Safe spaces have inspired passionate debate in higher education: They’re either necessary to help students deal with microaggressions and trigger warnings, or they criticize a university for coddling and sheltering students. While I thankfully have never experienced the need to enter a safe space, I believe in the premise of safe spaces to help students process the painful parts of becoming adults and facing real challenges in the world. That’s why, as a male feminist, I believe that straight men need safe spaces, too.
Safe spaces for men have been described and defended by one such safe space moderator at the University of British Columbia, Ryan Avola. He argues that to combat toxic masculinity, men need a space to talk out their conceptions of gender. Otherwise, they force women and people of color to have the conversation for them. I agree with this; however, I also think the discourse surrounding gender has been radicalized by both feminists and conservatives, creating a vicious feedback loop of more and more extreme positions. If the end goal is to educate straight men on the complexities of privilege, insulating them among themselves is the first step to stopping this cycle.
Toxic masculinity is a form of masculinity that enforces and perpetuates sexual conquest and violence. Critics have argued toxic masculinity leads to domestic violence and gun violence, and it imprisons men just as much at it harms women.
Most importantly, toxic masculinity reinforces itself throughout a man’s life. From an effeminate boy being called a “faggot” to a sensitive teen being told to “grow a pair” to a cooperative man being urged to “take control,” toxic masculinity breeds competition and domination among men. This creates a system where competition, loudly voicing your opinion and stoicism are valued and “feminine” values like cooperation, listening to others and expressing your emotions are, literally, defeated.
These “manly” values were certainly useful at a time. Back when we were hunter-gatherers, it was important to have someone who shot first and listened after because we faced so many bodily threats. However, humanity has evolved beyond our primitive roots, and now traits like working in a team and communicating verbally are valued highly by none other than Forbes. Guess which gender these are traditionally associated with? Not maleness.
All this is to say that masculinity must evolve to adapt to a new world where communication conquers competition, where listening trounces overpowering opinions and where expressing empathy edges out emotional indifference. To overcome this, straight men need spaces to talk about gender without women.
As a Women’s Studies major, I am comfortable talking about gender and the pitfalls of masculinity. However, I have yet to encounter a Women’s Studies class (and especially a discussion section of a class) in which men aren’t unilaterally designated the problem of life. I have often felt uncomfortable expressing a more moderate opinion in polarized, radicalized spaces, which is detrimental to educational conversations in academia and gender politics in general. This implicit policing of discourse perpetuates the idea that men themselves are the issue when, in reality, the problem is toxic masculinity.
Female feminists: Imagine you’re told that something you can’t control — your gender — is everything wrong with the world. The point of criticizing men’s actions is to criticize the toxic masculinity that inspired them. However, this nuance is often lost in one-sided conversations that devolve into a laundry list of (legitimate) harms that toxic masculinity has inflicted upon women and people of color. There is a critical difference in criticizing the dominant expression of maleness and criticizing the unknowing expresser of this harmful masculinity.
If you were a man, would you really listen to the rest of the argument? Of course you’d get defensive, because why the hell wouldn’t you? After a few class periods, you’d start to hate all the “feminazis” and zone out for all the discussions of the perpetuation of gender inequality. There’s probably a 50-50 chance you’d start beginning sentences with, “Well, actually…”
This is exactly why straight men need safe spaces to discuss gender. I understand and identify with feminism, but most men don’t understand the difference between healthy and toxic masculinity. They don’t understand that their behavior is perpetuating gender inequality because their personal experiences don’t align with accounts of the harm they cause. By acting as straight men are supposed to act, they’ve reaped the rewards of oppressing others.
White men, in particular, are primed to not understand that their race and gender advantage them, and having women and people of color seemingly jump down their throats about their very existence makes them defensive. It’s not necessarily being privileged that stifles them from accepting the gender and racial hierarchy, it’s the feeling of being attacked that stifles them from listening. The very tactics feminists have adopted to become heard in a patriarchal society have alienated men and stopped them from listening. If in a patriarchal society men overpower and silence women, then let’s use men to spread the message.
Straight men need a space where they can accidentally misgender someone or make an inadvertent misogynistic comment or admit that they don’t understand structural racism and won’t immediately be pounced on. It’s all part of growing pains. If we understood these forces from the get-go, then they wouldn’t need explanation. This is not to say these comments are okay. However, undoing a lifetime of socialization is a long, tedious process and telling someone to check their privilege only exacerbates the hostility.
And, of course, the people who benefit most from homophobic, misogynistic, racist systems are the last to realize they’re stacked in their favor. The problem is that this won’t be fixed until these exact people realize they are the beneficiaries of the system, and while the originally-female gender theorists have done their piece, at this point what men really need are male role models of healthy masculinity.
Straight men need safe spaces to discuss structural inequalities without women or people of color because, like everyone, they feel most comfortable listening to people who share their social identities and experiences, which is what a safe space provides. These are uncomfortable conversations, and instilling values of equity takes time that women and people of color understandably don’t have the patience for. However, until that point is reached, then maybe straight men need other straight men to teach them the error of their ways.
Ben Bugajski is an LSA senior.