Celtic Riverside – The Online Journal of James Keenan

One Man’s Experience with Feminism

*Stream-of-Consciousness Entry * (I will preface entries with this notification when my approach is more akin to dictating my thoughts to a friend than working out and editing a formal essay)

As with most, life was simpler when I was young. Girls played dress up, hosted imaginary tea parties, and planned future weddings. Finding a husband, taking care of a house, and playing the hostess was what many of us learned during our formative years.

Yet it was I who was preoccupied with the idea of marriage.

My parents, still together today, performed as perfectly as any two people could raising children. They were the infallible authority figures, firm but just, in my childhood. As I grew older and assumed responsibility for myself, they became the very human characters I remain friends with to this day. Why, I am several years older now than they were when they had me. They make mistakes, they fight…they make it work.

I wanted that desperately. We went on trips to Disney World. Christmas morning was exactly what a child dreams it will be. I wanted to take my family to Disney World. I wanted to create that Christmas morning for someone else.

I also knew early in life that I liked women for the very reasons that we continue to find a need for feminist activism. Men had to be tough, fearless, and strong. I found very little admirable in their efforts – the men who appealed most to be were the ones who felt most human. Friends and family from whom I would catch a glimpse of unbridled joy or heartache or fear and understand, “They know what it means to be alive.” The stoics were fake. They were idiots. They droned on with percussive voices and an odd sense of authority about things for which they had no real expertise (my first indication that my parents were doing it right – my father’s keen awareness of what was outside his skill set and the humility to ask for help from an actual expert).

Women, on the other hand, I found altogether pleasant. Not only did they seem far more expressive, they were so nuanced about it. A situation might make me angry, but it would make them angry and sad and fearful and curious… The artistry of their emotional intelligence opened up avenues of nuance to my general thinking. I could appreciate differing openings because I could put aside my innate rejection of their overall position in favour of considering the individual points.

Aesthetically, everything about women seemed an improvement. When I spoke with other boys, the conversations had all the percussion of a telegraph. The girls spoke with a melody that seemed to communicate as much in the notes that carried between phonemes as the phonemes themselves. As guys we would run around and sweat. The girls generally smelled of something sweet and pleasant. The boys seemed to live in a shadowy grey scale (not really of course, I imagine a psychological projection of that stoicism) while the light seemed to attach itself to the girls, bright and vivid. The boys felt as though they were made of jagged lines like a mountain. The girls were fluid and flowing like a river.

Then of course there were the socially imposed stereotypes. My guy friends and I played sports. The girls did, too, but in their separate, less competitive league. We knew it was less competitive because in gym class they would get out of the way while the boys played, and why should they shy away in gym if they were just as competitive? Of course, there were the girls who did play and they were not mere scenery. You wanted those girls on your team if only because you did not want to have them on the other team. Generally the girls may not have participated as the boys did, but specifically they were more than capable.

Anyway (that could go on for awhile)…

The point of all this high praise is that I knew I wanted to get married and I knew I liked girls. Too much, in fact. Women belonged up on a pedestal, far beyond the reach of men. I romanticised the idea of a relationship in accordance with what I had learned from movies. Women were like the ark from Raiders: mere artefacts – entrancing but with brilliance that precluded direct observation. They needed protection and rescuing from lesser men. That was our role in life – to preserve theirs.

Of course, the great effect this thinking had on me as a youth was paralysis. In fact, out of all the girls I knew at the time there was one in particular who caught my attention and made my heart race; and I had the good fortune that she liked me, too. Like, like-liked me. So we became a thing. Just hanging out, you know? Nothing serious.

Seriously. We went to school dances together and danced to all the slow songs together. We did so at a full arm’s length apart. My heart pounded and I felt my hands shaking as she placed her hands on my shoulders; my hands sat idly on her hips. She was a beautiful person, inside and out. My hands had no business anywhere near her, particularly that close to her butt or any of the new parts we were learning about in health class. That isn’t just humour. My mind was aware, acutely, of how intimate the situation (potentially) was.

Later in the school year she felt more comfortable and tried to draw me out a bit. At one dance she pulled me close and held me. I could feel her heart beating against my chest, could feel it with my hands on her back. It was racing, but not with the self-conscious rapidity of mine. “Don’t sweat – it would be so gross if you start to sweat and she feels that” I thought. The sweating worsened.

I could never overcome that anxiety and, shortly thereafter, she broke up with me citing a lack of involvement. We only went to the school dances together. Beyond that I was too scared to do anything, so there were no real dates. She was absolutely right to do what she did, especially after the incredible patience up to that point. It broke my heart, and still does sometimes when I think about it.

Nothing happened for me until the end of high school. Single with no real prospect of dating. However, unlike the deplorable “incel” crowd (we’ll get back to them later), it did not grow into a resentment of women. My romantic isolation was my doing. It was fear of rejection. It was an even greater fear of acceptance.

What changed? I did become more bitter, but not towards women. My peers “matured” from middle school into high school and became sexually aware and curious. Dating became a fixture of life, along with all of the peripherals like public displays of affection. What I saw was not romance and sexuality rubbed in my lonely face. What I saw was disrespect, lack of consideration, the drama of inexperience, and many other things perpetrated mainly by the boys in my class.

One girl or another was upset regularly about their treatment at the hands of some boy in the class. Cancelled plans. Breakups. “Affairs”. What also became more apparent to me was the increase in tendencies that I would not be able to articulate for many years like man-splaining and the real meaning of sexual harassment. The guys would hassle the girls in the name of showing their interest, and it was understood that the women would have to put up with that.

I struggled on the other end of the spectrum. What I wanted from a girl was some explicit signal that an approach from me was welcome, and I always erred on the side of caution. Some girls may have been doing precisely that, but I dismissed their actions as general friendliness and not an invitation to flirt. I was one of the nice guys – a total non-sexual non-threat. Girls could ask for favours without risk that I expected something in return. I would be the hero who protected them from the mistreatment they received from many of the other guys.

Here is the benefit of hindsight.

There are a lot of genuinely nice guys in the world. However, there are also a lot (potentially as many or more) bad guys posing as nice guys. They are nice right up to the moment a woman rejects their interest, because they were never nice. It’s either a ruse from the start or the person truly believes himself to be nice and that said niceness warrants a return. The latter is the more dangerous – the ironic sense of entitlement to women as sexual reward for “niceness” in a misogynist world.

Some of the guys reading this may be thinking, “But I am an actual nice guy and I would never assume a women owed me anything, especially sex or a relationship, in exchange for that. Why don’t women recognise that and want to date me in that case?”

Blame the faux-nice guys, not the women. Because enough men have gone from nice guy to nuclear-grade asshole in a hummingbird’s wink that anyone who questions a woman’s suspicion regarding male niceness ought to have their own head examined.

But before we proceed, it must also be noted that niceness, genuine niceness, also translates at times to a creepy degree of persistence that is also unwarranted. So here is big point number one: you do not determine if you deserve her attention – ever. Be yourself and she will decide if you are worth her time on her own.

Now there is also the matter of the pedestal and the protectionism. The valiance of my youth; the righteousness of my own brand of masculinity. The world is a shitty, patriarchal place, but if you get behind me I will protect you from it. If at this point you do not see this paragraph going off the rails, you are part of the problem.

I recall finally getting around to reading L. Frank Baum’s “Wizard of Oz” with all the presupposition of having seen the film hundreds of times. In addition to discovering that the Wicked Witch is something of a footnote, I was struck by a chapter in which Dorothy ventures into what turns out to be a porcelain dish filled with porcelain people; people so fragile in their beauty that to move or speak causes them to break.

“Why am I treating women like these porcelain figures?” Suddenly a wave of realisation began to sweep over me as I sat in Starbucks. Am I respecting women if I am speaking for them? If I view women as so strong and capable, why do they need protecting? How many times, in the name of “being helpful”, have I offered unsolicited advice or information to a woman?

These were the stirrings of my feminist awakening. Yes, this. Not the niceties of my youth or the poetic esteem in which I regarded women. That was the very same misogyny I saw in other men that repelled me. It was societal (patriarchal) expectations of how men and women ought to behave and of what a gender is worth in a given situation. Women were both superior and inferior to men on the basis of gender and sex alone, a separate class of being altogether rather than an equal person.

This is the nature of feminism. Advocating for equal rights within the context of the patriarchal system in which inequality currently exists. Feminism does not hate men. Feminism does not regard men as having full rights and women having fewer. It regards only that we live in a patriarchal system from which all gender, sex, and sexual orientation inequality derives.

What is worse than the fundamental disagreement about feminism is the disagreement over the most blatant issues. We discuss rape culture here in the United States, but how does one make any ground against that when even more severe rape cultures exist? I refer to the coverage of areas in India where not only are men not punished for rape, the women are condemned for allowing it. “One cannot clap with only one hand.” “She must have done something to provoke it.” And yet these very same people would not make the same argument for other crimes. It takes at least two people for a rape to occur. Certainly, but that is also true of murder and rarely does one come across a murder case and conclude, “The victim must have done something to provoke and deserve this”.

When one cannot refuses to understand that it is wrong to abduct and rape a person, how then can one understand the nuance of our rape culture? A man puts forth money for a date, provides some favour to a woman – he now expects sex from her. Does he forcibly rape her? Perhaps not, but it belies the point that this expectation even exists. That is a sovereign human and no implied contract includes sexual favours. That expectation amounts to something closer to extortion to say nothing of the fact that it necessarily implies that the woman’s worth is intrinsically her sex. You have not respected her. You have reduced her, diminished her.

The tea analogy. John Oliver’s boxing analogy. Learn what affirmative, enthusiastic consent means – without it, one of the clapping hands is committing a crime.

I recall also a brilliant segment from the television show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” where the gang buys a boat and one of the characters, Dennis, indicates his desire to get a mattress. When questioned about the need for one, he refers to the “implication” – the idea that any woman agreeing to go out on a boat with him where there is little chance of escape or being heard that she implicitly agrees to engage in sexual activity. He wants to have sex, she agreed to put herself in that situation. That is rape culture and refers to the United States, not some vague idea of a third world nation.

This is where we come to some of the groups that sparked the idea for this entry. The incels. The red pills. The anti-feminists. The ones who simply do not get #MeToo. “She knows I want sex and put herself in this situation, but I cannot act on the implication. I cannot say sexually suggestive things to her without her express permission because she might find it harassing. I do not have a reasonable right to expect something in return for everything I do for her, every dollar I might have spent on her. This is what you are telling me?”

That’s exactly what I am telling you. Nothing you do or say in this life entitles you to her body. You spent a ton of money on her but she still is not interested in dating you? Stop spending the money and maybe be better about reading signals. Letting you buy her a drink is not a signal of interest in having sex with you, it is a signal of wanting a free drink. The barista smiling and being nice to you is not a signal of interest in having sex with you, it is a signal of depending partially on tips and good customer service reviews to make a living.

Spoken like a true blue pill. If I had bigger balls or more hair on my chest, I could flex some muscle in this world and earn a woman instead of being a pussy who has to appeal to this feminist crap to date. There is a naturalist basis for men being the protectors and women being the nurturing type – this isn’t some patriarchal conspiracy for snowflakes to use as a scapegoat for their problems. Men hunted and fought because they are bigger and stronger as a group. Women gather and nurture because that is where their skills are.

Yes, as cavemen living in the wilderness we would have a need for physically strong individuals to fend off physical threats like mastodons and sabre-toothed cats. This is what we call progress. Society no longer faces those constraints, but the organising principles of society never evolved to reflect that. They remain rooted in prehistoric thinking – the patriarchy. There is no job that women, by mere merit of being a woman, cannot do. Individual women cannot perform certain jobs just as individual men cannot, and some fields may continue to attract individuals from one end of the gender spectrum more than the other. Gender does not preclude anyone from anything in the modern world.

“I suppose that is why men die on battle fields and with black lung in coal mines and out at sea fishing?” See above – feminism is not the enemy, the patriarchy is. Feminists did not say “Go to war, mine the mines, fish the seas.” Societal expectation said, “Men do those things, women do not.” Women can do those things and women have attempted to do those things only to have the powers that be (the patriarchy) push back. No women in combat positions. No gays in the military. Transgender ban. Job applications rejected because a woman would prove to be a distraction in the mine or on the ship, or simply because as a woman they would lack the physical skill required.

“Men are incarcerated more, and often face harsher sentences than women for equal crimes. Men commit suicide more often, possibly because we are not supposed to show emotion and repress things. Men rarely win custody and visitation rights can be a battle. Forget about paternity leave.”

I see we are not learning yet. There remains this stigma in society that feminists should  celebrate increased incarceration (especially in the #MeToo era), longer sentences, and these other sufferings. Feminists do not. These are inequalities created by our patriarchal system – and it should be emphasised here as it was not before that “patriarchal” does not mean “men”, it refers simply to a system that favours qualities and skills that society values most and senselessly associates with men. It is criminal that men should face incarceration more than necessary, and certainly so that their penalty should be harsher. We want to correct that. Men should have an equal claim to custody because they can be nurturing, and they should not face an impossible gauntlet to visit their children.

As a male feminist, I have faced criticism for misandry on multiple occasions. Nothing about feminism hates men. Yes, there are extremists (the so-called Femi-Nazis) but they are as lamentable as the red pills. The idea is simple: people are sovereign and equal. Society does not treat us that way. We face expectations and implications at every turn that are unfair. Feminists are not complaining about how unfair this makes life, we are calling attention to how unequal it makes life and advocating for the changes that will remedy the issues moving forward.

“Moving forward, eh? Does that include dredging up 40-year-old assault and harassment allegations to destroy careers and for shameless self-promotion? Does include abandoning statutes of limitations and due process to revenge these violations that occurred before ‘woke’ was a thing?”

Well, there is a lot to unpack with this. First, the actual charges filed in the #MeToo and #TimesUp cases are within the statute of limitations and follow due process. We are hearing stories of incidents from many, many years ago, but they do not form the basis of the legal action. The reason they are only coming to light now is because the atmosphere supports, for the first time ever, the victim coming forward with these claims. Even now these women relive traumas and face threats and shame for bringing these allegations. And “self-promoting” is the biggest joke of the movement. As one recently pointed out with the Cosby case:

Name the men facing allegations as part of the #MeToo or #TimesUp movements.

Now name the accusers. Bear in mind that many of the men listed in the first prompt have dozens of accusers. (Then go back and review how many of the names are themselves already famous).

Once you conclude that the focus is not only on the one committing the act rather than the victim you must also begin to recognise the inequity that is 59 women coming forward before we as a society would listen and entertain the idea that one man assaulted someone.

If I accuse someone of theft, I can reasonably expect that an investigation will occur and charges will follow once the case shows any merit. As a woman I could not expect until recently that a man I accused of assault or harassment would face charges for his crime, even that he would face an investigation. What I might expect is further harassment for whistle blowing or the shame of living as someone “tainted” (which, if you have been harassed or assaulted, is not the case).

And yes, I do agree that with some of this stuff it does not warrant unpacking the history. I loved Friends. High schools friends compared me to Chandler because of my sarcastic tendencies and self-deprecating ways. When I watch the show now I do see fat shaming. I look at Ross and think, “What an absolute degenerate he was with women, and most likely a terrible father” (portrayed by David Schwimmer, who in actuality is a fervent ally of feminist causes). Do we need to remove Friends from the cultural archives? No. But we cannot lean on “We didn’t know any better” either. There is room to call out these shortcomings and improve upon them moving forward.

[Briefly aside, let’s address the hypocrisy that some would indicate here regarding my stance on the Confederate memorials. “Let us consider these things within their historical context and leave them in place so that we might learn from them rather than remove it from the cultural archives.” Friends was not produced as a monument to harassers, assailants, and body shamers. A 1990s show did a poor job of addressing issues to which society was blind and consciously deaf. The Confederate memorials were built decades after the conflict and heritage they are said to commemorate, primarily at times when and in places where whites were reasserting their dominance over blacks. That is why one is one is something unfortunate when viewed through historical context and the other is a social travesty.]

But some of the stuff to which we are referring are injustices that we never addressed. Women harassed or assaulted and then bullied into silence – no amount of time washes that crime away from social consciousness. Yes, the statute of limitations may have long since passed and there can be no legal remedy, but we can hear those victims. We can help them to heal, to let go of the tremendous burden of shame, guilt, and general negativity that they have been forced to carry.

We still have difficult questions that do not have clear answers. For example, how do we handle these individuals? Should Kevin Spacey see jail time for what he did? How much? To a lesser extent, what of his work? Removed from a film and a television series in production at the time of the allegations – okay. Can we no longer enjoy Seven and American Beauty? Can we separate art and artist? I have thoughts but no answers on this.

[Also – this is to say nothing of the bullshit non-apologies offered in the wake of these allegations. Typically an apology consists of words like “sorry” or “apology”, indicates not only what the inappropriate action was but also how it harmed the other person and a sincere promise to avoid the inappropriate action in the future. They do not include things like “those who know me know I would never”, segues into upcoming projects, or coming out as gay.]

As I begin to run out of steam of this train of though, there remains one last point on my mind: not all men. “Not all men are like that.” “I’m not like that.” One of the byproducts of being outspoken about feminism is the familiar chorus of “not all men” and misandristic criticism that I am lumping all men into the same sexually deviant category, which makes it the perfect concluding point.

No, not all men. I would like to think not even most men. But here’s the thing about #MeToo and #TimesUp that people who do not already understand it need to understand and quick: too many men. We are way, way beyond the permissiveness of “well, not all of them.” Those men did not hold themselves accountable; we did not hold them accountable. These Nuremberg defences – “I only did what I was told”, “I was unaware of this” – are inadequate.

Indeed, not all men are perpetrators and not only men are perpetrators. Women abuse, assault, and harass men and other women – and that often comes with the same shame, guilt, and negativity that prevents women’s cases from being reported. We need to deal with those cases. We need to call attention to them. We need to include people of colour and we need to include the LGBTQ community – it is not just about white women.

So why the focus on men, and why is “not all men” so wrong? Feminism is the collective of people (all genders) working to solve the problems of the patriarchy. Patriarchy is not a synonym for men. Toxic masculinity is not a synonym for masculinity. Male tears is not the same as tears shed by a male. The distinction is the systemic nature of inequality based on gender, sex, or sexual orientation.

We are born and society immediately begins to impose roles on us, not based on our skills, interests, or abilities, but based on our perceived gender, sex, and sexual orientation. Society values those things categorised as male and expected of straight cis males. We do not demonise feminine things, but they are passive and less valued by society. That is why a man loses custody of his children and struggles in a coal mine while a woman works as a teacher while supporting the children herself. It is no accident that men work in STEM and women work in the liberal arts. It is no accident that men do earn more on the dollar than women for the same work. It is no accident that men commit suicide more often and women are more prone to depression. Society imposes roles on us and too many people do not question those roles. They embrace them, defend them even to their own detriment.

Why not “not all men”? Because the problem is the patriarchal system, and that system benefits men most in the general sense. Yes, other groups have advantages over cis males in some respects, but even those advantages are the result of a patriarchal system that assigns values based on gender, sex, and sexual orientation. Because we as men reap the biggest advantage from that system; because it is all too often we as men that are the harasser, the assailant; because it is we as men that avoid responsibility for the gender-based hardships we create that our image appears on the Most Wanted poster.

Should you be upset that you do not get a pass because you are not one of the perpetrators? Yes, you should be upset. You should be very upset and you should be working every day to hold yourself and everyone else accountable for behaviour the supports gender equality. Every single person has room for improvement in this area, every single one of us. If you are not one of the egregious offenders with which gender equality has the biggest axe to grind, congratulations and continue to be that person. It should be enough that you know you are that person. That is not a pass though. Too many men meet the definition of egregious offender and you are needed as an ally to address that problem. Support others. Let them have a voice and avoid tone policing. Listen and resist the urge to get defensive if someone takes issue with something you have said or done – find a way to make it a learning opportunity to be that much better moving forward.

Be #HeForShe.

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