03en_gen ... Gender Issues
by Michael Flood
What do pro-feminist men believe, what do they do, and how did they come to this? Michael Flood offers some answers.
Who are pro-feminist men?
Pro-feminist men are men who are actively supportive of feminism and of efforts to bring about gender justice and equality.
Some pro-feminist men are involved in political activism. One of the most common areas of involvement is mens violence, and there are mens groups in Australia, the US, Canada, Europe and elsewhere who have this as their focus. Pro-feminist men do anti-violence work with boys and young men in schools, offer sexual harassment workshops in workplaces, run community education campaigns, and counsel male perpetrators of violence. Pro-feminist men also are involved in mens health, activism on pornography, academic research on masculinity, the development of gender equity curricula in schools, and many other areas. This work is sometimes in collaboration with feminists and womens services (such as domestic violence and rape crisis centres).
Other pro-feminist men are not active in public campaigns. Nevertheless, their commitment to pro-feminism takes the form of trying to live in egalitarian and respectful ways in their daily lives at home, at work and on the street.
What do pro-feminist men believe?
Pro-feminist men are sympathetic to feminist understandings of society. We believe that women as a group suffer inequalities and injustices in society, while men as a group receive various forms of power and institutional privilege. The current, dominant model of manhood or masculinity is oppressive to women, as well as limiting for men themselves. We also recognise the costs of masculinity: conformity to narrow definitions of manhood comes with the price tag of poor health, early death, overwork and emotionally shallow relationships. We believe that men must take responsibility for our own sexist behaviours and attitudes and work to change those of men in general. Both personal and social change are vital.
For some men, their sympathy for feminism revolves around a simple acceptance that men and women should be equal. Women should have the access to jobs and areas of public life as do men. For others, being pro-feminist is about a passionate and profound commitment which has changed every corner of their lives. For yet other men, being pro-feminist is about a radical questioning of traditional Western models of thought, of the ways in which these privilege masculine ways of being and knowing. Some mens pro-feminism is informed by contemporary feminist theory, while others is informed by gut feelings and conversations with their partners and sisters and mothers and friends.
Just as there is substantial diversity and disagreement within feminism, there is diversity among pro-feminist men. One area of disagreement for example is over the extent to which men are also limited or harmed by the gender relations of society. Some men emphasise the privilege that men receive by virtue of being men in a patriarchal or male-dominated society, while others emphasise the ways in which both men and women are constricted by gender roles.
Some pro-feminist men argue that those who emphasise the latter, or who even claim that like women men are "oppressed", are not really pro-feminist or not pro-feminist enough. Others make a distinction between "radical profeminist" and "liberal profeminist" men, and emphasise their shared commitments and similarities.
Pro-feminist men typically also recognise the importance of other forms of injustice and other kinds of social relations, such as those to do with class, race, sexuality, age and disability. Men share very unequally in the fruits of male privilege, being a man means different things among different groups and in different arenas, and some forms of manhood are dominant or "hegemonic" while others are marginalised or subordinated.
A pro-feminist perspective is applicable to and relevant for any area of mens lives. For example, issues of child custody and family law have usually been taken up by men who are non-feminist or anti-feminist (such as "mens rights" and "fathers rights" groups), but there is no reason why they cannot be taken up as areas of pro-feminist mens activity too.
How do men come to be pro-feminist?
Mens pro-feminism, like any other set of values, beliefs or political activities, is based on deeply felt personal experiences and histories, relationships and intimacies, and values and commitments.
Many men come to pro-feminism out of a sense of distance from traditional masculinity, an unease as boys and throughout their lives with the ways in which they have been expected to hold themselves and to interact with others. They have become aware of the toll taken by the dominant models of how to be a man the toll taken on their own emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing, and the damage done to their relationships, families and communities through violence, self-centeredness and isolation. Mens realisation of the hollowness and corruption of traditional masculinity is a common path to mens issues, whatever strand of mens organising they then join.
Some men come to pro-feminism because of other deeply felt experiences because their loyalty and closeness to a particular woman in their lives a mother, a lover, a cherished friend has forged an intimate understanding of the injustices suffered by women and the need for men to take action. Some men come to an advocacy of feminism through their commitments to other sorts of principled political activism to pacifism, economic justice, green issues, gay liberation and so on. They have been exposed to feminist and related ideals through their political involvements, their workplaces or their higher education. Others get involved in dealing with their own experience of sexual violence or sexual abuse from other men and sometime women. (I am indebted to John Stoltenberg in Refusing to be a man for his eloquent portrayal of such involvements.)
What do pro-feminist men want?
What do we want? A society that is gender-just, equal, democratic and beautiful! When do we want it? Now!
Pro-feminist men want the same things that feminists want: a world in which relations between men and women are peaceful, egalitarian, trusting and joyous; in which neither men nor women are confined into rigid, unhealthy and soul-destroying models of living; in which the rigid division into masculine and feminine has been replaced by a rich and colourful diversity of genders or of ways of being.
Which feminism are you pro?
Thats a good question. Feminism is not one unitary body of theory or one unified movement. In the old days some people talked about liberal, socialist and radical feminisms. And these days you can add at least black and postcolonial feminisms, lesbian and queer feminisms, poststructuralist and postmodern feminisms, and much more. Pro-feminist men share this same diversity, drawing on or influenced by different strands of feminism. And this diversity is evident too in the writings and theory of pro-feminist authors.
Why do you call yourselves "pro-feminist" and not just "feminist"?
Feminism is a movement and a body of ideas developed primarily by, for and about women. Men can never fully know what it is like to be a woman. If we call ourselves "feminists", we run the risk of colonising feminism or looking like were saying weve got all the answers.
Some feminist women argue that men can call themselves feminists, as long as they live up to the same standards as women who are feminists to support the equality of women and men. Nevertheless, most pro-feminist men use the label "pro-feminist" rather than "feminist". We believe that there is plenty men can and should do to support feminism, and we dont need to call ourselves "feminists" to do it.
Are pro-feminist men part of the mens movement?
Well, some say yes and some say no. For some people, pro-feminist men are the feminist wing of the mens movement, a movement which also includes mens liberationists, spiritual and mythopoetic men, mens rights and fathers rights men. There is also internal disagreement within this "movement", for example with pro-feminist men being critical of the anti-feminist and anti-women agendas of mens rights and fathers rights groups. Others say that pro-feminism is one of a number of separate although overlapping mens movements.
However, some pro-feminist men distance themselves from the mens movement and do not consider themselves to be a part of it. Some believe that the mens movement has the potential for backlash, that it will turn towards the defence of mens privilege and position, or that this has already occurred. While all pro-feminist men assume that men must act to dismantle gender injustice, some argue that a "mens movement" is not the way to do this. They advocate instead that we build alliances and coalitions with other progressive groups and movements (such as feminism, gay and lesbian liberation, left-wing and socialist movements, and anti-racist struggles).
Does being pro-feminist mean that you are anti-male?
No. We are anti-sexist, we are anti-patriarchal, but we are not anti-male. Pro-feminist men are hopeful about both mens and womens futures. We believe that men, like women, are perfectly capable of being loving, nurturing and non-oppressive human beings. We reject the idea that men are somehow intrinsically bad, oppressive or sexist. We believe that men can change and we support every mans efforts at positive change. We recognise the need to build close relations and supportive alliances among men, as part of the process of change. Some pro-feminist men thus describe themselves as both pro-feminist and "male-positive", or as concerned with "enhancing mens lives".
We assume that individual men are not responsible for, and cant be blamed for, social structures and values such as the social construction of masculinity or the history of womens oppression. At the same time, individual men are responsible for their oppressive behaviour (such as violence) and can and should choose to change it.
Male-positivity and pro-feminism balance each other. Being male-positive of course doesnt mean supporting whatever men do. We have to retain a sense of ethics or values, and to assess men and masculinities accordingly. Being male-positive is compatible with criticising oppressive or destructive aspects of mens groups or mens movements.
The only sense in which pro-feminism is "anti-male" is that some believe we must dismantle the whole system of dividing people into two "opposite sexes", "male" and "female". In other words, part of the problem is the two-gender system itself, one fundamentally based on hierarchy and privilege. Other pro-feminist men disagree, arguing that we must change the content of models of masculinity rather than get rid of notions of masculinity and femininity altogether.
Are pro-feminist men usually gay?
Well, pro-feminist men include men across the sexual spectrum. Its hard to say whether the proportion of gay and bisexual men among pro-feminists is any greater than the proportion in society in general (which some people estimate at around ten percent), because no one has done the research. Men often come to a sympathy for feminism through their sexual relationships with women, so this is a specifically heterosexual path to pro-feminism. But gay men have sometimes been drawn to pro-feminism because of their sense of distance from traditional masculinity or their realisation of the links between homophobia (widespread fear and hatred of non-heterosexuals) and sexism.
Those men who question traditional masculinity or behave in non-stereotypical ways are sometimes perceived to be gay (whether they are or not) and attacked in homophobic ways. This is an indication of the strange link often assumed in our society between sexual orientation (who you desire or have sex with) and gender behaviour (conformity to notions of proper manhood).
Many pro-feminist men believe that masculinity is strongly moulded by homophobia and that the dominant model of masculinity is a heterosexual one. Homophobia and heterosexism (a system of heterosexual privilege) represent injustices to non-heterosexual people, and also constrict the lives of heterosexuals. Men in particular find their emotional, social and sexual lives limited by the fear of being perceived as gay. Growing up, men are faced with the continual threat of being seen as gay and the continuous challenge of proving that they are not gay. Homophobia leads men to limit their loving and close friendships with other men, to behave in hypermasculine and aggressive ways and to close up emotionally.
The fear of being seen as gay prevents boys and men from questioning and ultimately abandoning traditional masculinity. Many pro-feminist men thus believe that men and masculinity will not change much until homophobia is radically undermined.
How do pro-feminist men deal with areas of male pain and disadvantage?
Anti-feminist men so far have been more effective than pro-feminist men in speaking to certain aspects of mens lives. They rightly identify areas of pain, confusion and powerlessness experienced by many men, although they misdiagnose them and thus misprescribe the cure. Anti-feminist men also fail to identify other problems experienced by men (such as bullying and hazing between boys or men), or wrongly blame women for them.
Pro-feminist men are increasingly acknowledging and addressing areas of male pain and disadvantage: the poor state of mens health and boys education, violence against males, mens painful experiences of divorce and custody, and more. At the same time, we are critical of the broader anti-women and anti-feminist agendas which have sometimes accompanied recognition of these issues, and we disagree with "mens rights" men about their causes, character and prevalence.
Some "mens rights" strategies in fact are harmful to men themselves. Mens rights advocates have attacked services for women, while calling for either parallel services for men or services for both men and women. Attacking services primarily for women is no way to gain services for men, and is in itself offensive and unethical. Such strategies focus on the wrong target, they antagonise potential supporters, they taint as backlash the need to address such mens issues, and they are based on a simplistic "Youve got it, we want it too" logic which may not provide the most appropriate services for men. (For a detailed discussion of these issues, see my article "Responding to mens rights", in XY magazine, Spring 1997.)
Pro-feminist men agree that services and resources should be provided, for example to boys and men who have suffered violence and abuse. These should not be at the expense of resources or funding directed to women. We advocate that men work with women, building alliances and relationships, rather than adopting an "us against them" model based on a "war between the sexes".
Men have a vital role to play in the transformation of gender relations begun by feminism and the womens movements. Pro-feminist men are welcome and important participants in this process. And by taking up gender justice as a personal commitment and a political goal, by living our lives in ways that make a difference, we both help ourselves and change the world.
To find out more: XY magazines web site has a wealth of articles which embody various pro-feminist perspectives and issues. The site also has links to other pro-feminist mens sites around the world. You can find the site at: http://www.xyonline.net/
There is now a very good literature on men and masculinity. You can find a comprehensive bibliography free at: http://mensbiblio.xyonline.net/
[forthcoming in XY: men, sex, politics, Winter 1998, Volume 8 Number 1.]
Michael Flood is an Australian sociologist at the University of Wollongong. Flood gained his doctorate in gender and sexuality studies from the Australian National University. His areas of research are on violence against women, fathering, pro-feminism, domestic violence, the effects of pornography on young people, safe sex and heterosexual men, men's movements as a backlash to the feminist movement, men's relationships with each other and with women, homophobia, men's health and gender justice.
Flood is a co-editor of the International Encyclopedia of Men and Masculinities, and the author of academic papers on men and gender, men’s sexualities, violence against women, homosociality, fathering, anti-violence mobilisations, and youth and pornography. Flood has also worked as a profeminist educator and activist on issues of men and gender; he is involved in community advocacy and education addressing men’s violence against women. He coordinates, edits and contributes to XYonline, a profeminist website providing a range of commentary and research on men and masculinities, male sexuality, feminism, the men's movement and male violence from a feminist perspective. He also coordinates The Men’s Bibliography, an online collection of over 22,000 works on men, masculinities, and gender.