How Do You Get Men to Understand That Feminism Is Important?

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Hi, this is Jessica Valenti and this is our second video in the new Nation video series “Ask Jessica.”

So this week I’m actually not answering one question from one specific person, but a lot of people ask me variations on basically the same question, it’s a question I get asked a lot at college campuses, and it’s basically “how do I convinced my father, my brother, my boyfriend, my friend, my roommate that feminism is important and that sexism is a thing and that it exists?”

And generally these questions say, “This person is a good person and they see injustice in the world, they don’t necessarily see it with women. They think that women in the U.S. don’t have it so bad, that we should stop complaining.” So this is what I would say.

The first piece of advice I would give is to make sure that you’re not talking to brick walls. I think generally in most feminist’s lives there’s always that person who’s not necessarily interested in engaging, but they’re just interested in pushing your buttons.

Don’t engage with that person. Think of that person as a real life troll. I think that we should conserve our activist energy, which is a really precious resource, and really use it on the people who are interested in having substantive conversations and debate.

For those people I think what we can do is try to meet them where they’re at. Remember that not everyone you’re talking to has read about feminism, has thought about these issues before and that’s okay.

One tactic that I like to use, that I think can be useful is to try to use pop culture as an entry point for conversation. So maybe you wanna send them a blog post that criticizes the sexism in Game of Thrones, if that’s a show that they like.

It doesn’t even necessarily have to be something that’s critical, something that’s pointing out the sexism of something. It can be something that’s pointing out the feminism of a musician that they really enjoy. But I think that let’s starting there can be a fruitful place for conversations.

I would also say trying not to get angry, and I know that can be a difficult thing when you’re talking about such sensitive and important topics, but I think it is important not to put people on a defensive because that often shuts down the conversation and they’ll shut down and they won’t listen to you.

One way to do that, to not get too angry and not put people on the defensive, is to ask them a lot of questions. Ask them about their life, ask them why they believe that pay inequity isn’t a problem if that’s something they believe. “Really, why you think that? Tell me more about that.”

And the more that you ask people questions, the more they’re going feel listened too, and the more likely they’re going to be to listen to you when you make your points.

Oftentimes the more you let people talk about why they believe something, something will click with you, “Oh that’s why they think that,” and  you’ll find entry points to make your arguments and to make your points.

And I’d also say, you’re challenging really socially ingrained beliefs when you talk about feminism and when you talk about sexism, so you should expect some pushback. It probably means you’re doing things something right if someone is little bit uncomfortable.

That’s even something you can say to them. “It’s alright if you’re a little uncomfortable, it makes sense that you’d be a little uncomfortable. These are really intense beliefs, this is stuff that we’re socialized to believe. It’s okay if you feel overwhelmed with the conversation.” That can put people at ease as well.

So the other thing is this idea that women in the U.S. don’t really have it so bad, compared to intense misogyny abroad. It is certainly true that there is a tremendous amount of sexism and misogyny in other countries, but I think that there is a problem in the U.S. of thinking that we are so much better than other countries, we don’t have sexism here like poor women over there.

I think that’s really condescending and I think it’s really untrue. Yes, women in the U.S. has made tremendous progress and women in other countries, depending on which countries you’re talking about do have less rights. That’s absolutely true.

But fighting for justice is not zero–sum game and you can fight for gender justice and you can fight for feminism here, while also fighting for it abroad. You don’t have to do one or the other, and that’s okay.

The last thing I would say is you’re gonna have to realize–and this is a hard lesson that I had to learn–you’re not always gonna change everyone’s mind. No matter what how much effort you put into it, or energy you put into it, or how much care about this person, there’s always gonna be someone who’s just always gonna think what they think and sometimes you have to accept that. It sorts of sucks but it is what it is.

That said, even if you’re not changing their mind and shifting their position in a really explicit, obvious way, I do think that you are opening that person’s mind in a way. Even if you feel like you’re not making any headway with a particular person, I promise you that the next time they hear a rape joke, or the next time someone brings up feminism or sexism, your voice is kind of be at back of their head saying something.

So even when you feel really disheartened about your relationship with someone in terms of feminism and sexism, try to remember that the stuff that you say to them and the conversations that you have do make a difference. Even if its small difference, it does make an impact.

So thanks very much, I hope that’s helpful and keep talking up feminism to people in your lives. Thanks!

Jessica Valenti is the author of Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth about Parenting and Happiness. She has also written three other books on feminism, including The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women, which was recently made into a documentary. She is editor of the award-winning anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape and the founder of Feministing.com, which Columbia Journalism Review calls “head and shoulders above almost any writing on women’s issues in mainstream media.” Jessica was the recipient of the 2011 Hillman Journalism Prize and was called one of the Top 100 Inspiring Women in the world by The Guardian. Follow her on Twitter @JessicaValenti.