Friends like these: how can men be better feminists?

There is a disconnect that exists in many men between an intellectual or ideological understanding (or non-understanding) of the need for gender equality, and an understanding of the lived experience of women in the current, unequal society. The latter is fundamental, I think, to the former, if the former is to be complete. But before I get into that idea, here are four stories that helped me understand and pinpoint this disconnect in myself, a young man.

Story one. In mid-May I saw a comedian, Gen Fricker, at the Enmore. During her show, the elegantly titled Monsterpu$$y, she related an anecdote that temporarily changed the show’s tone. Fricker was in a taxi, bound for the airport. The metre looked wrong. She asked the driver to fix it. He said nothing. She asked again, then asked him to stop, then told him to stop, and he said nothing. Then he stopped the car in a deserted parking lot and attacked her. She could feel herself running out of energy as they struggled. Were it not for a passing jogger who came to investigate, she could not say what might’ve happened. The driver pushed her out of the car and drove off.

Story two. A friend of mine was on a dirt road that led up a hillside on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. There was a man walking ahead of her. At some point, alone together on the road, he stopped and turned to face her. He was masturbating. The act itself was disturbing, she said, but his expression was what stayed. It was confrontational, filled with entitled rage. It said, ‘Fuck you.’ She turned around and walked back the way she had come, and he didn’t follow her.

Story three. A storyteller who appeared at a San Francisco story slam hosted by The Moth told a story about a time she was being followed, conscious of a thought growing calmly and concretely in her mind as her certainty grew: “Oh, okay, so this is the day I get raped.”

And story number four.

Zenobia Frost, a Brisbane-based poet, critic and editor, kicked a short Twitter conversation to life with this in early May 2015. I follow Kaitlyn Plyley and Jessica Alice, two of those who joined in, so it appeared on my feed as a mostly complete conversation. Their responses – the shared and immediately understood context in which their reactions were framed, and the fact that the experience was not deemed uncommon – are what caused me to think of bookmarking it.

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Essential to decompressing my reactions to those stories is the manner in which they were told and received. The most striking thing about Fricker’s “bit” was how devoid of gravity and trauma it was. It slipped, hard and cold, between jokes in a set. In the case of my friend, she told the story about the masturbating man to others before she told it to me. Women were horrified, some men were horrified, but she said one man found it funny, like someone throwing up on your shoes. That laughing man could form the basis of a case study in the failure I’m trying to get at. The San Franciscan’s story was so affecting because what shone through is that she had been thinking about rape her whole life. It was a brick in the wall of her life experience. And the women on Twitter, in the most recent and galvanising of these stories, doubled down on the impression initiated by the laughing man and honed by these others.

Jessica Alice’s final tweet, the last word in this collection, has a damning end – “Worst allies ever” – and initially I bookmarked the conversation because I was saddened. To the bittersweet fury of many, the first reaction of lots of men when their kind are generalised in the negative is “That’s not fair. #notallmen”. Our poor feelings – demanding that feminist discourse be corrected to assure against generalising them out of sight, a reaction so unhelpful as to be second only in this quality to those undermining or rejecting calls for gender equality. But, knowing full well its idiocy, I’ll admit that was my involuntary reaction. These women are sharp, charismatic and outspoken. If they say we are – “I” am – shit allies, it makes sense that it would sting.

Anyone who has even a peripheral awareness of feminist discourse ought by this point to be thinking, “Does the educated, white, heterosexual male want a hug to go with his higher wages? Get off your dick and help.” Because what rational point of comparison is there between the experience of an oppressed person, trying to right a true imbalance, and that of an oppressor, standing in the middle of a one-way street, objecting to being characterised as out of touch as they ask traffic to go around them? But beyond my momentarily bruised sensibilities, which I’ll come back to, I made record of this tweet because there was something else in it – something that lies at the heart of why that man laughed, and why he shouldn’t have.

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When Jessica Alice declares men terrible allies, what does she mean? Allies in what? Where you might think of books and articles read, petitions signed, talks attended and conversations had, Alice also clearly means something more. She means allies in a nuanced, empathic connection with the lived experience of women. And the way she meant it was immediately understood by these women in a way that men, myself included, need to understand.

Take Kaitlyn Plyley’s balcony experience. There is a pathetic clumsiness in the conduct of the man who pretended to throw Plyley off his balcony. In his inept attempt to demonstrate that he was a nice guy, he unwittingly demonstrated the limitation of his niceness: he suffers from a gaping lack of awareness of the nightmarish possibilities that exist in the private sphere occupied by one man and one woman, and, by extension, the ubiquity of that set of possibilities in the minds of women. When Plyley thought “This is my death”, the man responsible would probably not have responded with the lived experience of women in mind. I mean to say, he would probably not have thought, “God, how could I? I didn’t realise that the rape and murder of Jill Meagher; the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, for which her murderer only received a manslaughter conviction and ten months in prison; the thirty-nine Australian women who have died violent deaths in 2015 so far; the things that you have witnessed or been subjected to; that your girlfriends, mothers, sisters or cousins have been subjected to – that all this was inherent in your perspective on our moment alone on this balcony.”

Instead he probably thought, “How could you think I would push you off a balcony?” demonstrating in the process that where many experiences have become part of the cultural lexicon (through stories told primarily by men), the experience of violence against women has not seeped into, in fact has barely even lapped at, the collective consciousness of men.

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This landscape, wherein the threat of sexual predators is burnt into your daily life, is the way things are for women. You only need to tune into Everyday Sexism’s Twitter account for one day of retweets to discover the constant verbal and physical abuses to which women and girls are subjected. To match the epidemic of violence against women, there is a pandemic of incursions and corrosions of the physical safety of women.

Currently, most press is on the violence, the deaths – as it should be – and while this is the best way to draw attention to the seriousness of the problem, the best way to turn the tide may be by talking about the lack of empathy that exists at this even more commonplace level. The most profound part of moving towards gender equality may lie in dissolving the disconnect that exists between understanding (or not understanding) the need for gender equality at a material and ideological level, and empathising with the much more profound and wide-ranging fears and uncertainties that fray and fissure women’s faith in the social contract, to the point that they see their abusers in the face of the generalised everyman.

Until that’s done, how else could a rational woman be expected to see it than like this: any man is the potential beneficiary of a system that, by and large, ignores violence against women, and is therefore possibly aware in one dark moment of the fact that society lets it go when he brutalises women, and is capable in that same dark moment of justifying, normalising and then committing an act of violence against a woman, knowing as he does that no matter how many individuals think it’s wrong, society tends at this moment to turn a blind eye.

Now, back to those bruised sensibilities. If you’re a man, and you’re going to get angry, do it in the same way and in the same direction as feminists – at the men who make intelligent, independent women, who make all women, fear for their lives and safety in the presence of men. Certainly it’s problematic to be involved with the feminist movement for these reasons – to clear your name – and I’m not saying that should be anyone’s primary motivation, because it’s very, very far from what’s most important. But it’s not a useless catalyst. If you think what I thought, that you’d like to be considered a good ally simply by default, then gaining and demonstrating an understanding of the root cause of feminism, and acting on it, is the only way to bring about that change. For my part, I was still surprised by the strength of Frost’s, Alice’s and Plyley’s reactions to a misguided joke. Which means I, like many, have been hearing but not listening – may still be hearing but not listening.

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I can’t stand advocating for change without suggesting how to achieve it, but the problem with prescribing fixed answers here is that there aren’t any, or rather, there are millions, and the most resilient lessons will be the ones people seek out of their own accord. In my case, the combined effect of strong friendships with women, a predisposition towards reading op eds and personal essays by women, and a gender-neutral set of followed people on Twitter all led to my being exposed to this, and to my applying my thoughts about it to people for whom I care deeply. If you struggle to talk to women, don’t read much journalistic writing and abhor Twitter, these things won’t work for you. But the feminist movement is so diverse and multifaceted that there are an infinite number of ways to engage, and every one informs another.

In the stories that set me to work on myself, issues like tacit endorsement, culpability by neglect, patronisation and empathy were central, but the benefit to my worldview came from the fact that they were told and retold. It is a sorry fact that it helped me to hear them, and talk about them, and ask questions, but I would state unequivocally that in no way are the things to which these women were subjected necessary to some revolution in male thinking. Right now, unfortunately, they exist, but they should never be reduced to ammunition, least of all by men.

So to close, I’ll reference something my friend said, which illustrates the place of those stories in a much bigger picture. As I searched for a conclusion to this piece, I asked her what she would tell men to do if they want to help. She slowly went from stumped to stunned.

She realised that no man had ever seriously asked her that question.

Anyone who thinks they can answer that question – what anyone, not just men, can do to help – is encouraged to post their answers/suggestions below.

Image: Friendly Terrorist

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20140906_Gorman_House_0375Ashley Thomson is an editor and writer. He was the winner of the 2014 Marjorie Graber-McInnis Short Story Award and is the in-house book editor at Momentum Books. He tweets at @aabthom and blogs at Swimming with Elephants.

5 Comments

  • Anthony commented on June 1, 2015 Reply

    Thanks very much for that article. It explained in a very succinct way some ideas I’ve thought about but struggled to articulate. Also very informative. I am very surprised that this balcony game is a thing. And is a perfect example of casual violence being seen by some as acceptable. The idea of us as allies is exactly how i feel. Me and my fiancé are a team. We work together for common goals and support eachother. My previous relationships failed partly because they lacked that dynamic. Clearly it’s something lacking in a great number of relationships.

  • Jessamy_sesame commented on June 1, 2015 Reply

    This is something I’ve had a few male friends ask me a few times – usually after a horrific incident like the murders of Masa vukotic or Jill Meagher (it seems to take the horrific murder of a women for my male friends to wake up to why they need to understand more about feminists?). It’s not that I don’t appreciate being asked, but I’d also really like for men to do some research themselves, too. I got asked enough times that I ended up writing a blog post about it:
    http://youaredoingthatwrong.com/2014/05/28/im-a-man-interested-in-learning-about-feminism-now-what/

    Things I would add that men could “do”: take women at their word – believe women. Don’t say “not all men”. Prioritise women’s voices. Learn how to be quiet. Recognise where there’s lack of women’s voices – do you work in a male dominated environment? Are you only consuming male-driven entertainment? What about the music you’re listening to? These are little things, but it would go some way to broadening your horizons.

    As for the big things, speak up and out when you can, but don’t speak over the top of women. It’s a fine line to tread, to be honest. Recognise where your support is needed in the form of simply being present.

    And take some time to educate yourself. Don’t just expect women to teach you about feminism, but go out and do some reading for yourself.

    There’s probably more, but I think that’s a reasonable starting point?

    • Ashley commented on June 1, 2015 Reply

      Thanks, Jessamy – that is exactly the kind of engagement I was hoping for.

  • Chris commented on June 1, 2015 Reply

    I wish I could answer that final question from a woman’s perspective, and I’d really like to see some answers.

    As a male, I can only say; men, don’t be silent. If you see something, say something. This culture does value male voices over female ones, especially in the corners where the message most desperately needs to be heard.
    The simplest distillation of that message?
    “Dude, not cool.”

    • Chris commented on June 1, 2015 Reply

      Posted at the same time as Jessamy, and I think my comment looks a little odd coming chronologically after hers.
      I think it’s a great point about not talking over the top of women.

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