Duncan Fisher wanted to know what teenage boys feel about feminism, so he invited four of his daughter’s male friends to tell him what they think.
—This is article #65 in our series of #100Voices4Men and boys
When I was asked to write one of the articles for the #100Voices4Men series I was chuffed. Then followed two months of absolute mental blankness. I watched with increasing panic as articles were published, reaching closer and closer to the 100 mark!
And then my daughter saved me. She reported that there had been a heated argument in an A-level English class at her school about feminism. A week later, I had four 17 year old boys from the English class sitting round our dining room table at home, and this article is about that conversation.
I wanted to know their perceptions of gender inequality and the debate about feminism.
This is a group of young men keenly aware of the concerns of feminism, with a clear view of how the inequalities of concern to feminism are different in different environments. For example take the case of overt sexism in public places: there is none in the streets of our own small community where anonymity is no option, but in cities it is a different story. Idescribed the harassment my youngest daughter has experienced while out running training in Cardiff and everyone in social media is currently debating the story from New York.
And then there is the internet, where sexualisation of women and girls and sexist trolling are rampant. We discussed their perceptions of equality in education. They see a very high level of equality in UK, but see a very different story in other countries and admire the campaigning of Malala Yousafzi.
They do not arrive at the same conclusion as the young man, Josh O’Brien, in article #27 of this series, who takes an anti-feminist view of gender politics. But despite this keen awareness, interest and concern, they don’t engage in the debate on-line: “we never put our point of view across because there is too much hate”.
So what’s the story?
Four things cause real difficulty for these boys:
1. When men who respect women are held responsible for the activities of men who behave horribly towards women
One of the young men said: “The story is that all men are dicks. We are being asked to sort these men out, but we are not responsible.”
It called to my mind the recent complaint by British Muslims about being held to account for the actions of ISIS, leading to a great joke T-shirt: “I’m a Muslim and I am sorry for everything – in the past, present and future”!
Wagging the finger at all young men and saying “repent!” is an incredibly ineffective recruitment strategy and alienates the men and boys equality work most needs.
2. When there is a lack of empathy for men who suffer
The young men are aware of those areas where men fare worse on average than women – relationships with their children after parental separation, access to mental health services, rates of suicide, death in war. A lack of empathy for these issues sends a dark signal. And in areas where the gender balance goes the other way, such as domestic violence or single parenting, why not open up our support equally to all according to need?
3. When statistics are abused
These young men (and, I am sure, countless young women) know that many of the statistics banded about in social media are false – for example the one that says women earn 23% less than men, presented as if women are paid substantially less than men for the same work in a wide range of jobs. They know it cannot be true, because teachers in their school are paid equally irrespective of gender. But they have no doubt there are pay inequalities, though they don’t have the resources to find out the truth of the matter, which is a painstaking and expert task.
They also know that if they do make any attempt at a contradiction, they will draw fire. So, even if they had all the figures, they have no real appetite for pointless rows. So the only option is to shut up. And so stupid statistics fly around in social media, giving people who want a fight a sense of justification for doing so; they are observed from the sidelines by a large silent majority. Actual solutions, which depend on meticulous analysis of what is actually happening, get pushed into the background.
4. Fundamentalism on the internet
Social media spreads outrageous views far faster than reasoned arguments and the social media these boys see every day is awash with fundamentalist views that brook no contradiction. As the boys pointed out, the video of little girls swearing and spouting ridiculous statistics (we all really hate this video) has gone hugely viral.
One boy said: “it keeps on appearing in my feed as the girls I am friends with share it”, fuelling division between teenage boys and girls. The answer: keep a low profile. If you are targeted on-line, everyone can see. The same goes for large numbers of thoughtful teenage girls who would get fired at just as quickly.
What do young men want?
And so the cause of gender inequality is deprived of its most valuable potential supporters on a grand scale. So I asked the boys, what conditions would have to apply to allow them to feel able to contribute to the debate about equality in the way they would like to?
They said they would need a safe place where they could feel confident they would not be shouted at and publicly humiliated; where their motives were not under immediate suspicion simply on account of their gender. They want protecting against fundamentalism by prominent and leading figures in the campaign for gender equality – people who can defend the sincerity of their interest and allow real discussion. They want to participate with girls and women of like mind.
Let us imagine for one instant what we could do if we could cultivate a strong and confident group of young women and men across the world committed to defending equality and having the tools to do so? A group of people ready to listen to the concerns of the other gender and to campaign together, modelling the kind of partnership between women and men that is predicated by equality?
You can’t have gender equality if you don’t include boys
What if all those watching the row about gender on the internet could also glimpse a place where an active, respectful and sincere campaign for equality was being conducted by women and men together?
This may be a pipe-dream. But let us remember: we will never end sexism and gender inequality without the help of boys and men – this has always been the case and will always be. And the first step is to listen to them without judgement, particularly those who are genuinely concerned and wish to participate.
As the boys left our house, they said how great it was to be able to have a sensible conversation about these things. I was struck that this was the first opportunity they had ever had to discuss gender equality without having to self-censor. That’s a big problem.
—Picture credit: David Shankbone
Duncan Fisher was one of the founders and CEO of the Fatherhood Institute and is currently developing a project called MumsAndDadsNet.
You can find all of the #100Voices4Men articles that will be published in the run up to International Men’s Day 2014 by clicking on this link—#100Voices4Men—and follow the discussion on twitter by searching for #100Voices4Men.
The views expressed in these articles are not the views of insideMAN editorial team. Whether you agree with the views expressed in this article or not we invite you to take take part in this important discussion, our only request is that you express yourself in a way that ensures everyone’s voice can be heard.