Short answer: Nothing in and of itself. The problem occurs when conversations about women can’t happen on unmoderated blogs without someone showing up and saying, “but [x] happens to men, too!” (also known as a “Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too” or PHMT argument, or a “What About The Mens?” or WATM argument). When this happens, it becomes disruptive of the discussion that’s trying to happen, and has the effect (intended or otherwise) of silencing women’s voices on important issues such as rape and reproductive rights.
When and why PHMT arguments become inappropriate
No one is saying that discussions on men and masculinities shouldn’t go on. It is absolutely important to have dialogue on men’s issues, including discussions on violence done towards men. The thing is, a feminist space — unless the topic is specifically men’s issues — is not the place to have that discussion and neither are spaces (feminist or otherwise) in which the topic is specifically focused on women’s issues.
What it boils down to is this: Men, not women, need to be the ones creating the spaces to discuss men’s issues. There are a lot of feminist allies who do this, in fact, and there also a lot of non-feminist (or anti-feminist, if you really want to go there) spaces that are welcoming to this kind of discussion. Thus, the appropriate response to a thread about women is not to post a comment on it about men, but rather to find (or make) a discussion about men.
Why PHMT arguments are so frustrating
For those new to feminist discussion the angry reaction to PHMT arguments is most likely shocking and more than a little off-putting. Especially if, to all appearances, the question was innocuous. While it would probably best if all bloggers/commenters could stick to the 3-comment rule, having to deal with the same disruptive comments — even when they are made with the best of intentions — is enough to try the patience of even the most patient of educators (which most feminist bloggers and commenters are not).
Consider this comment:
Why is it we cannot have even one single public conversation about rape without someone taking the whole thread over with cries of oh the poor mens! what about the mens?
I can easily see why a newbie reading that, especially if said newbie is a man who got into feminism by examining masculinities, could see JacylnF as hostile towards men. I can definitely see how a man reading that might feel unwelcome and that feminism might not be the movement for him.
But let’s look at it from my perspective. I have been an active participant in the feminist blogsphere since 2005, but have been a reader since the early 2000s. I have seen multiple threads on women’s issues — especially ones that are trying to talk about the impact of rape and other sexual violence against women — devolve into nothing more than justifying to MRA’s, trolls, and other (generally male) posters why the conversation should be allowed to remain about women’s experiences. It was to the point that on my (heavily moderated) blog, I still had to write a disclaimer on the top of my post on women and equality that the post wasn’t about men because practically every other comment I was getting was saying how unfair it was that I didn’t talk about men. The phenomenon is so common that I co-authored a jurisimprudence law called The “What About the Mens?” Phallusy * because I felt like you couldn’t even mention the word “rape” without attracting people demanding that you talk about men getting raped.
So I completely understand why JacylnF and other feminists have no patience for even the well intentioned WATM comments because, frankly, I don’t have patience for them either. One thing I always try to impress upon the curious non-feminists who find my blog is that it isn’t about just one comment, but rather about a long and continuing history of WATM comments preventing meaningful discussion on women’s issues. It’s also worth mentioning that, because of how many concern trolls feminist sites get, it’s really hard to tell who’s trying to argue in good faith and who isn’t.
How to avoid getting zinged for a PHMT argument
So the question remains: what can be done to prevent arguments over PHMT issues?
The first, and easiest, step is to be mindful of the venue. In order to help facilitate this, it is useful to consider questions such as the following: What conversation is happening? Will discussing a male perspective/experience add something, or will it be seen as disruptive? Is there a more appropriate place to discuss my issues?
If you feel that the present discussion topic is broad enough so as to welcome discussions from a male-based perspective, then please consider the following advice [emphasis mine]:
1) Understand that if lots of women say something is important, it is. Your opinion, as a man, about the extent and nature of the problem is not valuable when the specific problem pertains to women’s experience. [...]
2) Always consider the distinction between a class and individual members of a class. If you don’t care about this, and when conversations about class-based oppression you come up with examples of weaker members of the dominant class and more powerful members of the subordinate class, you look an awful lot like someone who doesn’t care about justice. Michael Jordan is better off than me. This indicates precisely nothing about the importance of racism in our society. [...]
3) When you tell us about the male perspective on the issue (“Men don’t intend it this way!” “Men feel weak in relation to women!”) consider that we already understand. And then consider that the reason it looks to you like the male perspective is being excluded or misunderstood is that we’re actually talking about ourselves, and the effect your actions have on us. Further, you function as part of a larger system, and your introspection about your intent doesn’t tell you much about how.
4) Try to pay attention to what’s actually being said. Before you respond to something, think hard about what their actual point is and whether you understand it. If you don’t understand it, ask questions. [...]
5) Do not draw up a bunch of hierarchies about which form of oppression is worse than which other. When you do this, you’re not responding to a claim that what we experience is the worst thing ever; you just show up and start talking about why what the women say they experience is not as big of a deal as X, Y, or Z. [...] Being a woman, no matter what demographic you come from, is an overwhelmingly structuring and determining aspect of your life. In some ways it functions differently depending on your demographic, and in other ways there are striking commonalities, but in no sense is it dominated by other inequalities. Being a woman magnifies the effects of all those inequalities.
Lastly, I would highly recommend reading up on male privilege, with special attention paid to what the role is for a privilege person entering the space of a non-privileged group (I recommend starting with these two posts: A Deeper Look at “Minority Spaces” and “Check my what?” On privilege and what we can do about it). Oh, and don’t forget to check out the Related Reading section below.
Ultimately it is possible for men to both participate in feminist discussion and have meaningful conversations with feminists about men’s issues. It just takes some understanding of the issues in order to be able to find the right times and places for those conversations to happen.
- FAQ: What roles should men play in feminism?
- FAQ: Why are you concentrating on X when Y is so much more important?
- FAQ: Aren’t feminists just sexists towards men?
- Jeff (Feminist Allies): What Men Can Do: Responding to Worthwhile Comments
- tekanji (Official Shrub.com Blog): Who’s responsible for facilitating discussion on men’s issues?
- Tia (Unfogged): An Uncongenial Post
- WATM arguments as being dismissive of women’s issues:
6) Don’t say, “Men have problems too! Women are always doing mean things to men! [stamps foot] And we don’t complain about it as much!”
Feminists love to talk about the ways men are ill-served by the current arrangement. But if you’re one of the guys who Have Problems Too, you sound an awful lot like you’re talking about men’s problems to say, oh well, we all have something to be upset about, I guess there’s not much reason to think anything’s that unfair. We bring up men’s problems because we want things to change. You bring them up because you’re invested in the current system, and you want to tell us we don’t have that much to complain about.
And when you constantly bring up that “men have problems too!” you often indicate that not only do you not understand women’s experience, you don’t really understand that you don’t understand. You minimize what women experience by describing them in terms that don’t begin to be accurate. I’m not sure whether the differences are of degree or of kind (I suspect the latter), but women’s experience is different from men’s. Unless you’re one of the men who already follow these ten simple rules for respecting feminist women, you probably don’t understand the extent to which women are conditioned to see ourselves through an abstracted male gaze or the real one that’s often present. You can’t understand how women react to male judgment solely by introspection about how you react to female judgment, or judgment of any kind. Unless you’ve reached a high plane of understanding, and if you need this post, you haven’t, your comparisons are likely to illuminate the way our culture treats women’s bodies only by contrast.
- The problem with the “Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too” arguments:
But what bothers me about the idea of PHMT — and the way in which it is being relentlessly promoted — is that it trivializes the fact that patriarchy hurts women. Women are the victims of patriarchy, and the suffering of men occurs as a secondary consequence of their role as oppressor. The fact that patriarchy hurts women should be sufficient justification for fighting it.
An additional component of this frustration is the fact that men are more likely to be listened to than women. Feminist arguments often aren’t taken seriously when articulated by women. We are still in the midst of a backlash, and women who advocate their liberation are termed “feminazis,” “bra burners,” and a host of other degrading terms. But when pro-feminist men articulate the same critiques of patriarchy, their position is seen as legitimate.
- More on the “Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too” arguments:
There have been discussions in various feminist spaces of “patriarchy hurts men too,” but this is a difficult subject to deal with seriously because it is so often used by MRAs, rape apologists and other distasteful characters to justify the status quo, attack people trying to address real wrongs, or undermine female victims of violence, especially sexual assault and rape.
- On men taking responsibility for facilitating discussions on men’s issues:
Whether or not a similar play addressing men’s issues is a good idea isn’t the point here. The point is that the forum and the style in which this issue was brought up was inappropriate.
Women get so few chances in which to share our stories with each other, to find out that we aren’t alone in our experiences, and to have venues in which to publicly tell our stories. The fact that women are beginning to organize and bring these things to their communities is nothing short of amazing.
If women can do this in the face of all the pressure from institutionalized sexism, then what’s stopping men from doing the same? Why is it women’s responsibility to make sure that men feel included by a presentation that, by its very name, is supposed to be about women reaching out to women?
- On why it isn’t necessary for posts on violence against women to mention violence against men:
Perhaps by not mentioning women’s violence against men every time I talk about men’s violence against men and women, I’m somehow leaving out something fundamentally important.
I don’t think so, and here’s why: I think that these problems are big and complex enough that there is plenty of room for work on all fronts–and I think that pointing out, like TS is doing, that women do violence against men too every time somebody talks about violence men commit against men and women does less to draw attention to the violence women do to men and more to distract from the fact that men do a lot of violence against women, and against other men. So, while I think the former is important and is worthy of discussion, and I think that it should be an important goal of feminist men to deal with the violence done by parents (male and female) against boys (and girls! and people of all genders!), that doesn’t mean that I think it should always be the topic of discussion, or always the most important facet of the subject of patriarchy and violence.