Monday, October 5, 2009

Thoughts on my experience as a male feminist

by Josh Franklin

Partially in reaction to the controversy at Feministe over EW blogger Tom Dollar's post titled "Remember the Men", and partially in reaction to my experience this year facilitating discussions about sexual assault after Sex on a Saturday Night, I wanted to write here about male involvement in feminist spaces. I realize that there is a lot that I don't understand about gender, and this is not a comprehensive critical account of male participation in discussions about gender. Rather, I want to share some thoughts and provide an additional perspective.

One of the most troubling things that I have noticed during my participation in discussions about sexual assault is the way in which male survivors are discussed. It seems to me that sometimes there is some difficulty appreciating individuality in discussions where understanding the meanings and effects of cultural categories--gender, sexual orientation, race, and so forth--are crucial. I think that there are often subtle but unfortunate conflations. The idea that women are more likely to be survivors is somehow transformed into the myth that men cannot be survivors or that there are virtually no male survivors. The truth is that, according to RAINN, 1 in 33 men is a survivor of sexual assault, which is 2.78 million men, a statistic that Tom referenced in his post.

How should we interpret this? It clearly doesn't mean that there is no power dynamic that privileges men in our society. It shouldn't be necessary to say this, but there is no single male experience: men have a wide range of experiences, determined in part by their race, class, sexual orientation, and so forth, but also by the idiosyncratic details of their lives. Just as we recognize the suffering that accompanies the sexual assault of female students at Princeton, despite their privileged status as Princeton students, we recognize the suffering of male survivors despite their male privilege. At the same time, the existence of male survivors doesn't excuse men in general for male power.

The essence of what I want to say is that although gendered structures of power affect our lives, they do not determine them. That is to say, patriarchy is a part of each of our lives, but it does not account fully for our experiences. A lot of the feminist discussions that I have participated in have emphasized that members of privileged groups are often not in a position to make fair judgments about social interactions, since they do not fully understand their privilege.

Personally, I feel that I have developed a tendency to suppress my emotions, telling myself that though I might think I am unhappy, I am too privileged to know what it means to be unhappy. I'm not sure whether this tendency is a feature of feminist discourse in general, or something specific to my experience. And maybe it's true that I'm too privileged to really know what it means to be unhappy. But I do know that I started this semester at Princeton with a lot of anxiety about eating, about my body, about my religious experience, and about my gender, which I had been dismissing for a while as illusions. I will write more about my experiences in the future, but for now I want to say only this: I find it very difficult to acknowledge my own suffering, maybe because I feel guilty for thinking that I suffer despite my privilege, which I accept as enormous. And this raises the question that I want to bring to EW, which is: how do we create spaces that allow men to accept their own difficulties without undermining the feminist project? Do we create men's spaces? If so, what should be men's roles in feminist spaces?

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