Why I’m Not a Feminist
March 2013 Update: Although I still don’t identify as a feminist, my views have changed in the two years since writing this and I don’t still agree with all of it. Follow up to come soon.
It’s with much trepidation that I wade into the rough waters of gender discussion. Few subjects bring out as much impassioned accusation and irrationality as discussing the state of gender relations in western culture. And I’m sure I’ll be digitally tarred and feathered regardless of what I say here.
But I want to make this post anyway, because feminism has actually been a major part of my research and reading in the past year and has, to my surprise, influenced my thinking about relationships and women quite a bit.
A couple years ago, I began making broad statements based on my experience about the state of femininity in Western culture and how it was affecting the dating market negatively. At the time, the observations seemed plain to me (and I still stand by a few of them). But when I forced myself to dig a bit deeper and try to understand why I felt these things were true, why the feminization of western culture had had the effect that it did, why men seemed to be straggling behind in many arenas, and why masculinity seemed to be on its death bed, I realized that I couldn’t come up with very informed answers. I realized that I was parroting the same uninformed generalizations I had read on other men’s websites. And when I looked closer, I realized that few of the other writers in the “manosphere” seemed to have much of a grasp on feminism or what its tenets actually were either. Their criticisms were angry caricatures of some extremist elements, and their posts mostly lamented some forgotten golden era of manhood lost within their own mind. Feminism was the scapegoat, not the culprit.
Fact remains, if you want to argue against something, you need to understand it first. Thus began my foray into feminist theory.
Diving into feminist literature was… an emotional experience to say the least. The majority of the population seems to be fairly indifferent on gender issues. But those of us who aren’t, for whatever reason, our emotions are deeply tied to our views. I’m not completely sure why this is, but I’m no exception. Some books were good and changed my position. Other books were horrible and made me want to stick my head in an oven. Some books gave me both reactions depending on which chapter I was reading. It was a bit of an emotional roller coaster, and it took some time and perspective to actually be able to look at some of these issues with a clear head and sort out what I actually believed.
But I eventually arrived at my goal. I now feel like I have somewhat of a solid grasp of what feminism is about and what its purpose is. I’m by no means an expert, and I have no illusion of having it all figured out. But I know enough to think that feminists don’t have it all figured out either.
I admit that feminism is not what I expected going into it. In fact, it’s much more than I expected. If you think, like I did, that feminists are a bunch of bra-burning, disgruntled unattractive women claiming that all men are rapists and that making eye contact is sexual harassment, well… you’re wrong. Just like all Muslims aren’t terrorists, like not all black people are criminals, not all feminists hate men. Some do. But most don’t.
I was also surprised with how much I agree with the movement’s core principles: equal treatment to everyone under the law, fighting discrimination, promoting sex education, and promoting open communication and sexual consent. I’m on board for all of that. Where I’m not on board is how many feminists go about achieving their goals, and the way they often frame the debate. I think the paradigm they operate in can be antiquated, and in general, these days they’re as a divisive a force as they are a unifying one.
The first part of this article will give an overview of the history and purpose of feminism, so that we can understand what we’re discussing in the first place. This may seem pedantic but sadly I have yet to come across an accurate description of feminism on any men’s website. Chances are most men reading this are under-informed on gender issues. The second part of the article will lay out four reasons that are currently keeping me from hopping on the feminist bandwagon, despite sympathizing with a lot of the movement’s intentions.
A Brief History of Feminism
The most important part about feminism to understand that most people don’t understand is that the movement has had three separate “waves,” and that each of these waves, although sharing similar principles, have had different goals, philosophies and ways of organizing themselves.
The first wave arose in the 19th century and early 20th century. This was the movement promoting women’s suffrage, and it accomplished its goals through conventional political activism.
Feminism’s second wave emerged in the 1960’s with a new generation and a new agenda. The second wave is where most laypeople’s common conceptions of feminism come from. Bra burning, large protests, sexual harassment laws, equal pay, reproductive rights, etc. The second wave also gave us the theories of patriarchy, gender roles, rape culture, etc.
The second wave was able to mobilize itself both within politics and academia, and achieved a number of important victories throughout the 1970’s related to equal pay, sexual harassment and discrimination laws, abortion rights, birth control rights, and so on.
Second wave feminism is also where a lot of the man-hating rhetoric and propaganda came from. Gloria Steinem’s famous quote, “Women need men like a fish needs a bicycle” and Dworkin’s claim that “All men are rapists,” (which has since actually been attributed to Margaret Atwood) came from the second wave. A number of inaccurate studies were produced during this period to support some of the more extreme feminist theories as well. The most famous bogus study from this period was the popular study that concluded that 1/4 women will be raped at some point during their lives, which spawned hundreds of angry college campus protests and even ruined the careers of a few researchers who dared to question the study (by the way, the real rape figure is estimated at somewhere around 8%).
By the 1980’s, feminists had achieved most of their political aims, they had carved out a permanent place for themselves in academia, and women in the work force quickly began to catch up to their male counterparts, shattering the “glass ceiling” and removing much of the famous “wage gap.”
Then as the 80‘s progressed, political correctness hit its peak as anything sexually aggressive or offensive towards women (or anyone, really) was met with avalanches of criticism and accusations of sexism. Pop culture began its shift toward the castrated, dumb, fat men we see in movies and TV today, as any assertion of masculinity or male sexuality became perceived as threatening or inappropriate. An entire generation of men grew up being told that women were special and should be listened to at all times… which is fine, except unfortunately these men were never taught how to assert their own desires and get their own needs met.
Christina Hoff Sommers covers the misandrist rot and corruption of the feminist movement during this period in her brilliant book Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women. In the book, Sommers draws a distinction between what she calls equity feminists and gender feminists. Gender feminists see gender as a zero-sum game, a battle of the sexes, where if men win, women lose and vice-versa. Gender feminists see the assertion of masculinity as threatening and aim, whether consciously or unconsciously, into co-opting men into adopting feminine behavior. They do this through overtly taking power and forcing their agenda to be adopted within institutions.
Equity feminists, on the other hand, see do not see gender relations as a zero-sum game. They observe and respect the differences between men and women and look to find mutually beneficial and fair arrangements between the two. Their success varies, and biases often afflict debate, but their cause is worthy, and if I had to identify as a feminist, I would identify myself as a sex-positive, equity feminist.
The concept of the gender feminists and equity feminists is important and will play a role in the third wave. But the point, and what Sommers shows in her book, is how the excesses of the gender feminists, by the 1980’s began to undermine our culture in other ways.
During this period the enthusiasm for feminism waned. Some wondered if since they had accomplished so much, maybe the movement wasn’t necessary anymore. Others lamented the lack of enthusiasm in the younger generation of women and that they had been lulled into complacency by the victories of their mothers.
In the early 90’s, the third wave of feminism began on the backs of two books: Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women by Susan Faludi and The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. Faludi’s book argues that there existed a backlash against professionally successful women in American culture while Wolf’s work claimed that unrealistic standards for beauty created by men were the new form of patriarchy oppressing women.
I hate to admit that I couldn’t get more than 20 pages into The Beauty Myth before wanting to stab myself in the eyes. Her thesis is basically that what is considered beauty is culturally constructed, and more specifically, constructed by men to make women feel shamed, insecure and to seek sexual approval; that unreasonable standards of beauty are the new form of silent patriarchy and that women are all still oppressed by their own self-images. Seriously.
Science has since smashed these ideas and luckily you don’t hear them often anymore.
What’s interesting about Faludi and Wolf though, is that they’ve both displayed a degree of ideological flexibility. Faludi later published Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (whose conclusions do not stray far from my own) and Wolf published articles in the early 2000’s backtracking a bit on her original thesis, and also began writing about how American boys were being disadvantaged by the current education system.
And this backtracking, and murky positioning would come to define the third wave of feminism: an ephemeral, undefinable mash of writers, bloggers, journalists and activists, still interested in empowering women, but at least aware of how these issues affect men alike. Much of the third wave takes place online, through a large blogging network, as well as prominent journalists publishing for major magazines. Focus has diversified beyond strictly gender issues: LGBT rights, minority oppression, self development and sexual expression have all become new causes along with many of the old ones.
But that’s the thing about the third wave: there’s no homogeny. On any specific issue (say, whether beer commercials “exploit” women or not), one segment of feminists may believe one way, and one segment of feminists the other, and another segment a completely different way. There are schisms and divides riddled throughout the movement and few clear and coherent causes for everyone to coalesce behind. Some feminists see this as a positive aspect of the new movement: that it’s become an ideological melting pot where important topics can be discussed and aired out. They may have a point. Others see it as a hindrance (myself included) because it prevents any sort of coherent activism, and makes real change that much more difficult. A keyboard jockey is a keyboard jockey.
The biggest divide in the third wave seems to be between the gender feminists and equity feminists, although it’s not a clear divide, but more of a spectrum of belief. Often when non-feminists criticize gender feminists for their anti-male beliefs, equity feminists will stand up and say “But that’s not what feminism is actually about.” Indeed, it’s happened a number of times even on this site. Unfortunately, that’s what some feminism is about. And that is what some people believe. And it can’t be ignored. This has led to a lot of confusion and probably hurts the appeal of feminism to others.
It’s reached the point where it’s become difficult to definitively say what feminism stands for anymore. The general principles of equality, consent, social awareness, and fighting oppression are still present. But now they’re expressed in ways which are often internally inconsistent. The message has gotten muddied. The movement is trying to be too much for too many people, and as a result, it’s become not enough for most. I’d even argue that the label or legacy of feminism may not be necessary or even useful anymore. What does a modern day feminist stand for that a humanist wouldn’t? I can’t think of anything.
Four Reasons I’m Not a Feminist
1. Men and women are fundamentally different and therefore should not be expected to behave identically.
This is a something I was never able to completely get past. Every time I brought it up with a feminist, they kind of brushed it aside as if it didn’t matter. But there are very real and important biological differences between men and women and these have to be acknowledged and worked with, not downplayed as some sort of excuse for continued male behavior. A lot is made about the cultural influence on gender roles, but what goes unmentioned is how walking around being a full 50% bigger and stronger than women, having ten times as much testosterone, far less estrogen, having better spatial reasoning (on average), and worse emotional intelligence (on average) can affect a person’s worldview and behavior over the course of a lifetime.
Aspects of male sexuality are condemned without understanding where a lot of those impulses come from. Just as it’s wrong to degrade and marginalize women for their sexual preferences and emotional needs, it’s wrong to demonize men for the same thing.
At the same time though, I agree with feminists that biological differences don’t grant men a free pass to act as they please without considering the consequences or how their actions affect the people around them. What’s needed here is more understanding and acceptance on both sides.
It’s clear that gender behavior is influenced by culture, and the culture is not always equitable and should be changed when possible. Feminists got that right. But it’s also clear that gender behavior is largely influenced by biology, and those biological divergences should be accommodated, not scoffed at. How much behavior is biology and how much is culture is not clear, and probably never will be; it’s the old “nature versus nurture” argument all over again. But instead of trying to meet in the middle and understand the legitimate differences and needs of each gender, many feminists brush biology aside claiming it shouldn’t matter while anti-feminists claim that biology is 100% determinant of sexual behavior and to resist biological impulses is pointless and even immoral.
Neither is true. Biology does matter. And we can influence our biology and behave despite it. Nor is biology universal. Not all men or women think or feel identically. There is variation within genders, just as there is between genders. We should be trying to understand those differences and the variations in biological behavior, not trying to whitewash them and demand behavioral absolutes.
2. If we’re going to talk gender, we should talk both genders at the same time.
To be fair, a lot more feminists are taking up the cause of considering men’s experiences and helping them to understand the confines of their gender roles, not just women. They understand that the only way to liberate one gender is to liberate both. But unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be a mainstream view within the movement. As the writer Warren Farrell points out convincingly in The Myth of Male Power, men suffer from traditional gender roles but in different ways. He also points out how the male gender role is often beneficial to society (men as protectors, innovators, explorers, etc.).
With all of the focus on empowering women and removing the oppression coming from men, it seems that we should also be discussing ways to help men empower themselves in the areas of their lives where they’ve lacked it in the past (their emotional lives, their family lives, etc.), and try to achieve equilibrium of acceptance between the two genders. But this can only happen through mutual understanding, empathizing and cooperation, not demonizing the other gender and their behaviors.
3. The concept of rape culture is offensive.
As I plowed through feminist material, my emotional reactions to it dulled and eventually I was able to evaluate most of its topics with an unaffected reason. The exception to this is the concept of “rape culture.” Rape culture never failed to set me off.
Rape culture is the idea that a society or culture has practices and biases which condone, support, excuse or tolerate large amounts of sexual violence, particularly against women. Examples of rape culture include tendencies to blame the victim, so-called gas-lighting, failure to pursue or prosecute alleged rapists and a general sexual objectification of women.
There are a few reasons why rape culture bothers me, and none of them have to do with what it describes. What it describes is generally true. Rapes are under-reported, sexism is glorified at times among men, and often rape victims are blamed for their actions leading up to the rape.
What bothers me is that I don’t think the term “rape culture” is particularly useful or accurate to describe what’s going on. It’s a divisive term, and implicates pretty much any and every man of being an accomplice to rape and sexism for no other reason than that he’s breathing and has a penis. As a guy who has made a lot of late-night phone calls to make sure my female friends got home safe, who has stepped in and stopped questionable guys from harassing women I’m with, and even tossed guys out of bars based on a complaints from women, I find the idea that I’m contributing to “rape culture” offensive.
Rape is tricky because it’s based on consent. If I steal something from you, one can point out what is missing; there’s physical evidence. If I assault you, again the evidence is pretty obvious, you’ll be covered in bruises and cuts (or whatever). But if I rape you, assuming I didn’t assault you to do it, and that I know you, it basically becomes your word against mine. And in western liberal democracies, defendants are innocent until proven guilty.
Consent also depends upon communication. And communication can often be murky and ambiguous, especially in sexual situations… and especially in sexual situations after a few drinks.
I’m not apologizing for rape, I’m just pointing out the reality. The problem here is not a culture that promotes and glorifies rape (it doesn’t, rape is universally condemned, and rarely occurs). The problem is a culture that does NOT promote clear and open sexual communication between men and women. And yes, this failure of sexual communication harms men as well, whether it be by false accusations made against them, or fear to pursue or assert their desires openly.
I find calling it “rape culture” to be counter-productive. The culture does not support rape and to insinuate that it does is not helpful. Rape is a side-effect of a culture unwilling to confront its sexual realities, to educate its citizens properly, and that fosters and glorifies violence in general. Take care of those three things and the rapes will largely disappear. Demonizing men and their sexuality will not help. I’m convinced of that.
And as far as victim-blaming, gas-lighting and failure to pursue alleged assailants, unfortunately, I think that’s more a result of the nature of the crime than a culture in which the crime occurs. Most rapes are not violent. Most rapes are committed by a person the victim knows. Most rapes have no witnesses. It’s hard to assemble a plausible case with those factors. And as long as we practice due process in our society, that’s not going to change.
4. Feminism accomplished all of its political and academic goals, and I’m not convinced it has a necessary reason to still exist.
I find it difficult to see any more major issues that feminism is needed to overcome. They’ve achieved legal equality, achieved rights of their sexual reproduction, achieved equal pay, and are ridiculously disproportionately favored in divorce and custody laws. Women now make up the majority of the American work force. More women are going to college and graduate school than men. Girls are performing better than boys on standardized tests. They’ve all but eliminated the pay gap. And when adjusted for women giving up careers for motherhood and men working overtime, they have eliminated it. The only places they’re still under-represented is at the extreme heights of the professional and political ladders, and in extremely dangerous lines of work. Rape and violent crimes against women have declined, and we have more strong women portrayed in pop culture than ever before (and I’d argue fewer examples of strong men).
So what’s the problem? Seriously, I look around to see what the big “cause” is now and I can’t find it. All I see are vague rumblings about objectification, raising awareness, rape culture, and the continued anachronistic rants against patriarchy. The biggest social activism right now is something called a “Slutwalk,” which, I’m sorry… if the big problem that is getting people (vainly) marching in the streets is people calling you names and guilt-tripping you about your sexuality, all I can say is, welcome to the rest of society. Hope you enjoy your stay. I’m against slut shaming, but seriously, call me when you have more serious problems.
Like any movement, feminism needed to assemble political and academic machinery to get its goals achieved. But the problem with political machinery is that after its goals are achieved it still operates to maintain its power structure. Look at every lobbying group and out-dated union in the United States. Once that political machinery is in place, once those people have invested so much into establishing their brand and power and identity, once so many paychecks and careers hinge on being capital-F feminists, they don’t want to let it go, even if the political machinery isn’t necessary anymore.
I don’t see what unique purpose standing under a “feminist” banner holds anymore. I see plenty of reasons for standing under a banner based on gender relations in general, or sex education, or promoting open communication and consent. I think those are three worthy causes that should continue. Modern day feminism strikes me as a group of humanists with a female bias. And I’m not on board with that. I’m skeptical of any sort of ideology, no matter what shape or form it takes. I’m more interested in action and activism. And right now, I don’t see feminism in its current form as the most useful venue to accomplish that change.