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Breaking the Ice: Anarchist Men and Sexism in the Movement

Anonymous Comrade writes:

Breaking the Ice:
Anarchist Men and Sexism in the Movement

Ernesto Aguilar

In Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil
Rights Movement the New Left
Sara Evans writes in painful
detail about the mistreatment of women in political movements. Her
narrative is a sober reminder that sexism within movements has been
going on for years. Today we have many ongoing dialogs about sexism in
the anarchist movement. Most are led by women, and they have created a
space in which to engage constructively. Anarchist men are
unfortunately often silent on the issue of sexism and gender inequity
in our movement. As a male in a visible position, I'm both at fault for
not being more outspoken on it, and for being sexist and wrong on many
occasions. Without honest and self-critical efforts by men, efforts for
change could be for naught, because we are part of the problem. I write
this in hopes that other anarchist males take it upon themselves to act
on sexism and gender inequity and make both priorities.

In the days Evans writes about, many mistakes were made in focusing on
individual lifestyles rather than structural issues. These days, we
make some of the same errors. In my opinion, this discussion is
positioned around three points: 1.) understanding that the debate over
sexism and issues related to female-male relations isn't so much a
debate about actions, but legitimacy; 2.) understanding that all men
are responsible, and that we need to be forthright in admitting our
mistakes as a matter of political, rather than moral/personal,
principle; and 3.) understanding that anarchist women and men must take
an active role in shifting the dispute beyond individual-based
'accountability' and toward a community-based system of restorative
justice.For purposes of being broad, I want to address the spectrum of issues
related to sexism and gender inequity. These go from maltreatment of
women in spaces, pressuring women and romantic/sexual manipulation to
criminally prosecutable offenses such as rape, harassment and sexual
assault. By no means do I believe anarchist women and men should reduce
all these topics down; the broad categorization here is mainly to be
clear that all topics are on the table, and I want to engage everyone
around them. Also, I use the term "women and men" at various junctures,
and such is not intended to imply there aren't issues between those
identifying as transgendered or in same-sex relationships, nor that those
issues are less important. My hope is to help add to the discourse that
many anarchist sisters are leading, and encourage other men to take an
active role.

Legitimacy: Kind, not degree

In his book "Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America,"
Kristian Williams writes a powerful statement about police misconduct
which, in reality, sums up the true divide between abuse generally and
institutional definitions. "In non-totalitarian societies, authority
exists within carefully prescribed, if vague (one might suggest,
intentionally vague), boundaries," Williams writes. "Action within
these limits is 'legitimate,' similar action outside of such limits is
'abuse.'" The difference between legitimate (acceptable) use of power
and illegitimate abuse, Williams concludes, is of degree, rather than

Right about now, women reading this may be catching the implications.
Some women know of male comrades who'll wrangle over the nuances of
their actions, rather than the overarching dilemma, and the even
weightier factor of men's complicity in it. Men know of it too! Even
among the most advanced polemics related to sexual assault among
activist circles, the focus is on individual abuses rather than at
legitimacy, an institutional look at the question, its perpetrators and

I'll stop right here and say I use the word 'institutional' not to
imply the state or society, but anarchist subcultures. The institution,
through political and emotional immaturity and a lack of vision, is
incapable of proactively responding to the subcultural and socialized
patterns that support abuse of women, so it should be no surprise that
there's no sense, beyond appealing to the morality of people, why
gender abuse/violence is tolerated or else viewed in an apolitical
context. Thus, our orientation becomes "calling out people on their
shit," to coin just one term in the anarchist vernacular, but seldom
coming together to find political common ground on responsibility.
Today, as it was 10 years ago when I found myself at the same meetings
as today, the focus is exactly the same: though there are notable
exceptions, for the most part a community of individuals knows they
might respond with anger to an incident, but has little desire to have
ongoing political study and discussion about gender relations before it
happens, and to shape a political culture and analysis of it. As such,
we fall back into old patterns of supporting the legitimacy of the
current system of power, and unequal gender relations which are tied to

How we view legitimacy of abuse has its roots in women's and men's
privileges related to the overall society and concepts of relative
deprivation. In "What is the Revolutionary Potential of Women's
Liberation," Kathy McAfee and Myrna Wood observe "our concept of
liberation represents a consciousness that conditions have forced on us
while most of our sisters are chained by other conditions, biological
and economic, that overwhelm their humanity and desires for self
fulfillment." For radicals to really understand truly difficult women's
conditions, the authors write, they must understand the anxiety of an
uneducated woman to find the "best" man to provide for her, hard labor
or daily brutalization. By no means do I posit that gender inequity or
violence within the anarchist movement are less important; I believe
the anarchist movement may be all too concerned with individual
actions, rather than seeing the individual actions as part of a much
more insidious sphere of influence, which most certainly includes what
women of color and poor women face every day but which is not regarded
as sexism.

Thus it must be seen that legitimacy is further tied with framing of
social realities. For anarchists to question the legitimacy of gender

oppression, we also need to look at the authority of who historically
shapes the discussion (males, whites, etc.) -- not because we should
focus on merely dismantling that power, but to see the competing
interests and contradictions within capitalism. In particular, people
of color have blazed many trails on the topic of legitimacy, abuse and
its results. Theorists such as Robert Staples and Harold Cruse were
among a multitude of radicals who pushed the Civil Rights-era Black
liberation movement to understand, more than just various issues, the
base problem for people of African descent was internal colonization.
Obviously, as Evans writes, there have been divisions over the years
between feminism and Black liberation, and I believe we need to
vigorously agitate against equating racism with sexism; my example is
merely used to remind anarchists of movements before us

Unconscious, uncritical acceptance of dominant culture ideas, to which
sexism and gender oppression and intimately linked, are noteworthy
here. Grace Lee Boggs, in "Beyond Eurocentrism: Chinese-American woman
activist critique of European bias about notions of freedom," says such
dominant culture ideas have been espoused by both French enlightenment
figures as well as Marxists assumed to be their opposition:

Every individual, this world view proclaimed, has an inalienable right
to freedom and equality. Through faith in reason and science, it
promised, human beings can achieve total liberation and total
perfection. Marx criticized the Enlightenment for its linear concept of
progress, but his concept of scientific socialism as a potential world
system shows how much he shared its faith in reason and science...
however, these ideas are losing their hold on us. The liberation
struggles of Third World and indigenous peoples have helped us to see
how the belief in the universal validity of the ideas of the
Enlightenment have provided legitimacy to the imperialist destruction
of indigenous cultures. Our growing estrangement from each other and
from Nature are helping us to see how faith in reason and science have
supported the objectification and commodification of human beings and
Nature which are inherent in capitalism. Meanwhile, the emergence of
mass society has exposed the limitations of reason, and the
self-acknowledged failure of centralized socialist economies is forcing
us to go beyond Marx's concept of scientific socialism as the answer to
capitalism. In a world in which rampant consumerism has turned us into
collaborators with capitalism in estranging ourselves and in poisoning
our planet, there is a growing recognition that we need philosophies
which go beyond the anthropomorphism and reductionism of scientific
rationalism: philosophies which are metaphysical, not because they
aspire to absolute truth but because they recognize that reality is not
limited to what can be known by science; philosophies which emphasize
our interconnectedness with one another and with other living things
and therefore empower us to relate to one another as brothers and
sisters and to greet the earth as grandmother, sister, and mother: in
other words, philosophies which will empower us to transform ourselves
and our relationships with one another and with nature-just as the
philosophy of scientific rationalism in the 17th and 18th centuries
empowered the rising bourgeoisie to pursue the development of the
productive forces.

Lee's criticism could easily apply to how the anarchist movement
formulates solutions. Individual liberty and expression are maintained
as core vales -- women should have space for their anger and men should
be checked, for example -- but we rarely analyze how what happens
relates to Third World women or the capitalist system at large. We
dissect the degree of the abuse (personal crime), but not the kind
(gender oppression). Early anarchist feminist pieces like "A Message to
'Anarchist' Men, and Then Some" and "What it is to be a Girl in an
Anarchist Boys' Club" are typical of the individualizing of experience.
Much of the conversation treats the individual as central to the
experience, with short shrift given to a much more pervasive systemic
issue. Certainly, I don't wish to be insensitive to supporting
anarchist sisters in dealing with individual men -- the web of gender
oppression isn't showing up at meetings to be an asshole nor does it
cajole women for sex, obviously -- but I want to remind anarchists of
the problem with individualized, Western/European concepts of freedom
and liberty, and their contemporary incarnation as battering rams
against community and radical politics. I will write more on
individualism and community later.

Though there are indubitably folks seeking to connect the dots, for the
most part, I forward, instances of movement-connected gender-based
exploitation are legitimized and tolerated by our anarchist movement.
In a many cases, men still look at these as just women's problems, for
which they don't need to be concerned, or feign off personal
responsibility without critical politics regarding such collaboration
or passivity. As part of our broader political consciousness, we need
to be resolute that men who pressure women, mistreat women or are
disrespectful in our community are legitimizing the current power
structure and contributing to an extensive grid of power which holds
people back. Chiefly, anarchist women and men need to see gender-based
injustice as an expression of the dominant culture's ethos, which we as
anarchists must be vigilant in struggling against.

Legitimacy is the key here. How is gender oppression defined by
everyone in a community? What is accepted? What is not? Why is the
low-level abuse and mistreatment tolerated or accepted and, in some
case, defended or avoided by men? How do the women and men involved,
subtly allow low-level gender-based abuse to go on? How are our
solutions focused individually? And what are we accepting of the
dominant culture's norms that we fail to be conscious of? Herein we're
going at more than just sexism and gender inequity, but the legitimacy
of gender oppression and the socialization that imbues it.

Community-wide, we need to look at the intricacies of our institutions.
As individuals, especially men, we need to move beyond understanding
abuse as an individual issue, but an institutional one -- not for
purposes of shifting the blame, but as one where such actions reflect a
responsibility, or lack thereof, to our politics. That understanding
should not obscure the need for men to be responsible for themselves,
as part of the larger picture.

Responsibility: The personal is not political

You'll notice I tend to speak on politics first, rather than morals. In
a capitalist system, anarchists should be skeptical of morals. The same
leaders who present themselves as pious followers of the Lord are the
same ones slaughtering Black and Brown people around the world.
Morality is a commodity aimed at manipulation. Unfortunately, a few of
us fall prey to it. For instance, it pains me to hear people equate
lifestyle choices or public discourse on private lives as an extension
of "the personal is political." As an anarchist, hearing this
liberalized version of what radical feminists long before us fought
hard to clarify is embarrassing to me. The personal as political
concept was originally developed by the feminist milieu as a way of
understanding that the reasons we face personal hardships are a direct
result of the state. Women aren't disempowered, feminists reasoned,
because they were inferior, but because the state and male
beneficiaries of power had many tools in place that thwarted their
rising. The personal as political was a tool for breaking state power,
and keeping each other accountable to the broader circle.

The false conception anarchists have now is that the personal is not
political, but individualized: people make individual choices through
individual values and we respond to them appropriately, or win
victories by their singular steps. This is, in fact, lifestylism that
removes revolutionary or anarchist political context from anything,
because by design it's focused on individual morality, rather than
political vision. Previous movements, particularly oppressed people's
struggles, saw the personal as an expression of the neocolonial
society's values, and that confronting individual action was synonymous
with confronting the state. Sara Evans writes that Southern white women
in particular were transformed by their contact with the Black power
movements and civil rights work; they hypothesized the exploitation of
women as a political matter as well as one in which men collaborated.
Talking about state power was not aimed at avoiding blame (nor should
it ever now), but to return to a broader political perspective, and
help people find a means of address personal failures.

Analysts like Rus Ervin Funk (in "A Peace Activist Reflects on Women's
Rights as Human Rights") argue that a public/private dividing line
inherently favors men because men control public discourse and human
rights violations that target women are often private and rarely
considered. Though such arguments, at their base, have an echo of
truth, the issue of exploitation is again, a matter of legitimacy. Men,
in fact, control discourses. Human rights violations do indeed target
women privately (though Funk is misleading in consideration, as human
rights accords today consider sexual assault, for example, as an
issue). Where the "personal is political" assertion displays its
liberalism is that it assumes switching the dynamic fundamentally
changes the system, or mere exposure makes an integral difference. If
men don't control discourses, does sexual violence or mistreatment
stop? As we've seen through public policies like the Violence Against
Women Act, simply considering an abuse in a different light might alter
the sanction, but does not consequently change the behavior. Think
about that in terms of all power hierarchies, how they do or don't
operate, and what happens as a result. As anarchists, it is important
for women and men to see such a distinction. In order for us to change
things, we need to move beyond simply thinking that the "personal is
political" and more understand the political nature of the institutions

Men must see it is a basic political and institutional principle that
we have a responsibility to critique and speak openly about ourselves
and our actions. This isn't so much a contradiction in the "personal as
political" debate I outlined earlier, for anarchists understand that
simply changing behavior does not do away with power relations. Still,
acknowledgment is at the heart of so many of our politics -- we want
our grievances looked at or we create scenes as spaces where our ideas
can be seriously discussed. Avoiding or minimizing such a serious issue
as sexism betrays the need for solutions. In order for anarchist men to
take the next step in this discussion, it's important we acknowledge we
can, have and do make mistakes, again as a matter of political

Within neocolonial culture particularly, that isn't a simple thing to
do. Men are discouraged from talking about their faults. Men of color,
especially Black men, are forced by the indignities heaped upon us to
avoid talking about how we feel. But, let's be honest: your sisters, no
matter well-intentioned, indignant and right they may be, won't get
through to you until you're ready to listen and accept complete
responsibility, without reservations or excuses, for your behavior and
in checking other guys. Not all of us do it, which doesn't make us
horrible people, but means we need to step up. We need to step up
because anti-authoritarian ideals need us as its proponents, showing
why these ideas are indispensable in a new world. However, many of us
have some messed-up gender politics, and we ignore exploitation when it
happens. I'm not talking about people at meetings or varied instances,
but in our own everyday actions.

Institutionally, men are permitted to avoid responsibility through
various means. Williams cites the work of Paul Kivel, author of
"Uprooting Racism," with abusive men who justify their behavior through
nine primary means. These include denial, minimization, blame,
redefinition, unintentionality, counterattack and competing
victimization. Others, Kivel writes, prefer to portray the issue as
isolated or in the (recent or distant) past. Williams quotes Kivel, who
notes "I was continually perplexed by [men's] inability to see the
effects of their actions and their ability to deny the violence they
had done to their partners or children." Kivel adds, "I only slowly
became aware of the complex set of tactics that men use to make
violence against women invisible and to avoid taking responsibility for
their actions."

I began my own journey on this issue by acknowledging my own failures
in gender politics, of being disrespectful to women and of getting
involved in ways I shouldn't. Such a revelation is not easy though! I
made excuses, blamed others, justified it, dismissed people's
criticism, or just minimized it by saying we all 'make mistakes.' It
wasn't until I was willing to say there's a difference between making
mistakes and being selfish and self-centered that I saw how much we as
anarchist men need to do. We are all indubitably struggling to live out
our politics, but that's not a defense to being backward politically.
It is formidable; anyone who has been touched by capitalism's
individualistic themes believes they have a right to say and do as they
please, without concern for how it affects others. Anarchist men need
to be reminded that such is only a lie aimed at upholding the dominant
culture's values, and undercutting anarchist notions of community.

There are plenty of defenses for avoidance. Men believe that avoiding
what happens will protect them, or ensure they won't be looked down on.
Yet, the risk is a small price to pay, because we don't make a change
by not being open about the past. Consider South Africa's Truth and
Reconciliation Commission, tasked by the government with investigating
the "nature, causes and extent" of human rights violations under
apartheid. We're not talking petty crimes, but former police, security
agents and others who testified that they were guilty of the most
heinous tortures and murders imaginable, all in the name of protecting
white rule over the Black majority. Those abusers received full amnesty
in exchange for their testimony, while those who suffered gave their
accounts as well. Black and white South Africa realized that, without
honesty, accountability and closure, its people would never be able to
move beyond apartheid. Obviously, I don't wish to intermingle or equate
racism and sexism; my point is that disclosure is a necessary step to
open politics. It is essential to such a process that men concede and
own up to their actions as they relate to relationships with
women/partners, without excuses. More anarchist men must be willing to
talk about our own actions in hopes of encouraging a larger discussion
among radical movements, especially men, about sexism and the treatment
of women.

Even moreso than to individuals or our own desire to be liked or even
admired, we are first and foremost accountable to the movements and
vision to which we are committed. We can't live in a liberated world
and not be responsible to each other. As a person, I have a deep
responsibility to other anarchists of color, and I believe not
reconciling my politics with my actions contradicts the principle of
anti-authoritarianism. More men need to consider such.

It's vital for women and men to understand that accepting
responsibility is not a guilt-trip deal, but a matter of political
responsibility. Among the great failures of the fashionable 'post-left'
anarchist theory is the implication that individuals have no commitment
to supporting and growing with each other. In "Post-Left Anarchy:
Leaving the Left Behind," Jason McQuinn argues that the "autonomous
individual is the fundamental basis of all genuinely anarchistic
theories of organization," and, though he also supports concepts of
transparency, "no rule and no ruler both mean there is no political
authority above people themselves, who can and should make all of their
own decisions however they see fit." Anything that falls outside the
realm of one's own decision, it's connoted, is an unwelcome advance to
which no struggle should be invested. What I suggest is that
individuals exist more richly with communities, and that they directly
and indirectly benefit emotionally, politically, socially and
materially from them. More conspicuously, in gaining benefits, people
form communities and have a stake in said associations. Men who violate
unspoken community values of respect for women or who collaborate in
making such acts invisible need to understand their responsibility to a
community, and the damage such acts do to the sense of ownership among
members of a community.

Revolutionary accountability

In visioning community, theorist Patricia Hill Collins writes that
people of African descent have reshaped notions of power with models of
community that stress connections, caring and personal accountability.
Black people, she points out in "Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix
of Domination," haven't been afforded the time to theorize new ways of
conceiving community, for they've never had access. Community is played
out in daily actions. "The spheres of influence created and sustained
by African-American women are not meant solely to provide a respite
from oppressive situations or a retreat from their effects," Hill
Collins says. "Rather, these Black female spheres of influence
constitute potential sanctuaries where individual Black women and men
are nurtured in order to confront oppressive social institutions."

The anarchist notion of community needs to balance individual needs
with our political directives. If we're anarchists, our objective
should be to challenge state power in all its forms; what happens in
our communities is an extension of our confidence in our politics, and
our politics (by extension, ourselves) are constantly something we
should self-examine and critique. My primary criticism with how sexism,
sexual assault and so forth are dealt with in movements is a
fundamental misunderstanding of what we want to build as a movement and
what values we want to convey. It's central to understand that simply
refusing to call the police isn't particularly political (save for
protecting men from prosecution). What needs to happen is a basic
change in how we understand the society we as anarchists want to create.

Among the most ambiguous words among anarchists is 'accountability.' Accountability, at least in an anarchist sense, implies a community
responsibility and a mutual effort to resolve conflicts.
Accountability, as it is now translated into specifics and implemented,
is individualized by incident and doesn't seek to build a political
culture against sexism, perhaps indicative of the lack of a cohesive
political culture among anarchists as a whole.

Anarchists need to grow the definition of accountability from shame,
punitive action and expulsion to a vision where communities encourage
and support women in healing and men in living lessons within the
contexts of their lives. There is great power in shame -- shame for
women in speaking out and shame for men in their acts -- and I want to
talk about moving beyond shame and the past to solutions. Clearly, my
goal is not to patronizingly say 'forgive and forget' because closing

the door on exploitation is a long process. Yet I believe our current
accountability models address an instance rather than build a community
ethos from which we can grow. As Bell Hooks remarks in "All About
Love," communities are families; where the power of a community and of
gender as a central organizing point must be key to resist power
systems. We're not doing that now, in my opinion.

There are many dynamic community solutions of addressing
accountability. One of the most popular of those models is restorative
justice, a system that emphasizes healing the wounds of victims,
offenders and communities caused by antisocial behavior. By no means
perfect, restorative justice seeks to identify and take steps to repair
damage; actively involving all those involved, and shifts the emphasis
of response to actions from state-mediated mediums to the community.

Nadia Biermans and Marie-Nathalie d'Hoop authored a study on
restorative justice, and the conscious decision of a state to reshape
its criminal justice policies, in "Development of Belgian prisons into
a restorative perspective." Reasons for shifting this discussion, the
authors say, were twofold: 1.) to address the conflict between the
victim and offender and helping both deal with the conflict; and 2.)
changing the culture and mentality in prisons. Researchers started by
conducting information sessions on restorative justice. Offenders,
researchers observed, displayed some of the avoidance mechanisms Kivel
pointed out in "Uprooting Racism" -- they tended to view themselves as
victims (often as a result of dehumanization from isolation) and
minimized the harm done to their victims. Tackling these behaviors
demonstrated the need for talking to offenders about their feelings and
working with them to recognize their victims. The role of those who
have been wronged is central to restorative justice as well.

Contrast this form of accountability with what we see in many scenes.
Here, acknowledgment and responsibility are stressed first, rather than
shame-based reaction. Defying power means understanding our own power
to change the dynamics. Before seeking a new system for coping, men
need to understand the contemporary, feminist-constructed definitions
of sexual assault, violence, sexism and other forms of gender-based
oppression. Men also need to be agreed that such topics are serious
anarchist and community issues, and that public discourse about these
concerns are among our top priorities which women and men must make
honest efforts to undertake. In addition, men need to see gender-based
oppression is multi-faceted, and that it's not supposed to be normal or
acceptable in anarchist circles or in egalitarian sexual relations;
this means obvious instances (insults, harassment, violence, rape,
assault) and subtle actions (romantic/sexual overtures, exclusion,
disrespect, blame) must be agreed as unacceptable as a community-wide
norm. Finally, men must make a political commitment to support women
who seek solidarity in what they face.

Like many solutions, restorative justice is an evolving theory, which
permits us to help shape an explicitly anti-authoritarian tendency.
Balancing power is among the greatest challenges for anarchists in this
regard. Young people (and older people) should get heard by peers, as
well as others in the community. Likewise, people of color have more
than a group of whites helping deal with situations. Add to that fair
representation among offenders and victims and their defenders, which
can turn potential healing into confrontations and silence. Within each
complication is bound a series of Western assumptions of justice,
especially due process and trial by jury. Restorative justice seeks to
avoid, in the words of advocate John Braithwaite, "adversarial
legalism," where offenders and victims are removed from the process.

Visioning restorative justice and community takes a few of the
components listed here. Care and commitment to change as a political
priority must be part of it. But it starts with all of us.

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So, how do we get there?

Much of that is a conversation anarchist circles need to have in an
organized, open and patient way. On a larger scale, it will take a
shift in how we think about gender in the movement, and how our
personalization to everything must evolve to incorporate the political.
While we need to individually see why morality is such a strong pull,
anarchists also need to grasp its cultural currency today, and endeavor
for real consensus about the definition and elimination of assault,
violence, et al. as a political aspiration.

On a smaller scale, it will take men individually to take it upon
themselves to work on sexist behavior, as a means of solidifying our
anarchist sensibilities. I must strongly caution that I do not believe,
just because men must take on gender issues as a means of making
anarchist ideas stronger, that men should lead or be at the center of
the struggle. Anarchists should grasp this principle as a matter of
respect. When we begin talking about anything, anarchists tend to get
ahistorical; we forget to seek out the work of those before us, or
today's fights by those affected. In this case, many feminist women,
long before us, have written and lived powerful, dynamic theory from
which we should be inspired to learn. Women today are also setting
powerful examples that could reshape our vision.

On a personal level, I've learned how important it is to express
empathy with people who have been victims, even if I am sometimes
working on how to express myself well and be sensitive to the
implications of my own errors. I confess I have a lot to learn, and I
try to not handle criticism in a defensive way. I've also learned I
need to be willing to call attention to myself and share my personal
experiences, even though it may be tough and not too flattering, in
hopes of generating awareness to sexism. Such has been part of a deeper
political discovery that my personal comfort is far less important than
the anarchist struggle to which I've committed my life. The collective
good is something I've often talked about, but living it out in such a
way has made me reflective of the much greater sacrifices women of
color make on a daily basis.

I've learned pointing out that I do these things is not for recognition
or praise, but because, as a matter of political commitment, it should
be part of my daily routine, as it should be for all men. I recognize
I, as a male, am still a work in progress in terms of sexist
socialization, and my political practice regarding gender equality
isn't where it could or should be. I also make an effort to remember
not to use such facts as excuses for slacking off or minimizing the
impact of errors I make.

I respectfully disagree with some writers who articulate that men,
especially men who may not have the most politically correct practice,
have no role in formulating solutions around this issue. Part of the
problem with such proclivities is the value judgment in