At every stage in a woman's life, we risk being maligned, stereotyped, mistreated, harassed, or abused. Whether we're posting a selfie on Instagram, speaking up in a meeting, or waiting in line at the pharmacy. When we're jogging at night, posting an opinion to Twitter, or walking home listening for footsteps behind us. In a world that poses risk at every turn, it's easy to feel gratitude about men who do the bare minimum: Who respect you, don't abuse you, empathize with you. Let's be clear: This is the bare minimum that you deserve from another human being.
It's not that male feminists don't deserve credit. To the contrary, we need male feminists — we can only achieve equal rights with equal participation by both sexes, especially given that the majority of lawmakers are men. It's that male feminists don't deserve more credit than woman feminists.
You would never, for example, passionately applaud a female feminist simply for her belief that women deserve to be paid the same as men; that's a basic human right. Rather than being pleasantly surprised that men are willing to show up to fight for our rights as well as theirs, we should expect it.
Thanks to the cascade of sexual violence experiences coming to light with #MeToo, it's never been clearer just how much power men have, and how, often, they use it against women. Every woman has an experience with sexual abuse at the hands of men, whether it's being catcalled, harassed, or made to feel ashamed. That's the less horrifying end of the spectrum: Many women you know have been raped, physically abused, and sexually assaulted.
Seeking justice can be yet another traumatic experience. Women are forced to relive their assault, their sexual and psychological history can be used to undermine their experience, and the legal system is stacked against them.
This isn't to say that men aren't also victims of sexual assault and harassment, and that their experiences aren't just as valid as those of female victims. In fact, it can be even more difficult for men to discuss and report their experiences with sexual abuse, given the stigma around men being sexually assaulted and the tendency to not believe male victims. This is part of the reason we need feminism: To level the playing field so that men aren't forced to conform to harmful male stereotypes, and can come forward about their experiences with sexual abuse with the expectation that they will be believed.
What all victims of sexual abuse have in common is this: The person responsible for their abuse has power (whether emotionally, mentally, physically, or otherwise) and chooses to use it against them. Given that women are most likely to be killed by their male partner than anybody else, and that 9 in 10 rape victims are women — not to mention the fact that women's perceived lack of power permeates every aspect of society — it follows logic that, when a man chooses to use his own power to fight for women's rights rather than against them, we feel almost painfully grateful. After all, if so many men have chosen to abuse or assault us, then it must be a rare and outstanding man who chooses to protect us instead.
Let's take consent, for example. Several campaigns that seek to protect women have tried to frame consent as "sexy," with the goal of making asking for consent more appealing. These campaigns are well-intended, but what this messaging suggests is that men need to be "tricked" into asking for consent — and, it's implied, should be rewarded for doing so. We shouldn't be making consent "sexy"; instead, we should be making clear that giving consent to sex is a legal right. We should be expanding the punishment for those who engage in sex without consent, and bolstering the rights of victims who didn't consent.
When we set the bar this low for men — well done for speaking up against harassment! Thank you for reaching out to a female friend who's been raped! Good work for making sure a drunk girl gets home safely! — we normalize just how low the bar is. We need men to do these things now more than ever, but, to achieve that, we have to hold them to as high a standard as we set for ourselves, and for our female friends.
It seems like a catch-22: If we absolutely need men to behave in a certain way, then shouldn't we be providing positive reinforcement when they do? Surely, if we ignore their good behavior, we're discouraging them from repeating it?
But here's the thing: Men are not dogs. They are not children. It is not our job to give them a treat when they fight inequality. We already know that we deserve much more from them, and it's time to expect it.