I once dealt with violence in my family by blacking out on absinthe. I awoke to read messages I had sent to a friend with a boyfriend, an intriguing person with whom I had been working to respect and learn about through friendship, as one does with people in relationships.
It doesn’t matter if I had blacked out. The result was the same. I failed as a friend. I failed as an accomplice. I failed as a feminist. I reminded a woman who had confided in me that men were not to be trusted. That men would try and acquire her regardless of her desires. That her desires were not a priority. That public space is curated by men, and that women, as guests, will be treated accordingly. That acquiring women as badges of male value trumps female existence.
I am regularly thanked for being a feminist. I accrue real social value for repeating and reorganizing the opinions of (mostly) women regarding the oppression of women. I am treated this way because of the gendered distribution of emotional labour – the idea that men are exempt from dismantling violence that is perpetrated by their brothers for their benefit. I learned this concept from a woman.
This imbalance matters: no matter how much my Dr. Jerkyll aspires to learn about becoming an accomplice, my Mr. Hyde-wiring will rear its head. These ‘imperfections’ bring me to a recent reading of Bad Feminist, where Roxane Gay suggests that holding feminists accountable should be done while considering them as flawed human beings. It is significant that I am citing Gay who is a black woman and that the majority of the feminists who trained me have been black women.
Before I continue let’s recognize that this argument fails without considering that the woman with the boyfriend paid for my learning. I will never know how it felt in her body to be reminded that the world was not designed for her. For her, the realities of patriarchal violence are not simply ideological. I cannot speak for her and yet I assume this feeling was worse than regretting drunken texts. When I woke up, the world was still designed for my body.
Male feminists need to qualify Gay’s argument by assessing the body count required for their learning. How many romantic partners, friends, teachers, or sisters put in the work for them to become less-violent human beings? One often hears the response, “Of course I’m a feminist – I grew up with four sisters,” or, “I have two daughters.” It rarely concludes with, “and I reciprocated their effort by providing _____.” I have never compensated a woman for her emotional labour. I am worse than a ‘bad’ feminist because my flaws concern more than taste or ideology.
This ‘nobody is perfect’ argument is not enough. I mentioned in an article last week that while intent has a place in sentencing, it has no place in the determination of guilt. Let’s add that intention is similarly irrelevant when calculating the cost to bodies of the attacked. So, concerning emotional labour, this entails costs to the bodies of women from male assumption, action, and flawed leadership.
The consistency of our conviction must translate from what we say to how we live out our lives as male feminists. Inconsistency threatens to double down violence against women by putting up false fronts as accomplices to provoke the sharing of vulnerable information with a man who will later prove to be violent. This standard raises proportional to the power held by a man: a male feminist educator, for example, must be aware of this reality in order to avoid repeating violence against women within a course on violence against women. Disproportionate critiques of female students is a form of violence.
Why did I write this article? I considered it might make me look shitty. It might. This focus is however misguided and restates the issue of placing disproportionate focus on men within the feminist movement. I then considered how it might affect the woman (after considering myself), but, because it transpired so long ago, this woman will not read this article. For good reasons she may also not give a fuck. I then considered that this article might discourage men from being feminists. I then realized that if a man is discouraged from participating in feminism because it involves work, all the better to catch it early and spare the women down the line who would have had to pay for his learning.
I shared this because it might prevent other men from doing what I have, or to promote a new method of compensation from male readers to compensate the emotional labour of the women who have helped to shape their feminist ideas.
I anticipate that gut reactions to this idea could be ‘but freedom of movement,’ or some other suggestion that codified law was burned into the ground when our species evolved from monkeys, as though political bills are apolitical. The fact that the disasters men conjure up while drunk are expected to be mitigated by the patience and labour of the women around them is proof of an entitled sense of mobility. Men are not entitled to enter every space of solidarity: as a cismale, while I may learn to empathize with the ideological aspects of feminine oppression, I will never understand what it feels like in my body. The fact that for me, discussing feminism is a choice, an ‘interest,’ is proof of this disconnect. Gay’s arguments of nuance are useful but will fail when the men using them lack the conviction to live out what they say and amend their violent behaviours. I am not an exception.
As I mentioned last week, people who leave those who are violent to them makes sense, and critiquing this reflex is as reasonable as critiquing a person who avoids snakes because they have been bitten by snakes. As such, ‘female identified only’ rallies or spaces make sense because of past experiences of violence and the potential for male participants to bring forth new violence. Male feminists should not feel slighted if women walk away from us to protect themselves. I cannot blame the woman for walking away from me, because I am not a woman.
these words were inspired by the art of Alex Andreev
The author would like to thank Rachelle Dénommé, Emily Eek, Cora-Lee Conway, Charlotte Joyce Kidd, Laura McPhee-Browne, Alisha Mascarenhas, Mona’a Malik, Caitlyn Spencer, Sara Press, Rachel Burke, Jessica Bebenek, Karissa Laroque, Sarah Arnaud, Jasmine Okorougo, Hélène Boulay, Dilara Arslan, Parisa Mirshahi, Maija Sidial Whitney, Adriana Sobanska, Rumeysa Arslan, Madeleine Elson, Esher Madhur, Sophie Bourgon, Pascale Cyr, Alyx Holland, Kate Eldridge, Jessica Nye, Jennifer Burke, Stacey Comber, Shelley Whitehorne, Jaimie Anderson, Jenna Daigle, Satinder Matharu, Hailey Lachance, Claudette Rowland, Jennifer Maxwell, Shikha Saxena, Julie Wiley, Dana Dragonoiu, Danielle Bobker, Mrs. K, Mrs. R, Rachel Zellars, bell hooks, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, Michelle Alexander, Angela Davis, Kim Katrin Milan, Franchesca Ramsey, Toni Morrison, Fran Ross, Patricia Hill Collins, Zadie Smith, Roxane Gay, Rebecca Solnit, Illana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson, Rihanna, Virginia Woolf, and all of the women who supported them, and all of the women who evade my memory, for their inspiring work, for their emotional and administrative support, and for their guidance.
Further reading: Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist