Women and Men Moving Together Against Sexism

Steve Thompson (one of my Co-Counselors and a men’s leader) and I recently led a three-day workshop for women and men in my Region (the states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi, in the South of the United States). The first two days we led separate women’s and men’s workshops. The third day everyone came together to work on being allies to one another.

My Region is small. There were thirty people at the workshop, with most of the leadership and the years of experience in RC being among the women.

WORKING WITH THE WOMEN

In the women’s workshop I first worked with the women on our caring for one another and on the internalized sexism in our relationships with each other. Then we spent the bulk of the time working on the sexism we had experienced throughout our lives, on male domination, and on the trivialization of sexism and women—taking our lead from the work Diane Balser1 has been doing. We also worked on fighting for ourselves as women, looking back to our childhoods and fighting against the sexism in our early years. We did some physical sessions2 in which I coached the women on being counselors for each other using that form of counseling. In the last class before we got together with the men, I had each woman take a turn talking and discharging about a man who had been important in her life and showing how much he meant to her.

THE WOMEN AND MEN MEET TOGETHER

I led the evening during which the women and men came together. The men knew that we were going to work on sexism and were visibly anxious. To start the evening I had a number of the women (including each woman who had a male partner at the workshop) talk again about an important man in their lives and show the importance of that relationship. All the wives spoke directly to their husbands. Other women spoke about their brothers, their husbands who weren’t there, or some of the men at the workshop. That lasted about forty-five minutes. Both women and men did a lot of discharging during that time. The men were surprised and pleased to be welcomed in this way.

The rest of the evening I talked about how important it is for men, as allies to women and for their own liberation, to work on sexism and male domination. I counseled two women: one on the history of sexism in her life (prior to her marriage to one of the men present) and the other on her history related to male domination. Both were powerful demonstrations, and both women and men discharged a lot.

The following is what I said as an introduction to our work together:

Women and men are inherently allies to one another. We like one another tremendously, and we want each other in our lives.

Sexism and men’s oppression have greatly impaired our ability to see and know one another. They have made it difficult for us to see beyond each other’s patterns from the oppression. Though we live and work together, sexism and men’s oppression have separated us. A big task before us is to fight through the oppression and separation to where we really know each other, have each other, and can be allies for one another’s liberation.

Men’s oppression is a real oppression. It has caused a lot of damage to men and to our society. It’s important that we all work to end men’s oppression.

I went on to share the following thoughts:

LOOKING SQUARELY AT SEXISM

Men, as allies to women, now need to focus on learning about sexism, on facing and discharging their sexism, and on becoming good counselors for women on sexism and male domination. As allies to men, women now need to assist men to discharge on sexism and male domination. One way women can do this is to steer an ongoing dialogue between women and men about how sexism and male domination affect our relationships and our lives in general. Sexism has been tremendously damaging to both women and men.

A lot of work has been done to pave the way so that men can look at sexism and begin to discharge on their relationship to it. It’s been important that Tim3 has led men’s workshops in which he’s insisted that there is no reason for men to feel bad about themselves. He has shown men how much he loves them and values them. Without that foundation, I don’t think that men would have the chance they now do to look at sexism—they have felt so bad about being in the oppressor role, and that has made them numb to sexism’s effects. Along with Tim’s work, the work that Diane Balser has done recently on sexism and male domination, her inviting men leaders to the recent RC Contemporary Women’s Issues Workshop, and the initiative some men (including Steve) have taken to work with one another on sexism have opened before us a tremendous opportunity. Our job now is to seize that opportunity and look squarely4 at sexism.

WOMEN HAVE WORKED HARD TO BE ALLIES TO MEN

We women need to understand and learn about men’s lives and men’s oppression and be allies against that oppression. However, I don’t think that’s the central work we need to do in this period as allies to men. We have worked hard to understand men’s oppression and to back5 men, but to some extent we’ve set our own battles aside to do it. We’ve done much of it without undertaking our own fight against sexism. As a result, our work as allies to men has been contaminated by internalized sexism—by our patterns of caretaking, accommodation, and submission. It’s been interfered with by our undischarged anger at sexism and male domination and our undischarged fears from male abuse and violence. We will be more effective allies to men, and our work against men’s oppression will be much stronger, once the work on sexism and male domination has a central place in our re-emergence.

I’m not saying that sexism is so awful or that men have been so sexist that men have to do this work for us and that we are not going to do any work for them. All alliance work requires that both the oppressed and the oppressor think about and work for the other’s liberation. One-way alliance work doesn’t make sense. We need each other’s minds as we struggle against every oppression.

BOTH WOMEN AND MEN NEED TO WORK ON SEXISM

Both women and men will move forward as both women and men work on sexism. I think we women will be excellent allies to men if we can effectively engage men in an ongoing dialogue about sexism.

Sexism is a huge hurt for men. It totally messes up their relationships with women (and it messes up their relationships with each other). You men have excellent women in your lives who are doing things that make no sense to you because you don’t understand sexism. You have women whom you love but can’t be close to because of sexism, whom you can’t enjoy spending much time with because of sexism.

WOMEN HAVE STRUGGLES TO LOOK AT SEXISM

Since working on sexism is central to women’s liberation, you would think that we women in RC would have all done a lot of that work. We made some important statements about sexism early on in RC with the women’s policy statement (including that men are not the enemy), but in truth we’ve been struggling for a long time to look squarely at sexism and fight it. Diane Balser has pushed us for years to do it, but we’ve struggled. We’re trained to accommodate to sexism and to take care of others—not to fight for ourselves, not to fight for liberation. Looking honestly at the sexism in our lives and being vocal about it and fighting against it do not come easily. I don’t think that men understand this. I know a lot of men who feel like they’ve been hammered by feminism and don’t understand that we women still struggle to prioritize our liberation from sexism. In some ways our work on sexism is just now taking off.6

It’s been hard for us women to face how damaged we are by sexism. We love men. We live with them, we have sex with them, we have children with them, we raise families with them, we work with them. They are our brothers, our fathers, our husbands. We are intimately involved with men, at least on a surface level. (I don’t think that men and women really know each other yet, really know yet what goes on7 in each other’s minds. I think that the separation of men and women has so far been too great for that to be possible.)

It’s been hard for us in the fight against sexism that the word on the streets8 is that sexism is over, that women have won that battle. It’s been hard that many men deny that sexism exists, or agree in the abstract that it does but insist that what they do isn’t sexist, and so on. Most of us women haven’t figured out how to effectively address sexism in our relationships. We are engaged in a lot of struggles just to be close to somebody, and sometimes our relationships feel too fragile to survive another fight. Also, because of the internalized sexism, the battle against sexism doesn’t feel like a very important fight. That it’s a core struggle doesn’t mean that we’ve been able to make it an important fight in our lives. Because of sexism, our issues aren’t viewed as the important issues.

Also, other oppressions often look more important. Many of us face multiple oppressions, and within these oppressions we’ve felt like we had to protect our men—again making it hard to find space for our fight against sexism.

APPROACHING MEN AS ALLIES

It will help men face their sexism if we women can approach it as their allies and friends, as women who love them—not as women who are angry and blaming them. Fighting for ourselves doesn’t mean that we have to be hard on men. We women sometimes get messy and leak our distress outside of sessions, but you men are not our enemies. We are not mad at you. We don’t want you to go away. We will try to keep our upsets to our sessions and remember between sessions to treat you as the treasured human beings that you are. Our upsets and anger about sexism and all the ways we’ve been abused because of it don’t belong outside of our sessions. You are important to us, we love you, and we want you in our lives. And we want you to work to end the sexism you carry.

As we women work to reach men on the issue of sexism, things will move faster if we understand their struggles. If we are going to approach a man we love with a complaint about his sexism, it will help if we can remember that he is expecting to be thrown out at any time, that he is sure the relationship is about to end and that it will be his fault. This doesn’t mean that we don’t go to him about his sexism; it means that we approach him with an awareness of his struggles.

We will want men to be our counselors as we rage against sexism. To have big sessions it can be useful to use them as targets when we are clients. These kinds of sessions can be precious and important. An ally who can give them is valuable. We look forward to having them with you.

CHEER US ON

It will make a tremendous difference to have men cheering us on to fight sexism. I can tell you that it’s almost inconceivable to us that this could happen—that you men would want us to fight hard against sexism. It feels like you are too wedded to the “benefits” you gain from sexism.

We women face a lot of discouragement about men being our allies. Until doing the recent work, it seemed to me that I would get through my own hurts from sexism whether or not you men worked on your oppressor role. It seemed like if you didn’t do that work, I would just go on without you. Recently it came to me9 that I don’t want to go on without you. I want you to move through the distress so that we can have more and more of each other and go forward together. And I will help you.

CREATING A FRUITFUL DIALOGUE

On Sunday morning Steve led the class. After he finished, I led a discussion between the men and the women about how we could create the conditions for a fruitful dialogue about sexism. The men spoke first about what the women could do to help them hear and discharge about sexism in their lives. Then the women spoke about what they thought would be important in such a dialogue. It was a good start.

WE WILL SPEAK UP AND MOVE BOLDLY

The last thing I said was that we women would try to be thoughtful in engaging men in a dialogue about sexism but that we could no longer go silent about sexism and male domination just because it is hard for men to hear about. It is critical for our liberation that we speak up about the oppression and move boldly against it.

We all have a lot of discharging and communicating to do, separately and together, as we move together to end sexism.

Diane Shisk
Alternate International Reference Person for the Re-evaluation Counseling Communities
Seattle, Washington, USA
Reprinted from Present Time
No. 160, July 2010, pp. 21-24


1 Diane Balser is the International Liberation Reference Person for Women.
2 Physical sessions are sessions in which resistance against thoughtful physical force is used to contradict distress and help elicit discharge.
3 Tim Jackins
4 Squarely means honestly and straightforwardly.
5 Back means support.
6 Taking off means embarking on rapid activity, development, or growth.
7 Goes on means happens.
8 The word on the streets means the message out in society.
9 It came to me means I realized, it occurred to me.


Last modified: 2016-08-22 09:11:22+00