Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Teaching Feminism to Teenage Boys

I have had a desire bubbling inside me for some time now to sit my male teenage relatives down and give them a crash course on feminism and racism.

My cousin does not recognize white privilege and racism, and the relatives on that side of his family have not been good examples.

My brother-in-law told me he would not identify himself as a feminist because people (read: girls) would laugh at him.

But how do you teach the course? This blog post is as much an exercise in figuring this out myself as it is sharing the information with you. I am open to your suggestions!

Teaching Privilege

My first idea was to walk them through "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" of white privilege. This can be done in worksheet form or out loud, where each person looks at a statement and decides whether they can identify with that statement. This exercise allows the individual to identify their own privilege, and perhaps have their eyes opened to the oppression of others.

Some items from the exercise (slightly modified to work for teens):
  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  • My parents did not have to educate me to be aware of systemic racism for my own daily physical protection.
It would be better accomplished if a discussion could be had with a friend of theirs in the room who was not white who could answer the questions, too, and perhaps surprise my cousin with their non-white responses to the questions.

I actually just recently discovered that Buzzfeed has an online quiz "How Privileged Are You?" where you check off all the boxes that pertain to you. It goes a bit further than just racism, incorporating religious, sexual orientation, gender privilege, and more.

Another idea is to start by appealing to the ways in which they don't have privilege. Perhaps they are left-handed, or low-income, or have mental health issues. Just because we benefit from one form of privilege doesn’t mean that we benefit from all forms of privilege. Explain that just because an individual may feel oppressed, whites and men as a group are not systematically oppressed the way other groups are.

Specifically related to male privilege, I found several lists online that could be used. Here are some examples:
  • You can expect to be paid equitably for the work you do, and not paid less because of your sex 
  • A decision to hire you won’t be based on whether or not the employer assumes you will be having children in the near future 
  • Work comfortably (or walk down a public street) without the fear of sexual harassment 
  • Go on a date with a stranger without the fear of being raped 
  • You can seek political office without having your sex be a part of your platform
And here are some great posters from out of San Francisco about privilege.

Teaching Feminism

As far as teaching teenage boys feminism, I think a good place to start would be to relate it to them, personally, and to stress how the system hurts us all.

How does the patriarchy limit their own expression as boys and men? How does it hold them back?

Men are often pressured to fit into a "Act like a Man" or "Man up" world where men can't be sensitive, or have certain interests. It damages men's emotional literacy. It limits them. They are pressured to always appear strong and not ask for help. It encourages promiscuity. It encourages aggression and violence. It perpetuates one-dimensional stereotypes that not all men identify with.

If this is what is expected of men, then we can see how it also limits women. Namely, that women must be sensitive, weak, ask for help, less promiscuous, and less aggressive. That if a man is not a man, he is a woman, who are then inferred to be "less" or "worse". Thus, men are taught that women are inferior.

Some great suggestions for talking to young men about feminism:

  • by taking a role in feminism they will be helping everyone, not just women.
  • because they are at the top of society’s hierarchy, they have a responsibility and an ability to be part of social change and justice for everyone.

If the boys you are teaching are young, you still have the opportunity to change the things they've learned about women. For example, that women can be rocket scientists and doctors, are not merely ornamental, may not want children, etc.

Another important part of the lesson for young men would be to talk about how every woman they have ever known has felt unsafe at some point - walking to their car, walking down the street, etc.

Ileana Jimenez is a feminist teacher and has a whole segment about teaching boys to be feminists. She has a quote from a boy in her class whose eyes were opened to women's experiences with street harassment: "It’s scary to think that a man can completely get away with making a woman feel uncomfortable or unsafe on the street or subway.”

She notes that "the boys in my classes are curious about how feminism might connect to their lives. They want to know if feminism can help them become better versions of themselves in a world that tells them only one version is acceptable."

Remind them that the patriarchy oppresses all of the people in their lives, but especially their mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, cousins, and female friends that they care about.

The Definition of Feminism 

One of the most important elements of the lesson has to be the definition of feminism:
"the social, political and economic equality of the sexes"

The term "feminist" is a loaded term with a lot of misrepresentation. Being a feminist does not mean women hate men or that women think men are the enemy.

There are a number of videos where reporters or comedians ask people on the street if they believe men and women should be paid the same for the same work, whether men and women should have equal rights, and they all say yes. But when asked if they are feminists, they say no. Then when they're given the definition, they realize, "oh, maybe I am a feminist, then." Though they still seem hesitant to identify with the term.  

Further, as Patrick Rothfuss so eloquently explained:
1. Feminism is the belief that women are as worth as much as men.
    1a. (Corollary) This means women should be treated as fairly as men.
    1b. (Corollary) This means women should be respected as much as men.
    1c. (Corollary) This means women should have the same rights as men.
     1d. (Corollary) Etc etc.
2. Feminism is the belief that women shouldn’t have to do things just because they’re women.
    2a. (Corollary) Men shouldn’t have to do things just because they’re men.
3. Feminism is the belief that women shouldn’t have to *avoid* doing things just because they’re women.
    3a. (Corollary) Men shouldn’t have to *avoid* doing things just because they’re      men.

Fighting Guilt, Fighting Back

Many people feel guilt for having privilege because they did not earn it. This will be a common reaction to any discussion of this type. 

As Birth Anarchy explains, 
"It doesn’t make you a bad person, and it doesn’t mean you are a bigot when you exist and benefit from systems and institutions with odds stacked more in your favor. Owning our privilege doesn’t mean that we hang our heads in shame."

“If we inherit injustice, we should never feel guilty. We are not responsible for that past. However, if we choose to do nothing about it going forward, then we have plenty to feel guilty about.” 

And of course the #1 best thing to do is to lead by example. Make sure you "shut down" sexist arguments when they happen in front of you and your teen boys, do not essentialize, do not use racist or homophobic terms, and so on. Don't say "Man Up"!


Offer some ideas on how to not contribute to the patriarchy and fight back (AKA "check their privilege"). For example:

  1. Really listen to how being underprivileged affects women.
  2. Take responsibility for addressing feminist issues with other men. Don't be a bystander - call people out.  Don't be a "bro".
  3. Don't rape, don't catcall, don't objectify women, don't tell sexist jokes.
  4. Don't judge someone on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation, skin color, religion, etc. 
  5. When a woman tells you something is sexist, believe her.
  6. Do not think you need to take over and "save" women from the patriarchy. Affirm the capable leadership of women.
  7. Be responsible for contraception, housework, emotional work, and other things typically thought to be "women's role".
  8. Help women feel safer, and be aware of the amount of space you take up (physically and in a conversation).
  9. Self identify as feminist and help educate others! 

I truly want to know, readers: What would you add to this if you were to teach teen boys about feminism? 

Plenty of men are feminists!

1 comment:

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