Remember the men
by Thomas Dollar
I must confess I was a bit nervous about writing for a new season of Equal Writes. As a newly repatriated U.S.American coming off a year in Sierra Leone, I wondered how I could be relevant to a campus discourse on feminism. When I was a freshman, Republicans in control of Congress were attempting to force Big Government to overrule a family’s end-of-life decision, while Princeton liberals were protesting to save the Senate filibuster. (Whoops.)
But I have learned some important lessons from the world of international development, and there’s one I find particularly important for the world of collegiate feminism: it’s about the men too. I worked on a number of women’s empowerment projects in Sierra Leone—from expanding economic opportunities for small businesswomen, to ending sexual and domestic violence—and, without a doubt, the worst possible thing we could do was ignore the men. Aid organizations have learned this the hard way: women come home “empowered” from training sessions, only to face increased gender-based violence out of men’s resentment. (Liberia has experienced an increase in violence against women since the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. This is no doubt due in part to increased reporting, but may also be a case of a woman in power leading to more violent men.) More recent (and more successful) programs have sought to build a new gender paradigm by changing the long-term attitudes and behaviors of both men and women. Both sexes receive training, and teachers demonstrate why gender equality benefits everyone. This is a much more radical shift—and requires more work—but it’s impossible to build a better society without it.
Sierra Leone is at a very different stage in gender-equality from Princeton or the United States as a whole, but the need to remember the men is just as great here. All of the major “women’s issues” of our time are issues that impact men profoundly, require men’s involvement and engagement, and, in my experience, are issues about which young men feel a great deal of confusion and uncertainty. In fact, I think it’s a shame that we refer to them as “women’s issues” at all; not only is the term inaccurate, but it causes men to withdraw from talking and caring about them. Let’s call them “people’s issues.”
Although 3.2 million American men suffer relationship violence, the vast majority of instances of sexual assault and partner violence are committed by men against women. And our discourse on the subject largely reflects this. Unfortunately, this reality often leads us into the trap of viewing men as perpetrators and The Problem when it comes to sexual assault, rather than as a necessary part of the solution. I went through a (sex-segregated) training session by a SHARE advisor my junior year. Most of the men in the room were initially uncomfortable, anticipating being badgered, accused, or made to feel guilty about their sexuality. Once the advisor showed us that this would not be the case, we had a very productive and insightful dialogue. (For all you new Princetonians, SHARE is an excellent campus resource. My junior year, it had only one straight, male undergrad advisor, which was a damned shame since this was the demographic group that should have been most involved.) Ending sexual assault is a complex business, but it will certainly require openness and honesty in communicating feelings and desires, a more responsible attitude towards alcohol use, a respect for everyone’s personal and bodily autonomy, people’s ability to say “no” when they mean it, and people’s ability to say “yes” when they mean it. Moreover, our mission shouldn’t just be to prevent something bad (sexual assault), but to promote something good—respectful, honest and equal sexual relationships. This is something that benefits men and women, and will require active participation by men and women.
Issues of family and career are also people’s issues. Most of us reading this blog know that women still make less money on average than men do—even though by the end of this year women will constitute the majority of the American work force. While I’m sure that there are many complex reasons for this, one that’s often cited is women’s greater likelihood to take time off for their families, and this family leave adversely affecting future earnings. Three-fifths of women work outside the home, yet our career-track system remains stuck in the Mad Men-era. In Norway, by contrast, parents are guaranteed a year’s paid leave after the birth of a child—six weeks of which must be taken by the father. This has led to some of the most gender-equal parenting in the world—even among immigrant families that come from traditional societies. For a country that supposedly holds family values paramount, the United States does approximately nothing to make balancing career and family easier. (Though many employers—Princeton University among them—grant some paid parental leave.) Encouraging active fatherhood through paid incentives is something that benefits everyone.
Issues ranging from reproductive rights (we’re still waiting for male birth control) to sex discrimination (in this case, for not being a “manly man”) are not just women’s issues either. Feminism is a subset of a greater belief in human right—and those rights can’t be obtained without the participation of all of humanity.