I do not have the words to write this piece, it needs years of consideration, of learning, and of careful deliberation. I cannot guarantee I have years and so I feel I have to try and mould it now and risk it being half formed. I cannot be sure I have hours, none of us can be sure what time we have and that motivates me to put my thoughts to paper. Mayhap I will return to it another time and, as a wiser person, make it what it truly should be. For now this is what I have to give.
“We need to highlight the role women play in perpetuating and sustaining patriarchal culture so that we will recognize patriarchy as a system women and men support equally, even if men receive more rewards from that system. Dismantling and changing patriarchal culture is work that men and women must do together.”
– bell hooks
We have a tendency to devalue that which we possess and to over-value that which we are denied.
In the feminist gatherings and events I have been privileged to be a part of I have seen the greatest of human strengths – the strength of people from diverse backgrounds to stand together against seemingly immovable domination, the strength to fight against impossible odds and carry on regardless of defeat after defeat, seizing the little victories, taking the baby steps that lead inchingly closer to equality. I have both learned from, and been humbled by, what I have experienced.
At these gatherings I have been taught by the most inspiring of people. Women who chose to accept my lack of knowledge and, sometimes harshly, correct my beginners mistakes. To them I am and will continue to be indebted. I have seen so much good and so much hope and yet I have also, repeatedly and subtly, seen a lack of understanding when it comes to the actions of men; most especially a lack of understanding of mens oppression under patriarchy. Perhaps this is to be expected, men have many benefits under the patriarchal system and it is easy to see men who have been warped by patriarchal society as the cause of the oppression as opposed to a symptom of a greater issue. This lack of understanding is perpetuated by the fact that, under patriarcy, the vast majority of men are cut off from their ability to experience their own feelings and articulate their emotional needs. We, as men, are self-prevented from educating others by the deeply ingrained rules of our society. We are guilty of being unable to take the step that those brave feminists took with me to help educate other genders about our own personal experiences and through teaching seek to redefine and mold them into a healthier form.
Others have done good work around the experience of male oppression. I recently read bell hooks “The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love” and also Terence Real’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” and there is huge insight there – but the body of knowledge surrounding the male experience of oppression is under-developed. This subject needs to be furthered and, if patriarchy is to be replaced, it needs to take it’s place alongside the other oppression literature that helps to educate us about the world in which we live and arm us for the struggles ahead. We need to understand men’s oppression not as an excuse for patriarchy – there is no excuse for patriarchy, whichever group seeks to further it – but as a legitimate position in the web of oppression that we struggle with on a daily basis. Men need to be helped to see their oppression for they are strongly conditioned against recognising it. Groups need to come into being in which men can share experiences without judgement and learn to reflect and reconnect with the feelings that were taken from them in their childhoods. Men need help to see they are wounded so that then they can take responsibility for learning to heal and through that healing learn to moderate their own privilege.
The Emotional Purging
I am capable of fully experiencing three emotions – Fear, Love and Despair. I have the capability to properly express one emotion – Fear. Everything else can be felt only up to a limited point. I feel happiness, but only in a limited way, beyond a point my body shuts down and I become instantaneously numb. It is as if the gas propelled shutter that protects a bank teller from assault has been activated – you do not see anything move but suddenly an impenetrable wall is there and the happiness is on the other side. It cannot hurt me, cannot leave me vulnerable. I can experience a little but then I experience nothing at all.
I can remember a time when I had access to a full range of emotion – aged ten is the latest age I can be certain I experienced life fully but I may have had a few years longer. By 16 I definitely had a foreshortened ability to experience emotions. Somewhere in between, most certainly in my years at senior school, the emotional range left me and was replaced by the safety mechanisms that keep it out today. These mechanisms hold the emotion on the other side of a barrier, I still know they are there, I still know that I should be experiencing them and feel despair at my inability to connect with what I, perhaps naively, equate with the ability to be human.
This experience does not just belong to me. The few men that I know who are capable of speaking out about it tell similar tales and, almost exclusively, the emotional disconnection happens in the teenage years. The years in which we take the step from being boys into being men. It is in this period that what I choose to call the ‘masculine ideal’ is embedded into us.
How We Survive
How does a person survive within the masculine ideal if they cannot allow themselves to transmit, or even experience emotions? Well, it turns out that humans are ingenious and plastic animals. If the majority of the male sex is incapable of communicating a concept due to the same disability then it actually gives them an ability to empathise (at least intellectually) with the suffering of their fellow men. It is this empathy (or perhaps proto-empathy as it is highly limited in its scope) that both drives the male urge to bond and allows a coded understanding to exist between men regarding their general emotional state. The fact that I can let another man know how I feel, that he can decode my pain and I his is just enough to carry on.
If I am depressed, if I am feeling truly bad or perhaps even suicidal and a close friend asks me ‘how are you doing’ I will not break down in tears or explain how my world is falling apart – I will not because I cannot – but I will say ‘not too great’ and if I am feeling seriously bad I will give a single firm pat to his shoulder as I pass him. Those words combined with such a blatant digression from the rules of no contact acts as a strong signal regarding my pained state of mind. A signal most men would ‘get’.
I can express my love for a friend through my actions, my willingness to takes risks with him and for him. Indeed, as my friendship with this man grows I may seek increasingly risky situations in order to enable both of us to express our mutual trust and platonic love. The means of expression for this potentially life altering emotion? A half nod before the risky act, a short smile afterward as the adrenalin begins to ebb, a spontaneous hug with back slapping and verbal high fives. These are examples of the strictly regulated means that men are permitted by patriarchy to share emotion. Though crude these means can and do serve to form a bond of common purpose between groups of men that last a lifetime and allow the spanning of vast periods in which the men may be apart. In a world without emotional communication those you make any contact with will always remain your friends.
Although it seems like a blunt instrument, and contrary to popular stereotype, communication within the masculine ideal is incredibly subtle and nuanced. It’s defining factor is not its lack of depth but its lack of breadth. It can communicate a limited range of what may originally have been ‘forbidden’ emotions between men and serves to both bind those men closer together and lessen the mental anguish associated with their inability to express emotion. From the moment of group expression onward the individual will feel more comfortable with that group of men than he does alone or often with members of the opposite sex. He will have found a family, but a family that is ‘addicted’ to each others presence, a family that needs to engage in occasional acts of societally unacceptable behaviour in order to enable it’s members to renew their bonds.
A Personal Perspective
My personal experience of emotional amputation is re-played inside me every day. I suspect it is the same for others, to some extent we can all hear the knocking on the other side of the barricade.
I have cried once in nearly twenty years. There is no capacity for me to cry – any emotion that would cause tears gets shuttered before it becomes intense enough to have an effect. I suspect this reaction was learned in the schoolyard to protect against the violence doled out to those who didn’t meet the masculine ideal. Nowadays it means I do not cry at the funerals of friends and relatives – indeed I often give the readings because I am unencumbered by emotion and unlikely (unable) to break down part way through. During moments of intense passion the shutters come down – suddenly I am not passionate, all I have left is an intellectual image of passion that I try to enact. When I do experience any emotion it becomes paired with anxiety. Even the emotion of love is an anxious experience inextricably tied to the fear of loss.
In a disaster I am calm – I’ve been among the first on the scene at several vehicular accidents and in those moments I become a ‘man’ and take control – the internal conditioning kicks in. Afterwards, when the adrenaline dies down and I begin to shake, I will take myself away and hide somewhere quiet because I cannot accept others seeing my perfectly understandable physiological reaction – a reaction I (and many men) interpret as weakness. People ask men why they do not seek help when they are hurting, why their rates of alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide are so much higher than those of women. I say that the answer lies in patriarchal society teaching us that the single most important thing is the masculine ideal. Teaching us that, by inference, it is preferable to be a drunkard or an addict than to lose our masculine status by expressing emotion. It is even preferable to die by our own hand, an act that carries a certain manly respect, than to let our emotions free and become nothing.
It is an act of immense courage for a man to cast off his allegiance to the masculine ideal and enter into a potentially permanent period in which not only other men and women but he himself is forced to regard his current and past personal worth as zero. It would be a truly rare man who could take that step alone – to leave himself without any form of traditional or cultural support, who would choose to become a no-one. To my mind this is reason that most of those who have begun this journey were already outcasts or had already buckled under the pressure of maintaining the masculine ideal and exhibited mental illnesses born of that strain. It is mostly those who have had little or nothing to lose that have chosen to walk a path that begins with total loss. Even then the man may find that he chooses to regress as his self-esteem raises, as he realises that he can reintegrate into the society of men at some level and once again receive the emotional support that it provides.
This is the position I find myself in now. I choose to renounce the masculine ideal and try to reclaim the emotions that I feel will make me human once again but for every two steps I take along the path I take at least one back. For every dream I have of my freedom I dream another of dominance and violent aggression. I talk to my loved ones more about my feelings but I am acutely aware that I cannot access many of those feelings – and if they are unshared with me how can I share them onward? I am walking in a wilderness in which I feel little worth in my achievements and a constant pull toward returning to past harmful patterns. What keeps me moving forward are the supportive friendships I have with a number of people, mostly feminists. Lately I have felt that these friendships are not enough. For all their support these mostly female friends cannot understand the nature of the thing with which I struggle because they themselves have never experienced it. They cannot truly understand a man’s oppression by patriarchy just as I can never truly understand a woman’s. We can acknowledge each other, support each other, but we cannot truly know the other’s enemy.
My experience of the birth of the masculine ideal within patriarchy, as a man, begins within the schoolyard. In no other place within our society are the rules so strictly enforced and failure to conform so rigidly punished. At the age of eleven your friend relationships are everything, even eclipsing the familial, and those relationships are governed by strict rules learned from our relatives, peers and the media at large. Strict rules regarding the attributes of maleness and the concomitant suppression of emotion that involves. I personally grew up with a solid diet of war stories, war films, tales of singular heroism and stories of individuals or small groups overcoming all odds. The values these things project are oddly similar to the masculine ideal I have found as an adult.
The traits of a man, as presented within my culture to a boy of eleven are as follows:
- A man can be anything he wants to be if he tries hard enough (and by inference, if he fails to be what he chooses he has not tried hard enough and he is not a man).
- To show any emotion but anger is weakness (to shed a tear is an act of failure whilst to intimidate another is to be a success)
- Physical ability is a paramount achievement (and so those who fail to make the team have failed to be men)
- A man is sexually attractive (to be unable to secure a woman is a failure to be a man)
- A man is resolute (to take time to think or search for balanced opinion is a failure)
What is telling about the above traits is not what they prescribe – all men know the masculine ideal – but the meaning ascribed to the failure to meet any or all of these requirements. To show emotion does not make you a woman, it makes you not a man. In the absence of another gender identity it makes you nothing. It nullifies everything about you, it makes you zero and leaves you unmoored and adrift. If you are not a man then you cannot partake in masculine bonding and form emotion venting groups, no matter what you achieve in the state of not-a-man the sum value of your life will always be multiplied by zero, it will never amount to anything of worth. If the child, and later the man, does not follow the code then they must rapidly break free of the entire patriarchal masculine ideal or be forced to live a life with no forms of connection at all. To be male is not a state of being, under patriarchy it is a target one must constantly fight to achieve lest you cease to exist at all.
We absorb these truths from innumerable films and television programmes. Every war movie in which the stoic hero goes to his death in the service of a cause or saves a friend by dying in his place. Every time a hero runs after an opponent, leaping from rooftop to rooftop before pummelling his nemesis into bloody unconsciousness. We absorb these things from our fathers who in turn have absorbed them from their fathers. We absorb them from our mothers and grandmothers who encourage us to be whatever we want whilst openly admiring the strong or the quick or the beautiful, who identify a character as a ‘baddie’ because he is ugly or limps. It is not the fault of most parents, they cannot do anything but reinforce the dominant patriarchal current within our culture – but they perpetuate and strengthen that current nevertheless.
Even those of us with access to somewhat more open-minded parents cannot be protected. Our schoolmates bring their parents attitudes with them and re-enact them with great force. There can be no meaningful escape. To survive we buy in to the patriarchal narrative, we bury ourselves deep in the knowledge that our emotions cannot, must not, be found if we are to survive.
By the time we leave the schoolyard the damage to most men is done. We carry the lessons onward into the world at large. We carry the understanding that we must constantly push and dominate to maintain our maleness and that those who are ‘weak’ can be looked upon with love or sympathy but can never be considered equal. We understand that only by playing the game will we acheive any emotional release any catharsis regarding our internal divisions. We also carry with ourselves the knowledge of the absence of our emotions. It is hard for any person to come to terms with an amputated limb, even if they understand the amputation was necessary for survival, so too is it hard for any man to come to terms with his amputated emotions – especially when he thinks he can still feel them behind the barricades – like a phantom limb cramping where no real limb now exists.
Many men are desperate to find a way out of patriarchy but they do not know it or at least cannot name it or see the bars of the cage that restrains them. Men everywhere struggle to understand their feelings of entrapment and desperation in a world in which they feel they should be masters, who are appalled at their own destructive behaviour but cannot identify its root or control its expression. Many men need help and whether it is our role or not the only way many will receive it is if we help to educate and rehabilitate them. I would even suggest that to help to heal them is the only viable way to overthrow patriarchy in our world.
The crisis facing men is not the crisis of masculinity, it is the crisis of patriarchal masculinity. Until we make this distinction clear, men will continue to fear that any critique of patriarchy represents a threat.
– bell hooks
I have looked for and failed to find a body of support for men as they pass through the wasteland of the post-masculine ideal and attempt to construct or discover a new, more holistic, way of being. Some resource exists, the Goodmen project, for example, are centred around responsible and fair behaviour by men within this society but fail to address the underlying problem. No-one I have found addresses the twisted form of socialisation that our society takes as normal and uses to wring the emotional capacity from their male children. I support the Goodmen because their stance is well meant and does some good – but they are not enough to address this problem.
I dream of an organisation of men who have chosen to enter into the wilderness and, at least temporarily, discard their values. A society of men that can offer the support that each of them will need as he is tempted to return to the aggressively dominant ways that he has been taught; who struggles with the truth that it feels better to be emotionally crippled and yet supported by your peers than it does to start out on the journey to wellness alone. I dream of a society of men that can offer each other support, as best they are able, and who strive to find a better way for themselves and the generations that will follow them. They will get things wrong, they will need to learn from others and be constantly forced to build and rebuild bridges. They will need to learn to find a new way of being, a way that feels alien to them and that may well leave them rejected by the women and men they’ve left behind. They will need to break a new way that ultimately lets them feel and express the emotions that were stolen from them in their childhood. A way that their children wont consider new, but normal. A way that will grow and help all men.
Such an organisation does not exist.
I will try to do my best to help build it.
In the past I have used surgical scalpels, craft knives, Stanley knives, nail clippers, my own fingernails, a leatherworkers clicker knife, hypodermic syringes and a piece of glass to deliberately cut into my flesh and cause myself to bleed. Some of these cuts were sufficient to require hospital treatment, many many more were superficial.
This sort of deliberate self-harm is repellent to many people who either cannot conceive of why an individual would choose to act in this way or are driven themselves toward this sort of behaviour and cannot allow themselves to feel anything but disgust else they weaken and join in. Other people, a surprising number of people, show a flash of recognition if they see the cuts or, in the case of other people’s self-harm, burns or abrasions. They will give a nod of understanding or the flicker of a smile. Just enough to let you know that they get it and in that instant of recognition neither of you are alone. The truth is that self-harm is a lot more common than most people think and it is not necessarily a sign that a person is self-destructive; indeed I would go so far as to say it saves many lives.
I have self-harmed for a number of reasons but almost all of those reasons involve a need to regain control of my emotions. I am in many ways the archetypal male product of the patriarchal system. Since my childhood my peers have instilled in me the fact that as a male I am allowed no public expression of emotion – except perhaps anger. I have internalised this. I actually cannot cry beyond a single hard squeezed tear and even that is only released when watching feats of superhuman Hollywood bonding (my brother and I were bound for life by both shedding a single man tear whilst watching Backdraft, as the wounded firefighter looks down at the hero fighting the blaze and whispers ‘he’s my brother’). That’s it, Backdraft is my only outlet, the pinnacle of release. Backdraft and a few other films are the only tap that remains to my inner emotional wellspring.
I didn’t shed a tear when my Grandparents died, in fact I am the go to guy for reading the heart touching eulogies from friends and family. I read my dads goodbye to his father and there was never a hint or suggestion that I might shed a tear – even though it was one of the most touching things I had ever read; if the emotion is strong it will be automatically and idiotically hidden . Don’t misunderstand me, my fathers words touched me to the core but I could not let that emotion into the world – I just don’t know how unless it is in the act of beating a punchbag or some equally violent activity. When I received the news of my Grandad’s death I ran further and faster than I ever had before and then beat on my punchbag until it came loose of its hanging and collapsed. That was my grief, that was all I had the ability to share; my upbringing, almost every man’s upbringing, had left no ability to release emotion in a healthy way.
This is a problem. This is a problem of magnitude because the metaphor of a ‘wellspring’ of emotion is an apt one. The emotion doesn’t go away, it builds up. The pressure of emotion rises until I am in severe mental distress and anything, anything, is better than the pounding, drumming, surging emotion that is pulsing inside me. Anything. Anything including death.
It’s in these moments, when the pressure inside me is so monstrous that I will take the scalpel, knife or glass and I will deliberately and slowly cut through my flesh. Once upon a time the cuts were only just deep enough to draw a trickle of blood. With time they got so deep that I could watch the fatty adipose tissue before the blood welled forth.
When I cut the pain is inconsequential. I can feel it, but physical pain is really a very small thing compared to mental pain – it is insignificant. Also, the nerves sit near the surface of the skin, a deep cut hurts no more than a shallow one. The act of cutting silences the pressure of emotion within me. It makes my inside as flat as the visage I present on the outside. The violence I do to myself acts as a surrogate for the violence I need to inflict to drain the emotion. As the blood flows I relax, I am calm, I am no longer suicidal. Self-harm has saved my life.
It says something about me, and about society, that the only way I can release strong emotion is through these means. I feel I have been deliberately and mercilessly denuded of the tools that I need to live an emotionally healthy life. This abuse has come partly through mental illness but I fervently believe it has come mostly through the way society (and Western Kyriarchal society especially) has robbed me of the tools to experience emotional fulfilment. I truly, strongly, believe that.
I do not cut very often now. I redesigned my life long ago to avoid all situations that would generate hard to cope with emotions in myself. I have taken up mindfulness meditation and done my best to learn about better ways of living. I still can’t express emotion and if I were to be given a choice I’d give up almost anything to be able to cry again. What use money, importance and pretty toys when you’ve forgotten how to enjoy them?
I am a manic depressive and the statistics are fairly clear when it comes to suicide. I have a 20% chance of committing suicide if I am well medicated and a 40% chance if I am not. As far as I am aware these are the highest figures for any form of mental illness. I am not a special case of manic depression – I get the urges just like so many others and those urges are so much harder to battle when I feel that I am swollen with trapped emotion; when ‘I have no mouth and I must scream’ (to quote Harlan Ellison), when I am desperate to cry or laugh, when my body has shut down and my face gone impassive and my externally directed mood gone indifferent not because I don’t care or don’t feel but because my lifelong lesson has been DO NOT SHOW IT, and now I cant. Now I can take my place amongst the Sensei of patriarchy. A white man, status job, money, reaching middle age, emotionally dysfunctional and only capable of masculine expressiveness through violence. I’d just rather that violence were aimed toward myself than someone else.
I do not cut very often now, but it is a tool I keep because sometimes it is the only tool with which to access tomorrow.
I have always considered myself a pretty selfless person. When in a relationship I will willingly surrender my own needs, hobbies, or even desires in the service of furthering my partner’s happiness. I have always assumed that my partner would do the same, to the best of their ability. I have always seen this as noble, and as the best possible way to show love, but recently I had an argument – an argument that helped me realise that not only is this not good but that it may just be abusive. An abuse not just aimed toward my partner but also aimed toward me, an abuse that I have never been able to see – until now.
I’ve been thinking hard about this ever since and, as has become my want, I’m using this blog to try and work my head around the issues.
When I enter a relationship I enter into a wonderful period in which I get to explore the being of another person. Physically and mentally I get to discover their past and their present, get to delve into their psyche and learn a little of their inner workings and their outer habits. We get to share, we get to delve deeply into each other and revel in the amazing complexity of another person. I laugh and I cry, there is a lot of hugging and deep wonderful sexual play. I learn and, perhaps, they learn too.
And then it goes wrong.
In some misguided way that is, undoubtedly, born of my past history I choose to start prioritising what I perceive as my partner’s desires over my own. I will not discuss it with them, I will not let them in on the decision making process, I will simply decide that to make them happy it is necessary to shed some of my desires and replace them with the servicing of what I have perceived to be their desires. In a healthy relationship there would be a dialogue. Some of my desires would be scaled back, as would some of hers and we would find a negotiated medium in which to function peacefully. In my world I choose what is important to her and eject my needs based on that assessment. I take her choice, her actual desires out of the equation and replace them my own perception of those desires; this leads, inevitably, to a situation in which I feel I have sacrificed a great deal to make the relationship work and she, quite rightly, feels that she is being forced down a road she has not chosen; a road that is a distorted mirror of her true desires.
I have never realised this before, but this behaviour is abusive. I am the abuser in this situation and I feel ashamed to have acted in this way; I feel ashamed that I never even saw that I was acting in this way towards ones that I loved.
Shame is a good thing to feel if it drives us away from our negative behaviour and toward something better. I am getting better, but a lifetime carving out this mould is not so easily broken free from. Therefore I am going to talk to my partner. I am going to show them this post (before it is posted) and try to agree a way forward based upon their true needs and desires as well as my own. I am going to look for a way that allows me to properly integrate who I am and what I want into our relationship whilst allowing them to be who they are. I want to stop imposing my skewed understanding of what they want or need and truly address both of our needs and desires.
I want to be a better partner.
Within our moral structure it is a central, but oft unspoken, tenet that individuals must give their consent prior to any action that may affect them or that may prove limiting or distressing to them. It can only be through an individuals private decision to partake in an action or to allow change to be made that they can meaningfully engage with that change or action. Furthermore, it can also only be through their private decision to partake that they can own any negative consequences of their actions. If they were forced into participation then they become a passive victim of any backlash, if they chose to engage with full knowledge then they have accepted the negative possibilities and can take responsibility for the outcome.
This tenet is often taken to apply to all things but, I suggest, the mere act of being raised in our society undermines the concept of consent and we have put little provision in place to reinforce it.
In our earliest childhood we either do not have preferences (because we are yet to encounter any options) or we have difficulty in transmitting the nuances of our preferences. In order to keep us safe and (hopefully) healthy good parents must over-ride our infant preferences to ensure that, for example, we eat a balanced diet – or in some cases even eat at all. In this situation we understand that the child must be protected and occasionally forced into situations with which it is unhappy and for which it does not give consent. Some would even argue that a young child is incapable of giving meaningful consent as it cannot fully comprehend its options (although this is a slippery slope that could also be applied to adults).
There are different extents of ‘domination’ over our children. Some parents follow a path of baby led weaning and will always respond to cries of distress; some dictate when weaning will take place and will follow the route of allowing the child to cry until it learns that it cannot manipulate its carers in that way. I don’t know which route is healthiest but I do know that either set of parents will override their child’s express desire to climb into a well or play dangerously close to a fire – they will move the child against its will and without its consent. Similarly its consent will be overruled to enable attendance at important events such as picking up a second child from school. There are times at which we must act to protect or progress against the expressed wishes of the child – without its consent – and this is correct and good.
If there are so many situations in which a child’s consent must be over-ruled then when does a child’s consent matter at all? At the age of two the child is certainly capable of independent thought but we are forced to say that whilst its consent may matter in small things its life will still be mostly directed regardless of its consent (for even of it consents to have a bath or go on a journey we would not change our route if consent were withdrawn). This is correct and good.
At age four if it doesn’t wish to attend school it shall rarely be given a choice. If you think about that in an adult context it is quite horrendous. If an authority figure were to tell you tomorrow that you had to fundamentally change the structure of your life to enter a situation you found threatening every single day and that your consent was neither required nor relevant for this change – I would have difficulty with that (although on re-reading it sounds a lot like our social security system). For a child this is correct and good.
This marginalization of consent continues again and again and again through the child’s formative years. In significant issues consent is only requested as decoration – the child, when asked if it wants a haircut or if it wants to move house, or undergo an operation learns that its consent is meaningless – that to say no just brings argument and unpleasant sensations. For a child this is correct and good, they must be looked after and school is good for them. Furthermore they must learn to survive in a society in which obedience to written and unspoken rules – regardless of personal preferences – is a requirement.
The two sentences that closed the previous paragraph is the summation of childhood dominance. The child does not know better, the child does not understand, and so we will enforce what is good for it- we will override their preference and not seek their consent because when they experience the thing we are providing they are expected to like it or expected to benefit from the lesson it imparts. A child will internalize this message, how can it not, and yet it is a necessary evil to keep them safe and enable them to function in a society that imposes certain demands regardless of consent. For a child no does not, and cannot, mean no.
And so the child grows.
As a teenager they begin to question in earnest and society begins to allow a degree of freedom from parental control. By this stage it is implicitly hoped that they have internalized the requirement to follow rules that they neither understand nor agree with and associate this rule following with safety and protection. Having internalized this they are safe to be released unchaperoned (at least for short periods and preferably under strictly defined times and conditions). By this stage we can be fairly certain that although they want that thing in a shop window they will not simply take it and that whilst they will rebel that rebelion will be within societally accepted limits.
Teenagers challenge the impositions that have been made upon them by their parents and society and through this provide a hope that the individual will learn that their voice can matter, albeit in a small way. This is the moment they walk that deadly high wire between learning that, as adults, they cannot be forced into an action without giving consent and learning that some things should be consented to even though they are restrictive (for example, many laws are restrictive upon us but give to us more than we lose – in the greater analysis). This is the moment that these lessons must be learned. If the teenager remains trapped under the equivalent of parental domination then they may transfer the lessons they received in early childhood to their adult life – that they have no agency and that, therefore, their consent is irrelevant. If they entirely reject the caring domination of childhood (assuming for the individual it was caring) then they cannot function within the bounds of society – and whatever we think of society it is hard to thrive when completely outside it. Teenagers must learn that giving voice to consent (or lack thereof) is a vital part of a healthy life and moreover a vital part of a functioning society. They must learn to look to the bigger picture as well as the personal so that they can understand that laws are required (but able judge when laws are incorrect). They must learn to look to the personal when issues or actions affect them directly and when peer pressure to perform an act must be resisted for their personal health. In tandem with all of this they must learn that the consent of others is as vital as there own and must be acknowledged and respected.
The law of the parent, until that moment, is often ‘do what the dominant person demands or be forced against your will.’ That law creates expectations and those expectations take away the individuals agency. Even with the best of parents the lesson can only be that the systems of childhood are at an end and that ‘now you are grown you have agency, you can give or withdraw consent and expect that action to be respected and followed’ but can the internalised message of all those years spent under childhood rules be so easily erased?
The development of a fully nuanced understanding of consent should emerge in the liminal space between childhood and adulthood in order to create a fully functional adult human being. I am not convinced that we give people enough assistance in developing this vital and nuanced understanding. We imagine that it will emerge magically from a teenagers experiences, as if society or the universe will teach it by osmosis. We assume that our young will know that they should question and withdraw consent when offered dangerous drugs or pressured to have sex that they do not feel ready for and yet we have spent their life to that moment teaching them that their consent is of limited importance and liable to lead to argument as well as being overridden when expressed. We expect our children to ask for someone’s consent before performing actions that are sexual or physically dangerous and to know that acting against consent is wrong – but their most important childhood interactions have told them that it is okay for a dominant force to impose its will in order to teach the weaker individual or show it something it is expected to like. Of course, external to the dominance of the parent the child has, hopefully, been taught to respect its peers but the dominant power interactions all act at some level against the concept of consent.
Why do we assume that all teenagers will simply know that a change of rule has taken place without our explicit guidance?
Why do we offer so little resource to teenagers, or those who failed to be given the message as teenagers, around the topic of consent?
If we are lucky we touch on sexual consent. If we are very lucky the idea has been instilled that in matters pertaining to someone’s body we must ask for consent before performing any potentially distressing act. Again, if we are very lucky the idea is lodged that an individual receiving physical advances is not only able but actually obligated to make and voice a decision – the need to consent or refuse consent has been instilled. We must hope that they know that when that decision has been made they are free to change it, at any time, and that it is not and never will be okay for someone to pressure them or coerce them into changing their decision – it is their inalienable right to create a boundary that must be respected by others. We are lucky if this much has been taught.
Do we ever explicitly touch on political consent? The fact that we consent to be governed and that we can withdraw that consent. Do we touch on how to withdraw political consent not just through the often meaningless act of voting but through lawful protest?
How about the consent to be managed at work? We explicitly give that consent by signing a contract that defines the extent of that consent through a job description but do people understand that they cannot legally be pressured to take actions that are far outside the contract they consented to and that they can withdraw that consent if they choose? What does consent mean in this situation in which they may have to take a job to put food on the table? Do they know how to withdraw consent from a blatantly abusive employer and what systems exist to support them? Are those systems functional and sufficient and if not can consent be meaningfully said to exist in the workplace? Of not how does this cascade to borderline work events like Christmas parties?
Do we have these conversations with our children? Do we help them to understand that consent is a complex and many tiered thing that permeates all the strata of our lives? That we ourselves probably do not fully understand it but that in some aspects it can be grey whilst in others it is resoundingly black and white. Do we teach them to think about consent or do we stay silent and hope that they learn these things as if by magic? Hope that the most important system in our morality gets taught to them by someone else. Hope that they don’t rape, or steal, that they learn that it is their duty to speak out against oppression and not to slavishly follow a group or government without considering whether their actions are correct. Do we want to hope that the complexity of consent is taught or do we want to step up and ensure that it is taught?
How are we, the ones who have come through this learning experience more or less intact, helping the next wave of people – the ones currently trying to navigate the signpostless wilderness from which we have emerged? We need to give them resources to understand their right to consent and their right to withdraw that consent. We need to teach them the skills that we learned and are still learning so that they might do better than we have done in a country that is rife with both rape and political abuses.
The last lesson under the enforced conditions of childhood must be that consent is important.
The first moment of adulthood must be to invite them to partake in a supportive resource that will teach them the basics that they need to know, without pressure or coercion, you cannot teach consent to those who do not consent to be present.
I was recently reading an excellently written short article that spoke directly to feelings that have forming within me for some months. I encourage you to read it here:
In essence the author says that as a man he does not feel he can be a feminist even though he supports the goals of the feminist movement. In essence this is because he has neither been raised as female or lives as a female in this society, therefore he cannot have the shared experience of female gender oppression that is necessary to comprehend the feminist position and so cannot take a meaningful role in the strategy to combat it. He can however act as an ally in assisting feminists to achieve their aims
I recognise much of what is being said here because I am a white middle class male who was not raised female. Unlike the author I have experienced societal discrimination due to my innate attributes but in my case it is because I am manic depressive and not because I have lived as a female. So, can I truly be a feminist or should I cast myself in the more marginal role of a feminist ally?
The answer to my titular question is heavily reliant upon the often fluid definition of what feminism and feminists actually are.
If the definition is taken from the dictionary we see feminism as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” (although I’d prefer equality of the genders). Such a definition clearly allows non-females to be feminists.
However, if we go to an extreme separatist feminist viewpoint – “”Life” in this “society” being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of “society” being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.” (SCUM Manifesto) then I most certainly cannot be a feminist.
Of course most groups lie between the extremes of complete equality for males within a feminist movement and the outright rejection of males in their entirety. In my experience feminist groups lean strongly toward acceptance of men who have developed an understanding of the nature of patriarchal oppression and demonstrated a willingness to learn from the oppression of others.
What I take from this is, as with all movements, feminism is factionalised and I am welcome (or even encouraged) in some areas whilst being rejected in others. A situation not so different from any other collective organisation in this world.
For me personally it is feminist groups that have adopted ideas based around the intersectional feminism of Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks and others that speak most credibly to the topic of making successful and realistic alterations to society to achieve female equality (and, hand in hand with this, racial, disability and many other equalities). Within this context I can be a feminist and, even if I choose not to be one, I have a duty to engage with feminism from the the viewpoint of the oppressions that I experience. This is because a final feminist equality must necessarily include a liberation of men from patriarchal oppression alongside the liberation of people of colour, mental disability and many other oppressed groups.
It is this intersectional definition of feminism that speaks most clearly to me. To my eye it is a definition of feminism that transcends feminism itself in that it acknowledges that we live in a society that includes powerful inbuilt negative influences on multiple groups on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, mental disability, physical disability, race and many other aspects of normal human variation. With that understanding it becomes clear that each of us is to some extent oppressed and to some extent an oppressor. Each of us has a duty to attempt to locate ourselves within the web of oppression and aid each other in extracting ourselves as best we are able.
To successfully end discrimination against any group will require the dismantling of significant aspects of the current societal power structures and replacing them with new structures better designed to promote equality. Dismantling the power structure is too great a job for any single oppressed group acting on its own and building a viable alternative is impossible for a single group as it will automatically incorporate the invisible oppressions inherent to that group. We may well achieve a society that is equal for women, but it will not be equal with respect to race and other oppressions unless we have previously embraced and learned from those groups. A truly equal society can only stem from multiple oppressed groups that have acknowledged the fact that their societally inherited viewpoints are often oppressive to others and strive to find a way to work together without mutually oppressing each other. When that goal has been achieved these combined groups will not only have a more comprehensive understanding of how to build an equal society but will have the strength of numbers necessary to achieve meaningful societal change.
So. Can I be a feminist? On current reflection I believe a feminist is not something you are or something that you think, I believe it is something that you do. When I am holding a placard or taking some other action to support equality of the genders then I am a feminist. When I am campaigning for the rights of the disabled I am a disability rights activist. When I am working with the homeless then I am a human rights activist. When I am sitting at home then I am just me, I still have my views and beliefs on all these things but they are intermingled and can no longer be easily attributed to a single viewpoint. I choose not to label them unless they are in action.
The Oxford Feminist Network, of which I am a member, adopted the following guiding statement:
“This group is for any person of any gender identity in Oxford and all are welcome to be members whether you are just beginning to explore feminism or whether you have decided your views. This group is about recognising that feminism is an inherently political movement connected to and through lots of other social justice movements and challenging other forms of inequality. We meet once a month in Oxford for discussions, activism planning and networking and at other times to conduct events, protests and projects. The Facebook site is an adjunct to face to face meetings.
“We aim to be an accessible group; to meet at accessible venues and put up information and important points raised in our meetings for those unable to attend.
“We are still learning to challenge our own learned prejudices. If someone in the group has said something or done something prejudiced or discriminatory, please feel free and safe to raise the issue without retribution (either directly or with the moderators) and we will all work to resolve it. Be respectful, encouraging and kind.”
I believe this statement marks the first step along the right path for many of us.
I had a valuable learning experience this week and, as with all important learning experiences, I get to display the full scale of my ignorance in explaining it.
You see, a few years ago a feminist very dear to me explained the concept of patriarchy and, with a few false starts, it really made sense. I guess I’ll cover the problems I had to grapple with to ‘get patriarchy’ somewhere else – maybe it could help someone also on that journey – but for the purposes of this article you need to understand that I had to realise that the patriarchy was a power system that oppressed pretty much everybody and that it was sustained not just by middle aged white guys (although they’re right up there) but by everybody who buys into the current neo-liberal, consumerist, judgemental culture in which every individual is taught that to climb high they must climb upon the bodies of their fellows. In short I realised that all the shit i’ve ever taken for not being sporting, liking ‘girly’ hobbies, and being an aficionado of ‘chick flicks’; all the times i’ve been unable to release the tears or screams that welled up inside me and the times I’ve cut my flesh in desperation at being unable to find a place for me in this world was patriarchy in action. I realised it oppressed me too.
So I learned. Slowly. I cannot remember how many times the feminists (mostly women) rolled their eyes or got annoyed because I had genuinely (if innocently) been oppressive or insulting. It’s a long walk to even begin to understand your own privilege and I’m not yet far along my path (and no, I don’t want a medal). I joined a feminist organisation, one that adopted a wonderful and actively inclusive policy, one that preached intersectionality and tried to learn from its mistakes. Somewhere that I, as a man with mental illness issues, felt safe.
Well, recently I’ve felt slightly disquieted in this group. The language can be very gendered “the sisterhood. Sisters unite. I need sisters to protest this…” I find myself contacting event coordinators to ask if men are welcome or if their call for sisters is for women only (or more often, for any gender except mine) and this language makes me feel excluded.
I didn’t want to repeat my mistakes. This time, I thought, I’d ask for advice in private before speaking in public. I broached the subject with a friend and considering the number of self-defensive clauses I used whilst asking it’s a miracle she understood me. Her response?
Use it as a way to reflect upon your own feminism and the way you experience society. What you’re feeling for a second is what the women of the group experience every moment in the world.
I was shocked, I was irate, how could she be saying we should condone sexism of any kind? After a little spluttering I think I got it. We shouldn’t fight oppression wherever we encounter it because that sort of random lashing out against patriarchy isn’t going to deliver change.
We need to understand that, for good reason, others have been fighting for this cause far longer than we have and have earned their right to a little leeway. The gendered language in the group will be dealt with one day, but not until we’ve used our energy to tackle the areas where we might make meaningful societal change. I’ll hold the feminist movement to its promises of equality, as will many others, but only when the time is right and bigger problems have been solved. Until that time I will continue to write to organisers to check if I am welcome and I will continue to flinch when it seems that any gender but mine is welcome at a march or event because the level of oppression I am experiencing is nothing compared to that which my allies face daily and, moreover, I am using it to learn and grow.