Author Interview: NoNonsense Feminism

By David Michael Newstead.

Nikki van der Gaag is a gender expert and author whose latest book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Feminism, is a wide-ranging examination of the issues impacting women’s rights around the world. Recently, I had an opportunity to talk with Nikki about her work and about feminism today. Our conversation is below.

David Newstead: What do you hope people will get out of this book? And why do you think it is significant right now?

Nikki van der Gaag: I did a No Nonsense Guide to Women’s Rights almost 10 years ago. And I said I’ve got to completely re-do it, because the political and social and economic framing of the way that we’re looking at gender has changed so radically. We needed something which tried to look at the way that feminists are responding to the world in the way that it’s changing. Both in terms of the things that have improved and will continue to improve and in terms of the things have and will get worse.

David Newstead: There’s really a wealth of material in this book and you cover a lot. You have conversations with people, you talk about sex workers, and climate change. That’s a wide range. What are some of things that stood out the most to you, while you were writing it?

Nikki van der Gaag: Good question. And a difficult one to answer. Inevitably when you’re writing something short, you’re really condensing things down. But I also wanted to make it readable. I wanted the statistics in there, but I also wanted the stories. I didn’t want this to be something that’s only read on an academic course. I wanted it to be read by people who are interested in the issue from all walks of life, men as well as women. So, I was trying to write it in a grounded and accessible way.

The reason I wanted to do it was because I felt really excited by young feminisms and those from the Global South feminisms that were growingly vocal and growingly public, saying some really interesting and different things. In addition, in a context where women have clearly made huge gains in lots of different ways, there has been such a pushback from conservative agendas all over the world. I’ve got Indian friends who are talking about what’s happening in India with Modi and it’s not actually that different from what’s happening with Trump. So, I wanted to take a global perspective. I wanted examples from lots of different countries.

But I also felt really strongly that the stories and the way that things have changed began to form a pattern as I was writing. For example, the way that conflicts within feminisms sometimes are presented as a negative thing and women pulling apart. It can be. But actually when you’re doing a book like this, you get such a sense of the diversity. I think that very diversity is really exciting and vibrant. It means we’re dealing with the difficult things as well as the easy things. And that really excited me. Whether that’s between younger and older women, whether that’s between Global North and Global South, or black, minority, ethnic and white. The kind of vibrancy of it I think is exciting. And it is the diversity itself that builds a strong movement that is capable of discussion and dissent.

Having done the Feminism and Men book, I did think about doing a whole chapter on men, because it seems to me that is absolutely key. But in the end, I tried to weave it in. It’s the old story of if you put something in a chapter on its own, then it doesn’t become part of the fabric of what you’re doing. The way men are getting involved in gender equality has been something I’ve been exploring for about ten years. I wanted to bring that into this in a different sort of way.

Then, I was trying to think about: what are the main threats to feminism and women’s rights? Consumerism and capitalism, conflict, climate change, and the broader agenda of religious conservatism, which isn’t just about Islam and isn’t just about Trump seem to me to be absolutely key – not just in terms of the rise of misogyny, but the rise in intolerance and violence more generally as well.

David Newstead: I remember the line about “our diversity being our strength” coming up. And I liked it quite a bit just because I don’t think I had ever seen it articulated that way. Because usually like you’re saying it’s mentioned as a sign of lack of consensus, when really it’s a sign of everyone being engaged with diverse opinions.

Nikki van der Gaag: Yes, they are difficult discussions. For example, getting involved in some of the debates around the women’s marches in January. In some countries, they were quite bitter about the fact that in many northern countries this was organized by white middle-class women and where’s the black, minority, and ethnic equal participation? But actually, I think we learn far more from the areas where it’s difficult than from the areas where it’s not.

David Newstead: I’m sure this stands in contrast with some of your previous books, but one thing that stood out to me is you talk about online abuse that women and prominent feminists face. You know that existed 10 years ago, but not to the extent it does now and I was hoping you could say more about that.

Nikki van der Gaag: It has existed, but it’s booming now. I think it does put a lot of women off. If you’re out there in a public space talking about feminism, you know you’re going to get attacked. When I did my TEDx talk, it got on some horrible Men’s Rights website and I stopped looking at the comments, because they’re so abusive. So, you either stop looking at them. Or you try to fight back. In the UK, for example, the historian Mary Beard had a lot of abuse on Twitter. I thought she was really brave. She didn’t ignore it. What she did was to contact the people who were saying these horrible things and I actually she met with them and talked to them and engaged with them.

Online abuse, particularly for young women, is just terrifying. How do you separate online and offline abuse, because there’s clearly a link there as well? I don’t know if there has been a rise in violence against women, but there certainly hasn’t been a decrease. It seems to be often increasingly accepted and violent and part of a culture of intolerance. And I don’t know what you do about it. There’s been lots of lobbying of Facebook and Twitter to monitor better. And I think Facebook just employed a lot more people to do that kind of monitoring job. But in the end, unless you actually work with people so they don’t make those kind of abusive comments then you’re shutting the door after the horse has bolted. That’s why I think working with young people, particularly young men, is so important.

I was on a board of a small NGO here in the UK called Great Men Value Women, which worked with young men in schools and I went along to watch them do a couple of sessions. Just really interesting, because they were getting these young men who were between 15 and 17 to think about what it meant to be a man and what it meant to be a woman. They did an exercise cutting out pictures of women from magazines and getting them to discuss it. Once they started talking about, often for the first time, they were really shocked at the ubiquity of naked women, women being used to sell things, or used in provocative positions. So you’ve got that bit of it. In addition, pornography seems to be increasingly driving lots of young men’s (and young women’s too perhaps) ideas about what sex and relationships are about. And we just have to work with that. We have to be open and honest and discuss it.

David Newstead: Two combine the two strands of your response, I don’t know if you’re familiar with revenge porn at all?

Nikki van der Gaag: Indeed.

David Newstead: A friend of mine got revenge porn’ed once by her ex-husband from like six years earlier. Anyway, it was very dark and not a good experience. But the fact is that online abuse can take multiple forms and it’s hard to separate out what is an actual threat from an attempt to slander and demean you. You know, is it somebody just rattling off? Or is it something more serious than that? And how can it affect your life?

Nikki van der Gaag: There’s a group of men’s rights activists that are just out and out misogynists and horrendous. Then, there’s a group that I’ve tried to engage with globally and in the U.K. who would say that they are not misogynistic, but not feminists. I remember one tweet, somebody saying “I don’t know why women are making such a fuss about their body’s being objectified. Here’s an example of a man’s body being used in an advert.”

But what they do is they completely lose the hundreds of years of objectification and abuse that women have had to face. And they completely ignore the current relationships into which that one image is slotted. You can’t take one event and just disassociate from everything else that’s gone before and everything that’s happening everywhere else. I think often that’s what happens. Revenge porn, is kind of angry men too, isn’t it? Trying to take revenge on the people they can most take revenge on.

David Newstead: Last time we spoke, I asked you about what you thought of the state of feminism in the world. And what I’d like to ask now is, I’m curious what you think the state of patriarchy is in the world today?

Nikki van der Gaag: One of the difficulties of doing a book like this is ending up making vast generalizations about what’s happening. Because what’s happening in a rural village in Indonesia is so incredibly different from what’s happening in New York or in Kigali.

But I’m still an eternal optimist. That’s partly because I have the privilege of doing the kind of work, which takes me around the world meeting the most amazing women and men who are very aware of what we mean by patriarchy and are really concretely trying to put into place to challenge it and change it and questioning their own power and privilege. Meeting those kind of people all over the world gives me a huge amount of hope.

But that said, if you look at the kind of structures that are still in place… You know next year in the UK, it’s going to be a hundred years since women got the vote. And we still have less than only around 30 percent of women in parliament. Patriarchy is still pretty stuck in there and that’s why I feel it’s so important for men to challenge it as well, because women have been doing it relatively successfully for quite a long time. But we also need to work with men in power as well as women. It’s still alive and kicking, I reckon.

David Newstead: As you detail in the book, you know you talk about all the progress that’s been made with girls’ education over the years. So maybe, that’s a lot of the seeds of future progress.

Nikki van der Gaag: I think it is if you also make sure that you look at structural barriers. Thinking about some of the girls I met in Pakistan a couple years ago, they were living in a very rural area and a few of them were going to the local boys school, because there wasn’t a girls’ secondary school. I could see that they might want to grow up to be leaders and teachers and have these dreams for the future. But actually, the society they were living in and structures and institutions around them were not going to allow them to do that.

I’ve been quite critical of the discussions around simply empowering and supporting girls whether that’s through education or in others ways without looking at the wider patriarchal structures.

I remember being invited into one project that had been started in Morocco. There was a young woman that this organization had worked with who was fantastic and had really challenged what was going on around her. And basically, her dad had beat her up. He said “I’m not having my daughter speak to me like that,” because that wasn’t the kind of cultural ambiance where she was growing up. So, we absolutely look at the structural issues, patriarchal issues, and we need to look at questions of power as well as giving girls education and knowledge and working with boys.

David Newstead: Especially considering everything that’s happened even since you wrote this, where does feminism go from here?

Nikki van der Gaag: That’s a good question. I think for the moment: more of the same. But my point I made at the beginning about diversity becomes even more important. Sounds like Star Wars, but there are forces out there who are desperate to divide people whether that’s by gender or race or class or geography. What the Women’s March was trying to do, not always successfully, was to bring people together. So, that’s one of the things that I’m working on in Oxfam, to think about the fact that working with women overseas for example is not so different from working with marginalized women in the US or the UK.

Some of the issues are the same. Bringing people together feels like a really important task at the moment, even if that’s bringing people together who don’t agree with each other. You know, that whole idea about building bridges and countering the divides that we see and talking to the people who we don’t agree with. You must be struggling with that in the U.S. We’re certainly struggling with that around the Brexit decision here: trying to understand why people make the decisions they do. And There are reasons why people vote the way that they do and think they way that they do.

I think the really scary thing in the last six months here in the UK is how much more acceptable it’s become to say the really nasty things that people were probably thinking, but now they’re saying. That kind of openly voiced intolerance and misogyny is really scary and those of us who are more progressive need to find ways to talk to those people in the same way that historian talked to her Twitter trolls. So, I think the biggest task for feminists today is building bridges, with each other and with those we disagree with. That is the way our movement will grow.

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Countering Street Harassment

By David Michael Newstead.

This was originally posted on Collective Action for Safe Spaces. Learn More.

Brianne Nadeau is a member of the D.C. city council representing Ward 1, which includes Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, and parts of Shaw among other neighborhoods. Over the past year, Councilmember Nadeau has spearheaded efforts to address widespread street harassment throughout the District and today she joins me to discuss her work and the issues affecting residents of the nation’s capital.

David Newstead: Last December, you pushed for a roundtable on street harassment in D.C. What motivated you to do that?

Brianne Nadeau: When I first moved to the District of Columbia, I started getting involved in groups that were working to address street harassment. It was not my first time living in a city, but it was definitely my first time experiencing street harassment with the frequency that I did. And so, I sought out a community for that.

When I came to the city council, I realized that I could bring a new focus to this issue and bring more attention to it. Working with CASS and working with other community organizations that care about violence against women, we got the roundtable scheduled.

The roundtable was a big victory, but it is really only the beginning.

David Newstead: Did any of the experiences people shared at the roundtable make an impression on you?

Brianne Nadeau: Yes. I was actually brought to tears several times during that discussion. I think partially because I could relate to the stories, but also the stories about how young the girls or the women had been when their harassment began really moved me. We had a mother and daughter come testify. And the daughter is in school in D.C. and she was talking about the way she’s been harassed as a young girl. A lot of the women told stories about being harassed as young as age twelve. And the reason that was so moving to me is that it really makes me think about the spaces that we’re creating in our community or not creating in our community. For a young person, I want to be able to protect you and keep you safe and also let you be who you are. And a lot of times when we’re being harassed in public – women – we shrink. We make ourselves smaller. We try to not be seen. And that’s the exact opposite of what we’ve been trying to teach women all these years. Which is, you should shine. You should exert yourself. You should be heard. So, it’s really a mixed message.

David Newstead: If you’re comfortable talking about it, what’s been your experience with street harassment?

Brianne Nadeau: I’ve had several incidents. I shared a couple of them in the hearing. One was a time when I was walking to work down U Street near where I live and I was professionally dressed. I was just passing by a corner that I would always go by on my commute. This was in the morning before work on a weekday. And a man was just harassing me and I said “You know, I don’t appreciate that.” And he said “Well if you don’t want to be harassed, why do you dress like that?!” Which was strange to me. I mean, it was rude and inappropriate, but also I was dressed in a suit. So, what does like that mean? Right? What is the definition?

I’ve had countless experiences where I’ve just been walking up and down 14th Street. I sometimes describe it as the gauntlet and I pretty much assume if I’m doing that route that I’m going to be harassed on one side of the block or the other.

But since the roundtable hearing, I had one other incident that I’ve been sharing quite a bit, because really it’s the intersection of my world. So, I was up on 16th Street in Ward 4 in a fairly residential area and I was there for an event. So, I was walking down to the school up there. And as I was walking down 16th Street, a municipal vehicle passed me and a municipal worker in uniform on duty started harassing me. I was wearing a red dress, so he started off with “Hey, lady in red!” And I shook my head at him as he passed by and they stopped at a light. So, there he was. I’m walking and he has full access to me, because he’s stopped and he just keeps harassing me. And I think I said, “You know I’m sure you don’t mean it, but this is not something that we all appreciate. It’s not appropriate. Please stop.”

I said “Please stop” several times and he kept at it. I can’t even remember now what he said, but it was something like “Enjoy it” or whatever. Totally demeaning, but I had to keep going to my event. As I was walking, I typed a message to the director of that agency explaining what had happened. The director immediately responded and acknowledged that it was not appropriate, that it was not acceptable, and that it was not what those staff are trained to do. Of course, they are trained not to do that. And that the director would address it.

But I was struck in that moment that A.) how unlucky for that worker that he harassed the person who introduced the bill, right? But also he’s probably done it to many, many people and the odds are that he eventually would have gotten to me. A bigger piece is, you know what if we just started with training every D.C. city employee? That would be thousands and thousands of people who had the training not only about what street harassment is and not to do it, but also how to be an active bystander. So, I’m thinking more and more about that now and perhaps making that part of our Human Resources program, because it’s a start! These are our people.

David Newstead: Tied to that, you’ve recently been working on legislation to form a taskforce on street harassment. What do you hope to accomplish with that effort and where do you see it going?

Brianne Nadeau: CASS has done a great job of studying anecdotally what happens in D.C., but we would like some hard data on incidents of street harassment. So, we want more study and we also want educational resources. We’ve talked with the Office of Human Rights who would be managing this process if the bill passes. And they’re excited about it, because they feel like they can really contribute and do a real educational campaign around this issue. Because this isn’t about locking people up, right? That’s not what we seek to do. What we seek is to change behavior.

David Newstead: So, a lot of the groundwork is being laid?

Brianne Nadeau: We are laying it little by little. And you know no pride of ownership for me, really. We just want to get it done. So if my bill doesn’t pass, but we still get all these pieces done – I’m happy!

David Newstead: What are some of the barriers that you’ve encountered regarding your bill or just facing this wider effort?

Brianne Nadeau: Interestingly enough, there are two incidents that surprised me of people really being opposed to what I’m working on. I went on the radio to talk about the bill and the issue. Actually, the Director of the Commission on Arts and Humanities was also there, because they put money into arts grants around street harassment. Which is very exciting too! There’s a whole public art grant now.

David Newstead: Like murals? That’s cool.

Brianne Nadeau: Yeah! He’s a great person to talk to too. Very enthusiastic. So, the two of us were on the radio and a woman called in basically to be like “I don’t understand why you’re dealing with this issue. This isn’t a big issue.” And I always try to gently explain that it really is a big issue, because I think a lot of times women are conditioned to accept the behavior because they’ve had to. So, my goal is that we look at street harassment ten years from now the same way we look at workplace sexual harassment. I was just watching the HBO film that was made about the Anita Hill hearings and actually getting very worked up while watching it and thinking about all she went through at the time. But back then, you know your boss could proposition you, harass you, and it was just the sort of thing people would go to work and say “Well, that’s what happens to us, because we’re women,” like it was a fact of life. And now it’s completely unacceptable.

David Newstead: Like in Mad Men?

Brianne Nadeau: Exactly! But also, this was in the 1990s! In my lifetime, women were harassed in the workplace and it was totally acceptable. Or at least, it was accepted and now it’s not. And what did it take? It took some laws and it took a lot of education. I’d like to be able to do that with street harassment in this country, in particular in the District where I have a little bit more influence. But if we could do that and eradicate that from women’s lives, then we could start tackling other issues.

David Newstead: Just to broaden our discussion, there have been several incidents recently that CASS has been highlighting involving violence and harassment against the trans community and the LGBTQ community writ large. Can you speak to how these efforts would address the issues that they go through?

Brianne Nadeau: Well, the thing that we know about street harassment is that women of color and trans women are targets of it more than anyone else. And so, one of the goals in tackling this is to really address that as well. Because as a young white woman, my experience in the world is very different than a woman of color, than a trans woman. I want to insure that we are supporting those communities.

David Newstead: Just to ask about this, because I know Jessica Raven and other CASS people have been working on it a lot. Do you have any thoughts on their Safe Bar program and how does it factor into your work?

Brianne Nadeau: I love the Safe Bar program. Safe Bars is really exciting not only because of all the bar staff that are getting trained in the District, but how it’s really expanded beyond the District. You know, CASS says it in their name: the more we create safe spaces in our communities, the safer our women are going to be. And I think a lot of it is also just about reminding everybody in our community that it’s our responsibility to look out for each other and when we see harassment to say something about it, to diffuse the situation, and through all of that work ultimately be safer in our community.

David Newstead: You touched on this when you mentioned going on the radio, but you know there are a lot of issues affecting D.C. residents. Why do you think this is so important?

Brianne Nadeau: I think it’s important, because it touches the lives of so many women living in the District. There are very few women I’ve ever encountered that haven’t been harassed on the street. And when you start talking to women about this, they open up. I mean, the stories just pour out. So, it’s clear that it’s pervasive and it’s clear that it impacts people’s lives. In the most severe cases, it means women are afraid to take transit or they’re afraid to walk down the street and that’s deeply impacting their ability to have a career, to have a social life, and to just have a good quality of life.

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Discussing Safe Bars at a Bar

By David Michael Newstead.

In this podcast, I’m joined by Jessica Raven from Collective Action for Safe Spaces and Lauren Taylor from Defend Yourself to discuss the Safe Bars initiative and the importance of bystander intervention in countering sexual harassment in public. To learn more and to stay up-to-date on certified Safe Bars in the D.C. area, check out the new Safe Bars Website.

How the Other Half Lives

By David Michael Newstead.

This was originally posted on Collective Action for Safe Spaces. Learn More.

About six years ago, it dawned on me that my female friends were dealing with a daily set of challenges in public that I just don’t face. And the stark contrast to my own life is surreal to me, because both experiences are considered the norm.

For instance, when I walk down the street I think about my day or random things I have to do. I might stare down at my shoes or look at the sky. I could be happy. I could be sad. But safety just doesn’t cross my mind, day or night. It just isn’t a concern.

Women, on the other hand, often seem to plot out specific streets to take at certain times with an exit strategy and countermeasures for unwanted attention or a worst case scenario. That is to say, our routines couldn’t be any more different.

Essentially, women have to live as if the entire city is overrun with zombies and typically men do not. That’s how I started to think about it anyway. And I don’t say that to be funny exactly, but to point out that if a person felt at-risk most of the time, that’s much worse than any horror movie.

In public, I get to have peace of mind. In fact, I have so much peace of mind when I move from place to place that I take it for granted: on public transit, on sidewalks, in bars, restaurants, side streets, the gym, in any store, at any hour. For women, even if many of them arrive safely, that very real concern for their well-being would hang over them in ways that are shocking when you really think about it. Recently, I heard a friend openly worry whether the scarf she was wearing could be used against her, which means she felt any mundane decision could endanger her safety.

And, in fact, research supports her concern. According to the 2014 study by Stop Street Harassment, a majority of women (65%) report having experienced sexual or gender-based harassment in public, along with 25% of men who mostly identified as LGBTQ.

The more I heard about things like this, the more I wondered what if anything I could do to help and how men in general could be an ally on this issue. Obviously, do no harm is a good place to start. But the solution needs to be about more than just not harassing women in public. Being an ally extends to your own personal conduct as well as being aware of what’s going on around you. Ideally, your support will never be necessary, but it could make a critical difference. Even if it’s just for their peace of mind.

Review: The Mask You Live In

By David Michael Newstead.

I’ve wanted to see this documentary for a while now. And last week, I finally got the chance. After watching it though, I felt like I needed to think about the material for a few days. The Mask You Live In touches on a wide variety of issues surrounding masculinity in America. In my view, this ends up being the film’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness since it covers so much territory. But that overview format also means the audience can identify with a specific issue that might resonate the most. These include insights on sports culture, socialization, education, violence against women, hook-up culture, suicide, mass shootings, and more. For me, some observations were applicable to my own life, while many others were not. However, that’s not a criticism so much as it’s a recognition of the vast differences that are possible within American masculinity.

For example, one segment focused on a kind of round table discussion by prison inmates who were all violent offenders, serving life sentences. Their perspectives on how they were raised, what manhood means to them, and how a man solves problems were incredibly interesting, because they embodied where negative forms of masculinity can lead. Related to that, Jackson Katz explained how mass shooters and sex offenders are essentially being manufactured and that they aren’t aliens that grow up separately from the rest of American culture.

And it’s that same culture that’s under scrutiny throughout the film. The basic takeaway being that a hyper-aggressive, emotionally atrophied form of manhood is the root of many of these problems or at least a major contributing factor. One way the film underlines this is by pointing to the significant jump in boys’ rates of suicide as they enter adolescence, which occur at five times the rate of girls’ suicides and are the third leading cause of death among boys.

But far from just discussing the extent of the problem, The Mask You Live In also advocates for a better kind of manhood and shows how we might get there. But for me to really reflect on that, I want to watch the film a second time.

Watch The Mask You Live In

#MasculinitySoFragile Goes Viral

By David Michael Newstead.

In September 2015, Twitter user @anthoknees popularized the hashtag #MasculinitySoFragile, causing it to go viral. Recently, I spoke with @anthoknees regarding that experience and his views on manhood. My conversation with the activist and community organizer is below.

@DavidMNewstead: So, you were the person who caused it to go viral. What were you tweeting about at the time and why did it #MasculinitySoFragile fit into that?

@anthoknees: The original thread shows the progression pretty well. Violent descriptions of murder due to misogyny.

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@DavidMNewstead: What were some of the responses to that?

@anthoknees: The beauty of Twitter is that it’s an alternative start or continuation of a conversation. So, it helped to spread the topic of toxic masculinity out of just Black feminist Twitter and off-line conversations into the public eye through media coverage. Black women have been discussing and theorizing much of what I wrote, yet they’re often the most ignored and discredited. In the good articles, the woman (@feministajones) whose post inspired this and cited me as well.

@DavidMNewstead: So, what was the backlash like?

@anthoknees: Death wishes, as internet trolls are known for. Confusion around the message, too. Many people thought it was created by “bitter feminists” and took it as an assault on their manhood, rather than recognizing the violence that women and femme-identified people deal with on daily basis just because of their gender expression and presentation. The last thing wasn’t too bad but was notable. The message got lost. Some would ask me, “what about male rape victims,” not realizing that fragile masculinity is actually a primary reason people don’t believe male rape survivors and a primary reason that men are afraid to report sexual assault.

@DavidMNewstead: Do you think the back and forth over the hashtag has helped to dispel the confusion or is it just a big internet shouting match now?

@anthoknees: Well, the back and forth calmed down after the first week. But given the amount of articles written on it, the confusion seems to have died down. But it’s a hashtag, and so people will use it however they want. Ultimately, “man-sized” tissues are a part of the conversation, but as someone who popularized the hashtag, my focus was less on the absurdity of little examples and more focused on the very real threat of toxic masculinity.

@DavidMNewstead: Is this the normal focus of your activism or what issues to you work on?

@anthoknees: I work on dismantling interlocking systems of oppression, including heteropatriarchy, so it definitely falls in line with my activism. I’m on the streets and online, with both direct action and consciousness raising. White supremacy isn’t the only system of oppression that must be targeted, which is why I also discuss misogyny, misogynoir, transmisogyny, and sexism.

@DavidMNewstead: In your view, can you describe examples of positive masculinity and specifically forms of positive masculinity that can successfully counter the effects of toxic masculinity around the world?

@anthoknees: I see positive masculinity as healthy masculinity. Healthy masculinity is masculinity that is not tethered to certain actions, behaviors, or dispositions. Healthy masculinity is instead negotiated and requires an awareness that the gender is a social construct. A man who performs healthy masculinity understands that physical strength, sexual orientation, or other similar characteristics have no bearing on what is or is not “masculine.”

As I wrote, toxic masculinity is oppressive and sometimes violent, especially in response to a perceived challenge to a person’s masculinity. As such, a practical example of this healthy masculinity can be observed in the response. If a man approaches a woman to ask for her number and she declines, he respectfully accepts her “no” instead of having an expectation that she owes him anything.

We live in a highly gendered world, and so the very notion of masculinity or femininity is hard to shake or destroy. The current social order makes it even more important to combat global toxic masculinity. And as social creatures, our masculinity is not just for ourselves, but a performance for others. So healthy masculinity also means that we stop the policing gender. This looks like accepting people for who they are, respecting their pronouns, and not defining their gender for them. Gender nonconforming and transgender people are often physically and verbally attacked because we police the gender of others instead of focusing on ourselves.

Healthy masculinity also means not policing men who appear more “effeminate.” Calling a femme CIS gender man a homophobic, transphobic or sexist epithet is a symptom of toxic masculinity. This symptom amplifies when someone who was designated male or female at birth identifies as transgender. So, for me, eliminating toxic masculinity and growing healthy masculinity looks like a process of examining our own learned biases and prejudices. Healthy masculinity allows us, as folks who identify as masculine regardless of gender, to display vulnerability and affection in ways that do not fit the typical hegemonic mold of masculinity. Healthy masculinity increases interpersonal trust and reduces the likelihood of violence. Healthy masculinity allows us the freedom to help society function better, as opposed to the inequality and violence that toxic masculinity creates.

Read Part One

Read Part Three

A Conversation with Paul Elam

By David Michael Newstead.

Paul Elam is a controversial figure often cited for his work as a men’s rights activist and for his outspoken opposition to feminism. And because that opposition is fairly widespread around the world, I wanted to try to understand that sentiment and determine what, if any, common ground exists. Late last year, I reached out to Mr. Elam to discuss these issues. Highlights from our conversation are below. Questions from readers are included. Our discussion is wide ranging and Mr. Elam’s views are his own.

David Newstead: As far your website and your work, what would you say is your central theory?

Paul Elam: I really think when all is said is done, the men’s rights movement is the first actual push for an end to gender roles by considering gynocentrism. If you look at the feminist equation on the other side of the fence from us, you see patriarchy theory. You see things like the Duluth model and all this sort of analysis of sexual politics about men having power and women not having power. On the other side of the fence, there’s a concept called gynocentrism. Our theory is that power is a very, very difficult thing to pinpoint, especially in human relationships. There was an incident just the other day in India where a man was allegedly attacking a woman, was allegedly raping her. And the villagers drug him out into the street and hacked off his genitals and threw him in a river. Now, I would argue that it wasn’t him that had the power in that situation. And I think there’s a lot of other anecdotal stuff that points to women having great power: the power of accusation, the power of men working for them and producing and taking care of them. Which has been a part of the traditional gender roles for ages and ages. Feminists tend to interpret that more as men controlling women and holding them as chattel. But as we evaluate history on this side of the fence, it looks more like the first seat in a lifeboat and a lot of other protections that were never afforded men. So, if men truly have all the power, why are we the ones doing all the dying?

Question from a Reader: What’s the biggest misconception that you encounter? What’s being misunderstood about your message?

Paul Elam: Oh my god, everything. I’m going to put on my tinfoil hat for you for a moment. I think a lot of that has to do with feminist influence in the mainstream media. For instance, I’ll give you an example. At the first International Conference on Men’s Issues, which we had in St. Clair Shores, Michigan – the first three speakers were female. The first speaker was the first black female senator in North America. The second woman that spoke at our conference was the woman who founded the women’s shelter movement in Chiswick, England in 1971. And the third speaker was Dr. Tara Palmatier, medical psychologist that works with men that have been in abusive relationships. We’re a very, very diverse group. Probably, we feed into that misconception. I know that I’m a reluctant figurehead in this thing and here I am – I’m a white, middle-aged guy. And I think people sort of read into that that the whole movement is that way. But the whole movement is not that way. We’re very diverse. I think we are more diverse in essence than feminism is.

The second most common misconception is that we hate women, which is just bullshit. Honest critique of how we socialize men and women in this culture isn’t hate. Criticizing feminists is not the same thing as criticizing women and that is often conflated. Not all feminists are women and we criticize male feminists too. But turning this into a sort of gender war is not something that I think is on our shoulders, I think it’s on society’s. Going back to gynocentrism. The moment I say that “wait a minute, you know, it can’t be possible that men have all the power if they’re doing all the dying.” Somebody will interpret that as a threat to women. And that’s human instant. That’s human nature. That’s not a problem in women any more than it is in men. It’s just human nature to protect women. And when we point to that fact that as a species we would not have survived if we had not put women’s lives first ahead of men, people get hostile about it. So, there is a lot of denial, a lot of socialization, and a lot of socio-biology to sort of dig through before we get to the core of the truth. And I think there’s a lot of social resistance to doing that.

David Newstead: When you were growing up, what was your first encounter with or introduction to feminists or feminism?

Paul Elam: Oh, wow. You’re going to make me give away my age. It was probably watching All in the Family. And you know, I was from a family that enjoyed intellectual stimulation, so we discussed politics and world issues from the time I was a very young guy. And back then, we called it women’s liberation. It came up, but it wasn’t much of an intense subject at the time. I think feminist activism was centered more in larger cities and I was in rural areas. So, I didn’t pick up on it that much. My first experience noticing gender discrimination, I remember. It was when I was thirteen. I was reading a newspaper and just investigating what was in there and went into the classified section for the employment section. And they actually had them divided by sex. And I noticed, even at thirteen years old, that all the crappy paying jobs were for women. And I remember thinking at that moment, that’s wrong. So, that was my first personal exposure to any kind of sexual bias in the world.

But of course, at that time, I also hadn’t noticed that my father had already been in two wars at that point and had his body destroyed. He caught white phosphorous in Korea. He caught a mortar round in Korea, was shot in Vietnam as an adviser there. But I think because of the gynocentric nature of human beings, I didn’t notice all those penalties he paid and all those things that happened to him. I didn’t look at that as unfair. But the moment I saw at thirteen years old that they were obviously discriminating in employment against women, my first instinct was protection. I just find that, for me, is an interesting story – that I could overlook my own father having his body destroyed. He was a gunnery sergeant, lost most of his hearing from it. And I looked at that as sort of normal and I became upset because a woman couldn’t get a job.

David Newstead: I mean, do you feel like feminism and gynocentricism and men’s rights are necessarily opposed? Because they all involve gender discussions and issues of fairness based on what you’re saying, so it seems like there would be some overlap and common ground in some area for people to get along. But it doesn’t work out that way.

Paul Elam: I know there are people, lots of them, that identify as feminists and truly believe in equality. And truly only want equality. I know that’s out there. But when I look at the forms of feminism that matter – the governance. When we have laws that are horrifically biased like VAWA. When we’re running on the Duluth model of domestic violence that really only recognizes female victims and male perpetrators. When our campus rules now consist of these honor courts where young men on college campuses are sitting ducks, taken through what amount to star chambers when they’re accused of sexual misconduct. That’s the feminism in action. Christina Hoff Sommers identifies as a feminist and she’s a great individual that I believe is a real equity feminist. But where we practice our governance, where we develop policy, and what we do in media and in everywhere I can see feminism’s fingerprints what I see is seeking privilege and power for women at the expense of men. And I think that’s our sort of bottleneck or our stopping point. When feminists hear that they say “ok, I’m not listening to this guy, he’s crazy.” And on my side of the fence, when I hear somebody say that I’m crazy for saying that I have to believe that they’re just not willing to look at reality.

David Newstead: Is it necessarily a zero-sum game though?

Paul Elam: I think it is for now. It’s not that I would want it to be. I would love something other than what we have at the moment. The fact of the matter is that we’re a polarized society about a lot of things. Does it have to be a zero-sum game? No. But I think in order for us to make progress toward it not being a zero-sum game, we’re going to have to recognize that we have explored and looked at the mistreatment, the discrimination against women openly and very assertively for fifty years in this culture. And we have shut down nearly every discussion on looking at disadvantages faced by men. So, from my side of the fence, I say yeah it shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. So, why don’t you guys pick up a little bit more intellectual integrity and come to the table with some real discussion about men’s issues too. If that will happen anywhere, I’ll talk to any feminist in the world on that level and try to share experience with them and try to work with them.

But if I come to the table and the precondition is that I have to accept that women are the one and only oppressed class of human beings that men have systemically for all of human history disadvantaged women for their own benefit when I look at the face of statistics on suicide, depression, alcoholism, and what happens in family courts. And I have to accept what I think is an extremely bizarre version of reality just to sit down and talk to these people, my morality won’t let me do that. Nor will my common sense.

David Newstead: In America, it seems like we’re used to thinking in very binary terms. So, there’s black and white. There’s women and men, Republicans and Democrats, etc. And you know with transgender issues and with increased diversity on all fronts, it gets a little more complicated than just binary thinking.

Paul Elam: It does. I have a recent example of that. I’ve been speaking to a clinical social worker who’s a transgender male. I’ll be interviewing him and I’ve had a couple really good discussions with him. There’s a great area that you brought up. This man now tours around a bit and lectures and talks about his experience transitioning from being a women to being a man. And one of the things that he shared with me that was fascinating was that he said the most common question that he got at the end of his lectures was “how does it feel now to have white male privilege?” And his answer is “how on Earth could I know?” And he has told the audiences that he has lost more than he has gained. He pointed out that as a woman that it was routine in his life as a woman that someone would regularly be asking him how he was doing and talking to him about the emotional aspect of his life. And when he went through the process and presented to the world as a man, that stopped completely and totally. He said he felt like he stepped into an alien world where nobody ever cared about how he was doing. We’ve had a transgender male write for my site before about being treated like a potential threat and about the experience of becoming male being so radically different than what they had ever imagined. And I think that’s a great discussion to have.

David Newstead: One thing I wanted to ask about is the women featured on your site or just the seemingly large number of women who are hostile to feminism. And I know it’s hard to generalize so many viewpoints, but can you describe that phenomenon a little?

Paul Elam: In terms of our female writers, most of them are there, because they have sons. I can tell you that much. I also need to say that Karen Straughan is one of the popular men’s rights activists out there. And she is not in any official capacity affiliated with my site. She does her own thing and she does it quite brilliantly. But she has said repeatedly that she has sons and she is worried about what’s in their future. And she does not think that the current paradigm pretends well for her children. The same thing with Janet Bloomfield who writes at judgybitch.com. She’s also very involved in our work. Suzanne McCarley. Most all these women have male children and they’re concerned about them. And they don’t believe that the social engineering of their sons’ masculinity into something less than manhood is the answer and they’re concerned that that’s exactly what feminists want.

David Newstead: How about this as a question, do you have any feminist friends?

Paul Elam: Huh! That’s a good question. The answer is no.

David Newstead: Alright. Well, I tried.

Paul Elam: To be honest, I don’t. I would be open to that. But my circles again are about men’s activism. There’s not a lot of feminists in there. My partner of fourteen years is female and she’s not a feminist. So, I have limited exposure. But I’m sure out there at some point like if I ever got to meet people like Christina Hoff Sommers or Camille Paglia, we’d become friends. Or at least be friendly with each other. But it’s only because that they’re doing the same critique of feminist ideology that I am. We could share that in common. I would find it very hard to be friends with somebody who thinks that I’m a member of an oppressor class.

Question from a Reader: Are you familiar with Michael Kimmel and his theory of American masculinity’s sense of Aggrieved Entitlement?

Paul Elam: Yes, I am. Michael Kimmel, I think, is a brilliant guy. I really do. I mean, I give him credit. He’s very, very smart. I also happen to think he’s very, very disingenuous, which is not a good combination.

David Newstead: That’s an interesting collection of compliments and not compliments. Unpack that for me, please.

Paul Elam: What I’m saying is, he’s a brilliant guy. He’s a great communicator. He is very, very refined in his skills with rhetoric. And at the same time, he has what I perceive to be a very twisted and distorted agenda that he’s using those skills to further, which is basically misandry and more gynocentrism. The problem is, Kimmel is considered a real authority and he just recently got $300,000 of grant money to start a men’s studies department at Stony Brook where he teaches. And for his masculinity department, he piles his board with Jane Fonda and Carol Gilligan and a ton of other radical feminist ideologists. It isn’t men’s studies, it’s feminism disguised as men’s studies. Then, let’s look at that phrase ‘aggrieved entitlement’ and the loss of status. I work with men all the time. I mean, one of the biggest heartbreaks of my work is the people I have to tell all the time that there’s nothing I can do for you. And they’re in the worst of situations. And they aren’t people that have aggrieved entitlement. They’re people who are being ripped apart and destroyed and bordering on suicidal. And to me, Michael Kimmel reshaping that narrative to become something like aggrieved entitlement is absolutely sociopathic. It is immoral. And it is just disgusting, just disgusting as a human being. That you can look at a four-to-one rate of suicide and say that “there must be a lot of guys out there that have aggrieved entitlement then, because they’re killing themselves over it.” I mean, what kind of person thinks this way?

David Newstead: A kind of a closing question. So, independent of disagreements with feminism, can you say to me what the men’s rights movement is?

Paul Elam: It is finally a reaction to gynocentrism. And again, we have to explain a little bit more. Gynocentrism was necessary for the human species to survive. But once something is not necessary, it can become a liability. It’s sort of like when we look at the abuse and trauma that children survive in abusive families and the defense mechanisms that they develop in order to survive in those families, which they absolutely need. The same thing with gynocentrism, we needed to protect women at all costs at one point. And we’re still protecting women at all costs, even when it doesn’t make sense. Even when it isn’t fair. Even when it destroys children. Even when it destroys families. We have systems setup in our family courts, in our schools. Everywhere you go in our system of governance is gynocentric and it is all designed to protect women, which is at least ostensibly a noble idea. But when you start looking at the reality of it, what we’re seeing is a human instinct run amuck in a time that it’s lost its value. And that is what the men’s movement is. We’re going to insist on a discussion about that.

Paul Elam: Let me ask you this just in general terms. I went to your site and I read through some of it. You obviously do have an interest in gender politics. What got you motivated you in that direction?

David Newstead: You know, it took a while. I remember when I was younger and being aware that some men hurt women and that that was bad. And when I was very young, I understood that hurting other people is bad. And you know, I still think that, obviously. But sort of the idea of trying to figure out what does positive masculinity and positive manhood mean? And that’s a thing that I deal with. And part of it is for personal reasons, because my father passed away when I was a kid. So anything about being a guy, I kind of had to figure out on my own. So, a lot of the writing is just an outgrowth of that – of me figuring something out.

Paul Elam: Man, what a long journey that one is. As someone who’s walked that road for a while and tried to figure out those questions, my conclusion at this point is that there’s no such thing. And I’m not saying that a lot of men don’t share characteristics. The thing that got me is somebody asked me about ten years ago, they said “take a look at any positive characteristic and tell me that’s something you think should be in women and not men or in men and not women.” So, the challenge for me is how am I a decent human being? Not what sort of ideal of manhood do I need to pursue in order to feel adequate as a man, but what are my standards? How do I allow myself to be treated? How do I treat others? Do I steal? Do I not steal? All the basic moral questions of life. And I don’t find for men or women that they’re very different. I don’t trust a man who lies to me and I don’t trust a woman who lies to me. I’m not trying to impart psycho-babble wisdom to you here, I just identified a lot with that journey that you’re talking about.

David Newstead: No, I’m glad to hear that. And I appreciate outside perspective. And sometimes in life, you know as much as I don’t like to hear this depending on the question, sometimes there is no answer.