[cw: descriptions of abuse, slurs]

There is a bad article on Everyday Feminism about masculinity again, and I’m complaining about it.

First: in my opinion, it is incredibly dangerous to talk about abuse as a normal thing that people typically do. Most people have never abused a partner. This is important because normalization of abuse is a common abusive tactic. One of the reasons people stay in abusive relationships is that they think “oh, well, all men are abusive. If I leave this guy who hits me, I’ll just find another guy who hits me– and I already know what sets this one off. There’s no point in leaving.” Normalization of abuse is also a tactic abusers use to justify abuse to themselves: they think “oh, everyone mouths those platitudes about respect in public, but in private every woman calls her husband a cunt and backhands him when he does something wrong– you have to keep men in line.” To counter this, we need to point out that while a lot of relationships are unhealthy and a lot of people deal with their feelings in suboptimal ways, most people are not abusive. Abuse is not the same thing as being a douchebag!

Second: I dislike Everyday Feminism’s conflation of masculinity and manhood. Not all men are masculine! Actually, I think the use of the word ‘masculine’ tends to conflate a whole bunch of different categories into one, and ought to be replaced with terms like “gender-conforming”, “male-socialized”, “identifying strongly with being a man”, or whatever else you would like to talk about. We can keep ‘masculine’ as a word for the burdensome social role.

It also seems unreasonable to me to discuss masculinity without talking about the work that has been done in men’s studies about the different kinds of masculinity. The masculinity of a poor black kid from the ghetto is different from the masculinity of an upper-middle-class white jock from suburbia, which in turn is different from the masculinity of a gay autistic man. All of these have very different relationships to violence, emotions, and destructiveness. The author specifies “cis masculinity”, but ignores other dimensions on which masculinity can differ.

That’s particularly important when you talk– as this article does– about masculinity as fundamentally oppressive and violent. Depending on what you mean by ‘masculinity’ and on how radical feminist I’m feeling today, I probably agree with you! Masculinity, cross-culturally, does have a current of violence: sometimes overt, sometimes hidden, but always present. And the male gender role and the behavior it leads to causes tremendous harm to men, women, and nonbinary people. But it is extremely important whenever you talk about the oppressiveness of masculinity to be completely clear that you are not calling all gender-conforming men oppressive and violent. Most gender-conforming men are not violent. And gender-conforming men are victims of sexism as well: the limiting nature of the male gender role affects them. By conflating manhood and masculinity, this author insults the very people he is trying to reach out to.

Third: I do support the project of men figuring out the ways in which they are complicit in the harm caused by patriarchy. I also support the project of women and nonbinary people figuring out the ways in which they are complicit in the harm caused by patriarchy. As it turns out, women and nonbinary people are sexist too. Just because you are harmed by a system does not mean you play no role in upholding it.

But this article adopts entirely the wrong approach. I want men to become less sexist because I think it will help other people, yes. But I also want them to become less sexist because I think it will help them. It hurts people to have to repress their emotions. It hurts people to feel like their sexuality is innately violent, innately predatory, and that they must repress it to keep from harming others. It hurts people to not have any close, intimate friendships outside of their romantic relationship. It hurts people– most of all– to wind up in situations where they must either be violent or become a victim of violence, a situation all-too-common among marginalized men.

I want male feminists to be selfish. An unselfish male feminist is likely to stop once he’s done enough that he can salve his ego, or become burned out because of how much patriarchy there is to fight, or seek his rewards in being the Good Man, the man who Gets It, the ones who gets adulations from all the cool feminists and is free to mock any woman who disagrees. A male feminist who sees that feminism is benefiting him personally will actually do the work. He has motivation.

Fourth: I disagree that much of this allegedly common behavior is common. I have a firm policy of not spending time with people who lie to me repeatedly, or call me names, or treat me poorly in order to keep me wrapped around their finger, or who yell at me, or who refuse to listen to my ‘no’, or who violate my privacy, or who limit my interaction with other friends, or who refuse to take my viewpoints and needs into account. So far, this does not seem to have resulted in me joining a lesbian feminist commune. In fact, most of my community is male!

Now, it is possible that my friends are this odd little corner of perfectly nice men and all the other men are running around lying to their partners, violating their privacy and boundaries, and calling them nasty names. Certainly there is a significant subset of the population that is doing so. But at least from my perspective the men who are that cruel to their partners are a minority.

Saying “all men struggle with urges to be abusive” is bad in a couple different ways. For one thing, it’s extraordinarily insulting to men who aren’t abusive and who have no desire to be abusive. Some men who are particularly prone to guilt issues may wind up hating themselves for being abusive, even though they have never done anything abusive. Other men may have a difficult time setting boundaries or standing up to their controlling partners because they’re afraid that that makes them abusive; after all, abuse happens to people of all genders, and “I’m not abusive! You’re the real abuser!” is a common abusive tactic.

Even if you don’t care about hurting men, this discourse lets abusers off the hook. If not abusing people is a difficult process of unlearning that all cis men struggle with and very few have completed, then it’s not that blameworthy to call your wife a cunt. After all, all cis men want to do it! It’s certainly not good, but it’s understandable giving in to temptation. On the other hand, if not abusing people is a basic expectation that the vast majority of people are fully capable of achieving, then when you call your wife a cunt, you are doing something exceptionally bad, something most men do not do and are not tempted to do.

Fifth: because this is an Everyday Feminism article, the first suggestion on how one can become less of an abuser is ‘eliminate violent and oppressive language,’ a section in which the word ‘bitch’ is called ‘the b word’, as if we are all five years old and afraid of having our mouths washed out with soap. Look, guys, I occasionally use the word ‘bitch.’ It’s a satisfying word. Has a good mouthfeel. It turns out there is nothing about the word ‘bitch’ that means you have to abuse anyone.

Of course, it is a bad idea to call your partner a stupid bitch. (Unless you happen to enjoy insulting each other, and this is a mutually agreed upon flirting or conflict resolution strategy that improves both of your lives.) But switching to saying “you foolish asshole!” doesn’t actually improve the situation. The problem is not the language you use while insulting your partner. The problem is that you’re insulting your partner.

Finally: I don’t know what it means to say that a lot of male friendships, instead of being transgressive, “reify patriarchy.” To reify means to treat an abstract concept as if it is a concrete thing. I have no idea how a friendship could do that. Do you, perhaps, mean “is patriarchal”?