by Melissa A. Fabello and Aaminah Khan, Originally published on Everyday Feminism, October 10, 2016
Dear Well-Meaning Men Who Believe Themselves to Be Safe, Thereby Legitimizing the “Not All Men” Argument,
Let’s start here, even though this should go without saying: We don’t think that all men are inherently abusive or dangerous. Plenty of men aren’t.
There are men that we love very much – men around whom we feel mostly safe and unthreatened; men who, in fact, support, respect, and take care of us on familial, platonic, romantic, and sexual levels. Not every man has violated us individually; for most of us, there are plenty of men that we trust.
We know what you mean by “not all men” – because on a basic level, we agree with you.
But the socialization of men is such that even a good man – a supportive man, a respectful man, a trusted man – has within him the potential for violence and harm because these behaviors are normalized through patriarchy.
And as such, we know that even the men that we love, never mind random men who we don’t know, have the potential to be dangerous. Surely, all people have that potential. But in a world divided into the oppressed and the oppressors, the former learn to fear the latter as a defense mechanism.
So when you enter a space – any space – as a man, you carry with yourself the threat of harm.
Of course, in most cases, it’s not a conscious thing. We don’t think that most men move through the world thinking about how they can hurt us. We don’t believe The Patriarchy™ to be a boardroom full of men posing the question “How can we fuck over gender minorities today?” You would be hard-pressed to find a feminist who actively believes that.
But what makes (yes) all men potentially unsafe – what makes (yes) all men suspect in the eyes of feminism – is the normalized violating behaviors that they’ve learned, which they then perform uncritically.
Make no mistake: When you use the phrase “not all men” – or otherwise buy into the myth of it – you’re giving yourself and others a pass to continue performing the socially sanctioned violence of “masculinity” without consequence, whether or not that’s your intention.
In truth, the only thing approaching defiance against this kind of violence is to constantly check and question your own learned entitlement – and that of other men. But you can’t do that if you’re stuck in the space of believing that “not all men” is a valid argument.
So we wanted to call you in, well-meaning men, to talk about these four points that you’re missing when you claim “not all men” as a way to eschew responsibility for patriarchal oppression.
Because it is all men, actually. And here’s why.
1. All Men Are Socialized Under (And Benefit From) Patriarchy
Here’s the truth: Most of the time, when we generalize and use the word men, what we’re actually referring to is the effects of patriarchy. What we’re actually intending to communicate when we say “men are horrible,” for instance, is “the ways in which men are socialized under patriarchy, as well as how that benefits them and disadvantages everyone else, sometimes in violent ways, is horrible.”
But that’s kind of a mouthful, isn’t it? So we use men as a linguistic shortcut to express that.
And before you come at us with “But that’s generalizing,” it’s actually not. Because it is true that all men are socialized under and benefit, to some degree, from patriarchy.
That is to say, the only thing that we truly associate all men with is patriarchy – and that’s hella reasonable, even though it affects men differently, based on other intersections of identity.
Because here’s how it works, my friends: Living in the United States, every single one of us is socialized under patriarchy – a system in which men hold more power than other a/genders, in both everyday and institutionalized ways, therefore systematically disadvantaging anyone who isn’t a man on the axis of gender. As such, we all (all of us!) grow up to believe, and therefore enact, certain gendered messaging.
We all learn that men deserve more than anyone else: more money, more resources, more opportunities, more respect, more acknowledgment, more success, more love. We all internalize that. To say that “not all men” do is absurd – because, quite simply, all people do.
For people who aren’t men, this means that we’re socialized to feel less-than and to acquiesce to the needs of the men in our lives. And this doesn’t have to be explicit to be true.
When we find it difficult to say no to our male bosses when we’re asked to take on another project that we don’t have the time for, or to our male partners when they’re asking for emotional labor from us that we’re energetically incapable of, it’s not because we actively think, “Well, Jim is a man, and as a not-man, I can’t say no to him.”
It’s because we’ve been taught again and again and again since birth through observation (hey, social learning theory!) that we are not allowed – or will otherwise be punished for – the expression of no. In the meantime, what men are implicitly picking up on is that every time they ask for something, they’re going to get it (hey, script theory!).
A sense of entitlement isn’t born out of actively believing oneself to be better than anyone else or more deserving of favors and respect. It comes from a discomfort with the social script being broken. And the social script of patriarchy is one that allows men to benefit at the disadvantage of everyone else.
And all men are at least passively complicit in this patriarchal system that rewards male entitlement. We see it every single day.
The thing about privilege is that it’s often invisible from the inside. It’s hard to see the scale and scope of a system designed to benefit you when it’s as all-encompassing as patriarchy. And that might lead you to buy into the idea of “not all men.”
To those on the outside, however, the margins are painfully visible. That’s why men who really want to aid in leveling the playing field have a responsibility to listen to people who can see the things they can’t.
When gender minorities tell you that you’re harming them, listen. Listen even when you don’t understand. Listen especially when you don’t understand.
You can’t see all the ways in which your maleness distorts the fabric of society, but we can. And if you want to help dismantle patriarchy, you have to make the choice to accept that a thing isn’t less real just because you haven’t seen it – or don’t believe yourself to have experienced it.
2. All Violations (Big and Small) Are Part of the Same Violent System
Picture this: A well-meaning man offers a woman a compliment at a bar. He has no sinister motive, and he is – after all – in an appropriate setting for flirting.
When the woman rebuffs him for whatever reason (she’s in a relationship, she’s not into men, she’s just not interested), the man feels snubbed – because he was polite and respectful, but not rewarded for it.
This well-meaning man would probably tell you that he’s not owed a woman’s affection; he knows that. But he still feels hurt that he didn’t get it. And that’s fair. Rejection hurts.
But maybe he believes himself to have approached her in a kind enough way that he should have at least gotten to talk to her a bit. After all, men know that being gentlemanly is the “right” way to “get” women, and therefore expect on some level to be rewarded for that good behavior. But if that sentiment drives some of his disappointment, then that’s a sense of entitlement, however small.
Such a man isn’t an outright abuser. But his learned entitlement makes him potentially unsafe for women to be around. And it’s hard to see that sense of entitlement from the inside, let alone question it or start to break it down.
As such, when we generalize and say, “Men feel entitled to our bodies,” this man would be wrong if he said, “Not all men are like that – I’m not.” He just doesn’t connect the bitterness of rejection with the broader sense of entitlement he’s learned and internalized. Furthermore, he may not realize how this sense of entitlement is symptomatic of a larger patriarchal culture in which men are taught that they’re owed romantic and sexual interest from women.
This may seem like a tiny sliver of the patriarchal pie, but it’s poisoned nonetheless.
Here’s another example: A well-meaning man, in a conversation with a woman, talks over or mansplains to her without recognizing the behavior. He would probably never intentionally do this. Maybe he’s read Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit and wouldn’t dream of patronizing a woman. He just wants to voice his opinion. And that’s fair, right?
Here’s the thing about opinions, though: They’re actually not all equally valid or worth sharing, no matter what you were taught in grade school. You’re actually not automatically entitled to share your opinion; in fact, your opinion might be pointless or even harmful in some conversations.
This well-meaning man thinks he’s contributing to a discussion, which he feels entitled to do, because he has a right to his opinion. He doesn’t see the pattern of being talked over, belittled, or dismissed that his female friend experiences daily, to which he’s just contributed.
And why would he? He was just offering his opinion. He wasn’t trying to make her feel small. From his perspective, it’s just a discussion.
How could this – in any way, shape, or form – be similar to something as potentially career-damaging as gender minorities not being invited to share their thoughts in academic or professional settings, or being passed over and not asked to sit on a panel of experts? How could this be similar to an intimate partner believing that his word is the end all, be all, never letting his partner get a word in to express her needs?
We hate “slippery slope” arguments, but that’s exactly what this is – a series of sometimes unintentional microaggressions that enables a larger culture of silencing and marginalizing people other than men. In that context, all of these violations matter.
Think about it: If you never unlearn the entitlement inherent in offering unsolicited compliments or talking over a woman, will you really stop there?
One man expects a reward for good behavior, the next for unsolicited “compliments,” the next for street harassment. One man stays quiet about rape jokes, the next actively makes them, the next learns that if he commits rape, his friends will laugh it off. There’s a very clear line that leads from “benign” entitlement to harm and violence against us.
So sure, maybe “not all men” street harass or commit sexual violence. But how have your own actions contributed to a culture that allows those things to happen?
3. The Impact of Your Actions Is More Significant Than the Intent
Cool. You didn’t mean to contribute to the objectification of queer women when you made that lesbian porn joke. Perhaps you even think that you’re so “enlightened” as a “feminist man” that we should just know that you “didn’t mean it like that.” In fact, maybe you even think that you were being “subversive” when you said it. Okay.
But from a woman’s perspective, that doesn’t matter, because we still have to feel the effects of that mindset every single day – and your bringing that to the foreground has a negative impact on us, no matter what the hell your intent was.
Many men don’t do hurtful things maliciously. They may be doing them subconsciously, adhering to the ways in which they’ve been taught to behave, as all of us do.
Other men, of course, are intentionally violent. But the effects of both can be incredibly damaging.
Surely, we’re less likely to harbor resentment towards someone who stepped on our toes accidentally than we are towards someone who stomped on them with malevolence – especially when accountability is had and an apology is issued. But our goddamn toes still hurt.
To a gender minority, there’s very little difference between the impact of inadvertent and intentional harm. A man who makes you feel unsafe by accident is as harmful to you as one who does it on purpose.
So no matter how well-intentioned you are, you’re not off the hook when you hurt people. And because of everything we’ve discussed above, you are likely (yes, all men) to hurt and violate. And you need to be willing to take responsibility for that.
4. The Depth of Work to Be Done Is Avoided By Most Men
It’s understandable that we react by distrusting even “safe” men as a rule when even safe men can hurt us – because even “safe” men have been raised in and shaped by a patriarchal society that both actively and passively harms us every day. There’s no escaping that, regardless of anyone’s best intentions, so it’s useless to talk about intent as a mitigator of harm.
Add to that the constant stream of disappointment and hurt we feel when self-proclaimed “safe” or “feminist” men do turn out to harm us – which happens way too often to be treated like an anomaly – and it’s easy to see why women react with distrust or even outright hostility when “safe” men show up in feminist spaces.
We want to trust that your good intentions will lead to positive actions, we do. But here’s what we need you to understand before that can possibly happen: What you’re asking us to accept from you will take a hell of a lot of work on your part – and we’ve seen over and over again that many self-proclaimed “allies” just aren’t willing to do it.
Being a “safe” man – hell, being a feminist man – is more than just believing yourself to be and collecting accolades from others about the minimal work that you’re doing not to be an asshole.
Doing the work means really doing the work – getting your hands dirty (and potentially having an existential crisis in the process).
Consider it like this: If you go through life assuming that your harmful behavior is appropriate and most of society provides a positive feedback loop, why would you stop to examine yourself? You’ve never been given any indication that you should.
If you never learn to see your behavior within the context of the broader harm done to gender minorities, what motivation will you have to change? And if you keep passively absorbing toxic attitudes towards male entitlement, will you really move to check bad behavior in other men?
Because here’s the truth: Even when it’s not conscious, male entitlement is a choice – a choice to be uncritical, a choice to continue to passively benefit. And attempting to fight that entitlement is also a choice – one that has to be both conscious and ongoing. You’ve got to choose it every day, in every instance.
But how many well-meaning men are truly choosing that path, instead of just insisting that it’s “not all men” and that they’re “not like that?”
Hint: You are “like that” – especially if you’re not actively fighting patriarchy. And claiming that you’re “not like that” doesn’t negate patriarchy – it enforces it.
Fighting learned male entitlement means assuming the burden of vigilance – watching not just yourself, but other men. It means being open to having your motives questioned, even when they’re pure. It means knowing you’re not always as pure as you think.
It means assessing the harm you’re capable of causing, and then being proactive in mitigating it.
Most of all, it’s a conscious decision to view every individual’s humanity as something exactly as valuable and inviolable as your own.
And it means doing it every single moment of your life. Point blank, period.
If you really want to stop the “all men” cycle, that’s the only place to start.
Well-meaning men, if we’re being honest, we love many of you. And those of you whom we don’t know, we want to believe and appreciate. We want to feel safe around you.
We don’t want to fear or distrust men. We don’t want to have to perform risk assessments on every man that we meet. Trust us – it’s a miserable life! We’d gladly abandon this work if it wasn’t absolutely necessary to our survival.
But it’s not our job to be vigilant against harmful behaviors that we can’t possibly hope to control, though. Nor is there anything that we alone can do about this. It’s incumbent upon men to make themselves safer as a group.
And there’s no way that you can do that until you accept that yes, it is all men – including you – and start working against it.
Aaminah and Melissa
Melissa A. Fabello, Managing Editor of Everyday Feminism, is a body acceptance activist and sexuality scholar living in Philadelphia. She enjoys rainy days, tattoos, yin yoga, and Jurassic Park. She holds a B.S. in English Education from Boston University and an M.Ed. in Human Sexuality from Widener University. She is currently working on her PhD. She can be reached on Twitter @fyeahmfabello.
Aaminah Khan is a Muslim queer writer, teacher, and activist. Her work has appeared in The Progressive, Huffington Post, Black Girl Dangerous, and elsewhere. She blogs, tweets, and catches Pokémon as jaythenerdkid.