Do not offer a blanket apology for all men, do not ask to sleep with me, and more advice for feminist men ending a relationship with a feminist woman.
A few months ago, I facilitated a workshop at UC Berkeley’s annual Empowering Women of Color Conference. I was asked to do a workshop that engaged an incredibly difficult and personal topic: intimate partnerships between activists. This was largely due to the fact that while many of my bad-ass, women of color feminist friends have dated or partnered with men who claimed to share our feminist beliefs, I have seen and personally experienced far too many instances of “leftist” or “progressive” men calling us “too opinionated,” “smart,” or “difficult.” In fact, it seemed like those men who professed the most radical open beliefs were seemingly the most judgmental, patriarchal, and secretive.
Over 70 participants crammed themselves into a tiny Berkeley classroom in an attempt to find the key to a healthy partnership between avowed radicals. During the 90 minutes we spent together, we spoke of the thrill of falling in love with feminists, and the joy of finding someone in lock-step with our politics. But since the discussion included conversations in which many feminist women spoke of their disillusionment with feminist men at the final stages of their relationships, I feel compelled to provide a gentle (and in no way comprehensive) guide of what NOT to do during a break-up. So this is my letter to feminist men.
Dear Feminist Men,
Some of you are friends. Some of you are former partners. Some of you will be future partners, to me, my friends, assorted loved ones and/or other feminists. In any case, I and many other feminist women I know have experienced breakups that include some of what follows. There are ways to break up with someone, but these are not those ways.
Step One: Do not offer a blanket apology for all men. While this is an admittedly sincere gesture, it is also the least helpful. There’s no question about your level of remorse, so please refrain from doing the entitled and masculinist thing of speaking for the entirety of your sex. Don’t apologize that patriarchy exists, that it oppresses women, and that it shouldn’t. Don’t apologize that racism exists, that it oppresses women/people of color, and that it shouldn’t. Most feminists are familiar with how life is systemically unfair. You needn’t feel compelled to emphasize how much more difficult it is for women and/or women of color to earn equal pay or be respected. It won’t be an effective showing of sympathy and it certainly won’t take the sting out of a break-up.
Step Two: Please don’t say society made you do it. You yourself are responsible, not social norms. You are neither a helpless victim nor an unwitting participant in evolutionary psychology or rape culture, pornography, and the hypersexualization of women. If you’re an academic, please refrain from doing the masculinist thing of citing numerous studies to justify your misdeeds. You are a better person that that. Just because you know patriarchy exists does not mean you can avoid taking responsibility for your actions.
Step Three: Don’t make me complicit. This is more or less an extension of the previous step. Again, take ownership. For instance, if I’ve agreed to a polyamorous relationship, that does not give you license to have simultaneous “monogamous” relationships with unaware partners.
Step Four: Don’t make me the culprit. Yes, I may have cis-gendered, able-bodied, privilege, but that does not make our forms of privilege identical. It also does not mean I have used my feminine wiles (a.k.a conventional beauty) to entrap you in a relationship. We both need to check our privilege. Almost everyone does. But the point of this exercise shouldn’t be to absolve you of blame.
Step Five: Don’t ask to sleep with me. Random acts of gratitude and sexism are not well-masked by the language of sexual liberation. Don’t call/text/email to tell me I’m amazing. Or that you love my creativity and that my art should be made public. Do not call me a remarkable feminist, artist, activist, etc. I know I am. I also know your words are an empty attempt to maintain the relationship/arrangement we had. Or they’re a request to modify it so that it will accommodate your dishonesty and impulses. Instead, do yourself a favor: Question yourself and the misogynistic tendencies that too often govern feminist men.
In conclusion, my dear friends, partners, and future partners, I am not of the man-hating feminist ilk. I will also happily admit to my own shortcomings in intimate partnerships and elsewhere. My critique is born of love for men who try to align themselves with the feminist movement. I know and love those of you doing anti-sexist work and doing it well. I applaud you. It’s a challenge. But for those of you who have chosen to hide from feminism, or worse chosen to be “mactivists,” it’s not enough that we call ourselves feminists, we have to live it, too.
Kim Tran is a graduate student in the Ethnic Studies program at the University of California, Berkeley where she studies diaspora, gender and queer thought. Her writing on gender, the economy, race and militarism has appeared in The Feminist Wire and Nation of Change. She also facilitates workshops on navigating queer identity and disordered eating. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.