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Dear Cis Men: You’re Not the Exception

The more I have informal conversations about the current moment in feminism, focused on sexual harassment and assault, abuse of power, and female bodily autonomy, the more I realize just how disconnected many cis men feel from the problems, or the solutions.

A couple of days ago, I posted the following public post on my Facebook page directed at any and all cisgender men in who happen upon it. It read:

Dear Cis Men: You’ve been uncomfortable & pained & nervous & scared for what? A MONTH? I. Do. Not. Feel. Bad. For. You. Call me when it’s been most of recorded time. THEN we get to “skip this part.” Until then? This moment is happening. Let it seep in. Learn from it.

ADDENDUM: That means you, too, queer men, men of color, and men at other intersections. The areas in which you don’t have privilege do not absolve you of having work to do. Because guess what? There are women at those intersections, too, and we don’t have the luxury of putting sexism on the backburner while tending to those other struggles.

That particular post got two very different responses from the men in my feed.

The trans men (and non-binary folks w/masculine-passing privilege) were the ones who were the most self-reflective, making note of the fact that, very often, trans men can be complicit in the toxic masculinity that contributes to things like sexual harassment and assault, because it allows them to pass better and be considered “more of a man.” That, coupled with having cis men to point to as the “real problem,” very often means that this behavior is going unchecked, and my trans masc friends want to ensure that neither they, nor their fellow trans men, get off the hook, so to speak.

And then there are my cis male friends, most of whom are feminist (or trying to be), because I choose my friends well. For the most part, these are men who “get it.” Who are solid allies, and who continually ask the right questions and learn what they can in order to “do better.” And yet, in the comments on this particular post, they demonstrated the very behavior that my trans masc friends were warning against. The idea that they are “the good ones,” and that the problem lies with “those men” over there.

One friend of mine said, “As a guy who’s never been “cool” enough to get away with harassing women, I really don’t get how men have gotten away with this for millennia…but I’m glad the cool guys are getting bitchslapped now.” He then went on to say, “I guess having awesome women in my life…taught me to have respect for women, which apparently makes me a unicorn.”

Another friend wondered what it was that he was supposed to be nervous about, and when a female friend explained “That you’ll be accused of sexual harassment or assault because women can’t be trusted. And that you now have to be hyper-vigilant to make sure you aren’t doing anything considered harassment or assault,” he replied with, “I’ve managed to avoid it so far. I figured out the trick a few years ago.”

image: Lobro/Shutterstock definition of sex object

In a completely unrelated Facebook post, a cis, male, bisexual friend of mine talked about the fact that one issue that men have to deal with is that they were never taught how to be friends with women. That every woman is a potential mate, and so to be a woman’s “friend” is the worst thing to be, because it means that you’ve failed at your manly task of acquiring a mate.

He said that, as a bi man, he’s been starting to deprogram a lot of that thinking, because now men are included in the “potential mate” category, but this allows him to see how screwed up he’s been allowed to be before coming out as bi. He was also someone who always had more female friends than male friends, and his other cis, straight, male friends would always give him crap for it, and see his not trying to have sex with these women as making him either straight-up gay, or a loser.

In the comments, another man replied that, “I think it’s because too many men learn to resent women who want them as friends, want the intimacy and the attention but not the sex. Too many men wind up being surrogate a-sexual emotional boyfriends under the guise of being just friends.”

SIGH. So many things…

What all of these comments and ways of thinking have in common, is that they demonstrate that even the most “well-meaning” cis man engages in ways of thinking and framing their words that contribute to sexism and rape culture, even as they’re decrying it.

And I GET IT. No one wants to be part of the problem. Here’s the thing with systemic problems, though. Every part of that system can be a part of the problem.

My trans friends wondered why I singled out cis men, when trans men contribute to the problem, too. I did that, because I don’t consider non-binary folks or trans men as a part of what I’m talking about. To me, having masculine privilege as a trans person is very, very different than having cis male privilege, much in the same way that being a white Latinx or Jewish is different than actually having “white privilege.” It’s good and necessary to be mindful of the privilege, but “passing” privilege is totally conditional and a “gift” of the patriarchy meant to ultimately benefit cis white men the most.

All privilege needs to be examined and reckoned with. Cis men simply have the most privilege and the largest platform from which to do the most damage.

In a sexist and racist society, there isn’t a single person who doesn’t have work to do. I mean, hell, women are complicit in sexism in many ways, too, but I wouldn’t put the bulk of the blame at their feet, or expect them to do a bulk of the work.

By all means, trans men, get to work. Everyone gets to share a little in the blame, but whose responsibility is it to take on most of the work? Cis men. This isn’t letting trans men off the hook. It’s simply acknowledging that a big reason why trans men feel the need to overcompensate with toxic masculinity is because of the sexism cis men benefit from the most.

And what do I want to say to my cis male friends and allies? I say this with all the love of in my heart: You are not the exception. Stop thinking of yourself as above or separate from the problem, and start looking at your own behavior. Because guess what? Everyone else is touching their nose and saying “not it!” too. If all of you “aren’t part of the problem,” maybe that means that all of you are.

To those cis men who see the current moment as the “cool” guys getting their comeuppance: That’s not what this moment is about. “Getting” to sexually harass and get away with it is not a thing (and it’s certainly not a thing you should sound like you aspire to!). It’s about all men learning how their treatment of women, in large ways and small, contributes to a culture where this is okay and then changing that behavior.

Because believe it or not, it’s not just “powerful” men or “hot” men who harass women. Plenty of unattractive, entry-level dudes harass women. It has nothing to do with whether a guy has a cool job or clout or is conventionally attractive – we’re only hearing about those because they’re in the public eye. It has to do with too many men feeling too entitled to the “services” of women. Our attention isn’t a “reward” for good behavior. It’s something we choose to give or not give.

To those cis men who think that having female relatives or spouses absolves them from responsibility: You’d be surprised how many harassers have moms and grandmothers and daughters and wives and sisters. If the only thing keeping you from being a harassing douchebag is because you happen to have women in your life, I’d ask you to reconsider how you think about women. Because it’s more than just “your” women that deserve to be safe. You shouldn’t want to be a feminist because you’re reminded of women you know. You should be a feminist because women, all women, are people. Just like you. Be a feminist because women are fellow humans that deserve respect the way you think you deserve respect. We are not separate from you. We are a part of you.

To those cis men who believe that “emotional boyfriends” are a thing that exists: They’re not. Friendship = intimacy without romantic feelings/sex. That’s literally what it is. There’s no such thing as an “emotional boyfriend.” That’s what men need to learn. We’re not trying to trick anyone when we say we want to be your friend. Those intimate, but aromantic and asexual moments that we have with men, we have them with women, too. It’s called being friends. It’s an awesome and beautiful thing. The only way it’s a problem is if you expect or feel entitled to romantic or sexual feelings from someone, which one never should. Because those are gifts to be given at will, not to be taken from anyone.

I want to leave you with this last thing:  I know all this stuff is hard. It took sexism thousands of years to congeal into what it is now. No one expects things to get better overnight. I also know that wrestling with one’s own flaws isn’t fun. I have to do it all the time in the areas where I have privilege. However, as much pain as we might be in when dealing with our own sins and flaws, the pain of the victims of our words and actions is much, much worse.

Working through our own pain allows us not only to take away the pain of others but ultimately heal ourselves.

(image: Lobro/Shutterstock)

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Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former Mary Sue assistant editor from 2015-18. Teresa's returned to play in the TMS sandbox as a freelancer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.