Cisgender men need to intentionally open themselves up to more than just their own perspectives, opinions and experiences.
Cisgender men often ask me what they can do as “allies” or “accomplices” to women, femmes, trans and GNC/nonbinary people. I am usually willing to offer my thoughts on the matter, but I am often discouraged because the question is sometimes transparently used as an opportunity to debate male privilege, toxic masculinity and other manifestations of patriarchal violence.
It is exhausting to fight for your humanity, to ask men to simply be better, to develop their sense of empathy to include people whose experiences differ from their own. The weight of misogyny is enough of a burden without having to explain how those who benefit from it can and should strive to dismantle it. Misogyny is more than just a construct and systemic form of oppression, it is a choice, it is an ideology people still feel comfortable ascribing to, supporting and perpetuating because it benefits them on one level or another.
Being on the receiving end of any kind of oppression is exhausting, studies have shown that women are twice as likely to experience depression and the reasons extend beyond biology and are also due to oppression in the forms of financial inequality, uneven distribution of workloads at home and at work, and physical and sexualized violence. We are consistently held back by expressions of the patriarchy and the sexist acts and beliefs of individual cisgender men who harm us as much as the systems of oppression themselves.
The first step in being more than a conditional ally to non-men begins with understanding how systems of oppression and power operate in a multitude of ways in both our public and private spheres of interaction, and that all cisgender men are in one way or another complicit in maintaining and perpetuating patriarchal violence. What we don’t need in our spaces are men who give up on trying to dismantle the patriarchy when the work becomes too challenging or uncomfortable—trust me when I say that the oppression we experience at the hands of cisgender men is far more challenging than your role as traitor to the patriarchy. If you’re not ready to actually do any work to be a better person, I recommend you sit with that knowledge and head over to an MRA page on Reddit instead of pretending that you’re one of the “good ones”. The following list of demands isn’t all-encompassing, but it’s a good place to start.
The difficulty with so many conversations about misogyny and other forms of patriarchal violence can be boiled down to several issues, but the most enduring one is that cisgender men just refuse to be quiet about things they know little of, but they somehow still have the audacity to argue or discuss them. From an early age, boys are socialized to have their voices heard while girls are taught to quiet ourselves. Other aspects of this are demonstrated at all levels of society, from who gets more speaking time, to whose voices are prioritized, trusted and promoted regardless of expertise or experience with the topics at hand. In terms of representation, our media, literature, music, other artistic expressions are dominated by men and male-centric perspectives; politics and business realms are overwhelmingly white and male and the voices of women, particularly women of color, are shoved into a corner, policed, erased and plagiarized when convenient.
That is why cisgender men need to be quiet. We don’t need you to explain our oppression to us, we don’t need you to mansplain, interject, or offer your opinion and we don’t need you to play devil’s advocate—your favorite game of all time. From learning about misogyny and feminist theory to literally any other topic, you should listen to women and femmes. Why? Because you haven’t been listening to us, and one of the first steps in unlearning harmful biases is to internalize, reflect upon and learn from the people harmed by your passive and active expressions of oppression. You cannot change or hope to change without doing so.
Take Up Less Space
Much like being quiet and listening—taking up less space, both vocally and physically is part of unlearning aspects of the cisgender male existence that men take for granted. You may have heard of “man spreading”— how men spread out their legs in public transportation and other high-traffic, condensed areas and make people around them shrink themselves for the sake of their genitalia. My entire body is used to shrinking away from men’s bodies and the space that they feel comfortable taking. I’ve had men press their entire bodies against mine at crowded bars, on subways, buses, at protests, at shows—men claim every public space and do not seem to give a fuck about the discomfort of others, particularly of women and femmes.
Vocally, men take up much of the same space they take physically. According to a 2014 study at George Washington University reported by Forbes, when men talked with women, they interrupted 33 percent more often than when they were talking to men and “the men interrupted their female conversational partners 2.1 times during a three minute conversation. That number dropped to 1.8 when they spoke to other men. The women in the study rarely interrupted their male counterparts—an average of once in a three minute dialogue.”
Being conscious of the space you take up is a necessary part of unlearning harmful behaviors which affect the ways in which women are forced to navigate the world. Much of our time is spent figuring out ways in which we can move around you, how we can claim more space for ourselves to be heard without negative repercussions. It’s exhausting to have to plan around men. Understanding and then following through on making sure that you cede your spaces to non-men is essential in addressing gender inequality.
Divesting From The Cisgender Male Experience As The Center of Your Universe
Divesting from the cisgender male experience as the center of your understanding of the world is a necessary function of undoing patriarchy as a structure and misogyny as an expression of it. Studies have shown that men are less empathetic than women (who are socialized to be more caring about other people’s well-being) which means that learning to empathize with women’s experiences is crucial in addressing your part in perpetuating sexist behaviors. Compassion and empathy are key to undoing any form of oppression. The white male experience is often regarded as the experience — neutral, logical, of the most importance, of the most interest. Non-men are well aware of the inner-workings of your minds, we know your desires and we’re socialized to center your needs, your voice and your existence before our own. This is a position you benefit from, it means that you are the gods of your own universe. That kind of power is difficult to give up, which is why dismantling patriarchy is so difficult. Cisgender men need to intentionally open themselves up to more than just their own perspectives, opinions and experiences.
The idea that your experiences are universal means that anyone who has a differing experience cannot be speaking the truth or that their perspectives aren’t worth making space for, which means that our society addresses your needs first while further harming oppressed people. It makes way for the rampant dehumanization of women, femmes, trans and GNC/non binary people whose humanity is sidelined in order to continue justifying oppression and the social positions cisgender men benefit from. Some of these efforts can begin with challenging yourself to only read books by women, with a heavy emphasis on queer and trans women and femmes of color for an entire year (or longer if you only read about one or two books per year). Go through your social media feeds and look at who you follow. Look at the media you consume, the publications you read, the art you see. Make it a habit to listen, read and consume works by non-white men. It is important to take these steps because in a world where Brie Larson intentionally makes her press tour for “Captain Marvel” more inclusive and white men react in anger at the mere inclusion of non-white men, it becomes clear that we still have a long way to go.
No society can change or shift for the better without making intentional decisions to change ourselves. There are thousands of feminists who, like me, have taken the time to write and discuss the ways in which men can be a bit better — I am not here to convince you to do this because you too are harmed by narrow ideas of what masculinity should look like, I am here to tell you that how you benefit from oppressing and hurting women is despicable and it should be enough of a motivation for you to want to divest from patriarchy. You can share this with your friends, bring it up with your co-workers, share it with your students. However you choose to engage, your silence and complicity in these systems of oppression must come to an end.
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