The Sexist

Sexist Interview: Thomas MacAulay Millar on Feminist Men

The role of men in the feminist movement is a constant point of contention on the Sexist.

We most recently revisited the issue yesterday, after a study showed that women who observe public acts of sexism—like sexual harassment against other women—tend to direct more anger at men in general. The study demonstrates (among other things) that when men sexually harass women, they also hurt men who are not harassers. Pointing out ways that sexism affects men can provide men with a valuable access-point to feminist issues. It can also be seen as an invitation to throw a pity party for male victimhood.

As one commenter on the story wrote, "Here we go again. The poor menz! They have to experience the suspicion/scrutiny of women who have been put down, kept down, abused emotionally, fiscally, professionally, sometimes physically, yadayadayada." I don't think this is about feeling sorry for men; I think it's about recognizing that men can be valuable allies in working against women being put down, kept down, harassed, and abused. Is it fair that women have to first show men how sexism affects them in order to get them to care about how it affects us? No. But it sure is helpful.

So without any further ado, I'd like to introduce the first installment in a new Sexist feature: Interviews with experts on the subjects that most vex us around here. First up: Thomas MacAulay Millar, my favorite feminist writer who is also a man. Millar, which is not his real name, is a New-York based attorney and feminist writer. You may remember him for his essay condemning the comodification of sexuality, "Toward a Performance Model of Sex," which appeared in the Yes Means Yes! anthology last year, or from his work on the wonderful Yes Means Yes! blog. Below, Millar on the beginnings of a feminist man, how to find feminist access-points for boys, and what it's like to be a feminist with male privilege.

What personal experiences in your life contributed to your identification as a feminist?

TMM: My mom was a feminist, and raised me to understand that the world was unfair in big, structural ways, so I was in large part raised with it. She wasn’t an overtly ideological parent. She just believed in telling me how things really were, and I drew a lot of my own conclusions. I remember her telling me that my cousin (who was an evangelical), terminated two pregnancies. She was a clinic protester. But when it was her life, she thought it was different. Another cousin was molested, and when she wouldn't stop complaining, she was sent away to live in another state. (Eventually, she sued her abuser and got some justice.) My mother would tell me the parts of the stories in real life that people try to hide from children. I can't possibly thank her enough for that. I mean I literally can’t, because she died a decade ago. I thanked her a lot for being a great mom, but never enough.

As I got into high school, I started seeing issues like sex education and reproductive freedom through lenses heavily influenced by my women friends. I took my first women's studies class in high school, read some Steinem and some other feminist writing in high school. My mother had a bunch of feminist writing around the house that I read. And I started to see GLB issues through the prism of my friends' lives, and to see sexuality and sex education as my friends and I developed.

In my teens, too, I began a long process of growing into BDSM and figuring out what that meant for identity, and one of the early things I figured out what that there was a sort of mainstream position that wasn't overtly anti-sex in my area, but that was sort of very pro-partriarchally constrained models of sexuality, and that I was necessarily a dissident to that, and that I was therefore a natural ally to anyone else who didn't feel the official model fit them. So, in my mind, the idea especially around sexuality and gender expression that dissenters and dissidents should be in solidarity with each other developed early. So it was a pretty direct line from there to being active in college on choice and GLBT issues and doing my first minor in women’s studies. And also, people telling me when I said stupid things and learning from that, rinse, repeat.

I think most importantly, I began to hear one story after another about how women — mostly my women friends, and also some relatives — were molested and groped and raped (some men, too, but I didn't become aware of that until later). Women friends told me they had been raped, and not infrequently they had never told anyone else. The thing that stuck with me then and still does is how little space they had to safely process and heal. They felt that they couldn't say what had happened, let alone talk about how they felt, without being judged and shamed. And I think they were right about that, sad to say. They couldn't tell people. The reactions they would have gotten from parents and peers would have done damage. So they stayed silent, which is a very hard way to deal with trauma. Unfortunately, that's not something I see changing. Women I know are still telling me that they were raped, or that something happened that was rape but that they can't label, and that they have not or cannot talk about to anyone else. And I have a daughter and that scares the shit out of me.

How can we get more men and boys interested in the feminist movement?

TMM: Well, we can bullshit them and tell them that it's all upside, and that fighting for their relative privilege in an awful system that's no good for them doesn't have any benefits. But they'll quickly realize that's not true. And we can tell them that there are no downsides to participating in a movement where they have to confront their privilege and change how they do things. But they’d quickly find that that isn’t true.

You can’t sell a movement to cure structural unfairness to the beneficiaries of the unfairness unless there’s already a point of access. That means they have to really have a grievance against the way things are, for themselves or for people they love. But there are a lot of those. There are a lot of guys whose sister has needed an abortion, or whose wife was raped, or whose brother is transitioning, or who feel that the masculinity imposed on them is crushing them. If someone who knows that guy finds that point of access, like a pinhole in the patriarchal curtain, and starts pulling at it, eventually the hole gets so big that they accept that it’s not a matter of stitching the hole, it’s a whole panel or whole curtain that needs to be replaced. (And roman shades would look better in this room. Also, this paint is kinda tired. Let’s see how far I can stretch this metaphor ….*snap* Oops.)

. . . Or we can get them young and try to build into them a sense of fairness that is actually fair, and not one based on a set of artificially assigned roles based on two categories. I’m working on that. I’ll let you know how I did in about twenty years.

How does male privilege affect the way you approach feminist issues?

TMM: First, it means I don’t know everything and my personal leanings and experiences are not a trustworthy guide. I just have to accept that I’m going to be wrong and mess things up, and be gracious when people tell me what a schmuck I am. Because I am.

Second, it means forever keeping one eye on the dynamics of speaking for. In some ways it’s easier, as an affluent educated able bodied cis het white man, because I don’t have to think about the relative issues of when I’m privileged and when I’m not. I’m virtually always in the advantaged side of the structural issue, so I can keep the “I have an unfair advantage” light permanently on.

It’s something I talk about with friends a fair amount. In writing, a lot of what I do is talk about what something means for men, how men should read or deal with something, what it means as a parent, etc., where I’m interpreting my own experience and the experiences I have a better handle on, in light of the dynamics I’m talking about.

But I don’t do that with everything. Some of what I write is overarching theorizing, like Toward A Performance Model of Sex. I realize I don’t have any kind of omniscience, and my privilege informs what I write. I think there are three things I can do about it. I can decide that my understanding is so constrained by the limits of my experience and the dictates of my privilege that I should just shut up (some posts have ended their lives in the delete folder for that reason); I can try to learn and educate myself and improve and beat back my own privilege, which I’m forever trying to do and never fast enough; and I can put what I can out there and try to be as humble as I can about the limitations of it and then not get defensive when people move the discussion forward by pointing out the flaws in what I’ve done. I’ve edited a lot of posts to say, “I messed up, see comments.”

Do you think there are some feminist issues that are more readily accessible to men and boys than others?

TMM: There are things that should be feminist issues that are more the province of men and boys. Masculinity and manhood are becoming contested terrain, and that’s important. The most common discourse on masculinity reads to me like this: “I don’t know what it should look like. What we have is terrible in the following ways, and we should fix it. But I don’t know what it looks like when it gets fixed.” I have both so much and so little to say about that. Masculinity isn’t just “what men do,” but it is bound up with manhood. So we need women in that conversation, both those interested in masculinity and those that in some ways perform it. And we need people who reject binary identifications like “man” to weigh in. But mostly, whether cis- or trans-, the folks we need to help define masculinity are the people who perform it most, and that’s people who identify as men.

Also, there are angles and spaces that men have on feminist issues, where their understanding may be deeply limited by privilege, but where their position in the structural distribution of power is such that they can do more to make change. Men can do feminist work, even if they don’t apply the label to it, if they use what’s at their disposal to do the fair thing. Just as one example, George Tiller was a great hero for reproductive self-determination, not because he freed himself from male privilege, but because he was a doctor who would do that work, under the most terrifying circumstances. I know a guy who says the most awful shit, often to wind me up. But he also once physically intervened to prevent several men from raping a woman who was so intoxicated she didn’t know who she was with or what was going on. Security wouldn’t act, so he just started throwing punches. It worked, at significant cost to him which I won’t describe. That’s not a guy who self-identifies as feminist, but it was a deeply feminist act.

Less dramatically, just calling out rape jokes and rape-apology is something where guys’ views can influence other men a great deal. A guy who mentors younger women colleagues and makes sure their work is considered on its merits may not identify as feminist, or may have a very poor ability to check his own privilege, but that guy can to a lot of good with what he has, where he is.

So I guess I’d say that we need men to be situational allies where they can be, even if they are not (yet) able to make broader connections. Getting them to understand and see the unfairness of a specific situation or act is the first stage. If that creates the gateway for that guy to see those kinds of dynamics as pervasive, and pervasively unfair, great. If not, one person doing the right thing in one situation is better than not.

Are men in the position to play any unique roles in the feminist movement?

TMM: Leaving aside doing what we can with what we have where we are, because I don’t think that’s what the question calls for, I think the primary area where men have something specific and important to bring to feminism is in defining men and masculinity.

Those issues ripple through a lot. To take a particular class-specific issue, for example, take an opposite-sex couple with the same degree, working, say, as lawyers. They may have met in law school, gotten BigLaw jobs, proceeded on parallel tracks through the associate years, and then … that world is not perfect on treating women equally, but I see the social dynamics as the real hold-back. It’s very difficult for both partners to be driven professionals. They can pay for childcare solutions that leave them both free to work long and irregular hours and to travel, but many folks don’t want to do that for a lot of good reasons. Usually, someone takes a step back in professional responsibilities to parent. It’s almost always the woman. Some folks will tell you it has to do with women’s innate desire to mother, but I’m very skeptical of those explanations. Some people want to parent more than others, but I’m not going to accept anyone’s glib generalization that because it’s true for them, it’s an innate sex difference. Instead, I think it has a great deal to do with men’s unwillingness to take that step back. How men see their selves and role, and how their female partners will see them, and how they think their female partners will see them, is all about masculinity.

Of course, it’s more often the case that by the time a middle-class opposite sex couple decide to have kids, they are already in different careers with different compensation, and whoever makes less money becomes the parent with less professional responsibilities. And that has everything to do with the social construction or gender and work roles, tracking of women, conflation of some work identities with masculinity and femininity, etc.

All that is a narrow and class-bound analysis that leaves a lot out; a full treatment of just that example is a book topic. But that’s just one of many ways that construction of masculinity flows through work and distributional issues and other things that seem far removed from the direct performance of gender. I don’t think we can fully understand how much about masculinity is assumed until men start trying to take it apart, examine it and refashion it. And it’s principally men’s job to do that.

E-mail interview has been condensed. . . . a tiny bit.

  • http://hillratdc.blogspot.com Hill Rat

    Interesting interview, but I can't get with the constant self-flagellation about male privilege. I'm a big, loud, alpha male; it's just who I am, I couldn't change it if I wanted to. Rather than beating myself up about what I am, I try to observe, recognize, and incorporate the aspects of my personality and the things I do that are considered "feminine" into my personal concept of manhood.

  • http://www.kateharding.net Sweet Machine

    Hill Rat, Thomas is not self-flagellating about privilege; he's merely acknowledging it as a factor in his feminism. That this looks excessive to you as a "big, loud, alpha male" is the result of your identification as such.

  • http://hillratdc.blogspot.com Hill Rat

    Sweet Machine, at some point talking about your own privilege ceases to be an acknowledgement and becomes masturbatory.

  • http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/ SKM

    Hill Rat, he's not beating himself up about who he is--he is just recognizing that he does not know everything and needs to listen to the experiences of others.

    If that counts as "constant self-flagellation" to you, then perhaps you consider being a know-it-all who assumes his experience trumps others' as part of "who you are". That's what Thomas is addressing I think.

  • je di

    I cannot express enough how much I appreciated this post. I've been reading your blog for about a week now and have never been more disgusted at men as a gender. I've had many horrific experiences with men in my life but I've always been able to separate them from my definition of men. This week everytime I would read a blog post that I'd think, "Now, everyone can get behind this," eg., no one wants women to be harassed, a slew of combative comments would follow. After reading the blog comments yesterday about the study that shows how women identify with other women stronger and back away from men after witnessing a man harassing a woman I wondered what the statistics are on women who see men defending their misogynist attitudes with misogyny and not appreciating an ounce of the irony.I don't hate men; I hate people that put their wants ahead of other people's needs. Thank you for the post and thank you, T.M. Millar for your candor and for reminding me this isn't about women vs men,it's about human rights. -j

  • http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/ SKM

    My comment at #4 was rushed and came across with snark that I did not intend. My point was that never admitting that one isn't the authority, that one may not be the ultimate arbiter of reality, even in the face of contradictory evidence, is part of "big loud alpha male" culture. Thomas is questioning the utility of that, for himself and for others. That is not the same as beating himself up.

    But I can see why folks who identify as big loud alpha males may feel that questioning big loud alpha male culture is self-hating.

  • http://hillratdc.blogspot.com Hill Rat

    he is just recognizing that he does not know everything and needs to listen to the experiences of others.

    That's great, it's something I work hard to do myself in all situations. When my kid is tripping about not wanting to go to school, rather than telling her to just get in the car, I ask her why she doesn't want to go. At the end of a practice I've coached, I ask my players for input about how to improve my performance as their coach.

    Far from being a know-it-all, I consider myself a know-just-enough-to-be-dangerous and thus my guiding principle is that I have two ears and one mouth, so I should listen twice as much as I speak. Still:

    I can keep the “I have an unfair advantage” light permanently on.

    That sounds like self-flagellation to me, but that's just my opinion.

  • Sarah

    je di says: "I’ve had many horrific experiences with men in my life but I’ve always been able to separate them from my definition of men. This week everytime I would read a blog post that I’d think, 'Now, everyone can get behind this' eg., no one wants women to be harassed, a slew of combative comments would follow."

    I know! I don't want to read the harassment comments any longer; they're making me disillusioned--to the point I can't wait to get home to my boyfriend this weeks and hang out with my male friends, to reassure myself that there are scads of super-decent men out there and the misogynistic commentators are (hopefully) a minority.

    I appreciated this interview. Refreshing.

  • IrishUp

    Thank you so much, Thomas.
    My son is 7, and I am raising him to be a Yes Means Yes kind of person (insofar as what I can do as a parent shapes who he will become). The work that you do helps a lot.

  • JMS

    That sounds like self-flagellation to me, but that’s just my opinion

    I would suggest to you that the feelings of other people are at least as important as your feelings, and that your acknowledging your privilege might be difficult for you but helpful to others.

    Also, you don't sound like an "alpha male" to me at all, as I understand the term. Alpha males and alpha females are protectors of their group, and you don't seem to feel any need to protect others from your privilege.

  • amellifera

    @Hill Rat
    I would argue that you are being very aware of your privilege in your dealings with your daughter and the kids you coach. Maybe that's not consciously done (on your part) because the privilege of a parent over a daughter is so self evident. Perhaps it's the wording you have a problem with?

    It can be more difficult to acknowledge privilege when dealing with other adults. There is no disparity in maturity, wisdom, or knowledge. There is a disparity in what life grants us and the way others perceive us. I'm a white, cis, straight able-bodied and middle class female. Learning about my privilege has been sometimes painful, but completely worth it.

    It isn't self-flagellation to acknowledge our society rigs the game in my favor over those who aren't able-bodied. It's not my fault that we do that. I am responsible for my actions, though. If I didn't have a friend in a wheel chair, I would never have noticed how few restaurants are accessible. How often people stare. How many people try not to stare and instead ignore completely. How some people talk loudly and slowly to him, like he's a child. I am aware, now, that (at present) I don't have to live in that particular world. I endeavor to keep this knowledge in my head at all times. Why? Not because I think I need to be punished, but because society does need to change. And you never know when it's going to come up, but teaching moments do happen. Millar isn't punishing himself because he's a man. Rather, he's aware that as a man, he isn't an expert on the sexism women (individual women) face. It isn't up to him to determine whether an issue is sufficiently damaging. Just like you don't automatically assume you know your daughter's motives if she doesn't want to go to school.

    Does this make any sense? I'm not sure if I'm doing a good job of explaining it. You seem reasonable, and I wondered if maybe this were a language issue.

  • Alexandria

    What a great interview! Reading it reminded me of the ending of Michael Kimmel's excellent Manhood in America:

    "At its core feminism is, it seems to me, an optimistic worldview that sees men as capable of change and, with enough encouragement, even likely to change. The real ‘man-haters,’ it seems to me, are those right-wing zealots who believe that men cannot change their violent, abusive patterns and who argue that women must remain subordinate if only to keep men in line. Most feminists, by contrast, love men enough to believe in us."

    I can't thank men like Kimmel and Millar enough for seeing feminism for what it is.

  • http://hillratdc.blogspot.com Hill Rat

    @JMS said:
    "you don’t seem to feel any need to protect others from your privilege."

    You're assuming facts that are not in evidence. We don't know each other friend, so ambushing you with a bunch of facts to prove my feminist bonafides seems like a cheap shot. I'll just leave it at: you're really, really, really wrong.

  • http://hillratdc.blogspot.com Hill Rat

    @SKM

    Thanks for that clarification, I'd much rather have a good discussion than "win" another internet slap fight.

    You said:

    My point was that never admitting that one isn’t the authority, that one may not be the ultimate arbiter of reality, even in the face of contradictory evidence, is part of “big loud alpha male” culture.

    I don't know that's still true. For sure, there is still a sizable percentage of alphas who broke no dissent. But one of my observations as a barbarian inside the gates of alpha male culture, is that there are a remarkable number of us who are feminists in all but name.

    My Father was an Army officer for 30 years who would have never called himself a feminist, but IMHO he was. When his female soldiers came to him back in the 70's and said they didn't have proper toilet facilities when they were in the field, rather than finding fault with the request, he came to the conclusion that he wasn't taking proper care of ALL of his soldiers. It's a story he told often and with great pride and rightfully so. That's one of 10,000 stories I could tell about what I call "inadvertent feminism."

    As painful and costly as it can be, I do question alpha male culture. I keep the parts that have value, reform and reshape the parts that can be salvaged, and try to discard the rest but it's a lonely struggle.

  • http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/ SKM

    @Hill Rat, something I left out was that I know men who are so high up the social ladder that they have nothing left to prove and so have little to lose by admitting they are wrong or listening to someone down the hierarchy.

    It would be great is more of those high-ranking men would be feminist in name too.

    I understand that some might not want to co-opt the title from women, but honestly I doubt that's why they don't identify as pro-feminist. Most people (male, female etc.) have completely swallowed the hype about angry, irrational, man-hating feminists. Or, they just can't afford the inevitable blowback.

    And I agree that there are valuable things about "alpha male culture" (scare quotes because not everyone can agree on what exactly that means). In fact, like everyone I was raised to believe that the most valuable things in society are those things associated with alpha males (especially white ones). That those are the things to which we should all aspire.

    One of the most mind-melting things about growing up female is the clear message that the one thing we should most admire and look up to and aspire to is the one thing we can't be--male.

    It's impossible to make up for not being a son.

  • evolvedalien

    I'm not impressed!

    Millar sounds like a evangelical, only with a different faith. That his mom raised him to be a "feminist" makes me blink. That's a very "Catholic" thing to say.

    I agree in part with Hill Rat. I think Millar's over focus on male privilege is a big problem. It's not just cheesy that he goes for the Oprah moment where the women in the audience shout "Amen" and nod their heads in agreement, but it's also a very offensive stance.

    In America, class > race > sex. How much time does he spend examining those other privileges that he has? Fighting against those injustices??? I question his priorities and his motives.

    I am all for introspection... but for everyone... all the time! Males, whites, and the rich aren't always " on top" so to speak. There are numerous areas and situations where women, blacks, and the poor have the advantage that of course lessen as you move down the stack.

    Phrases like "freeing oneself from male privilege" sound religious and they also posit that "women" are never part of the problem. Ever wonder why America has a black president before N.O.W? What draws Millar to be saved from his "masculinity" , but not his "money" or his "whiteness"

    Think kyriarchy, not patriarchy people!

  • http://www.yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com Thomas MacAulay Millar

    evolvedalien, are you kidding with this? You've rank-ordered the priorities of interlocking systems of privilege, and you're telling everyone how they must distribute the relative priorities? Seriously?

    Amanda didn't interview me about what I've done to deal with racism or classism, and much of that I can't talk about as TMM because I've largely done that stuff under my real name. But the way you frame it is pretty much self-discrediting.

    As for evangelism, I'll take that as a compliment. Small groups of committed people are how change gets made.

  • evolvedalien

    The class > race > sex order is what it is. "Rank" implies I control the situation. That's not the case. That the poor and blacks are at the bottom of the heap is not really debatable.

    However, that you choose to self identify as "feminist" and not say some other "ist" makes a big, fat, public statement about what and whom you personally FEEL matters most. And yes I called you out on that.

    Amanda didn't select you because of broad public stance on equal opportunity. She picked you because of your feminist identification. And yet even if you were dragged kicking a screaming to the interview you don't do yourself any favors with "patriarchal curtain", "first minor in women’s studies" or "read some Steinem"

    This was not a framing issue.

  • http://www.yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com Thomas MacAulay Millar

    evolvedalien claims universal truth in support of his priorities. I guess because you say it is that way, we all have to just agree with you, stop calling ourselves feminists and refocus on important things.

    Good to know.

    I guess we'll get around to trans folks in, what, the 2230s or so?

  • http://hillratdc.blogspot.com Hill Rat

    @amellifera

    Thanks for your kind words and effort to find common ground.

    I don't have a problem with acknowledging my male privilege when it's relevant to the conversation at hand, but at some point it ceases to be informative and becomes self-congratulatory IMHO.

  • http://hillratdc.blogspot.com Hill Rat

    @SKM

    One of the most mind-melting things about growing up female is the clear message that the one thing we should most admire and look up to and aspire to is the one thing we can’t be–male.

    I guess I'm lucky, because I was raised by a father who taught me that as important as it is for a man to be tough, strong, and courageous; it's equally important (maybe even more so) for him to be loving, kind, and gentle. He never actually said those words, he just showed me their truth with his actions.

  • http://waterhelpsmygame.blogspot.com Dasani

    I'd like to know exactly what constitutes "male privilege."

    There's a lot of talk here that takes as an axiom that men are privileged over women, and perhaps I missed the larger discussion on the issue, but nobody is saying exactly what it is men are privileged in.

    As a male at a predominantly female university (with predominantly female faculty), interning in a predominantly female profession, with two female supervisors, I can honestly say I've never experienced any 'male privilege' and refuse to accept as self evident truth that such a thing exists now a days. I would even go so far as to say that much of what could be considered male privilege most likely also has a 'female privilege' counterpoint.

    And much of what Millar said was self flagellating. A man who has devoted the greater portion of his life to studying gender issues in no way needs to apologize every third sentence for his inherently biased perspective, essentially saying that any non "cis het male" with an opinion has more knowledge on an issue than himself - the product of a great deal of education and focused thought. There's nothing wrong with saying you know something about something, or admitting that you make mistakes. But I agree with Hill Rat in that Millar is jumping off the deep end of the 'I'm not worthy' pool.

  • MuthaMitch
  • http://waterhelpsmygame.blogspot.com Dasani

    @ MuthaMitch

    I know the article is called white male privilege, but it's equating sexism with racism. It's not the same. While they are both issues of discrimination, there are numerous complicating factors that make the comparison weak at best.

    I still don't know what male privilege is. The closest the article comes is to mention biased curriculum in schools and how boys get to hear about men and girls don't get to hear about women.

    I repeat, what is male privilege and what does it entail?

...