Ask a feminist – The F Word problem page

Answers will be written by regular F Word contributors, and represent only their own potentially fallible opinions. In the spirit of pluralism, we will try and work in more than one response if we can. There is no definitive ‘F Word line’ or ‘feminist line’, and our answers are given in that spirit.

Of course, we will never publish anyone’s name or identifying details. If you want to ask us something, please just use the comment link at the bottom of this page.

Dear Feminist(s),

There is a boy who I’m interested in, he’s charming, funny and highly intelligent and considerably nicer than people who I’ve been involved
with in previous relationships. However, the problem is the less desirable aspects of his personality; for all his intelligence, wit and charm, he is also fairly sexist and homophobic, although I wouldn’t consider him a misogynist. He watches and is an open advocate of porn, is a self confessed homophobe – in spite of his gay brother and bisexual friends – and, whilst in the past I have been open in my criticisms of this and open about my feminism, I have received heavy criticism of feminist attitudes and my opinions in return.

I have found myself trying to down-play my feminism in his presence, much to the disgust of my close friend, also a self proclaimed feminist. However, despite the fact that I am fully aware of my hypocrisy, I am concerned that for him to ever reciprocate my feelings I will have to compromise myself, something I am not especially willing to do. Equally however, nobody is perfect and I am wondering whether I am simply highlighting his flaws especially because they clash so radically with my personal beliefs. Whilst I understand this is probably an email of considerably little importance or significance in comparison to many of the others you receive, I would greatly appreciate an outsiders perspective, especially one of someone who understands feminism!

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

– Anon

Dear Anon,

First off this is important – you’re talking about decisions which may affect large chunks of your life – so whilst small on the scale of international world peace, they are still important. You say this bloke is sexist and homophobic, but not misogynistic. Whatever else he certainly has bought into the patriarchal hierarchy which places men above and women, and heterosexuality above all other expressions of sexuality. He is secure in his privilege and criticises you because you believe in its (notes, its, not his) downfall. The situation seems to be that you believe, as a feminist, women are systematically oppressed. And he refuses to hear you or criticises you for saying that. A man who is privileged denying that the oppression occurs.

In the end this comes down to what elements of your beliefs are you happy to keep quiet on and what aren’t you. I note, however, that there isn’t any sense that is also down-playing aspects of his beliefs. In the end the only way a relationship like this will work is if there are “no-go” zones of conversation but they have to be reciprocal – if it’s just you giving ground that is mutual respect, it’s him taking advantage. On the other hand, whilst I know at times it doesn’t feel like it, there are men out there with wit and charm and niceness who aren’t homophobes and aren’t sexist. Having to downplay your feminism is very much like denying you have the right to think – no man should demand that of you and if he felt you were an equal he would be debating the merit of your arguments, not whether your views are “right” or “wrong”.

For me (and I mean this purely personally) my feminism isn’t negotiable. Partners don’t have to agree with me but they must respect my views enough to debate the issues, not just randomly criticise me for having thoughts of my own (I’m not suggesting this is his attitude by the way, just, y’know, making a statement.)

Hope that helps a little bit.

– Louise Livesey

I have never been more angry about the inequality of women. On a daily basis I find myself seething at the attitudes of society, the representation of women in the media and the difficulties faced by women in less developed countries. Perhaps this is because – at almost 30, with the question of children on the horizon – I feel greater pressure from society than ever before. These feelings are quite destructive and result in a resentment towards men, which is not a good thing (especially for the man I live with). I have decided that a way to control these feelings might be to understand more about feminist thinking in order to rationalise my thoughts as well as to feel less isolated in this matter – hence I have discovered The F-Word website. I would be really grateful if you could offer any advice about how to live with my angst and if you could could recommend any feminist texts that would help me. Many thanks.


Dear Angry,

Oh how do I, and the rest of us I guess, share these feelings! How do you live with them? I’ve always advocated “don’t get mad, get active”. Feminist activism ranges through a whole variety of things – our new events page should, hopefully, become a hub for such events and activities. Find a local feminist groups (including Fawcett groups), become active in eco-feminist or Amnesty groups, join a Women in Black vigil or help organise a local Reclaim the Night march or Ladyfest, or become a writer for The F- Word – there are a whole host of things you can do.

In terms of books I could recommend until the cows come home but I guess on the topics you’ve mentioned – Inga Muscio’s Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil is fab, Ariel Levy’s Raunch Culture and Deborah Siegel’s Sisterhood Interrupted are both good, Lynne Segal’s Why Feminism?, Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism or anything by bells hooks.

In terms of the man you live with – try recommending a pro-feminist men’s group or John Stoltenberg’s Refusing to be a Man and get him on side too! There are also many great blogs out there – I am currently enjoying Feminist Philosophers, Black Looks, Racialious, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s blogs a lot, but there are loads more too! Hope it’s helped and a final piece of advice – if you still don’t feel you’re getting an outlet for these feelings consider taking a women’s studies course – despite recent coverage they do still exist and they may well be the answer to your prayers!

Louise Livesey

Hi there,

I’m a male feminist living with my girlfriend who introduced me to it all. Despite agreeing with everything, many aspects cause me confusion and so I hoped you might answer my questions on your ‘ask a feminist’ spot.

The bit that confuses me is about myself as a man, my urges and my behaviour. Basically, what I want to know is how far I can enjoy looking at attractive women before I cross into misogyny. I have a pretty active sexual mind, which I direct mainly towards a great sex life with my girlfriend. But I find it difficult to turn this off, and often my girlfriend isn’t there. So….

Obviously I’m not talking about porn, but for example can I admire a really attractive female TV presenter if she’s all dressed up? Like for example Tess Daly dolled up on Strictly Come Dancing – or in fact many of the celebrities/dancers on that programme. There are loads of them and they often wear tight/revealing outfits! Am I wrong to enjoy their looks while I watch?

Moving on to real life; what about an attractive woman in the street? I don’t make comments, I don’t wolf whistle, gawp etc. But she’s dressed nicely and I find her appealing… can I have a look?

Obviously I wouldn’t stare, but if I’m on the bus and she gets on, there’s not really anywhere else I can look, so why not? And in terms of staring, is this only bad when she notices? If she’s walking away from me can I admire the curves of her body/legs or whatever?

Another one is this – what about my girlfriend’s female mates?

They’re all dressed up to go clubbing, and I’m going too. They’re all attractive, intelligent, funny women and I have a great time with them. How far should I let myself enjoy this? I mean, obviously I’m not going to do anything, but if I say “you look nice/ that’s a nice top” etc. most of them appreciate it (and most of them are feminists, too). But if I say this, then I mean it, so I must have had a look, mustn’t I? Aargh!

The last stage is in my mind. Years of being programmed by society, the media (I’m afraid I used to buy lads’ mags on a quite regular basis until I woke up) etc. mean that despite being a complete gent my mind can remain, well… pretty filthy. At college recently, another (female) student I sometimes work with (who happens to be very attractive) thanked me for helping her with some work. My response was a smile, and a friendly “your absolutely welcome” but my brain was saying “you could thank me by…” well you can probably guess the rest. Until now, I’ve never revealed these type of thoughts to anyone. Again, I would never act on it, and I always treat any colleague with the respect they deserve, so basically, should I be training myself to stop thinking like this, or shall I just keep it to myself, even enjoymy er, imaginations.

Incidentally, I have a very good relationship with my girlfriend, and she doesn’t seem to mind/notice what I do. I’m interested in your response from a feminist point of view, not a relationship point of view. To me, most of this is just part of still being young (I’m a student), and quite sexually active. I’d say it’s part of the reason why our sex lives are so good, but I’d be interested in what the feminist view is.

Thanks for your time.

Worried Male Feminist

Dear WMF,

In a sense, you seem to be asking if it is OK to think about the people you are sexually orientated towards (in this case, women). My short answer to that – bear with me, readers! – would be to say you don’t need anyone else’s permission to find someone sexually arousing. It doesn’t matter whether you get turned on while looking at Tess Daly all dressed up on Strictly or thinking about being chased by whoever happens to cross your mind when you’ve got the horn. It is entirely your own business.

As I’m sure you’re aware, women have a particularly painful history of having to contend with would-be thought police telling us who to be and what to desire. Indeed, some of them would still prefer it if we didn’t really desire anything at all, aside from the approval and pleasure of others. This pisses me off immensely so I’m not going to echo the behaviour of such repressors by berating you for your openness.

You ask how far you can enjoy looking at attractive women before you “cross into misogyny”. In my view, the question of whether you do any such thing only arises if that enjoyment is accompanied by feelings of contempt for women or a sense of triumph over us in that act of looking.

There is obviously a little more to consider when it comes to the real-life scenarios you outline.

Obviously, your basic human right to your own thoughts and fantasies does not mean there can’t be a feminist critique of the privileges offered to you as a man who fancies women. For example, there are, on balance, more women than men out there who regularly wear those tight/revealing outfits you mention enjoying. This means you generally have far greater visual access to women’s bodies than women have to yours. (I am, admittedly, being very presumptuous here and will be pleasantly surprised if it turns out that you regularly strut your stuff in snug and flimsy clothing that draws attention to your assets!)

I think you recognise this privileged position and this is perhaps a factor in your discomfort. If this is the case, you don’t really need me to remind you that pointedly staring or leering at “appealing” women would make you look like a smug fuckwit.

There’s nothing wrong with merely noticing a person’s physical attributes. We all do that. It’s how you actually behave that matters. Unfortunately, some men seem to be under the impression that noticing a woman is a cue to stare aggressively or make personal comments in a gleeful or undermining tone (as if they, as men, own the space around them and women can therefore be treated as moving sex objects passing through specifically for their pleasure).

You clearly indicate you don’t behave in the above manner so I reckon that instead of tying yourself up in knots over whether it is OK to notice women’s bodies in passing, you would be better off directing that energy towards making sure you continue to pay attention to what the women you meet actually have to say. After all, wouldn’t it be a rather sad irony if fixating on your guilty thoughts about the more superficial aspects of women led you to miss the more important stuff? Yes, paying your girlfriend’s mates compliments is absolutely fine but there is, surely, more to your enjoyment of their company than them looking nice? As you say yourself, these are funny and intelligent women!

In terms of what goes on in your head, I would say that telling yourself that you shouldn’t be thinking something will just make the thought flash through your mind even more. I’d guess your thoughts of sexual favours from your classmate probably stem from your heightened awareness of traditional power relations between women and men (i.e the tableau of the woman being helped by the man in return for sexual favours).

I think you know that seriously framing your exchange in such a way would be reductive and inappropriate and this just makes the thought all the more alluring. If flagellating yourself over your thoughts is not actually the whole point of the exercise, I’d suggest it is completely counter-productive.

As a feminist, the only aspect of your message that I would particularly take issue with is your comment that “despite being a complete gent” your mind can remain “pretty filthy”. This seems to imply that you see male sexuality as some inevitably monstrous thing that needs to be reined in and hidden behind an antiquated gentlemanly mask. Isn’t that actually the sort of dangerously superficial, irresponsible, creepy, traditional notion we need to be rejecting?

After all, this is 2008, not 1958!

Thanks for sending us your question.

All the best,

Holly Combe

Dear WMF,

Whilst I agree with Holly on many points I have a slightly different take on it, which is to challenge you to think differently about your own privilege as a man in this society. You talk about your sexual feelings as if they are both 1. uncontrollable and 2. not socially constructed. Let’s take those points in reverse order.

Our sexuality and our sexual feelings are not biologically given, they are created within the web of meanings which we call society. Therefore your gender and your sexuality afford you social privileges – being male and heterosexual is the most vaunted of all social classifications (if you can also tick white and middle-class you’re at the top of the tree. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it does behove you, as a male feminist, to interrogate the privileges you have. For example, to publically admire (or admit to admiring even) the sex object of your choice.

The first point I made was about your implication that your sexual feelings are uncontrollable – you talk about your “urges” and blame your girlfriends absence. In doing the latter you seek to make your girlfriend responsible for your libido – it is a common things people do to assume a woman is responsible for satisfying a man’s sexual feelings – see this on Kay Burley’s question to Pamela Wright for example. I really do rate John Stoltenberg, another male pro-feminist, on these questions, as he challenges us to explore how society creates myths of male sexuality as a way of supporting patriarchy.

So, having no doubt made you feel rather guilty, let’s looks at some positive steps forward. I definitely do not think that feminism is striving for some kind of sexual-expression-free society. I do, however, think we have to be careful and interrogate our own actions and how we objectify others. Objectification isn’t a simple process which “just happens”, it’s a system of thought which relies on the notion that the object is less than the subject. John Berger (Ways of Seeing) and Laura Mulvey’s work on cinema make this really clear. Are you wrong to admire their looks? Depends what your thinking at the time really – if you are thinking “there is a strong and attractive woman I’ve like to know more about” then probably not, if you’re thinking “I’d like to bend her over a park bench and fuck her without her consent” then probably. You start to grapple with this yourself where you are talking about having thoughts of sexual favours as a “thank you” for some help you gave. Now that to me is a sign you are still embedded and enmeshed in these cultural myths of masculinity. You wouldn’t do the same with an attractive male peer (I assume) so why is it OK to objectify this female peer?

No-one is asking men to wear blinkers or to electro-shock themselves into sexual incapacity (unless consentingly that’s what floats your boat, I guess). But you do have to interrogate whether you are simply reaffirming your male privilege in doing this, and what myths you are appropriating in this (for example do you believe women dress up for your pleasure or their own?). But you must appreciate that, as Berger says, society is structured so that “men look” and women are objectified by that look. The male gaze is ubiquitous and is the point at which much film making and advertising begins (and sadly for the latter ends). Do you ever think about the recipient of that look? What might she be thinking or feeling about your expression of power?

None of this is meant to say that fantasy is inherently bad but, aside from the sexual function is fulfills, it is well worth looking at the meanings you are attributing to it.