When Men on the Left Refuse to See Their Sexism

leftfailpatriarchy

TRIGGER WARNING: This post cites examples of misogynistic language, gender slurs, sexual objectification, and other forms of sexist oppression.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across an article on Vice that was oddly titled, “You’re a Pussy If You Think There’s a War on Men.” It seemed clear that the author, Harry Cheadle, was referring to an awful “reverse sexist” and anti-feminist article about “The War on Men,” which asserts that women are to blame for the “dearth of good men” and must “surrender to their nature” while letting “men surrender to theirs.” Cheadle writes in defense of feminism and exposes the absurdity of claiming that men are “oppressed” by women. While I agree with his arguments that men need to stop blaming and fearing women, the sexist use of the word “pussy” in his title couldn’t be overlooked. After a brief conversation with friends who also found it offensive, I decided to write an e-mail to the author. I expressed overall support for his post and agreed that men need to be held accountable for their sexism, but I also pointed out that using the word “pussy” as a slur to characterize men as “cowardly” and “weak” is still misogynistic because it relies on degrading a woman’s body. It reinforces the sexist logic that being called a woman or, in this case, a body part of a woman, is always negative, demeaning, and shameful. It reminds us that in order for men to feel truly insulted, they must be compared to women because women, as heteropatriarchy teaches us, are weaker and inferior to men. I mentioned in my e-mail that I had no problem with calling men out on their laziness, lack of accountability, and insecurities. However, using the word “pussy” to describe their fear of women is counter-productive and perpetuates sexist attitudes.

I never heard back from him, but a few days later, a friend of mine noticed a status update on Cheadle’s public Facebook wall*, which read:

Just got an email from someone who A) assumed I was an ally in the “feminist struggle” B)Took issue with my use of the word “pussy” in my article “You’re a Pussy if You Think There’s a War on Men” and C) informed me that “the term is not only misogynistic, but also inaccurate since the vagina is actually quite tough, not weak.” asldkfjalsjf adlsj foiasj doia e

When it was asked on the comment thread about whether or not he identified as an ally, Cheadle responded, “I just hate whiners and knee-jerk anti-feminists. I don’t really feel that I’m a part of the whole feminist enterprise, and I don’t really want to be.”

Not sure what he meant by “feminist enterprise,” but I was taken aback when I read these comments because I felt that I was being supportive of his article’s overall message. The quote he used from my e-mail (point C) was actually me paraphrasing common anti-sexist responses to those who equate the vagina with “weakness.” I also pointed out in my e-mail that women have done a lot of work on gendered insults and the impact they have on society, so I was confused as to why he saw me as being a “knee-jerk anti-feminist.” What I noticed the most, however, was his refusal to acknowledge the sexism in his title, which he never chose to change.

I share the above as an example of something I want to discuss in a broader context: sexism and misogyny from men in Leftist spaces and their refusal to hold themselves accountable, even when they are called out on it. What does it mean when a man speaks in defense of feminism, but then, after being informed of his sexism, rejects being an ally in order to absolve himself of any accountability? What are the implications for women who self-identify as feminist when men can easily reject feminism or disassociate from it to excuse and normalize their own sexism? In this post, I will discuss how this refusal of accountability contributes to violence against women, beginning with the usage of misogynistic language, then addressing the various manifestations of sexist oppression, and concluding with points on doing work to end this violence.

1. Misogynistic Language

Whether we are men who self-identify as anti-racist, advocate against homophobia, hold leadership positions in radical movements, rightly express outrage against right-wing misogynists and patriarchy at large, write articles that condemn all forms of injustice, or all of the above, none of this gives us a free pass on sexism, including sexist language. Gendered insults like “pussy,” “cunt,” “bitch,” “slut,” “whore,” etc. are so normalized and acceptable that we hear them in classrooms, workplaces, activist groups, and from our friends and colleagues. In mainstream media, the frequent and increased use of the “b” word on prime-time TV shows over the past decade only reinforces this acceptability. Even in popular video games like Batman: Arkham City, women characters like Catwoman and Harley Quinn are repeatedly called the “b” word by both good and bad male characters (and when women gamers address sexism in gaming, many men respond by trivializing the slurs and making misogynistic attacks). The pervasiveness and normalization of misogynistic language is not simply limited to particular movies, games, songs, or novels, but rather reflective of the sexist and patriarchal values that shape society. These sexist values, as bell hooks explains, are “created and sustained by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”

There is a long violent history of these words being used to shame, exploit, persecute, rape, and murder women, especially women of color, who face racism and misogyny simultaneously.  Sikivu Hutchinson explains that linking the word “bitch” with “bad girls” has strong racial connotations since “black women have always been deemed ‘bad’ in the eyes of the dominant culture, as less than feminine, as bodies for pornographic exploitation.” Azjones0210 mentions in her blog post that the Oxford dictionary includes a definition that states “bitch” is a “black slang” for “woman.” She elaborates:

[O]ur culture has attached the word “bitch” to the character of a black woman so many times that it deserves to be integrated into our formal language system. Regardless of the word “slang” existing within the definition, it is still there. This is not present for other racial groups in the way it is present for black women. This says to the world that when I walk down the street, and people see me and identify me as black, it is acceptable to connect the word “bitch” to me and everything that it carries way before I even open my mouth or complete any sort of action.

AF3IRM, a feminist and anti-imperialist organization whose membership identifies as “transnational women who are im/migrants or whose families are im/migrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa,” addressed the history of the word “slut” for women of color and how it continues to be used against them:

This label is one forced upon us by colonizers, who transformed our women into commodities and for the entertainment of US soldiers occupying our countries for corporate America. There are many variations of the label “slut”: in Central America it was “little brown fucking machines (LBFMs)”, in places in Asia like the Philippines, it was “little brown fucking machines powered by rice (LBFMPBRs)”. These events continue to this day, and it would be a grievous dishonor to our cousins who continue to struggle against imperialism, globalization and occupation in our families’ countries of origin to accept a label coming from a white police officer in the city of Toronto, Canada.

When white men and men of color who proclaim to be “progressive” and “anti-oppression” refuse to stop using misogynistic language, they participate in another form of violence against women and end up damaging activist spaces that are supposed to be safe. A typical response is to blame women: “But women say these words, too!” Another excuse is that they were using the “b” word as a “compliment” in a “reclaimed context.” A couple of points need to be addressed here: (1) Some women of color and white women believe in reclaiming gender slurs, and some disagree. (2) Whether or not the women in our lives say these words, men should never say them. A woman saying the “b” word compared to a man saying it is very different. Given the history and present day realities I mentioned above, men are in no position to “reclaim” those words nor do they have any right to tell women not to say them. I’ve seen white men and men of color who self-identify as anti-racist use the “b” word in ways to exert dominance over others, including other men (e.g. “Man up, bitch!”), or to “humorously” refer to a group of male and female friends (e.g. “Got a new phone, send me your numbers, bitches!”) None of this is “ok,” no matter what the “intent” is.

When describing racist and/or homophobic women, there are men with progressive politics, whether white or of color, heterosexual or gay, who somehow think it is permissible to use misogynistic language and slurs. Again, this is unacceptable. We need to go beyond “restraining ourselves” from using these words. Instead, we need to eliminate misogynistic language from our vocabulary and challenge the ways in which this language has shaped our perception and attitudes towards women. This doesn’t negate the activist work we already do nor does it diminish the racism of racist women, but rather calls for us to work against sexist oppression and take responsibility for unlearning the serious ways in which we’ve internalized sexist socialization.

2. Men on the Left Perpetuating Sexist Oppression

In addition to misogynistic language, sexual harassment, rape, and the silencing of women is disturbingly common in Leftist spaces. In a hostile white supremacist and heteropatriarchal climate where many women, especially women of color, cannot call the police because they do not want to strengthen the state or be further victimized by it, working collectively against misogyny and gender violence within activist movements is crucial. If a male activist threatens a woman, or follows her home, or sexually harasses her in a meeting or a rally, or tries to silence and shame her, or rapes her, this man must be held accountable. What’s disturbing is how white men and men of color appoint themselves as “leaders” and use their “activist credibility” or “celebrity” status to hide and excuse their own sexism. On one hand, there are male activists who reject feminism, as discussed above, but then there are men who consciously insert themselves into feminist discourse and assert authority over it. Hugo Schwyzer, for instance, persistently defines himself as a “male feminist,” yet doesn’t see the harm he causes when dismissing his history of engaging in sexual relations with students or writing about how he almost murdered his ex-girlfriend and then made himself the “hero” for not following through with it. Angus Johnston of Student Activism describes this crime as an act of gendered violence and explains that “in all his (Schwyzer’s) writing about this act he has never addressed its implications for his feminism — the feminism he professed when he committed the crime, or the feminism he professes today.”

When writing about “slutwalk,” Schwyzer described his role as “herding sluts” and then gave racist responses to criticism from women of color. Elsewhere, Schwyzer wrote an outrageous article that tried to justify degrading sex acts against women (read Tiger Beatdown’s important response to his post). By declaring himself a “feminist” and advertising himself (as seen on his website) as an “author, speaker, professor” who “shatters gender myths,” Schwyzer dangerously tries to legitimize his sexism as feminist discourse. Refusing to check his white male privilege and power, which has undoubtedly contributed to his “celebrity” status, Schwyzer allows other men to see his behavior and beliefs as “feminism.” When it is taken into account that Schwyzer proudly sees himself as “paternalistic,” it isn’t surprising that he deflects criticism so defensively. His refusal to see this violence is evident in his own words:

Go ahead, call me paternalistic. I’ll wear that title with pride, thank you. I see my students not merely as independent, autonomous agents whom I need to empower, but as vulnerable young people whom I — and others around me — need to protect. And I still have the nerve to call myself a feminist.

I have seen similar refusal from white men and men of color that I’ve come in contact with. Last year, I wrote a post, “Unlearning Sexism and Other Oppressions,” where I mentioned a male photography “activist” who took an invasive, zoomed-in photo of a woman’s body and shared it on his Facebook for public viewing. When white men and men of color left despicable and sexually objectifying comments, I was alarmed to see one of my “friends,” a man of color who asserts himself as a “leader” in his local activist community, participating in this objectification. When I and another male friend/ally wrote to him about this, he responded by denying that anything ever happened. We went back to the photo and noticed that he had deleted his comment. We and a few other friends (women and men) who saw the comment earlier must have been “seeing things” (sarcasm). After confronting him on this, he went on about how his friend, the man who took the photo, is an ally in anti-racist struggle and has even gotten arrested for taking photos of the police. The troubling implication seemed to be that if a man does important social justice work and got arrested several times, it somehow “erases” his misogyny and the harm he caused by sexually objectifying women.

Along with shamelessly lying that he ever commented on the photo, this man never took action against the photographer. Despite the messages my friends and I sent to people in our network and asked them to report the image, it still remained posted. A couple of weeks later, this same man commented on another photo, this time of a woman modeling in a bikini (which appeared on my news feed even though the person who posted it is not on my friend’s list). As men left perverted comments, he encouraged their objectification by saying: “Be careful. some of the puritanical leftists will gouge our eyes out. we must remain serious at all times. after all, we are activists. humor is banned at all times :)” (smiley icon in original).

When friends and I wrote to him and voiced our outrage, we never received a reply. Some of us, including myself, deleted him, but still see his hypocritical “anti-patriarchy” comments posted on mutual friend’s walls. I sent out messages to many of these mutual friends and while some were definitely outraged, others excused his behavior due to his activist work and “leadership” role. So, men who perpetuate sexual objection or other forms of sexist oppression can get away with it just because they do “important work” overall? What does this say about sexism and misogyny? That these issues are “secondary,” “not as important,” and disconnected from struggles against other forms of oppression? What some failed to take into account was how men like him are not unique in Leftist movements.

As my friend Sitara wrote in reference to a white male activist in her community:

What does it mean for our movement that a known abuser (who has REFUSED to address his actions in any meaningful way) has put out a call to form a national revolutionary organization whose platform includes “rejecting patriarchy” in all its forms, including “familial roles”? Answer: nothing good.

In Courtney Desiree Morris’s very important post, “Why Misogynists Make Great Informants: How Gender Violence on the Left Enables State Violence in Radical Movements,” she describes the numerous encounters she had with abusive men:

There were men like this in various organizations I worked with. The one who called his girlfriend a bitch in front of a group of youth of color during a summer encuentro we were hosting. The one who sexually harassed a queer Chicana couple during a trip to México, trying to pressure them into a threesome. The guys who said they would complete a task, didn’t do it, brushed off their compañeras’ demands for accountability, let those women take over the task, and when it was finished took all the credit for someone else’s hard work. The graduate student who hit his partner—and everyone knew he’d done it, but whenever anyone asked, people would just look ashamed and embarrassed and mumble, “It’s complicated.” The ones who constantly demeaned queer folks, even people they organized with. Especially the one who thought it would be a revolutionary act to “kill all these faggots, these niggas on the down low, who are fucking up our children, fucking up our homes, fucking up our world, and fucking up our lives!” The one who would shout you down in a meeting or tell you that you couldn’t be a feminist because you were too pretty. Or the one who thought homosexuality was a disease from Europe.

Yeah, that guy.

While she points out that many of these men were probably not informants, “the work that they do supports the state’s ongoing campaign of terror against social movements and the people who create them.” I suspect that many male readers will read the examples shared above and think, “Well, I’ve never done any of that, so I can’t be sexist.” However, this belief is an “innocence” mindset that fails to address our responsibilities as well as the ways in which we are complicit in reproducing oppression.

3. Accountability

There needs to be clarification that not all men benefit from sexism and heteropatriarchy in the same way. Certainly, the ways in which gender and race intersect must be taken into account.The framework here isn’t “all men are the same” or “men are the enemies,” but rather that white men and men of color need to practice accountability and understand the different, though interconnected, effects interlocking systems of oppression has on them (e.g. heterosexual cis-gendered white men benefit from both white supremacy and patriarchy). Men of color are horribly demonized and victimized by racist forces in society (as are women of color), though this should not absolve them of sexism and misogyny. White women can exert power over men of color and women of color through racism and reinforcing white supremacy, though this doesn’t lessen the importance of dismantling heteropatriarchy (which is interlocked with white supremacy).

As Morris writes, “Dismantling misogyny cannot be work that only women do. We all must do the work because the survival of our movements depends on it.” Abusive male activist “leaders” maintain power not only by reproducing heteropatriarchy, but also because they are upheld by those who actively support them, which includes both men and women. This support is not always a result of passive or naive internalization of sexist oppression; there is active participation, too. When this complex process is failed to be understood, men may dismiss how harmful sexual objectification is, for example, and make excuses like, “Well, women were commenting on that photo, too” or “But, women weren’t offended by that photo.” Instead of using other women to justify our sexism, we need to challenge heteropatriarchy and work within a framework of accountability. Another mistake that many men (not just those with radical politics, but also those who consider themselves liberal or progressive) make is think they are “outside of patriarchy” just because they read feminist literature, attend patriarchy workshops, have women friends, etc. When we are called out on sexism, instead of getting defensive and claiming that we are “not sexist,” we should be more concerned about whether or not we are reinforcing sexism, either through our language, our behaviors, actions or non-actions, etc. I believe bell hooks’ words are relevant here:

All men support and perpetuate sexism and sexist oppression in one form or another… While they need not blame themselves for accepting sexism, they must assume responsibility for eliminating it.

This is not about men taking on “savior” roles, but instead taking responsibility for their complicity. We are complicit when we are silent about misogyny within movements; we are complicit when we tell women to ignore sexist oppression;  we are complicit when we laugh at misogynistic “jokes”; we are complicit when we encourage sexual objectification instead of challenging it; we are complicit when we continue friendships with these abusive men despite knowing the damage their misogyny is causing; we are complicit when we make the conscious decision to refuse listening to those who are calling us out on being silent or participants in any of the above.

Responsibility doesn’t mean we should speak for women either. As I was sharing with a friend, I often get tired of calling white people out on their racism all the time and think it’s important to have solidarity from anti-racist white allies. I don’t need white people to speak for me, for instance, though at the same time, I don’t want to be on the receiving end of racism while my white friends just stand around and do nothing. Similarly, it’s not enough for men to simply say, “Oh that’s messed up,” when they see or hear the sexism of male allies. It is important to confront these men, especially if these are men we work with, study with, have friendships with, etc. If we say or do nothing while women are struggling to address these issues, we are only resuming our complicity.

We need to seriously reevaluate and question what is happening in our communities. If a powerfully positioned “leader” in a radical space that strives to end all forms of oppression is a man who uses bullying, shaming, violence, and other oppressive tactics towards members in the group, why is this injustice allowed to continue? Why is he standing on a podium, dominating the mic, and leading a large rally of people who are seeking to end oppressive behaviors like his? Why is he held up as a “representative” for his community, being interviewed by the media, quoted in newspapers, or featured on popular blogs when there are women within the group who are not only fighting against the state’s racist, sexist oppression, but also against the misogyny within their communities? Oddly enough, when men tell women that they should “ignore” sexism or put their experiences with abuse “on hold” for the sake of “the greater good,” there paradoxically is an acknowledgment that abuse is taking place. And yet, despite this recognition of injustice, no action is taken.

We need to stop giving legitimacy to these men and start holding them accountable. We have to stop promoting them as “leaders” and start listening to the voices that matter. There needs to be collective action and communities need to work within a framework that understands that if we do not fight misogyny and heteropatriarchy, especially within our own groups, then our work will amount to nothing. Refusing to address these problems, as Morris crucially reminds us, has dangerous consequences and will work to strengthen the oppressive forces of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, imperialism and other systems of violence and domination that seek to destroy us. Whether its men who write articles about women’s rights, men making speeches about ending patriarchy at activist rallies, or men who just think they “cannot be sexist” because they are “nice guys,” our work and words mean nothing if we deliberately refuse to accept and practice accountability. As so many anti-racist women of color and white women activists, academics, and community leaders have articulated in their work, heteropatriarchy and other oppressions cannot be dismantled if we do not also work to eliminate them within ourselves.

Photo Credit: #Leftfail

*I was reluctant to share this status message since I’m not friends with the author, but it was pointed out to me that his Facebook wall is open to the public. After verifying this myself, I decided to re-share.

UPDATE: Other readers have pointed this out already, but I recognize that “Vice” is not a leftist website. I apologize for the confusion and meant to clarify that. Later in the post, I mention that it is not only the sexism and misogyny in leftist spaces that should be a concern, but in all spaces, including on popular websites.