Monday, July 14, 2008

Men, Feminism, and the Curious Case of Kyle Payne

A young man named Kyle Payne - an über-douche of a blogger who calls himself a feminist - has just plead guilty to photographing and filming a young woman's breasts without her consent. Belledame, Renegade Evolution, and many others (see their blogs for a long list of links) have exposed all the sordid details of this. I won't rehash it here in detail.

The short version is that this guy was an RA at a college in the Midwest, and he was also a sexual assault survivors' advocate. He exploited his positions of trust to violate a young woman's privacy and right to bodily self-determination. The charges he copped to are lesser than an actual assault charge, but no one seems to be disputing the facts.

The astonishing thing is that this dude has kept blogging as though nothing happened. Really, you gotta follow the links above.

The little piece that I'd like to address here is what this means for men in feminism. And frankly, I think it matters not a hoot. Guest-blogging at Feministe, PhysioProf writes:
First, what the fuck is up with men calling themselves feminists?

I don’t call myself a feminist, because it’s not my call whether I am or not. It’s women’s call. I try not to be a fucking misogynist asshole and do what I can to reduce gender inequity in my professional and personal life, which includes trying to call out myself and other men on misogynist shit.

Making a big melodramatic display of tagging oneself with the “feminist” label seems like transparent male cookie-seeking at best, and cover for some seriously nefarious wackaloon shit at worst, as in the case of our male feminist sex criminal friend Payne. (Of course, maybe tagging myself with the “I don’t call myself a feminist” label is just more subtle cookie-seeking! HAHAHAH!)
Y'now, this is just not a relevant lens. Consider this: I knew a guy in college who seemed as painfully milque-toast as he was shy. Several years after graduation, while he was working as a grade-school teacher, he got busted for circulating child porn on the Internet. (He served several years in prison and actually showed up at a reunion I attended last fall - creepy.)

Does he represent all teachers? Does his story lead anyone to wonder whether all male teachers are potential child abusers? Of course not! (Well, actually it's not all that long ago, some 30 or 40 years, since that fear lurked among American parents. But I think we're past that by now.) Maybe my acquaintance chose his occupation to gain closer access to kids. But there's no reason to overgeneralize.

As for Mr. Kyle Payne, as soon as he violated that woman's trust, he burned his feminist credentials forever. He is not a feminist. Maybe he chose his causes out of conscious desire to fool women and gain their trust. Maybe it was more complex and he wasn't aware of the nasty soup of aggression and desire that drove his supposed politics.

Whatever the truth about Kyle Payne's motives, he never was a feminist. He was a total phony. And his case says nothing - nothing! - about men in feminism, or what men should call themselves - whether allies, pro-feminists, or just plain feminists - if they sympathize with feminist causes.

I think it's still difficult for sympathetic men to figure out how to place themselves with respect to feminism. I remember debates about this all through the 1980s (and clearly the issue goes back longer than my adult political memory, to the feminist-separatist scuffles of the 1970s and beyond). Even today, my best-intentioned students seem to struggle the most with how they fit into a women's studies classroom.

Calling yourself a feminist is risky enough for women, who fear being marginalized as ugly, lesbian, man-hating, humorless, etc. For men, it means putting their masculinity on the line. That's ironic, since risk-taking and courage are both hallmarks of conventional masculinity. But I really respect any man who's willing to claim the label for himself - as long as he's doing it in good faith.

Any man who treads into this territory is going to hits some speed bumps. Women are still rightly concerned about men co-opting the movement or the debate. I've written about how that can occasionally happen in women's studies classes when men reach near-parity in terms of sheer numbers. The same is true for any manifestation of feminism, not just its academic flavors. Some men still have a really hard time letting women take the lead. (Of course, some women don't play well with others, either - this is obviously not only gendered.)

Men also face a double bind when it comes to their motivations. Figleaf discusses how men who approach feminism with a rescue mentality can put women right back up on the good ol' pedestal. He argues that men may be wiser to ask what's in it for them - namely, better relationships with everyone they love and freedom from roles that constrain men as well as women. I think he's right, in general - and yet, anyone who suspects bad faith in his position can easily say, well, this is just making everything all about the menz again.

I start from the assumption that the vast majority of men who call themselves feminists are coming from a good place - that they, too, care about humanity and justice and kindness and fairness. Sometimes I may disagree with them, just as I disagree with quite a few women who are feminists. Sometimes their style may annoy me - ditto, too, for some of the women. But I tend to impute good faith until I see strong evidence to the contrary.

Clearly, photographing a passed-out drunken woman's breasts is evidence enough. But let's not turn Kyle Payne into a symbol of anything other than sexual violence.

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