I got called out. Gently. But I got called out by a colleague of mine whom I respect immensely.
He called me out because the other day I posted an article called 5 Ways Modern Men Are Trained to Hate Women. Now the piece is pretty harsh, and it paints in broad generalizations, and I think the author knows that. But my colleague pointed out that generally, I work very hard to talk about issues in ways most people will be receptive, whereas even the title of this article shuts down the possibility of conversation with most men, who will either say “But I don’t hate women” or “Society doesn’t have the power to train me without me knowing.”
While I do think that David Wong does a good job of explaining why Sandra Fluke got attacked in the ways she did, I understand my colleague’s point. (He also made a very good point about how there are VERY few constructive conversations about healthy masculinity, which is very true. Although powerful models of woman-loving masculinity show up in powerful places like 2Pac’s immortal song Keep Ya Head Up, which still brings me to tears.) And I appreciate the need to share a message in less alienating ways, but at the same time I’m feeling a little radicalized on the heels of seeing Yoni Ki Baat, kind of a South Asian “Vagina Monologues,” which allows South Asian women to talk about their experiences with their bodies, which sometimes include how those bodies have been hurt by men. So in tribute to one of those monologues, in which a woman who had been beaten by her father and also loved him shared this message: “Hurt people hurt people; healed men can heal men, and women, and children,” I’d like to offer:
A FINAL WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH SPECIAL REFLECTION
5 things I’d like to share with men about women (including you, because I can tell you’re a very progressive man):
1) THIS WORLD REALLY IS SCARIER THAN YOU REALIZE. I know. You’re totally sympathetic to our fears, although maybe it feels like we overreact sometimes or seem a bit paranoid. But seriously, even though many of us want to downplay it because we resent it, we’re vulnerable to a much larger barrage of regular harrassment and risk than you think we are. I remember a friend of mine was dating a man born and raised in Israel, and while she was visiting him, she said something about the risks of just walking down a street for a woman, and he said, “Maybe in America, but we’re much more advanced here.” So she simply asked him to walk 10 feet behind her as she walked through the marketplace. By the end of the walk, he was in tears–he had never fully realized the amount of harrassment she received, in broad daylight. And I want to be clear–my life is more valued than the life of a Black man in this country. I do not pretend to know that very different form of fear. But I know that the form of violation I risk every time I walk home from BART is different, and the odds of me being targeted as a single woman walking home alone are also higher. You are a strong, sympathetic and sensitive man, I know. And you want to get it. And what I’m saying is that you might not actually get it as much as you think you do. Being a woman in an urban environment means needing to plan out your steps in a way that becomes second nature, until you don’t think it’s weird that you listen for footsteps behind you when you’re walking down a block by yourself, or that it’s a fairly regular decision not to challenge a man who says something dirty and humiliating to you because you don’t want to risk angering him and suffering the consequences. And we don’t think to tell you because it’s second nature to us, and because we’re already worried about being labeled hysterical or hypersensitive. So we’ve learned to live with it. But maybe we shouldn’t have to.
2) “NO MEANS NO” IS ACTUALLY MORE COMPLICATED THAN THAT, AND IT’S COMPLICATED BY YOUR POWER
Sometimes we don’t say no, because we’ve been taught that if we made ourselves available, then we bear the consequences. Sometimes we flirt; sometimes we even lead the way to the bedroom. And the man who follows us believes that’s when “no” stops being an option. If we start to get scared, or it starts to hurt, but we’re halfway into the act, we’ve been taught we can’t stop the process at that point. (And everyone knows the words used to describe women who try to stop the action so late in the game–those names, believe it or not, are part of the power that silences us, even if you don’t want us to feel silenced.) Also, there remains a culture where a lot of men who say they just can’t stop at a certain point in the process, and women think that if we’ve given so much permission, we really don’t have the right to stop things…plus, often men won’t stop or think we’re just playing some sort of game to excite them (the “no means yes” game that shows up so horrifyingly in so many films from the 50s and 60s, that suggest good girls HAVE to say no even though they really want it). My same friend with the Israeli boyfriend used to teach rape prevention in high schools and she would say to the class, “So imagine my boyfriend’s over one night, and we’re hot and heavy, and my dad walks in unannounced. Do you think my boyfriend’s going to say, ‘Oh, Mr. Jones, wait just a minute until I ___ in your daughter?'” And yet, many women are put in the position of believing we’re not ALLOWED to end things at any point, which is part of the invisible power of being a man that most men don’t even realize they wield. Because you are a strong and sensitive man, I know you would never want a woman to feel that she didn’t have that power over her own body. That’s why I’m letting you know–even if you don’t want us to feel that way, it’s often how we’re made to feel, even without you intending it. That leads me to:
3) YOUR DESIRE FOR ME TO FEEL COMPLETELY LIBERATED DOES NOT MAKE ME COMPLETELY LIBERATED, AND IT DOESN’T REMOVE YOUR PRIVILEGE. I took a class in grad school on contemporary theological trends, and the curriculum didn’t really include any women. So the three women in the class (and a liberated man), at the encouragement of our professor, created a presentation to the class on Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Reuther. One of the women in the group, during our presentation, said, “Have any of you noticed how, every time a woman speaks in this class, she prefaces her statement or question with an apology, because we’ve been shaped by society to not take up too much of your space?” The professor, one of the most progressive and inclusive faculty members at my school, said, “Well, I hope you all know that you don’t have to apologize for any of your statements in this class. You don’t have to feel that way here.” I knew he meant it, and I was profoundly disheartened that this hero of mine didn’t get that his statement, even his desire, didn’t erase the fact that I had been conditioned to apologize for my opinions and he had not, nor had he been conditioned to advocate for others to hear my opinion. The privilege of assuming you have the right to be heard is created over a lifetime, and so does the oppression of assuming that you don’t have that right. I know that you, as a progressive and inclusive man, would like that privilege not to exist. But it takes training other men to hear women, to recognize when women are being shut down and change that group dynamic, and creating space for women’s voices to eradicate that privilege.
4) CORRECTING MY NOT-SUFFICIENTLY-GENDER-INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE DOES NOT MAKE YOU A MORE ENLIGHTENED FEMINIST THAN I AM. This is obviously said very tongue-in-cheek. I had a boyfriend once who would correct my gendered language and the language of his female colleagues at work, explaining that this perpetuated sexism. I remember telling him once that him correcting women all the time about our language didn’t actually make him a feminist, since part of feminism means creating space for women to express ourselves as we need to (although inviting us to consider other options that you have found powerful is a great contribution). I told him when he was fighting for the women in his office to take higher level positions and get paid the same amount, then he could talk to me about being a great feminist. I know you’re not like that, as a progressive and strong and supportive man. But if you see another man thinking that one sliver of the issue is the whole issue, let him know feminism needs him as an advocate in many directions, not just the one that requires the least sacrifice for them.
5) THERE ARE LOTS OF DIFFERENT FEMINISMS; LET US CLAIM OURS, AND FEEL FREE TO CLAIM YOURS IN CONVERSATION WITH THE MANY AND DIVERSE FEMINISTS IN YOUR LIFE–THE ONGOING CONVERSATION FROM MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES IS AT THE HEART OF FEMINISM. I mentioned in my last blog post that for me, sexual equality was closely linked to pay equity and women’s reproductive rights and my ability to be taken seriously in a board room. For some women, pay equity is the top issue. For some, gender inclusive language really matters, and for others it doesn’t. Feminists need to be in conversation with each other, and for you to help the movement, it’s really important for you to be in conversation with lots of women from lots of different perspectives. I’ve asked someone to use the term Asian American around me instead of Oriental, and she responded, “I have older Oriental friends and they don’t mind the term.” Yeah, but I do. Similarly, part of feminism is about navigating individual perspectives, and remaining aware of multiple viewpoints rather than just the ones that fit with yours. HOWEVER, I value your input into the conversation as well–as long as it’s a conversation with a willingness on your part (and also on mine) to listen. A friend of mine told me that on Women’s Day at his church, the women asked him to pray, since he was ordained. In honor of the holiday, he insisted one of the women pray instead. “And her whole prayer was ‘Father God, we love you…Father God, we need you…Father God, please give us….'” he said mournfully. But that’s the moment we need you–to nudge us and our sisters in kind and compassionate ways to be aware of other ways of approaching issues.
Again, I know this might all be old news to you, but I wanted to share a few issues that are important for me to share with my beloved brothers, and I wouldn’t be nagging if I didn’t love you. Let me know what you agree with, disagree with, want to nuance, and so forth. And happy end of women’s history month.