We’ve long advocated for including men in feminism, so it’s no surprise that we’re in love with Michael Kaufman and Michael Kimmel’s The Guy’s Guide to Feminism. (In fact, we think it’s the perfect stocking-stuffer for all the men in your life!) The authors — both among the most prominent pro-feminist men — offer their fellow men an A to Z guide for not only understanding the movement, but for appreciating how it benefits dudes as much as it does women. (See entries on: Birth Control, Dads, Friendship, Good Relationships, and, of course, Sex.) We chatted with Kimmel, a sociology professor at SUNY at Stony Brook and the author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, about why men should sign up for feminism, how to inject more equality into heterosexual relationships, and why so many men still feel threatened by powerful women.
Why do we need a book about feminism for men?
The thing with men is the question they ask is: What does this have to do with me? They think all feminists are unattractive lesbians who don’t like shaving. But I always thought: Sure, feminism is about protecting women, but it’s also about women claiming their own agency and being unapologetically sexy. Not to be scared of it, to own it. So Michael Kaufman, who is the founder of the White Ribbon Campaign in Canada, and I decided to write a book for guys that holds their hands and says, Don’t be scared. Not only don’t be scared, but there’s a lot here for you.
You’ve been involved with feminist causes for several decades. What got you started?
There’s two answers to the question. The first answer is that when you boil feminism down to its basics, it sounds like American Philosophy 101. It’s fair, it’s right, it’s good. It’s about equality. The second answer is that I became very politically active in the late ’70s/early ’80s. My partner at the time was working at one of the first shelters in the Bay Area for battered women. We had one car and she couldn’t drive stick shift, so I helped drive the women to the hospital. That’s the entire reason I’m a feminist. It does something to you to see someone with their jaw broken and hear them say, “Maybe I deserved it.” I said “I’ve got to do something.” And my partner said, “Why don’t you go talk to the men who do this?” Sometimes someone says something to you and 20 or 30 years later you can still hear it. I founded a group called Santa Cruz Men Against Rape. All the while I maintained my very traditional career as an academic. Eventually I taught the first course in New Jersey on masculinity. Of course to have a course you have to have stuff to teach. So I started writing books I wanted to assign. That was how I started. I’ve been teaching courses on masculinity and doing political activism for years now.
How can feminism improve heterosexual relationships, where a power balance is often built in?
Traditional stereotypes in relationships put enormous pressure on men as well as women. For men it’s always being right, always being the decider, and never showing your feelings. We’re supposed to know what to do and do it. I’ve heard a lot of guys say to their partners, “I don’t know what you mean when you say tell me your feelings. Tell me what you want me to feel and I feel it.” Data shows the more equal the relationship, the happier both people are. In other areas, you can sort of see how it’s a zero-sum game: If women get some jobs, men don’t get those jobs. But in relationships there’s no zero-sum game. That’s the equality argument. But also think about it: If you share the burdens and the pleasures of the relationship, it’s so much sexier and more fun. We eroticize inequality in this culture. My feeling is we need to learn how to eroticize equality, and nowhere better to do that than in relationships. You get to be on top, I get to be on top. It makes relationships more playful. You get to laugh about stuff and act goofy.
Great! We’ll take it. But how do we make our relationships more feminist if they’re not quite there yet?
There are relationships that are complementary in which each person feels like they have their own sphere. Then there are relationships that are egalitarian, where they divide everything equally. Then there are feminist relationships. They don’t just split everything, but they talk about it. It’s not enough to just make it a personal decision to share everything; you have to see those decisions as political. For men it’s a way of listening that’s different from, I get it, I’ll do 50 percent. It requires effort. Obviously as you go across that continuum it’s more work.
Some feminists have argued that men shouldn’t be part of the movement. Why do you feel they should?
I can’t think of any reform ever that women wanted that didn’t require men’s support. You want to vote when you can’t vote? You need men to support it. The way the patriarchy works, we have all the power. If you want some of it, we have to give some of it to you. But I understand women’s hesitance. Here’s a good way of thinking about this: When we talk about family-friendly policy, we think of those as women’s issues. But they’re not women’s issues, they’re parents’ issues. We need men to come forward and say “I’m a parent, I need parental leave.” Otherwise it’s just, Be nice to the ladies. It’s a concession. It’s like a disability. The place where I get women saying [men being feminists] is a problem is we can’t be the cavalry. We can’t be like, “Thanks for bringing this to our attention, we’ve got it now.” When men start to notice gender inequality, they tend to go to the women in their lives and confess for three hours. The truth is it shouldn’t be women’s job to be the aid and comfort to men in these situations. You shouldn’t have to do it. I get the resentment there. Like, “Listen, we have enough struggles. Before I had to take care of you because you didn’t get it, and now I have to take care of you because you do get it.”
You write a lot about men’s issues, and yet you’re a feminist. This is a sadly unusual combination, as “men’s issues” is often code for anti-feminist.
My position has been to try to understand men, but not in opposition to women. Think about feminism and its relationship to power. It’s an aggregate analysis: Women are not in power, and women do not feel powerful. So feminism was set up to address both of those issues. You translate that to men: Men are in power, therefore men must feel powerful, therefore men must give up the power. Men feel like, “What are you talking about? I’m powerless.” So along come the “men’s rights” guys who say, “You’re right, you feel powerless, the feminists took your power, let’s get it back.” The way gender inequality works, though, is it doesn’t work separate from race and class and other things. Some men have power. Many do not. The reason the men feel powerless is that other men have power.
You’ve worked a lot with your wife, Amy Aronson, a journalism professor at Fordham University. How does that work?
This is an artifact of a massive amount of coincidence and luck. We happen to work seamlessly together. It helps that she’s the smartest person I know. She’s a great writer, and she’s a spectacular editor. It’s never been an issue. We divide the labor. We have a lot to talk about. We fell into writing together. I don’t only want to write by myself. I enjoy collaborating. It just seemed natural to us – we talk about this stuff all the time. Why don’t we write it down?