Can men be feminists? Should men participate in the struggle to end sexism and sexual exploitation? How can men fit into the feminist women’s movement without co-opting it or replicating male dominance? Controversial, and often avoided, these questions are beginning to be asked more frequently by young profeminist men and feminists alike. Many profeminist men and feminist scholars have explained that feminism isn’t just for women, systems of patriarchy and gender expectations limit all of us just as gender equality benefits both men and women. Patriarchal thinking shapes core values and ways of being within our society. We are socialized into this system and under it both men and women suffer the consequences. This is not to say that men are not responsible for their actions or that they don’t benefit from patriarchy, however, many feminists argue that men who actively oppose systems of patriarchy have an integral part to play within the feminist movement. Others argue, because females are the oppressed group only women can empower other women. hooks defines feminism as a “movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.” Without absolving individual men of the responsibility to critically examine their privilege and take responsibility for their actions, defining feminism as an anti-sexist movement allows everybody to participate within feminist endeavors. Further, isn’t it time that men take responsibility to end their collusion with patriarchal oppression?
This article seeks to answer three questions contributed by Keir, a male colleague and close friend, who is interested in learning more about feminism and becoming a part of the movement. His direct participation and voice within this article contribute both literally and symbolically to a pro-feminist dialogue in hopes that creating these linkages between men and feminism will help to strengthen men’s understanding and connection to the movement.
Keir: From your perspective, what role do anti-male sentiments play in the discussion of gender equity?
The feminist movement has been presented to most men via popular media in which it is promoted and read as anti-male. There was a serious anti-male faction in the feminist liberation movement but they were a very small minority. Of course this group of women received the largest amount of media attention which helped to propagate the misconception that all feminists are man-hating. However, it is important to note that this faction was created because men failed to care for women respectfully and through “continual acts of domination had actually created the cultural context for feminist rebellion.” Women used this anger for a catalyst for change but eventually had to face the fact that the problem did not just lie just with individual men. As hooks explains, women began to understand that “even if individual men divested themselves of patriarchal privilege, the systems of patriarchy, sexism, and male domination would still remain intact, and women would still be exploited and oppressed.”
The vast majority of the feminist women I have met and continue to meet do not hate men. Currently, the first and most obvious challenge men face when trying to understand feminism is that the movement is somehow anti-male because it centers on women’s interests, concerns and experiences. Feminism is not anti-male, it’s pro-female (and expressed later, I believe that it is pro-male as well). The realization that feminism is not directly about them leads many men-especially those who practice hegemonic or traditional forms of masculinity, to conclude that it must be opposed to their interests. This popular conception of feminism as ‘against men’ stems from the inability to depart from an androcentric viewpoint in which male concerns must always take up centrality within social discourse. In effect, feminism is perceived as a movement that does not further male interests, therefore, it must be actively opposed to them.
At its core, feminism is a social and political movement with the goal of ending sexism, sexual exploitation, and oppression. Further, feminism explores how women experience gender oppression in different ways depending on their social location which includes their class, race, sexual orientation, and more. The term intersectionality was introduced by black feminists who confronted white feminist’s ignorance to the multiple oppressions they faced due to the interaction of race and gender systems. These systems intersect within one another and shape how a person experiences power and oppression. Robert Jensen suggests that an intersectional analysis can be utilized by anyone regardless of their gender. He argues that “other systems of dominance and oppression” such as “white supremacy, heterosexism, predatory corporate capitalism–mean that non-white men, gay men, poor and working-class men suffer in various ways. A feminist analysis doesn’t preclude us from understanding those problems but it in fact helps us see them more clearly.”
Many feminists, like bell hooks, believe that the real issue within feminism is not men in particular but structures that maintain domination and oppression. In order for collective liberation to become a reality, we must understand how exploitation is patterned within institutions that govern our daily lives. hooks call this the politics of domination and argues that social, political, and economic oppression is rooted in “white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.”
To be clear, the problem isn’t men, but men are complicit in maintaining systems of domination. Both men and women need to be willing to confront the ways in which men participate and benefit from systems of domination. When discussing this issue with my mom, she replied bluntly “well not asking men to understand their dominance over women is like trying to end racism without talking about white supremacy.” Feminism is committed to large scale social and political transformations-but within these changes it also requires us to examine our own relation to power, how we exercise it over others as well as how various systems of oppression implicate our own lives. Since men are the primary actors maintaining, supporting, and benefitting from sexism and sexist oppression, the system can only be successfully eradicated if men assume responsibility and take action. It is my belief that men can provide a crucial contribution in the area of exposing, confronting, opposing and transforming sexism. Khary Lazarre-White founder of Brotherhood/Sister Sol explains, “it is essential for men to take an active role in the work to counteract sexism and misogyny because it is our responsibility. Sexism is not the problem of women-it’s the problem of men.”
Keir: What more is there to Feminism than treating Women as full equals? (What more do you want me to do?)
Before answering this question let’s begin with a story. I participated in a debate with Keir over the concept of ‘rape culture’; the concept used to describe a culture where rape and sexual violence against women occurs frequently and in which dominant attitudes, norms, practices, and mass media normalize, trivialize, and condone sexual violence against women. Keir remained dubious of the idea of rape culture and turned to the defensive as he felt like the concept was an affront to his gender: “I just don’t agree that we live in a culture that is obsessed with rape. I don’t go around raping women, my male friends don’t go around raping women, who are these guys that hurt women and why am I lumped into being a part of the problem just because I’m a guy?”
Keir’s right, he is a nice guy, more than that he treats the women in his life with respect and admiration and is sensitive to feminist politics. There are many men who have meaningful, respectful and supportive relationships with women, who support and love their female friends and colleagues. In fact, there are also men who have never raped and who also pipe up when others are expressing sexist views. Although, this is all important and praiseworthy, feminism is about more than men treating women with respect and decency. Men still need to acknowledge how systems of domination structure our lives, as Dale Spender observes:
“We can begin by acknowledging that sexism isn’t something other, horrid people do, but in a sexist society, something that all members do. Sexism is a code that we learn and operate and while feminists are trying to make that code explicit, to resist it and cease using it, we are not immune.” (1983, 7)
I realized after our exchange, that male defensiveness in regards to feminist issues was a major barrier that needed addressing. Many men feel as if feminism does nothing but personally blame men for the systematic oppression of women even if they are ‘nice guys’, which allows many to shirk from their responsibilities, hiding behind their guilt, denial and/or frustration. The problem is, men are responsible for the continuing oppression of women, especially if they choose to ignore the undue privileges accorded to them solely because they are male. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but distancing oneself from feminism or gender politics without actively engaging in or taking responsibility for unearned male privilege enables the problems to continue and remain invisible.
For male feminists, maintaining awareness of their own privilege (just as I have to confront my own privilege due to my social location as a white middle-class woman) in order to disassemble male dominance is paramount. Murray Knuttila, a professor of sociology at the University of Regina, and a self identified feminist recognizes that men benefit from patriarchy. Whether it be that men on average make more money than women, their opinions are taken more seriously and often respected more, and their work valued more, Knuttila understands that men, “to varying degrees depending on their class, race, and sexual orientation, have easier access to social status and social prestige” an advantage that he calls the “patriarchal dividend”. In other words, “status and cultural legitimacy” are conferred to men by a culture that has been doing so for a very long time. “The patriarchal dividend represents the benefits that accrue to men generally by virtue of being men in a patriarchal society,” he explains. However, masculine privilege operates, is maintained, and structured within our institutional and cultural systems.
For example, anti sexist author Hank Shaw reports in It’s Time for Guys to Put an End to This, that 85 percent of reported rapes in the United States end up with no conviction by the courts with 90 percent of reported rapes resulting in no jail time. The question to ask here is, why are there so many rapes? Or better yet, why are men raping women? There are over 876,000 a year in the US with 60 percent of sexual assaults not officially reported to the police. In Canada, 509,860 sexual assaults take place a year. That’s 1,397 per day which means that every minute of every day a woman or child is being sexually assaulted. With the US, Shaw has made the link between masculine privilege, violence against women, and “institutionalized patterns of power imbalances.” Shaw explains that one of the reasons that there are so many sexual assaults perpetrated by men is that “these guys think they have the right to sex…They also think their right to sex is greater than the right of a woman to say ‘No!’ Which is another way of saying this: ‘Men are more important than women. So we get to make the rules’”. These beliefs derive from “masuclinist ideologies of privilege” and are embedded deep within the consciousness of our society. 
Being a member of any dominant group includes the ability not to notice one’s privilege. Leaving masculine privilege unexamined make masculine privilege powerful because it is renders it invisible, normalizing gender inequality. It also allows men the luxury of not having to think about one’s own gender. Women are hyper-aware of being gendered as female. If I am ‘read’ as female walking down the street at night, it may mean the possibility of sexual assault. Women have adopted practices to protect themselves and one another from male violence. For example, women usually have buddy systems, keep their keys in their hand when unlocking car doors at night in parkades, take routes that have more foot traffic, and remain vigilant about their surroundings. Every day, I am aware that when I leave the house there is the possibility that I will get harassed.
Being acutely aware of gender and masculine privilege is not something that men on the regular have to do. Therefore, it is necessary for men to grasp the reality that ignoring masculinist processes of privilege, or violence against women (yes Keir, rape culture should be included in this discussion), allows these ideologies to continue to exert power and violence over women. If men refuse to analyze their own privilege, these systems of domination continue to exist and hence, the ability for men to participate in a meaningful way with the feminist project to end sexism, sexual exploitation and oppression cannot begin to happen.
Keir: What are your strategies for including men in the discussion of gender issues?
Though it is common to hear these days that feminist “hate” men or practice “male bashing” on the regular, feminism is not anti-male (actually, a point to be made here is that the real male-bashers are right-wing anti-feminists who declare that males are programmed by nature to be simplistic violent animals capable of aggression and rape if women do not fill their biological destiny of sexual and social enslavement). Rather, feminists are capable of using feminism to empathize with men, especially when they draw attention to the ways patriarchy hurts men while also challenging and critiquing dominant masculinity as an ideology, social construction, and an institution that harms men’s well-being just as it harms women’s.
Men have been included within the discussion of gender issues for quite some time. Men don’t exist in a vacuum and it’s no different within feminism. In her book, Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks criticizes the feminist movement for not making enough space for men within the movement that is inextricably linked to everyone. She writes, “Without males as allies in struggle, feminist movement will not progress.” Everyone suffers within a society that designates fixed codes of socially acceptable behavior to the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Men as well as women, suffer under patriarchy. In patriarchal culture, boys and men are praised for their toughness and aggression while applauded for being ‘real men’ when they are being violent. Knuttila and others call this “hegemonic masculinity”, encompassing a set of social practices that characterizes the dominant form of masculinity in western culture.
Feminism understands that masculinity and femininity are gender constructs. When feminists talk about ‘gender’ we argue that the many differences between men and women are socially produced, and therefore changeable. As the feminist movement began to deconstruct rigid patriarchal gender roles, like hegemonic masculinity, they exposed the many ambiguities entrenched within a system which assigned limited characteristics, behaviors, rules of being, and comportment to males and females. Many feminists agree that gender is socially constructed and not biologically pre-destined; we are taught and socialized at an early age within the home and by society at large to “perform” our gender according to whether we are male or female. For both dominant masculinity and its counterpart emphasized femininity, the social pressures on men and women to adopt these behaviors are embedded within every institution in society and effectively ‘policed’ through these institutions, like popular media and the classroom. For boys and men, the social practices that are associated to hegemonic masculinity can be very detrimental to their health as violent male behavior and refraining from emotional support networks are expected.
I would like to finish with some challenges I offer to men, before I turn to a challenge I present for myself. I think that the most important thing men can do to begin to support and include themselves within feminism is to listen to what women have to say. I mean listen. Really listen: don’t just hear the words, but understand what they mean for the woman expressing them and avoid the temptation to reduce them to predetermined ideas or concepts which you are already comfortable and familiar. It is a fact within social life that women tend to refrain from talking to men about the issues they hold dear to them. Often I tend to talk to my female friends because I know that they are better equipped to understand my social experience. Consequently, men can go through their whole life without finding themselves in a position where they really have to try to understand a distinctively female perspective. It is no big surprise that men have problems with comprehending the feminist agenda. When engaging in feminism they must be willing to affirm that “I am here to learn.” Men allies who are willing ‘to listen’ and ‘to learn’ rely on the women in their lives seeing them as mindful and trustworthy to be included in serious discussion about their social and political experiences. Discussions will touch on serious issues surrounding sexuality, pregnancy and abortion and require a sustained effort on part of men to try to understand these issues.
Finally, there are many feminists, including myself, that express their concern for men under patriarchy but are unwilling to lend their knowledge, experience, or time to help educate and facilitate the changes they would like to see. How are men going to change if they are not first extended the space and patience to form alliances with women? Why would men want to join a feminist movement or better yet, embark on a process of uncovering their masculine privilege without clear support from the women they respect and love in their lives? So here’s my challenge: to be there for the men in my life. To love, nurture, and guide them with clear, concise, and accessible information in regards to feminism. I’m here and willing to partake in dialogues with my male comrades so together we can begin to build relationships and identities that are not rooted in sexism.
I take the position that men are not only able to participate within the feminist movement but they are integral to furthering feminist projects and praxis to end sexism. It is up to not only men but also women to begin entering into necessary dialogue in order to end all forms of oppression and to begin seeing the changes we want for our collective growth. It is appropriate to end with a quote from Kay Leigh Hagan describing the profeminist men in her life:
For both men and women, Good Men can be somewhat disturbing to be around because they do not act in ways associated with typical men; they listen more than they talk; they self-reflect on their behavior and motives, they actively educate themselves about women’s reality by seeking out women’s culture and listening to women… They avoid using women for vicarious emotional expression… When they err-and they do err-they look to women for guidance, and receive criticism with gratitude. They practice enduring uncertainty while waiting for a new way of being to reveal previously unconsidered alternatives to controlling and abusive behavior, even when women are not present, and they work hard to recognize and challenge their own. Perhaps most amazingly, Good Men perceive the value of a feminist practice for themselves, and they advocate it not because it’s politically correct, or because they want women to like them, or even because they want women to have equality, but because they understand that male privilege prevents them from not only becoming whole, authentic human beings but also from knowing the truth about the world… They offer proof that men can change.
 bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (New York: Atria, 2004), 17.
 hooks, The Will to Change, 108-109
 Ibid., 109
 Ibid., 109
 Dale Spender, There’s Always Been a Women’s Movement this Century (London: Pandora Press, 1983), 7.
 hooks, The Will to Change
 bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press: 1984) .
 P.H. Collins “Gender, Black Feminism, and Black Political Economy,”Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 568. (1998): 41–53.
 As cited in ShiraTarrant, Men and Feminism (Berkeley: Seal Press: 2009): 14.
 Hooks, Feminist Theory, 14.
 D, Mandy, “Is Feminism Men’s Work too?” Herizons, Fall, 16-21.
 J. Ruddy, “Gender Mending: Men, Masculinity, and Feminism.” Briarpatch, March/April (2006): 5-9.
 Tarrant, Men and Feminism, 91.
 J. Ruddy, “Gender Mending: 5-9.
 Tarrant, Men and Feminism, 91.
 Ibid., 91
 Ibid., 91
 Ibid., 91
J. Ruddy, Gender Mending, 5-9.
 Judith Gardiner, Masculinity Studies and Feminsit Theory. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002): forward.
 hooks, The Will to Change, 184.
 J. Crowe, “Men and Feminism: Some Challenges and a Partial Response,” Social Alternatives 30, no.1, (2011): 49-53.
 In hooks, The Will to Change, 186-7.
Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW). CRIAW 2002 Factsheet. Available at www.criaw-icref.ca
Crowe, Jonathan. “Men and Feminism: Some Challenges and a Partial Response,” Social Alternatives 30, no.1, (2011): 49-53.
Deven, Mandy. “Is Feminism Men’s Work, Too?” Herizons, Fall (2009):16-21.
Gardiner, Judith. Masculinity Studies and Feminsit Theory. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002): forward.
hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press: 1984).
—. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. New York: Atria, 2004.
P.H. Collins “Gender, Black Feminism, and Black Political Economy,”Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 568. (1998): 41–53.
Ruddy, Jenn. “Gender Mending: Men, Masculinity, and Feminism.” Briarpatch, March/April (2006): 5-9.
Spender, Dale. There’s Always Been a Women’s Movement this Century (London: Pandora Press, 1983), 7.
Tarrant, Shira, ed. Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power. New York: Routledge, 2008.