There is a war against women, and men and boys are trained every day to be the soldiers. Misogynist violence isn’t the biological imperative of men. Misogyny, the worldview that simultaneously engenders violence against women while also validating, normalizing, minimizing, and/or ignoring it, is beaten into boys and woven into the fabric of “successful masculinity.”
While very few men consciously choose to be horrible to women, the reality is, every day “respectable” and “acceptable” norms of how men interact and treat women are infused with male entitlement and male privilege. Together these norms contribute to a culture of misogyny, rape, assault and emotional abuse. A hallmark of this culture is the tragic indifference of men to women’s lives, leadership, dreams, needs, wants and futures. Everyday sexist norms include constant interruptions of women speaking; catcalls on the street; regular comments about women’s appearance rather then their contributions and character; communicating in subtle and blatant ways that men see women as there to serve men’s needs; zoning out when women speak so as to formulate your own thoughts or to sexualize them; ignoring women’s ideas and then repeating them back later as your own ideas; and taking up emotional, verbal, energetic and physical space in ways that silence and push women out.
And when women complain about any aspect of the enormity of patriarchal culture, of the daily threats and realities of violence, such as the recent explicitly misogynistic and racist mass murderer in Santa Barbara, men overwhelming respond in a chorus of “But not all men act that way,” rather then expressing a profound sadness for the reality of patriarchal culture and violence, followed by a commitment to learn more and take action to change it. Fear of being implicated in any way is greater for far too many men, than fear of what the reality of patriarchal culture and violence means for women in their lives. But just like soldiers, men aren’t born this way, they are trained.
In workshops on “Men and Feminism,” around the United States and Canada, I use an exercise developed by Paul Kivel and the Oakland Men’s Project. I ask men, “Who here has been told ‘act like a man?’ ” Almost all hands go up. What does that mean, I ask. The answers: “Don’t cry,” “Always be in control,” “Suck it up and be tough,” and “Don’t be emotional.” What are the emotions men can express, I ask. Answers: “anger,” “jealousy,” “resentment.” “And what are you called when you step out of the ‘act like a man box’ ” I ask, and a long list of slurs intended to degrade men and boys as either gay or women is given in response.
The “act like a man” training is intended to turn boys into soldiers – soldiers deeply detached from their emotions, except violent rage and anger, and having internalized misogyny and homophobia as a basis for their masculinity. I then ask men, and I’ve done this with thousands of men, to raise their hands if they were ever beaten up by male family members or by boys in school for “not acting like a man,” and at least half of the hands go up. “How many of you have ever experienced depression, anxiety or low self-esteem?” Almost all the hands go up. Almost all the hands go up again when I ask, “How many of you have been afraid to tell anyone?” I then ask a series of questions: “How many of you have used drugs or alcohol to escape? How many of you have used violent or dangerous behavior to escape?” and then I end with, “How many of you have contemplated suicide?” I raise my hand for many of these, including the last one.
This is the nightmare of patriarchy in the lives of men, and it is a nightmare we perpetuate in subtle and profound ways. This is the training of soldiers in the war against women, and it is pervasive. But this is not how it has always been. Throughout the world, throughout history, there have been societies and cultures that were far more egalitarian, without the strict gender roles, where misogynistic violence wasn’t the norm. To understand why boys are trained to be soldiers, we must look at the other wars they have been trained to be part of.
Misogyny has been and is a weapon of colonization against indigenous peoples and nations – not only attacking the power of women in indigenous societies, but forcing patriarchy into those societies to divide and conquer them. Misogyny was central to the development and organization of the Atlantic slave trade and the system of plantation slavery in the South – using rape both to populate the slave system and also, again, to destroy the power of women and break the solidarity of the overall community. Misogyny was, and continues to be, central to the development of capitalist economic relationships to the earth and between people – as communities were uprooted from the land, men were forced into paid labor to make someone else rich, women into unpaid reproductive labor – and men granted social permission to unleash the rage and misery of their own exploitation on their wives and children.
From Andrea Smith’s analysis of sexual violence as a tool of genocide, to Maria Mies and Silvia Federici’s writing on violence against women as a tool to divide European peasant and working-class communities to construct capitalism, to Angela Davis’s formulation that “the slave master’s sexual domination of the black woman contained an unveiled element of counterinsurgency” women are recognized in enslaved African communities and in all oppressed communities at the forefront of resistance and liberation struggles.
The war on women includes the massive number of women who are raped and assaulted. Domestic violence support services get more than 75,000 requests for assistance on a typical day. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury for women between the ages of 15 and 44 and is the leading cause of death for black women between the same ages. The war on women is reflected in the current crisis of over 1,200 missing or murdered indigenous girls and women in Canada over the past 30 years. It is African-American mother Marissa Alexander currently serving 20 years in a Florida prison for firing a warning shot – in which no one was hurt – to scare away her abusive husband, whereas George Zimmerman in the same state, using the same legal argument, was found justified in killing unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
The war on women is US government programs of forced sterilization of indigenous, black and Latina women going back hundreds of years, through at least the 1970s. It is the austerity measures of the US government gutting publicly funded institutions such as schools, welfare, food stamp programs, early childhood learning programs, while simultaneously passing laws that redistribute money from working-class, poor, and middle-class communities to the richest people on the planet.
While men, in general, reap a wide range of male privileges, with access to those privileges differentiated unequally by race, class, sexuality, ability, citizenship and nationality, it’s time for men in the millions to declare that we will no longer be the soldiers in the war against women. That we will no longer perpetuate sexist attitudes, cultural practices and public policies that undermine women’s leadership, dignity and power in society. That we will work against the long-term impacts of white supremacy, colonization, homophobia and economic exploitation in our own communities and in the communities we aren’t supposed to feel solidarity and connection with because of socialized hatred and fear.
As men, we must learn from, and join with, feminist movements to redefine what it means to act like a man, so that we can act like many kinds of men, and/or other genders entirely. Some of us can build on our ancestors’ traditions of different kinds of masculinities, and in many cases, we already have models of masculinity around us that we draw inspiration from. But we must collectively, along with women and people of other genders, redefine masculinities in ways that actively replace misogyny and homophobia with love and compassion. We must collectively redefine masculinities in ways that center visions and values of economic, racial, gender, disability and environmental justice. As men, let us work to heal from the training we’ve received to be soldiers in the war against women, and let us join with people of all genders to end all of these wars. Beyond the nightmare of patriarchy is a world of possibilities: Let us be courageous, and go there together.
For Further Reading:
• Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics by bell hooks
• Conquest: Sexual Violence and the American Indian Genocide by Andrea Smith
• Women, Race and Class by Angela Davis
• Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale by Maria Mies
• Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici
• The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love by bell hooks