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Sometimes, the patriarchy is a thunderstorm. And sometimes, it’s billions of men spitting on you. It is important to know the shape of the monster before attempting to murder it.
Lisa recently posted an essay, “Don’t Like Feminists? Stop Helping Create Them”. It’s a little jarring to read an essay framed as, “here’s how to unmake feminism,”—not “white feminism,” or “western feminism,” or that statement phrased in any way as a critique of certain movements. Instead, simply, “how do you dismantle this social justice movement, in its entirety, and all the institutions it has inspired, and how once it is dead do you keep it in the ground?”
That sounds terrible, but her methods are brilliant: give feminists what we want. Destroy oppression. Tear down the patriarchy. Make a just world. And when this is done, there will be no more feminists, for our task will be complete. The death of any movement lies in the completion of its struggle—which, depressingly, is why social justice movements persist even as the experiments of state rise and fall.
And if the phrasing still seems peculiar, well, I’m not the audience, and neither are you. Men are, and in particular, men’s rights activists. “Feminism,” is their stated enemy, their “boogeywoman”, so it is perfectly natural for Lisa to frame feminist concerns and a call to feminist consciousness in terms of its annihilation.
She doesn’t say, “destroy oppression,” of course. She also doesn’t say, “tear down this patriarchy,” tempting though it must have been.
Instead, she says, end sexual predation. Give us a truce.
A few days ago, Ann and I were discussing the problem of pornography. If not censorship, we asked, and if not labor restrictions—and both of those non-solutions employ state violence and a patriarchal legal system, and are thus immensely problematic, not to mention ineffective—how do you address exploitative pornography? How do you prevent porn’s valuation of women from seeping into male culture. How do you prevent the image of women as things to be degraded from becoming dominant-male-normal? The particular answer we came to is a story for another day, but its structure is very much reflected in Lisa’s essay: this is a thing that men must do. Stop, in the case of pornography, learning how rape us; stop learning how to want to. And for fuck’s sake, just stop—please pretty-please, for reals now, we’re not above begging—stop raping us.
It’s not an uncommon request.
If it’s the thing feminists ask of men most often, the reason is, simply, because it is the one thing that men can do that we cannot. In a very real sense, men are the only ones who can stop rape, they are the only ones who can stop the violent machine that kills women, and in the end, they are the ones who must tear down the patriarchy.
There’s a way in which that’s misleading, which we’ll talk about later, but there’s a way in which that’s true. And because there’s a way in which that’s true, many feminists spend a lot of time understanding men and masculinity. There are a number of feminists who are trying to reach out to men. Male feminists in particular tend to focus on the ways in which men are harmed by the patriarchy, the ways in which men can unconsciously apply male privilege, and how men can fight back against this power structure.
I think this is good work. I certainly hope feminists keep challenging and engaging with men, and I personally try to draw men towards a feminist consciousness whenever I can.
That’s not all that often, mind you, because I practice a kind of de facto soft separatism. Most of the new people I meet are women, most of the people I regard as friends are women, and most of the men I know and regard as friends are, well, feminists. This is a personal survival tactic for me, and believe me I love having mostly women as friends, but it is not going to work for all women. Even if you solve racism and homophobia, transphobia and ableism—even if you make this utopia in which all women live together, freely, without oppression, separatism still fails as a vector for universal social justice. Because the ability to live in that world is an artifact of privilege. And for all women to have this freedom, it must be given to them by men, or they must take it from men.
Men must be a part of any complete feminist politic. Because sometimes the patriarchy is billions of men, spitting on you. And they could stop, if they wanted to. And maybe you can convince them that they want to.
But then there’s this:
Other women can’t save her–if those men aren’t afraid of the law, will they fear just another woman, smaller, weaker and slower than they are?
I see why Lisa wrote that. And though, yes, men have a lot of power, and perhaps the exclusive ability, as a group, to dismantle all oppression, they do not wield all power. Women can and do build institutions to help other women. These things we build do not comprise a complete solution. They are not available to all women. They alone will not dissolve the patriarchy. They’re storm shelters; it’s still raining outside, and you’ll have to go back out eventually, but at least you’re not dying of pneumonia right now. Well, if you’re lucky enough to get inside.
But flawed as they are, small as they are, and frail as they are, these things we build do help women. And more, they help us figure how to support women. They teach us what it means for a place to be women-focused. They teach us what kinds of institutions are able to support social justice, and ultimately, what sorts of institutions can replace the patriarchal ones that now hold so much power, should four billion men decide to stop spitting.
We need more of this. Absolutely, without a doubt, we need more storm shelters, more women helping women.
Because men won’t. That’s a lie, but it’s a small one—some men will, and it is still important to draw more men to feminist causes, but you can’t change the weather. Men as a group are not going to build these institutions any more than they are going to decide, tomorrow, to hold a twenty-four-hour truce during which there is no rape.