Men challenging male supremacy

In dialogue with feminist, queer and transgender groups, the Challenging Male Supremacy Project works with male activists to raise consciousness and strengthen practices of accountability in order to counter the harms of male violence and privilege, and build broader struggles for transformative justice and collective liberation.

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Alan Greig
26 May 2014
Group of men with one holding a sign.

"Men, today we rise up against domestic violence". Photo (c) Alan GreigIn November 2013 in these pages, Beatrix Campbell made clear the extent to which "a neoliberal neo-patriarchy has emerged as the new articulation of male domination". Less than three months later, in a groundbreaking weekend, "men of all ages and from many walks of life" came together in London at the BAM (Being a Man) festival to "explore all facets of masculinity and male identity".

The disjuncture between the issues discussed by Campbell and those highlighted by the organizers of BAM is striking. Of course, a preference for "masculinity talk" over patriarchy analysis when men are invited to discuss 'their' gender issues and its problematic effects is hardly new. But if wrestling with "all facets of masculinity" often seems to be a way for men to avoid some of the harder questions that confront them in the struggle against "neo-patriarchy", must this always be the case? After all, we can use masculinity, as Connell proposes in her definition of "hegemonic masculinity", as a way to understand our relationship to "the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy"(Masculinities, 1995, Polity Press: Cambridge).

It was partly out of a desire to confront our own gender practices, and the ways in which these challenge or bolster the legitimacy of patriarchy, that a small group of us came together in 2008 to form the Challenging Male Supremacy Project (CMS). As an all-volunteer collective of men in New York City, we have since that time created spaces and developed tools for working with men and masculine-identified people to challenge male supremacist practices and cultures as part of a broader movement for collective liberation.

The push to work together as CMS came from a range of people and experiences in our lives. All of us have, at different times, been called upon by women, whether in our intimate relationships or political communities, to do more not only to change our own sexist attitudes and behaviours, but also to work more actively in supporting liberatory practices and spaces within our communities, in part by holding other men accountable for their oppressive behaviour. Simply by growing up as men in societies such as the USA and UK, which remain so structured by the patriarchal exploitation and violence outlined by Campbell, we have lived with the privileges of being male-identified, and participated in the harm and injustice produced by systemic male supremacy.

We have also experienced, in different ways, the violence of men - whether at home, at school or in the street. When we first met together to discuss forming CMS, one of us had begun to speak publicly about his own experiences of being sexually abused when he was a boy. Some of us were getting involved in processes to hold accountable men in our activist communities who had used violence against women. We saw the damage being done to women and gender non-conforming people by the sexual violence being used against them by men within social justice movements, and what this violence was doing to weaken movements’ struggles for greater justice in the world. We recognized that left unaddressed, male violence within our communities reinforces the status quo of existing oppressive systems, and undermines the belief that a better world is within our collective grasp. The joint statement Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex issued in 2001 by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and Critical Resistance inspired us when it urged:

  • "all men in social justice movements to take particular responsibility to address and organize around gender violence in their communities as a primary strategy for addressing violence and colonialism."

We also saw that male supremacist behaviour within our organizational spaces often goes unchecked, and even unnoticed, because many of us have internalized the male supremacist notion that the "real struggle" is elsewhere, whether in the streets or the halls of government. In addition, some of its most obvious manifestations, such as male sexual violence, can feel especially difficult to address for those of us who recognize that the police and prisons not only fail to prevent this violence, but are themselves institutions whose coercive authority is deeply infused with a patriarchal logic of control through violence.

It became increasingly clear to us as we met and talked that our everyday practices of male privilege are the hardest to acknowledge, let alone address, because they are so thoroughly normalized. And because too often we have operated within a good/bad binary, in which "we", the radical activists, saw ourselves as different from "them", the sexists and patriarchs. The words of US anti-racist organizer Chris Crass resonated with us, in his account of being called upon to change by an intimate partner (Going to places that scare me: Personal reflections on challenging male supremacy):

"What do you mean I'm sexist?" I was shocked. I wasn't a jock, I didn’t hate women, I wasn't an evil person. "But how can I be a sexist, I'm an anarchist?" I was anxious, nervous, and my defenses were up. I believed in liberation, for fighting against capitalism and the state. There were those who defended and benefited from injustice and then there’s us, right?

But as Paul Kivel, co-founder of the Oakland Men’s Project, whose work continues to inspire us, never tires of emphasizing, we need to get beyond these binaries of "us" and "them", the Good Men vs. Bad Men. Instead we must focus on what we as men can do to challenge the male supremacist practices and ideas which privilege us, and produce so much injustice and suffering.

Naming and framing our work

Our initial conversations focused on how to name and frame the work that we wanted to do. Some of us were familiar with and inspired by the work of the Challenging White Supremacy (CWS) Workshops, founded in the San Francisco Bay Area by Sharon Martinas and Mickey Ellinger in 1993. This work was taken forwards from 2000 by the Catalyst Project as the ‘Anti-Racism for Global Justice’ workshop series for grassroots anti-racist organizers working for racial justice, and seeking to challenge white privilege in all their social justice work. The CWS emphasis on consciousness raising and skills building toward transformative organizing, and the focus on mobilizing the people most privileged by a system of oppression to challenge that oppression in solidarity with those targeted by it, resonated strongly with us.

In articulating our work at CMS we not only sought to suggest an affinity with the analyses and strategies of CWS, but more specifically to highlight the importance of necessarily linking projects working for racial and gender justice because of the interlocking nature of white supremacy and male supremacy in US history and contemporary society. In the same way that "white supremacy" is used as the analytical and organizing framework in struggles for racial justice, rather than a discourse of “racism” which can be reduced to a practice of inter-group discrimination, we too saw in the use of “male supremacy” a way of emphasizing our commitment to understanding and addressing the systemic nature of gender oppression.

From the outset, we also rejected the binary gender framework that erases from view the experiences of transgender and other gender non-conforming people. Thus, we made a conscious decision to use the still somewhat unfamiliar term "cisgender", a term coined by transgender activists and used to describe those who identify with the sex and gender identity we were assigned at birth and who are therefore accorded certain privileges by society.

Taking steps to challenge male supremacy

We devoted much of our energies in the first three years to developing and running a nine-session Study-into-Action process, which focused on consciousness raising and skills building. Over a period of nine months in 2009-2010, and six months in 2011, we ran two Study-into-Action processes for a total of 25 men, chosen through our personal networks on the basis of their social justice activism and their desire to work on their own and other men’s gender practices. In its first iteration, we confined the group to cisgender men only, largely because we as the CMS organizers, being cisgender ourselves, did not feel skilled enough and familiar enough with transgender experiences and politics to be able to hold the space adequately for the trans men who sought to participate in the process. However, with the skills and experience we gained from the first round of the CMS Study-into-Action, and our ongoing conversation with trans men who wanted to join the Study-into-Action, we opened up the second round to both cis and trans men.

Flipchart sheets, notes and schemas from a workshop

Photo (c) Alan Greig

In designing the Study-into-Action process, we drew on the teachings and tools of Somatics, an integrative approach to healing and transformation that understands and treats human beings as a complex of mind, body, and spirit. With support from Generative Somatics co-founder Staci Haines, who co-facilitated the first session of the Study-into-Action, we used Somatics to explore the ways in which privilege and power are embodied. Challenging male supremacy requires fundamental transformations in the ways we act, individually and collectively, and the Somatics exercises that we used proved to be powerful ways of getting in touch with not just the conceptual idea, but also the felt experience of what such transformation could be.

In the course of preparing for the Study-into-Action, we approached some of the groups in New York City that do related work in order to formally partner with them in planning this project. The groups included the Safe OUTside the System (SOS) Collective of the Audre Lorde Project, Sisterfire NYC (a collective affiliated with INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence), Third Root Community Health Center, the Welfare Warriors Project of Queers for Economic Justice, CONNECT and individual members of the Rock Dove Collective and an emerging queer people-of-color anti-violence group. As Accountability and Support Partners, these organizations gave us feedback on a curriculum outline several months before our first session, helped to shape its structure and content, and met with us halfway through the first nine-month program to again provide insightful feedback.

Incorporating our partners’ suggestions, we fashioned a nine-session Study-into-Action process, in which we discussed and somatically explored issues ranging from our own experiences of masculinity to manifestations of male violence in our communities, practical actions we could take to change our own and other men’s harmful behaviours, and what practices and processes of accountability outside the criminal penal system could look like. In our final session, we evaluated our process together and discussed our concrete commitments to challenging male supremacy in our intimate relationships and political work.

Taking our work forwards

Accountability, as a practice and a process that can truly generate transformation of harmful behaviours and oppressive systems, was a key theme throughout the Study-into-Action. Given the violence perpetrated by the police, and by courts and prisons against communities of colour and low income communities in the US, it is clear that we need to find other ways to respond to male violence, without relying on state coercion and punitive sanctions. The question we still face is how to respond to the harms of male violence in ways that build solidarity and create community, whilst supporting reparation and healing for those who have been harmed and demanding accountability from the perpetrators.

Since the end of the Study-into-Action process, CMS members have remained active in co-facilitating or supporting accountability processes for men who have used violence within our social justice networks. We continue to be inspired by the example of the "Transformative Justice Collaborative" model initiated by generationFIVE, a Bay Area-based organization focused on ending child sexual abuse in five generations. This model highlights the importance of responding to individual incidents of violence and harm in ways that help to transform the conditions that generate such violence and harm. In collaboration with feminist, queer and trans justice groups throughout New York City, and with the support of Bay Area-based Creative Interventions, we are currently contributing to efforts to build a network of over a dozen collectives, social justice and anti-violence organizations throughout New York who are integrating transformative justice into their work.

In common with other activist groups, we still struggle with the challenge of sustaining our work at the same time as ourselves. Questions about where best to focus our energies persist. Living as we do in the global capital of the neoliberal neo-patriarchy described by Campbell, we, like many others, face the similarly urgent tasks of creating more liberatory practices and spaces within our own communities and holding the State to account for its policy failures and abuses of power. We know that we can only do this collectively, and CMS is committed to continue working on challenging male supremacy as our contribution to broader struggles for collective liberation.

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