1. Read. The first step, as usual, is to educate yourself. “Feminism is For Everybody” by bell hooks is a great place to start, and from there I recommend Audre Lorde and Angela Davis. I tend to lean toward pieces by women of color, to get their perspective on the intersectionality of race and gender, but there are also pieces by Caitlin Moran, Simone de Beauvior, and others that are valuable. The most important thing is to learn what feminism, male privilege, and sexism really are outside of the stereotypes and misconceptions that litter the internet.
2. Recognize your male privilege. In the United States, we live in a patriarchal society where most leadership is male, gender roles tip power toward the male, masculinity is valued, and society is set up to make things easier for men. Women are constantly objectified, diminished, and reduced to simplistic beauty standards by the media and the public. For some specific examples of male privilege, check out this list compiled based on Peggy McIntosh’s article on white privilege. It is important to recognize the privileges that come with your gender because once you do, you can acknowledge how it leads to sexism and misogyny, and realize how you can use it to support women and feminism.
3. Use your male privilege to stop sexism, both in person and online. One of the aspects of male privilege is that males, particularly white males, are often trusted more for their opinions and ideas that women are. Women are more often characterized as irrational and emotional. I can attest to this, particularly in the context of sexist comments or situations. Many times when I have tried to point out sexist remarks, I’ve been dismissed as overly sensitive, angry, and misguided. As a man, you will be less likely to get this kind of response. So you should use that power. Use it to challenge others who make sexist comments or jokes. I recognize that it can be hard, or awkward, but these are issues that we women deal with every day. And if you don’t try, how will anything ever change?
4. Challenge gender roles. Acknowledge when you/other men or women are being forced into traditional gender roles. There is a difference between choosing to be in that role and being pressured into it. For example, I had a conversation with my friend about a dinner party that he went to. He noticed that during the preparation of the party, all of the women were in the kitchen cooking while all of the men were in the living room talking about politics. When a woman tried to join the political discussion, the men dismissed her opinions and did not really help her engage in the conversation. While it may be true that the women working in the kitchen enjoy that work, men can do their part by contributing to the cooking and cleaning, as well as by welcoming women into the socializing in the other room. When you don’t do that, you are reinforcing a societal pressure for women to conform to a certain place in the home. This applies to gender roles in your personal relationships as well. Acknowledge them and be ready to challenge them.
5. Make sure there is clear consent in all your sexual relationships. This should be obvious, but I still want to mention it because of the implicit power dynamic that is often present in sexual relationships between men and women. Be aware of that and do not use your power to force or persuade a woman to do anything. Consent is a clear, unambiguous, enthusiastic yes. It is not the absence of a no.
6. Don’t make comments about women based on their appearances. This is something that I think all people should work on, but particularly men when looking at and talking about women. There is so much more about a woman that is valuable; find those things instead of jumping right to her body or her features. Also, finding someone physically attractive is fine; just don’t make that the focal point of your comments about her and don’t use that to determine what kind of a person she is.
7. Keep doing these things when it’s just guys. It can be easy to let sexist comments and acts slide when it is just men around because maybe you think it won’t affect anyone outside of that group. But keep yourself and your friends accountable still, because it does affect others. Allowing men to perpetuate sexist stereotypes and do sexist things even when no women are around just reinforces patriarchal views that will translate into the relationships and interactions they do have with women. So have integrity and speak up when you know something is wrong.
8. Don’t use terms like “friend zoned,” or terms that slut-shame or victim-blame. The term “friend zoned” implies several things: that a nice guy deserves to be with a woman, that friendship is somehow a crappy alternative to a romantic relationship, that feelings and attraction are static…and other things that are just ridiculous. The biggest thing I want to talk about is the idea that when a woman turns down a man, she is doing something terrible and blameworthy, and that the man is entitled to be with her. Instead, we should acknowledge friendships for what they are – beautiful, intimate relationships that help us develop as people. Related to this, don’t use terms that slut-shame or victim-blame. Don’t call women sluts or whores. That implies that the choice to have sex defines a woman and defines her in a negative way. Don’t ask questions when sexual assault comes up that blame the woman. Don’t tell a woman she should or shouldn’t wear something. The list goes on.
9. If you approach a woman, respect her responses. Often times when I get approached by men in bars or other social settings, and I decline their offers for drinks, to dance, etc., they get offended. They don’t understand why I would turn them down – it could be a plethora of reasons, and all of them relate to my own decision-making capacity and empowerment as a person. As a man, you need to realize that you don’t have a right to me or any other woman. To make it worse, often the only response that sufficiently gets a man to stop pestering me is “I have a boyfriend.” What does this tell me? It tells me that this guy respects another guy over me. This is not right. Don’t do this. Accept responses from women as their choices and do not think that you deserve anything from them.
10. Be aware of your physical and emotional space. As evidenced by the Tumblr “Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train,” men have been told by society that it is ok for them to take up space and assert their privilege, while women have been told to shrink themselves down and take up as little space as possible. I recently had an experience with this on a bus – I was sitting next to a man and he stuck his leg clearly into the space in front of my seat. If I hadn’t told him that he was in my space, I would have had to sit the whole ride with my legs folded into a tiny corner. Studies have also shown that when men and women walk toward each other on the sidewalk, it is more often the woman who moves for the man. This kind of spatial dominance is also present in conversations, where men more often dominate the air space. Knowing these things, be conscious of the space you are taking up, physically and emotionally, and give a fair share of it to women.
11. Identify as a feminist. Don’t be scared of the word. Use it. Embrace it. Live it.