Teenage Boys: How to Support Your Moms, Sisters, and Girlfriends
Introduction: Co-writing credit for this article belongs to Pamela Clark. I have never met her. I read her article, "35 Practical Tools for Men to Further Feminist Revolution." I wished for there to be a parallel article that would be accessible to teenagers. I found Pamela Clark's email and told her my intentions to re-work her original text. She gave me an enthusiastic response. I did the rewrite and sent it to her. I didn't hear from her. In the ensuing months I sent her emails and tweets--with no communication or closure and agreement on moving forward with the article. If you are reading this introduction, I still haven't heard from her--but the article needed to climb out of my files and get some air. I look forward to hearing back from Pamela.
1. “Man up” on the house work
You are old enough now to clean up after yourself when you eat, shower, play, and dress. Tell your buddies to pick up after themselves too, and not leave a mess for the women folk. Same for your brothers. You’ll see that vacuum cleaners and dishwashers and washing machines work just as well for a young man as they do for a woman. If you are not sure what you can do to help out around the house, ask. And remember, you can keep your house clean without being asked or told to do so.
2. Make the effort to put your feelings into words.
Women are often pulling for us to say what we feel. When you were a little boy, you had just a few words to say how you felt: mad, glad, sad. But now you probably feel mixtures of feelings--you can be both excited and nervous at the same time, or determined and caring. When the women in your life share their many feelings, you can match them. Better yet: you can share your feelings first.
One of the most difficult times you may face sharing your feelings respectfully with women is when you are angry. Our culture is filled with images of men yelling, threatening, and abusing women when they are angry. When you are angry with or hurt by a woman, do not resort to sexist name calling. If you are having a disagreement with a woman, don’t use insults aimed at all women--disagree with her on the basis of her ideas.
3. Keep an eye out for women who are making a difference in the world
A lot of great and important women have been forcefully ignored throughout history, but you can make the effort to check them out. They have things to say about the world that a lot of guys have never heard. Some of the greatest writers in the world are women, and they write books guys would like. Watch some women’s’ sports. Listen closely when a woman politician or commentator is speaking. Find out how women got the vote. Learn the history of birth control. Support women who are working to make the world better.
4. Give women space.
Many women walk around -- especially at night or while alone -- feeling on edge and unsafe, especially when there are men around whom they don’t know. If you think about it, given how many of our moms and sisters and girlfriends have been harassed or abused or bothered or intimidated by all sorts of guys, it makes sense for them to be extra careful. And there’s no way for them to know what sort of guy you are. So it’s important that you take the extra effort to help all women feel safe in public.
Examples: If a seat is available on a bus or train next to a man, take that seat rather than one next to a woman. If you are walking outside in the dark, close to a woman walking alone, cross the street so that she doesn’t have to worry someone is following her. If a woman is standing alone on a subway platform, stand some distance away from her.
5. … and step up when women are being targeted
If one of the women in your life is looking uncomfortable as a man is speaking to her, say “hello” to her and join the conversation, so she can have a chance to get out of the situation if she wants to do that. If you see a woman you don’t know who seems upset while with a man, stand near enough that you make yourself a physical presence, monitor the situation, and be in a position to call for help if needed. Sometimes just standing in the area can make the situation safer for a woman.
Things like this can be super difficult, awkward, and complicated to know how to do, but it’s worth trying anyway. Making yourself feel momentarily uncomfortable is a fair tradeoff for making everyone’s moms, sisters, and girlfriends feel and be safe.
6. When a woman tells you something is sexist, or is making her uncomfortable, believe her.
Guys tell lots of jokes and stories that make fun of women’s bodies, or their feelings, or their work. These jokes and stories can be very insulting to the women in your life. So when your mom or sister or female friends tell you something is sexist, stop for a moment and consider things from her point of view. She may be also asking for your support. The women in our lives have a lot to tell us about the sexist things we don’t even notice.
7. When you want to be sexual, your partner has to completely agree to do so.
Every moment of physical contact has to be voluntary. From putting your hand on a girl’s body, to kissing, to any type of sexual activity, the women in our lives have the right to say “yes” and the right to say “no”—as do you. At any point, she can say “no” and that has to be as far as it goes. “Yes” to one thing does not mean yes to anything else.
8. …and you share the responsibility for birth control.
First, as noted in #7 above, all sex has to be voluntary. Once it is clear that you both want to proceed, talk about birth control with her. It can take just one sexual encounter for a woman to get pregnant, and the two of you have to discuss this risk. If your woman friend does not want to take the risk of getting pregnant, you have to have birth control in place. There are many types of birth control that you can learn about with an on-line search. If your partner prefers a particular method, let her be in charge of making that decision without questioning or complaining about it. Don’t argue about using a condom if that’s all you’ve got. You can be the one who buys them and has them available, if that’s the method you’re using. If you and your partner are using another form of birth control, share in the cost.
9. …and to get the HPV vaccine.
HPV is short for Human Papillomavirus, a common virus in both women and men. It is passed from person to person during sexual activity. HPV can cause many cancers, most commonly cervical cancer in women. Every year, there are also over 9,300 HPV-related cancers in men, including rarely cancer of the penis. Many of these cancers could be prevented by HPV vaccine. If you are a young man, get it. Women are more at risk of developing cancer from HPV, so be a responsible partner and get vaccinated.
10. Be an equal partner when women are doing all the work
For example, if you are at a big family dinner or party, the moms and sisters and girlfriends may be doing all the cooking and cleaning, while men are socializing and relaxing. Get up and join the work team.
11. Respect and support women when they speak up and step up
When your mom or sister or girlfriend has an opinion to share, make sure you and the other guys are not drowning her out by speaking loudly and aggressively. You can say, “I’m listening,” so she can take her rightful place in any conversation. When one of the women wants to do something that is usually considered a man’s job, like working on the car, or buying equipment, or playing football, be the first to say, “That’s cool.” You might also have to tell other guys to give her space. That’s cool, too.
12. Take a stand when women are being treated badly
Challenge people who make, say, or post sexist things on the Internet, especially on social media.
13. Don’t stare at women or make comments. (Keep your comments to yourself.)
Even though a woman may be wearing a more revealing outfit than a man, don’t stare her down, or make cat calls, or other sexualizing remarks, just because you want to and can. Though you may find someone attractive, there’s a line between noticing, and being creepy and disrespectful. Definitely don't yell comments about a woman’s appearance to her from across the street or while you're in your car. Doing that is just as likely to make a woman feel unsafe as admired. Being respectful and quiet in those situations makes the world a safer place for everyone’s moms, sisters, and girlfriends.
The time to tell a woman you think she is attractive is when you can talk to her face-to-face as part of a normal conversation.
14. …and don’t police women’s appearance.
In most communities, there’s a lot of pressure on women to be attractive to men. A woman may choose to wear make-up and stylish clothing one day, and other days she will choose not to do that; some women never want to try to look a certain way. That’s their right. It’s not men’s job to judge how a woman chooses to do her hair or clothing, or to tell her about it. Their bodies, in all sorts of sizes and shapes, are their own to manage however they choose to.
Of course, the movies and ads are filled with women who are hired to be attractive—and almost always, those images have been altered through software. Be on the lookout for women in movies and TV and books who aren’t there only as an object for the male characters. The real women in your life don’t have to look a certain way to be important and worthwhile.
15. Give a shout-out to the women in your life.
Talk about the importance and respect you feel for your mom, sisters, and girlfriends. Suggest that they be considered for projects, jobs, and teams. Lots of guys may overlook everything about the women except for how they look. You can start to change that.
16. Speak to your friends when they are being disrespectful to women
When your friend is doing or saying things that put down women (telling sexist jokes, insulting women, staring at women, cheating on girlfriends) say something to your friend. It’s not enough to think it’s wrong; let them know you think it’s wrong. You can say, “That’s not cool. I wouldn’t want anyone talking like that about my sister.”
17. Don’t call your mom a nag when she is asking you to step up
The same is true for your sister and girlfriend. Talk to them about what they need from you. Calling a woman a nag has been a way that guys have ignored their own responsibilities. Work it out with the women; don’t call them names.
18. Have female friends who are not your girlfriends
You may meet a girl in school or the neighborhood who shares an interest in movies or basketball or music. Or who is just a good person to talk to sometimes. You can ask her to spend time with you, “not as a date, just to hang out.”
A girl may also want to be your friend—and no more than that—for the same reasons. Even if you are a great guy, a girl might not like you romantically--she's allowed to make up her own mind about that. If you have a great time (whether or not it is a date), and she doesn't want to kiss you afterward, respect her choice. Do not force yourself on her in any fashion. She may turn out to be a great friend, but not if she has to push you away.
19. Support women who are teachers, mentors, and leaders
If you are seeking a mentor or teacher, or want to volunteer with an organization, go with a woman, or woman-led organization. Guys can learn from women in positions of authority.
20. Offer to accompany female friends if they have to walk home alone at night, or to places where they may feel unsafe.
Your company on even a short walk can make a big difference in how your friend feels, and how she is treated. If you offer and she says, “No thanks” you’ve done your job for now.
21. Don’t excuse bad behavior towards women because someone’s been drinking or under the influence of drugs.
Women are often the target of abuse and violence from drunken men. If something you do or say is not okay when you are sober, it’s not okay when you’ve been drinking or using. You might have to step in and help a woman get safely away from a man acting poorly under the influence.
22. Be a guy who women can feel comfortable being around.
Don’t tower over a woman to show how much bigger you are—that’s scary. Don’t take up a lot of space around women by sitting with your legs wide apart. Don’t interrupt because your voice is louder. It’s not that women are weak—women have had to be very strong and courageous to hold jobs and support families. It’s just that men are usually bigger than women, and a lot of women have been physically pushed around by men. By sitting down, by listening, by saying, “I hear you,” you can be one of the guys who make the world a better place.
23. Be bold and call yourself a feminist.
Your buddies may not know what you mean! You can say, “It means I support women having equal rights. It means I don’t go around putting women down. It means I want every woman to be treated as well as I want everyone to treat my mom and my sister and my girlfriend.”
Being a guy who is a feminist also means that you want the right not to be a typically macho guy. You’ll be looking at how the world encourages men to hold in their real feelings, to be violent, and to dominate women—and you’ll be saying, “That’s not me.”