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Can men be feminists?

Men have to be part of feminism, but that doesn't mean they have to run the show.

Galloway claimed that Assange engaged in nothing worse than "bad sexual etiquette". Photograph: Getty Images

A couple of days ago on Twitter, the hashtag "MenAgainstRape" started to trend. Some people found this a positive and heartening response to a week where the hashtag "RapeApologist" also got some traction. A week where Todd Akin coined the phrase "legitimate rape", which we must suppose somehow stands in opposition to "illegitimate rape"; a week where Akin’s emergence onto the world stage reminded us that the GOP’s VP candidate actually thinks that the tautologous "forcible rape" is distinct from "rape" (which, unless it’s modified by "forcible" is, what, consensual?); a week where George Galloway, in direct contradiction to English law, claimed that, even if guilty, Assange engaged in nothing worse than "bad sexual etiquette".

Others, however, saw the hashtag as problematic. A typical response was that men being "against rape" should be considered the default position: the need for a hashtag was in itself disheartening. They also felt it demeaned the majority of men, who were, of course "against rape" – who wouldn’t be? It would be like coming out in favour of kicking puppies. Or murder. Of course as a society we are, by default, "against rape".

A more significant problem with this hashtag was that, as was demonstrated by Akin’s desperate back-pedalling, even these new hate-figures are "against rape"; they just reserve the right to dictate, in defiance of law and science, what actually constitutes rape. Since Galloway denied that Assange’s actions fitted in with what "most people" understand by the term "rape", he could also join the "MenAgainstRape" Twitter-fest – why not? He’s surely against rape too – whatever it is he considers that to be.

There was, however, another concern. One that had more far-reaching implications for the feminist movement than that of the hashtag’s assumptions about men or how helpful it was at effecting change against rape apologists. And it could be summed up by quoting the following tweet: "Way to make it about you".

The objection in this case was that men were seeking to cast themselves as the heroes of the piece; the archetypal white knight brigade, sweeping in to save women from the dastardly, and equally mythical, pro-rape army. As far as I’m aware, even MRAs wouldn’t go that far – mostly.

The idea that what the feminist movement needs is men is clearly problematic; as a brilliant Onion piece has demonstrated, there is potential for men’s involvement in feminism to be taken as a sign that women can’t "manage their own movement"; that all we ladies need are some "balls" and we’ll get what we want.  And let’s face it, the situation isn’t helped by articles such as this one which promotes male feminists to the extent that it elevates John Lennon above such inspirational women, and yes, feminists, as Hildegard, Christine de Pizan, and even Mary Wollstonecraft. While the historical ignorance displayed by this piece is such that it exclusively uses examples of men who were born after these aforementioned women died to illustrate its bizarre claim that "men were actually the first feminists in history", it is nevertheless a telling example of a tedious tendency that assumes women lack the wherewithal to initiate their own emancipation.

So perhaps it’s little wonder that certain sections of the feminist movement react negatively towards the concept of men calling themselves feminists, and want them instead to be "feminist allies" or "supporters of feminism"; perhaps it is fair enough to want one place where women are indubitably in charge. Perhaps.

But while this stance is understandable, it is nevertheless problematic. And it does a disservice to the over-arching aims of the feminist movement.

To return to balls (I’m a woman; I’m envious of them), the idea that that’s what feminists need, to "grow a pair", is of course in itself problematic: feminism isn’t about turning us into chicks with dicks; feminism rather seeks to counteract a patriarchal system whereby the bullish behaviour implicated in "having balls" is seen to have a higher value than behaviour which might suggest that terrible "castration complex" that Freud lovingly thought caused us ladies such problems. And this is before we even address the issue that having "balls" in itself should dictate any one type of behaviour. In fact, that tired old phrase, trotted out with such unthinking regularity by so many in the face of someone’s less than "ballsiness", actually serves to exemplify why we as women should not semantically exclude men from the feminist movement.

Rebecca West once famously said that "feminism is the radical notion that women are people". And her choice of the word "people" is crucial. The implication of her statement is that "people" is an over-arching term, encompassing both men and women. That being the case, what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander; or, to put it another way, society should serve "people" rather than genders.

But of course society doesn’t. It serves an elite. And this elite does not include most women – but neither does it include many men. Patriarchy is what makes us think that "balls" are symbols for aggressive go-getting behaviour; patriarchy also makes us thinks that this is the type of behaviour that should be rewarded above all others. And patriarchy also means that any man who doesn’t "live up" to this stereotype is thereby considered a lesser man – perhaps even, horror of horrors, "a girl". Those men who don’t easily fit into the alpha male category have the choice of being taunted as "pussies", or learning to behave in an acceptably "ballsy" way that enables them to keep up with their peers.

This type of attitude, which manifests itself both in David Cameron’s tendency towards intellectual belittlement, or this example of outright aggression, can be seen in its earliest stages in the typical gender bullying that takes place in schools and which moderates so many young girls. I still remember the very school lunchtime where, age 11, I realised that I had to start toning myself down, because the boys weren’t reacting positively to my atypical attitude; it was a demoralising moment that many girls who grew up in a boisterous household with two older brothers will recognise. So I learnt to soften myself, just as many of the boys who objected to my angles no doubt had to toughen themselves up.

This kind of damaging stereotype doesn’t stop at the playground gates. It follows us, men and women, up through school, and out into the office, where men are told to be forthright, to wow with words, while women are told to manipulate these powerful men through flirtation. This attitude rehearses the stereotypical roles that both men and women are expected to play – and too bad for women who lack the desire or ability to flirt. And good luck to men seeking promotion who never learnt to throw their genitally-inflected weight around.

Men have to be part of feminism. They have to be part of feminism because societal gender stereotypes affect them as well as us. They have to be part of feminism because the stereotypes that delimit male behaviour act to further quash female potential. And they have to be part of feminism because, through its narrow worldview that segregates us into two opposing sectors of humanity, patriarchy demeans and diminishes us all.

Those men capable of seeing the damage caused by the current system of patriarchy should be welcomed as feminists. But this doesn’t mean they have to run the show: surely it would be buying into sexist assumptions about male power to assume that they would.

Caroline Criado-Perez has just completed at degree in English Language & Literature at Oxford as a mature student, and is about to start a Masters in Gender at LSE. She is also the founder of the Week Woman blog and tweets as @WeekWoman. This post first appeared on her blog here