A few nights ago I was up late, I had sprained a few of my ribs and I was kept up by the gnawing pain. Crippled by an injury, there isn’t much to do besides watch bad television. This is how I came to find myself watching a dating program on MTV, at 4 am, where the contestants are all living together in a house in Hawaii. The premise of the program is unimportant, except to know that twenty young men and women were living together with constant interaction and very little privacy. A transgression during the course of the program made me realize there is a very important part of feminism that we are not discussing: the abuse and safety of men.
Feminism, at its core is meant to promote a society where men and women are treated equally in all aspects of society. In most cases, women need to be brought to where men are and afforded the same opportunities/treatment, but in some instances men need to be given the same respect and attention of women. In current new wave feminism there is a focus on sexual assault, sexually safety, and violence prevention – but only for 50% of the population. The abuse of men is not a widely discussed or respected issue, nor one that I am forced to think about very often.
So there I am, at 4am, watching this program when a violent seen breaks out between two of the contestants. There was a man and a woman, we’ll call them Chris and Ally (since I can’t remember their names) who were romantically involved and had a highly volatile relationship. One evening the members of the television program are sitting around and drinking. Ally, intoxicated, begins verbally harassing Chris. He tries to walk away and diffuse the situation. She follows hip and starts to hit him, jokingly at first, but then every time he tries to speak she hits him in the face. Chris walks away again and returns to the communal bed room. Ally follows him and yells obscenities. She follows him into the bedroom where she begins kicking him, hitting him, and screaming. He asks her to walk away. She continues. She pulls the sheets off his bed and hits him with them. Chris, also intoxicated, stands and pushes her. She pushes back and he then pushes her again. He sends her falling backwards onto the bed and she then falls to the floor.
The other house members, previously apathetic, become enraged. They come to the defense of Ally and start screaming at Chris. Chris is removed from the situation and the producers of the program intervene. He is sent to a hotel for a night so the situation can be addressed. The next morning Chris announces that he has decided to leave the show. He is crying and saying how he never meant for this to happen. He says he has brought shame to himself and his family, that he is not that kind of man. The other contestants say that they can no longer be friends with Chris now that he’s shown his true colors.
After Chris leaves, the program continues and Ally’s actions are never addressed. Now I am the first person to speak out against violence. I firmly believe that violence is not the answer to conflict and individuals must work towards non-violent deescalation, but no one is perfect. In the case of this television program, Ally instigated the violence. She repeatedly hit Chris, while he tried to walk away and diffuse the situation. She was the catalyst. He should not have responded to the situation with violence, but this is not the case of “woman beater.” I mean run through the series of events and switch the roles. Imagine a woman had tried to walk away from a mans repeated acts of violence, before eventually responding with her own act of retaliation. How would you react to that?
Now consider this alternative. A few nights ago I was out for drinks with some friends, they were rehashing the story of their friend who got “mauled” by this girl. They had been out at bars and this extremely intoxicated woman had made sexual advances on one of their friends. He tried to decline. Then she began forcibly making out with him. My friends were laughing about how he was looking over to them for help, mouthing SOS. Then the woman asked to go home with him and he declined. Once again, change the pronouns. Reread that story with different gender roles. If a man forces himself upon a woman, for a kiss or something more, and she turns to her friends for aid they laugh and tell her to have fun. That story reads completely differently, but it shouldn’t.
Thinking about these two micro experiences, I realized that on average men are excluded from the discourse on abuse and assault. They are the attackers, never the victims. If they are the victims however, then they are weak and unmanly. Somewhere in the search for gender equality, masculinity and victimhood became mutually exclusive terms. There is not a conscious or safe space for men in the current mainstream feminist movement.
Often times my male friends ask me questions about female safety. They are good kind men and they want to know how they can make their female friends feel safe. They want to know if they make women uncomfortable when they walk behind them on the street. They want to know if they should cross the street when they women walking alone at night. They want to know how they can approach women in spaces without seeming predatory. There are so many men who are actively committing themselves to being better allies to women, but are we doing the same for them?
I think there is a tendency to say that men have lived on the comfortable side of history. They hold the social power and their bodies are not used as extended battle grounds of violent conflict, they are the lucky ones. Once we decided that men, as a category, are privileged, we exclude them from this dialogue. I am guilty of this, I do not spend time thinking about how I can be a better advocate for my male friends. I do not take steps to make sure they feel safe or pressured to be masculine. Gender support is predominantly one sided and that needs to change.
Information about the assault of women is readily available and well organized. It is easy to discover that 1 in 3 women in the US will experience assault in some way and 1 in 5 women will experience rape. It is much harder to discover that 1 in 10 men in the US have experienced intimate partner violence and 4% of men have experienced serious harm as a result of domestic violence. We are only having one half of the conversation right now. Not only are we ignoring the male component of partner violence and sexual assault, but we also have a tendency to mock and insult men who can’t “handle” their women.
Now I am not blaming the MTV programming or my friends, but I am trying to point out a flaw in the discourse. Think about the fact that priests who sexually assault children, target young boys from working class families. These boys, already in already challenging and hyper masculine environments, are in a situation where they believe they would be shamed for discussing the assault. We have created an environment that does not allow men to maintain their masculinity while simaltaneously being honest about their experiences.
This is problematic and this is not the brand of feminism I signed up for. I know many men in my life who have vocalized their concern for the my safety and the lengths they would be going to protect that. These men would move mountains for me and feminism encourages that narrative. On the other hand I would go to every length of my power to protect the men in my life and save them from the pain of interpersonal violence. Often times I hear men say “I want to be a feminist because I love my sister, mother, girlfriend, etc” but you also hear men say “I want to be a feminist because women are humans who deserve to feel safe.” Well in the simplest form, men are humans who also deserve to feel safe and loved. And its about time we designed a wave of feminism that includes them.