic MRA complaint that fathers don’t have sufficient rights is linked to the sexist assumption that women should be solely responsible for childcare. This is an assumption that hurts women on a whole range of levels and is being addressed by feminism.

So what exactly is it that you think feminism is missing out?

Jake McMillan // Posted 24 July 2012 at 6:05 pm

Thanks Laura, you’ve hit on area that has caused me to become a little disillusioned with feminism.

You wrote that the classic MRA complaint that fathers don’t have sufficient rights is linked to the sexist assumption that women should be solely responsible for childcare and this assumption hurts women on a whole range of levels and is being addressed by feminism. For me, this is simply not good enough and I don’t believe it is happening. I no longer have the faith that a purely women-focused feminist approach will enable all inequalities against men to be resolved in the wash of its success.

I imagine MRAs would point to areas such as parental rights, reproductive rights, divorce, healthcare, sexual harassment as well as stating men don’t live as long as women on average, they have higher suicide rates and other stress-related disorders. My concern is whether feminism would be able to resolve these?

I used to believe it could, but I am now doubtful. If you can help persuade me otherwise, I would happily say I am a feminist again, but seeing how fractured and divided feminism has become, reinforced by comments above that feminism is just a women’s movement leave me with little confidence in it to achieve these goals.

I believe feminism has been successful enough that it no longer needs to just focus on inequality against women, that by taking on inequalities against men it demonstrates to all it’s commitment to equality of women and men, rather than equality of women with men.

Laura // Posted 24 July 2012 at 7:36 pm

Not every movement can solve everything. Do you expect anti-racist activists to focus on white people? Gay rights activists to focus on straight people?

Feminism is focused on women, and I don’t think that’s a problem. The rest of society is focused on men, ffs! For me, feminism isn’t about “equality with men”. I don’t set up men as some kind of default standard we need to meet, nor current society as something we need to contort ourselves to fit into as women. I want a new society where your gender does not determine your path in life – whether you’re a man or a woman. At present, being a woman rather than a man puts you at a much greater disadvantage, and the MRA issues you raise are linked to a myriad of other factors, not simply being a man.

If you want to tackle issues that solely affect men for whatever reason, that’s fine. But demanding women spend the limited time and energy we have on men as well as women is, from my perspective, a reflection of the lack of value placed on women in our society. It seems to be unthinkable that men could care about feminism solely because they care about women, without bringing themselves into it. That’s pretty sad.

Jake McMillan // Posted 24 July 2012 at 10:10 pm

Hi Laura, I think you are missing the point I am making and I can see this argument run and run. However, your end desire is the same as mine which is great, we just differ on our approach on how to get there.

Oh, and yes, I would expect an anti-racist movement to focus on ending ALL racism, no matter who it was targeted against.

whoever // Posted 25 July 2012 at 1:00 am

@LauraWoodhouse, I’m fairly sure lots of men are involved in feminism because they care about women, but I think more would be retained in the movement if there was a slight shift of focus. It’s also pretty weird that you said you didn’t think a movement who’s ultimate aim (depending on who you listen to) is to erase gender discrimination or gender roles entirely, should only focus on women’s issues.

I obviously don’t think the main or even secondary focus should be on men, but even talking about a few issues not really discussed anywhere else would probably win a lot of supporters.

It would also be beneficial in attempts to achieve some of the main goals of the movement. One example is the Swedish ‘fathers months’ of shared maternity/paternity leave which was (as far as I’m aware) largely won by a feminist affiliated men’s organisation.

Your example of the anti-racism movement is apt because (again as far as I’m aware) that movement did acknowledge and attempt to deal with the troubles of whites.

Martin Luther King was part of ‘the poor peoples campaign’ (which was multiracial) when he was assassinated.

In the UK anti racist organisations have a rich history of building solidarity, and focusing on combating the growth of far right organisations in white communities. I’m also pretty sure most members are white.

sianmarie // Posted 25 July 2012 at 9:02 am

Well said Laura!

Laura // Posted 25 July 2012 at 9:09 am

@ whoever – Feminism does talk about men from time to time. In fact, I was on the radio just last week talking about parental leave and how fathers need to be encouraged and supported in taking a more active role in childcare, rather than the focus being all on mothers – for the good of men, women and children. I just don’t recognise Jake’s complaint that we don’t do enough for men – as I said, we have limited time and resources and, personally, given that the majority of society is focused on men, I’d rather devote most of that to women. I said earlier down this thread that I think men’s role in feminism should be to address men – no one’s stopping them doing this, I just dislike this complaint that all of us need to be more male focused.

In terms of anti-racist activism – I was talking about focusing on white people as supposed victims of racism. Obviously men and women can join together to fight campaigns that affect all of us and aren’t rooted in sexism, as well as develop solidarity to combat sexism. But let’s not pretend that men are victims of sexism and that feminism should therefore focus more attention on them. Issues of men’s mental health, unemployment etc. are not caused by centuries of oppression by women. The majority of women’s issues that feminists focus on are the result of oppression by men. That’s what feminism seeks to tackle.

Jake McMillan // Posted 25 July 2012 at 10:08 am

I think perhaps @whoever is making my point clearer than I have been as I am not complaining or demanding that feminist should do anything, I am merely putting forward the argument that the end goals of feminism may be better served by also addressing some of the inequalities against men? This would, as @whoever stated, win over supporters and would help achieve feminist aims. But I do appreciate your point about time and resources.

To potentially inflame the argument in a new direction, Laura, how do you feel about the apparent rise of women oppressing other women? e.g. there was a lot of discussion about this with the furore of Ashley Judd having a supposed puffy face? Do you feel that this is true?

Louise McCudden // Posted 25 July 2012 at 10:59 am

@Jake McMillan

“men don’t live as long as women on average, they have higher suicide rates and other stress-related disorders.”

This is a bit like me arguing that as a white person I get sunburnt and am at a higher risk of skin cancer, then demanding anti-racism groups to do something about it otherwise I refuse to stand in solidarity with them against racism.

Laura // Posted 25 July 2012 at 11:09 am

The fact that you think we need to talk about men in order to win over supporters shows just how sexist society is.

Women have always policed other women, there’s no “apparent rise”. We’re all socialised into a sexist society and in some ways it’s a coping mechanism – it’s often easier to defend and try and fit into the status quo than rise up against it. We’re also encouraged to see each other as competition in the fight for male approval, so it’s no wonder women attack each other.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 25 July 2012 at 12:10 pm

I think the women policing other women thing is also because it’s one of the few areas where women have historically be given authority. So, women were allowed to access forms of power, as long as it was in maintaining social order through the policing of other women, and that continues to the present in the way we monitor each other. Moreover, it often acts as a form of reassurance to ourselves in a world where we are under critique; it reflects an insecurity in yourself, caused by the constant critiques on all women’s behaviour and identity, and by policing boundaries you reassure yourself that your version of femininity/ womanhood is correct.

Jake McMillan // Posted 25 July 2012 at 12:14 pm

Laura, I didn’t say feminists ‘need’ to talk about men in order to win over supporters, it is a suggested tactic to achieve your end goal of living in a society where your gender does not effect your path in life. Therefore, it is not illogical or sexist to suggest to a long established movement whose ultimate goal is the end of sexism to want to eradicate all sexism wherever it exists and however it has been established. Surely, men and women working together for the rights of both genders cannot be a bad thing?

Laura // Posted 25 July 2012 at 12:19 pm

Men’s problems are not down to sexism. And women don’t need you or any other man to tell us how best we should go about ending it. If you want to support feminism, shut up and listen to the people on the receiving end of sexism instead of perpetuating male dominance by telling us what to do and what we should be addressing. I’m quite happy to work with men towards eliminating sexism and freeing everyone from the restrictions of gender stereotyping, but not those who have the arrogance to think they know best and go on and on about men.

sianmarie // Posted 25 July 2012 at 12:33 pm

Men telling women how they should be doing feminism in order to get men to like us more is one of the best arguments i’ve ever heard for women-centred organising.

Louise McCudden // Posted 25 July 2012 at 12:47 pm


Great comment! I have encountered so many “sex positive I love sex like totally liberal porn is great whoop whoop why shouldn’t women be in rape porn films if they choose it, it’s so empowering for a girl to be taken up the bum” men that it just makes me unsure whether to roll my eyes or vomit because they often end up being not sex positive at all. They often have really regressive attitudes to sex.

In particular I recently got really upset by a conversation with a colleague and had to walk away, about rape porn. A whole genre he says is the best because it’s “challenging” is a genre where “the woman is always being brutally raped.” Is that “challenging”? Really? That isn’t empowering and liberal, that’s regressive, and thinking that anyone who questions whether the only way to show sex is as a violent act doesn’t like sex or is uptight or doesn’t like the “challenging” suggests to be a really disturbing lack of understanding between the difference between sex and rape.

It doesn’t sound challenging and too exotic. It sounds horrifically boring at best – at worst rather depressing.

Sorry but had to get that off my chest! It is a bit off topic but Lisa’s comment made me remember it :(

Jake McMillan // Posted 25 July 2012 at 2:15 pm

Firstly Laura, at no point have I ‘told’ or ‘demanded’ anyone do anything in this discussion. I have put forward, on a post about male involvement in feminism, arguments and suggestions about tackling all sexism and gender inequality as a way of reaching feminist goals. People are free to agree or disagree, this is purely debate and discussion. I think it is a shame that the fact that I happen to be a man making this argument is causing an issue. Would it be different if I was Judy instead of Jake? I hope not, but it certainly reads that way.

Reading all the comments below the post by Jacob has been very interesting as it comes across that many women don’t want men involved in feminism, or being kinder, are very suspicious of male involvement, that they masquerade as wanting to help the oppression against women but really all they are interested in is men’s rights. Unfortunately, my approach or view to embrace all gender inequality in this particular discussion has meant we have devoted much of the debate about whether feminism should or could incorporate male inequality as well. I think you have made your personal position clear on this in several cases above.

I also disagree with your view or assessment of men’s problems … here I go again seemingly banging on only about men, but I’m only responding to, what comes across as very sweeping statements about sexism or inequality about men. Maybe you should take your own advice and listen to people on the receiving end of all sexism?

I’m sorry you feel that my suggestions or arguments are trying to perpetuate male dominance? I hope others will see it differently. My personal view, which people are very free to disagree with, is that working towards ending all gender inequality through both men and women working together, listening to each other and so hopefully better understanding each’s concerns and issues ‘might’ be a good way of doing things and help achieve the goals we both seem to want.

Ally Fogg // Posted 25 July 2012 at 2:28 pm


Excuse me for butting in!

“Men’s problems are not down to sexism.”

Doesn’t this rather depend upon what we mean by sexism?

We live in a ludicrously gendered world, with socialisation of gender roles heavily reinforced from all quarters. Men are raised to perform certain roles, just as women are. There’s a construction of heteronormative masculinity, pardon the jargon, that includes repressing (most) emotions, tolerating violence as victim and being expected to inflict violence upon others as in response to attack or insult (this includes formal and informal corporal punishment), being trained out of self-preservation instincts with narratives around courage and self-sacrifice etc etc etc. And then we wonder why boys and men are violent.

This leads directly to a model of adult masculinity which is directly implicated in mental ill-health, suicide and criminality; exploited by systems of governance which turn boys and men into cannon-fodder whether they wish it or not (there is male-only compulsory military conscription in about 80 countries still.) It directly accounts for why men make up 95% of workplace deaths and about 85% of prison places. It’s why male babies are 50% more likely to be murdered than female babies (in the UK) and why more males than females die among every single age cohort, of pretty much every single cause. It’s also why men often feel “emasculated” by caring and parenting roles, working with children etc etc. It’s why male DV victimisation is mocked and usually unreported, likewise male rape and other sexual abuse.

None of that stuff comes naturally to men. We have it literally beaten into us, it requires massive social shaming and conformity processes to make it stick. And none of it, literally none of it, is a privilege. One salutory exercise, I think, is to go back to a book like All Quiet on the Western Front or The Naked and the Dead or even a more recent Vietnam book, and read it through a gender lens. Think about what literally millions of men within living memory have been forced to live through, purely on the basis of their gender. If that is not sexism, what is it?

I stress, none of this is intended in any way to diminish or deny the myriad ways in which our gendered society ALSO inflicts horrors upon women. It is not a zero sum game.

Now, personally I think if you’re going to use words like “sexism” or even “patriarchy” to describe the way society constructs and polices female gender norms and roles, I think you should use the exact same terminology for the way society constructs and polices male gender norms and roles. Two sides of the same coin.

“And women don’t need you or any other man to tell us how best we should go about ending it.”

Having said all of the above, I actually agree with you about this. I think feminism’s concerns should be primarily about women, and I think feminist movements should be led by women and I’m rather wary of the very concept of a male feminist.

What I’d like to see is men creating for themselves the space and opportunities to discuss these things and address them without falling into the MRA trap of thinking that feminism is the enemy or the opposition. Overwhelmingly, men’s issues are also women’s problem, and vice versa.

But speaking as a man I don’t think it is appropriate to think that all gender issues are women’s issues, and I don’t think it is sufficient for us to wait for feminist women to come along and solve our problems for us.

I quite understand why feminists get hacked off when men come along and tell them what they should be doing as feminism, what their concerns should be, and what their tactics should be. I also understand how infuriating it is to have a bloke tell you how you should experience being a woman.

But I live in hope that one day the majority of feminists will be able to accept that male-specific gender issues are not only real and often severely harmful, but that men have a right to raise them and campaign on them without being branded as misogynists, anti-feminists or whingers. I’d also like it if feminists could understand how infuriating it is to be told how we should experience being a man.

Sorry, that was a bit of a braindump! tl;dr: a bit of compassion and empathy would go a long way on both sides.

LauraB // Posted 25 July 2012 at 5:12 pm

Jake – a lot of the time when you scrutinise examples of how men have it tough or are subjected to sexist attitudes, they can be attributed to men being seen as superior to women generally. For example, higher suicide rates amongst young men. Our health care system relies on people asking for help and men are socialised to see themselves as strong and able to ‘man up’ to challenges. Women, on the other hand, are taught that we are weak, so if we have symptoms of anxiety or depression (for example) we may feel less stigmatised in seeking help. This is because we are _already_ stigmatised as weaker, and that has been used to subjugate us for centuries.

Another example, when men don’t fulfill gendernorms they get bullied for things like, ‘throwing like a girl’, mocked for being effeminate, described as ’emasculated’. These all hinge on being less than a man, and therefore more like a woman. Because, you know, women are *worse* aren’t they? When we fail to meet gendernorms we’re told we’re ugly or lesbians – because being a woman that isn’t sexually appealing/available to men is even worse than just being a woman.

Of course it is horrible if individual men feel that they are forced into gendernorms that don’t suit them or that harm them, but it’s patriarchy that does that – it’s the structural sexism that teaches that women are worth less then men.

Laura // Posted 25 July 2012 at 6:04 pm

Hi Ally,

“What I’d like to see is men creating for themselves the space and opportunities to discuss these things and address them without falling into the MRA trap of thinking that feminism is the enemy or the opposition.”

Totally agree with this.

I also fully recognise all the issues you highlight above. I think, as LauraB mentions, so much of the gendered crap that men are socialised into and the fall-out you describe is a product of the oppression of women. Women are inferior creatures and men must therefore do their utmost not to be like us. Displaying emotions, caring for others, being a victim, being weak and unable to fight etc. are all viewed as demeaning because they are associated with women. By standing up for women and revaluing women, we take that stigma away and help free men from the gender box in the process.

Obviously this means we also need to talk about how it’s OK for men to be/do all of these things, and I agree that’s an area we can and must work together on. Indeed, as I’ve said previously, I think men’s focus within feminism should be on addressing harmful stereotypes around masculinity, for the benefit of all of us.

Where we differ is how we interpret the term sexism. For me, it’s structural (i.e. societal) oppression of one sex by the other. Although men lose out too under patriarchy in a variety of ways, we haven’t had centuries of women controlling society, of men being exchanged between them as property to essentially live as dependent servants. Men have had, and continue to have, a whole range of societal privileges simply through being born male – women have very few. For something to be sexist, it needs to have the weight of social oppression, of power hierarchies behind it. As with “racism against white people”, “sexism against men” doesn’t have that.

I think it would take a lot of thought and time to explain this fully – and I’m sure someone has already done so somewhere! – but I hope that makes some kind of sense.

I think we’re essentially on the same page when it comes to the issues that need to be addressed, however :)

Ally Fogg // Posted 25 July 2012 at 8:13 pm

Thanks for the reply Laura, and yes, in broad terms I hope we are on the same page.

Couple of points of divergence though…

LW: “I think, as LauraB mentions, so much of the gendered crap that men are socialised into and the fall-out you describe is a product of the oppression of women. Women are inferior creatures and men must therefore do their utmost not to be like us. Displaying emotions, caring for others, being a victim, being weak and unable to fight etc. are all viewed as demeaning because they are associated with women.”

I disagree with you and Laura (and most feminists) about this. I think what I’m describing is a corollary of the oppression of women, not a product or consequence of it. Our society evolved to suit economic interests, not the male gender. Economic interests required women to be home-makers and to raise the next generation (ideally while working in a factory or fields as well, if they were working class) and economic interests required men to be willing to fight and die on the battlefields or at sea or down the mines or whatever. You could flip your argument and say that women aren’t meant to be aggressive or criminal or unkempt because those traits are associated with men, and women are meant to be better than that! So I don’t accept that feminine traits are regarded as inferior and masculine traits are superior. I think it is that masculine traits in a woman are heavily sanctioned, and feminine traits in a man are heavily sanctioned, femininity is defined in opposition to masculinity and vice versa.

LW: “Where we differ is how we interpret the term sexism. For me, it’s structural (i.e. societal) oppression of one sex by the other.”

I disagree with that definition. Or if you are going to argue that, then we need another word to describe non-structural discrimination and bigotry. A test of this – Srebrenica massacre, all the boys and men in an entire town taken out and murdered systematically. Doesn’t that require a word to describe it? If so, what is it?

LW: “As with “racism against white people”, “sexism against men” doesn’t have that.”

Interesting think-test for this one. In some African countries (Kenya, for example) there are small numbers of white subsistence farmers. They are a poor, politically impotent minority. The political power-structures and (internal) economic power within that culture lies entirely with black individuals and social groups. With me so far? Now imagine a poor white subsistence farmer one day approaches the President at a public event and yells at him, something like “You’re a dirty f*****g n*****r.”

I think by your definition you are telling me that’s not racist. You sure?

Ally Fogg // Posted 26 July 2012 at 12:13 am

Not sure if these comments allow links through, but I’ve expanded on some of the points I made above on my blog here… if anyone’s interested!

Laura // Posted 26 July 2012 at 9:12 am

But the white farmer would be using that language because, historically and globally, black people have been viewed and treated as inferior and oppressed by white people. That might not be the paradigm present in that individual reaction, but it is the source of the farmer’s viewpoint. So yes, it’s racist.

“Our society evolved to suit economic interests, not the male gender.”

I agree that we need to include an economic analysis and take into account the massive influence of capitalism when discussing oppression, but you can’t seriously believe that women have been and continue to be viewed as second class citizens, denied rights, beaten, raped and abused because of economics?! I don’t have time to engage with this properly right now, and to be honest I’d rather spend my time doing what I can to resolve the problems facing women right now than argue about how we ended up in this mess.

Laura // Posted 26 July 2012 at 9:34 am

Seriously, you think millions of women are sexually assaulted in this country and then told that it’s our own fault because of economic interests?

Louise McCudden // Posted 26 July 2012 at 9:35 am


But who were the economics designed to benefit?

Men, predominantly, surely? Only a certain class on men, obviously. But still, overwhelmingly, men.

Ally Fogg // Posted 26 July 2012 at 10:36 am

Laura: “Seriously, you think millions of women are sexually assaulted in this country and then told that it’s our own fault because of economic interests?”

Oh come on Laura give me some credit. Where did I say or imply that it is women’s fault? I don’t think that for a moment and I’ve never said anything remotely like it.

To a very large extent, I think sexual assault, and most other forms of assault for that matter, are a product of damaging socialisation and brutalisation. If we’re talking about male violence, then we’re specifically looking at how we socialise boys and men. Violent and abusive personalities and behaviours are a tragic but inevitable by-product of a culture that encourages and endorses violence and abuse in so many other ways.

Our society (by which I really mean the ruling class, because “the values of any society are the values of the ruling class” and all that) doesn’t *intend* to create rapists and abusers, but it does accept it as a price of raising a population willing to kill, die and turn on each other. That is what suits the powers that be, and that’s what needs to change.

At the risk of turning into a spam bot – there’s more on this in the link I posted above.

Ally Fogg // Posted 26 July 2012 at 10:47 am

Hello Louise!

“But who were the economics designed to benefit?

Men, predominantly, surely? Only a certain class on men, obviously. But still, overwhelmingly, men.”


No. I think this is fundamentally wrong. Capitalist economics (and before that, feudal economics etc) have their own dynamics and are essentially indifferent to individual wellbeing. Capital seeks to expand and will always find a way.

Of course cultural values and norms are immensely complex in origin, but the moral, social, religious and political values that have survived and thrived have always been those that are convenient to, or at least irrelevant to the benefit of accumulation of capital and power. A religion or moral code that could not be twisted to the convenience of the ruling class would be exterminated by any means necessary.

Yes, the ultimate beneficiaries, those holding the levers have tended to be male. But they do not act according to what will be beneficial to the male gender, they act according to what will be beneficial to their own power and wealth. That’s why they are more than happy to send millions of other men to their deaths when it suits their needs.

The patriarchal nuclear family is a classic example of a social model that has survived and thrived because it was beneficial to the owners of the means of production. See Engels on the Origins of the Family.

Ally Fogg // Posted 26 July 2012 at 11:06 am

Laura – just realised I misunderstood your comment above, many apologies.

I thought you were suggesting that *I* believe it is women’s own fault when they are assaulted etc. Realise now you weren’t saying that.

But in answer to your question, yes, as I said above, I believe societal tolerance of sexual assault (including victim blaming etc) is, ultimately, rooted in economics.

Matt // Posted 26 July 2012 at 11:28 am

Laura, your fundamental inability to comprehend the basis of exploitation seems to be the problem here.

“you can’t seriously believe that women have been and continue to be viewed as second class citizens, denied rights, beaten, raped and abused because of economics?!”


“But who were the economics designed to benefit?

Men, predominantly, surely? Only a certain class on men, obviously. But still, overwhelmingly, men.”

Lets ignore for a second that you exclude women from reaping any form of benefit in economic exploitation: who do you think had a better life in the feudal system, a queen or male serf? – Your problem is you can’t see the wood for the trees. Let us rephrase it with a look at slavery – who was that designed to benefit?

White people (yes, led by men) exploited men and women of other races for their own benefit. Women, like men, were involved in the slave trade and like men could deal out brutal punishments on their slaves – female slave owners were reasonably prolific in the caribean who would inherit property left to them by their husbands or build up their own plantations. Was this a racial exploitation or economic? The answer lies in why it took place – do you think white people were led to do this because of the colour of their skin or because they could gain wealth from it? Of course it was because it was economically benefitial hence why it was carried out by privateers, why some African chiefs were complicit in the slave trade and why freed black slaves could and did become slave owners themselves.

When we look at the root cause then of course it would be absurd to imply that you and I are guilty of this are inherently guilty of this because we are white, that we have a desire to enslave because of our white skin. Yet you carry out the same absurd deduction why you imply that the basis of gender exploitation is men and not economics. The basis of how women came to be exploited by men in line with economic exploitation was well covered by Engels in Origins of the Family (its free on if you have the inclination to read it) but we don’t need to go through a long history to see that the case is a simple one when it comes to the inseperable role of economics as the basis of gender exploitation: just look at the USSR.

In 1917 the Bolsheviks came to power and set about creating the worlds first socialist state. Within the first five years of power they granted women equal rights to that of men: equal pay and access to work (something that wasn’t granted in the UK until 1970) – free abortions on the state, the right to divorce and civil parternships on their own grounds and paid maternity leave. In the elections of 1927 around 20% of Soviet deputies elected were women, rather than the token handful of female representatives “pioneered” in capitalist countries. Throughout the USSR’s history women had far greater rights than exhist in any capitalist country to this day and achieved at a far greater level – by the 1970s around three quarters of Soviet doctors were women and women were in the majority among employed graduates. Women became cosmonauts, ships captains in the 1950s (the first American woman to be placed in charge of a US Navy vessel – Holly Graaf – had to wait untill 2003 and was subsequently bullied out of the work place) engineers (around 30% in the 1970s) and scientists. I have a lot more on the subject if you’re interested.

All this was achieved because the system of exploitation, capitalism, was destroyed. Once the problem is removed the rest falls into place, in much the same way that racial prejudices were smashed in the USSR alongside gender prejudice – because it had its roots in economic exploitation. It must be somewhat galling for you to have to face the fact that Lenin did more for women’s rights than Josephine Butler.

Untill you understand the problem you can not understand the solution. If you are a feminist who seeks to uphold capitalism you are upholding your own exploitation and untill feminists put the struggle against capitalism first – to the destruction of the basis of exploitation – then you will get nowhere fast.

Laura // Posted 26 July 2012 at 11:47 am

Matt – I don’t want to uphold capitalism. I’ve never said that I do, in fact I’ve acknowledged that it’s a massive part of the problem. I just don’t agree that it’s the one and only cause of oppression.

Men aren’t going to magically stop raping and abusing women if/when capitalism is overthrown. I’ve experienced enough socialist/communist men behaving like sexist arseholes to their female so-called comrades to know that anti-capitalism doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with anti-sexism.

I’m closing comments on this thread now because I don’t have time to moderate it and this debate isn’t going to go anywhere productive.

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