An open letter to the indirectly affected (or, how to be a feminist man)

Trigger warning: mentions a rape and mentions rape jokes.

Before I begin, let me be clear about where I am coming from; I am a heterosexual, white, cisgender man from a lower middle class background, who is also a feminist, a pro-gay activist, and a socialist. I am also a disabled man. In other words, in the grand and complex landscape of liberation politics, I can define into one group of protected characteristics, meaning that I can stand at the front of the disability rights movement. But I am not, automatically, a good feminist or pro-gay rights activist.

The question I want to answer is simple. Can I, as a man, be a good feminist? Some would answer that I cannot. I am not female. I have never faced discrimination because of being a woman. Whilst my long hair doesn’t conform to normative models of masculinity, I have never been objectified, groped, or been paid less than my colleagues like women are on a day to day basis. Whilst I have been raped, it wasn’t because of my gender, but because I was a vulnerable child placed in the environment of a predatory and sick man.

Despite not facing the discrimination that women face, I continue, of course, to support feminism. I wish to see an end to patriarchy and gender discrimination because I believe it will better our society. I believe that as a heterosexual man, I am affected by feminist issues, but I recognise that it is in a VERY different manner to the way my female friends are. They are on the front line, as it were, and I am several miles back, still chocking on the stink of gunsmoke, but not in immediate fear of losing my life. The same would go for my gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans* friends. That is all reversed when I am with my non-disabled, but pro-disability rights friends. I am in the trenches there; my non-disabled girlfriend is back at HQ.

What I am trying to say is that if you are one of a group I am going to call the “indirectly affected” that is, a feminist man, an anti-racist white person, a pro-gay heterosexual, a pro-trans* cis-sexual, or a pro-disability rights able person (…the list goes on…), you can be a valuable friend and ally, but you need to be clear on where the boundaries are. I have tried to put these into three golden rules of being “indirectly affected”:

  1. Step back

By this, I mean check your privilege. As a man, I live is a society which, more often than not, takes the Daily Mail approach towards women – they are either slim beauties in bikinis to be drooled over, or they are disgraceful, for even daring to go out in public like that. This is an obvious example, but by taking a step back from the world, and thinking critically about it, the indirectly affected can help to identify the problems with society, but more importantly with themselves. For example; is that joke your friend just cracked “banter” or rape apologism? Is that TV potrayal of a disabled person sympathetic or patronising and disempowering? How did you respond to it? Would you respond in the same way? How can you change your response if it was inappropriate? And so on.

  1. Step up

By this, I mean, challenging prejudices and discriminatory behaviour which you have identified by stepping back. So, you are in a bar and your friend makes an inappropriate joke about some girls, and what he would like to do to them. Respond to it. Make it clear that it is not ok for that to be considered funny. This process of stepping up is different to way that feminist women step up every day of their lives against gender discrimination, but it is a chance to support them. Your step will – and should – be smaller than theres, but it is a step nonetheless.

  1. Listen don’t lead

As a disabled man, I would feel hurt if an able bodied person told me what they thought was right for the disability movement. The same goes for any good feminist man. Feminist men should never tell women how to think, how to act, what they think the issues are, because they are indirectly affected by them. I would like to think that I see a lot of gender equality in society. I am, however, looking through the veil of my own privilege as a man. Thus, I’ll defer to women gladly, whether it is speaking at a feminist meeting or discussion group, or at a rally. I am learning new things about feminism every day, from the books I read, from Butler, Dworkin, Serano, but I am learning just as much from all the amazing women who have taught me how to understand my position as a feminist man. Likewise, I would like to think, in return, I have taught the able bodied a lot about disability.

So step back, step up and listen and learn; the complicated but necessary dance of the indirectly affected. Before I close, I feel that whilst all of these are important, the most important is the first – being able to step back, and self analyse, and realise that the privilege you have often obscures your vision. Perhaps worse than being an enemy is being the kind of ally who tramples down the handwork of women (and other liberation activists) with well meaning but misguided footsteps.


  1. John

    Great article on a subject I always find it hard to articulate sensible thoughts about. For me, as a similarly indirectly affected person when it comes to feminism, I find the issue of my ethical responsibilities regarding participating or not in feminist struggles extremely difficult and multi-sided. On the one hand, I understand and agree with the view that it’s wrong or unhelpful to take on a significant role in such struggles, as a man, because doing so compromises their very aims and ideals. You can’t properly help or respect women while you’re still trying to guide their activities/structure their discourse.

    But on the other hand, I find the inherent passivity of the “only listen, nothing more” doctrine unsettling. If there’s something wrong in the world, I want to fight to make it right, not listen to other people fighting to make it right. I’ve spent many long years listening, talking and thinking about feminist issues and problems. And nowadays, I actually find it hard to remain interested. By which I mean, I often stop paying attention, not out of spite, but out of uselessness – there’s nothing more for me to do, so I’m going to turn instead to issues where I can make a bigger difference. Feminism is a dead end for me, I might as well not even pay attention. Perhaps this isn’t anything to be concerned about – if well-intentioned men turn away from feminism because they’re too scared of overstepping their rightful place in the movement, then that’s fine, it leaves more space for the people who should be involved to really get on with it. But I can’t help but feel there’s something wrong with sending half the populace away from one of the biggest issues of our time. Sure, they can still listen in, learn and challenge their mates in the pub, but that’s it. And once you’ve done as much listening, learning and challenging as someone like me, you start to feel like there’s not much more you can usefully listen to, and that there’s really no point sticking around.

    I’m not saying I have a solution. I’m not saying feminism should be less concerned about men getting stuck in. Most of all, I’m CERTAINLY not saying that I want to or should have a leading role in feminism. I’m just saying that “step back, step up and listen”, even if it’s the best solution, is still probably a flawed one. N’est pas?

    • sophie_barnes

      Listening should not be a passive activity for a man striving to be feminist. It’s a matter of hearing what the women in the movement ask of you AND THEN DOING IT. The whole point is that the listening leads to action: personal work to strive to rid yourself and those around you of misogynist beliefs and behaviours, yes, but PRIMARILY your goal should be to support women (and not only women feminists) in helping them make time and space for talking to each other, caring for themselves and each other, and organising together. That means cooking, washing up, cleaning, doing childcare, talking less, never interrupting, the list goes on. The fact that the only role most men think they can play in feminism is giving their unnecessary, unwanted intellectual input just goes to show just how non-invested they really are in feminist struggle.

      • John

        OK, but here’s my question. What if I’ve done the washing up, taken care of the children and all the other things it’s within my ability to do for the women I live with, to allow them more time for the important things. What if I talk very little, never interrupt, and don’t give any intellectual input. What if I’ve rid myself of misogynist behaviour to the utmost extent possible, whilst recognising that it’s never possible to be fully rid of it, due to my y chromosome. At this point, what should I do to benefit the feminist struggle more?

        Consider the struggle against climate change. I could do all the chores for the people who are fighting for this cause, to give them more time and energy to do it better. I could change my behaviour to be as carbon-neutral and environmentally friendly as possible. I could do all this, but there would still always be more that it would be helpful for me to do. I could petition parliament. I could organise a rally. I could go disrupt the creation of a new oil well. I could donate to Greenpeace. I could put leaflets through people’s doors. I could help with some admin or PR work in the back office. I could attend a discussion group about how best to move the struggle forward, and my input might be useful.

        But why the conditionals? The truth is, I do, in real life, do as much as I can to make myself as non-misogynist as possible. I think about this constantly. I do the majority of household chores and so on in my flat – although I don’t actually live with any women so I can’t help much in that respect. Other than posting on Gender Agenda infrequently, I almost never try to engage in feminist forums, discussions or women’s groups, for fear of influencing the discourse. (I did use to do this, but I was persuaded that it wasn’t helpful). But the point is this: I have more left to give. If the movement wanted me, I’d be happy to throw my energy into organising stuff. This is the sense in which I feel that the role allocated to pro-feminist men is “passive”. There’s a limit to it. In any other struggle, the work that needs to be done is limitless. Indeed, it is for feminism too – and that’s why I can’t help but feel it’s a shame to miss out on the labour and energy of well-intentioned men.

        Now, obviously at this point I have to repeat my caveat: I’m not actually arguing that men “should” be encouraged to participate in the same way as women in the feminist struggle, or anything of that sort. I’m simply keen to point out that there might conceivably be an issue here. It’s not necessarily an issue that can be fixed; probably not even one we would want to fix. But it’s point that’s worth thinking about, and that’s sometimes missed.

        • sophie_barnes

          Predictably, you are underestimating how much energy it actually takes to do the things I’ve listed. If you do all of those things, then still genuinely have energy left – when you have done as much hard domestic and administrative work for as many women as you can – get back to us.

          • John

            That’s true. I don’t actively seek out women to help. By “energy” I was speaking practically – I mean the realistic amount of time I can give to the causes I’m passionate about. Unfortunately I do have to have a job to survive. But the time I have outside of this I am able to use in the ways I think make the most difference. As I don’t live with any women, I would literally have to offer myself to randomers to come into their homes and do personal work for them. I don’t think there’s anyone who would be comfortable enough to let me do that, unfortunately. I couldn’t offer myself as paid labour, as then I would be taking resources from women who could better use them for feminism. It would have to be voluntary, and my friends wouldn’t want that from me, and strangers would feel weird. Frankly I think I would also feel unsafe in that environment. So it’s a dead end. I still have loads of “energy” left over. I end up volunteering for things like Wikipedia or Climate Rush instead, which only contributes to the male domination of these spheres.

            While I’m sure I do underestimate the work involved in just doing the small things, it can still be practically difficult to contribute to feminism, as a man, in ways other than changing your everyday behaviour and choices. This isn’t the end of the world of course, it’s just another problem to think about.

    • l789

      Hi John

      If you really have energy, there is TONS you could do – I agree with Sophie and Faith that damage control is a good premise, but there is lots of ACTUAL STUFF that surrounds damage control.

      1) Fundraising. Women’s organisations are badly badly in need of funds ALL THE TIME. Give or get others to give to small organisations like Cambridge Rape Crisis, the Women’s Refuge or larger campaigning organisations like Southall Black Sisters – even better do some local research into stuff that needs money locally. Obviously there are good and bad ways to fundraise – I’m sure you can imagine the problems with the man funding woman’s organisation- self publicist style – but I trust you can navigate the politics and work this out – staying self critical is obviously the best way

      2) Assisting with the destruction of male internet trolls – the internet version of cspage’s ‘step up’

      3) Thinking about masculinities, attempting to break down and problematise hegemonic masculinities, getting more involved – here is a good place to start reading about it The patriarchy is not simply about all men hurting all women, it is about all men participating in and passively or actively endorsing male dominance, but also some of those men simultaneously suffer from it. Likewise women may simultaneously suffer from and prop up the patriarchy. Obviously the levels of blame and responsibility are different in each case. But it is totally possible to be both victim and perpetrator in the patriarchy – male violence against women in SOME cultures and places is simultanously a literal life and death survival strategy and an unforgivable violation on the part of the man. Cambridge University is happily not one of those societies, but we still see hegemonic masculinity at play and that can be broken down in every direction by both men and women.

      4) Actively learn what it is like to be responsible for household tasks and childcare by working in this capacity for a while. Volunteering ideally. Learn through experience about the exhaustion of childcare before you consider having kids with anyone. Learn about how much time washing and cleaning and cooking takes when you’re not in the world of individual students/professionals doing their own thing. Some of this will require training obviously, but there are plenty of volunteer opportunities out there for this kind of basic work, either with the elderly, families or in schools. You won’t experience this the same as a woman will, you will be praised far more and taken for granted far less, but it’s still important.

      I think I am right in saying that there is a lot you can do, after prioritising the less exciting but far more important things of taking responsibility for childcare and household tasks – particularly if you’re in the privileged position of not having much of that to do. Does this help, and can you see more ways now?

  2. Faith

    I like the three-point step back, step up, listen don’t lead thing, so thanks for that. The issue I have with this is the idea of being ‘indirectly affected’. In the landscape of oppression, being ‘indirectly affected’ seems to quite majorly circumvent responsibility. For example, as an able-bodied person, I am not ‘indirectly affected’ by ableism, I am a participant and enabler in a system which perpetuates the subordination and discrimination of people with disabilities. This is true because, as an able-bodied person, I inherently BENEFIT from this subordination – the privileges non-disabled people gain are endowed by the subjugation of people with disabilities. Without wishing to draw a direct comparison between two very different systems of oppression, I think the idea of being a beneficiary, rather than a victim, of patriarchy is an important consideration to make. MAB men are not ‘indirectly affected’ by patriarchy, they benefit and sustain it – that is their responsibility to bear. The question is how this can be productively changed. Certainly not through expressions of guilt, which re-directs attention and power back onto men. Certainly not by the co-option of the negative effects of patriarchy into the formation of MAB male identities. ‘Stepping up’ is for sure calling out your friends etc on sexism, but it also must incur a self-reflexivity that involving stepping ‘out’ of a feminist discourse that was formulated for the liberation of women, not for the liberation of men.

  3. sophie_barnes

    I agree with Faith – it’s a real problem to see men as “indirectly affected”. Patriarchy is not “out there”, acting on men, making good guys do bad things to women. Patriarchy works THROUGH men; all men necessarily facilitate and enable it.

    It also needs to be emphasised that, for a pro-feminist man, his struggle needs to be seen primarily in terms of damage control: i.e. understanding that you will never be able to be completely rid of misogyny, but striving for that nonetheless. The problem I often see is that, although this is what is most useful to women and the feminist movement at large, most men reject this premise because there is very little glory in admitting that the most you can do is limit your harm.

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