I have a lot of male friends. I always have. In fact, except for at rare points of my life, I’ve always had more male friends than women friends.
My male friends are a smart bunch, and they’re good guys. But even these smart, good guys are confused a lot in recent days. In days, that is, where the topic of the harassment women face in daily life, and especially on the internet, has been taking up a lot of space in my news feeds on various social media. See, because their experience is not women’s experience, these good guys do not know how to respond. Sometimes they’re at a loss because they honestly can’t conceive of a reality where the things women experience every day happen. Because they’re not the guys who do “those things,” and they don’t associate with the guys who do “those things.” So they give advice that often seems short-sighted and condescending to women. Advice like, “Just don’t pay it any attention,” or “Don’t stoop to their level,” or “It’s just some crazies spouting off; ignore it.” All of which are variations on “Don’t feed the trolls.”
There is, of course, a problem with this kind of thinking. It’s the same kind of thinking that led my mom to advise me, when I was being bullied throughout elementary, middle, and high school, “Just to ignore it, because they’re trying to get your goat. When they don’t get a rise out of you, they’ll stop.” Which may sound like logical reasoning. But it doesn’t work. When you ignore people who are harassing you, they don’t go away. They escalate their behavior until they get a response. In the case of women being harassed on the internet, they escalate from personal remarks to rape and death threats. Sometimes particularly vicious perpetrators of this kind of abuse find out where you live, call you on your home phone, threaten you and your family. This hasn’t happened to me personally, but that doesn’t matter. It happens so much to prominent women who have done nothing but express an opinion while being female that many have learned to take in in stride, which is terrifying when you think of it. That being threatened with rape and/or death is so common that women shrug it off as just another thing. Just another thing that you have to put up with when you’re female. The same way the threat of being raped is, in our culture, just something you acknowledge and try not to think about too much, because if you think about it too much you become unable to function.
Because I care about my friends of all genders, I try my best to educate them about this reality. And it leaves these smart, good guys in a real quandary. They don’t know how to take it in, much less how to respond. One friend of mine recently posed this question in a comment thread on Facebook:
“As one of these guys, whom do I address? I deplore these actions, and this overall attitude, but I also am not aware of anyone I know being one of these miscreants. Should I rant in the relevant forums? How can I do something positive? I would like to help, but since I am not part of that mind set OR culture, I’m not sure how…”
I gave this friend three pieces of advice: Educate yourself about Male Privilege, Don’t dismiss women’s experiences, and Speak out. Since the second two hinge on being successful at the first, that’s what I want to address in this blog. Male Privilege.
The question itself gave me an idea that this friend doesn’t know much about the subject. Two things clued me in: The statement that he “isn’t aware of anyone he knows being one of these miscreants,” and “I am not part of that mindset.” I’m not suggesting that he’s knowingly being dishonest here. But the idea that the only people who harass women are miscreants–i.e., OTHER, not Good Guys–is a prevalent one that keeps Good Guys from examining the ways they do take advantage of their privilege, as is the claim that he “is not part of that mindset.” Because having privilege blinds a person, both to their own actions and those of others with whom they associate.
A lot of people don’t get the idea of privilege in a political sense. Simply put, privilege is all the things you get from things that are unearned and beyond your control, like the shape of your genitalia, that you take for granted as being the way the world works. For a man, it might look like being able to drink to excess without people blaming you if you get mugged later, or being able to walk down the street without strangers making lewd and insistent remarks about your body and what they’d like to do to it. Or being able to express an opinion without someone threatening you with rape.
But those might seem like extreme examples to a lot of men, examples so far outside the usual experience that they just can’t take it in. The fact is, privilege shows up in a lot of little, insidious ways, every day, ways folks of all assorted genders might never think to question. That’s the point, really. That’s the mindset that supports privilege and allows all the behaviors that hinge on it to continue: we don’t question it, because we’ve learned through various means that it’s just the way the world works, and questioning it makes us really, really uncomfortable. But in order to change anything, you have to get uncomfortable. You have to school yourself to see the things to which you’ve been blind.
Privilege shows up in small ways, all the time. And it’s these small things Good Guys need to begin to look at before they can be able to absorb the larger ones. With that in mind, here are a few of my experiences of the way male privilege has shown up in my life, in little ways, in ways no one thinks to question.
When I was in my twenties, I lived in a house with a couple guys. We had another female housemate, too, but she was never around, so I’m leaving her out of the equation here. Somehow, I–the woman–was always the one doing the housework, washing the dishes, making sure the trash got taken out. We had numerous house meetings about equitable distribution of household chores, which always ended up with my desire to come up with some kind of schedule and task assignment being shouted down because, “These things should just happen organically.” Yeah, guess what? “Organically” meant “The woman does the housework.” Neither of the guys thought that’s what they were saying. I think they may honestly have believed that everything would shuffle out so that, in the end, we all were doing the same amount of work. But it never did, because the men’s tolerance for grime and dirty dishes and overflowing trash bins was far higher than mine. Because they were privileged not to see it.
At one point I got tired. I stopped doing the work. And it took a while, but finally one of the guys noticed that we were living in a cesspit and went on a purge. He spent a couple of days cleaning the entire house. And you know what happened then? He did not magically get a clue. He complained for a week about how “nobody ever picks up after themselves; they just ignored it until I had to do it! Why can’t people take care of their own shit?”
It was the same question I had been asking myself for several months. The difference was, because of his privilege, he believed he was the first person ever to experience this, and he took it for granted that his complaints about the situation would be heard. I’m fairly sure he never cleaned the house again.
Later, I moved in with a boyfriend. Now, this guy was definitely a Good Guy. He’d been raised by a strong mother who was an active feminist. He cooked and cleaned and did the dishes. When he lived at home or by himself, he would even go as far as to move out the stove and fridge to mop behind them on a regular basis (which is something I balk at doing to this day). When I moved in with him, I expected we’d split chores 50-50, because he was a good, responsible guy. Surprise! It didn’t happen that way. As soon as this Good Guy moved in with a woman, the woman became responsible for all the “women’s work.” And he didn’t see any problem with that. In fact, once when I suggested he do his part in washing the dishes because, after all, we both made them dirty, he said, “You’re the one that gets bothered by dirty dishes, so they should be your problem.”
Privilege. It means you still see certain tasks you’re perfectly capable of doing as being more appropriate to your partner of a different gender, and if you deign to partake of them you’re “just helping out,” not being a responsible human being who understands the need to participate in maintaining your environment. It means you’re allowed to ignore and overlook unpleasant things you don’t like doing, because you’re secure in the belief that they’re someone else’s problem. And that’s perfectly okay with you, and with a lot of society.
Still later, I got married. Now, my husband–not the aforementioned boyfriend, by the way–is really an astonishingly good guy and a wonderful man, a true feminist and forward-thinking person. And yet. He still acts on his privilege. When he has a question, he expects me to be available to answer. It doesn’t matter if I’m working on my latest novel or reading a book. He can just toss a question over his shoulder–”how do you spell discernible?”–with the expectation that I will A. hear him, because as his wife I am of course automatically attuned to his every need and B. drop what I am doing to answer. When he walks into a room, especially a roomful of women, he assumes he is immediately going to be the center of attention, and that it’s fine for him to interrupt whatever is going on. Probably the most egregious example of this happened several years ago. I was meeting with my therapist at my home, in the living room, because her office was undergoing renovation at the time. In the middle of my session, my husband arrived home from work. He walked in the front door, which opens directly onto the living room, and immediately started up a conversation with my therapist, ignoring the fact that I was having a session, that he had barged into my personal space and inserted himself into a place that did not concern him. Because, as a man, he is supposed to be the center of attention and he is allowed to ignore the reality of others around him if it suits him to do so.
And you know, even as I write this, I’m thinking, “Didn’t you expect he’d be home around that time? And wasn’t there another place in the house where you and your therapist could have met so you wouldn’t run the risk of being interrupted?” And the answers to those questions are, No, I didn’t, and No there isn’t. But I SHOULD NOT HAVE TO ASK THOSE QUESTIONS. I should be able to expect my space and my time to be inviolate, especially to those with whom I am in an intimate relationship. I should be able to have my occupations respected and not randomly interrupted. I should not have to keep track of all the details of everything in the world. I deserve these things because I am a living being. Hell, according to my personal belief system rocks deserve these things. And you know what? I have seen rocks get more respect than women often do.
The thing is, all these little ways even really Good Guys practice unthinking privilege contribute to the cultural assumption of women as property, as servants, as second-class citizens. They contribute to not being able to do the second thing I suggested to my friend: BELIEVE WHAT WOMEN TELL YOU IS TRUE. Most women–and yeah, there are some crazies out there of the female variety; I’ve known more than my share–most women don’t have any reason to lie about what they experience or inflate it. So listen, really listen, and take it in. Don’t judge or assume. Try to imagine what it would feel like to go through what the women in your life go through. When you start to practice this, you’ll begin to be able to see it when it’s happening. And then you can practice my third piece of advice: SPEAK OUT. This is important because, like it or not, male privilege gives you an advantage when you address other men that women don’t have: Other men will listen to you. They may not accept it, and they may blow you off, and they may call you names. But you’ll have the satisfaction of being a true ally to the women in your life.
What’s a Good Guy to do? Look at yourself. Look at how you conduct yourself in your relationships with your girlfriends, your wives, your daughters, your woman friends. Examine the ways you accept that the shape of your genitals gives you an unconscious advantage. Adjust your behavior. And take it from there.
Because even Good Guys have room for improvement. Everyone does.
11 May 2014: Edited to Add
So that guy I quoted at the beginning of the article? The one who wanted to know how to do something positive because he’s “not one of those miscreants?” A week ago, he made an inappropriate comment on a Facebook status I had posted. I called him on it. He un-friended me.