Like many men, I’ve spent most of my life confused and frustrated by the term “feminism.” The overarching theme of feminism in my privileged-white-upper-class-male background has predominantly been negative, focusing on activists burning their bras, reading “The Vagina Monologues” and demanding equal treatment while still expecting men to pay for dinner. The term was never really defined for me, and despite a liberal upbringing that focused on equality, I quietly held feelings of discontent for so called “feminists.”
Then I spent two months living with a Women’s Studies major.
I have a bad habit of making jokes about women, one I never really noticed until my time living with Rachel. We would consistently be talking and I would make a (seemingly) harmless joke about women in subservient roles or holding less value than men, and I could see the frustration in her eyes. Since my hometown is relatively conservative and I joined a fraternity my first semester in college, making sexist jokes was just a normal part of everyday conversation. I don’t feel, and have never felt, that women are actually lesser than men or restricted to certain aspects of life — my friends don’t feel that way either. The jokes we made weren’t about our actual beliefs, they were about making fun of crazy ideas concerning women that could never be considered true in modern day.
The problem with these jokes, as much as they may be facetious in nature, is that they display the nonchalant nature of lingering sexism in society. I would be disgusted with myself if I ever make jokes about Latino or black stereotypes the way I have about women. But there should be no difference when it comes to sex.
Living with Rachel taught me just how bad these seemingly “harmless” jokes actually are. I would make light of serious discrimination issues that still largely exist in society, and not in a way that simply made fun of them. Worse yet is that I’ve noticed it’s nearly impossible to have a conversation with a lot of my friends about gender equality — it just turns into jokes about women’s rights. No matter how serious or reasonable I try to be, the concept of feminism is simply no-go territory for many conversations.
What I learned most from living with Rachel is that when it comes down to it, I would have to consider myself a feminist. It’s kind of an odd thing to think of at first — a male feminist — but my beliefs about gender equality can’t be described as anything else. Plenty of other men are probably feminists too, but, like me, they have probably just never explored the topic of women’s rights.
Growing up, I was certainly raised to believe in equality between the sexes and respect for women. This came from my parents. School did very little to help my views on gender. Feminism wasn’t a topic we discussed — ever. We weren’t exactly drilled on civil rights or equality in other respects, but at least we addressed it. Gender equality was a topic essentially never approached.
Not every young man was raised the way I was. I had an incredibly strong mother, a father who seriously valued women’s rights, and my role model growing up was my sister, who took on the best qualities of both of my parents. College has helped me to realize exactly how rare my upbringing was.
The prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses is hugely related to men and our views of women in the big picture. I was lucky that my parents fostered a great deal of respect and empathy for women in me. As I’ve made clear, this didn’t mean I turned out perfectly, but it certainly helped. If a young man is raised to see women as objects — as inferiors that are placed on earth for his and others’ use as they see fit — bad things will happen. Most young men are probably not from an overtly sexist background, but as we all know, prejudice is a lot more complicated than simple hatred or subjugation.
I’ve made a commitment to leave anti-women jokes behind. It’s hard to break a lot of the bad habits I have when it comes to women — hanging out in a fraternity adds to that challenge — but I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try to overcome an aspect of myself that has hurt others. I’m a feminist, whether I like it or not. It has nothing to do with trying to be unique or radical. I’m a feminist simply because I can’t be anything less.
James Brennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.