No one gets feminism right every time, and no one gets to tell you you aren’t a “real” feminist.
“Just so you know,” she assured me. “I would never do sex work.”
“That’s good,” I replied. “I don’t think I could date a sex worker.”
When we met online two weeks prior, she listed social justice as one of her primary interests and indicated that she was looking for a feminist. During our long phone calls and text correspondence, I seemed to fit the bill, but when she met me in person, I didn’t live up to her expectations. We “male feminists” never do, it seems.
“You wouldn’t date a sex worker? That is ridiculous and bigoted,” she snapped. “It’s always really weird to me when men who claim to be feminists are all weird about sex workers. You clearly don’t understand how capitalism works.”
And just like that, another promising first date was ruined. On my OKCupid profile, I had presented myself as a fellow crusader for social justice, a male feminist who genuinely “got it” and was down for the cause, but now I had (allegedly) exposed myself as a “ridiculous bigot.” I hadn’t said that sex workers were inferior people or that the didn’t deserve human rights; I had only said I didn’t think I could date one, and apparently, that was all I needed to say to have my feminist card revoked.
Every good man has found himself in one of these conversations. He says something that a woman finds offensive, and the next thing he knows, he is being called “sexist.” An actual sexist would probably chide the woman for being “too uptight,” but a good man just wants to understand what he’s said wrong. He knows he isn’t sexist, and even if he is, he knows how hard he’s trying not to be. So he listens and tries to empathize, even as he is being personally attacked.
For men like myself who identify as “feminists,” this often leads to an existential crisis. We call ourselves feminists because words matter, and embracing the feminist moniker, especially as a man, is a powerful way of showing that you support human rights. Yet the second we offend one person, that person questions our moral character and tells us we have no business calling ourselves feminists.
If you’re in a situation like this, ask yourself why you identify as a feminist. If you identify as a feminist because you think it will earn you positive attention from women, good luck to you. There are over 3.5 billion women in the world, and if you think saying something as simple as “I’m a feminist” is going to get every woman like you, you’re bound to be disappointed. Every woman has her own unique reaction to a self-proclaimed “male feminist,” and not all of them are positive, not by a long shot.
If, however, you identify as a feminist because you genuinely believe in gender equality, then why should the discouraging words of a few women stop you from embracing a label that’s consistent with what you believe? No individual woman is the arbiter of whether or not a man gets to call himself a feminist. If you believe in feminism, you are a feminist. Yes, you will make mistakes along the way, just as Christians sometimes stray from the path of the Jesus’ word or vegetarians sometimes stray from the path of meat abstinence, but if you repent and grow from those mistakes, that’s all anyone can ask for. Your mistakes don’t make you a hypocrite; they make you human.
Some skeptics, both male and female, assert that “male feminists” are only feminists because they realize what they stand to gain from it. We talk about how feminism ultimately helps all of humanity, not just women, and they reply, “Oh, so now that you see how feminism helps men, you want to support it.” Well, yes, and so what? Do women not have their own self-serving reasons for supporting feminism? The point is we all have something to gain from equality. The superficial ideal of “manliness” is unachievable for women and for many men, so in a society that defines a person’s success by their adherence to that ideal, most people, male and female, will fail to reach their full potential. That is why I am a feminist, and if you don’t agree, I hope you can voice that disagreement without engaging in personal attacks.
As for my comment about not wanting to date a sex worker, I don’t think feminism is about telling anyone, male or female, what kind of people they should be open to dating. I know plenty of feminist women who filter out the men they date based on height, hair, income, education, age, and pet preferences. Are these women “bigots” with “no business calling themselves feminists,” or are they just human beings, acknowledging their human preferences when trying to narrow their romantic prospects down to one?
When you shame people for their attractions, personal preferences, privileges, and desires—all in the name of “feminism”—you’re alienating people who would otherwise be sympathetic to your cause. But despite that, if a man walks away from feminism because he feels “unwanted” by women in the movement, it’s no wonder those women were skeptical of him in the first place. Being called a “bigot” discouraged me from further pursuing that woman, but it didn’t discourage me from identifying as a feminist, and I look forward to not being called a bigot when I go on that special first date with the feminist who’s right for me.
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