#FeministFriday: In Defense of Self-Interest | Vol. 2 No. 37.2

That's not quite how it works. Photo: Flickr user anneheathen, CC BY 2.0
That’s not quite how it works. Original photo: Flickr user anneheathen, CC BY 2.0

In this week’s #FeministFriday post, I discuss the benefits of self-interest when it comes to male feminism. As a warning, this post does include a discussion of adult themes.


Over at Medium, Alicen Grey has a piece entitled “I’m suspicious of male “feminists” and you should be too.” I disagree, for a number of reasons.

But let’s start with the bits of her post that I do wholeheartedly agree with:

If you’re a man and you call yourself a feminist,

  • But you “validate female pain only when there is tangential male pain”
  • Or you “acknowledge women and their needs only in relation to you and your needs”
  • Or you “insert reminders of your malehood into every conversation specific to femalehood”

Then you’re probably not actually a feminist (#sorrynotsorry). You will have to try harder, because face it: it’s not all about you.

But there’s a larger sense I get from her article that feminism is a) only one thing, and that b) that thing is out of reach to men (even the allies of feminists).

She begins with a few questions to men who have taken on the mantle of feminism. See if you can determine what they have in common:

  • One: “Are you more likely to stop supporting the porn industry because it brutally exploits and abuses women — or because you’ve watched too much porn and now your dick won’t work properly? :(” [Emphasis, link, and emoticon are all original to the source]
  • Two: “If every woman feminist in the world woke up one day, and decided that men are not allowed to call themselves feminists, would you respect that boundary with the understanding that you’re not entitled to everything you want — or would you fight for your right to claim a word intended for women, and women alone?”
  • Three: “Did you start calling yourself a feminist because you have a genuine desire to surrender the ways you benefit from patriarchy — or because you thought women would find you more attractive if you appropriated their label?”
  • And four: “And did you give a flaming crap about women’s issues (abortion, the wage gap, street harassment, sexual objectification in the media) before you became aware of feminism — or did you wait until you heard that men get hurt by patriarchy too, to start caring about how women get hurt by it?”

If you determined that what these questions have in common is “false dichotomies,” then you’re right on the money. There are two kinds of male “feminists” portrayed here, and I doubt you’ll ever find one alive who matches either description.

On the one hand, in the “if wishes were horses even beggars would ride” category, we have a man who advocates against pornography, would give up being a feminist if “all women feminists” told him to (because feminism is only for women and he respects that), possesses a genuine desire to surrender all (not some, all) the ways he benefits from the patriarchy, and cared deeply about women’s issues before becoming a feminist (one might argue that caring about those issues is actually what makes one a feminist, but I digress).

On the other hand, in the “is your bathroom breeding Bolsheviks?” category, we have a man who watches so much pornography he injures himself, would fight to call himself a feminist if “all women feminists” told him not to (because that makes sense), calls himself a feminist because he thinks that women will find him more attractive because of it (maybe he’s seen one too many Feminist Ryan Gosling memes?), and only became a feminist when he heard that the patriarchy hurts men too.

Leaving aside the facts that, as I’ve written about before, there is such a thing as feminist pornography, and that many feminists advocate for reform in the pornography industry rather than its complete shutdown, there is a lot of wiggle room between these two hypothetical “feminist men.” In fact, the man who pretends to be a feminist to look better to women? I’m genuinely not sure he exists. Here’s why.

I didn’t used to call myself a feminist. I’d say things like “I’m fully in support of women’s rights,” and “they should really pass the Equal Rights Amendment,” and “what the hell is wrong with America and its anti-birth control/anti-maternity leave/anti-women’s health agenda?” But if you asked me if I would call myself a feminist, I’d say “oh, no, I’m not like that.” Why? Because feminists were different. I wasn’t one of those, I was just in favour of equal rights. As Roxane Gay so eloquently put it once: “Anytime I remember how I once disavowed feminism, I am ashamed of my ignorance.

But then, you know, people I knew started coming out as feminists and embracing the label. My wife (and others) basically said, “Hey, male feminists — yes, we mean you — stand up and be counted. Don’t let the MRAs define the conversation.”

Here’s what I’m saying: being a feminist isn’t fashionable. Men aren’t starting to call themselves feminists to look good. They’re doing it because they’ve been asked to, or in solidarity with women feminists, as a counterattack against the MRAs who’re spending all their time trying to define feminism as “anti-men.” Men coming out as feminists sends a strong message that feminism isn’t against men. It’s just for equality.

She goes on to say that the reason she’s suspicious of male feminism is because she has seen no self-interest in other civil rights struggles:

During discussions of racism, I didn’t hear any white allies going, “I care about this issue because white people get hurt by White Supremacy too!”

And during discussions of poverty, I didn’t hear any rich activists like, “I care about this issue because rich people get hurt by class warfare too!”

So why — dear gods, why? — do I keep hearing from male feminists, “I care about this issue because men get hurt by Male Supremacy too!”

But maybe that’s because she just hasn’t looked. Here’s the Massachusetts chapter of the United Church of Christ talking about how white people are hurt by own our racism. Here’s another article. Here’s a talk by professor John Bracey from the University of Massachusetts. It took me thirty seconds and the use of Google to find them. As for the rich, here’s author Stephen King explaining why he should pay more tax (Hint: it’s because people paying tax was good for him). Seriously: thirty seconds.

And as maybe you can tell, this kind of thinking — the idea that self-interest should never come into civil rights activism — really bothers me. Take away the straw men and the false dichotomies, and what you have is, in effect, an argument against men being feminists for any but the most virtuous reasons. Did you become a feminist to impress a girl, but stick around because you realized equal rights were actually pretty cool? Nope: dirtbag. Did you become a feminist because you learned that there are actually ways the patriarchy hurts you, a guy, before coming around to a realization of how much privilege you’re mired in? Nope: Scum of the Earth. Do you call yourself a feminist, but still watch pornography now and then? Nope: With friends like you, who needs MRAs? Are you anything but the most perfectly aware man who sees and somehow manages to give away all his privilege, was a feminist before feminism entered his life, and wants nothing from feminism for himself? Unless you are, we don’t need you.

Or, I suppose, they don’t need you. Because I’d be out too.

But I don’t think it’s that simple.

I think there are multiple feminisms. In a perfect world, sure, every guy on the planet would automatically be a feminist from birth, would strive to negate his own privilege at every opportunity, and would think nothing of the ways his behaviour is actually helping him, too. But in a perfect world, communism and abstinence-only education would work just fine, too. In fact, feminism hasn’t exactly been a paragon of selflessness in the past. Quoting again from Roxane Gay, “women of color, queer women, and transgender women need to be better included in the feminist project. Women from these groups have been shamefully abandoned by Capital-F Feminism, time and again.” A perfect-world feminism might have been made by and for all women, but it wasn’t. It was made by straight white women for straight white women. But it has expanded.

And the fact of the matter is, self-interest is a great way of motivating people to do the right thing. Those ways the patriarchy hurts men? Those are great ways to get men interested in feminism. Self-interest is, in my opinion, the very best “gateway drug” to hardcore feminism around. I don’t mean to make it sound so menacing, of course, but in all seriousness: if you want someone to do something they might not otherwise do, you pay them. Oh, one person, or a small group of people sure, you can appeal to them to do the right thing because it’s the right thing alone. But a whole society? A whole privileged class acting against itself? To move something like that, you need to realign the vested interests.

It’s not nice, but it’s realistic. With male feminism (or, as I call it, feminism) we’re paying men to give up their privilege by pointing out the ways an equal society benefits them in exchange for that privilege: things like paternity leave, healthier relationships, and more freedom in defining what “manly” means. Oh I’d prefer we all acted solely because we care, solely because we can put ourselves in the shoes of others and feel empathy at every turn, but if living in America has taught me anything, it’s that expecting empathy to be enough doesn’t work when you get to the societal level.

I think it’s also worth pointing out that, since we’re not all born possessed of perfect empathy, it’s reasonable to expect people to be imperfect. That doesn’t mean we stop challenging each other and ourselves to be more empathetic. If you’re a man, and you’re into feminism for self-interested reasons like wanting a better relationship with your kids (instead of, say, being nothing but an absentee who funds the child-rearing enterprise from afar), you should also be trying to understand what that desire means in terms of responsibility.

Ask yourself not only, “what am I willing to give to feminism, in order to get what I want from feminism?” (a good question), but also “what do women who are a part of the feminist project want, and how can I help them meet their goals?” (a great question).

Anyhow, I suppose that the point I’m circling around is this: it’s better for feminism in general for imperfect (and at least partially self-interested) male feminists to call themselves feminists than for them not to. It makes feminism more common, more acceptable, and less of a “dirty word.” It makes the goals of feminism more palatable to a privileged class — a privileged class I myself am a part of — so that that class can be dismantled. Because god knows it needs dismantling.

So please: don’t be suspicious of the self-interested, because self-interest is anything but suspicious.

It’s just about the only thing in the world you can trust most people to be.


Richard Ford Burley is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s writing about remix culture and the processes that generate texts in the Middle Ages and on the internet. In his spare time he writes about science and skepticism (and enlightened self-interest) here at This Week In Tomorrow.