Among the profeminist activists who appear in the new book, Some Men, are, from the left: Paul Kivel, Emiliano Diaz de Leon, Craig Norberg-Bohm, Quentin Walcott, and Gilbert Salazar.
What does it mean for men to ally with women to stop gender-based violence? This is the central question Mike Messner, Max Greenberg, and Tal Peretz tackle in their new book Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women.
This book is based on interviews with 52 North American men anti-violence activists aged 22–70, and 12 North American women who work with these men. Messner, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, and his coauthors (colleagues who are former graduate students of his) explore the opportunities, strains and tensions in men’s work to prevent sexual assault and domestic violence. The trio analyzed the continuities and changes across three cohorts of men: the “movement cohort,” men who engaged in antiviolence activism during the height of the women’s movement in the 1970s and early 1980s (including well-known activists like Michael Kaufman, Allan Creighton, Paul Kivel, Craig Norberg-Bohm and Don Conway-Long, as well other profeminist activist pioneers); the “bridge cohort”—men like Jackson Katz, David Lee, Gary Barker, and, later, Tony Porter—engaged during the mid-1980s through the 1990s, when feminism was in decline as a mass movement and was simultaneously becoming more institutionalized in community nonprofits and the state; finally, the “professional cohort,” an increasingly diverse group of younger men—like Emiliano Diaz de Leon, Sean Tate, Robbie Samuels, and Rob Beulow—are engaging today during a time when anti-violence work is increasingly institutionalized, professionalized and marketized.
In the following edited excerpt, the introduction to the book’s penultimate chapter, Messner, Greenberg, and Peretz draw from their interview with veteran feminist activist Phyllis Frank to reflect on a key question: what does it mean for a man to be an accountable profeminist ally?
Earning Your Ally Badge
Over the past four decades a succession of men have joined with feminist women, seeking to be allies in working to stop rape and domestic violence. From the start, these men were few in number, though in recent years their numbers have grown.
And from the start, men’s “upstream” violence prevention work has been fraught with contradiction. When men work to prevent sexual assault and domestic violence, they are simultaneously enabled and constrained, rewarded and criticized, given premature star status and critically scrutinized, all due to the fact that they are men carving out space as feminist allies, doing work previously assumed to be the province of women.
Feminist activist Phyllis Frank has for decades been a catalyst—mentoring, criticizing and encouraging men who enter the field. Several of the men we interviewed expressed appreciation to Frank for the energy, intelligence and passion with which she has mentored them. She was one of the first feminist activists to embrace the importance and necessity of men’s violence prevention work, and more broadly in working with men as feminist allies. But she is also well aware of the built-in contradictions of men’s ally work.
Once, she told us, she took a phone call from a distraught woman, the partner of a man in her batterers’ program. “She was saying to me ‘I need you to fix him, I need you to get him to stop. You gotta do something.’” The woman was crying, Frank recalled, and “my heart was breaking,” but on the spot, Frank drew from her years of experience in talking with women who were in abusive relationships: And what I said to her, which is the truth as best I know it, is that “I so wish that I could do that, but there is nothing that I can do that will guarantee or even make it most likely that he’s going to stop being abusive to you. Even if he stops hitting you, he will still likely be assaultive or horrible to you.” She screamed at me, literally at the top of her lungs: “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it. You’re taking away my hope!’ And in that moment I said, “Oh, please, I don’t want to take away your hope. Even hospice tells us not to stop hoping. But it is crucial that you make your plans based on the man you know you have, not on the one you hope he someday will become.”
Frank realized that her spontaneous advice—to “make your plans based on the man you have, not on the one you hope he someday will become”—was an “elegant turn of a word” based on her years of experience in shelters and hotlines, taking “hundreds of calls from women.” Subsequently, she taught this statement to everyone in her program, including a man she was mentoring who later went on to become a “famous” violence preventionist. “[He] worked very closely with me, and actually affirmed what a wonderful statement that was, because I do trainings all the time. And several years later, I got a newsletter, because he’s now famous and I’m not—he’s far more famous than I am—and he’s quoted in the newsletter with that quote.” Frank’s feelings were mixed. It was good to see her idea being widely disseminated. But it also rankled that the man implicitly took credit for the idea. “It was very painful for him not to say, ‘Phyllis Frank once taught me this.’”
Phyllis Frank told this story not because she is someone who demands praise or fame for coming up with a good idea, but because it served as an example of both the promise and the dangers of men’s growing presence and public stature as anti-violence leaders. Men, because of their privileged social positions as men, are more likely than women to be listened to when they speak out against violence against women. And everyone in the field—including especially the women who have labored so long doing the downstream work with survivors of men’s violence—agrees that it’s crucially important for boys and men to hear the anti-violence message conveyed by these male allies. But men’s growing visibility and status also risks rendering women’s historical roles as activists, institution-builders and mentors less visible, their voices silenced. Frank described this paradox as a “slippery slope of a problem.”
Men are getting involved in greater numbers. Many men are getting involved and making money, and I always worry about capitalizing and making money on things that women have been doing and saying for a long time and not making money, so that’s kind of a negative. Men get more appreciation—listened to better, often credited with what women have said—that happens over and over again. But the truth is, they are saying something incredibly important for men to say. So, you kind of [say], “Alright, alright.”
Phyllis Frank’s refrain—“Alright, alright”—captures the collective sense of the women we interviewed, that while men’s growing presence in the antiviolence field can be problematic, their work also plays a crucially important role.
To put it simply, and as many women stated it, “We need men as allies.” What does it mean to be an ally?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition (“a person or group that gives help to another person or group”) tends to imply a symmetry that does not pertain with social movement allies. Sociologist Daniel Myers argues that in social movements there is a built-in asymmetry between beneficiaries (“rank-and-file activists who hail from the population that would expect or wish to benefit from the movement’s activities”) and allies (“movement adherents who are not direct beneficiaries of the movements they support and do not have expectations of such benefits”). Allies “share a political stance” with movement beneficiaries, and “define problems and solutions similarly,” but they “have a different field to negotiate.” As “insideroutsiders” in the movement, Myers explains, allies “are members of the activist community but not members of the beneficiary population that underlies the collective activist identity and in fact they are, by definition, part of the enemy.”
Whites who ally with people of color to stop racism, heterosexuals who ally with GLBTQ people to oppose homophobia and heteronormativity, and men who ally with women against the various manifestations of patriarchy are aware that as movement “insideroutsiders” they are not working on a level playing field. In particular, such activists are beginning from a position of privilege that, by the very terms of calling themselves “allies,” implies that their actions aim to undermine and end these privileges. So even though the identity “ally” might carry some morally positive weight—one is, after all, working to make the world a more peaceful, just and egalitarian place—it also necessarily includes some morally ambiguous baggage that raises critical questions and scrutiny concerning the depth of an ally’s commitments to social change. Sociologist Matthew Hughey observed, for instance, that white anti-racism activists’ identities are premised on what he calls “stigma allure,” where allies operate from an understanding of “whiteness as racist,” and “manage selfperceptions of stigma by not only accepting a ‘spoiled’ identity…but by embracing stigma in forms of dishonor, pathology, and dysfunction as markings of moral commitment and political authenticity.” We heard some such expressions of “spoiled” and stigmatized “masculinity-assexism” from the men in our study, but this was far more common among the men of the Movement Cohort.
Joined at the hip as they were with the highly politicized feminist movements of the 1970s and early 1980s, these men’s self-definitions and their outreach to boys and men in those early years were often couched in terms of male shame. By the 1990s, men’s anti-violence activism had stretched away (though it never fully disconnected) from this politicized feminism, and from anti-violence strategies that emphasized the refutation of masculinity. The pathways and actions of the Bridge Cohort and the Professional Cohort were shaped increasingly by medicalized and professionalized discourses and pragmatic strategies premised on creating honorable definitions of “good men” and “healthy masculinity.” By the late 1990s, with these positive self-definitions built in to curricula (e.g., the bystander approach), men doing anti-violence work could increasingly distance themselves from stigma and male shame. This had the effect of broadening the appeal of anti-violence work for men, and as we shall see, helped to open the gates for a few men to become “stars” in the violence prevention field.
The men we interviewed took seriously the question of what it means to be an accountable ally. A common theme in discussing the issue was the acknowledgement that being an ally is an ongoing process, not the outcome of a single action or public proclamation.
Ben Atherton-Zeman said that he learned long ago that being an ally is “a concept and a goal, certainly rather than something I can achieve, like ‘Okay, now I’m accountable.’” Atherton-Zeman was one of two men—Joe Samalin being the other—who said he learned a powerful lesson from an ally statement put out some years ago by the Women of Color Caucus of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Basically it says, “Your ally badge, as whites, as men, you gotta’ give it back at the end of every day. You give it back, and you earn it the next day.” So it’s not like I have the badge and I’m done. It’s the same with accountability. For me, accountability means that if I have this great idea, the local program and the state coalition don’t like it, I don’t do it. It means that, for most decisions, I run them by someone like a Phyllis Frank or a Suzanne Pharr or a Rose Geary before I actually do it.
For a longtime movement veteran like Atherton-Zeman, the idea that one never fully and finally earns his “ally badge”—that you have to “earn it [again] the next day”—serves as a powerful reminder of what it means to be an accountable ally. …But what does this idea of accountability mean, and how does it play out, when, as is increasingly the case today, “the community” is large-scale organizations like organized sports and the military—still largely male-run hierarchical institutions whose purpose is to train young men to deploy valorized forms of violence?
Michael A. Messner is a professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California. Max A. Greenberg is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Southern California. Tal Peretz is a lecturer in sociology at Seattle University.