For the last almost 6 years, I have spoken on topics of sexual violence and masculinity from the perspective of a male survivor. Across this time, I have noticed an unsettling trend appearing in how we as men, especially those who claim ourselves to be progressives and allies, are showing up in this space.
For some reason, when you challenge men on masculinity, there seem to be a few responses. Some do not care. Whether from ignorance or privilege, just not their topic. Many get exceedingly defensive. They justify behaviors. They cry identity politics. They claim they are experiencing the same things you are accusing them of doing.
Then there is another group. The group that I can fall into and one I see is also part of the problem. Men who are laying claim to the idea they are allies. Men who stand up and say yes that toxic masculinity is terrible and of course, men need to be challenging themselves and others. Men who will agree to all this.
The problem is not this. The problem is when we then as men don’t do anything about the things we disown. The even bigger problem is when we do something about these issues but we do things in name only, in public alone, or we don’t challenge our own privilege on a regular basis.
First and foremost; yes, we need male allies, and not all male allies are doing this. But if we are male allies, we should be able to be challenged on our ally-ship. And if we are not uncomfortable being tested, we need to question that.
As men, we need to challenge whether we are doing the work, doing the surface work, or asking others to do the work for us then co-opting it.
Here are some examples.
Doing the work means everything we claim. It means more than we claim. It means shutting up and listening. It means giving up our voices/space so others can have theirs. It means challenging our friends not only when they make an egregious statement but also to challenge others we don’t know for all levels of statements. It means knowing we are learning and going to be uncomfortable. Doing the work means being uncomfortable above all else. And it isn’t a fun feeling, and you will want to push back, but that is important.
Doing the surface work is something I see all the time. A chapter gets in trouble, so I get brought in to speak to their community about a topic like sexual violence. Men will publicly make statements praising me coming or show up in force. But then they are not willing to call out their own men for their behavior before during or after the keynote, guys showing up drunk or openly talking. Doing the surface work is sometimes taking pledges or making signs or banners but letting members get away with predatory behavior. Doing the surface work means we are starting, but we have to interpret our reasoning. Because if we throw an event but are still putting others in harm’s way or letting members use slurs because it’s “just a joke,” we are not doing the work. We are doing what is safe for us.
The last piece is co-opting others work. I see this sometimes when we attach ourselves to a group doing work, and by proxy, we appear to be doing the work. The times it is easy to show up to someone’s march or rally. In these times we are not even coordinating or sometimes giving resources, just time in exchange for space. Other times this is coasting on the goodwill other members of our groups have built to try and get a pass, up to including identifying with a movement while we bastardize the core of their messages for our gains, i.e. using feminism as a dating toll while not being willing to be challenged on our means of seeking sex then after.
The point is that no matter your level of ally-ship, as men, we all fall somewhere on this continuum.
Some say that at least being willing to make an effort is enough. That we also have to start somewhere and go from there. Others might say this is too harsh, they would tell me I am not a perfect ally, and I am lucky I had the people to call me out and welcome me in.
Both of these responses are right.
Yes, I have and will grow. And yes, we need men, especially those of privilege to start somewhere.
And we as men need to acknowledge the beginning is going to be difficult. But along the way, we also need to investigate our intentions.
Are we wearing the gear, promoting the hashtag, and attending the events because of the right intentions or the outward praise?
Are we willing to do the same things we know one thanks us? Or to not bring it up in casual conversation? Or to not use it to distance ourselves from bad examples?
And what about when it comes to us give up something? Passing on an opportunity? Or a relationship because we are willing to condemn the behaviors of men we are close to?
Being an ally is hard. And it is a process. It involves us doing strenuous work.
Along the way, we are going to be uncomfortable. But isn’t that the initial point?
Because we aren’t really losing anything when we look at the root of it. What we are doing is making sure those around us are afforded the same things we have always had access to.
Doing the work is hard.
If you are looking for the place to start, look at your intentions first. When they are not fully aligned, work on this and then keep doing the work even when it takes more work on your part. Because remember, the work never stops.