The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.
As I was packing to move last week, I discovered a shirt I used to love to wear but had not put on in a little over a year. It was a deafening neon skin-baring tank top with a picture of a woman petting a cat on the front. The woman was topless and above her were the words “protect your pussy”. It was gross, objectifying, sexist and humorous only to the most childish of pubescent boys. I remembered with disgust how it used to be my relaxation shirt, worn almost every lazy Sunday, and I tossed it in the trash.
I used to call myself a feminist. I read bell hooks and took gender and sexuality courses and spoke out against street harassment. I acknowledged rape culture, male privilege and patriarchal systems of oppression, and I genuinely believed in gender equality. According to Merriam-Webster, feminism is defined as “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities,” and I subscribe to that belief. But what is a belief without knowledge of how to put it into practice?
As I wrote about previously, my journey to understanding the depth of gender inequality was not quick and painless. Only last year did I decide to actively eliminate sexist slurs from my vocabulary. Yet, just this past week I caught a “bitch” deviously sliding from my mouth. That is to say, my journey is not complete – not by a long shot.
For me to claim to be a feminist feels like a denial that my understanding of gender equality is incomplete. That claim, to me, is rooted in the assumption that just thinking about inequality is enough, without exploring the implications of those thoughts. It is self-congratulatory in a way that I have found much of allyship – it lives for the pats on the back that men inevitably receive for being the rare guy that “gets it”. It doesn’t acknowledge the privilege of receiving attention for speaking about gender issues when a woman who says the same would be ignored. It excuses mistakes like my loud neon tank top and shields the mind from serious challenges to entrenched sexism and misogyny.
I am not a feminist. I find myself more comfortably identified using a term coined by writer, educator and activist junior burchall – I am a recovering misogynist.
Feminism was created by women. It was bled and died for by women. It was adapted and forced to evolve by women. Audre Lorde was a feminist/womanist. Alice Walker is. Bell hooks is. I cannot, in good conscience, place myself in the same category as them. For me, claiming feminism is to co-opt an experience and a fight I could never know the depth of, and one for which I have many times been an antagonist. How can I be a feminist, how can I be like Lorde and Walker and hooks, when I have and continue to perpetuate the very oppression they lived to eradicate?
It’s ludicrous to believe that as a cisgender man, I haven’t internalized and adopted the systematic sexism I have been witness to. It’s even more ludicrous to believe that without needing to actively challenge this system – sexism does benefit me, after all – I could ever come to knowing exactly how it must be challenged, at least and especially not after only 23 years. I must be deprogrammed. I must recover. And, like alcoholism, sexism is a disease that I believe lives with you forever.
My identification with the term “recovering misogynist”, like most things that men do in relationship to systematic sexism, is on some level selfish. When I first heard burchall use it in a discussion, I felt a burden lifted. If I was recovering, I no longer had to have all the answers. I could make mistakes. I could apologize for them. I could take a step back. I could ask more questions and find more answers, and all the while my commitment to gender equality was not imperiled. I was free.
I don’t claim to speak for every man. I don’t deny that some men may have a different relationship to the word “feminist”, and that their understanding of it allows them to comfortably fit into that identity. This is for the men who hear male feminist or womanist, or male ally, and find it inadequate. Here is to our recovery.