Guest post by Kevin Rushton
If you’re a feminist, you’ve probably heard of mansplaining. If you’re a man, you’ve almost certainly done it, probably thousands and thousands of times—even if you are a feminist. Mansplaining is sort of an umbrella term for a variety of behaviors, each of which involves the flaunting of male privilege. Examples include:
- Explaining something to a woman who almost certainly knows more about it than you do, e.g. feminism, sexual harassment, mansplaining.
- Similarly, explaining anything that is common knowledge under the (usually unconscious) assumption that the woman you are talking to knows less than you do about everything.
- A separate but related phenomenon in which one or more women have explained something clearly and adequately to no effect, until a man comes along and “mansplains” it (often using the exact same words), at which point people magically understand. This is the type of mansplaining I am doing with this blog post, though it would probably be more accurate to describe it as “manlistening” on the part of the audience.
My point here is not to point fingers. Society teaches men to mansplain, so if you are perceived as male by society then you have likely been encouraged your whole life to do so. I have certainly done more than my fair share. Which, incidentally, is how I came to be known for mansplaining male privilege to other men—I was called out for mansplaining enough times myself that I did some research and came away with some (hopefully) useful tips. The purpose of this blog post, then, is to hopefully help male readers learn how to stop mansplaining. Each section of the post is a response to a particular thing men are frequently known to say to justify their mansplanations.
I hope this post can be useful to everyone, but my main target audience here is men who are interested in feminism but do not have much experience engaging in feminist spaces. You may consider yourself a feminist already, or you may just have questions about what feminism is all about. Either way, there are some things you need to be aware of if you’re going to engage a bunch of feminists. Being a feminist yourself doesn’t exclude you from these occupational hazards—or rather, from becoming a hazard to the women whose space it really is.
One final disclaimer: Because this is post is meant for the Young Mormon Feminists blog and because the corresponding Facebook group is the feminist forum with which I have the most experience, I make a few specific references to YMF. Because the advice here is a restatement of a variety of consistent sources on the topic, anything I say here should apply pretty much equally to feminist spaces in general (including everyday conversations with women).
“I’m not a feminist ally, I’m a male feminist!”
Same thing. There’s nothing wrong with a man referring to himself as a feminist, because an anything-ist is basically someone who subscribes to a particular ideology. Just like a straight person can fully support equal rights for the LGBT*QIA community and white people can be fully against racism. But the most feminist man is still a man, and that makes him at best an ally to the women hurt by patriarchy. At worst, being a man makes him a potential oppressor—and all too frequently, male feminists are both at once. Which is precisely why the label “ally” is so important. If nothing else, it’s a subtle reminder that while you may be a feminist, feminism is not about you. It’s about the women who lack the specific privileges given to men.
“But patriarchy hurts me too!”
Sure, patriarchy hurts men too. It hurts me all the time. But it hurts women infinitely more. And if I make it about me—if I appropriate feminist spaces to heal my own cuts and bruises when they could be used to heal women’s gashes and internal bleeding—then I’m oppressing women. Of course those types of healing aren’t mutually exclusive, and most of the feminist women I know readily acknowledge that patriarchy hurts men as well. But a good ally needs to watch for the times when he might be stepping on a woman’s toes to co-opt their safe space into yet another place for men to complain about our own problems.
The best advice I’ve heard on this is that instead of taking over women’s spaces, men need to turn their own spaces into feminist spaces. In other words, use your privilege to help non-feminists understand why feminism is important, rather than to trample over the women who came looking for a safe space.
“But I don’t fit the dominant male stereotype, so I don’t really have male privilege.”
Wrong. If society defines you as a man in any way (whether or not it’s fair), then you have some degree of male privilege. You may lack privilege in a lot of other areas—you may be gay, or genderqueer, or hate golf, or love Janet Jackson—and that may put you at a disadvantage among other men. But the second you step into a female space, your male privilege is going to kick in. The fact that you have been oppressed in other ways does not give you the right to pass that oppression onto someone else. (Of course, a straight white cis woman will in turn need to check her privilege when discussing LGBT*QIA or race issues.)
Think of the glass escalator. If you are a man and you become a nurse, people will make fun of you, but they will also put you in charge of the other nurses.
“But I didn’t mean to be offensive!”
Congratulations, you might not be a world-class asshole. But then again you still might be. How do you know? Here’s a test: If you slam a door on your friend’s fingers on purpose, you’re definitely an asshole. If you do it on accident, immediately apologize, go grab some ice and ask if there’s anything else you can do to make it up to them, you’re probably not an asshole. But if you slam a door on your friend’s fingers on accident and respond to their subsequent screaming with, “Don’t be such a baby. You’re choosing to be offended, I didn’t mean to hurt you. I have nerve endings too! I get injured too!” Well… you’re probably back in the asshole category.
Seems obvious, right? Well, somehow when we switch to talking about feelings instead of physical injuries, the rules change. We somehow expect our good intentions to neutralize all the negative consequences of our careless words. Actually, scratch that. If you hurt someone and don’t apologize for it—worse, you make it about you and get defensive about it—you don’t have good intentions to begin with. Of course if you sincerely apologize and change your ways and the person continues to find reasons to be offended by something totally innocuous, that may be different. But I have never once seen that happen in the Young Mormon Feminists group. Seriously. Not even once. When you stop being an asshole, people stop yelling at you. If anything, they may admire the genuine change they see in you. What I do see, again and again, is men spending hours and hours trying to defend their blatantly hurtful words without making any effort whatsoever to admit that what they said was hurtful or change the way they speak.
Here’s the upshot: If you truly have good intentions, your goal (in the context of a feminist discussion) is to fight the oppression of women. So if you ever facilitate that oppression, your goal is to change your own behavior. Since you are a man raised in a society that gives men all sorts of advantages, many of them unseen and hard to detect until they are explicitly pointed out to you (probably by a woman whom you have offended or oppressed in some way), it’s basically inevitable that you will at some point facilitate oppression. So when it happens, be grateful (rather than bitter or defensive) that you were called out on it, and STOP IT.
One final note: It really is natural to get defensive when someone criticizes something you’ve done. Learn to catch yourself when you get that feeling, and give yourself some time to cool down before you respond. When I do that, nine times out of ten I realize I was wrong, and I save myself some embarrassment by not getting defensive. Far more importantly, I learn something from it. In the rare cases where I still feel like I’ve been treated wrongly, I can either restate what I said in less offensive terms or ask for further clarification on why it was offensive, without polluting my remarks by getting defensive.
“Okay, sure, what I said was offensive, and I’m sorry. But it wasn’t just because I was a man!”
There’s actually often some truth to that. Just because patriarchy is a huge problem doesn’t mean there aren’t other reasons why people are assholes sometimes. HOWEVER, being a man does give you special asshole privileges. For one thing, you’ll get called an asshole, not a bitch or a harpy. (If you do, that’s still violence against women, because the implication is that there’s nothing worse you can be called than female. So you’re still not the ultimate victim there.) More importantly, you’ve been raised your whole life with a megaphone in your hand. People have constantly told you that your opinions are important simply because of your male body, while women have been told that their opinions are not. So even when you enter a space that offers no institutional advantage for being a man, which is theoretically the case in a feminist space, you still have years and years of encouragement behind you. It’s important to actively monitor and curb the use of your “megaphone” so that women who have been raised in a society that constantly silences them and tears apart their self-esteem really get a chance to have their voices heard.
Very little, if any, of what I’ve said here is anything new or original. Most of it is either from experience with feminists calling each other out on their crap or blog posts addressing specific aspects of privilege (be it male or otherwise—there are some great resources on white privilege that work well if you just replace race terminology with gender terminology). You can find a list of resources for those who need some help knowing how to approach the Young Mormon Feminists community under the “resources” tab at the top of the page. If you feel like you could be better at checking your own privilege (spoiler alert: you definitely can), check out some of those. If you frequent the Facebook group, watch for times when people call each other out on their various types of privilege, but especially male privilege.
Of course, the very reason that I felt any need to write this post is because a lot of male allies don’t understand these concepts no matter how many women call them out, but once I (a man) repeat the exact same concepts they suddenly get it. Interesting—it takes a man to mansplain mansplaining for some men to stop. And that, friends, is why we need feminism.