How Do You Tell A Well-Intentioned Man That He’s Sexist?

A male friend and I recently saw the bumper sticker pictured above while walking through downtown D.C.  He grimaced.  I understood.

This is the sort of "cutsey" feminism that feminists are supposedly allowed to get away with because we're so oppressed that it's ok to mock all men or claim that all men are responsible for our oppression.

I have a lot of progressive male friends who are uncomfortable with feminism.  They're too polite and politically correct to say so out loud, and publicly they'll express support for reproductive health and equal pay for equal work and ending violence against women.  But at the end of the day, what's really uncomfortable for them is the way some feminists choose to express their feminism: in a way that claims that all men are jerks and all men are rapists and all men are the enemy.  It's why so many men believe that feminism is actually just an excuse to hate men and bring down masculinity. The truth is, however, feminists need to not only acknowledge our male allies, but also, forgive them.  The way we forgive ourselves.  Just as the mainstream feminist movement has been long accused of being a bastion of white privilege (check out An Open Letter from Black Women to the Slutwalk as an example), we are all affected by societal influences which make us sexist, racist, discriminatory, and participants in social inequality.  The difference, however, is how you feel about your contribution and what you choose to do about it.  And so we have to ask ourselves, are these good men who would really like to do better?  If so, how can we help them do so without demonizing them, or making them think we don't value their good intentions? This is one of the ongoing struggles of my life.  I have a wide network of friends and acquaintances, and it never ceases to amaze me how many of them are perfectly comfortable using language that offends and shocks me.  If you're someone who's studied social justice and are on the look out for it, this probably doesn't surprise you, because you see it everywhere too.  Take the following text message conversation, for example: Friend: How are you feeling about all this occupy stuff? Abigail: There's been a lot of interesting commentary on it as a social movement.  Obvi I've reading a lot about the feminist intersections and the question of "space" and who's participating and whatnot.  All pretty interesting (to me at least! :)) Friend: Oh please.  The only thing the glass ceiling will do now is allow us to stare up the bottom of your trousers!  I'm going to occupy Victoria Secrets! Exchanges like this get me incredibly infuriated.  I know I know!!!  A feminist who's offended! Who knew it was possible? But add to these exchanges the men who sexually harassed me on the way to work, the one who tried to look down my tank top on the metro, and the one who I only gave my number to a day ago who thought it would be cute to ask me to send him a naked picture of myself . . .  and well, frankly it's exhausting.  And sometimes, it can be hard to distinguish between men who have good intentions and men who don't. Maybe it's obvious to my male friends that they are the "good men" - the ones who really do believe in gender equality and in feminism.  Why can't women tell the difference?  Why do they feel like they are constantly being painted as the bad guy, the potential rapist, the epitome of patriarchal hegemony?  Why should they even bother if they're just going to be yelled at all the time? Before I think about how to respond to male friends who use sexist language or offend my feminist senses (be serious? humorous? snarky?), I ask myself a few questions: 1. Is now the right time?  Is this person so drunk, so nervous, so distracted right now that they're going to hear anything other than a Feminist Yelling At Me?  If that's the case, perhaps I'll feel good about Making My Point and Standing Up for Feminism, but am I getting through?  Did the person hear me?  Because if not, well, feeling good about what I've done isn't really going to make a difference. 2.  Am I in a public place, or are there other people around?  By bringing this up in front others - particularly men - am I going to just inspire this person to be defensive?  Am I going to embarrass them? Humiliate them?  Will they feel like their masculinity is being challenged by a woman standing up to them?  If any of these things are true, maybe a public discussion isn't really the way to go.  (This determination can be tricky - after all, why should I care?  Oftentimes it's clear this man didn't care about the potential for MY humiliation when he said or did something sexist, so why should I care?  Sometimes, I shouldn't. But again, it's hard to know whether they knew they were being sexist and didn't care, or else really didn't know. Tough call). 3.  How much do they care?  How well do I know this person?  Even if I could really make them understand how upsetting it was for them to slap me on my behind in public, or joke about my chest size, or even just refer to me as "ballsy", are they honestly going to care?  Or are they content to just claim to support gender equality without actually having to question any of their culturally-inspired, sexist tendencies?  Because as much as I'd like to think that it's important to address sexism and gender inequality wherever and whenever I see it, if I tried that without any consideration of my chances of making a difference in some way, I'd have died of exhaustion already.  There is just too much out there to be "on-call" all the time. 4.  Am I the right messenger?  Is there someone else who would better convey the problem?  Maybe a speaker said something at an event, and it's better to take it up with one of the organizers?  If it's an on-going habit, maybe it's better to ask a sympathetic mutual friend to bring it up with them?  In other words, perhaps because of my reputation as a feminist, some male friends of mine already think of me as engaging in reverse sexism, or think I'm too sensitive, and therefore are unlikely to listen to me.  Perhaps there's someone else who can convey the message and will have a higher chance of success. These are just some of the things I try to consider when I think about male acquaintances who are, in my opinion, contributing to a culture and world in which women are less valued than men.  I wonder how other self-described feminists handle this issue - do they just let it go?  Do they try to address every situation, right every wrong?  Do they even come across this problem as often as I do? Maybe I am more sensitive than I need to be to the sexism that permeates my world.  But I also have friends and coworkers and acquaintances, and I need to live and work side by side with them every day.  So I might as well find a way to reconcile those two realities. Interested in reading more?  Check out Joe Lastowski's earlier post on Fem2.0 about How to Feminize A Man.   Photo Credit: Metapot

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  • Anne

    Ok, but if some guy SLAPS ME ON THE ASS (as in #3) there is NO WAY we’re not having a heated discussion on the spot.

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  • Claire

    A good man is hard to find but it isn’t a fantasy. Often, these good guys are included in the grouping of the men who are jerks. It is hard for them to be open about their feminist views to other men and women who do not believe in equality.

    Although women comprise the majority of the feminist movement, it is important to remember there are lots of men out there working on the cause as well.