BECOMING FEMINISTS TO UNBECOME MEN
A fundamental goal of male feminism should be to facilitate the process of men unbecoming men, the process of men unlearning the patriarchal ways in which they have learned to become men. Ever since Simone de Beauvior articulated the idea that women are not born women, but rather become women, feminists have been grappling with ways to strip the category "women" of its patriarchal ideological trappings, to find the pre – (or post-) socially constructed, pre – (or post-) patriarchal woman, the woman who has not been, as Tania Modleski puts it, "saturate[d]" . . . with [her] sex.43 Significantly, de Beauvior is not suggesting that, outside of patriarchy, there is some true female essence—the "real woman." (It might not even be meaningful to refer to the woman who has not been saturated with her sex as a "woman.") Her point is rather that people who are body-coded female cannot experience their personhood outside of the social construction of gender, and the social construction of gender for women is agency-denying and subordinating.
Of course, gender for men is also socially constructed. One must learn to be a "man" in this society, precisely because "manhood" is a socially produced category.44 Manhood is a performance. A script. It is accomplished and re-enacted in everyday relationships. Yet, men have been much less inclined to theorize about the sex/gender category we inhabit, reproduce, and legitimize, much less inclined to theorize about the constructability and contingency of the social meanings associated with being "men," and much less inclined to search for, or even imagine, the pre (or post-) patriarchal man, the man who is not saturated with his sex. We (men) sometimes theorize about gender inequality, but rarely about gender privilege, as though our privileges as men were not politically up for grabs, as though they were social givens—inevitably "just there."
I think it is important for men to challenge the social construction of gender employing our privileged experiences as men as a starting point. These contestations should not displace or replace victim-centered or bottom-up accounts of sexism. That is to say, men’s articulation of the ways in which they are the beneficiaries of patriarchy should not be a substitute for women’s articulations of the ways in which they are the victims of patriarchy. Both narratives need to be told. The telling of both narratives gives content to patriarchy and helps to make clear that patriarchy is bi-directional: Patriarchy gives to men what it takes away from women; the disempowerment of women is achieved through the empowerment of men.45 Patriarchy effectuates and maintains this relational difference. The social construction of women as the second sex requires the social construction of men46 as the first.
Heterosexism, too, effectuates and maintains a relational difference that is based on power. There is no disadvantage without a corresponding advantage, no marginalized group without the empowered, no subordinate identity without a dominant identity. Power and privilege are relational, so, too, are our identities. What "heterosexism takes away from lesbians and gays. . . it gives to straight men and women."47 The normalization of heterosexuality is only achieved through the "abnormalization" of homosexuality.
Yet, rarely do heterosexuals, especially heterosexual men, theorize about their identities as heterosexual, about their sexual identity privilege. Indeed, even pro-gay rights heterosexuals conceive of sexual identity as something that other people have, something that disadvantages other people, rather than something that heterosexuals have which advantages them.
Nor should male heterosexual articulations of gender and sexual identity privilege function to legitimize otherwise "untrustworthy" and "self-interested" accounts of discrimination by straight women and lesbians and gays. There is a tendency on the part of dominant groups (e. g., males and heterosexuals) to discount the experiences of subordinate groups (e. g., straight women and lesbians and gays) unless those experiences are authenticated or legitimized by a member of the dominant group. It is one thing for me, a Black man, to say I was discriminated against in a particular social setting; it is quite another for my white colleague to say I was discriminated against in that same social setting. My telling of the story is suspect because I am Black. My white colleague’s telling of the story is less suspect because he is white. Male heterosexuals who participate in discourses on gender and sexuality should avoid creating the (mis)impression that, because they are outsiders to the subordinating effects of patriarchy and heterosexism, their critiques of patriarchy and/or heterosexism are more valid than the critiques offered by lesbians, straight women, and gay men.