By Tal Peretz
I had never heard the word feminism until my first semester of college. I signed up for a required GenED class with gender studies professor Marla Jaksch, and found that feminism made sense of my life in ways nothing else ever had. It didn’t just illuminate women and sexism, it also explained television and bullying and sports and economics and my own family and a thousand other things that I’d been uncomfortable or confused about.
This was my first lesson in feminism: using a feminist lens to analyze and understand your own life is one of the most powerful things you can do. This is what led me to realize that sexual violence and domestic abuse, pay/education/political inequality, media representation, gender stereotypes and beauty norms— aren’t women’s issues, they are social issues that shape everyone’s lives. Understanding how men are gendered beings—yes, including you—is transformational.
One quick note first: because what follows is from my own experience, it does not fully represent the experiences of male feminists. It doesn’t discuss trans* and nonbinary feminists; it also does not detail the many ways that the current gender order hurts men or the many gendered ways that men hurt each other. These are very important concerns, but not the conversation I’m trying to start here.
When I saw how gender inequality is implicated in every part of my life, I began to wonder: why didn’t I understand all this before? How did I get so far in my life without understanding this basic, fundamental truth about the world around me? Thankfully, feminist analysis also had an answer for that: male privilege. This was my second lesson: having privilege means you usually don’t see how gender inequality impacts your life, because instead of putting you at risk, it benefits you.
Recognizing your privilege is the crucial first step in becoming an ally; an ally is a member of a privileged social group who supports marginalized people’s liberation efforts. Receiving privilege doesn’t make you a bad person, but it does shape your life and affect everything you do. At your best, you can use privilege to help people who don’t benefit from it. At your worst, you will (hopefully unintentionally) use your privilege in ways that hurt or harm the people you are trying to help. When this happens (and it will happen—everyone makes mistakes) be open to hearing critiques, try to fix what you can, learn from your mistakes, and do better next time.
Excited to understand more, I signed up for another class and then the gender studies minor. Here’s a list of Women’s & Gender Studies classes being taught at AU this semester. I can personally recommend intro with Dr. Vandenberg, and you may find my name on that list as well. Feminist Theory with Brian Jara, a gender studies class taught by a man, was important to me. It showed me there is a place for me in the feminist movement, but I have to be accountable about it. Brian pulled me aside after class one day, thanked me for all of my excited, thoughtful, and intelligent contributions to the class—and then told me, kindly, to shut up.
To be fair, he said it much more compassionately. The important thing, though, was that he made it clear that this space was not about me and reminded me that any time I am speaking, someone else in the class (most likely a woman) is not speaking. That doesn’t mean there is no space for me to contribute, but it does mean I should think carefully about when and how I speak, and who is not talking when I am.
Lesson three, then, is to be aware of your communication behaviors. Interrupting women, overpowering them using the volume or tone of your voice, taking up more than your share of speaking time, questioning or doubting women’s statements about their own life experiences, speaking for women who haven’t asked you to, taking credit for women’s ideas , and mansplaining all reinforce sexism, silence women, and make you a bad ally. Tell people around you, especially but not only women, that this is something you’re working on and that if they are willing to (because it is extra work you are asking them to do, and it is not their job), to please let you know when they notice such things and you will listen and take it to heart (and then do that).
Lesson four was to take it slow. I was so excited by my newfound way of being a better person that I wanted to solve every aspect of sexism, all at once, on my first day in Brian’s class. Here’s the thing, though: if sexism could be easily defeated in a few days, the women who’ve been doing this work for decades would’ve done it already.
There is an important feminist sociological concept called Standpoint Theory, that explains that who you are in society (man, woman, trans*, genderqueer; Black, Latina, Native American, white; wealthy, working-class, etc.) shapes your social experiences and how people treat you, and this in turn shapes how you see the world. This explains why most white people think of police as safe, helpful, and trustworthy while most Black folks (in the United States) see them as corrupt, suspect, and, dangerous—their experiences of the police are different because of how their communities are and have been treated by the police in the past. Standpoint theory also explains why a lot of men struggle to understand and believe women’s experiences around gender: if you do not face daily microaggressions, if you don’t have to constantly consider the risk of gender-based violence, if you haven’t been facing this scary and dangerous reality since you were eight years old (trigger warning for harrowing stories), it can be hard to believe that this is the lived reality for other people.
Standpoint theory is also why lesson five is important. Men are treated so differently from women in our society that it can be difficult to see the world from their perspective, their standpoint—and that makes it difficult to understand how to be an effective and accountable anti-sexist man. Lesson five, then, is to listen to women. Listening means believing women and respecting that their reality is just as valid as yours. (Related: Don’t call women crazy, or emotional, or PMS-ing. Just don’t, ever. And don’t let others do it. The purpose of this kind of language is almost always to avoid actually listening to women). Seek out places to hear women talking about their experiences; Auburn’s Mosaic Theatre Company deals with sexism among other social issues important to Auburn, Take Back the Night is held on campus and promoted in this article in the Auburn Plainsman, Auburn students frequently join community members in putting on the Vagina Monologues, and of course there are YouTube channels, blogs, Instagram accounts, twitter feeds, and lots of other ways to engage in these conversations – just remember to listen (a lot) before you start talking.
Listening to women is especially important in sexual and romantic contexts. In your own dating life, ask verbally, specifically, and directly when you want to engage in any kind of physical touch, even kissing (yeah, it sounded weird to me at first too: the grateful responses I’ve received are what convinced me). Outside of dating, you can also build trust by telling the people you care about (especially women) that if they have had any non-consensual sexual experiences, you will be there to listen and support them in the ways they want you to. If you become a person who women are willing to talk to openly, at some point you’ll feel like all your female friends are coming to you with their stories of violence and harassment. This is an honor, but it may also be very depressing. It will help to remember it’s not about you.
It may also help to feel like you have some resources to offer if they want to hear about them (remember, it is always the victim/survivors choice how they want to respond, and whatever they decide is the right decision for them in that moment. Your job is to support them in that decision). Rape Counselors of East Alabama offers crisis intervention, medical and legal assistance, a 24-hour crisis hotline (if your friend needs someone to talk to at any time, or if you want someone to talk to about how to respond), and referrals for many other services. They are a great first contact point. Auburn’s Title IX office (Title IX is the law barring discrimination based on sex in educational institutions) can help with any issues related to school, Student Counseling and Psychological Services has services specifically related to sexual assault, and the Women’s Resource Center is a hub for many more resources.
Which brings us to lesson six: remember you are not alone, and you don’t have to do any of this alone. The history of men advocating for women’s rights goes back at least as far as Frederick Douglas and W.E.B. Dubois at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, and you are joining that history. In your daily life, talk with other guys about sexism and gender equality; they’ll be more likely to listen to you, and you’ll feel more connected. If you can, get some friends together and make a formal or informal men’s group, where you help each other work on your own personal change, and maybe also work externally on social change. I’m a faculty member, so I am working with a group of other male Auburn faculty
You may also be interested in joining one of the student groups women have already started to address sexism on campus. This is a great idea, but remember the lessons above and take your time. In college I joined the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance and volunteered at the local domestic violence shelter. It wasn’t always easy; I wasn’t always welcome. This brings me to lesson seven: some women will not want to have you around. That is their right. They are dealing with sexism every day. It’s possible you are still working on the privilege piece or communication behaviors we’ve talked about, or you may just remind them of someone who traumatized them. They are healing, and your job is to make that easier for them however you can, including by removing yourself and finding other ways to help.
I still make mistakes and try to learn from them. Ally is a verb, not a noun; you have to return your ally card each night, and earn it back the next day . It never stops, and as the inspirational quote says, “it never gets easier, you just get better.” That leads to the final lesson: Don’t declare yourself an ally; show it in your actions, and let others decide what to call it. It’s important to mention, then, that some of the ideas in this article are my own and from my own experiences, but a lot are things I’ve learned from women over time. I’m writing this article because you might hear these things better coming from me, but that in itself is indicative of my male privilege. Some really good articles by women about how to be a male feminist, and more articles, for example.  Mansplaining: explaining something to someone who already knows more about it than you do, usually done in a patronizing way that implicitly assumes they are less informed and less intelligent than you. Yes, this is a bad behavior anyone can engage in, but because of male privilege, it is done much more frequently by men to women.  Note: the oppression of women, racial minorities, or other marginalized populations are not separate issues. The concept of intersectionality explains that social categories such as race, class, gender, and sexuality overlap and interact in shaping society and individual lives.  Both of the phrases in this sentence are things I’ve heard from multiple people in social justice circles. I do not know who originated them; I have heard them from Joe Samalin and Ben Atherton-Zeman, and in this fantastic video by Franchesca Ramsey.
Post contributed by Dr. Tal Peretz, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Anthropology & Social Work
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