Thursday, July 21, 2011

Feminism 101: Helpful Hints for Dudes, Part 6

Following is a primer for men who are genuinely interested in learning about how to be a more feminist-friendly dude. Most of the information in this piece is, as always, generally applicable in terms of being decent to the people around you, but this has been written to be most accessible for men in keeping with the objective of the series, which is responding to commonly emailed questions from privileged men (here, generally meaning straight cis men) seeking advice on how to interact with the women in their lives.

In the wake of the Elevator Incident, and throughout all the ensuing discussion, and in many of the emails I received in response to my post, there ran a thread of desperate concern, tinged with the usual belligerent exasperation, about how (straight) men are ever supposed to figure out how to interact with women in a way that won't be regarded as rude, sexist, and/or creepy.

Many people who have weighed in at various feminist, atheist, skeptic, and/or scientific blogs have taken up the challenge of addressing those concerns, with recommendations on how to approach women, guidelines for conferences, and prescriptions for social or institutional change. I'm not inclined to replicate those efforts.

I will, however, take a moment to answer a question that I feel was being asked implicitly in many of these discussions, and was asked explicitly of me by a male emailer, writing to me to express his frustrations on this subject: "What is it exactly that you want men to do?"

I want men to be nice to women.

Here, I will not insert any caveats about how what I really want is for all people to be nice to each other, or that I acknowledge that there are men who are nice to women, or women who are not nice to men, or whatever acquiescence would allegedly inoculate me against the accusation that I am a shrill, horrible cunt. The demands of chronic obfuscators have nothing to do with the question that was asked of me, which I intend to answer without indulging tangents and distractions.

The question that was asked of me is this: What is it exactly that you want men to do?

More precisely, I was asked what it is that I want (straight) men to do, so that they might avoid being charged with rudeness, misogyny, or creepiness. Implicit in the question is the charge that there is no answer, the assertion that there is no way that (straight) men can publicly interact with women in a way that will not be negatively construed.

Especially by women who are hysterical. Women who are psychos. Women who are over-reactionary. Women who are man-haters. Women who think all men are perverts. Women who are looking for things to get mad about. Feminists.

But, of course, there is an answer. Men can be nice to women.

There are, surely, people who will read that and snort derisively and feel compelled to make arguments about how "nice" is a relative term and is thus meaningless, in terms of trying to help a man know how to interact with a woman.

And, just as surely, people like myself, who are not invested in the idea that (straight) men can't possibly know how to interact with women without a high risk of offending them, will call bullshit in retort.

You see, one thing I have observed over and over (and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over, and over some more) during my thirty-seven years on this rock, is that there are men who treat women like people, and men who treat women like not-men.

Men who treat women like people—that is to say, in the same way they treat other men—generally tend to have no problem being nice to women. They are pleasant in their interactions with women; they are respectful during their interactions with women; they hold friendly and engaging and fun and challenging and sometimes contentious conversations with women; if they are straight men, they acknowledge appropriate boundaries in terms of romantic behavior (i.e. they don't treat a work environment like it's a singles bar just because a female person is in it); they don't ogle or grope women; they regard women as their equals, and are capable of acknowledging women's different experiences from their own without using that as the basis for treating women like a different species.

Men who treat women like people treat them as individual people, who are deserving of their decency unless and until an individual woman gives them a reason to be guarded, or avoidant, or angry, or whatever—in which case, those feelings are directed at the individual woman who piqued their ire, not at "women."

They are, in short, nice.

On the other hand, there are men who treat women like not-men. Women are regarded as a separate class of human altogether (or, in some cases, non-human), a monolithic variation which exists not in complement to men, but in service to them. Men who treat women like not-men, if they are straight, view women as the sex class, and ergo do not draw any delineation between spheres of work and play, but view a woman in a professional space as an interloper, whose purpose as a sexual object and potential sex partner supersedes her role as a working person in her chosen vocation.

Men who treat women like not-men have problems viewing women just as co-workers, as bosses, as friends, as teachers, as equals, because they see them as humans with a (sex/reproductive) service role, which is not how they see other men.

And because they see women as fundamentally different from men, they imagine that there must be a whole set of unique rules to interacting with women. They cannot conceive that there is, simply, a set of rules to engage all other humans politely and respectfully and productively—and that the boundary between "man" and "woman" is not nearly as important as the boundary between, say, "work" and "speed-dating event."

(Which is not to say it's inherently awful or wrong to meet someone at work. There is a difference—and a not remotely difficult to discern difference, at that—between happening to meet someone at work in whom you become romantically interested, and treating the women who share your place of employment as a captive audience for your random sexual overtures.)

Men who treat women like not-men are incapable of acknowledging women's different experiences from their own without using that as the basis for treating women like a different species. They use any woman's failure to please as a strike against the entirety of womankind, and they annihilate the individuality of a woman beneath the crushing weight of their own biases about women, and then accuse women of being all the same.

They treat a woman's personhood and her womanhood as mutually exclusive constructs, while treating manhood and personhood as synonymous, and then they wonder how it is that women can complain of different treatment, of lesser treatment.

They are, in short, not nice.

There's nothing decent or kind about treating women as though they are alien beings whose primary use is in service to your needs. Unless, of course, a woman is not attractive to you, in which case she has no use at all.

It isn't just terrible men who treat women this way. It's lots and lots and lots of men, who consider themselves to be decent and kind, and who are hardly considered monsters by the women who know them. I'm sure the man who asked me what it is, exactly, I'd like men to do is not an awful fellow. He's probably just a guy who's been told his whole life that it's okay to treat women differently and never questioned if maybe that wasn't actually the best thing to do, if you really do fancy yourself an egalitarian sort of bloke.

And thus is my advice to him, and to all the men who are wondering what it is they're supposed to do to make us bitches happy: Be nice.

If you really think about it, and if you're really honest with yourself, you know what that means.