I'm in an academically nostalgic mood this morning.
Many years ago, I sat both frustrated and excited through my first Women's Studies class at Berkeley. I was one of perhaps four men in a class of thirty, and I was (shock of all shocks) among the most vocal. I remember one morning blurting out something like the following:
Why is it that men are always guilty until proven innocent? I know there are some "bad guys" out there, but it is incredibly hurtful to me that women won't smile at me in the hallways or on the street because they have lumped me in with all the others! I get so tired of paying the price -- in terms of women's mistrust -- for other men's failures and betrayals and bad behavior. Why can't women see what a good guy I am?
It was the sort of day where everyone was sharing personal stuff. I was 19 and lonely, but I was also eager to "get" feminism because I believed it was my duty to do so. More importantly, I believed that there was something there for me within feminism -- something I could learn that would make me a happier person. But so far, all I was feeling was guilty and angry.
I am happy to report that no one verbally attacked me for my outburst. But the women in the class, led by the professor, helped me to see several things I wasn't able or willing yet to see.
First of all, the obvious point is that women's intuition, while not entirely the stuff of myth, is not so powerful that it can automatically separate "good guys" from the bad. No woman can walk down the street and as she passes a man, know with certainty that he isn't a threat. Given the high incidence of rape and assault and harassment and other forms of mistreatment, a woman would be a fool to leave herself continually vulnerable. The old adage "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me" seems to apply here. When a simple smile is so frequently misunderstood and construed as a sexual invitation, American women generally do have to operate on the assumption that men are guilty until proven innocent. (I blogged on that "guilty until innocent" theme once before, in a different context.)
As I heard this, I acknowledged that I couldn't ask women to have radar detectors to sense my harmlessness. So, I asked "What can I do? How can I - as a man -- help this situation?"
The answers I got have been with me for nigh on eighteen years. The most important thing I can do is hold myself and other men accountable. When I'm hanging with the guys, and one of them cat-calls a girl and I say nothing, I am as guilty as he is. When I'm hanging with the guys, and leering at my classmates in miniskirts, I am part of the problem. It's not enough for men to be kind and thoughtful with the women in their lives, they must exemplify that kindness and sympathy for women even when they are in an all-male environment. The acid test of a male pro-feminist is how he interacts with other men when there are no women around. Any man can "talk the talk", and maybe even "walk the walk" in front of his mother, sister, girlfriend, wife. Can he do it with his buddies present? That's the question. And you can't be part of the solution until you do that.
I was floored when I heard that, because like so many young men, I was guilty of that "double life." Sweet and sensitive with women (at least, trying to be sensitive); crass and boorish with my fellow males. I assumed that the closeness with men I desired so much required that I surrender my feminist and egalitarian principles; how else could I bond with guys if we didn't act like pigs? Isn't that just what guys do? (Check out a great story on this subject of confronting guys at the splendid XYONLINE site.)
It is not easy to confront other men. To do so is to violate sacred rules of masculinity in our culture, and indeed, as I posted below, to risk the accusation of effeminacy and homosexuality. Actually, for many years in the early 1990s, I only had male friends who were gay for this very reason. They didn't seem as hung up on masculinity issues as straight guys, and, more importantly, how could a gay man question my masculinity? (That's a tough one to admit, but heck, it's God's truth today.)
I have a number of straight men friends today. I'm having lunch with one in a few minutes, actually. But it's taken years to "match my language and my life" around other heterosexual men. One huge help in doing so was beginning to work with youth groups. I knew that if I were to work with high school boys, I had to be accountable to God and to the principles I embrace as never before. These boys have helped me enormously on my journey to wholeness.
Now that I teach courses on gender, I often run into fellows in my classes who sound a lot like I did when I was 19. They are angry and frustrated at being "guilty until proven innocent." I empathize with them publicly, and then I tell them what I was told. I challenge them to do that hard work with other men. Indeed, I tell them over and over again something I believe down to my core:
The single most important thing a man can do if he wants to be a feminist is to practice feminism with other men. If he can do that, he's well on his way on his journey to justice.
Off to lunch with Steve.