Men Need Have No Fear That Feminists Are Near

How men benefit from relationships with feminist women

Posted Nov 12, 2013

Feminists have worked tirelessly for women’s political, property, and reproductive rights, gender equality in the home, school, and workplace, and to combat sexual violence against women. Their efforts have resulted in dramatic changes in traditional gender roles in a relatively short time, changes that demonstrate that “male” and “female” are social constructions as much as biological ones.

Feminism is one of the most important American social movements of the last century, yet feminists are often reviled. Sometimes when I tell people I am a feminist they look at me like I’ve confessed to sacrificial puppy-use. Research in the U.S. finds that although many women endorse feminist beliefs, they hesitate to describe themselves as feminists because of the stereotype that feminists are anti-male. This is interesting given that feminists report lower levels of hostility toward men than do non-feminists.

The myth of the anti-male feminist originates in efforts to demonize and discredit feminism to reduce its influence. Given the many people and institutions that benefitted from traditional gender roles, this is hardly surprising but that doesn’t make the stereotype true. While I won’t deny that feminists dislike forms of masculinity that promote gender inequality, violence against women, and sexual exploitation (and the social structures that permit these things), this is quite different than a unilateral hatred of all men and all masculinities.

Feminism is actually “man-loving” in that traditional masculinity also harms men and feminists promote change in both men’s and women’s roles. For example, studies in the United States find that traditionally masculine men are more likely to be hostile, violent, psychologically distressed, and prone to substance abuse (and less likely to seek help for these issues). Aspects of traditional masculinity are not a good fit for many men. Some aspects are unhealthy (like the emphasis on emotional control, aggression, and risk-taking), and some masculine ideals (like physical size and strength, high earnings, etc.) are out of reach for many men. This creates a great deal of distress for men (known in the psychology of men and masculinity as gender role conflict or gender role stress).

There are also ways in which feminist women may make some of the best partners for men, especially men that are less traditionally masculine. Research finds that in comparison to heterosexual non-feminist women, heterosexual feminist women prefer less traditionally masculine men. This may provide feminist women with more satisfying intimate relationships with men (after all, traditional masculinity is associated with reduced relationship satisfaction, intimate partner violence, and unequal divisions of household labor). But it may also benefit men.

Men in relationships with feminist women are freed from some of the oppressive bonds of traditional masculinity. They are less likely to be “success objects” valued only for their paychecks (which frees them up to choose more satisfying jobs and careers), they are freer to express their emotions and receive emotional support, to be nurturing and supportive in their personal relationships, to be non-violent, more cooperative and less destructively competitive, and to embrace the traditionally “feminine” things that fit them.

Traditional masculinity can be hard for men. Although feminism may have left men without a clearly defined masculinity roadmap, it has also created space for needed changes in traditional masculinity. I see many men using this space to redefine masculinity so that it does not come at the expense of themselves or others. The American Psychological Association’s Division 51 Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity is the professional “home” of many psychologists who believe that constrictive conceptions of masculinity have “inhibited men's development, reduced men's capacity to form meaningful relationships, and contributed to the oppression of others.”

It is important to note that it is more accurate to speak of feminisms rather than feminism, as feminism is something defined by different women for themselves and there is lots of diversity in what feminism means (although at the heart of all feminisms is a desire for gender equality). These definitions and what issues are emphasized vary based on age, sexual identity, ethnicity, culture, class, religion, etc. Likewise, it is more accurate to speak of masculinities rather than masculinity since what is means to be a man varies based on age, culture, class, religion, etc. and some masculinities are healthier than others.

References

Anderson K. J., Kanner M., Elsayegh N. (2009). Are feminists man haters? Feminists' and nonfeminists' attitudes toward men. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 33, 216–224.

Backus, F. R., & Mahalik, J. R. (2011). The masculinity of Mr. Right: Feminist identity and heterosexual women’s ideal romantic partners. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35(2), 318-326.

Burn S. M., Ward A. Z. (2005). Men’s conformity to traditional masculinity and relationship satisfaction. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 6(4):254–263.

Downing N. E. (2002). Reflections on feminist identity development: Implications for theory, measurement, and research. Counseling Psychologist, 30, 87–95.

Levitt H. M., Swanger R. T., Butler J. B. (2008). Male perpetrators' perspectives on intimate partner violence, religion, and masculinity. Sex Roles, 58, 435–448.

O'Neil, J. M. (2008). Summarizing 25 Years of Research on Men's Gender Role Conflict Using the Gender Role Conflict Scale New Research Paradigms and Clinical Implications. The Counseling Psychologist, 36(3), 358-445.