If the feminist men—the men who proudly declare their progressive politics and their fight for quality—aren’t safe, then what man is? No man, I fear.
I have two sons. They are strong and compassionate—the kind of boys other parents are glad to meet when their daughters bring them home for dinner. They are good boys, in the ways good boys are, but they are not safe boys. I’m starting to believe there’s no such thing.
I wrote an essay in The Washington Post last year, during the height of the Brock Turner case, about my sons and rape culture. I didn’t think it would be controversial when I wrote it; I was sure most parents grappled with raising sons in the midst of rape culture. The struggle I wrote about was universal, I thought, but I was wrong. My essay went semi-viral, and for the first time my sons encountered my words about them on their friends’ phones, their teachers’ computers, and even overheard them discussed by strangers on a crowded metro bus. It was one thing to agree to be written about in relative obscurity, and quite another thing to have my words intrude on their daily lives.
One of my sons was hurt by my words, although he’s never told me so. He doesn’t understand why I lumped him and his brother together in my essay. He sees himself as the “good” one, the one who is sensitive and thoughtful, and who listens instead of reacts. He doesn’t understand that even quiet misogyny is misogyny, and that not all sexists sound like Twitter trolls. He is angry at me now, although he won’t admit that either, and his anger led him to conservative websites and YouTube channels; places where he can surround himself with righteous indignation against feminists, and tell himself it’s ungrateful women like me who are the problem.
I teeter frequently between supporting my son and educating him. Is it my job as his mother to ensure he feels safe emotionally, no matter what violence he spews? Is it my job as his mother to steer and educate, no matter how much that education challenges his view of himself? I think it’s both, but the balance between the two has proven impossible to pinpoint. When I hear his voice become defensive, I back off but question whether I’m doing him any favors by allowing his perception of himself to go unchallenged. When I confront him with his own sexism, I question whether I’m pushing too hard and leaving him without an emotional safe space in his home.
As a single mother, I sometimes wonder whether the real problem is that my sons have no role models for the type of men I hope they become. But when I look around at the men I know, I’m not sure a male partner would fill that hole. Where are these men who are enlightened but not arrogant? Who are feminists without self-congratulation? If my sons need role models, they may have to become their own.
I joined Bumble recently, after a six-plus year break from dating. I’m not overly interested in dating in the first place, but I’m starved for adult conversation so dating feels like a necessary evil. Bumble, as I explained to my married friends, is like the feminist Tinder. Women have to initiate contact with men, so at least there’s no inbox full of dick picks every day. But, feminist or not, the men are no different from the men anywhere else and I quickly felt deflated. If the feminist men — the men who proudly declare their progressive politics and their fight for quality — aren’t safe, then what man is? No man, I fear.
I know I’m not supposed to cast an entire sex with a single paint brush — not all men, I’m sure some readers are thinking and preparing to type or tweet. But if it’s impossible for a white person to grow up without adopting racist ideas, simply because of the environment in which they live, how can I expect men not to subconsciously absorb at least some degree of sexism? White people aren’t safe, and men aren’t safe, no matter how much I’d like to assure myself that these things aren’t true.
My sons won’t rape unconscious women behind a dumpster, and neither will most of the progressive men I know. But what all of these men share in common, even my sons, is a relentless questioning and disbelief of the female experience. I do not want to prove my pain, or provide enough evidence to convince anyone that my trauma is merited. I’m through wasting my time on people who are more interested in ideas than feelings, and I’m through pretending these people, these men, are safe.
I love my sons, and I love some individual men. It pains me to say that I don’t feel emotionally safe with them, and perhaps never have with a man, but it needs to be said because far too often we are afraid to say it. This is not a reflection of something broken or damaged in me; it is a reflection of the systems we build and our boys absorb. Those little boys grow into men who know the value of women, the value that’s been ascribed to us by a broken system, and it seeps out from them in a million tiny, toxic ways.
I don’t know what the balance is between supporting these men and educating them, but I know the toll it takes on me to try. I am too valuable and too worthy to waste my time on men who are not my flesh and blood. But as my boys grow into men, I wonder whether I’ve done enough to combat the messages they hear from everyone but me. They are good boys, and maybe that’s the best they can be in the system we’ve created for them.