People like to assume that sexism ended with the right to vote for women, that the waves of 20th century feminism put an end to that. That’s usually a neat trick played by those wanting to maintain the status quo, a tactic used for denying racism too.
As a guy, it’s strange to talk about feminism in the sense that it’s not your movement to direct. My energy can only go in supporting fantastic women activists and writers who push for gender equality. I like to think that I’m a progressive guy; my favourite politicians in Labour tend to be women, my favourite journalists are women. One journalist in particular, Abi Wilkinson, has helped me over the last couple of years considerably with advice and support. But that doesn’t make me immune to sometimes being sexist without realising it.
In fact, I’ve realised the risk is sometimes greater. It’s easier to be in the wrong when you think you can do no wrong. I recall an argument I had with my friend over rape culture and she was arguing that women should avoid jogging in the parks to avoid harassment, which I angrily thought was empowering men and making women cower. I went to sleep thinking I had done feminism proud but the next morning I woke up in realisation about how much my male privilege shielded me there. I hadn’t looked at the position she was coming from. I could hold that idealism and believe in something like that because if it went wrong it wouldn’t affect me. It’d affect someone like my friend who had been harassed to the point where she now just wanted to avoid these situations.
This isn’t about what women should do because it isn’t my place to say that. It’s about what as a guy we don’t do and should do. The last few weeks of Harvey Weinstein and everything after that is only an eye-opener if you’ve never met a woman. I realise with a jarring shock that pretty much every woman I know has encountered some sort of sexual harassment or assault. One of my closest friends confided me in how she used to be regularly sexually harassed on her way back from work at Victoria station in London on an almost regular basis. She’s become accustomed to guys sending unsolicited nude pictures and flirting aggressively with her. And it gradually ate away at her confidence to changing how she dressed. During one time when we were playing pool, a group of guys walked past leering at her and she immediately went from being cheery to subdued. It was the eye-opener, that as a man calling himself a feminist, I just never fully realised.
It happens on the streets, at home, on public transports and at work. A recent workplace survey revealed the huge disparity in perceptions of sexism between women and men, with almost half of female HR directors and decision-makers compared to a quarter of men finding sexism in their workplaces. It’s easy for me to criticise these when I see them as statistics, but when they’ve happened in my life, how I’ve handled it should have been significantly better at times.
Sometimes it’s about having the guts to call out your friends when they’re making rape jokes or not accepting lads’ culture as a given. Again I look at my own inconsistencies here and for all that I’ve embraced feminism as something the world needs, I haven’t always called out sexism amongst people I know. I’ve cut off religious friends because of their misogyny in controlling how women behaved and dressed but when my more secular friends would dismiss a woman who enjoys casual flings as “hoes” or “sluts” I’ve found that I’ve sometimes been more hesitant to say anything for fear of losing a friendship.
As a guy I thought my contribution ended at simply saying I supported feminism. But since then through reading things and conversations with my female friends I’ve realised how flawed that is. Staying quiet when your friends are engaging in sexist banter before writing about rape culture on a long Facebook post is poor feminism on my part, and I suspect, many others.