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.
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 have spent the bulk of today in a meeting in the North of England. Actually that’s a lie, I spent two hours in the meeting but the travel time is 4 hours so it still counts. Why not do it by Skype? Nothing’s as good as meeting someone face to face to make sure you all understand what each other needs. Anyhow, enough of the meeting, all that matters are the introductions when I first arrived. I walked through the door and the guy I was there to meet greeted me with a smile, shook my hand and said ‘Wow, you’ve lost weight. You look good!’. It was meant as a compliment and I took it as a compliment but somewhere in the back of my mind wheels started turning.
My bodily appearance is especially prone to variance. Today I am just overweight but my stomach is not particularly protuberant and I feel healthy (I am apple shaped, my weight shows up on my stomach). A year ago I weighed nearly two stone heavier (about thirteen kilo’s), my belt size was four to six inches larger and I had a tendency to lean slightly backwards when I walked, to bring my centre of gravity in line. Four years ago I still weighed two stone heavier than today but I was running marathons and, although I was technically overweight, the weight was predominantly muscle (which is denser than fat although I’m not sure the difference accounts for the entire observation) and so my belt size was lower than today even though I am now significantly lighter than I was then. Ten years before that I was so underweight that my doctor advised me to eat high calorie snacks whenever I could. In total it’s a seven stone (fourty five Kilo) variation throughout my adult life. Add to that the fact that I bloat when eating certain foods due to IBS and the variance is notable.
Through all of the above body change, maybe even because of it, I’ve never particularly felt that my weight was part of who I was. Rather it felt almost as if my weight were something I did or an accoutrement that I chose to wear. On me but not of me. Other things were relevant of course, if I felt unhealthy, got out of breath climbing a hill, that would worry me. But the weight itself and the appearance that went with it was never of overriding interest to me. It appeared to be of great interest to others however – in this society it is completely acceptable to mention someone’s weight change (especially weight loss) and to judge weight loss as a good thing. I would get comments regularly, positive or negative depending on my direction of travel.
In this society it is increasingly unacceptable to judge on skin colour, age or sex but it is still OK to judge on the basis of weight and the appearance of weight.
It’s long been observed that western society treasures physical thinness above almost any other attribute. It’s an obsession taken to extremes for women but vies with a second ‘ideal’ in men – that of muscularity. As such men are judged by their thinness but they need to be careful not to get too thin or the lack of muscularity starts to extract a social toll. This gives men a useful get out in that as long as we do not wear form fitting clothes (and few but runners and cyclists choose to wear spandex) we can at least give the illusion, the possibility, that we have a well balanced thin/muscular body beneath. As far as I can tell women are just encouraged to starve or develop eating disorders to be acceptable. We are all striving for a societally sanctioned norm that has a strong negative effect on men but an even stronger and more harmful effect on women (I don’t know enough to comment on the effect it has on other genders but I’m prepared to bet it isn’t good).
I wont try to explain how this societal norm has formed over time – I don’t have sufficient understanding of it and others are far more qualified than I am to theorise. Suffice it to say that every culture and every era that I am aware of seems to have imposed a norm of some sort. However, rarely has a single norm been so dominant as the current drive toward thin (a fact that I perhaps naively attribute to the globalisation of anglo-american culture and ideals) and rarely has the ideal been so at odds with the realities of medical knowledge. To be morbidly obese has severe health risks but to be as underweight as the current media ideal has far greater risks associated with it.
A great deal has been written about the effects this has on people and I want to be careful to talk about and theorise upon my own experiences. All of this is my own experience and as with any experience of an individual it does not encompass the whole. However, it is a part of the whole.
So, what of men and their internalised understanding of physical desirability to a partner. To many, including me, physical desirability is strongly correlated with the possession of a ‘six-pack’ (protruberant abdominal muscles, not the arrangement of beer cans). To have a six pack a male must have less significantly than 10% body fat and be engaged in strong abdominal exercise on a regular basis – the average male has about 25% body fat and (in the west) works in a seated position for eight to ten hours a day. Therefore, to meet the societal ideal of attractive most males would need to be on a strict diet and spend a significant proportion of their free time exercising – an option that is simply not realistic, nor healthy, for the vast majority. What’s more the possession of so little body fat makes a person ill suited to stamina based exercise, it is rare you will find a marathon runner with so little body fat because some fat reserve is actual vital to sustained performance. I find it unlikely (although I do not know for sure) that the majority of women are actively seeking partners that spend so much time in self-interested exercising or that cannot partake in a full and pleasurable diet – even if those women do buy into the media norm of the attractive and desirably muscled male. Therefore males are feeling a strong pressure to sacrifice elements of their personal health in order to achieve a societal norm of attraction that is not actually attractive to the majority of people they are attempting to impress. Physical appearance aside the mental effects of this pressure to conform with the near impossible and the emotional ongoing damage caused by failure is huge. The equivalent occurs with females and I believe that to be even more damaging due to their lower status in western society and the fact that their ‘ideal’ is even more physically unhealthy.
I have observed an indication of the falseness of societies ideal of female attractiveness through discussion with male friends (predominantly white and outwardly identifying as heterosexual). It needs to be made clear at this point that I believe a persons weight is their own business and shouldn’t be dictated by anybody else. However a great deal of advertising attempts to equate thin with sexually attractive to the opposite sex and this is especially true when directed toward females being attractive toward males. So, this observation is offered in an attempt to highlight an interesting dissonance between this advertising and reality.
When outwardly heterosexual men are together (or at least when they’re together with me) and conversation strays to partners and what we are looking for in relationships it is very unusual for somebody to express desire for somebody based on an appearance of being under-weight (indeed general appearance, whilst relevant, is not normally high on a man’s wishlist for a long term partner – this appearance obsession seems to be more for teenagers or individuals with self esteem issues who need a ‘trophy’ to shore up what they perceive as their precarious position in society) . Many times I’ve heard people make comments along the lines that ‘[insert currently popular super-thin model] is beautiful to look at but I want my partner to be a real woman’ or even ‘I prefer a partner that I don’t feel will break when I squeeze them’. These comments raise a plethora of questions that I cannot begin to address but two really hit me. Firstly, the idea expressed by these men that a ‘real woman’ is not extremely thin is extremely dehumanising to women who, by choice or otherwise, are thin and secondly there appears to be a significant disconnect between what many men find beautiful or sexually arousing in the media and what they find beautiful or sexually arousing in person.
I am not convinced that these points can be disentangled from each other. If these men genuinely find super-thin women attractive within the sphere of the media but not in reality then there is some kind of dissonance present whereby they cannot consider what they see on the screen as being real. Perhaps through a process of desensitisation they cease to be affected by the unreality of the ideal they are witnessing in the media every day. What then when they are confronted by a particularly thin female in reality? Can she be considered to be real or is she a non-human in the same way that the televisual images are non-people, to be desired but not to be allocated human rights and considerations? This strikes me as an extremely dangerous space to inhabit.
So, to achieve societies ideal of beauty and to therefore unburden himself of the negative comments of his peers a man must heavily control his diet and spend unhealthy amounts of time exercising to build muscle that he either doesn’t need or that actively impedes him. Probably making himself less desirable as a partner to the majority of women.
A woman must reduce her body mass to such an extent that she endangers her health and well-being whilst simultaneously reducing her attractiveness to the majority of men. Furthermore her relatively low status compared to men mean that she must exist in a potentially dangerous culture of dehumanisation that may put her, and all women, at significant risk.
How did we allow this mutually harmful disconnect between perception and reality to form? I don’t think anybody truly knows but my suspicions are that the perception is connected to the fact that it’s easy to sell product to people who are chasing the unobtainable. The desire for new things can only be based upon dissatisfaction with the present status quo and a need (real or perceived) to improve that situation. What could be more powerful, and more lucrative, than to convince people that one of their deepest and more basic requirements, the desire for companionship and procreation, is dependent upon their acheiveing and maintaining an unobtainable ideal. Now every new product that comes out can be hooked to this desire and made saleable to a population desperate to overcome their perceived failings.
I don’t see a conspiracy, I see the natural progression of the market toward the creation of a sustainable demand for the purchase of multiple product categories. I see the unforeseen physical and mental fallout of creating a self-sustaining desire to strive to achieve something that for the majority is unachievable. Whether by desire or by happy accident today’s marketeers have created the perfect conditions for perpetual sales and perpetual human dissatisfaction.
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.
I should really continue with the strength of my ambiguous title but I’m going to immediately run toward the safe ground and underline the fact that many males possess great privilege, as do almost all genders that were born in the ‘west’, especially those with the genetic advantage of being white. But this rambling prelude highlights the situation that truly exists in a world in which the many oppressions inherent in kyriarchy (the complex intersection of multiple streams of oppression and domination) intersect.
Let me pose you a question: Who is more oppressed, an Asian labourer working for subsistence pay but having great dominance over the women of his culture or a white western woman with the disposable income to fulfil her material wishes but dominated and held down by a male-centric power structure? What about an English male with a severe physical disability who is discriminated against daily in his exclusion from services that most people in his culture take fore-granted? Let’s add a rich white teenager who commits suicide because society cant accept his self-identified gender. Who’s at the top of this heap, who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed? The answer, of course, is that it’s a foolish question.
We all live in a complex web in which we are, in some way, carriers of privilege and therefore part of a system of oppression. When I say all I mean all. Yes, I mean you, but we’re not going to talk about you, we’re going to talk about how I fit in to this web (as best as I can see it). I recommend you do the exercise for yourself, it can be enlightening.
- Firstly I’m rich, not stinking rich – I can’t afford a house in the city in which I live – but I’m above average for England and England is way above average for the world. I have money for lots of toys, food and leisure and I buy them from chain stores and online giants that I am fully aware are actively exploiting people in third world countries. I am part of the economic system that oppresses the people in those countries.
- I’m male, and that means that without trying I earn 20% more than a female doing the same job. I’m also more likely to be taken seriously than she is and significantly less likely to get attacked or harassed. I can count the number of demeaning sexual comments that have been aimed at me in public on one hand (and that’s comments in my lifetime, not just this week). Even being aware of all this and actively trying to act in a reasonable fashion I still find myself looking down on women occasionally. The modes of thought instilled in the schoolyard sneak to the surface unbidden and I have to keep close watch to avoid acting on them. I feel shame about this but I suspect it is true for people everywhere – the modes of thought learned as a child take a lifetime to counter.
- I’m ‘white’. More than that the schoolyard taught me to be racist at a young age and so like sexism I have to fight my own racism daily. I hope I am succesful but the price of success is constantly monitoring my thoughts. Analysing what I am thinking and trying to determine if it is fair and objective, trying to identify the irrational idiocies I learned in my youth. I hate this truth but it is a truth nevertheless and it should be admitted.
- I have a physical disability. You wouldn’t know it to see me but about twelve times an hour, as I sleep, my body gives up on breathing. It’s called sleep apnoea and sufferers are constantly exhausted due to the disruption. However, my privilege of being from England with its free healthcare means my health needs have been assessed and my condition diagnosed so that with the help of technology the condition is pretty effectively managed. It’s not perfect but it’s pretty damn good.
- I have a mental disability, I am manic depressive (I so prefer that to bipolar). I have spent time in a mental ward and can ricochet between suicidal despair and irrational highs but, most commonly, I can feel a terrible mixed depression and high. Adrenaline courses through my body whilst simultaneously my mind fixates in ideas of self harm or suicide and my thoughts race. What sets this off? Sometimes nothing, but most often physical or verbal confrontation. If someone at work gets in my face and fails to understand that my condition (and the law) require them to make the reasonable adjustment of communicating with me calmly it can destroy me for weeks. If someone in the street is having a bad day and I catch the brunt of it then the effects can be catastrophic.
There are many more ways that I sit within this web but these are enough for now. They are enough to let me ask the question ‘what does ‘male privilege’ mean’ when it comes to me, an individual within this complex world of privilege and oppression? At its simplest it means my recognition that my gender means that I have on average more power and privilege than an otherwise identical female. But it also leads me to understand that there is no such identical female – each of us inhabits a very personal position in a kyriarchal power structure. My gender means I may oppress a woman but her (mis)understanding of mental health may mean that she oppresses me as a manic depressive and add to that oppression based on race and physical disability and both I and this theoretical other could oppress and be oppressed by each other in a multitude of different ways. Now add everyone else in the world.
So what is the outcome? The glowing realisation I want you to take away from all this. Well, you’ll need to find your own truth but my truth is the realisation that we are all oppressors and oppressed. The only way we can move forward is by looking to our own privilege and trying to understand it and minimise its effect. Fight for your rights as a woman, or as a person of colour or a member of any other oppressed group but remember that you are also an oppressor of others and you must listen to the voices inside yourself and analyse whether they are correct. More than that you must listen to the voices outside who are telling you when you are being an oppressor and you must strive to understand them. You do not deserve to succeed in your struggle for equality unless you have tried your hardest to give all those you have been unwittingly oppressing equality of their own.
Seemingly slowly, and then all of a sudden, I have realized that every person alive is living in a cage. I have chosen to see this realization as a positive awakening, after all the first step in escaping a cage is to realize you are in one.
Each individual has their own cage, some are gilded – filled with marvellous toys; many are cramped and squalid; many more are dark and filled with the smell of death.
What all of these cages have in common is that they are old. We were born into them, just as our parents and grandparents were born into them and the bars that line the walls are so familiar to our eyes that we have long since ceased to perceive them. From the most ornately palacious of the cages to the most base only a precious few inhabitants have noticed the bars and only the smallest fraction have the ability, will, and inclination to want to break the lock.
I am of course talking about society, not on the level of individual communities or countries but of what I will refer to as the pseudo-capitalist society that I believe defines our age.
I am eminently aware of the fact that this discourse risks making me seem like a conspiracy theorist but we are not talking about a conspiracy. We are talking about a culture, a set of values, that has propagated globally and serves to empower and enrich those that sit at the top of societies pyramid – the financiers, the politicians and the nobilities of the world.
I will take a short aside to address one question, why ‘pseudo’. In the same way that this world has never seen a Communist society it has also never seen a Capitalist one. The society of capital, as it exists today carries only the most obvious of the external trappings of actual Capitalism. Although the pseudo-capitalist culture espouses the dictums of Keynes, Adam Smith’s mercantilists and other great capitalist thinkers even a cursory examination of history reveals that ‘free-market’ capitalism is not the source of pseudo-capitalist culture but simply its preferred weapon to assault those that threaten its privilege – the up and coming economies of the third world. Pseudo-capitalism chooses to inhibit its opponents through the imposition of the rules of the free-market; rules that are not applied to those already in a position of pseudo-capitalist power who themselves are wholly reliant upon government subsidy and the prevention of the free movement of labour.
The reach of pseudo-capitalism has extended into every major (and most minor) areas of life in every community about the globe (including many associated with the anti-globalisation movement who are often defined by their opposition to pseudo-capitalism as opposed to a clearly stated agenda independent of it).
The pseudo-capitalist society underpins and reinforces the power structures that exist within every culture. Where individuals within a culture, through gift or historical precedent, have achieved a measure of ability to affect pseudo-capitalist society the pseudo-capitalist culture adjusts to reward them with subjectively appealing items that serve to reduce the likelihood that they will wish to alter their society (and hence risk the items they have been gifted). Hence the banker, mighty titan of commerce that he is (and it is almost always he), is upheld as an untouchable god and gifted with abstract currency with which to purchase his every whim whilst the single mother who is raising the next generation of human beings (the beings whose role will include our welfare in old age) is vilified as a drain upon society. The banker is rewarded because he has the power to alter the system should he so wish, the mother is ignored precisely because she has no such power.
Pseudo-capitalist society has redefined the historically held concept of human worth away from assigning worth to individuals who contribute the most value to society (and therefore lead to the greatest increase in happiness for the greatest number of people) to assigning worth to individuals who earn the greatest amount of abstract currency (these typically being the individuals who succeed in generating the greatest amount of currency for those above them in the hierarchy). These individuals with high pseudo-capitalist worth have the ability, should they wish to exercise it, to modify pseudo-capitalist society in many ways but rarely do so because the action of doing so would endanger their subjective worth. Example ways in which an individual of high worth could influence underlying pseudo-capitalist society include leveraging their earned capital to educate the masses regarding the true nature of the world they inhabit, or through the creation of charitable foundations dedicated to raising people with low pseudo-capitalist worth into positions of influence without instilling the systems of control that are standard for pseudo-capitalist power holders.
I noted above that the cages in which we dwell are very old and that every one of us dwells within one. There are no jailers, no guards, no cage builders (they died out long ago). The richest and most powerful among us are prisoners in just the same way as the poorest – only the richer cells are so beautifully outfitted that their inhabitants choose captivity over freedom whenever the choice is offered.