Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Why So Few Male Feminists?

content warning: unrepentant naïveté, use and interrogation of the word "feminism" by a cishet white male, statistical mention of rape, sexual/domestic violence, and abuse

content note: in parts, speaking only to people who have the privilege of choosing, intentionally and with lightness, how they engage with issues of social justice. (more in a previous post)


Ozy Frantz[read this] is one of those bloggers who has significantly and dramatically changed the way I think -- and in this respect shares a reference class with Leah Libresco and Eliezer Yudkowsky. Though I've only been reading Ozy since they started Thing of Things last November, they're very quickly stepping into position as Possibly My Favorite Blogger Right Now. A perfect example of why is their recently re-run post, Thing of Things | Who Cares About Men's Rights?:

I do.

I care about every boy that was ever called a fag or a pussy or a sissy for being emotional, or sensitive, or unathletic, or just not manly enough. I care about the boys who are afraid they’ll lose their manhood if they admit they like boys that way. I care a whole fuckload about the ones, gay and straight and other, who commit suicide about it.

I care about the three-year-old that just wants a doll. I care about the fourteen-year-old who just wants a pair of high heels. I care about the (straight!) college student who loves his skirts and dresses and will never be able to wear them outside the confines of hippie school.


I care that I could go on with this list for hours and still not be done. I care because this is not about men, this is about my father and my boyfriend and my best friends and the guys whose books I’ve stolen and the guys whose hearts I’ve broken and the guy who broke mine and the greatest English teacher the world has ever known and my Greek professor and next year’s roommates and Neil Gaiman and Gerard Way and Joey Ramone and Jim Butcher and half of the people I have ever loved or hated or feared or wanted to be.

Now it is time for the yelling. (...)

I'd like to talk for a bit about the same thing Ozy goes on to yell about, but I'll try not to yell.


But before I do, I think it's worth saying: I do not mean this post as a "withering critique of feminism" or what have you. The entire point of this post is that [spoiler] I identify as a feminist [/spoiler], and would like to see the movement firing on all cylinders.

And I am actually, truly, 100% on board with Ozy's take on feminism. I've literally never read a post on Thing of Things with which I disagreed. This puts me in broad agreement with at least 97% of other people's takes on feminism, and I assume that in all cases, that 3% non-agreement can be marked up to misunderstanding, not actual conflicting views. And further, I'm willing to assume fairly quickly that I'm the one more likely to be mistaken.

If at any point in this post you think I'm attempting to claim that feminism as an enterprise is fundamentally flawed because [X], I'm not, and I'm merely doing a terrible job of communicating. Okay?

(That said, I'm not calling for dissents and guest-posts because this is my Feminist Coming Out Day[2] post; you get to argue with me about feminism on other days, but not today, sorry.)

To business.


Feminism, like computer science[] [], has a naming problem. People seem to think that it's limited to the word that's in the name, but most informed people understand the field to be much more exansive, and in any case, tend to believe that the important focus is much more general. Computer science, writes Aaronson, isn't really the science of computers; it's the study of "the capacities of finite beings like ourselves to learn mathematical truths." Feminism, it is often said, isn't really about reverse-discriminating for women and against men; it's about challenging gender norms that make life bad for women and men both.

Critics of feminism often make the mistake of assuming that it means the first ("After all, it's called 'femin-ism', isn't it?"), and end up fighting straw (wo)men[?]. But, too, proponents of feminism occasionally find themselves fighting for the smaller, literal definition, forgetting that the good fight is fought for everyone on the gender spectrum.

To be clear, I think it's incorrect to attribute this tunnel-vision to malice, since it's much more easily explained by absent-mindedness.[1] In the same way that humans are not automatically strategic, I've found that it's very important to remember that humans are not automatically empathic -- and that it's incredibly easy, from within a social-justice echo chamber, to forget that the oppressions that you're fighting also hurt people who don't look like you, for other reasons than they hurt you.

After all, the patriarchy is misandristic! It tells men what foods they are and are not expected to eat, what jobs they are and are not expected to hold, what things they are and are not expected to wear, trivializes their emotional capacity re: relationships, shames them for having different sexual preferances than "constantly", and in general shames them for being otherwise than "young, married, white, urban, heterosexual, Protestant, father, of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight and height, and a recent record in sports,... [sexually 'conventional'], not physically or mentally disabled, tall, employed in a professional career, not a nerd or a member of any other subculture, not a fan of The Notebook or anything Broadway-related, intelligent but not too intelligent, doesn’t cry". And that's just a few links from the first three pages of Thing of Things -- by no means even the beginning of an exhausive list! (Elsewhere, Jeff Kaufman asks if there even exists a non-toxic definition of "be a real man".)

According to the CDC's NISVS survey, 5% of men are rape survivors; men make up a quarter of all rape survivors. Men are victims of emotional abuse as often as are women, but have to deal with extra stigmatization, lack of established support structures, and a recurring disbelief that it qualifies as 'real' abuse. (The ghost of my eighth-grade English teacher reminds me to cite my sources: Ozy Frantz is awesome.) 25% of men have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. 1 in 7 men have experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner. And I am willing to stake my (thin) reputation as A Reasonable Person To Listen To On Social Issues that godawful gender norms make every one of these things at least 100% worse than they would be otherwise.

In particular, sexist notions that men are stronger (emotionally and physically) than women make it easier for women to abuse men (especially within the hypergendered axes of heterosexual relationships) and difficult for men to seek help for such abuse. Toxic expectations about male and female sexuality make it more difficult for male survivors of rape to find help, let alone justice ("You just got a little drunk, and are now regretting it in the morning..." / "You're just trying to ruin her reputation..." sound at all familiar?). And the sexist idea that feminism is a women's issue and not something that is personally important to Real Men™ (except maybe for the super-nice/liberal/not-like-other-men ally types) throws a barrier in front of about half the population joining the good fight.

Now, I do not mean to say that these are The Most Important Issues That Feminism Must Address. What I do mean to say is that the fact that there aren't many, many more men in the movement implies that, at the least, there's an enormous communication problem between existing feminists and oppressed people who might be eager to help, if offered the chance. Many, many men are oppressed along a variety of axes by the patriarchy, that by far the best way to end these oppressions is by Smashing The Patriarchy™, and the fact that there aren't more men gung-ho about going out and smashing the patriarchy today is no small part of the reason it isn't nearly as smashed as it could be.

This is the thing that makes me hugely uneasy about things like "HeForShe" (which, thankfully, the Harvard UC also decided had naming problems)[3], "Men Against Rape" ("Harvard Men Against Rape is a group dedicated to ending violence against women."), et sim. -- they casually (I assume, thoughtlessly) assume that the only reason that males would want to join the good fight is to, out of the altruism of their souls, help other people whose suffering that they in no way share. And that's (1) bullshit and (2) damaging to everyone who actually would be ultimately helped by a stronger feminist movement, namely (as I hope I've convinced you already) everyone.


I'm struck, re: the narrative of male feminist allies as supererogatory sideline-supporters, by an uncomfortable similarity to this story about "white affinity groups, where [private-school students] tackle issues of white privilege, often in all-white settings," which, it really seems to me, is just so obviously a terrible idea that I'm not sure how anyone takes it seriously. (This is, and will continue to be, allegory for the feminist movement, but pardon me for a second while I go off on a tangent about race...)

I mean, sure. "The groups have sprung from an idea that whites should not rely on their black, Asian, or Latino peers to educate them about racism and white dominance." Never demanding things from already-marginalized groups sounds like a great idea on paper. But it seems like a pretty inefficient division of labor to task with reverse-engineering the lived experience of oppression the people who are -- the entire theory of privilege claims -- uniquely badly placed to do so.

Yes, it all makes sense if you assume that allies aren't good for anything except standing in solidarity -- but, well, not to beat a dead horse, but that's a proposition that I think is profoundly bunk. In every movement, everyone distinct person has some comparative advantage[?], and things will go better if we're able to capture the gains from trade and division of labor, rather than resting on teleological assertions about who should ask for what sort of assistance from whom. Because no matter your views on the (a)morality of capitalism, it's pretty hard to deny that it's good at getting things done.


(I could probably ramble this post to a section 9 without really trying, but I'm not Scott Alexander and should probably save some things for later, so I'll try to take it on an approach path to wrapping up soonish.)

So. It's National Feminist Coming Out Day; I guess I'm coming out as a feminist. I believe that making the movement better is better than pretending that the movement is perfect, so I end up critical of it a lot, but, at the end of the day, I think that un-awfulifying gender norms is an extremely important project and, even if not the proximate thing I'm planning on devoting my time and effort to, worth talking about, thinking about, and supporting publicly, at least on the Schelling[?] days.

I'm a feminist because I believe that misogyny and misandry go hand-in-hand, and that the best way to fight either is to fight both together.


Epilogue, or "Why Not Choose a Different Word?"

"That's all very nice, Ross," a devil's-advocate interlocutor interrupts, "but that doesn't sound like the textbook definition of 'feminist', which -- remember that it's femin_-ist! -- is strictly about promoting equal rights for females, not this generalized gender-norm-smashing stuff. I'm all for what you're doing and saying, don't get me wrong, but you can't just make 'feminist' mean 'against traditional gender norms' instead of 'in favor of womens' rights' because you say it is. That's not how words work!_"

Well, sorry to confuse you (my imaginary interlocutor), but (1) that is how words work. We use them in particular ways, and eventually the people around us start slipping up and using them our way instead of "the official way", and the process recurses until 'the people around us' becomes 'everyone'. And then words mean new things. If I want to start the social-semantic norm of defining "feminism" with a more general, stronger meaning, then you can't stop me from just doing it until it catches on, mwahaha!

(2) (A short digression on semantics...) It is useful, in communication, to have different words for [category A] and [category B] in precisely two cases:

  • poetry, and
  • when you need (wish) to express things about [A] that you don't wish to express about [B], and vice-versa.

I don't, at present, feel a great need to distinguish 'feminists' as a group from "people who Ross generally agrees with re: gender". I'm willing to assume that people who describe themselves as feminist actually mean the gender-norm-smashing thing, and not some misandristic okay-with-women-oppressing-men thing.

For one, I'm not entirely convinced that any real people believe the latter thing (but see also: No True Scotsman fallacy). But for another, even if they do, I'm willing to pay the price of giving them the benefit of the doubt until the cost of doing so exceeds the standard-deduction cost of doing business among ideological diversity. After all, a preoccupation with the worst-thinking people hardly helps me have good conversations with good-thinking ones.

(3) (If you've forgotten, I'm enumerating reasons it makes sense to use the word "feminism" in the most generous way.) Finding good words for things are hard. Ozy has a recurring genre of posts that go "Guys, we don't have a word for [concept X]; could we find one, since the lack is making it kind of hard to have useful conversations?"

The solution to not having a word that means [X] is either (i) make a new word to mean it or (ii) find an old word that means almost-it, and push the meaning until it fits.[e.g.] (Remember, words mean what we're used to them meaning. Linguistic habits are maleable!) And in this case, it seems less-than-useful to replace a minor naming-ambiguity problem with a "What's that?" problem, and so, for lack of a better word, I choose the label "feminist".=

Update: a coda.

Update 2: This post is awaiting a sequel, re: HeForShe.