Before I talk about why I don’t call myself a feminist, I want to be very clear that it’s not because I think feminism is anything other than awesome. I owe more to feminism and to feminist women than I can possibly describe. I have a deep respect for the great thinkers, writers, and teachers whom I have been fortunate to learn from. I would not be the person I am if it hadn’t been for the lessons, patience, and love that many of them shared with me.
There have been many times that someone has called me a feminist, even though I’ve never used that word to describe myself. Usually when that happens, I ask them to not do it. Since this has occurred a few times recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I resist that label and I’ve decided that there are two main reasons why I don’t want to be called a feminist.
First, I really don’t want to be put on a pedestal. I’ve noticed (and I’ve experienced) how appreciative many women are when they discover a man who’s trying to break out of stereotypical gender roles. And while I’ll admit that there have been times that I’ve enjoyed the ego boost that can result, I’ve also seen how little it takes for a man to be ahead of the pack when it comes to treating women fairly and equitably. You know, like they’re people.
I’ve seen how hungry some women are for examples of men who try to challenge sexism within themselves and the world around them. In a world in which the vast majority of men take their privilege for granted, and in which simply being not-abusive makes a guy far better than many of his peers, many women’s expectations of men are understandably low. In that light, I understand what prompts some women to put the men who are trying to change how they act on a pedestal. From what I’ve seen, that’s especially true for women whose relationship and sexual orientations are focused on cisgender, heterosexual men.
That tends to create the categories of “those annoying men over there” and “these good men over here”, which I find artificial at best. As soon as I start thinking that I’m somehow different or better than “those guys,” it becomes easy to take that for granted and stop working on it, which makes it much more likely to backslide. I think that the best way to challenge my internalized privilege is with humility, and that’s hard to do when I start believing that I’m somehow better than someone else. Arrogance is hardly conducive to living with integrity. One way that I try to avoid the temptation to become arrogant is by not using a label that can make me think that I’m somehow better or different from other men. It also helps me find some fierce compassion for them, which I think is an essential part of challenging and changing our ideas about gender roles, because I don’t see them in a separate category from myself.
Secondly, I think it’s appalling how frequently men get praised to the skies for saying things that women have been saying for years, often much more eloquently. I don’t want to distract from the wisdom of those who have said it before. I would much rather be recognized for being a supportive ally than for taking someone else’s words. That’s why I try to cite my sources, though it can be difficult to recall exactly where I heard or read something. And in those moments when I’m reminded that I’m passing on someone else’s teaching instead of offering an original idea, I hope that the fact that I try to give appropriate credit and my resistance to being made into something bigger than I am will give me the credibility I need when I apologize for forgetting to cite someone.
I’ll admit that there’s some practicality to that, as well. There’s a lot of resentment and anger about the fact that men can say things and have an audience, when women who say the same things are ignored. This isn’t limited to gender, of course. George Lucas can talk about the lack of funding for movies featuring Black casts without being seen as radical or scaring white people, but Spike Lee can’t.
The resulting frustration makes a lot of sense to me and I definitely don’t want to fuel it. Given that one of the hot spots when it comes to feminism is what role men have to play in challenging sexism and whether it’s possible for a man to be feminist, I don’t see any need to add to that fight. I know plenty of men who call themselves feminists and I’m not going to tell them not to. But I’ve also noticed that the ones who do either subscribe to forms of feminism that don’t appeal to me, or they get a lot of pushback. I think it’s totally reasonable to have different expectations of feminists who are men, if only because their experiences of gender are different from those of women. But I don’t find any value in debating whether I’m feminist or not, given my views on sex work, porn, kink, and other hot topics.
There are lots of women feminists who share my perspectives and they also get a certain amount of pushback, but there’s a different flavor to it when a male feminist offers those views because the additional question of whether men can be feminists adds to the complexity. I simply don’t feel the need to argue or justify my right to use a label. I’d rather let my actions speak for themselves than adopt an identity that doesn’t really fit me anyway.
Even with these two general reasons why I don’t call myself a feminist, I’m still flattered when someone says that I’ve written or said something that’s in alignment with the feminist goals of ending gender inequity, sexual shame, rape, abuse, and sexual violence (among others). I do take it as a compliment, assuming that it’s meant as one. However, while I’m pleased when I’m told that my actions or words are aligned with feminism, please don’t call me a feminist. After all, one of the goals of many feminists is to allow people to choose the labels and identities that work for them. That means making room for people to not choose them, too.