I first saw this posted by MeridianL, though I’m sure it’s been posted elsewhere too.

This is, I think, an important post.

I’ve been thinking about men in women’s studies classes, and jokes about “male-bashing.”

This semester’s women’s studies class is like most: overwhelmingly female.  I’ve got 32 women and 6 men in the class.  I met individually last Thursday with the women for “all-female day”; I met with my guys on Tuesday for “all-male day.”  This morning, we all got back together in the classroom for the first time as a full group in nine days.

Most of the guys hadn’t spoken in class all semester; today, all did.  A number of the women in class were eager to ask questions and create dialogue; up until this week, mine has been the only consistent male voice in the classroom.  The guys did a great job of sharing about many topics (we spent a lot of time on the “myth of male weakness”)  But two of the guys did something that I see over and over again from men in women’s studies classes.  They prefaced their remarks by joking “I know I’m going to get killed for saying this, but…”  One of them, even pretended to rise from his desk to position himself by the door, saying that “Once I say this, I know I’m going to have to make a run for it.”   Most of the women laughed indulgently, and I even found myself grinning along.

When men find themselves in feminist settings (like a women’s studies class) they are almost always in the minority.  When I was taking women’s studies classes at Berkeley in the 1980s, I was usually one of only two or three men in the room.  In my women’s history classes over the past decade, men average 10-20% of the students, never more.  Even when they make up as much as a fifth of the class, they generally do less than a tenth of the talking. That isn’t surprising, given the subject matter — I was often fairly quiet in my own undergraduate days.

But one thing I remember from my own college days that I see played out over and over again is this male habit of making nervous jokes about being attacked by feminists. In my undergrad days, I often prefaced a comment by saying “I know I’ll catch hell for this”.  I’ve seen male students do as they did today and pretend to run; I’ve seen them deliberately sit near the door, and I once had one young man make an elaborate show (I kid you not) of putting on a football helmet before speaking up!

All of this behavior reflects two things: men’s genuine fear of being challenged and confronted, and the persistence of the stereotype of feminists as being aggressive “man-bashers.” The painful thing about all this, of course, is that no man is in any real physical danger in the classroom — or even outside of it — from feminists.  Name one incident where an irate women’s studies major physically assaulted a male classmate for something he said?  Women are regularly beaten and raped — even on college campuses — but I know of no instance where a man found himself a victim of violence for making a sexist remark in a college feminist setting!  “Male-bashing” doesn’t literally happen, in other words, at least not on campus.   But that doesn’t stop men from using (usually half in jest) their own exaggerated fear of physical violence to make a subtle point about feminists.

There’s a conscious purpose to this sort of behavior.  Joking about getting beaten up (or putting on the football helmet) sends a message to young women in the classroom: “Tone it down.  Take care of the men and their feelings.  Don’t scare them off, because too much impassioned feminism is scary for guys.”  And you know, as silly as it is, the joking about man-bashing almost always works! Time and again, I’ve seen it work to silence women in the classroom, or at least cause them to worry about how to phrase things “just right” so as to protect the guys and their feelings. It’s a key anti-feminist strategy, even if that isn’t the actual intent of the young man doing it — it forces women students to become conscious caretakers of their male peers by subduing their own frustration and anger.   It reminds young women that they should strive to avoid being one of those “angry feminists” who (literally) scares men off and drives them away.

Here’s where I need to issue a big ol’ mea culpa. Until today, I don’t think I fully realized how common this strategy of joking about male-bashing really is.  I didn’t realize how I, as a teacher, permit and thus encourage it.  Too often, I’ve been so eager to make sure that my small minority of men feels “safe” in the classroom that I’ve allowed their insecurities to function to silence the female majority — in what is supposed to be a feminist setting!  Though I haven’t made such remarks myself, I’ve laughed indulgently at them without stopping to consider their function.

Part of being a pro-feminist man, I’ve come to realize in recent years, is being willing to face the real anger of real women.  Far too many men spend a great deal of time trying to talk women out of their anger, or by creating social pressures that remind women of the consequences of expressing that anger.  Many men, frankly, are profoundly frightened by women who will directly challenge them.  In a classroom, they don’t really fear being struck or hit.  But by comparing a verbal attack on their own sexist attitudes towards physical violence, they hope to defuse the verbal expression of very real female pain and frustration.   I know that it’s hard to be a young man in a feminist setting for the first time, and I know, (oh, how I know) how difficult it is to sit and listen to someone challenge you on your most basic beliefs about your identity, your sexuality, your behavior, and your beliefs about gender. It’s difficult to take the risk to speak up and push back a bit, and it’s scary to realize just how infuriating your views really are to other people, especially women.

The first task of the pro-feminist male in this situation is to accept the reality and the legitimacy of the frustration and disappointment and anger that so many women have with men, and to accept it without making light of it or trying to defuse it or trying to soothe it. Pro-feminist men must work to confront their own fears about being the target of those feelings.  Above all, we cannot ever compare — even in jest — verbal expressions of strong emotion to actual physical violence or man-bashing.

After all, one of the pernicious aspects of the “myth of male weakness” is that men can’t handle being confronted with women’s anger.  We either run away literally or figuratively, disconnecting with the television, the bottle, the computer screen.  But we’re not little boys who will physically lash out in rage when challenged, nor can we be so fearful that we dodge and defuse and check out.  That’s not what an adult does in the face of the very real emotion of another human being.

I’ve allowed this kind of joking and defusing to go on too long in my classes. It’s going to stop now.

By Hugo Schwyzer