By Sebastián Molano
Media outlets from left to right report on growing evidence of sexual harassment, abuse, bullying and assault committed mostly by heterosexual men. Those in the receiving end of these acts -usually women, girls as well as gender and sexual minorities- have found in the emergence of #MeToo a catalyzer to courageously speak up and give the world a sense of the magnitude and scope of the violence perpetrated by men.
Today, there is an unprecedented level of attention to explore the role of men and what it means to be male in society. In places such as the United States -where I live- there is an effort to make visible the connections between power, patriarchy, violence against women and race. In the American context, it is impossible to detach any serious conversation on gender and masculinity from race and class. Intersectionality is the key that is opening the door to the conversations taking place.
As a result, the attempts to connect gender and masculinities are growing. In this messy process of making sense of the realities #MeToo is exposing, it is amazing to see the emergence of ‘mainstream’ political articulations that problematize masculinities, as has never has happened before. At the same time, those engaging in this emerging discourse are having to learn to navigate the problematic contradictions and pitfalls in talking about men.
There is an emergence of voices defying outdated gender roles, male identified folks who are seeking to ground their work and life on feminist principles. This goes from groups of men who gather to knit, parents’ groups to share tips and normalize vulnerability and those who refuse to exclude transgender men from the conversation. These voices demand an intersectional understanding of masculinities and seek to create a space for marginalized, excluded experiences. These voices don’t come from one organization or leader, this is the initial stage of a global movement.
At the same time, as a society we are not able yet to systematically connect masculinity, gender and feminism to make sense of the realities #MeToo is exposing. We keep using patriarchal binaries and culture as a frame, reinforcing the invisibilization of those who don’t fit into the binaries. For instance: men/women or the notion of good men vs bad men. Also, the constant reference to toxic masculinity, instead of talking about the harmful expressions, attitudes and behaviors men engaged on or enact.
The answer to connect the dots is rooted in feminism and feminist analysis. Feminism has developed the language that would allow us to make sense of the terrain we have entered. It offers us a coherent, robust body of knowledge and experiences. Feminists have developed an understanding of the world that is essential to explain how we got to #MeToo and where to go from here. These connections are made in the texts from bell hooks, Jessa Crispin or Sarah Ahmed. In their pages reside the codes and the clues we desperately need. For this, men engaging in this kind of work must take responsibility of their own process of awareness. Also, to assure that men always work alongside women and LGBTQI groups, following the mantra “nothing about us without us”.
While we figure this out as a society, the lack of nuanced understanding plays into the hands of myriad conservative, right-wing, anti-feminist groups with similar agendas but different goals. Evangelical churches support the restriction of women’s rights and lead the discussion against any voice that criticize men by arguing ‘#ButNotAllMen’ and rejecting the so-called ‘#GenderIdeology’, including the Pope. The emergence and expansion of ‘men’s rights activists’ groups appealing millions with misplaced yet ‘catchy’ ideas that promise to “make men great again”. People like me, working in the ‘men and masculinities’ field can only dream of having the number of followers and coverage that chauvinist, sexist star Jordan Peterson has.
Political parties in the US, Brazil, Philippines and Hungary have found in vindicating the image of traditional masculinity -macho, heteronormative and aggressive- a winning formula to access to power, justifying violence against LGBTQI+ people and violating human rights. Donald Trump is an example of this, as well as millions of men and women who willingly support his discriminatory message as a way to justify their own sexism, racism and violence.
One of the clear pitfalls exposed by #MeToo is the lack of clear lines of accountability for men who engage in working on issues around gender and masculinity. Walking the talk is more than ever an indispensable requirement to give this work the moral groundings that demands. Michael Kimmel is an example of this issue. For decades, a leading force in the masculinities’ field in the US, his message focuses on challenging the construction of masculinity. Last year, he was alleged to have used his privileges to harm others and embody the same patriarchal practices that he stood against.
Real, tangible accountability is the biggest challenge for male-identified people working with men.
For those of us who engage intentionally in what bell hooks calls the “hard work of love”, the #MeToo context brings a unique opportunity to create a space for critical reflection and action to change masculinity. To engage male-identified folks grounded on intersectional feminism, so we don not talk only about white, heterosexual man but we make space for the whole gamut of human experiences. We must set a high bar for each other and exercise accountability with candor and a sense of urgency. It is on us as men to change, take responsibility for our change and be relentless in this effort. Otherwise, we will side with the oppressors’ side of the #MeToo story.
Sebastián Molano is Rafael’s dad and Megan’s partner. In 2015, Sebastian founded Defying Gender Roles, an initiative to challenge harmful gender roles, especially those around men and masculinity. You can learn more about this work from his TEDxTalk or one of the 30+ articles written to connect the dots around gender issues and the world we live in today. Currently, Sebastián works as a Senior Advisor on Gender issues for Oxfam America, in Boston, US. Sebastian is a member of North America MenEngage Network (NAMEN).