Calling yourself a feminist is easy these days. All you have to do is declare it so. “If you stand for equality, then you’re a feminist,” actor Emma Watson insisted in 2015. “Sorry to tell you, you’re a feminist.”
In recent years, anyone and everyone has been encouraged to take up the label – men included. Indeed, it is often men who are awarded the most accolades for doing so. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced not only that he was a feminist, but that he was going to keep calling himself a feminist until it was “met with a shrug“, his audience cheered.
During a conversation with Melinda Gates last year, he elaborated, saying: “It is so important that we all understand … it’s not only that men can be feminists, it is that men should be feminists, as well.”
It might sound like progress, but there is a problem with men’s proclaimed feminism, and Trudeau exemplifies it.
The #MeToo movement has not only opened up the conversation about the ubiquity of sexual harassment and assault, but it has successfully held men accountable for behaviour that, for too long, had been ignored or kept secret. It also encouraged men to start speaking out publicly, in solidarity with women.
But what men say in public often contradicts their personal and political actions. It is a convenient time for men to claim they oppose things like rape and groping – this is a simple way to demonstrate the feminist credentials we have been told are effortless to adopt (few, today, would argue against something as innocuous-sounding as “equality”).
It is also an opportune moment for men to point the finger at others, and away from themselves, all the while enjoying praise for coming out in defence of women.
Trudeau has, in some ways, walked the talk, calling out other men for sexual misconduct. In 2014, he suspended MPs Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti from the Liberal caucus on account of harassment complaints made by two female New Democratic Party MPs.
But now, Trudeau is subject to a scandal of his own, as a story about him “groping” a female reporter during a 2000 music festival has resurfaced. At the time, Trudeau apologised for his behaviour (in a rather unapologetic way), saying, “I’m sorry. If I had known you were reporting for a national paper, I never would have been so forward.” Today, his response is different. First, he claimed not to “remember any negative interactions”, then, just days later, said:
“I’m responsible for my side of the interaction, which certainly I don’t feel was in any way untoward. But at the same time, this lesson that we are learning is, and I’ll be blunt about it, often a man experiences an interaction as being benign or not inappropriate, and a woman, particularly in a professional context, can experience it differently, and we have to respect that and reflect on it.”
He’s not wrong. Men and women do very clearly experience “interactions” differently. While many incidences reported as part of #MeToo are clear abuses of power and acts of violence – the assaults committed by Harvey Weinstein being an obvious example – others demonstrate that it is the way men learn to behave around and engage with women that is a problem.
We have grown so accustomed to power imbalances between men and women, that we not only have normalised them, but romanticised and sexualised them. What women experience as intimidating, many men read as harmless, not least in part because women are socialised to avoid conflict and respond politely, even when offended or uncomfortable.
When sexual harassment and flirtation are treated as one and the same, and when young men learn to be the sexual aggressors – that to coerce and pressure young women into sex is an acceptable means to a desired end – women are bound to wake up feeling uncomfortable, exploited, disturbed, or even traumatised.
In many cases it isn’t until days, months, or even years later that women look back on an interaction or sexual situation and realise there was a legitimate reason they felt angry or queasy about it the next day.
The truth is that, in all likelihood, most men – if not all men – have engaged in behaviour that was inappropriate, made a woman feel uncomfortable, or was even abusive. This is the lesson we should have learned from #MeToo: that the problem of male entitlement and misogynist attitudes towards women is a social one, not a personal one, and certainly not one that will be resolved by more men insisting they are feminists.
It is very easy to say, as Trudeau and so many others have, that you “believe in equality between men and women”. It’s even easier to simply announce you are a feminist and reap the political and social rewards.
It’s much more difficult to make feminism a political practice and to commit to working towards the liberation of women, no matter the repercussions. And when it comes to the tough issues, Trudeau and far too many other men, are suddenly and conveniently silent.
Back in 2014, before he was prime minister, Trudeau stated emphatically that “prostitution itself is a form of violence against women.” There was less at stake in those days, so it was likely easier for him to make such a clear, radical statement.
Now that he has a more significant position of power, his unapologetic feminist approach to this issue has waned. In April, delegates from Trudeau’s Liberal Party voted to include the decriminalisation of pimps, johns, and brothel owners on their 2019 platform, which would mean repealing Canada’s current prostitution laws, which decriminalise those who sell sex and criminalise those who exploit and abuse them.
For a party with a leader who considers himself feminist, this is incredibly troubling. Prostitution is an industry that sees thousands of girls and women abused, exploited and killed, all around the world. It is an industry that explicitly says: women are things that exist for men’s use – whose lives don’t matter, and that can be bought and sold, traded among men for pleasure and profit.
A new Ipsos poll conducted on behalf of the London Abused Women’s Centre (Ontario, Canada), Equality Now, and the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) shows that 75 percent of Ontarians agree with Trudeau’s initial statement, and view prostitution as harmful to women and girls, and that six in ten are opposed to the full decriminalisation of the industry.
Of all times, it is now that Trudeau should be leading his party towards supporting Canada’s current, feminist law, but instead, he is saying nothing in an attempt to avoid controversy.
There are several questions I’d like to ask every man who has publicly proclaimed his feminist credentials or who has chastised other men as part of #MeToo, posting sombre or critical sermons on social media about their shock and disappointment at the men around them: Have you ever watched pornography? Have you ever paid for sex? Have you ever pestered a woman into sex – your girlfriend or wife, perhaps – when she was less than enthusiastic?
If the answers to any of these questions are “yes”, understand that you, too, are culpable. Both pornography and prostitution are areas wherein sexual harassment and abuse are part of the job description, and the idea epitomised in the sex industry – that sex is a right – is very much something men bring into the bedroom.
I don’t expect perfection from any man. How can we, in a patriarchal world, be surprised when man after man turns out to have behaved in, well, exactly the ways they have been taught and encouraged to? We can’t.
And so I have little interest in celebrating – or even believing – men who proudly announce their feminism. We’ll believe it when we see it. And until then, Trudeau and his other “feminist” allies should meet as much scepticism as a man who refuses the label.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.