Archive for the ‘male feminism’ Category

On Friday, I was harassed in the local mall. By any standards, it was a trivial incident, but I believe that the encounter gave me, if not insight to what women endure regularly from men, then at least something from which I could emotionally extrapolate how they must feel.

I was walking through the local mall at the end of a long day. I had just come from the gym, and I was unwashed and limping from a minor injury. I was tired, and had just discovered my bank card was missing, and that I needed to add canceling it to my list of errands to do. I wanted nothing so much as to drag myself home and collapse in a hot bath, but I knew that I had at least another hour’s worth of errands. All in all, I was feeling about as attractive as the sweaty towel in my gym bag.

As I neared a kiosk selling spa products, I saw one man holding a tray of hand lotion samples break into a little dance. By the time I reached the kiosk, he had moved to its other side, and a woman in black blocked my path, holding out a tray.

I tried to step around her, and she moved to block me again. Ordinarily, I would have just kept walking, but, as I said, I was tired. Taking the path of least resistance, I reached out for a sample, and rubbed it on my hand.

“Do you have a special woman in your life?” she asked.

Since I’m a widower, that is a bit of a tender point with me. “No,” I said shortly.

“No sister? No friends? No mother? No aunt?”

I replied “no” to each question, becoming increasingly annoyed at a stranger asking me personal questions.

“Let me show you something,” she said. Not thinking, but relieved that the questions had stopped, I let myself to be steered over to the kiosk.

Without asking, the woman grabbed my hand and started demonstrating a nail buffer on my right thumb. She was standing close to me, and her breasts kept rubbing against my arm as she worked. When I took a step away, she followed, talking continually about how attractive regular the products she was selling would make me.

“Younger women just love men who use them,” she told, stroking my hand.

I was more embarrassed than enticed, and I more or less tuned her out. So far as I was thinking at all, I was hoping that the demo would be over soon and I could move on without being polite.

“You’re not listening to me,” she said. “You’re looking at my breasts.” I wasn’t, but she plucked at her top, an action that not only drew my eyes, but exposed more cleavage rather than less.

Abruptly, I pulled myself together and decided that, single as I was, I wasn’t so desperate as to prolong this encounter. “Sorry, I have to go now.”

“No you don’t,” she said with a knowing smile, trying to grab my hand again.

“Yes I do.”

We repeated the same sentences several times apiece. Then I realized that I didn’t even owe her even politeness, and simply turned and left, shaking my head.

The next day, I was in the mall again. I seriously considered taking a roundabout route so I wouldn’t have to pass the kiosk. But I told myself I wasn’t going to inconvenience myself to avoid embarrassment, and made myself walk by.

“Oh, you’ve come back,” she said, smiling. “I knew you would.”

This time, I was rested enough to know that the last thing I wanted was to stop and listen to her.

I held up a hand without slowing. “No, I haven’t.”

I felt better for walking on. But I admit that I was glad that she was helping another customer when I walked by twenty minutes later.

If you’re a man, especially a young one, you might wonder why I didn’t play along, enjoying the contact and the innuendo as long as they lasted. But such things were far from my mind. All through the encounter, I kept thinking that I might be desperate for female contact, but I would never be that desperate. Besides, as irresistible as I might sometimes imagine myself to be, I knew the whole thing was about selling products. I was disgusted with her tactics, and not much pleased with myself for going along with them, however briefly.

In fact, as I retell the story, I find my lip curling in distaste, and I have had to stop several times to calm myself before I could go on. What, I keep wondering, did she see in me that she would imagine that I would be open to these sales tactics? Did she think that, as an older man, I would buy for the pleasure of having a younger woman come on to me? Or was I supposed to buy because I was embarrassed?

I’m not going to be scarred for life by what happened. I am not even going to report the woman, although I’m sure that I’m not the only one she has used such tactics on. But the experience does leave me with a more immediate understanding of a situation that I ordinarily understand only intellectually, or with an imaginative effort.

All the reactions I felt are similar to those I’ve heard hundreds of times from women recounting petty harassment. My annoyance at being imposed upon, going along with what was happening out of a misguided sense of politeness, the sense of being impersonally manipulated by sexuality, the wondering whether I was somehow to blame, the temptation to avoid the place where it happened – despite my gender, I was reacting much the same as many women do in a similar situation.

So, if anyone thinks that I should have enjoyed it, let me assure you that what happened wasn’t flattering and wasn’t a compliment. It was intrusive and annoying, and an over-obvious attempt to manipulate me that is still making me uneasy several days later.

Admittedly, it was only one encounter. For many women, such encounters are a daily occurrence. Quite justifiably, some women may wonder why I imagine my experience worth recording, or how I imagine that I can extrapolate from my experience to theirs.

All I can say is that, if their reactions are anything like mine, I wonder how they endure such incidents – and why. And you can be sure I am going to be monitoring my behavior very carefully from now on, to make sure that I don’t – even accidentally – leave a woman feeling the way that I am feeling now.

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Years ago, on a sun-drenched afternoon at the Vancouver Folk Festival, folk singer Utah Phillips was talking about his life. Having just returned from the Korean War, he was working in Joe Hill House in Salt Lake City, and had decided he was a pacifist and an anarchist. Then his mentor told him, “Renouncing violence isn’t enough. You have to give up all the privileges that your life has left you with.”

I’m sure the tale grew in the telling – after all, who in the 1950s talked about privilege? But Utah was a storyteller, and probably would have admitted as much if cornered. But, despite such doubts, the comment stuck in my mind, and became the foundation of my thinking of what it means to be a male feminist. You can’t just announce that you believe in feminist principles or send a donation; you have to try living by your beliefs as well.

What do I mean by that? In some ways, I can more easily explain what I don’t mean. I don’t just mean ruefully admitting the truth of The Male Privilege Checklist. Nor do I mean a Gandhi-like renunciation of your normal life. Still less does it mean somehow a feminization of your thoughts and your actions (whatever that means), neutering yourself, or wallowing in guilt.

Instead, what I am talking about is a final act of maturation. Broadly-speaking, growing up is a gradually increasing awareness of other people and your responsibilities towards them – a journey away from egocentricity. You learn, for instance, to take turns, and not to interrupt others when they are speaking. You learn (or should) that little bits of politeness help people to get along.

Trying to move away from your male privilege might be called the last step in this process. A male feminist needs to rethink his way of interacting with people – especially women. He needs to learn not to be the first to speak when someone asks for suggestions, knowing that social conditioning makes many women slower to express opinions. He needs to learn to listen to women, and not to take charge automatically. He needs to realize that he is not automatically the center of attention, that he won’t always dictate the topic of conversation, or that women will view his concerns as paramount over their own. In general, he needs to learn a sense of restraint, and to extinguish the egocentricity that male gender roles encourage in him.

In particular, the male feminist needs this responsible attitude in matters of sex and gender. He needs to stop assuming, as catcallers on the street do, that, because he is interested in a woman, she will be automatically be interested in him, and that he has a right to impose his attention on her. He needs to learn that, while nothing is wrong with appreciating that a woman is attractive, something is very wrong with expressing that appreciation in any way that makes her uncomfortable. He needs to accept “No” as an answer, and to pay attention to the subtler signals of human sexuality that indicate whether attraction is mutual and might progress. If he misinterprets, he can never retreat into claiming that “I can’t help myself” or “Men are just following their biological imperative,” because he has chosen  to be personally responsible for his behavior.

This rethinking has to be extended to every aspect of his life – even small ones like how he occupies social space. What’s more, he needs to keep his choice constantly in mind, because most of his upbringing and experience tells him to do exactly the opposite of these things. Often, he will fail to meet his own standards, or over-compensate to the point that he looks or feels ridiculous.

Other times, both men and women will give him privileges he hasn’t asked for, listening to him while ignoring a woman, or hiring him in preference to a woman. He may never be sure that is what is happening, but the possibility will haunt him. Sometimes, he may be able to turn his male privilege to an advantage, such as advising that a woman be hired, but that will be qualified satisfaction at best. Most of the time, he won’t be able to do even that.

No question, renouncing your privileges as a man isn’t easy. Nor is it completely possible in our current culture. But it’s one of those things that’s worth trying despite its impossibility. After all, the alternative is to wallow in self-centeredness. And who wants to remain a child all his life?

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