Beginning a feminist journey

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question. (See the status of this project, also.)

I am a girl geek in a relationship with a guy geek, and this guy geek was raised by his mom and his aunt to hate men and hate himself for being a man. In puberty he rejected that and swung a bit in the opposite direction, and now he’s in a place where he believes in the equality of the sexes but he has internalized stereotypes and vitriolic messages about both sexes. He recognizes that and he wants me to help him learn about feminism. Well, that’s great! But I haven’t got the foggiest where to start. We tried reading the Feminism 101 sites together, but it’s too unstructured. Do you know of anyplace else I could find an approach to teaching feminism to men, specifically, or have any advice for helping him confront the internalized hated?

I’ll be interested in the Hive’s thoughts too, but to be honest I’m not sure you can provide structure in this quest, ultimately. It’s a big messy pile of issues, and one person’s structured look at it will be another person’s incoherent mystery.

I wanted to post this after the linkspam put up the lists to the latest round of self-education posts, because he needs to accept responsibility for his own education. If he’s not willing to do a lot of listening and doubting and struggling to understand and looking back at his six-months-ago self and being embarrassed at his lack of clue, you can’t make him and we can’t make him.

Let me talk about myself for a bit. I’m very privileged, and I’ve spent a few years now reading about intersectionality issues and oppressions other than patriarchal ones. I don’t get an ally cookie and reading the social justice blogosphere is far and away not the only thing an ally can or should do. But here’s what’s worked for me:

  • reading a lot of things, mostly in my case blogs, with stories in them about oppression playing out in people’s lives;
  • thinking privileged things like “surely that’s an exaggeration” “but I’m not like that” “but my friends aren’t like that” “but I’ve never heard of anything like that” “I think your point would be better made if you…” and so on;
  • (at least sometimes) noticing myself thinking those things and keeping them inside my own head; and
  • (sometimes) noticing oppression that isn’t happening to me personally and thinking “that’s fucked up” and (sometimes) analysing, criticising, or trying to end it.

Not a direct answer to your question, but perhaps your partner does need to ask himself what it is he needs structured for him and why.

For others, were there any resources that provided you with some structure to your early feminist or anti-oppression thinking, even if they later turned out to be incomplete or problematic in and of themselves? If you’re a male feminist/feminist ally, how did you start out learning and what are you learning at the moment?

Note: discussions of what one can do to learn about or further social justice can themselves end up ableist and classist among other things. There are many types of activism and the types that can be done or are preferred by conventionally educated abled folk with leisure time aren’t the only kind. Be careful with your ‘must’s.

11 thoughts on “Beginning a feminist journey

  1. tina

    UC Santa Cruz’s Bettina Aptheker has published her Intro to Feminism lectures on a set of DVDs, available from the online bookstore for $20. I bet that is the sort of structure you were looking for!

  2. Alralei

    Some good books for men interested in feminism (that I’ve read and judged to be so… not yet heard from men on this topic, so I can’t speak to that, unfortunately) seem to be:

    “The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help” by Jackson Katz

    (This is a really good smackdown of dudebros getting away with sexism/misogyny/violence against women in pop culture, like Eminem and Kobe Bryant, etc. Jackson is an awesome advocate, but may come across as too ‘radical’ for a guy who’s just beginning his feminist journey. You might want to try to get your hands on his video, “Tough Guise”, if it seems that may turn your dude off.)

    “Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power” edited by Shira Tarrant

    (This is a collection of essays by men on the topic of feminism. Most of them detail their personal journeys and many share their struggles in understanding and coming to feminism. I didn’t agree with all of the viewpoints shared, but I did think it would be helpful for a newbie feminist dude. Many guys revealed their sexist pasts, or denial of sexism, before realizing that feminism was for them. Some guys still seem on the fence. I thought it would be a nice way for a guy to find out that he’s not the only one questioning feminism…and how to think about those questions and hopefully find answers.)

  3. Bakka

    I think bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody is a useful place to start because it is well-organized and is intended to be an introduction. Plus it is short, and so can be read quickly.

    Another good book is Rethinking Masculinity. This is an intro to many feminist topics written by men.

    I have used both of the above texts in Intro-level University classes on feminist theory. They are fairly accessible and both are aimed at male audiences who are new to feminism and feminist theory.

    In terms of teaching feminism to men, and also dealing with his own issues around masculinities I would recommend a few blogs that look at feminism an masculinities such as:
    Figleaf’s Real Adult Sex
    Hugo Schwyzer and
    XY Online

  4. Cessen

    I can relate pretty strongly to your boyfriend, because I have similar issues having internalized a lot of negative stereotypes about men, and thus feeling a certain amount of negativity about myself already just for being a guy.

    To be honest, there’s only so much that can be done about that, and it’s going to make getting into feminism pretty painful and stressful for him. It certainly was (and continues to be) for me. A lot of what’s talked about in the feminist blogosphere ends up sounding extremely similar to those stereotypes to someone who has already internalized them, and it can be really difficult to break that down, unpack it, separate it out, and hear what’s *actually* being said. This is a constant struggle for me, and I suspect it will be for your boyfriend too.

    So first thing is that I strongly advise he be prepared to push through that. Because regardless of anything else, he’s going to be facing that down. It is not the job of feminist blogs to cater to men and make it easier for them to get into feminism. And even if they tried, I imagine it would be akin to walking on egg shells.

    It’s also really helpful to take breaks. If things are getting too much for him, he could leave it be for a couple of weeks or more, let it mull around in his brain. Regain some balance and emotional centeredness. Then come back to it. I find that it’s really important to remind myself of the good and positive things in the world when wading through this stuff, because otherwise I burn out.

    Another thing that I’ve found to be really helpful is to purposefully search for feminist blogs that I can relate to in other ways. For example, I find it a lot easier to relate to Geek Feminism than Feministing. And I find it easier to relate to Shakesville and Womanist Musings than Fugitivus.
    His mileage may vary, of course. He needs to figure this out himself. And the blogs that you can relate to are sometimes unexpected (sometimes it even just comes down to the writing style of the author).

    (This comes with an addendum, though, that once he gets more comfortable with feminism–which may take quite some time–it’s good to branch out. It’s bad to limit your sources of information too much. But at the same time, if you burn out and just decide to blow it all off, that’s not helpful either.)

    I’d also like to second what Mary said with respect to seeking out stories of sexism actually playing out in people’s lives. It’s a lot easier to relate to, understand, and sympathize with someone’s personal story than it is to relate to higher-level discussion of structural and cultural issues. It also helps drive home that this is real stuff. It’s also the real meat of why this stuff is important. After all, if it didn’t effect real people, why would it matter?

    There are also a few resources out there specifically for guys getting into feminism. I recently discovered Guy’s Guide to Feminism, which is a blog explicitly intended to help ease guys into feminism in a space that doesn’t feel quite so hostile.
    I certainly wouldn’t limit my reading to that, but it may be a good space to be more participatory, and leave the other blogs just for reading.

    One last thing, and this may be controversial, but I really recommend that your boyfriend not avoid being critical of what he reads. I don’t mean he should comment with critiques (he absolutely should not, especially since these are safe-spaces). But I mean for himself. He shouldn’t turn off his critical thinking skills. He shouldn’t suppress that. He needs to actually convince himself of this stuff, not just accept it blindly. Otherwise it doesn’t mean anything. Otherwise he’s not really getting it. And there is plenty of information out there to convince. There is lots of evidence. It will hold up to critical thinking if he keeps at it, keeps seeking out more information, and doesn’t take the easy way out.

    I’ve found it to be the case that when I’m not really critically looking at something, it’s way too easy to just start agreeing and parroting to earn brownie points and approval, rather than actually incorporating these things into my world view. And guess who has more brownie points to offer: feminism, or the rest of our culture/society?

    (But, again, it cannot be emphasized enough that feminist blogs are not the place to express those critical thoughts or questions. But having those thoughts and questions, and satisfying them, is paramount to really getting it.)

    1. Cessen

      Hrm. You know… probably the hardest thing for me getting into feminism (not that I’m all the way there, but you know) was just not having any other guys to talk to about it. It can be kind of isolating in a way, because on one side you have a bunch of guy friends who are potentially hostile to the new views you’re taking on, and on the other side you have this huge community that seems quite hostile to where you’re coming from. I was often left with very few, if any, people that felt safe to really, truly talk 100% openly with.

      So with that in mind, if he would like to have a feminist-friendly guy to talk to, I’d be happy to field that. I’m pretty busy these days, but I’ll try to take time out for it. It sounds like he and I have some similar issues. My email is on my website (link in my user-name above). If he wants to shoot me an e-mail, he is free too.

      Maybe this sounds really weird or over-board (especially since, as guys, we’re really privileged), but maybe some of us feminist/exploring-feminism guys should start some kind of support group? Not to replace reading actual feminist voices, but as a place to deal with the shit that comes up while doing so, and discuss things openly that generally there aren’t other spaces to discuss. Maybe that’s partly what Guy’s Guide to Feminism is supposed to be. But I’m not sure. Maybe there’s already a resource like that I’m ignorant of.

  5. vajorie

    Well, he’ll probably have to read books on this :P Here are a few that might help, which I got from WMST-L (cited as introductory, easy to read works on feminism). I am familiar with bell hooks’ books (very good stuff).

    * Full Frontal Feminism
    * Colonize This!
    * Feminism is for Everyone (by bell hooks, very well known US Black feminist)
    * Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (by bell hooks, more challenging)
    * Listen Up!

    You will have to look at their table of contents on Google Books and read up on Amazon reviews and such to see which one(s) of these you prefer…

    By the way, I wonder what he means by “hate men.”

    Good luck.

  6. John C Barstow

    One of the things I found really helpful was fiction, actually. Good authors and good television can help you (figuratively) walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. And it can be helpful reading about a protagonist facing the same struggles.

    Things I found particularly helpful in my personal journey:

    Glory Road, by David Brin – this presents a view of a female-dominated society that avoids the usual traps in such writings. Personally I thought it helped illuminate the unconscious assumptions built into our society by showing a society with different assumptions. The protagonist was working through issues of sexism, but from the other direction.

    anything written by Ursula K Le Guin (particularly her short story collections) – most of her “Haimish” stories explore issues of gender identity and relations. Personally I find all of her writing forces me to think deeply about things I take for granted. It makes me more aware of my assumptions.

    Quantum Leap (TV series) – this is the story of a Straight White Male literally forced to live in someone else’s skin every episode. It can be illuminating watching Sam and Al confronting, discussing, and coming to terms with issues of sexism, racism, and feminism – personally it helped me become more empathic.

    1. Jon Niehof

      To the best of my knowledge, Brin never wrote anything titled Glory Road. If you’re referring to the Heinlein novel, it’s a fun book but RAH has serious pedestal issues with women. Perhaps you mean Glory Season? (I haven’t read it, so just a guess.)

      To the original question: I’d suggest your guy read a lot (GF and Shakesville are both awesome IMO), and I disagree with Cessen: turn *off* the critical thinking to start with. Worry less about “does this make sense, hey I’m not like that! well if you’d just…” and listen to what women are saying about their experiences. Assume what someone writes is at very least true from her point of view, and get into understanding her (that empathy thing.) Otherwise the defensiveness and the ingrained silencing tactics start welling up. That made a big difference for me.

  7. Bruce Byfield

    About ten years ago, Susan Faludi, best-known for Backlash, published a study of American masculinity called Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man.. The book has two main virtues: It is an excellent piece of journalism, and she points to positive aspects of male tradition that could be used to counter misogyny. It’s well worth a read, like everything that Faludi writes.

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