What Do Men Want?
Women are an eternal subject, which is a lot like being subjected, or subjugated, or a subject nation, even. There are comparatively few articles about whether men are happy or why their marriages also fail or how nice or not their bodies are, even the movie-star bodies. They are the gender that commits the great majority of crimes, particularly violent crimes, and they are the majority of suicides as well. American men are falling behind women in attending college, and have fallen farther in the current economic depression than women, which you'd think would make them interesting subjects of inquiry.
I think the future of something we may no longer call feminism must include a deeper inquiry into men. Feminism sought and seeks to change the whole human world; many men are on board with the project, but how it benefits men, and in what ways the status quo damages men as well, could bear far more thought. As could an inquiry into the men perpetrating most of the violence, the threats, the hatred—the riot squad of the volunteer police force—and the culture that encourages them. Or perhaps this inquiry has begun.
At the end of 2012, two rapes got enormous attention around the world: the gang-rape murder of Jhoti Singh in New Delhi and the Steubenville rape case, involving teenage assailants and victim. It was the first time I remember seeing everyday assaults on women treated more or less as lynchings and gay-bashings and other hate crimes had been: as examples of a widespread phenomenon that was intolerable and must be addressed by society, not just by individual prosecution. Rapes had always been portrayed as isolated incidents due to anomalous perpetrators (or natural uncontrollable urges or the victim's behavior), rather than a pattern whose causes are cultural.
The conversation changed. The term "rape culture" started to circulate widely. It insists that a wider culture generates individual crimes and that both must be addressed—and can be. The phrase had first been used by feminists in the 1970s, but what put it into general circulation, evidence suggests, were the Slutwalks that began in 2011 as a protest against victim-blaming.
A Toronto policeman giving a safety talk at a university told female students not to dress like sluts. Soon after, Slutwalks became an international phenomenon, of mostly young, often sexily dressed women taking back public space (rather like the Take Back the Night walks of the 1980s, but with more lipstick and less clothing). Young feminists are a thrilling phenomenon: smart, bold, funny defenders of rights and claimers of space—and changers of the conversation.
That policeman's "slut" comment was part of the emphasis colleges have put on telling female students how to box themselves in safely—don't go here, don't do that—rather than telling male students not to rape: this is part of rape culture. But a nationwide movement organized by mostly female college students, many of them survivors of campus sexual assault, has sprung up to force change in the way universities deal with such assaults. As has a movement to address the epidemic of sexual assault in the military that has also succeeded in forcing real policy changes and prosecutions.
The new feminism is making the problems visible in new ways, perhaps in ways that are only possible now that so much has changed. A study of rape in Asia drew alarming conclusions about its widespread nature but also introduced the term "sexual entitlement" to explain why so much of it takes place. The report's author, Dr. Emma Fulu, said of rapists, "They believed they had the right to have sex with the woman regardless of consent." In other words, she had no rights. Where'd they learn that?
Feminism, as writer Marie Sheer remarked in 1986, "is the radical notion that women are people," a notion not universally accepted but spreading nonetheless. The changing conversation is encouraging, as is the growing engagement of men in feminism. There were always male supporters. When the first women's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, 32 of the 100 signers to its Declaration of Independence-echoing manifesto were men. Still, it was seen as a women's problem. Like racism, misogyny can never be adequately addressed by its victims alone. The men who get it also understand that feminism is not a scheme to deprive men but a campaign to liberate us all.
There's more that we need to be liberated from: maybe a system that prizes competition and ruthlessness and short-term thinking and rugged individualism, a system that serves environmental destruction and limitless consumption so well—that arrangement you can call capitalism. It embodies the worst of machismo while it destroys what's best on Earth. More men fit into it better, but it doesn't really serve any of us. You can look to movements, such as the Zapatista revolution, which has a broad ideology that includes feminist as well as environmental, economic, indigenous, and other perspectives. This may be the future of feminism that is not feminism alone. Or the present of feminism: the Zapatistas rose up in 1994 and are still going, as are myriad other projects to reimagine who we are, what we want, and how we might live.
When I attended a 2007 Zapatista encuentro in the Lacandon forest, focusing on women's voices and rights, at the end of 2007, women testified movingly about how their lives had changed when they had gained rights in the home and the community as part of their revolution. "We had no rights," one of them said of the era before the rebellion. Another testified, "The saddest part is that we couldn't understand our own difficulties, why we were being abused. No one had told us about our rights."
Here is that road, maybe a thousand miles long, and the woman walking down it isn't at mile one. I don't know how far she has to go, but I know she's not going backward, despite it all—and she's not walking alone. Maybe it's countless men and women and people with more interesting genders.
Here's the box Pandora held and the bottles the genies were released from; they look like prisons and coffins now. People die in this war, but the ideas cannot be erased.
This is the concluding essay in Rebecca Solnit's new book, Men Explain Things to Me (Dispatch Books, Haymarket Books), whose title comes from the essay (now updated) that Solnit published at TomDispatch in 2008, which has been making the rounds ever since.
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