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Why I am a feminist man

FeministManIn trying to understand the inhumanity of the sexual abuse he experienced as a young boy, Richard Jeffrey Newman found feminism to be the only politics that explicitly commits itself to a world in which that kind of inhumanity is no longer acceptable.

15 May 2011

The first time the old man who lived in the apart­ment at the top of the stair­case said hello to me, he stopped for a moment as we passed in the court­yard and smiled as if he’d known me my whole life. The sec­ond time, he did the same thing. By the third or fourth time, a rit­ual of greet­ing had grown between us.

When­ever we saw each other, he would smile and say hello first; I would smile, say the same thing back, and then, for a long silent moment, he would fix me with his gaze while I stood there, too hap­pily embar­rassed to move, wish­ing when he walked away that I’d done some­thing, any­thing, to pro­long our conversation.

I think of him as “the old man” because of how young I was when I met him?—?I was 13?—?but he was prob­a­bly not much older than the 49 years-old I am now, if that old, and so he was the per­fect age for me to see in him a pos­si­ble sur­ro­gate father.

My par­ents had sep­a­rated when I was three; my step­fa­ther had recently left us; and I was des­per­ate for some kind of pater­nal atten­tion and approval. So I was thrilled when the old man one day in late sum­mer did not keep walk­ing after our usual exchange, ask­ing me instead, “When am I going to see you?”

I fig­ured he was lonely, like Mrs. Schecht­man had been when she lived in the apart­ment next to his, and the thought of vis­it­ing with him like I used to visit with her made me happy. “Soon!” I answered.

Not too long after­wards, I was on my way out of our build­ing to meet my friends. The old man hap­pened to be walk­ing down the stair­case lead­ing from his apart­ment to the front door, which we reached at the same time.

As I went to turn the knob, he held the door shut with his left fore­arm, maneu­ver­ing me with his right till I stood face first in the cor­ner near the mail­boxes where the door frame met the wall. Cov­er­ing my body with his own, he ran his hands beneath my shirt and up the legs of my shorts; he groped my chest and belly, squeezed my butt, cupped my crotch, and he kept whis­per­ing hoarsely into my ear, over and over again, “When am I going to see you?”

I had no words for what he was doing, no train­ing such as young chil­dren get now in how to scream no! to scare off an attacker. All I could do was stand there till he was fin­ished; and when he was fin­ished, I ran. I don’t remem­ber how far or how long or in which direc­tion, but I ran as if I could leave my skin behind, as if run­ning would turn me into another per­son.

When I stopped run­ning, in the small park across the street from the Lutheran Church, I sat a long time with the knowl­edge that my run­ning had undone noth­ing, that my body was still the body he’d touched.

Even if I’d wanted to tell some­one?—?and I didn’t?—?I was sure no one would believe me, so I pre­tended noth­ing had hap­pened. When the old man passed me the next day and said hello, I said hello back the way I always did, forc­ing myself not to see the ironic twist he added to his smile.

After a cou­ple of more times, our hel­los began to feel nor­mal again, and I told myself that maybe it hadn’t hap­pened. Maybe he was just a lonely old man who liked to say hello, and as long as he stayed on his side of that hello, I felt?—?or, to be more accu­rate, I con­vinced myself that I was?—?safe.

Some weeks later, as I sat with my friends in front of our build­ing, the old man came home from food shop­ping and asked me to help him upstairs with the bags in his shop­ping cart. I wanted to say no, but I couldn’t. To do so would almost cer­tainly have raised ques­tions for my friends about why I was being so rude, and the last thing I wanted to do was explain myself to them.

So I took the bag he pointed to and fol­lowed him up to his apart­ment, where he opened the door and motioned me in ahead of him. The bag was heavy, so I stepped inside, think­ing I’d leave it by the door and get out as quickly as I could, but he was too fast for me.

As soon as the door shut behind him, he pushed the shop­ping cart to the side, took the bag from my arms and dropped it to the floor. The cans at the bot­tom landed with a crash that shook the whole apart­ment. Snaking his arms around my waist, he undid my belt and unzipped my pants, push­ing them down so they fell around my ankles.

All I could do was stand there, frozen to the spot where my feet had stopped mov­ing. He took me by the hand and led me to the couch against the wall. He sat down. Look­ing up at me with a wide smile?—?I have the dis­tinct mem­ory that he’d taken out his two front teeth?—?his eyes, at what I imag­ine must have been the fear in mine, grew ten­der. “You’ve never had a blowjob before, have you?” When I shook my head no, his voice filled with con­cern. “But don’t you want me to love you?”

In the silence with which I responded, he took my penis in his hands?—?I remem­ber think­ing his fin­gers were like a cage?—?and he told me how good it was, how beau­ti­ful and big, and then his own pants were down, and I was sit­ting on the couch, and his penis, large and pur­ple, hung in front of my face.

His voice came from some­where above me, urg­ing me to play with it, at least to touch it, and I don’t remem­ber if I did?—?no, at this point, my mem­ory goes white, like the blank space in a video of which a por­tion has been erased, though I can still feel his hands on the back of my head. Then I see myself walk­ing to the door, unlock­ing it, clos­ing it behind me, and some­how I am next in my bed, curled in the fetal posi­tion, where I stay until my mother calls me for dinner.

The next day, the old man saw me stand­ing by myself in front of our build­ing. He didn’t come close, just stood some dis­tance away and pleaded with me to go upstairs with him again. This time, he promised, would be dif­fer­ent. He would move more slowly, be more gen­tle. I said no, ignor­ing his fur­ther pleas until he left me alone, which he did for the rest of the time he lived in our build­ing.

I still nod­ded in recog­ni­tion if I was with some­one when he saw me?—?I did not want any­one won­der­ing why I didn’t?—?but oth­er­wise I did my best to ignore him, and he seemed con­tent to ignore me as well. Even­tu­ally, he moved away, and what he’d done to me receded even fur­ther into the silence I’d wrapped it in, and I pulled that silence around me like a pro­tec­tive cloak. No one else ever had to know.

Breaking the silence

The fab­ric of my silence started to fray when, at 19 years old, I read Adri­enne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets and Silence. At the time, I was inter­ested in Rich as a poet; I knew noth­ing about her as a fem­i­nist. Indeed, fem­i­nism itself was barely on my radar as some­thing with a sub­stan­tive rel­e­vance to my life, and so I was sur­prised to find myself enthralled and ener­gized by the polit­i­cal and explic­itly woman-centered con­tent of what I was read­ing. Then I came to this pas­sage from ‘Cary­atid: Two Columns’:

[T]aught to view our bod­ies as our total­ity, our gen­i­tals as our chief source of fas­ci­na­tion and value, many women have become dis­so­ci­ated from their own bodies…viewing them­selves as objects to be pos­sessed by men rather than as the sub­jects of an existence.

As soon as I read those words, a small voice in my head began to speak. “But what about me?” it wanted to know. “What about what hap­pened to me?” I sought out other fem­i­nist texts and read vora­ciously, dis­cov­er­ing in the fem­i­nist analy­sis of men’s sex­ual vio­lence against women a vocab­u­lary for nam­ing what the old man in my build­ing had done to me as the vio­la­tion it was.

More impor­tantly, though, being able to name what he did made it pos­si­ble for me to tell oth­ers, and when telling them did not bring the roof of the world crash­ing down around my head, I found the strength I needed to con­front my abuse more fully by going to coun­sel­ing. In a very real sense, then, I owe to fem­i­nism what­ever heal­ing I have achieved.

If I stopped here, even those of you totally opposed to fem­i­nism would prob­a­bly be nod­ding your heads. “Of course you’re a fem­i­nist. It makes per­fect sense.”

Yet to stop here would be to reduce fem­i­nism to a kind of self-help ide­ol­ogy, implic­itly deny­ing that fem­i­nism is also a pol­i­tics. More to the point, it would be to gloss over the fact that com­mit­ting myself to those pol­i­tics has been part and par­cel of my healing.

Not too long after I first read Adri­enne Rich’s essay, I was work­ing as a sum­mer camp super­vi­sor in New York’s Hud­son Val­ley. The leader of a train­ing ses­sion we were required to attend told us he would use the word she as the generic pro­noun when dis­cussing how to deal with campers who might choose to tell us that they’d been sex­u­ally abused.

Since most abuse hap­pened to girls, he explained, refer­ring to both boys and girls as vic­tims would give us a skewed pic­ture of real­ity, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for us to respond appro­pri­ately. I felt like I’d been punched in the stom­ach. It wasn’t just that he so blithely dis­missed my expe­ri­ence.

What he said seemed to imply that the sex­ual abuse of boys and the sex­ual abuse of girls were so rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent in nature that we could not talk about them in the same con­text. If that were true, it called into ques­tion every­thing I thought I’d been learn­ing from fem­i­nism, sug­gest­ing that the strength I’d been draw­ing from that learn­ing was based on a false premise.

My body rebelled at this idea. Each time I tried to tell myself that the ses­sion leader was right?—?because the weight of his exper­tise made it hard to think he wasn’t?—?I wanted to crawl out of my skin no dif­fer­ently than I had after the first time the old man in my build­ing touched me.

Still, there was no deny­ing that the books I was read­ing said not one word about my expe­ri­ence. Girls and women were abused and exploited in those pages, not boys, and cer­tainly not men. I’d found myself in Rich’s essay, in other words, as well as in the other fem­i­nists texts I was read­ing, through a process of anal­ogy.

Gendered expectations

To take another instance from ‘Cary­atid: Two Columns’, when Rich wrote about how the val­ues of our cul­ture “equat[e]…manhood…with the objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of another’s per­son and the dom­i­na­tion of another’s body,” I under­stood her to be describ­ing, with a chill­ing accu­racy, what the old man in my build­ing had done to me, even though she was talk­ing explic­itly about men’s sex­ual objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of women.

This anal­ogy only grew stronger as I began to see very pre­cise par­al­lels between the old man’s method of “seduc­ing” me?—?because that’s what I think he thought he was doing?–?and the meth­ods for get­ting women into bed that some of my male friends talked about using.

I remem­ber, for exam­ple, a dorm room con­ver­sa­tion from when I was an under­grad­u­ate. The “stud” among us?–?call him Liam?–?was talk­ing about the kind of women with whom sex­ual suc­cess mat­tered to him the most. These were, he said, the women who resisted, the ones who made him work for it, forc­ing him to prove that he could bend them to his will?—?I think he actu­ally used those words?—?because get­ting them to have sex with him made him feel most like a man.

As Liam described how he sized such women up, I sud­denly real­ized that the old man in my build­ing had sized me up as well, that he had to have been watch­ing me before the first time he said hello. I was a shy, awk­ward and needy kid, so he gave me the kind of atten­tion that would make me feel noticed and that I would there­fore want more of.

Liam talked about this as the “stage of flat­tery.” Then, once the old man could see in me a grow­ing desire for his atten­tion, he must have assumed that I also desired (per­haps with­out real­iz­ing it) every­thing else he wanted to “give” me as well.

Accord­ing to Liam, a woman who resisted at this stage really wanted sex but was afraid of being labeled “easy.” She needed to be “taken,” he said, so she could give up her self-con­trol with­out feel­ing guilty. Fol­low­ing what I am sure was a sim­i­lar logic, the old man used the force he thought was nec­es­sary to push me past the fear he believed was keep­ing me from express­ing my true desire. How else to explain the ques­tion he asked me before my mem­ory goes blank, “But don’t you want me to love you?”

Iron­i­cally, this par­al­lel between the two men was com­fort­ing. It affirmed for me that there was no rea­son to believe my expe­ri­ence of abuse dif­fered in any essen­tial way from the expe­ri­ence of a girl or woman whom a man had sim­i­larly vio­lated. The ses­sion leader had to have been wrong.

Yet there was also no avoid­ing the fact that the fem­i­nists I was read­ing placed me as a man in the same cat­e­gory as the two men I have been talk­ing about. Here, again, from ‘Cary­atid: Two Columns’, is Adri­enne Rich:

Rape is the ulti­mate out­ward phys­i­cal act of coer­cion and deper­son­al­iza­tion prac­ticed on women by men. Most male readers…would per­haps deny hav­ing gone so far: the hon­est would admit to fan­tasies, urges of lust and hatred, or lust and fear, or to a “harm­less” fas­ci­na­tion with pornog­ra­phy and sadis­tic art.

I was fas­ci­nated by pornog­ra­phy; I had fan­tasies that com­bined lust and fear; and it was impos­si­ble to miss the cyn­i­cal accu­sa­tion in Rich’s use of the word “per­haps.” More tellingly, though, and damn­ingly, I had to admit that when Liam explained what it took for him to feel sex­u­ally like a man, I could not help but mea­sure myself against the stan­dard he set. I didn’t have a girl­friend at the time, and I wasn’t hav­ing sex, and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t some­times make me feel inad­e­quate.

How­ever, it was only after I met a woman who rejected me because I was not “man enough” in pre­cisely Liam’s terms that I began to under­stand how fully the sex­ual val­ues to which he sub­scribed were also val­ues I had in me, whether I wanted them or not.

I met “Ling” through one of her suit­e­m­ates, “Denise,” who sat next to me in the class I was tak­ing on Shakespeare’s come­dies. The three of us spent an after­noon talk­ing and jok­ing in the library when we were sup­posed to be study­ing, and we hit it off so well that soon I was walk­ing across cam­pus a cou­ple of times a week to hang out with them and “Naomi,” the third woman with whom they lived.

Some­times, if I stayed too late, I’d sleep on the couch in their suite and go back to my own dorm in the morn­ing. One such night, Ling and I stayed up talk­ing on that couch. I don’t remem­ber a sin­gle thing we said except for the fact that she told me about her expe­ri­ence emi­grat­ing as a young girl from China to the United States, but I know I felt good as I walked back to my dorm the next morn­ing. I liked Ling a lot, and I hoped that our talk­ing might lead to a roman­tic relationship.

The day after that, I saw Ling on cam­pus walk­ing with Naomi past the library. I called out to them and ran over to say hello. Instead of say­ing hello back, how­ever, they started mock­ing me, call­ing me “lit­tle boy” and “cow­ard.”

I couldn’t imag­ine they were doing any­thing other than jok­ing with me, so I started to laugh with them. When I tried to ask Ling how she did on the test she’d had that morn­ing, though, the two women backed away, laugh­ing even harder and hold­ing up their hands to tell me I shouldn’t come any closer. I was con­fused.

I called that night, but Denise told me Ling wasn’t there and that it would prob­a­bly be a good idea if I didn’t call again. Ling had been very insulted that not once dur­ing the time we were talk­ing on the couch did I even try to kiss her. I called a cou­ple of more times after that, hop­ing I’d be able to tell Ling how much I really did like her, but the one time I got her on the phone she was so clearly not inter­ested in talk­ing to me that I stopped call­ing. I nei­ther saw nor spoke to her again.

I was heart­bro­ken. More than that, though, I was angry and ashamed. I replayed the whole night over and over in my mind, try­ing to fig­ure out which raised eye­brow or touch on my arm or sig­nif­i­cant gaze I should have under­stood as Ling’s cue that it was time for me to kiss her.

I just could not see what she clearly thought should have been obvi­ous. I tried to imag­ine how the night might have gone dif­fer­ently, cre­at­ing a sce­nario in which I leaned over and kissed Ling gen­tly at the edge of her mouth, as if I’d been aim­ing for her cheek and missed. She sat back, looked at me for a long moment, and then, of course, kissed me in return.

Each time I played this scene in my head, how­ever, my anger and shame only increased. I still didn’t under­stand how I was sup­posed to have known that Ling wanted me to kiss her. As my sense of inad­e­quacy grew, the sting of Ling’s mock­ery grew as well, and I started to think that maybe I was indeed no bet­ter than the weak, cow­ardly and inef­fec­tual lit­tle boy she and her friend had told me that I was.

Once again, though, my body rebelled, and a nau­sea rose in me. Instead of mak­ing me want to crawl out of my own skin, though, this nau­sea was accom­pa­nied by a rage that pro­pelled me past Ling’s skin and into her body. Now, in the scenes I played in my head, I saw myself “tak­ing her” the way Liam had described “tak­ing” women who were afraid of seem­ing too “easy,” except I didn’t real­ize I was fol­low­ing Liam’s script.

Then, once, as I imag­ined myself putting my hands on either side of Ling’s face to hold her still while I kissed her, I had a sense mem­ory of the old man in my build­ing putting his hands on the back of my head to pull my mouth towards him.

I was mor­ti­fied. I spent the rest of that day alone, try­ing every­thing I could think of to twist what I had imag­ined into a shape that was not what it was: pre­cisely the kind of rape fan­tasy that Adri­enne Rich had writ­ten about. The fact that Ling might truly have wanted me to “take her”?—?whatever “tak­ing” might have meant to her?—?was beside the point.

What mat­tered was that I’d imag­ined myself “tak­ing her” out of rage, to prove I was a man, not in response to any­thing I knew about Ling’s actual feel­ings or desires. In Rich’s words, I had “equat[ed my]…manhood…with the objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of another’s per­son and the dom­i­na­tion of another’s body.”

I swore I would do every­thing in my power to unlearn that equation.

Why I am a feminist man

At the heart of my fem­i­nism, then, is a para­dox. On the one hand, as a sur­vivor of male sex­ual vio­lence, I stand with women against the cul­ture of man­hood which pro­duces that vio­lence and which the vio­lence in turn per­pet­u­ates.

On the other hand, as a man, I am?—?I have no choice but to be?—?impli­cated in that vio­lence.

The chal­lenge with which fem­i­nism con­fronts me is to make sure that I never allow myself to stand on the same side as my abuser. Meet­ing this chal­lenge has not been easy. It is often uncom­fort­able to call other men out on their sex­ism; and it can be sim­i­larly uncom­fort­able when some­one calls me out on mine.

Per­haps the most dif­fi­cult thing, how­ever, has been resist­ing the temp­ta­tion to wear my sex­ual abuse as a badge of dif­fer­ence, as if hav­ing been forcibly pen­e­trated by another man?—?because I am con­vinced that what I can­not fully remem­ber did in fact hap­pen?—?had some­how emp­tied me of the man­hood I was try­ing to prove in my fan­tasy with Ling, the same man­hood that Liam val­ued so highly and that is at the root of male sex­ual violence.

Because I have been coerced into the posi­tion that this kind of man­hood usu­ally reserves for women, in other words, it is easy to feel that my rela­tion­ship to this man­hood is essen­tially the same as a woman’s.

Yet what­ever else may be true about the fact that I was sex­u­ally abused, the social and cul­tural con­text in which that abuse exists does not por­tray either the boy I was or the man I am as a sex­ual object in the way that it per­va­sively por­trays women.

Nor am I sub­jected to the daily depre­da­tions of misog­yny and dis­crim­i­na­tion, indi­vid­ual and insti­tu­tional, that women expe­ri­ence because of their sta­tus as sex­ual objects. Finally, because I am a het­ero­sex­ual man, there is no escap­ing the fact that both the plea­sure this objec­ti­fi­ca­tion is designed to deliver and the advan­tages it is sup­posed to con­fer are meant quite explic­itly for me.

It is, in other words, as if there are two voices speak­ing within me: the voice of the man who is try­ing to own up to and change the cul­ture of male sex­ual vio­lence and the voice of the man who, as that culture’s vic­tim, feels like he has noth­ing to own up to.

Inte­grat­ing these two voices has been the defin­ing chal­lenge of my life, per­son­ally, pro­fes­sion­ally and cre­atively. I called my first book of poetry The Silence of Men because I was break­ing the silence in my life that had resulted from keep­ing these two voices sep­a­rate.

More, I hoped my poems would speak to and for men whose lives were shot through with a sim­i­lar silence. Writ­ing essays like this one also lets each of the men inside me have his say, allow­ing me to speak about what the old man in my build­ing did to me, while still doing jus­tice to the com­plex rela­tion­ship between who I am because of what he did and the man I have been taught I am sup­posed to be.

Fem­i­nism showed me how to con­nect the old man’s inhu­man­ity to the inhu­man­ity of what I have been taught; and fem­i­nism is the only pol­i­tics I can name that explic­itly com­mits itself to a world in which that kind of inhu­man­ity is no longer accept­able. That is why I am a fem­i­nist man.

Richard Newman is an author, blogger and Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Nas­sau Com­mu­nity Col­lege in Gar­den City, New York, where he coor­di­nates the Cre­ative Writ­ing Project.

His include The Silence Of Men (CavanKerry Press, 2006), a book of his own poems, as well as Selec­tions from Saadi’s Gulis­tan and Selec­tions from Saadi’s Bus­tan (Global Schol­arly Pub­li­ca­tions, 2004 & 2006 respec­tively), trans­la­tions of two mas­ter­pieces of 13th-cen­tury Iran­ian poetry. He also co-translated with Pro­fes­sor John Moyne all of the poetry in A Bird in the Gar­den of Angels (Mazda Pub­lish­ers, 2008), a selec­tion of work by Rumi, also from 13th-cen­tury Iran. The Teller of Tales, a trans­la­tion of part of the Shah­nameh, the Per­sian national epic, is forth­com­ing in Spring 2011 from Junc­tion Press. As an edi­tor, Richard was respon­si­ble for the spe­cial Iranian-literature  issue of the online jour­nal ArteEast Quar­terly, It Deserves and Should Com­mand Your Atten­tion.

Richard served as Per­sian Arts Festival’s first Lit­er­ary Arts Direc­tor, and he con­tin­ues to co-curate the monthly Shab-e She’r (Night of Per­sian Poetry) that Per­sian Arts Fes­ti­val holds from Sep­tem­ber through June at the Bow­ery Poetry Club. He cur­rently sits on the advi­sory boards of The Trans­la­tion Project and Jack­son Heights Poetry Fes­ti­val, and is listed as a speaker with the New York Coun­cil for the Human­i­ties.

This article was first published on The Take­back and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.



0 #1 Jo 2011-05-17 08:51
Thank you Richard - beautifully written and very thought-provoki ng.

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