In the Conversation About Gender Inequality, Men Must Be Included

Since the Superbowl this past sunday I’ve had a lot of thoughts running around in my mind regarding sexism and gender roles and what it means to be a man or a woman in our society. Mostly I’ve been angry and I’m not entirely sure who to be angry at. I watched the game with a small group in which I was the only female. I heard comments like “what a pussy” and “he’s gonna cry whether they win or lose, I don’t wanna see that.” I watched Beyonce’s halftime show, during which time almost all the guys left the room using it as a time to refill their drinks – it wasn’t the important part after all. They did see the end of halftime, during which they asked questions like “did her boob pop out?”

I drove home after the game feeling stressed and angry at the state of the world and it kept me up that night as I tried to fall asleep. It hasn’t stopped there either. Since then I’ve been hyper-aware (more than usual I should say) of the comments men make to one another regarding women. Having a group of friends comprised almost entirely of men makes me privy to a lot of commentary that I might not hear otherwise. Then again, I have to wonder if I’m hearing a watered-down version of what these guys would talk about if there wasn’t a girl present. And it’s not just men who are engaging in objectifying and sexualizing language in regards to women either; women are doing it too. I was involved in a conversation about why there were no longer cheerleaders at my former high school.

          “I heard one cheerleader gave every guy on the football team a blow job on the bus. That’s why there’s no cheerleading team anymore.”

“Remember that slut who was a freshman when we were seniors? She had sex in the locker room.”

I had a problem with this dialogue when it was happening, but it was only a day later that I realized just how biased and one-sided this conversation was. If the story about the cheerleader was true, why wasn’t she alone punished instead of the entire cheerleading squad? And for that matter, are we to assume that these football players had absolutely no say in the matter? Why weren’t they punished as well? Why wasn’t the football program scrapped along with the cheerleaders? Whether this story has any truth to it or not, for the guys on that football team it’s a funny story. For the girl, it’s a life sentence.

And then there’s the comment about the “slut” who had sex in the locker room. We have to assume that if she was having sex, there was probably a guy involved. But we don’t hear about him. He’s just a guy doing what guys do, and he happened to do it with a “slut”. Good for him. Those high school girls better be careful though, if they’re having sex with a guy who’s not their boyfriend, or if they’ve had a lot of boyfriends, or if they have sex at all, they’re at the risk of moving into “slutty” territory.

The thing is, we’ve heard this story before. We’ve heard it a thousand times – a man sleeps with a bunch of women, he’s a stud. A woman sleeps with a bunch of men and she’s a whore or a slut or easy or fast, etc. etc. We’ve all heard this before and I think most (too optimistic?) or at least a lot of people, men and women alike, agree that this is an unfair double standard. So why does it persist? I honestly don’t have the answer, but I hope that I can continue to make sense of it.

I think that a big part of the problem when it comes to addressing gender roles and double standards is that men are being left out of the equation. There’s a lot of talk about women’s liberation and what women and girls can do to be strong and independent and stand up to the patriarchy. This is all great, and I fully support it. The problem though, is that men are often left out of the conversation or scared away by words like “feminism” and “girl power”. Men aren’t being forced to look at at what what they can do to work towards gender equality because as far as they’re concerned, they’re comfortable and they’re not necessarily doing anything wrong.

Men, especially white men, are also vilified in a lot of feminist discourse. It’s not really any surprise that men then feel uncomfortable talking about issues like rape and domestic violence when the finger of blame is pointed directly at them. I have to admit, when I hear a guy say “But what about me? What about problems that I face as a man?” I don’t take him that seriously because the problems that he faces can’t possibly compare to the issues that plague me as a woman every single day. But this is not true, and this is not the attitude that will bridge the gap of gender inequality – it will only widen it. Boys grow up learning that to be a man means you must be strong and you must be competitive. They watch movies where men are heroes and being a hero means being violent and getting the girl. They learn to view women as both pretty objects for them to look at and a prize which they can win if they use all the right strategies. They learn that if a woman wears something revealing and is nice to you, that she owes you something, and if she is reluctant to have sex with you after she clearly gave the green light with her clothing choice and friendliness towards you, she’s a tease. They learn that if they don’t live up to this ideal of manhood, if they show emotion or don’t have enough sex, they are at the risk of being called a pussy or a faggot.

Men are taught all of these things growing up, whether it’s by their parents or the tv they watch or the kids they’re friends with at school. And when we hear statistics like 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, we shake our heads and wonder why it happens. But it doesn’t just happen, it is being done. And it’s being done by men who are taught that they can probably get away with it, or it’s ok because she’s a “slut” or she was “asking for it”.

Men need to be included in this conversation. They should be offended that other men get away with rape and sexual assault because it’s “in their nature” to do these things. They should be offended that advertisements see them only as meatheads who watch football and drool over blonde busty women. They should be offended by the fact that they cannot cry or show emotion at the risk of being called a pussy. I have seen the guys that I hang out with fulfill every stereotype of “manhood” in the book. I have heard them say sexist things and put on this act of manliness around their friends. But I also know that they are far more complicated than this and far more multifaceted than society would have us believe. I have seen them cry and I have had them talk to me about their feelings, about how they’re lonely or insecure – about how they are human beings just like me.

I know that there are deep rooted problems and mindsets that will not be changed overnight. There will always be people in the world, men and women alike, who believe that the way things have always been is how they should stay. I also know that if we’re going to change any of these problems it has to start with a conversation – a conversation in which men are invited to participate and given a chance examine the ways in which society has taught them to act.

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