The rise of the ‘male feminist’ doesn’t demonstrate a win for feminism

Feminism hasn’t changed men, men have changed feminism.

Aziz Ansari at the 2012 Time 100 gala. (Image: Wikimedia commons/David Shankbone)

Self-described male feminist, Aziz Ansari, is making a comeback. On July 9th, Ansari’s new comedy special hit Netflix, marking a major revival after his #MeToo moment last year. In 2018, the comedian, actor, and creator of Master of None took a step back from television after an article published at babe told the story of “Grace,” a woman who alleged that Ansari was sexually aggressive with her on a date gone wrong. Babe itself was recently shut down after it was exposed for having a toxic frat-house culture, including multiple instances of sexual misconduct.

Although Ansari admits no wrongdoing in his encounter with Grace, he claims he has learned and grown from the experience. Regarding the #MeToo movement he stated, “I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.” But like many of today’s male feminists, his feminism seems to be lip service at best.

Ansari was certainly not the worst of the #MeToo offenders. To many, he stands in contrast to men like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby because he represents the everyman. His transgressions weren’t that bad compared to what other Hollywood men have done — his actions exist in a grey area: he doesn’t appear to be a serial predator, and the exact nature of his actions has been widely debated. Yet Grace’s story demonstrates that he actively ignored her lack of consent, displayed classic male sexual entitlement, and acted controlling and sexually aggressive towards her. Despite the fact Ansari has still not publicly apologized or claimed wrongdoing for this behaviour, Netflix apparently expects viewers to welcome him back with open arms.

Ansari is not the only male feminist making a #MeToo comeback. Joss Whedon, who is known for writing “strong female characters” like Buffy Summers, is also set to make a return to television next year with The Nevers. His ex-wife alleged in 2017 that he abused his position of power on set with young actresses and engaged in gaslighting and manipulation, meanwhile using their marriage as a cover for his behaviour.

Abusive men have used feminism to build their careers. Micheal Hafford, who wrote the satirical “Male Feminst Here” Vice column in 2015, was later fired for raping, beating, and assaulting at least four women.

Charles Clymer also became well known on liberal social media in the early 2010s for being a “male feminist.” In 2014, he was outed as an abuser and promptly cancelled, only to be offered a job at the Human Rights Campaign in 2017 (where he still works).

Alan Martofel, the founder of Feminist Apparel, made his name by selling cute feminist t-shirts with slogans like “cats against catcalls” and “pizza rolls, not gender roles.” In 2018, he fired his entire female staff when they called for his resignation after learning about his past as a sexual abuser. The company seems to be doing just fine today.

In recent years, it’s become trendy for men to identify as feminist. According to some polls, the numbers of male feminists went from 20 per cent in 2001 to 33 per cent in 2016. Mainstream feminist groups like HeForShe have advocated for the inclusion of men in feminism, arguing that we need men to get on board to improve the situation for women. Elle’s 2014 “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” campaign featured (mostly) male celebrities sporting the controversial t-shirt.

This is not a new argument. In her 1984 book, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, bell hooks argued that, by refusing to allow men in the movement, white feminists specifically create a more gendered world. The suffering of men, she wrote, “Should not be ignored.”

The problem is, though, that men who are supposedly our allies — male feminists, that is — are not always as enlightened as we might expect.

In his Netflix special, Ansari addressed the allegations, saying:

“There were times I felt really upset and humiliated and embarrassed, and ultimately I just felt terrible this person felt this way. But you know, after a year, how I feel about it is, I hope it was a step forward. It made me think about a lot, and I hope I’ve become a better person…”

Vulture reporter Jesse David Fox was at the show earlier this year, and explained:

“Ansari then recalled a conversation in which a friend told him it made him rethink every date he’s been on, commenting that, ‘If that has made not just me but other guys think about this, and just be more thoughtful and aware and willing to go that extra mile, and make sure someone else is comfortable in that moment, that’s a good thing. And I think it also just gave me perspective on my life.’”

Some women really do seem ready to return Ansari’s #woke status to him. Goat writer, Sophie Giles, argued:

“Ansari’s comments pass the (very low) bar for how we hope to see people respond to #MeToo. There is still need for improvement in how men can sidestep taking full responsibility for their actions, but this is at least a step in the right direction.”

Though mainstream feminism celebrates the rise of the male feminist, it is increasingly clear that feminism has not changed men. Men have changed feminism.

~~~

Feminism was not always what it is today. Modern “sex positive feminism” came about in the 1980s as a reaction to long-standing feminist calls to end pornography and prostitution. Prior to this shift, feminists generally viewed porn and prostitution as forms of male violence against women. The new “sex positive” stance was a direct descendant of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the work of male sexologists, historians, and writers to reshape female sexuality so it could meet men’s standards.

Sex positive feminism argues that women have the choice to engage in sexually objectifying experiences such as porn, prostitution, and BDSM, and that we must accept the choices made by individual women as being liberating. Sex positive feminism frames all sex women have as inherently good, and promotes the buying and selling of women and girls as empowering. The social, political, and economic forces that shape women’s desires and choices are all but ignored in this analysis.

The “feminist” acceptance of porn closely mirrors the growth of the industry itself. While porn becomes increasingly violent and misogynistic, liberal feminists insist that we must not “kink shame” and say there is nothing wrong with watching women be beaten, humiliated, and raped if it turns us on. Gail Dines, an anti-porn activist and author, has demonstrated the way in which porn has real-world consequences for women. “Pornographic images,” she writes, “create a world that is at best inhospitable to women, and at worst dangerous to their physical and emotional well-being.” Meanwhile, liberals claim porn can be feminist and that women should watch it too.

The rise in hardcore and “gonzo” porn have had real impacts on women’s sexual experiences with men. A recent article in The Atlantic revealed that seven per cent of women and 13 per cent of girls aged 14-17 report being choked during sex. One student health centre reported seeing physical signs of sexual assault, such as vulvar fissures, on women who were not raped, but “just had been having sex that they didn’t desire.” BDSM, previously taboo, has become so normalized by porn that it has infiltrated pop culture. In her book, Pornland, Dines explains that “Porn trains men to become desensitized to women’s pain.” According to her research, men don’t just become desensitized to women’s pain, they become desensitized to their own pleasure and must seek out more and more extreme content to be satisfied. That mindset seeps into real-life interactions with women.

Ansari’s sexual aggression towards Grace seems to have been taken straight out of porn:

“The move he kept doing was taking his two fingers in a V-shape and putting them in my mouth, in my throat to wet his fingers, because the moment he’d stick his fingers in my throat he’d go straight for my vagina and try to finger me.”

Immediately after telling him she was feeling uncomfortable and did not want to be forced, Ansari pressured her to go down on him – another classic porn move. Later, he starts talking to her and acting like he is actually in a porn video. Katie Way writes:

“Then he brought her to a large mirror, bent her over and asked her again, ‘Where do you want me to fuck you? Do you want me to fuck you right here?’ He rammed his penis against her ass while he said it, pantomiming intercourse.”

It’s not just porn that mainstream feminism is now supporting. Prostitution, long considered by feminists an inherently exploitative exchange in which women are commodified for male pleasure, has been deemed empowering by liberals. Teen Vogue, a magazine targeted towards teenage girls, recently ran a piece calling for the decriminalization of both the buying and selling of sex (versus the Nordic Model, which decriminalizes being sold, but not the buying or selling of others, and aims to end prostitution). The Teen Vogue piece pleads for an end to “moral” decision making in favour of an “evidence-based” approach, completely ignoring that the overwhelming majority of women and girls who are prostituted wish to get out. In other words, it is not an “empowered,” “liberated,” “choice” for most of those in the industry, but a last resort, or something women and girls are forced into.

In The Idea of Prostitution, Sheila Jeffreys demonstrates how the normalization of prostitution shaped modern sexuality. Masters and Johnson, the famous sexologists of the 1960s, based their research into human sexuality on the experiences of 118 prostituted women and 27 men. Jeffreys describes the historical outcome of this research:

“So it is prostitution, a situation in which women service men’s one-sided sexual interests for money, that was to form the template for the famous sex therapy which was to teach the Western world how to copulate from the 1960s onwards. Prostitution practices became the very model for successful sex.”

Since the 1890s, feminists have fought against porn, prostitution, and child sexual abuse. They saw the negative impact of these activities on women and girls and believed that men were capable of changing their behaviour. In her earlier books, The Spinster and her Enemies and Anticlimax, Jeffreys outlines the process through which these feminist goals were slowly eroded and feminists adopted a male-centred perspective. Male-centric sexologists, psychologists, and writers successfully convinced women not just to tolerate male sexuality but to believe they should share those sexual desires themselves.

It’s no surprise that “male feminists” like Ansari and Hafford think they can treat women like sexual objects to be consumed, considering that mainstream feminism now supports the buying and selling of women and girls for male pleasure.

Despite the current push in feminism to normalize the buying of women’s bodies, this is actually still an overwhelmingly male ideal. Men are more likely than women to believe it should be legal to pay for sex, to want to abolish punishment for paying for sex, and to have actually paid for sex (12 times more likely). This matches attitudes towards porn, as well: men are twice as likely to consume porn than women.

In both of these cases, feminism has strayed from focusing on what women actually want in favour of male desire. While this is framed as sexual liberation, women are actually just becoming more free to give men what they’ve always wanted: nearly unlimited sexual access.

No wonder men are so into feminism these days.

Today’s male feminist is able to present himself as #woke on Twitter, then switch tabs to enjoy a video of a woman being gang raped, choked, or otherwise humiliated and used as a disposable receptacle for his cum.

But let’s not kink shame, right?

~~~

As long as women are trying to make feminism palatable to men, the movement will be filled with misogyny. When we accept rape, abuse, objectification, and humiliation as appropriate ways to treat women and girls, the goal of feminism is diluted. It’s time for us to remember what that goal actually is: women’s liberation from male violence, abuse, and domination.

The rise of separatist feminism in the 70s was not just about escaping male violence (a worthy aim in itself). By surrounding themselves with only other women, separatists allowed their minds to become liberated from the brainwashing of a male dominated society to discover what they, as women, truly wanted. Women are deeply entrenched in the culture of our oppressors, and the struggle to separate our own desires from what we are told to desire under patriarchy requires constant work. This work is sorely missing from today’s liberal feminism, which accepts choices at face value. As Audre Lorde wrote in 1984:

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Men have been convincing women for centuries that we need them. But just as a woman does not need a man, feminism does not need male “feminists.” If men truly wish to help end the oppression of women and girls, they must align themselves personally and politically with feminist goals by actively changing their behaviour⁠ — starting with their own sexual habits. This should be the standard to which we hold male allies.

In order to make the world a better place for women, we must stand unapologetically for women’s best interests. We will never free ourselves from male violence and subjugation by allowing men’s interests to hijack our movement. Male feminists, so far at least, have been doing just that.

M. K. Fain is an activist, software engineer, and feminist writer in Philadelphia. She volunteers for several animal rights and women’s organizations, including Women’s Human Rights Campaign.

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