Getting More Men Involved – But Which Men?

By Tal Peretz

Men’s involvement in anti-violence and women’s rights movements has increased in recent decades, and feminist groups and organizations have been increasingly interested in engaging men for gender justice. Emma Watson and The United Nations have #HeForShe, former President Obama and the White House Council on Women and Girls started It’s On Us, and NGOs around the world have recently formed the MenEngage Alliance.

The literature on men’s feminist engagements has a noticeable shortcoming, however: despite decades of feminist scholarship on the importance of intersectionality and early hints of the importance of intersectionality in men’s engagement (like this book), what we know about engaging men is still mostly about engaging white, middle-class, college-age, heterosexual, Christian, cisgender men. In an attempt to expand our knowledge of men’s feminist allyship, I spent a year observing, engaging with, and interviewing the members of two men’s anti-gender-violence groups directed towards marginalized men.

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Muslim Men Against Domestic Violence (MMADV) is a mostly-African-American Muslim group, formed when the director of a Muslim women’s shelter noticed the benefit of male allies. The Sweet Tea Southern Queer Men’s Collective (Sweet Tea) is a group of gay, bisexual, and queer-identified men, mostly of color, who address the ways sexism and male privilege show up in LGBTQ+ communities. Both are small community groups that organize online, by phone, and in members’ homes, occasionally producing public events or documents. Both received some training from an anti-violence organization called Men Stopping Violence (MSV), but found MSV’s programming an ill fit for their communities’ concerns.

When I asked MMADV members how they got involved, all of their stories had a clear pathway-style narrative, beginning with a sensitization experience[1]. Parenting daughters or reading social media accounts of Muslim women experiencing domestic abusive were common. Most of the men were specifically invited to get involved by women in their lives, like Sayeed[2], a man of Desi Indian descent, who got a call from a woman colleague telling him “there’s a group called Men Stopping Violence…, I want you to do the[ir] internship program, because we need more Desi men to speak out against domestic violence.’” When they wanted to deepen their understanding of the issues, MMADV members relied on formalized educational experiences, which caused major shifts in their gendered understandings of the world. Waleed told me MSV “was a big eye-opener for me, it also helped me in dealing with my wife and watching how I spoke to her and how I treated her.”

While these narratives from MMADV members approximated the pathways of men already represented in the literature, an intersectional analysis added detail. The thin dispersion of Muslim men and their disinclination to socialize with unmarried women increases the likelihood that their sensitization and engagement opportunities occur online, for example, and the importance of age and parenting was not captured in the previous studies of younger men.

Unlike the men of MMADV or in the literature, Sweet Tea members tended to explain their engagement through reference to their own intersecting identities and experiences as gay/queer men of color. Because of this, their sensitization experiences began much younger—Mark said “it starts with being a little gay Black boy”–and did not rely on women’s motivation. They told no narratives about how they joined the group, instead tending to just say, like Jeune, “I was just invited to be a part of the collective by [another member].”

Finally, Sweet Tea members never mentioned a deep shift in gendered understanding, but instead described learning a language for things they already knew. Their own experiences of marginalization along the axes of sexuality, race, and in some cases gender expression intersect with masculine privilege, preempting these transformative gendered learning experiences and sensitizing them to issues of gender justice without recourse to women’s experiences.

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All these men’s pathways relied on intersecting gendered, religious, racial, familial, and sexual identities; their male privilege interacted with racial, sexual, and religious marginalization to create their sensitization and opportunity experiences. While MMADV’s experiences add nuance to previous pathway models, though, Sweet Tea members’ experiences demand a fundamental revision of the models. This suggests that there may be a special salience to sexual and gender-based oppression: a non-normative sexual or gender-identity not only invites investigation and explanation, but encourages these in reference to gender. These findings are not generalizable, but they do powerfully illustrate the importance of intersectionality when considering men as allies.

[1] The terms I use to describe men’s pathways to anti-violence engagement come from Casey & Smith (2010), whose pathway model begins with sensitizing experiences, and moves through engagement opportunities and a shift gendered meaning (in either order) to antiviolence engagement. They recognize that a “glaring gap in both [their model] and research about male antiviolence allies more generally is the experiences of men of color” (Casey and Smith 2010, 970).

[2] All participant names are pseudonyms

Tal Peretz, assistant professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Auburn University, has engaged in and studied men’s anti-sexist and anti-violence activism for over a decade. He is the author of “Some Men: Male Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women”,  co-written with Michael Messner and Max Greenberg. His scholarship on men, masculinities, and feminism has been published in academic journals, edited volumes, popular and activist/professional newsletters, magazines, and blogs. His latest research looks at how intersecting race, class, religious, and sexual identities shape men’s gender justice organizing.

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