In late October I posted a three-part series under the title “Questions I’d Like To Ask Entitled Cis Het Men” (Part 1: Who Cares?; Part 2: Men’s Rights; Part 3: Space For Men). These posts kicked up more of a furor than I anticipated, with a bunch of cross-postings and responses on other blogs.* It all gave me a huge number of new perspectives to synthesize, which is part of why it took me so long to post this followup … but here I am!

I really want this followup to be readable to people who didn’t bother with the initial three posts, so please let me know if I fail!

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Introducing myself, and One Correction

Please allow me to introduce myself. I think those posts probably make more sense (as will large swaths of this one) if you know who I am, and they got linked around to so many non-regular readers that most of the audience now doesn’t.

I go by Clarisse. It is not my real name, because I am a sex-positive and, in particular, pro-BDSM** activist, and being all-the-way-out-of-the-closet about kink can have serious, long-term repercussions for someone’s life (the most pressing for me, right now, being employability: my immediate superiors here in Africa know about my BDSM identity, but the larger rather conservative organization sure as hell doesn’t). Identifying as feminist and pro-BDSM can be really fraught territory — many avowed feminists regard BDSM with suspicion and some, on the more extreme end, with outright hatred. (Famous German feminist Alice Schwarzer once said, “Female masochism is collaboration.” Many feminist spaces have a long tradition of excluding or marginalizing BDSM, like the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, which incidentally has a similar history with trans people. Nine Deuce, a popular radical feminist blogger, has been known to assert that sadists are morally obligated to either repress their sadistic desires or kill themselves. For example.) In her post “Healing My Broken Feminist Heart”, Audacia Ray talks about how much it hurts to identify as a feminist and yet be told, often, that the way you realize your personal sexuality is unfeminist; I’ve been meaning to write a response to that post for ages, because boy do I know how that feels. (I swear, I have the biggest crush on Audacia Ray. I want to be her when I grow up.)

I am Chicago-based in that I lived there for years before I moved here to Africa in order to work in HIV/AIDS mitigation, and I suspect I’ll move back there when my contract ends. In Chicago, I lectured on BDSM and sexual communication, and I created and curated a fabulous sex-positive film series and discussion group that it broke my heart to leave. (The film series was so successful that a group of loyalists gathered, formed a committee, and have continued it without me! Yes!)

My feminist history isn’t very “official”, though I was raised by two very feminist people. For instance, I haven’t read most of the classic feminist authors. My degree is in Philosophy, Religious Studies and Studio Art, not anything gender-related — and when I was in college I remember that I often viewed hard-line feminist assertions with suspicion. I would irritably characterize them as “conspiracy theories”: these people seemed to think there was some secret society of evil men sitting around and plotting to ruin their lives, which clearly was not the case! Ah, youth … :grin: The problem is, of course, exacerbated by the fact that definitions of feminism have become so varied and so many different issues have been attached to feminism by different people.***

In other words, almost my entire gender/sex background is idiosyncratic and self-trained. I certainly can’t hope to match the massive theoretical background that many Internet gender commentators have. And I am very familiar with having my experience discounted and dismissed in a feminist context (“Sorry, BDSM is abuse. Period. If you enjoy BDSM, you’re mentally ill or you have Patriarchy Stockholm Syndrome”). These are some of the reasons I tried to spend my entire Entitled Cis Het Men post series asking questions, rather than making assertions.

The posts weren’t intended to be prescriptive — I don’t have much of an agenda beyond “create more conversations around sex and gender”. There is of course my agenda (shared by almost every human alive) of “convincing people to agree with me” and “getting people to join my cool club or at least admire it from afar”, but I don’t personally have any pressing Grand Policy Goals. One commenter who went by Sailorman over at Alas said, on the third post: I read this thread with interest, but it is of course basically a very extended and well written TPHMT argument? I don’t know what the acronym means, but I’m honestly sort of annoyed by any attempt to boil those three posts down to a single argument, because I tried so hard to make it clear that a single argument was not my intent, with that series. I really am just interested in exploring various and often very discrete masculinity-related questions. No, really, I am. No, really, I am.

There’s just one correction I want to make to my own posts before I continue. In the third one, I failed to make a point that really needed to be made, which is: for women — and for men — any “privileges” they experience are also the flip side of unfortunate stereotypes. But what’s especially pernicious about male privilege is that every aspect of female privilege can be trumped by male privilege. The classic example of this is that yes, I can gain “privilege” by dressing to look hot, but that “power” can instantly be taken away by a man who decides to call me a slut.

So what comes clear from that correction is that, yeah — if we want to boil this down to the Oppression Olympics, I do think women have it worse than men and that America is still more centered around and gives more aggregate power to men. But the whole point of those posts was to evade the Oppression Olympics!

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I’m not going to address all the criticisms raised about my posts (and me), especially not the ones that are:
(a) fairly obvious misreadings (or extremely uncharitable readings) of what I said or even outright misquotes, or
(b) questions that I answered at another point over the course of the 3-post essay, or
(c) statements that “argh women derive some unfair benefits from the gender binary too!”

Here are some assertions/ideas/tendencies I thought were interesting, though:

Toy Soldier made the point that To answer [Clarisse’s] question about how to broker discussions about masculinity with men, the best suggestion would be to lose the tone that turns men off. He was referring to the third post in particular, I think, in which I talk about how many feminist spaces are arguably hostile to men, and it might be in the interest of feminists to make them less hostile. In that segment, my language became especially strong: I did things like refer to men as The Oppressive Class, for instance. In part this was meant as mild irony on my part, but in part it was also because my intended audience was feminists**** and I knew that feminists might take some of the things I was saying badly. “You’re a collaborator!” Et cetera. And so I strengthened my “nearly-militant, obviously feminist” tone, in an effort to make up for that: to make it clear that I’m still part of the fold — a feminist arguing in feminists’ interests. Oh, my broken feminist heart.

I agree with Toy Soldier that this may not have been the best tactic. In general, I try to support debating as charitably and with as reasonable a tone as possible, which is something I did not succeed at in Part 3. And yet I think that I did succeed at the goal of “sounding feminist”: even though one commenter at Alas said, I honestly feel this post should not be in a feminist space at all. You can’t say you don’t want to be an “MRA asshole” and then just dole out their erroneous, misogynist talking-points, it’s worth noting that Ampersand — who runs Alas and made the decision to cross-post my stuff — stated: Part of the reason I wanted to guest-post this series is because Clarisse entirely lacks that anti-feminist vibe — not just because she’s a woman (there are female MRAs and anti-feminists), but because her tone rings as genuinely feminist, at least to this reader.

Another comment Toy Soldier posted: While Clarisse may be genuinely concerned with discussing masculinity, it is clear that she is not particularly open to actually doing that because it would require her to dial back her political views and the issues on men’s terms. It seems more that, like many feminists, she wants to define the problem, define the terms, define the rules of discussion and define the solution.

This is partly a reasonable point. I mean, I didn’t propose a solution — I did pretty much the opposite of proposing a solution, in fact: I asked a bunch of interrelated but differently-focused questions. Still, it’s true that I defined some problems, and the terms, in heavily feminist ways. And it may be that if we want to get the ball rolling on widespread discussion of masculinity, we aren’t going to be able to do that without softening feminist edges and feminist slants on the discussion spaces. The issue of who’s to blame — that is, whether this is because feminists have done legitimately alienating things to men, or because men are unreasonably biased against feminism — is ultimately almost beside that point. (The classes “feminist” and “men” really are too broad to reasonably settle the “who’s to blame!” problem, anyway.)

And yet there were plenty of men who answered the posts, emailed me, etc. in the belief that I was writing in good faith and without saying that existing spaces alienate them. Here’s a comment from Richard Jeffrey Newman at Alas:

I confess that, as a man whom I imagine most people would probably define as normative — at least according to the criteria Clarisse has been using in her series — I have trouble with the premise of this question. I have never found feminist discourses around gender and sexuality closed to me. Sometimes difficult? Sure. Does it sometimes make me uncomfortable? Sure. Are there contexts in which it is inappropriate for me as a man to enter into feminist discourse as a “speaking subject?” Sure, but that doesn’t mean I cannot listen and find myself somewhere within the discourse. Do I think feminist discourse is always accurate in the way it speaks about men? No, but that is not the same thing as saying it is closed to me.

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So, what spaces do we create?

Daran at Feminist Critics accused me of hypocrisy, saying that some of my statements show that I’m not “really” interested in finding new perspectives or making space for them in feminism. For instance, in one comment I said that I suppose it’s true that men who disagree that men have it better than women are never going to ally themselves [with feminism]. Those aren’t really men that it’s ever going to be easy to communicate about these issues with, though … at least I don’t think so. I’m more interested in how to reach men who agree that men are generally in a more powerful position, and who are interested in describing, but have trouble expressing that agreement because they feel blocked from the discussion by feminists or because they’re afraid of suffering social consequences. To which Daran responded, How much is Clarisse’s demand that the men she addresses agree that men have it better than women a real requirement for finding common ground, and how much is it a shibboleth she’s using to distinguish between those she might be able to find common ground and those she thinks she’s likely to view as assholes?

The accusation of hypocrisy (and the idea that I’m “demanding” anything) pisses me off. So let me be really, painfully, slowly clear over the course of many paragraphs.

I can start by saying that get safe spaces; they are, in fact, extremely relevant for BDSMers. There are a limited number of places where expressing my sexuality is totally acceptable and introducing BDSM into the discussion isn’t taken as a signal that I’m sick, deranged, seeking attention, or attempting to shock. Take BDSM dungeons: different dungeons have different vibes, but they are almost always a cross between a safe space for kinky sex and an alternative sexuality community center. So, for example — given the history of radical feminism and BDSM — I am extremely unlikely to invite a radical feminist into my local dungeon or suggest that she attend a meetup for kinksters.

Yet at the same time, I know how exclusion feels, too. And I want radical feminists to learn more about BDSM. I don’t want to exclude them from opportunities to learn about common BDSM insights into sexuality, consent, etc. However, I sure as hell don’t want them around when I’m trying to pick up kinky dudes, nor do I want them in my dungeon watching me and my partners do our thang. Oh noes! What to do?

Actually, the compromise was easy. My aforementioned sex-positive film series makes a pretty good case study for this, I think (yes! it was actually worth it for you to read my narcissistic and self-serving introduction to this post!). When I started the film series and a related meetup called Pleasure Salon, I characterized both of them as open sexuality discussion spaces for everyone. I promoted them heavily in radical sex communities, and I specifically invited every radical feminist I could think of — not just by listing radical feminists among the target audiences in the invitations, but also by personally calling any number of traditionally second-wave spaces around Chicago. Not as many radical feminists attended as I would have liked, but some did, and I received feedback (in person, by email, etc.) telling me how much I’d changed some perspectives. (The events also drew a healthy population of men, by the way. And they sneakily allowed me to open some folks’ minds on the question of “This is what a feminist looks like …”)

If we’re going to try and make spaces where more male perspectives are gathered and even where more men are “recruited”, I think that’s the way to go about it. Not by trying to repurpose feminist safe spaces (at least not without the consent of the feminists within those spaces), but by finding other ideas — e.g. sexuality — that can serve as a focus for creating a space open to everyone. Those ideas would have to be carefully chosen — it would be very easy to choose a central issue that seems so biased in itself, it turns off the majority of potential attendees. (Of course, to a certain extent this is unavoidable; perhaps because of my BDSM bias, an enormous percentage of Sex+++ attendees have been kinksters. And despite my efforts to reach out to, for example, various liberal churches, Sex+++ attendance from churchgoers was regrettably low.)

As Richard Jeffrey Newman at Alas said: arguments about degree of privilege, etc., definitions of feminism, etc., are red herrings or straw men or whatever the purpose of which — conscious or not — is to distract from discussing the real issues at hand: sexism, patriarchy, whatever. And as a commenter here, sylphhead, said: it looks like we’ll just have to co-exist, and draw on our points of agreement where they exist, and there are plenty, without a wholesale joining hands in a circle. … I can’t speak for all of us “liberal but non-feminist-identifying men” that seem to be your target audience here, but for myself what would help is a light-hearted environment that best simulates a non-anonymous setting.

In other words, I think we can make spaces to discuss these things that are open to everybody, and we can still make feminism only available to people who agree with the basic tenets of feminism. I do not think these things are mutually exclusive. Sure, there are issues that I want people to agree with me about before I invite them to feminist events or define them as a feminist ally, but that doesn’t mean I consider it impossible to have any conversations about sex and gender with them. We just create the open-discussion spaces focused around issues that aren’t “automatically” feminist, and we keep them light-hearted, allowing feminist input and perspectives but other perspectives as well. As long as we are eloquent and open-hearted (and we are, right?), we’ll surely recruit people to our agendas in the process. We feminists may need to prepare ourselves for some tough messages and some disappointment, though, because ….

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What will those spaces look like?

Commenter Sam linked to an interesting and relevant comment some dude left on another blog: I’m not sure I think [the problem of how most men can express heterosexual sexuality] is a problem feminists are responsible for fixing. I don’t want to minimize it but it seems that feminism is only the proximate cause of the problem because there isn’t any positive script for male heterosexual sexuality. The fact that the old script is gone can be laid on feminism. But the old script sucked and I’m not sure any movement that challenges a norm or institution should be expected to have a replacement. As a feminist I think it would be a good strategy to have a replacement, in this case. But this isn’t something I would demand of other feminists. And if anyone hear cares about this issue a lot they should spend time coming up with ways to teach boys how to develop romantic relationships that both work and don’t involve misogyny. I’d help.

Recently, Sinclair Sexsmith was writing about masculinity over at CarnalNation and said that, Though I feel very strongly that there is a place in feminism for these experiences and for all of us to be included, I understand the qualms and hesitations. I’ve fought with feminists about the inclusion of queers, trans folks, butches like me who like masculinity, or men themselves. And I firmly stand my ground: I don’t care if you say you won’t let me in. I understand what this movement is trying to do: examine gender and the ways it hurts. I want to be involved in that. We may disagree on the means by which we achieve that goal, but there is room for me in this revolution, in this re-visioning of what gender means. There must be.

Both of these paragraphs — and lots of other evidence I’ve seen or heard of — make it clear that as people come more and more to the conclusion that masculinity needs examining and discussion, people are going to be having those discussions whether feminists are involved or not. And sure, it’s hard to say right now what that’s going to look like. (In my three-post series I said that although I think dealing with abuse issues is an incredibly important potential facet of any masculinity movement, since most abuse is after all perpetrated by men, I don’t think it’s good for a masculinity movement to be centered around abuse. Commenter Sam responded, I have a feeling it will be in one way or another, simply because that’s the way masculinity has been framed by mainstream feminism, particularly radical feminism in the last 30 years. Whether you believe it or not, this is the issue that will be front and center when you’re trying to redefine masculinity.) — But though it’s hard to predict that movement’s shape, the movement itself is certainly gonna happen, it’s already happening, nonetheless.

Yet since overtly feminist spaces are either not going to be welcoming to everyone, or aren’t going to be seen as welcoming by everyone, feminists aren’t going to be able to define the terms of the masculinity discourse. We’re just going to have to create, influence, or attend the discourses held in other places. And if we’re invested in honestly trying to get men’s viewpoints on what manliness means and how to be a man, then we have to prepare ourselves to get some answers that will unsettle us or even come off as unfeminist.

I’m still not sure how to attract lots of men to feminism, to convince them to identify as feminists — or even if we can. But the question of creating conversations about masculinity is separate from the question of attracting men to feminism. And I am sure that if feminists want to influence the masculinity discourse, we have to be open to it. Telling men who disagree with us to go elsewhere and stay away from us is all well and good — but then they’ll go elsewhere. And they may or may not incorporate feminist ideas when they do.

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* Ampersand over at Alas, a Blog asked to cross-post them: here’s Part 1 at Alas, Part 2 at Alas, and Part 3 at Alas. There are a ton of comments on those three posts, many of them interesting. Also, Toy Soldier wrote a single response, and Daran over at Feminist Critics wrote a response to each segment (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). Although there are a lot of aspects to these responses that irritate me, particularly the failure to — you know — even try to answer the vast majority of my questions, I think there were some fair and decent points made as well. The comments are an often-offensive minefield, however, as Daran himself later acknowledged.

** BDSM is a 6-for-4 deal of an acronym: Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism. There’s a lot of stigma, stereotypes and misunderstandings around BDSM; thus there naturally arise BDSM activists who seek to correct those things.

*** If you feel that you need evidence for this assertion, I read an interesting paper recently called “Who Are Feminists And What Do They Believe?: The Role of Generations”. American Sociological Review, 2003, Volume 68 (August), pages 607-622. The paper notes that there are three separate papers with the exact title of, “I’m Not a Feminist, But …” and others that work along the same theme.

**** The three-post series was originally meant as a contribution to a feminist/radical sexuality anthology.