News & Politics

To Get Men on Our Side, Feminists Must Fight for Men Too

It may be the only way to get them to listen.

Photo Credit: Olena Hromova / Shutterstock

With so many conversations about sexual harassment and abuse taking place in public and in private, it can get exhausting for feminists to have to re-articulate the same points over and over. In such conversations, those who are fearful of the wave of #MeToo accusations may express sympathy for the men whose reputations and careers are damaged because of accusations. Or they’ll say “sexual harassment isn’t as bad as rape,” or “we wouldn't want someone going to prison just because popular opinion is against them.” People like that—and a lot of them are white men, let’s face it—just don’t care all that much about feminist battles. They don't care that women earn less than men, or that women of color face a higher rate of domestic violence than any other group. The truth is, most humans are innately selfish, and generally only spurred to action when some injustice concerns them directly. So how can a feminist convince them that real gender equality change is needed to create a more equitable society?

Even today, self-identified feminists are largely women. We have male allies, sure. But even some men on the left who support abortion rights and equal pay don’t understand where Aziz Ansari went wrong, or worry about the #MeToo “witch hunt.”

So is there a way to truly spark male empathy for the deeply rooted problems of sexism? How can women help their male allies truly understand why "Grace" didn’t just have a "bad date"?

One tactic I’ve found effective lately is to begin the conversation exploring how gender roles oppress us all.

Men are oppressed by masculinity, even if many of them don't know it. Sociologist R.W. Connell’s definition of hegemonic masculinity is especially apt today. She writes that men in Western cultures are socialized according to an authoritative, hyper-masculine, heteronormative and heterosexual ideal. To be masculine (something most men desire), men must reject everything feminine. Such men cannot express their emotions by crying, must show physical dominance over other men (and sometimes women), and are told to speak up and seize power. In its worst form, masculine gender roles have the potential to destroy a man by encouraging a tendency toward violence.

Anti-violence activist Jackson Katz is a prominent name in the field of toxic masculinity. His landmark documentary, "Tough Guise," explores the subject in depth, and should be required viewing for everyone, not just those engaged in conversations around feminism.

But just because men, especially white men, are given power by default, they still deserve liberation from these rigid gender roles. Heterosexual men don’t need to feel embarrassed if they are not the highest earners in their relationships. They should feel able to speak up when they overhear sexist locker room talk. In general, they should feel free to express themselves beyond the suffocating walls of traditional Western masculinity.

Outside of liberal circles, many men are still oblivious to the ways in which gender oppresses them. Pop culture has brought the conversation somewhat to the mainstream: several recent TV shows and films introduced male characters defying traditional macho and gender roles, from "This Is Us" to "Moonlight" to "The King’s Speech." But media still largely encourages men to conform to a masculinity much like R.W. Connell’s description.

When men understand that gender oppresses them and limits their full expression, they can more easily buy into conversations about feminism. Feminism seeks to liberate all humans from constraining gender norms, not just women. Men are taught to relentlessly pursue sex because they’re told that’s what masculine men do. They still deserve blame when that pursuit turns into aggression, but to demonize their behavior without seeking to liberate other men from acting similarly makes the entire enterprise of #MeToo futile.

At the end of the day, the #MeToo conversations aim to make the world better, workplaces safer, and relationships healthier and more consensual. As cathartic as it may be for feminists, getting into a Twitter war with a right-wing troll isn’t going to do anything beneficial for women. #MeToo presents an opportunity to revisit the way men and women talk about these issues.

Next time you are discussing sexual assault and harassment with a man, try appealing to men’s sympathy by explaining that as a feminist, you are fighting for their future as well as your own. In the time of #MeToo, it may feel uncomfortable to turn the conversation away from women’s needs and onto men’s, but it’s a tactic to get men listening and recruit more allies in the work that third-wave feminism has yet to accomplish.

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Liz Posner is a managing editor at AlterNet. Her work has appeared on Forbes.com, Bust, Bustle, Refinery29, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @elizpos.