In Which I Write Something Constructive

A good friend wrote me recently:

‘The domination and entitlement is a male problem; men can help solve it.’ Sounds like a follow-up post? There seems to be frustratingly little to do on a personal-to-person level, besides not being part of the problem…”

So, follow up post it is.

The good news: most men are not creeps or bullies. They don’t like dominating, browbeating, or coercing women, and would be horrified if you told them they had done so.

Here’s the bad news: a lot of the time, these men can become a silent majority. They don’t harass women themselves, but by their silence and participation in certain social patterns, they enable the men who do.

I am privileged to have a bunch of stellar, fantastic, is-legally-adopting-brothers-a-thing male friends–men who actively try to make their social circles good places for women to be. So, for them and all men like them, but mainly men who want to be like them (or even better, like these guys), some basics in no particular order.

1. The most basic. Be someone who is friends with women, who they feel comfortable talking to honestly. Like women. Note, this does not mean “occasionally wax sentimental on the beauties of true femininity and make a big deal about opening doors.” This is generally a sign that you are stuck in an adolescent obsession with the otherness of these strange, mysterious creatures, and probably have a raging Madonna/whore complex. Take an axe to your pedestals–ask yourself whether your world is populated mainly by men-people and women-people (mine includes some mermaids and such), or by people (who are men) and the charmingly unpredictable fairies who flit through their lives bestowing benison or wreaking havoc as the mood strikes. If the latter, work on disabusing yourself.

2. Once you have real female friends, listen to them. Listen carefully and attentively when they trust you enough to confide in you that when they feel unsafe, or when something lousy happens to them. Do not listen while rehearsing what you’re going to say next; do not go on the defensive or assume that when she is talking about sexism she is talking about you. If she were talking about you, she probably wouldn’t be talking to you. Do not immediately start explaining what the man probably meant to say, or “from a man’s point of view…” Listen to her point of view. If you’re not really getting it, if you find yourself thinking “I would never find this upsetting or a big deal,” remind yourself  that you probably do not live with the daily, nagging awareness of your vulnerability to sexual assault; that you have not been gently reminded every day of your life that you belong to the less serious, less intelligent, less important half of humanity; that it’s ok if you don’t understand her distress–there are good reasons for that–but that doesn’t mean it’s not valid.

3. Recognize the specific blind spots of your subculture that allow nasty or sexist behavior to fly under the radar. In conservative or religious right circles it’s often something like this. “Manly, beer-quaffing, Chesterton-quoting men with pipes are the last bastion of Western Civilization, and so it’s vital that they get to stretch their virile wings and fly free on the sweet winds of politically incorrect socially dominant manliness.  If you find my words or behavior  demeaning, sexist, or just plain dickish, it’s because you are a BABY EATING FEMINIST HARPY. Who probably castrates the male babies before eating them. Because LOGIC.”

In progressive/social justice circles it’s something like “But I’m such a progressive, enlightened feminist ally! I tweeted about equal pay yesterday. I’m seriously considering going vegetarian. I’m a community organizer. I have sensitive glasses. I live in Brooklyn. There’s no way I or any of my equally intellectual and enlightened and nice-guy friends would ever do what you say we’re doing, so if that’s a veiled call-out of my male entitlement, I won’t hear it and I won’t respond to it.”

If you are an investment banker, it might be, “I can do whatever I want. Besides, I own you.”

With hipsters, it’s usually “Dude, I was gaslighting her ironically.”

4. Speaking of gaslighting, making a woman doubt the legitimacy of her own perceptions and judgement is one of the best ways for a creep to secure power over her. So please, stop calling women crazy, emotional, psycho, hysterical, irrational, hormonal, pre-menstrual, and all the other words that get tossed around to remind everyone that a woman’s grip on reality is tenuous at best. Don’t let other men pull out out these tropes, and don’t let them make jokes about their nutso ex-girlfriends. Because for every genuinely unhinged old-flame, there are two or three girls who got labelled shrieking crazies the minute they stood up for themselves.

5. Help women be full and equal participants in your social circle.  The more a woman knows that she is a first class citizen in her social set, the more confident she will be about enforcing zero-tolerance policies regarding creepy behavior from its members. Don’t let other guys mansplain. Don’t split off into into a tight clump of hunched broad shoulders to talk politics. Because if a woman wants to join a group of men discussing a “manly” topic, she has to invade a male space, and make her voice heard over those with both deeper voices and a social mandate to use them that she lacks. If you’re discussing something cool like etymology or philosophy or architecture or economics in a social setting, try not to use technical jargon where you don’t have to. Not necessarily because women won’t know what it means, but because by using jargon you are signalling mastery of a topic. You, as a man, are socially rewarded for signalling mastery. Women are not, and if a woman wants to participate in the conversation on your terms, she has to send a message to the other men and women in the room, whether or not she wants to. Pay attention to patterns of conversational and social dominance by which men work out their hierarchies, and which usually benefit only the loudest and most confident man in the room; try to defuse them.

When conversations becoming dickswinging contests, unsurprisingly, women lose–but so do a lot of other people.

6. Police yourselves. Men reserve their real attention for other men, because men are people and women are fairies, but also because one’s own gender is critical in determining how one behaves in gendered interactions. Don’t let men say sexist things when it’s just guys; don’t let them catcall; don’t let them creep on waitresses. Enforce respect for women (note again the difference between “respect for women” and “respect for the idea of Woman”). Try to notice who shows signs of creepiness–an easy indicator is how they treat their socioeconomic inferiors, or women they will never see again.

7. Take action. When a woman tells you that a man has treated her badly, call him out on it. If someone is behaving creepily or predatorily towards your female friends, stop inviting him to things. Do not make a woman choose between you and her safety.

8. Just, generally, be the good, thoughtful, supportive friends you already are.

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23 thoughts on “In Which I Write Something Constructive

  1. Thanks for the follow-up!

    You know, I got close to a lot of these ideas by way of the old chestnut “would you want someone to treat your mother/sister/daughter that way?” There’s a way of interpreting that question that a feminist would have to label “patriarchal.” Specifically, it’s probably not great to ask yourself, “How do I protect the weaker sex?” But as a way of getting yourself to look at a situation not in terms of romance, it’s a decent starting point.

    • I mean, it could go two ways, right? A man could get to the internal, visceral understanding that all women are people in the same way he is by realizing that he treats at least one or two women in the world with respect, and facing his cognitive dissonance. On the other hand, a man could treat woman well “because they’re someone’s daughter”–in other words, frame his treatment of women around his relationship with the men to whom they belong.

  2. Maybe I’m punchy tonight — the sinus medicine often does that to me — but since we’re not having to apologize here for having opinions, I won’t throw out caveats left and right.

    I do have to take issue with #5. Jargon is simply technical language, which is appropriately used as a shorthand for using a lot more words to describe something simplistically, and I don’t think that feminism means that we ask the boys to talk simply so we can understand these big manly subjects. However, if a man is, consciously or unconsciously, using jargon to alienate women or go on a power trip over the other guys, then the issue is a deeper attitude problem which will not be solved or even ameliorated by simply changing the terms of the discussion. If a woman cannot become part of a conversation simply by conversing intelligently, then the advice you give only changes the external tenor of the group, not the internal perverse attitude which are what truly need combatting.

    I am often dismayed by the tendency of women to cloister themselves off in small groups and discuss subjects that are considered “feminine”, but I suppose the difference there is that most men don’t want to touch that stuff with a ten-foot pole, so they’re not agitating for change there.

    I do agree that anyone who claims to champion “women” but who can’t count any individual females among his real acquaintance is someone whose opinions ought to be subjected to scrutiny. But I’ve never actually encountered anyone like that outside the confines of the internet.

    • Don’t buy that people have to be doing something specifically to alienate women in order for it to do that. Privilege and social attitudes, and social structures and hierarchies exist, and there are things men can do to make situations more equitable.

      Everyone keeps telling me that they don’t meet these people outside the internet. Well, I say, lucky you.

    • “I don’t think that feminism means that we ask the boys to talk simply so we can understand these big manly subjects”

      Notice that I said it’s not about women not understanding them–it’s about women having to make a certain kind of personal statement to participate in a conversation. Sure, they can do it, but again, there are things men who want to can do to make this easier.

      Someday when we all live in a post-sexist world, everybody can have a jargon party and I’ll bring the champagne.

    • I have to admit I’m pleased that “etymology” is your first example of an obscure, difficult, and intimidatingly masculine subject. You’ve been spending time at the right parties.

    • I’m glad you’ve noticed the call-out while deliberately missing the point. How I’ve missed this.

  3. Also, policing external behavior is often the first step to changing internal attitudes, which is often why we say I love you when we don’t feel that we do, and what C.S. Lewis talks about when he talks about putting on a “mask” of virtue.

  4. I tend to be one of those guys at least as inclined to hang out with women as with men, so some of these sound pretty no-brainer-ish. Other elements, such as this:

    Listen to her point of view. If you’re not really getting it, if you find yourself thinking “I would never find this upsetting or a big deal,” remind yourself that you probably do not live with the daily, nagging awareness of your vulnerability to sexual assault; that you have not been gently reminded every day of your life that you belong to the less serious, less intelligent, less important half of humanity; that it’s ok if you don’t understand her distress–there are good reasons for that–but that doesn’t mean it’s not valid.

    Don’t really tie with what I hear from my female friends and relatives.

    A lot of this may have to do with what circles one moves in and one’s own life experiences. Like a lot of other things in life, it would make sense to me that some women experience this kind of thing all the time, and others basically never do — each group thus finding the other fairly uncomprehensible.

    Also, I’d note on 6 and 7: I’m not sure it’s necessarily accurate to assume that there’s a silent majority (or even much of a minority) of nice guys in a set that’s causing problems for women. Maybe I’m overly extrapolating from my own tendencies, but social sets are highly self-selecting. (Real, social sets, that is. The kind one chooses. There are weird situations like people one knows at work, but I’m at pains not to know people I know form work outside of work unless they’re very, very clearly “our kind of people”.) Since one of the things that I extremely dislike in a social setting is men who treat women badly, I’m at pains to form a social set where that is considered absolutely unacceptable. I mean, I’ve got four daughters, this is a non-kidding-around topic for me.

    Now the flip side of that is, or at least so I would assume, if guys like me are at pains to make sure they don’t belong to social sets in which treating women badly is socially acceptable, if may be that that social sets in which that is happening are composed of the guys who actually do that, and the guys who won’t normally join in but don’t have any objections.

    • Yeah, of course none of these can be generalized to every single social set.

      But I’ll tell you what–I’ve seen this happen at schools like Thomas Aquinas College. I’ve seen this happen at Dartmouth. I’ve seen this happen among young professionals in New York. I’ve seen this happen in my own family. I’ve seen it happen waiting tables. Good men enabling nasty men, not usually out of malice, but out of cluelessness–a cluelessness they often unwittingly perpetuate in the barriers between them and their female friends they set up in their day-to-day micro interactions with women. I can only think of one, very small and tightly knit set in which I have never seen this happen– and it’s because several of the men–like the one who wrote me asking for follow-up–are actively trying to ensure it doesn’t

      I have also seen good but fairly oblivious men wake up and start making changes, and I’m describing what I’ve seen work. I’m glad that your experiences don’t jive with mine, and that you don’t really need this advice–that can only be good news for the world, right? But I don’t know what else to say–I have seen, heard, and experienced enough to be quite sure this is a topic worth addressing and advice worth giving.

    • Hmmm. I guess I should be clear on what I’m questioning here — and doing so because I find the observation so disturbing.

      Are you saying that in all social sets other than one where people try really hard:

      1) Actions of the men in the set cause the women to “live with the daily, nagging awareness of your vulnerability to sexual assault” and

      2) Actions of the men in the set cause women to be “gently reminded every day of your life that you belong to the less serious, less intelligent, less important half of humanity”

      These sound fairly foreign to me and seem to scream “abusive environment: get out!”

      It certainly could be that I’m highly sheltered or just move in very boring social sets, or perhaps I’m interpreting these in overly strong terms.

      Other items in the list either just seem like obviously good advice (1, the first half of 2, 3, 4, 6-8), though there do tend to be local and specific exceptions.

      – Some social sets tend to break up into male and female halves more than others for reasons of interest: I have absolutely no interest in hearing long descriptions of childbirth from women I know socially, and although us guys off discussing beer brewing while the women discuss contractions would welcome female company, none ever seems to show up. That said, I far prefer, and try to gravitate towards, the kind of set in which commonalities are more intellectual and conversation is mixed rather than segregated.
      – I’ve been known on occasion to say, “Aw, don’t take what she said seriously, she’s being hormonal today,” but only in cases where the woman in question has announced to me earlier the same day, “Don’t listen to anything I say today. My hormones are all over so I’m pretty much determined to be a bitch.” (Yes, I have had a few female coworkers announce this kind of thing to me.)

    • Ahhh, I see where the trouble is.

      No, that’s not what I meant. I am speaking of realities a woman faces simply by living in the world. For example, the way she might change her route to avoid a chronic catcaller, grit her teeth and bear her supervisor telling her to smile more, she’s so much prettier, watch her drink whenever she is out–just female realities. Obviously a social environment that deliberately reinforced or intensified these realities would be abusive.

      I think there’s a time and a place for gender-segregated conversation, it’s when it becomes a social commonplace–especially in groups of single people. Among married couples this seems much less problematic,although if you want me to articulate why I’ll need to think on it.

      In general I think marriage brings a certain social benefit of the doubt that being single does not.

      I don’t blame you for repeating what a woman said, but I really wish women wouldn’t do that. Except when they’re pregnant, which seems basically like being at war. I’ve never been so hormonal that I couldn’t account for my words and actions–even when it affects my mood, it’s not something magical or uncontrollable. Of course, hormones can get out of whack just like any other body chemical–sometimes I wonder if all the menstrual mythos stops women from seeing their doctor if they have a real problem.

    • “Are you saying that in all social sets other than one where people try really hard:

      1) Actions of the men in the set cause the women to “live with the daily, nagging awareness of your vulnerability to sexual assault” and

      2) Actions of the men in the set cause women to be “gently reminded every day of your life that you belong to the less serious, less intelligent, less important half of humanity””

      My own experience is that right up through college, I would have thought that statements like these were crazy. I never felt “less intelligent,” and I never felt at any risk of sexual assault. Then I started dating, and bit by bit I noticed all kinds of things I had never noticed before, and when I objected to them or voiced them, the responses I got were staggering. It was a whole other ballgame, finding out what people really thought once you start asking the right questions or finding yourself in the wrong situation. And then I looked back over my life until that point and realized that in many ways, I had been primed NOT to notice any of the problems. For example, in my first serious relationship with a Catholic, it slowly and subtly dawned on me that if I married this man, I would not have the freedom to choose my own clothes, where I went, or what I did. I wouldn’t have a say in whether or not our daughters went to college. I would be expected to “obey” whenever there was a disagreement. Did he pound his fist on the table and say all these things on our first date? Absolutely not. This was a guy who seemed like the most easy-going, nice guy on the planet, but when I asked how he thought things would be, or if I was worried about what a marriage between us would be like, he made it seem like I was crazy for asking. He did whatever he could not to lose his “nice guy” image by answering my questions in the vaguest way possible, and it was only when I insisted on a straightforward answer that it became clear that a life with him be nothing more than an extension of what had been a fairly sheltered upbringing. And then it became obvious that that’s why he wanted to date me in the first place–because I was used to that kind of thing. an he assumed, probably subconciously, that I would be incapable of standing up for myself or doing things differently.

      As for sexual assault, any girl who goes out, even with friends, is going to have it in the back of her mind. It would be reckless not to. I personally don’t worry about it a lot, but when I hear people dismissing the possibility of something happening as nothing but paranoia, it’s frustrating. And I come across a lot more discussions among Catholics about the dangers of men being falsely accused of rape (or domestic abuse) than I do about how to prevent women from being the victim of either one.

      But for the most part, people are happy to never talk about any of these things, because it makes them uncomfortable and forces them out of their comfort zone.

    • ” I’ve been known on occasion to say, “Aw, don’t take what she said seriously, she’s being hormonal today,” but only in cases where the woman in question has announced to me earlier the same day, “Don’t listen to anything I say today. My hormones are all over so I’m pretty much determined to be a bitch.”

      I want to state, for the record, that Darwin has never heard this from me. Just so’s we’re clear on that!

  5. Am I really forbidden to discuss with my friends topics that interest me in language that comes easily? Isn’t dumbing-down my conversation so that it doesn’t overbear feminine ears even more sexist than talking freely on a topic without regard for the genes of who is listening? You really want to discuss etymology or architecture without jargon? Can’t exclude women (it’s sexist!) + can’t include them(because of your phallocentic conversational style!) = not allowed to speak.
    And you people insist own claiming that *you* are being silenced!

    • Oh please. No one said you were forbidden, or that it’s always impossible to avoid jargon (which is why I specifically said “avoid wherever you can.”) And no one is saying that you have to dumb yourself down. Discussing complex topics without always and everywhere reaching for the most obscure and technical phrase is not impossible or even usually that difficult, unless you’re stuck in some sort of undergraduate conversational paradigm.

      Again, it’s not that women find these terms in themselves problematic or “overbearing”, it’s that the use of these terms often signals a competitive conversational environment for which the social cost of participation is higher for women than men.

      If you are care about these social patterns, consider modulating your discourse. If you don’t, no one is going to “silence” you–the worst you’ll get is an eye roll, and only if I happen to be at a party with you.

      But for crying out loud, stop whining at strawmen.

    • Yeah, I think a lot of trouble stems from the fact that everyone is dealing with different data sets re: their own social lives.

      And it’s my considered opinion that any party involving scotch and a dance floor is the right sort of party. Probably not relevant to this discussion though….

    • You know exactly why that is entirely different, unless you’re much less clever than I’ve always given you credit for.

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