I am a feminist – and male. Thankfully, a few of us do exist. Yet the idea of a ‘male feminist’ still seems to confuse many men. Indeed, after my blog post exposing a sexist pub quiz went viral last month, I received many tweets and comments from men who seemed not just confused by the term, but also angered that a man would identify as a feminist.
Our society has created, and maintains, an atmosphere in which men are placed above women. Sexual harassment, violence and rape have been normalized and, because of this, the crimes themselves are committed more often. I believe that, in order to complement the current fight by women against misogyny and patriarchy, and to rid society of violence against women, all men need to realize that they too have a responsibility in changing this atmosphere.
From an early age, boys are given mixed messages regarding what is acceptable and what is not. Teachers, for example, are more likely to condone boys’ misbehaviour than girls’; after all, ‘boys will be boys’. The boys may be punished, but their behaviour is still regarded as something to be expected. This attitude develops throughout childhood: misbehaving becomes a ‘badge of honour’ and a way to impress other boys.
It is within this context that sexism, misogyny and jokes that normalize sexual violence appear as the boys grow up. Male bonding is made easier through the creation of an ‘other’: the sexualized, stereotyped female. When a woman questions this, the result is further sexism, rape threats, even bomb threats.
When women are portrayed as objects of male gratification, men are more likely to accept sexual harassment and everyday sexism against women. The National Union of Students (NUS) has published two independent reports (2010, 2012) showing how sexism and the normalization of rape through male bonding and ‘banter’ in British universities have encouraged sexual violence against women.
A man who tells a sexist joke to gain approval from his male buddies may not want to encourage sexual violence, but he is helping to create an atmosphere which does encourage such actions.
Longer jail-terms and more convictions for perpetrators of sexual violence are important, but they will not solve the problem in the long term on their own. All of us must challenge the way men behave towards and speak about women. Some men do this, but most do not. Silence becomes complicity.
When individuals in one group (in this case, women) face daily harassment and potentially dangerous situations because of the behaviour of another group (men), arguments of free speech are no longer valid. No-one would, or should, argue that racism in the southern states of the US after the American Civil War was an issue of free speech; neither is today’s atmosphere of sexism an issue of free speech.
This is an issue of collective responsibility, and all men are responsible for stopping the perpetuation of these crimes in society.