What makes a man in today’s world a feminist? Am I a feminist? Are these questions even the most critical to ask?
Let’s come back to this in a moment.
If you’re reading this article (thank you!), you likely came upon it scrolling through your own Twitter or Facebook feed. Take a quick look back at the feed that got you to this link. In all honesty, how much of the conversation do you notice to be gendered? Subtle or aggressively overt, take a detailed look down your feed for trolling comments, links about gender-related policy and inequity, or any of a number of other issues. Maybe it’s a function of effortful observation, or maybe merely a pattern driven by who I tend to follow (academics, news organizations, sports media figures and the like), but lately it seems an inescapable truth: Gendered observations of social media abound! This recent trend in my social media timeline is not new, as an excellent 2015 article from The Guardian observes a rising trend in Twitter-driven misogyny and attacks of female public figures.
A recent sampling from my own feed shows Twitter trolling of female sports media and other figures, and frighteningly sad headlines counter to any common sense or data. For instance, a recent article suggests “Rape survivors will go to jail if they refuse to testify in Louisiana.” This article summarizes a push in the state of Louisiana to force sexual violence victims to testify in court; forcing such open court testimony for victims can potentially yield suffering re-traumatizing PTSD-type effects. Notably, this same push toward forcing victims to testify failed in Texas, yielding a suicide by one such victim.
Take also the case example of Brenda Tracy’s Twitter feed: Tracy is a sexual assault survivor turned activist engaging with college campuses and athletics to change social norms surrounding campus sexual violence.
Acknowledging my own bias in favor of the invaluable work she is doing, a snippet of the recent trolling sexism I’ve observed directed toward her covers insulting her intellect (e.g., “you’re no legal scholar”) and defensive refutation (e.g., “go away Brenda…nobody wants you here), to more over forms of threatening sexism (e.g., “you’re f*****g ret**ded …How bout u stop profiting off your “rape”’). There was even a lengthy string of aggressive invalidation of Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) sexual assault statistics on the part of one troll. Tracy’s case is not isolated – I’ve followed and sometimes engaged with such trolls and their sexism directed at sports media figures, political commentators, and commenting trends on articles addressing pay gap and other professional gender inequities. And not surprisingly, what much of this pattern tends to share is a frequent outright refusal to acknowledge facts such as pay inequity (part of larger anti-fact trend I have placed in the scope of social science elsewhere).
I highlight these examples among numerous blatant cases to make the broader point: It seems near impossible to be social media active without coming across gendered commentary, and sadly much of it is ill-intentioned sexism. And, in forms such as sexism, trolls and trolling behavior may be a function of dark personality traits such as manipulation, enjoyment of others’ suffering, and a glaring lack of remorse.
Couple the trolling sexism with recent well-penned pieces concerning male-dominated, paternalistic culture in my own professional world (academia), and the continued male views of women as property, and I am left to wonder what my place is. Maybe these patterns have always been there in force and I’ve just been gender-blind. Maybe they have been exacerbated by post-election social justification (“Grab her by the p****” and the like). Maybe both.
Let’s return to my first query: does my professional take make me a feminist? In the end, this may not even be for me to judge, as I have an admitted under developed sense of the historical definitions and theory surrounding feminism. Although I’ve never outright self-identified with the term, I have had to definitely needed to recalibrate my perspective because of the layers of stigma attached to the word “feminism.” More importantly, I think, than re-consideration of my personal and professional identity labeling, is self-reflection I hope can be part of a meaningful conversation moving forward. With the specific re-consideration staring me in the mirror of whether I am (not?) a feminist comes larger questions like “What does my professional view mean in terms of effects on my mentees?” and “How can I be part of a solution to sexism and inequity?”
Here is what I know. First, I abide by simple facts like data depicting differential access to equal pay, healthcare, career advancement, and worse, in more harmful settings like rates of sexual violence victimization. My own expertise in clinical psychology, forensic psychology, public health and research makes these subjects day-to-day realities, whether it be in my experience in the courtroom, classroom, or community. I also understand and accept that the attitudes and social norms we hold absolutely and directly influence gendered inequities. Sexism and related attitudes negatively impact women’s abilities to report victimization, seek healthcare, ask for raises, receive equitable compensation, and so forth. In public health terms, per the World Health Organization (among others), sexism is a negative social determinant of health and well-being for women. These are not socio-political leftwing opinions. These are facts. Facts backed by non-partisan, dispassionate peer–reviewed scientific, as well as publicly available government and other sourced data. So, if taking a scientific view of gendered patterns makes me a feminist, guilty as charged. If it makes me something else, for example, simply willing to acknowledge a social issue, guilty on that account too. I do wonder what level of insecurity – or perhaps the dark traits I referenced earlier – must it take to be a cowardly troll. I hope any male reading this will consider active engagement against such behavior – look for it, and address it. Positive (what psychologists might term “pro-social”) examples may be the best weapon we have to doing something to solve the problem.
An interesting subplot in the broader personal gendered discourse for me has been in my own student mentoring. More importantly to me, facing the gendered content raises a professional discipline question of serving as a male mentor for a predominantly female culture. As faculty in psychology and public health programs, our mentees are most often female. I find that in situations such as these, adopting the first rule of witness testimony holds true: know what you don’t know. Undoubtedly, I have not been perfect as a clinical or research mentor in terms of gendered assumptions or attentiveness to such matters. Luckily, there is valuable scholarly literature on the topic of mentoring female mentees. And perhaps the best I can do as a male mentor in today’s academic and broader landscape is to first acknowledge the reality that my female mentees may face. Our conversations help me understand that I will never actually be in their shoes; therefore, to start, I must ask questions and serve as a resource and support. Like any good scientist, I need to adopt the posture of a life-long learner. And like a good teaching or trial consultant, I can consult those with relevant expertise.
At the larger level, whether or not you call me a feminist does not change a very clear observation of the gendered nature of decision-making concerning the very inequities I highlighted earlier. The visual of decision-making power at the policy level is clear: It is as White and male as can be. Locker room talk or not, gendered thinking and words matter – they play directly to social norms creating a permissive environment and slippery slope where gendered comments and thinking create structural, systemic inequity. A common counter argument (from men and women alike) I encounter is that male privilege does not exist because there are plenty of examples of women who have worked hard and made their way to the top. I agree, in part. There are plenty of those examples. I call several of them friends and colleagues. What many of us are missing, or unwilling to acknowledge, is that structural gender bias and successful female exemplars are not mutually exclusive. It is not that cut and dry. Both facts can be true – inequity exists and hard work can help in many instances. This does not mean that male (often of the rich, White, heterosexual, and Christian variety) decision-making is severely limited in scope. It may be that many instances exist where gendered decision-making is not even malicious in intent (maybe I too am being naïve?); this changes nothing about the fact that big picture gendered social attitudes and policy making, driven by male paternalism, is a problem.
A problem we must first all acknowledge if we are ever to progress. If we males can see past our own insecurities to understand — as science has already demonstrated time and again — enhancing diversity at the decision-making level not only solves inequities, but sparks innovation and progress for everyone. Maybe that’s worth some honest, difficult self-reflection and contribution to a worthy cause.