Feminist-leaning dudes: let’s have “the talk”

In the last few months, I’ve found myself having several variations on what I think of as “the talk” with male friends and/or acquaintances. These guys have been people who have discovered that they have explicitly feminist leanings in the not-very-distant-past, who want to do more but are not really sure what to do with the generalized guilt that comes with feeling complicit for the failings of their gender. Since I kept repeating myself, I thought it would be worth writing about here.

So – dudes and dude-identified people! If the first paragraph sounds like you, then pull up a chair because it’s time to have “the talk”. (I promise it won’t be as bad as the actual “talk”.)

First: the pep talk that isn’t

You are going to fuck up. Accept that as a fact of reality. Gravity is a constant, the sun rises in the East, Taylor Swift’s music is pretty good despite that people like to make fun of it, and you are going to fuck up. Period. It is as inevitable as climate change or Fox News anchors being racist. You are going to fuck up. That may seem, on it’s face, a bleak statement to make. However, I give this knowledge to you as a gift to liberate you from fear.

As privileged people, we know that we shouldn’t engage in racist/misogynist/whatever-ist behavior. And fundamentally, everyone wants to believe that they are one of the good guys – that they are a decent human beings despite their faults! And as a privileged person who is starting to learn about feminism and social justice, sometimes that fear of fucking up can be paralyzing. Because you want to not to be like the other privileged asshats out there! You want to be better than that!

The problem with that way of thinking, however, is that taken to extremes, that fear can cause you to prioritize your fear of not wanting to be seem as [whatever]-ist over the feelings of real actual people suffering that real actual -ism. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s never pretty when it does. Because inevitably, it goes something like this:

Privileged person: [fucks up]

Marginalized person: Dude, you just fucked up.

Privileged person: How dare you! I would never fuck up! I’m a GOOD person, not some terrible, awful fuckup! You’re just a bully! A big stupid bully!

Marginalized person: [headdesk]

So instead of being “That Ally”, accept the inevitability of fucking up.

It does not give you permission to willfully be an asshat – you do still need to try not to fuck up; ironic sexism is still fucking sexism and it still isn’t okay. But fucking up doesn’t make you a monster, it makes you human. Accept that patriarchy has been imposed on you, just as it has been on everyone else. We are all participants in patriarchy.

Fucking up doesn’t make you uniquely horrible or monstrous – it’s simply a thing that people do every day. When it happens, acknowledge it with grace and apologize with sincerity. Then go forth and do better, always remembering that you’re not perfect. If you do really well, you’ll simply find new and different ways of fucking up.

You can choose to be depressed by all of this, but I offer it to you in the spirit of liberation – because the fear of being racist/sexist/whatever-ist and by extension a terrible person can be absolutely paralyzing, and it can take you to some deeply toxic places. So let it go, my friend. Let it go.

Next: Ally 101 – where to go from there

But, wundergeek! That’s it? That’s all I get? Just don’t fuck up, but have fun fucking up anyway?

Well. Yeah – kind of? I mean, there are a ton of resources out there on how to be an effective ally, many of which are pretty easy to find even with weak-to-moderate Google-fu. However, since I’ve also been seeing a lot of the same rookie ally mistakes that have been really getting under my skin, here are the absolute basics of the basics of the basics.

1. Learn to use Google

I appreciate that you’re probably sincere in your desire to learn more. But what you need to appreciate is that engaging with every probably-well-intentioned dude who wants me to give him a reading list to get him started down the path toward Being a Feminist (Ally) would be a colossal waste of my time.

I am not here to educate you. This blog explicitly states is not a 101-level blog and if there’s something here that you have trouble understanding, THAT’S WHAT THE REST OF THE INTERNET IS FOR.

That’s pretty much true for almost any other major feminist you can think of. We have SHIT TO DO that doesn’t include providing reading lists for any old rando who asks. So do yourself a favor and learn how to Google the answers you need. I PROMISE you they are easy to find.

2. Call men on their shit

When a man says or does something shitty in your presence, call him on it. You don’t need a lecture or a special technique or anything. Quite often, a “dude, not cool” will suffice.

Patriarchy is perpetuated by silence, so don’t be silent. As a dude, you have the automatic power of People Always Listening To You – a power most decidedly not conferred on lesser (read: non-dude) mortals[1]. With the benefits of patriarchy comes an obligation to use your power for good.

3. -ist jokes: JUST SAY NO

DO NOT make -ist jokes. Challenge people who make -ist jokes (when you can) in your presence. If you are not able to do so, say, because you work in customer service and this behavior is coming from a customer – refuse to laugh at -ist jokes.

Humans are social animals. The temptation to laugh politely so as to not make a scene will be there. Resist. Because “not making a scene” tells the -ist asshole YOU ARE ON THEIR SIDE

4. Don’t make light of or attempt to find the bright side of abuse

If you know someone who is experiencing sexist/racist/whatever-ist harassment or abuse, for the love of Christ don’t diminish it or try to make it humorous, because I promise you that there is nothing even remotely humorous about what they were experiencing. And yet twice this week I have talked with dudes who have attempted to “find the humor” in the misogynist abuse that I get through this blog. Because, you know – life is funny! Laugh it off! Because misogyny is just such a laugh riot and I should be able to shake it off!

So yeah. Don’t do that. You might think you are helping, BUT YOU ARE NOT. You are doing the opposite of helping.


Look, it can be hard when someone you care about or respect tells you about awful shit they are experiencing. It may be that your natural impulse is to jump in and try to help! Because you want to be a not-terrible human being! But that impulse? Sorry dudes – but mostly it is super unhelpful.

Look, as a dude just starting out in feminism I can pretty much guarantee you that any solutions you have to offer are not going to be original. The woman you want to share your “brilliant insights” with will not be awed or impressed, because she will have heard them before from every other well-meaning-but-unhelpful-dude who thinks that he has All The Answers. The thing you’re trying to fix is MY FUCKING LIFE. Which I have been living, all day every day for quite a long time now. I spend quite a lot of time thinking about it, seeing as how it’s mine, and I can promise you that the thing that popped into your head after two minutes of listening to me talk about my problems isn’t anything I haven’t already thought about myself.

So stop. Just. STOP. And listen. And when a response seems warranted, practice saying things that follow this formula (your wording may vary):

Expression of sympathy: “That must suck”, “That sounds hard”, “Wow – that’s bullshit” PLUS

Expression of regret: “I’m sorry you have to go through that”, “I’m sorry – you don’t deserve that”, “I’m sorry that happened to you” PLUS

Expression of (CONTEXT-APPROPRIATE) respect and/or appreciation: “You’re my friend and I have your back”, “I love you and I’m here for you”, “I admire your work and continue to find value in what you do”.

Then stop. Listen more. And repeat as needed. Because this? THIS is the shit that keeps me sane when I’m having a bad anxiety day, or when I’m so angry I’m trying not to cry, or when I feel like I just want to give up and walk away from it all. THIS.

Now go forth and do better.

[1] Reasons I have been told that I am not worth listening to in the last month include: I am “fat”, I am “ugly”, I am “unfuckable”, and I kill mens’ boners.

8 thoughts on “Feminist-leaning dudes: let’s have “the talk”

  1. Awesome post wundergeek. I will try to refer to others to it. Maybe the comment thread can turn into useful resources for readers, so I’m adding some references.

    As a feminist-leaning-dude who tries to do his homework, here is a cool introduction to feminism from another dude who writes well, and is mostly targeted at aforementioned dudes:
    The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy by Allan Johnson. Look for it at your local library, school library (or ask them to order it), or buy a copy. Once you read it, make all your friends read it too. http://www.agjohnson.us/books/genderknot/

    That book, or some equivalent, SHOULD be part of the mandatory course to obtain your Adult Male License, but we’ll have to do with voluntary reading for now.

    Of course, if you want to read something by a non-dude, I can also recommend “Feminism is for Everybody” by bell hooks (a famous feminist author, purposely does not capitalize their names despite what Amazon says).

    When I was first trying to do my homework I made a few mistakes. I first read the entire “Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada”, which was depressing AND boring all at the same time. Then I tried to read “Gender Trouble” by Judith Butler and it was completely indecipherable for me. The moral: get easy intro-level books. Feminism is HARD at first. You wouldn’t decide you want to learn some more math and pick up a graduate text on Differential Geometry, so don’t do the same thing for feminism.

  2. For the severely Google-challenged: there is a blog out there called “Finally, a Feminism 101 blog”. It is not satirical, it is an absolutely straight look at the very basics of feminism. If you put the term “feminism 101” into a search engine (minus the quotes – just copy and paste from what I’ve typed there) you will be taken to a search page and this blog will be, if not the first entry on the results page, certainly high on it. It has the answers you are looking for.

  3. What’s your opinion (or anyone else in the comment section with more experience than I do) on calling someone out publicly versus privately telling them what they did wasn’t cool? The way I see it, both seem to have their possible advantages and possible disadvantages.

    Public: Pros: The chance of support from others, immediate response to behavior.
    Cons: The perpetrator could feel more defensive due to being chastised in front of friends.

    Private: Pro: Taking them aside to express concern adds more gravity to the situation. You can always chastise in public if private doesn’t have an effect, harder to do the reverse.
    Cons: REALLY hard to do if you don’t know the person personally. Increased chance of the perpetrator thinking it’s “Just you” who’s concerned, and not taking it to heart (of course, there’s a chance even publicly of being the only person concerned, but then there’s a chance for others to voice disapproval of the behavior.

    • The problem with waiting until later, IME, is that it’s not just about THAT PERSON. It’s also about everyone else listening. Calling them on their bad behavior reminds everyone present that the thing being said isn’t okay.

      Sure there are times when the power dynamic doesn’t permit you to say something publicly. But honestly, as dudes those times are going to be pretty rare unless you’re talking about a boss or somesuch. And again, there’s no need to be militant. “Dude, not cool” is great, because almost every time the person being called out already knows why what they said isn’t cool.

      Is it hard and scary being the person doing the callout? Sure it is! And often times I wind up choosing to stay silent because it’s not worth paying the social penalty. But I would argue that that’s why it’s MORE important for dudes to call out dudes publicly rather than letting the moment slip by.

  4. I posted a comment when you first posted this with two book recommendations, but it didn’t show up. Is it because I had a link to one author’s page? Or did the comment get lost somewhere?

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