Ten ways to be a better male feminist

Who says I’m always negative? Leaving aside the substantial evidence in the form of blog posts, angry Twitter rants and the rages that overtake me when my football team isn’t winning, I assure you I’m capable of being reasonable, constructive and even – make sure you’re sitting down for this – pleasant.

You may be under the impression that I hate men. This is not the case. Men are fine! (Some men are really fine, if you get what I’m saying, which I’m sure you do, because that had all the subtlety of a large-scale trainwreck.) What makes me mad is misogyny. What makes me madder is the appropriation of the feminist movement by men who either don’t know what they’re doing or are deliberately trying to profit from it.

Let’s say you’re the first kind – well-meaning, but just not that well-educated about what being a feminist entails. You’ve come to the right place! I’m going to stop yelling for long enough to tell you ten things you can do in order to be a better feminist, a better ally and – let’s face it – a better person.

1. Leave your baggage at the door.

I know you have a bunch of preconceptions about what feminism is and what your place in the grand scheme of things might be. That’s perfectly natural – all of us have preconceived notions about the world based on our prior experiences. But I’m gonna need you to drop all of that when you walk into feminist spaces.

Feminism is a movement that is largely based on female lived experiences. If you’re not a woman, you can empathise, but you simply can’t say you know what we’ve been through. And that’s fine! There are plenty of causes I support even though I’m not directly linked to them or affected by them. Nobody’s saying you can’t be a feminist. What we’re saying is that you need to follow our lead on this one, because this movement is about the way power structures affect our lives in ways that you may not even be able to perceive from where you’re standing.

Come in with an open mind and be ready to learn, and you’ll find yourself not only having your eyes opened to a whole new world, but being much more capable of understanding and processing what you’ll see and hear.

2. Be prepared to do a lot of listening.

You probably have a lot of insights that you want to share. You want to tell us why men act the way they do and how you think we can change that behaviour. And there’s room for that in feminism…to an extent. But for the most part, what we need men to do is just to listen.

I want you to think about all the women who are denied a chance to speak by men around the world – women who are barred from obtaining an education, women who are subjected to genital mutilation, women who aren’t allowed to work, women who are survivors of sexual abuse, women of colour, trans and queer women, sex workers. Don’t they deserve a chance to be heard? Wouldn’t you like to be the person to give them that chance?

It seems simple, but it’s so, so important. A huge part of being an ally is being prepared to listen to our stories – and there are a lot of them. A lot. You might want to get out a notepad and start taking notes. There may or may not be a test later.

We have been silenced for so long. Let us speak. Please.

3. Don’t expect an automatic welcome.

You’re a stand-up guy, right? Here you are, ready to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty fighting the good fight. If only more guys were like you!

The thing is – and don’t take this personally – we’ve seen a lot of guys who looked just like you, talked just like you, were just as enthusiastic as you…who proceeded to talk over us, silence us, demean us or use our movement to profit off us. Can you blame us for being a little wary? Can you blame us for being suspicious when men try to enter our spaces, no matter how seemingly good their intentions?

Under the guise of “feminism”, men have sexually harassed and raped women whose trust they’d gained, used their positions of influence to bully and silence women (Hugo Schwyzer, anyone?) and even gotten away with murder. No, you probably won’t do any of those things – but we can’t be sure of that. So be prepared for a little hostility. We’ve had to learn the hard way to be suspicious of strangers bearing gifts. If you work hard and do right by us, we’ll accept you in time.

4. Don’t expect special treatment.

This is something a lot of men struggle with, and with good reason – they’ve come from a position of total privilege, where their ideas and opinions are automatically given weight by virtue of their gender. You might not even realise this, but your maleness gives you huge advantages out there in the big, wide world.

If you want to be a feminist, you have to be prepared to give that up.

It’s hard. I know how hard it is, because there are times when I’ve had to do it myself. Sometimes you’ll find yourself feeling offended or affronted. You’ll find yourself wondering why you even bother if people aren’t going to acknowledge your efforts. That’s your privilege talking, and you need to learn to set all of that aside if you want to do this right.

Welcome to the new world, friend. Enjoy equality!

5. Don’t talk over us.

A lot of men take offence to this, but you need to learn to bite your tongue.

This is our movement. We’re glad that you’re along for the ride, but you have to learn that you don’t get to take centre stage. That space is reserved for women with real lived experiences to share. If you find yourself with the urge to talk over a woman who’s sharing her story, just…don’t. There is no easier way of riling up a feminist than by trying to tell her story for her, or assuming you know it better than she does. I promise you, no matter what the situation is, you don’t. You haven’t lived her life, you haven’t seen what she’s seen or felt what she’s felt, and there is no way that you, a man, can possibly understand 100% of what it’s like to be a woman.

I’m not saying you’re not allowed to speak. I’m saying you have to wait your turn. In feminist spaces, a woman’s lived experience takes precedence over your insights as a man. We’re kind of natural experts in this field, you know? Just let us talk.

6. Don’t stay silent when you see sexism in action.

Your buddies all tell rape jokes. They make you feel awkward, but you don’t say anything because you don’t want to be That Guy – the one who kills the buzz, the one who’s the PC Police all the time. You smile awkwardly when your bestie tells women to make him a sandwich even though you think it’s not really that funny, and you let yourself be drawn into discussions that degrade women even though that’s not your intent.

Yeah, that needs to stop.

If you want to do something concrete – and I’m guessing you do – this is the best place to start. Call out sexism when you see it. Tell your buddies those rape jokes aren’t cool. Roll your eyes at your friend’s sandwich jokes and tell him he’s being an ass. When you witness street harassment, step up and say something. Be the guy who doesn’t let other guys talk shit about women behind their backs. Be the guy who never lets “she was asking for it” stand.

I can’t stress enough how important this is. Your intent means nothing if you don’t back it up. Help us out here, dude. Use your voice for good.

7. Never, ever mansplain to us.

You’re talking to a sex worker who’s sharing her story of what working life is like for her where she lives. You feel like she’s getting some of the details wrong – maybe you’ve understood a certain law differently from her, or you find it hard to believe the police are so unsupportive. You tell her you don’t think that’s the way things are and proceed to explain reality the way you’ve experienced it.

That’s mansplaining, and you shouldn’t be surprised if that sex worker gets more than a little testy when you do it.

I know some of you do this unintentionally, but you need to catch yourself doing it and stop. Mansplaining derails discussions, trivialises the lived experiences of women and is just outright rude. Do you honestly think you know more about the reality of sex work than the girl who was talking to you about it? She lives it. You’ve just seen a documentary on TV. She doesn’t need you to explain to her what her life is really like.

8. Don’t tell us to calm down.

I think I’ve kept my tone fairly light thus far, but most of the time, if I’m talking about social justice, I’m pretty goddamn angry. This is a natural response to being discriminated against for being a woman for my entire life. I know that anger can be very confronting and a little off-putting, but there are reasons for that, those reasons being that a) the reality of existence as a female in our society is pretty confronting, and b) being faced with brutal, unpleasant truths is naturally very off-putting.

You might be tempted to say something about catching more flies with honey. The thing is, we’re not trying to catch flies. We’re trying to change the world, and you don’t change the world with niceness (believe me, even Gandhi was a manipulative old bastard – no activist is ever as serene as they may seem). As my dad was fond of saying: the reasonable man adapts himself to the world, whereas the unreasonable man adapts the world to himself; therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

We’re the unreasonable women, and we’re adapting the world to ourselves, because that’s how you get things done. Telling us to calm down is tone policing, and if you’d like an explanation of why that’s a terrible thing to do, click that link above and prepare to feel like you’ve just been slapped in the face repeatedly by several angry women all at once.

Or you could take my word for it and just let us be mad when we need to be. Trust me, it works better this way.

9. Amplify and empathise.

If you find a great blog post about sex worker rights in India, share it with your friends. If someone you know is sharing their experiences as a trans woman going through the medical system, retweet the hell out of her and encourage people to follow her. If, say, a fiery young Muslim woman you know writes a great blog post that you find really useful, spread it around to everyone else you think might find it useful too. Allies are great amplifiers – they help spread our message so that it reaches audiences it might not have reached otherwise. That’s a valuable thing.

And while you might not understand what we’ve gone through or what it’s like to be us, when we share our experiences, listen empathetically. It means a lot to know that even though you might not know how we feel, you care that we’ve felt pain and it pains you, too. Be there for us. March with us. Listen to us vent. Come along to our seminars and tell all your friends to come too. Be a part of the creation of safe spaces for us because you genuinely care about our safety and well-being. Be the great person I’m sure you’re capable of being. This is what allies do.

10. Don’t give up when it gets hard.

Not if – when. Because it will get hard, I promise. You will be forced to re-evaluate almost everything you’ve ever known about women and feminism. You will learn about experiences that are totally alien to you. You will probably be taken down a peg or two when you mess up. (Don’t worry, we all mess up, and we all eat crow afterwards. It’s fine, the internet has a pretty short memory.) And once you start doing this, you can’t just stop, because even if you want to, you won’t be able to shut your eyes to reality once you’ve had them opened.

This is a war so many of us wish we didn’t have to wage. I can’t tell you how tiring it is to spend day after day after day having to fight for my fundamental human rights. It’s draining and exhausting and, to be quite honest, pretty damn demoralising sometimes. You won’t experience all of that, but you’ll experience enough to make you wonder why you got into this in the first place.

Here’s why: because equality matters. This stuff isn’t some kind of abstract academic debate. This is about the way fifty percent of the world is forced to live because of a system that regards them as second-class citizens. Isn’t that wrong? Isn’t that hateful? Shouldn’t it change?

And wouldn’t you rather be one of the people helping to change it?

Feminism is vital work. It’s hard, it’s messy, and it’s often thankless, but it’s also very, very necessary. It’s necessary for all the reasons I’ve stated and re-stated on this blog dozens of times. It’s necessary because when we don’t do this work, people don’t just suffer – they die because of our inaction. And it’s not just women who are affected – it’s every man ever criticised for choosing to stay at home with his kids, every man who likes crafts more than sports, every man who’s ever cried in public, every man who isn’t arrogant and self-assured enough to bluff his way through life as though he owns everything he sees. You might even be one of those men. If you are, this isn’t just about us, this is about you. This is about a world in which we can all be free to express our genders however we like without facing judgement or discrimination for simply being who we are.

I want to live to see that world. I’m sure you do, too. So welcome aboard, friend. I’m glad you’ve decided to join us. Let’s save the world together.

Ally-ship for beginners, or: how not to be a dick

I do not think of myself as an ally. It’s not a label I apply to myself or ask people to apply to me. I am a person who tries to fix broken things. Chances are that if you’re reading this, you feel similarly – you don’t want a label or praise, you just want to get your hands dirty and make things better. This post is not for you, but this post might be for a few people in your life.

The word “ally” used to mean someone who supported a cause with which they did not directly identify. Unfortunately, as with many good things, it has been co-opted by people who think social justice is an opportunity to gain a little street cred. These days, plenty of serious discussions are derailed by (sometimes) well-meaning “allies” blundering in, trumpeting their own opinions over those of people trying to share their lived experiences. Thankfully, not all of those people are beyond redemption. It is for them that I present the following:

Ally-ship for beginners, or: how you’ll learn to stop interrupting and love thy neighbour

1. Sit down, shut up and listen.

If you only learn one thing about being an ally, let this be it – most of the time, what people need is for you to sit down, stop talking, and let them share their stories. A great amount of awareness is raised through the telling and re-telling of people’s lived experiences. There is literally nothing you can do to aid this except to listen, learn from what you hear and signal-boost so that the message gets out to as many people as possible. No, this is not the time for you to tell your trans* friend that what they experience daily is just like that time a guy didn’t give you a free drink because you wouldn’t flash your bra at him. This is not the time for you to interject that you’ve never seen an example of what someone is describing. (What, you think they make this stuff up? Why would they want to?) Sit down, get out a notepad and start taking notes. Here are some people taking the time to educate you about the way the world is. Show some goddamn respect.

2. Would you want someone asking you that? If not, don’t ask someone else.

It’s awesome that you want to learn more about the people you want to help. But there are some things it’s just not okay to ask unless someone gives you their express permission. If you’d be offended if someone asked you a question, chances are the person you’re about to ask is gonna be offended too. Remember – the people you’re helping here aren’t freakshows. They’re not novelties. They don’t exist for your entertainment or to satisfy your curiosity. They’re living, breathing people with thoughts and feelings, and they deserve humanity, dignity and respect. How would you feel if a stranger expected you to divulge your entire medical and surgical history to them? How would you feel if someone asked you probing questions about your sexual experiences? You’d be offended, right? So don’t do it to anyone else. Treat others as you’d like to be treated.

3. Your privileged existence does not trump their lived experience.

Sure, maybe you’ve never seen someone reach out and touch a black woman’s hair without asking. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Have you considered that maybe the reason you don’t see these things daily is that you don’t have to live them? Have you thought about how your privilege might insulate you from the bad behaviour of others?

I have seen this time and time again in online discussions – someone will share a story of something harrowing that’s happened to them, and an “ally” will pipe up with a comment like, “I know you have things hard, but that sounds like exaggeration to me.” Think through that for a second – you’re suggesting that the folks you supposedly support aren’t oppressed enough, so they have to make up stories to make their cases convincing. And you want a pat on the back for deigning to hang out with them? Please. They’re the ones doing YOU a favour.

The lived experience of oppressed people trumps pretty much anything in discussions about privilege and oppression. Learn it, live it, love it.

4. You are not owed entry into minority spaces.

You want to help out? Great! But please understand that dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people before you have said that as a way of gaining entry into safe spaces and proceeding to make them unsafe. But even disregarding the fact that oppressed people need to look out for their health and well-being, have you thought about the fact that you’re not actually owed anything? Nobody owes you entry into their spaces. As a privileged person, this might be hard for you to swallow, but it’s true. I could make a group for bisexual Muslim women and decide I don’t want anyone but my fellow Muslim bi gals there, and that would be my right. Safe spaces are important – they give people a place to seek shelter from the daily abuse they face, a place where their experiences and stories won’t be questioned. If there’s a chance that you’ll make a space unsafe – and to be frank, if you’re privileged, there’s always a chance – then no, you are not automatically owed entry. Work on proving yourself through your actions and people might trust you – might. But get used to the idea that you’re not entitled to barge into a space and make it your own just because you want to be there.

5. You’d better not be doing it for the praise.

As an ally, you will go through a lot of thankless things. You’ll be abused, reviled and mocked for associating with people society oppresses and marginalises. It’s not easy. You might feel like you deserve some kind of pat on the back for your hard work and perseverance. I mean, you could just turn around and walk away at any time, right?

Well, guess what? You know the jeers and mockery you put up with? That’s just a fraction of what oppressed people get every single day of their lives. I’m serious. You’re trying to help people who live in fear of violence, harassment, abuse and worse, and you want a cookie because you didn’t run away the first time someone called you a pussy? Seriously?

Grow up. This isn’t a game, and you’re not going to get brownie points for grinding your mad ally skillz. This is real life. Put up or leave.

6. Be prepared to call your friends out.

As an ally, you’re busy trying your best to erase slurs from your vocabulary, support oppressed people and reblog posts that, like, totally moved you. Your friends? They’re probably the same ignorami they’ve always been. You’re gonna need to do something about that.

Yeah, it’s hard calling your friends out when they make nasty jokes around you. Nobody wants to be That Guy (or That Girl, or That Gender Non-Conforming Person). I get it. But if you don’t actively do what you can to combat oppression, then you, my friend, are part of the problem. No two ways about it. That means calling out rape jokes, saying something when a friend uses the t-word and throwing shade at your friend who spews old stereotypes about black people. It means sometimes being unpopular for the sake of sticking up for people who don’t have many other people to stick up for them.

Yes, it’s hard. If you expected it to be easy, you really have been living under a rock.

7. At the end of the day, This Is Not About You.

I can’t stress this enough. You’re an ally, all right? You’re someone helping out people who are seriously hurting in a number of really nasty, life-affecting ways. This is not about your feelings. This is not about your moment in the spotlight. This is about doing work that needs to be done because somebody needs to do it and you were a decent enough person to volunteer. That means sometimes sidelining your hurt feelings when you aren’t instantly welcomed into a community. That means holding your tongue when people who are so often rendered voiceless finally get the chance to speak. That means reminding yourself, every second of every minute of every hour of every day, that these people you’re trying to help are your equals, and you’d damn well better treat them as such. If you can’t commit to that philosophy – if you can’t live it in both word and action – then you might not be cut out for this activism lark. Them’s the breaks.

8. Even if you do all of this, you’ll still make mistakes.

I’ve been in the activism business, such as it is, for a long time now. I still get called on my mistakes near-daily. I’m not perfect, and neither are you. Nobody is, and nobody’s expecting you to be. You will make mistakes, and that’s fine. What people will care about is whether or not you learn from them. If you keep on making the same mistakes, issuing false apologies and refusing to learn, people will catch onto you pretty quick. Learn humility. Acknowledge that you don’t know everything. Be prepared to have things turn messy. It’s how you’ll learn. At the end of the day, what’s more important than your wounded pride is the struggle to make the world a better place for everyone. That’s the big picture; the rest is just filling in the details. Don’t lose sight of that goal, and you’ll probably do just fine.

Welcome to the fight. There’s a place in it for all of us. Time to find yours.