In the last couple days, I have seen your video “Why I’m Not a Feminist” pop up a few times. In the video, you describe why you are not a feminist. At the heart of your message is the assertion, “I am not a feminist because I believe both genders should be treated equally.” Setting aside for a moment the problems with your assumption that gender can be reduced to a binary of male/female (here’s a decent introduction to that if you want), I want to talk about the misinformation you offer in your video: misinformation about feminist activism and scholarship, and misinformation about domestic violence and rape. I don’t often find engaging in these types debates online to be the most fruitful use of my energies, since people that produce anti-feminist content generally are not very open to meaningful engagement with feminist thought, however I’ve been stewing over your particular video for a day. I think it’ll be under my skin until actually take the time to I address it.
So, let’s tackle some of your claims one by one. I will try to offer some specific references to actual feminist work so that you can see where my assertions actually come from. Hopefully this might also help you go out and check up on some of your claims, since it appears you haven’t taken the time to engage much feminist work before forming your argument and lambasting feminism to your wide viewership. Alright, onto your assertions…
1. You ask: “Why don’t we see equal representation [by feminists] of both gender’s issues?”
Lauren, I think if you look at the history of feminism, the answer to this question is pretty clear…Feminism emerged out of women’s rights movements. Thus, the roots of feminist scholarship and activism come from a challenge to the inequality of women. Feminism today exists as an agglomeration of past and present efforts to address forms of inequality facing women, including: the inability of women to be recognized as full citizens; women’s lack of rights over their own bodies; women’s lack of protection from violence in the homes and on the streets, and their unique experiences of violence in times of war; the restriction on women’s ability to pursue the same opportunities as men; the gendered norms that constrain women’s ability to freely express their gender, personalities and their bodies; the lack of attention and respect given to women’s voices and experiences; the devaluation of women’s labor; the lack of freedom to love who they wish and the assumption of their heterosexuality; the absence of women in the arenas of power where decisions are made about their lives; and, the pervasive inequalities shaped by race, ethnicity, colonialism, citizenship, gender identity, sexuality, ability, and language that work alongside gender. As you hopefully know, all of these issues remain deeply persistent sources of women’s inequality, and therefore addressing how they operate in the lives women remains at the heart of the feminism.
This does not mean that feminists hate men or that they do not care when men are harmed, nor does it mean that feminists themselves are somehow sexist. There are real and serious inequalities that continue to face women, and it is not unreasonable or sexist for a movement for gender equality to focus primarily on those problems. Would you tell those working to address racial inequality that they are racist unless they also work to address all of the problems facing white people? Maybe you would, Lauren, but I really hope not.
Now, that being said, I actually think that feminists do focus quite a lot on issues impacting men. As I describe in #2 below, the gender regimes that impact women also impact men, and feminists offers many tools to challenge them alongside one another. Don’t get me wrong though, this doesn’t mean that feminism is only important and legitimate when it is also useful to men. There are serious issues of security, freedom, and equality uniquely facing women, and if you are only willing support movements to confront these problems when they also benefit men, then you are missing the point.
2. You say: “Feminists remain silent” on the issues of male suicide, male workplace deaths, male combat deaths, and male homicide death.
Actually, Lauren, a long history feminist analysis of gender does give us some pretty profound insight into a lot of these male deaths. In particular, feminists demonstrate how norms of femininity and masculinity entrench ideas about appropriate male and appropriate female behavior, which deeply shape the conditions of these male deaths. Take the issue of combat deaths, for example. Feminists have written extensively about gender and war pointing to how norms of masculinity are deeply implicated in producing a society in which men are expected to embody sacrificial stoicism, masculine physical virility and strength, while women are expected to be weak, passive, and in need of (male) protection. To engage with a fraction of this literature, check out: Cockburn 2007; Cowen 2008; Daniels 2006; Dowler 2001, 2011, 2012; Eisenstein 2008; Enloe 1983, 1989, 2010, 2014; Fluri 2008, 2011; Goldstein 2001; Jacobs et al 2000; Mohanty et al 2008; Moser and Clark 2005; Puar 2007; Sjoberg 2013; Tickner 2001; Yuval-Davis 1997.
As a means of illustration though, feminist Iris Marion Young (2003) has written about this as “the logic of masculine protection”. She writes, “In this patriarchal logic, the role of the masculine protector puts those protected, paradigmatically women and children, in a subordinate position of dependence and obedience” (2). Feminists have challenged this logic of protection in multiple contexts, pointing both to how this robs women of agency, and to how it shapes male participation in war, and subsequent injury and death. Cynthia Daniel’s (2006) book Exposing Men deals extensively with the way that male soldiers–and specifically, their reproductive health–are injured, and how ideas of masculinity (like that “a man should be verile, not weak”) also contribute to the lack of medical help men seek for these injuries. Trust me, Lauren, feminists are writing about this.
I’ll just add on the note of male combat deaths, though: part of the reason it’s disproportionately men is because sexist policies in the U.S. military have historically barred women soldiers from combat roles. If you want equality in solidering, you might want to check out some feminists, like Cynthia Cohn or Megan MacKenzie (among others), who have both written persuasively about the myth that women can’t fight and challenged the exclusion of women from combat positions.
To your other examples (workplace death, suicide, and murder), there are also feminists who illuminate how notions of masculinity shape labor forces and the willingness of workers to use safety equipment, such as my college Arielle Hesse who examines masculinity and worker safety in the (largely male) natural gas workforce of Pennsylvania. Or Miles Groth, whose book “Boys to Men: The Science of Masculinity and Manhood” describes how stereotypes about what it means to “be a man” impacts high suicide rates among young men. Groth argues that feminist efforts to abolish restrictive gender norms offer vital pathways to address the problem. (There are others who discuss this connection too—just google it. You can also google masculinity and crime/gangs to help think through the ways feminism could be a helpful way understand the male murder statistics. I also recommend Melissa Wright (2011), who has written about murder of both men and women in Mexico through a feminist lens).
3. You say: “Almost half of all domestic violence victims in the U.S. and Canada are men.”
Given that you do not cite your source here, Lauren, I do not know where you found this statistic. However, depending on where you look, you may find dramatically different numbers. Some will show what you describe (a relative gender symmetry) while others show that it is largely women experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV). So, why are there such different numbers? Actually, Michael Johnson (2011) has a pretty good article that will respond directly to most of your claims–it’s called Gender and types of intimate partner violence: A response to an anti-feminist literature review, but I’ll try to lay some of it out here. Since other people have already done this work for me, I’ll quote Kelly and Johnson (2008) on the topic:
“For over two decades, considerable controversy has centered on whether it is primarily men who are violent in intimate relationships or whether there is gender symmetry in perpetuating violence. Proponents of both viewpoints cite multiple empirical studies to support their views… These two viewpoints can be reconciled largely by an examination of the samples and measures used to collect the contradictory data and the recognition that different types of intimate partner violence exist in our society and are represented in these samples… Based on hundreds of studies, it is quite apparent that both men and women are violent in intimate partner relationships. There is gender symmetry in some types of intimate partner violence…”
So, then we break down the data! What you’ll find is there are a few important, but different, types of IPV (which are differently documented in the statistics you find):
- Coercive Controlling Violence: This is what most people think of when they envision domestic violence. This type of IPV is routine and used to control the partner through multiple forms of coercion (economic threats, leveraging children, blaming, isolation, sexual violence, emotional abuse, intimidation, and physical violence.) This type of violence is more likely to result in serious physical injury or death. While men can be victims of this type of violence, on the whole it is overwhelmingly perpetrated by heterosexual men against their female partners. This type of DV is rooted in patriarchy and misogyny. As Johnson and Kelly describe, data obtained from women’s shelters, court-mandated treatment programs, police reports, and emergency rooms are more likely to report this type of violence.
- Violent Resistance: This type of IPV accounts for the fact that some people respond to coercive controlling violence with violent resistance (akin to “self-defense” but that has a specific legal meaning). The vast majority of violent resistance is done by women against male coercive controlling partners, but charges are sometimes filed in these cases and they contribute to the patterns in the statistics. Unlike the coercive controlling partner, violent resistance is reactive and the intention is not to control.
- Situational Couple Violence: This is by far the most common type of IPV, and is perpetrated by both men and women close to gender symmetry (although men still slightly higher). This generally results from the escalation of an argument between partners, but is not representative of chronic violence, intimidation, or stalking. Although it is serious and can be lethal, on the whole it tends to involve more minor forms of violence (pushing, shoving, grabbing), and is much less likely to result in serious injury. Fear of the partner is also not a characteristic of men or women in this form of IPV. Large-scale survey research, using community and national samples, account more for this type of violence and therefore report greater gender symmetry in the initiation and participation of men and women in partner violence.
So, yes, Lauren, you’re right that men are victims of intimate partner violence too. Both men and women commit violence in both heterosexual and same sex relationships. All of this violence does matter. But when you’re talking about systemic violence, violence rooted in fear and control, and violence that results in serious injury, the vast majority of assailants are men and the vast majority of victims are women. At least a third of all female homicide victims in the U.S. are killed by male intimate partners (compared to 2.5% for men). On the whole, gender symmetry in IPV tends to be clustered at the lower levels of violence, as the statistics you quote do not distinguish based on severity, frequency, whether an attack was in self-defense, or if it was part of a pattern of fear and coercive behavior. Also add to this that men are more likely to call the police on their partner, more likely to press charges, and less likely to drop charges.
This does not mean that feminists don’t care when violence happens to men, or that they don’t want to see men protected from this violence, cause they do. However, given the realities taking place when you examine the numbers closely, it’s not surprising that most feminist energy addressing IPV is focused on women facing (coercive controlling) violence. Plus, consider the ways that IPV is still shaped by systemic, legally-enshrined patriarchy in this country. Until recently men had the legal right to beat their wives. In fact, as recently as the 1980s, police would delay responding to domestic violence calls, and often wives had no legal recourse to demand protection from the state. This logic about male dominance over women is not wiped from our history yet, Lauren, and it continues to shape the treatment of women by partners and by the state which is supposed to protect them.
It is also very important to add that your claim that men don’t have access to victims services is also incorrect. The Violence Against Women Act, which feminists championed in 1994, legally protects both women and men (in both heterosexual and same sex relationships) who are victims of domestic violence. And, the VAWA does offer male victims all the same services and protections that are available to women.
While there are many feminists who work on the issue of intimate partner violence, if you want to check out some more I particularly recommend the work of Rachel Pain and Dana Cuomo (both links will direct you to some of their work).
4. You say: There are more men raped in prison than women, but “feminists remain silent on the issue”.
The claim that feminists have remained silent on this is just plain false. First of all, feminists fought front and center to change the federal definition of rape to include male victims (and to include other forms of rape, like statutory rape), which it previously hadn’t. It was the Feminist Majority Foundation and Ms. magazine that launched a campaign called “Rape is Rape”, culminating in changes to the old definition that didn’t include men. Second, feminists led the broad coalition advocating for the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which works to protect all prisoners from sexual assault (the majority of whom are men). (Relatedly, you may also note that women and feminists have been at the forefront of challenging rape in the military, which also affects many men.) Prison rape remains a really serious issue that affects thousands, and is certainly something that deserves more attention than it currently receives, including among feminists. However, among those who are fighting on this issue, feminists are there and they are not silent. For more feminists working on issues of incarceration or detention (some specifically dealing with rape), try Angela Davis (2003, 2005), Dillon (2012), Gilmore and Loyd (2013), Jackson (2013), Lamble (2013), Puar (2007), Sabo and Kupers (2001), Sundbury (2005), and others.
5. You say: “Feminists place a blanket statement on all men that they are all privileged, and that all women are oppressed.”
This is a warped characterization of what feminists argue. Yes, feminists argue that being a male in a male-dominated society has particular privileges—whether it’s being paid more, having greater representation in seats of power, having your voice privileged in many spaces, or so on. But, feminists do NOT assume that all men equally benefit from these systems of privilege, nor to they assume that all women are equally marginalized. The complexity of privilege and oppression underscores why feminist turn to the notion of intersectionality (Hey! It is “Feminism 101”!). Intersectionality notably emerged from critiques of white feminism by women of color and Third World women, who called for a feminism that was more attentive to the way the race, class, colonialism, and other systems of power worked alongside gender. Again, not all women are marginalized in the same ways, and the privileges that come, say, with being wealthy or being white can play a large role in how or whether someone might feel oppressed due to their gender.
Feminists do NOT claim universal oppression among women. In fact, the assertion that all women are oppressed is one of the very issues that galvanized postcolonial feminists and feminists of color in their critique of second wave feminism. There had been (and to some extent still is) a tendency by white feminists to characterize women of color and Third World Women as universally oppressed by their cultures and their men, and thus in need of others (white feminists) to rescue them or to speak about them, or for them. This is what Spivak meant when she argued that brown women do not need white men (or women) to save them from brown men. If you want to learn more about this discussion about feminism and oppression, try checking out Gayatri Spivak’s article “Can the Subaltern Speak” or Chandra Mohanty’s “Under Western Eyes”. These insights are a cornerstone of what is generally understood as Third Wave Feminism, which you claim is about universal oppression.
So, yes, feminists do talk about the way that patriarchy and sexism overlap with other structures of race, class, sexuality, nationality to produce unique violences in women’s lives. But, as you can hopefully see, it is a much more nuanced argument than your characterization. (On the issue of privilege/oppression, you may also be interested in the wide writing of feminists who challenge the idea that men are natural perpetrators or aggressors and women natural victims. Here is one example. Another good source would be Clark and Moser’s (2001) book Victims, Perpetrators or Actors, as well as many of the others I mentioned earlier who write about gender and war.)
6. You say: “As a woman, I will almost always win custody in a divorce case.”
Again, you might look to the extensive feminist literature about gender to craft a meaningful analysis of why this occurs. Undoubtedly, the issue of women being more likely to be granted custody cannot be understood separately from the gender norms that assume that women (not men) are natural caregivers and naturally nurturing, or that assert their primary and most important role is motherhood. In contrast, in our society men have historically been thought of as the breadwinners and the productive citizens. Feminist have challenged these ideas for decades, since they profoundly restrict the options available to women, and contribute to the devaluation of women’s labor both in and out of the home (Mitchell et al 2003). Just a few examples of the impacts of this assumption (of women’s natural role is as mothers) include: stigma toward women who don’t want to or cannot have children; the devaluation of work in the home such that it need not be paid or treated as productive; lower pay for women working outside the home (“her income is just to supplement that of her husband”); the characterization of women who don’t fully embody the motherly norms of nurturing caretakers as “pushy”, “overly assertive” or “bitchy”; or even the assumption within workplaces that women will be naturally good at domestic responsibilities, and are therefore are disproportionately expected to do domestic labor in the office, such as cooking, party planning, decorating, and cleaning. (We all remember Phillis, Pam, Angela and Meredith doing that work!) I could go on, but I’ll stop with the examples there.
Anyway, men who are invested in reshaping ideas about their male parental rights may be surprised to find that gendered assumptions about women’s inherent motherliness (which feminist critique) also carry over into how society perceives them as parents (think of the attitudes towards men who are stay at home dads). They may actually find that feminist goals align closely with their own, in terms of changing the gendered expectations about child rearing. Further, in terms of family policy, feminists have actually advocated for many policy changes that benefit men, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act and paternal leave policies.
7. You say: As a woman, I will “actually have my rape and assault claims taken seriously.”
Lauren, how often do you read about rape cases in the United States? Do you really think that it’s fair to say that women have their rape and assault claims taken seriously? Really? Seriously, really? Women are consistently blamed for their own rapes (“she must have led him on”, “she shouldn’t have been dressed provocatively”, “she shouldn’t have been with him in the first place”, “she shouldn’t have drank so much” and so on). There is SO much documentation of women not being believed for their rapes that your claim here is actually really disturbing. This is particularly true for women of color, who are even less likely to be taken seriously. Here are just a few articles to reinforce what I’m saying: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. In terms of feminist efforts to address rape in the U.S., Title IX legislation which feminists have fought for on college campuses offers protection from sexual harassment and assault for all students, including men.
8. You say: As a woman, “I won’t be laughed at for not being manly enough.”
You’re right, in most instances, you probably won’t be laughed at for not being manly enough. But as a woman, you may be laughed at for being too manly. Crossing borders of accepted gender behavior (a man expressing femininity or a woman expressing masculinity) can be difficult for both men and women, and again, there are a LOT of feminist resources that will help give you the language, strategies, and support needed to confront and challenge the harms experienced by both men and women due to gender norms.
As a related caveat, however, if you’re a woman in a male dominated field like the military, policing, firefighting, etc then you likely will come up against the standards of “not being manly enough”. Again, turn to feminists to help understand this (e.g. women in firefighting, women in the military).
Anyway, Lauren, I hope that helps clear up some of your issues with feminism. I also hope it will encourage you will do a bit more research on the work that feminists do and reconsider your position. If you want to learn a little more about ways feminism has helped men, here are one and two more sources on that for you. You might also find it useful to talk to some feminist men sometime about why they are feminists.
All the best,
FOLLOW UP MAY 4, 2015: Lauren ended up replying to me after I wrote this letter, and asked if I wanted to do an online debate about feminism. We decided to do a call-and-response style discussion where we post questions and replies to one another. My contributions are posted on this blog, and hers are on her youtube account. The discussion is currently on-going. If you would like to follow alone, here is the progression of the conversation: 1) the announcement of the format for our discussion, 2) my first prompt for her, 3) her first video reply, and 4) my second post for her. We hope the conversation continues to be fruitful, and we both welcome you to follow along and participate in the discussion!
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