Pro-Feminist Silence: An Open Letter to “Progressive” and “Feminist” Men

Guys, we need to talk. Men outwardly identifying as “feminists” — a title we have no claim to, by the way — are often times the most egregious offenders of violence. It’s an epidemic. Almost each week another “feminist man” is revealed to have traumatized women in his personal life. Former professor and writer Hugo Schwyzer detailed the ways he calculatedly manipulated and abused his female partners and students in his now infamous Twitter meltdown. In 2014, Charles Clymer, who ran the now defunct Facebook page “Equality for Women,” was outed by his female-identified colleagues as abusive in private. Last month we witnessed porn performer Stoya out her ex-boyfriend James Deen as a rapist. Several other women followed with stories of their own. This all happened as Deen was routinely called a “feminist” by mainstream publications. Just last week, Trevor Fitzgibbons, owner and founder of Fitzgibbons Media, a PR firm for several prominent progressive organizations, was revealed by staffers to be a serial harasser and assaulter of women.

This begs several questions — 1) “Why are so many men who allegedly support women so eager to abuse, assault, and harass them?”, 2) Why are so many men concerned with the label of “feminist,” rather than living their lives in a way that is accountable to women?,” and most importantly 3) “How can those of us men who purportedly support women and feminism prevent our male colleagues from abusing, assaulting, and harassing women?” These questions highlight something crucial that “pro-feminist” conversations routinely avoid — that oftentimes, men get involved in gender justice work because they want to manipulate, coerce, and hurt women while we, the men who lead the workshops, give these abusers a manual. We teach abusers the language of empathy, support, and kindness. We are inadvertently telling abusive men how to pressure and persuade women, like a perverse version of Neil Strauss’ The Game.

The first two questions are fairly easy to answer — it’s a common belief that rape, abuse, and harassment are about power and control not desire. As men, we are socialized to be powerful and in control while feeling entitled to women’s time, attention, and bodies — loudly proclaiming your feminism is a way to designate yourself as a man who women can feel safe around before taking advantage of them guilt-free, because after all, you did read Feminism Is For Everybody once and bought a Planned Parenthood tee. The label is more important than the work because actually doing “the work” — i.e. asking yourself what you’re going to do that day to challenge violent manhood and the ways you and your friends perpetuate misogyny — is really fucking hard. Changing your profile picture on Facebook and tweeting a few 101-level thoughts about how fucked up it is that women and men are treated differently is very easy. What’s most appealing to us as straight men is the attention from women: quietly examining your consent standard is not something that gets you likes and retweets.

The third question — how can those of us men who purportedly support women and feminism prevent our male colleagues from abusing, assaulting, and harassing women? — is the most difficult. There is no easy answer. Obviously, the onus to prevent men’s violence rests solely on the shoulders of men. Women, trans folks, as well as non-binary and gender queer people fight every day to survive. Literally the least we can do to “help” is talk to other men and draw attention to their hurtful behaviors. As someone who has spent a decade of his life leading workshops, planning conferences, and holding community discussions with other men around unlearning our own sexism, I propose we place more of an emphasis on transparency and accountability when working with one another, while also explicitly acknowledging that our participation in the lifelong journey of challenging our own misogyny in no way makes us “safe” or “good” — we’re merely doing what we are morally obligated to do.

To be clear, I’m no exception. I know I’ve hurt women — made people feel uncomfortable in both sexual situations and otherwise — and I’ve held myself, and continue to hold myself, accountable every day. I don’t expect anyone to believe me about my accountability processes, and I’m not entitled to being believed. I don’t want to remove myself from Schwyzer, Clymer, Deen, and Fitzgibbons — parts of those men in exist in me and in all men. It is only by recognizing those parts that we can begin to change them. It’s much more comfortable to shy away from the ways we perpetrate violence against women — including being silent when we notice progressive men harassing women — than it is to see those behaviors in ourselves and address them. It’s easier to prioritize our own egos and create a protective forcefield by distancing ourselves rather than admitting our own failures and changing our behaviors so we don’t commit that act of violence again. What I’m proposing is truly challenging hegemonic masculinity by modeling what it looks like to really be accountable. Pretending as if we’re perfect literally helps no one and in fact reiterates hyper-masculinity by trying to appear invulnerable.

Over the past couple of years, there has been a visible increase on engaging “good men” in the fight to end men’s violence against women. Initiatives like “It’s On Us” and “No More” have commercials during NFL Sundays before cutting back to rapists and abusers like Ben Roethlisberger and Greg Hardy — it would be laughable if it wasn’t so damn depressing. These programs’ shortcomings bleed into individual communities and the individual men participating in them, epitomizing hypocrisy — we watch NFL players say “not one more” woman abused while ignoring the abuser in the locker next to them. As progressive or pro-feminist men, we denounce that cognitive dissonance while at the same time exemplifying it: suddenly, wearing a t-shirt or “walking a mile in her shoes” denotes how one is a “feminist man” without any inquiry into how one lives his life. We sit idly by as our colleagues repeatedly abuse women. We need to truly ask ourselves what we stand for — do we value male camaraderie more than women’s lives, and if so, how are we challenging patriarchal masculinity at all? If we’re not holding ourselves and other men accountable, then what’s the point of our work at all?

It’s understandable that women are eager to find men — including cis, straight men — who understand gendered oppression and violence. In a sea of misogyny, those of us who grasp concepts of toxic masculinity and systemic sexism even marginally may provide hope that, well, “not all men” are like those who harass them online and in person every day. However, those of us who profess to know better and abuse women — or remain silent when abuse occurs — are arguably worse than abusers who are ignorant of feminist frameworks because we’ve fooled ourselves into believing we could never be like men who are violent, when the reality is all men are socialized under patriarchy to be violent and sexist. The key difference is those of us who recognize that socialization and choose to alter our violent tendencies — whether they be physical, emotional, or verbal — are aware, and as such have an ethical obligation to take responsibility for all men’s collective violence. Until we begin doing that, we have not fully committed to “the work.”

It’s long overdue for us, as men who purport to care about gender violence, to worry less about how we identify politically and concern ourselves more with how on an every day basis we treat women on an interpersonal level. Are we extolling feminist ideals while forcing women in our lives to perform unnecessary emotional labor? Do we coerce or badger our partners into sex? When we’re alone with our male friends, do we give their misogyny a pass because no women are around? Do we steer away from difficult discussions about our male friends’ behaviors in relationships because we don’t want to make things “awkward”? As men, it is imperative that we create spaces where we can confront and disrupt violent behavior — as well as create support networks wherein we ask other men for advice on how to start these conversations — these are our burdens to bear. We need to vocally support women who have been harmed by progressive men, and hold the abusers accountable while always centering the victim’s needs. Through it all, we cannot remove ourselves from these conversations. Women’s experiences aren’t theories or stories to make us feel better about our (in)actions — they are their lived realities. Essentially, we need to be a lot better.

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