Privilege & Activism

Or, “movements are inherently intersectional; watch your step.”

Lately, a post from NSWATM has been making the rounds. To summarize, it is commentary on how certain groups are “invisible” when it comes to street harassment, and in addition to fat women and trans women (as Liss points out), men should also be categorized as such. The money quote is probably

Or you can be invisible, with sexual desire for you a subject of humor, because clearly it is so absurd that anyone would ever want to fuck a trans person or a fat woman or a man.

To paraphrase one of my friends when I sent them that quote: “Are they trolling?” Now, granted, I don’t know Ozymandias’ background*, so I don’t know what experience zie has had with street harassment and invisibility and the like. But to compare the plight of men to that of fat women and trans women seems like a rather large gaffe.

There are more slots people can fit in than “sex object” and “invisible”: someone could just be a human being, which seems to be how feminists believe society treats men—specifically, men who meet society’s standards for attractiveness. Men can be treated as sexy without losing their agency or having to deal with street harassment; women often cannot. Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt are often discussed in terms of their attractiveness in mainstream publications, so the statement “clearly it is so absurd that anyone would ever want to fuck a trans person or a fat woman or a man” is asinine. One of these things is not like the others; one of these things doesn’t belong.

Don’t believe me? Compare the first google result for “sexiest man in the world” to the first google result for “sexiest fat woman in the world”. This is not a mark of a society in which “the idea of a man being physically desired is sometimes laughable, sometimes terrifying, and mostly impossible.”

I am not arguing that discrimination against men does not exist. It absolutely does. The problem with discussion of the effect of sexism on men is that a lot of people have already given it a bad name. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to talk about reasonably, but it does make it more difficult. And after all, men are a traditionally privileged class, so it’s important to phrase things in a way that doesn’t trivialize the experience of less privileged groups. This is something that more privileged groups and their advocates appear to be astoundingly bad at.

It is very important to make real cases of men being screwed over by the kyriarchy known. I say real because there are causes that end up being misogyny (intentional or not) masquerading as men’s rights (Alas! has two great posts on one such topic). However, I will point out that a lot of these real cases—maybe not all, but a lot—are dual to misogyny.

Gender roles suck for men, too—but they usually serve to elevate men over women. Not being able to compliment women sucks—and so does not being able to walk down the street. This is not meant to trivialize, dismiss, or silence, but it is meant to raise awareness. It is possible to discuss these things in a self-aware, contextual manner; I would like to see more of it. I suspect it exists on NSWATM; I love the first post I read on it, and I absolutely do not intend to discredit it in its entirety based on one ill-conceived post (EDIT: and with further consideration, although I still don’t like some of the post’s rhetoric, I like its message quite a bit more). Alas! also tends to to have excellent content along these lines. Perhaps there is more that I am missing.

But more often, the sentiment I get from reading commentary on men’s rights is not “I am aware of my privilege and the culture in which I live”. Instead, it’s “I want to be able to do whatever the hell I want and everyone who can’t handle that is too sensitive” or “I want to hold on to my privilege and not acknowledge it at any cost” or something along those lines. This is unacceptable. We can do better. I expect more.

This isn’t the only place in which such sentiments run rampant: they’re even present within the feminist movement. I don’t understand how a movement that is at least partially about recognizing privilege and accepting others can foster these sentiments, but it does. Controversy unfolded at the recent SlutWalk march when some participants were noticed with an offensive sign [TW for racist language in link]. They took it down when asked, but the problems didn’t stop there: they continued onto facebook, where the people with the sign and their supporters made some rather familiar-sounding arguments. Here are the hilights:

Also, please stop using the “F” word, it offends me. Also, please don’t use the Lord’s name in vain, and don’t say the “F” slur that refers to homosexual men. Stop being pro-life or pro-choice, because either way, you’ll offend someone who feels just as strongly as you do about the use of the “N” word. You can’t please everybody, so please stop expecting everyone to try to accommodate your hypersensitivity to some words scrawled sloppily on a sign. YOU get no sympathy.

First of all, i invite all those who are viewing this poster/photograph to actually ponder the INTENT of the quote.

For some people, intention, facts, and reality don’t matter when you use the “n” word. Because sticks and stones can break our bones, and if anyone ever uses the “n” word in any context they’re a racist bastard.

OK, you caught us. We’re racists and we hate you. Is that what you really think? Not everything is so black and white (……)

@everyone – you know whats ironic? is that we’re being accused of being racist because we’re defending the intention and meaning of a non-racist quote and yet you are the ones assuming i’m priveleged because i’m white. nice.

Does this sound familiar? Because it sounds to me like the kind of garbage that feminists put up with all the time, coming from people who just refuse to admit their privilege. There’s intent (it’s magic, you know), there are cries of political correctness, there’s defensive sarcasm when all else fails…in short, there’s every trick in the derailing book (someone in the thread even linked derailing for dummies, which I should read at some point).

There is a common thread of a denial and erasure in these two incidents, and it cannot be ignored. Some analogies cannot be made because things are simply not analogous; other analogies should not be made because they forget important structure. It is a matter of abstraction**: when you make an analogy, you are saying “this is the structure of the situation that matters; everything else is irrelevant”. For example, if I were to say “her eyes sparkled like diamonds”***, I am implying that other aspects of her eyes—their color, shape, size, etc.—do not matter for the time being.

So, to compare the invisibility of men to the invisibility of fat women and trans women, or to compare the plight of women to that of black people, is to say that none of the other context matters. This is a remarkably insensitive thing to do, and while it is not the only problem with these incidents, it is certainly a big problem.

Here’s the thing: I am a white guy. I cannot fully understand and internalize the context of being black, or being a women, or being trans or gay or what have you. But I can listen to people who can do these things and analyze my privilege. Perhaps the sign should have read “Women and people of color are both groups that have frequently been oppressed, and hey, wait a second, there is some overlap there, gosh, it must really suck to be a woman of color, I’m going to go make a different sign now”. Maybe it would have if its creators had thought about it a bit harder.

Privilege does not take away someone’s right to point out discrimination, but with great privilege comes great responsibility: namely, the responsibility to be aware of one’s privilege and try not to do anything too ignorant. Or, when we do inevitably do something ignorant (and we do, all the time. I know I have, probably even in this blog, probably even in this very post), be willing to graciously accept it when someone points out our privilege instead of immediately going into defense mode like the people in that facebook thread did. I’m still working on this. It’s not easy.

So if you have some privilege (any privilege!) and you are talking about an issue, remember that there are groups who do not have that privilege, and think to yourself: “Am I erasing their experience? Am I ignoring structure that should not be ignored? Is this likely to turn allies away from my cause because my cause has become harmful to theirs? Is my privilege showing?” If you can honestly answer “no” to all of these, then please, post about how gender roles harm men or whatever. You probably have a point that needs to be heard! But, to quote another post on the SlutWalk sign debacle, “MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE BULLSHIT!”

If this doesn’t apply to your movement, you’d better have a damn good reason why not.

*This actually worries me a bit; perhaps I am making too many assumptions and my argument is invalid. But it certainly seems like the kind of mistake a careless men’s rightser would make, so I’m leaving it in. I went through the comments for an answer (and a few people did raise the point that I raised, with no response), but I was mostly just reminded of why I shouldn’t read the comments on NSWATM.

EDIT: This post touches on some similar issues (“Prescriptive feminism is patriarchy lite”, and since prescriptive feminism is non-intersectional, they tie together nicely), and this post proves that this kind of thing doesn’t just happen to amateur SlutWalk feminists.

**hey look I’m a computer scientist

***…and not a novelist.

7 thoughts on “Privilege & Activism

  1. Schala says:

    As a trans woman being seen as cis, I can try and be invisible by just wearing plain clothing – but I’ll still be a lot more visible than before transition, where the attention I got was pretty much a big zero. Now it’s more than zero in person, but I’m not a very social person I guess (it’s kinda hard to measure, I just know that I’m not completely ignored, unlike before)

    Not every man is Brad Pitt, but it’s reasonably easy to enter the category of “not fat woman”, especially when younger.

    It’s figleaf (on his own blog) who made a post about notions that kyriarchy support, which include that men cannot be desired, they can only be people who desire others. And part of the homophobia against gay men stems from that, too.

    Now maybe the comparison was gauche, but it’s in term of invisibility and “being desired”, for an average member of that group (and I’m probably not average for my group either – though I wonder what is the typical trans person).

    • I meant to talk about this, but I completely forgot—maybe I’ll post an addendum.

      I don’t mean to argue that men are always sexualized or always feel desired, just that society does not categorically consider men to be undesirable. Sure, society holds men to unreasonable standards, just as it holds women to unreasonable standards (though from what I understand, the standards for women are less reasonable, and the consequences for not meeting them are more severe for women than men) , but the point is that standards are there.

      Perhaps I should have been less critical of the NSWATM post; it certainly raises good points, not just the ones that I attacked. Obviously men are not (usually) victims of street harassment; I just disagree with the explanation presented. My theory is that it’s because men tend to be recognized as people (with or without a sexual component) whereas it’s acceptable to treat women as objects.

      But maybe I’m wrong! It’s certainly nontrivial to determine *why* anything happens. I still don’t think it’s a good comparison to make, though, similar to how that SlutWalk sign wasn’t a good comparison to make. I don’t suppose you have a link to figleaf’s post? A naive googling for it hits the blog itself, but not the specific post.

      • Schala says:

        I think this is the post:

        “Obviously men are not (usually) victims of street harassment; I just disagree with the explanation presented. My theory is that it’s because men tend to be recognized as people (with or without a sexual component) whereas it’s acceptable to treat women as objects.”

        Maybe it’s both. Because given that there is positive attention within all that (when it’s not street harassment), but that men seldom receive that kind of attention either. It’s being considered unworthy of romantic and sexual attention, both positive and negative.

        I was raised being implicitly told that the male form was ugly, or utilitarian (strong, heroic), but never that it was good-looking. Many people internalize it as fact. I don’t buy that in my personal life, but it would explain why I was ignored for over half my short life (I transitioned at 24, from an androgynous-looking body, to the same with small breasts and no more acne. Now I’m 29.) The moment I was seen as a cis woman, the attention I got shot up from nothing to ‘something’.

        And I’ve only been street harassed due to transphobia, a handful of times, early in my transition.

        “My theory is that it’s because men tend to be recognized as people (with or without a sexual component) whereas it’s acceptable to treat women as objects.”

        This is also the conclusion Norah Vincent reached, ironically enough. But if you ask men if what they get is a healthy dose of respect, or complete disinterest, they’re likely to respond the latter.

        Also, if you don’t know someone, you’re likely to treat them as objects until such a time that you actually meet and converse with them. That’s everyone. You can expect that the person has dreams, aspirations, desires, etc – but given that’s hypothetical (not that person’s own dreams etc), it still makes them objects until you interact bilaterally.

    • WordPress (or perhaps just this theme; perhaps I should look for a different one) can only go three levels deep (cue Inception joke), so I’m gonna have to respond here.

      I think there are more issues at play here than I was initially aware of; thanks for the discussion! It’s interesting, again, that male invisibility seems to be dual to the notion that women are not supposed to feel desire. Still, there are more points on the spectrum than “beautiful” and “ugly” (“utilitarian” is an interesting one), and given the culture that exists around fawning over male celebrities (and the marginalization and fetishization of attraction towards fat or trans women), I still stand by my point.

      Perhaps I am too casual in dismissing things said from a men’s rights perspective. I hope this isn’t the case, but it seems to be (I still don’t like the comparison made in that NSWATM post, but I think the message as a whole is a lot more legitimate now); clearly I should spend more time reading NSWATM and less time (or the same amount of time) reading manboobz. I do know people who state men’s rights issues in ways that make me (and others) profoundly uncomfortable, though, and I don’t think that’s a problem with our reactions. As with many things, there’s a balance to be struck.

  2. I don’t understand how a movement that is at least partially about recognizing privilege and accepting others can foster these sentiments, but it does.

    Well, if I’m part of a movement that is about recognizing privilege and someone calls me out on my privilege, it might sting a little more for me than it does for someone who has never heard of recognizing privilege. It might sting so much, in fact, that I might react with denial (“Oh, haha, no, you have the wrong person — trust me, I am great at recognizing privilege, and if I had it, I’d know!”) or anger (“You’re saying that I suck at doing this thing (i.e., thinking about privilege) that I’ve worked so hard to do? Well, fuck you!”) I’ve seen this happen.

    • Yeah, I guess that was a little disingenuous of me. I understand perfectly how it happens, but it’s still frustrating when it happens. There’s got to be a word for that, when someone thinks they’re such an expert in something that they can do no wrong in it.

  3. […] Privilege & Activism: Questioning the tendency of NSWATM to find equivalent male victimhood in everything. […]

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