**Disclaimer** This is not written to or about any guy in particular. But it is something I have been ruminating about, pretty much since I encountered the catalyst for this post.
A little while ago, my friend John wrote a piece on his (now defunct, as an act of protest and personal fulfillment best outlined here) Facebook page about how to react when a woman says something to him like, "men suck". It was, in short, a plea for men to not get their backs up about such a statement, to not feel personally affronted, and to not think that meant action was required. What I think was missing from an otherwise excellent and succinct piece is the meaning of a woman you're close to offering that (and, hopefully, the reasons behind it), to you. It means she sees you as a confidante, as an ally, as someone who is not going to take the experience that generated that response - her experience - and make it about you. It means you are included on a list - sometimes, a very short list - of Safe Spaces, and Safe People.
I'm not personally a fan of "men suck" exaltations, partially because I find, most often, that people in general suck, and also partially because I like to think better of men as a whole than to lump them all in with the assholes who on more than one occasion have made my gas-getting a hellish experience. That's one of the reasons why I'm a feminist. Because I believe men can be better, and should be expected to be better. Just like women. Here, in this space, I feel that it is unproductive to the max, because this is a place where at its best (and oftentimes, it is not at its best), I try to figure out why the things that irritate me about the world we live in are the way they are. And, in short, it isn't because men suck. A lot of men sucking is just one symptom of a larger kyriachical system, and it is that system that needs examining and dismantling on a large scale.
But what I am a fan of are safe spaces. I'm a fan of allowing members of a marginalized group to release the tension and anger and fear they hold toward a group with more systemic privilege (and whose members wield that privilege), in a non-violent, fairly benign fashion. Sometimes, that's saying something along the lines of "members of ______ group suck. A lot". And sometimes, as a woman, it really does feel like men really do suck. I don't mean, "Those guys don't want to date me. All men suck". I mean, "This is the third guy in as many hours who has conversed with my breasts instead of with me. Men suck." I don't mean, "That guy over there didn't hold the door open for me. Men suck". I mean, "I can't hold the reasonable expectation I will not be forcibly groped if I go see my friend's boyfriend's band. Men suck". The difference between those two thoughts are huge. The former in both cases is myopic and petty, and if that is why the girl in front of you is saying "men suck", then she, indeed, is a jerk. Just like a guy would be if he said "Women don't want to date me. They suck". But if it is the latter, if she has chosen to share with you how men suck when you are indeed of the male persuasion, then it means something about you. It means, she believes you are someone who will be sympathetic. You're going to be someone who isn't going to take this moment and say, "Not all men suck. I don't suck". Because, hey, this moment isn't about you. This conversation isn't about you. This conversation isn't about how, in order to not hurt your, Guy She's Talking To's, feelings, she needs to frame it as "The People (Because It Isn't Only Guys) Who Behave This Way Because of the Kyriachy Suck". It's just about her.
And if she's a friend, then sometimes the thing you as a guy have to realize is, what she needs is someone on her team. Someone who will understand that sometimes unwillingly being part of a dominant group of people is a no-win situation, because being enlightened means you (hopefully) are not a random bar groper; but at the same time, you don't have a sticker that says, "HI! I'm An Enlightened Non-Groper!" That is a problem for you, the man of the enlightened non-groper sect, because you automatically get grouped in with those who do grope. That's truly a serious problem. It means that you may not be able to approach a woman in a bar, on the street, after a class, at the library, in an elevator, or a bookstore. It can make it extremely difficult to foster interpersonal interaction with the opposite sex. Because, well, speaking from experience, women may be suspicious of you. Because you are a man. That? Is not fun, and also not fair. And it is logical and completely reasonable for you, as a genuinely nice guy who is a non-groper, to get a wee bit pissed and hate that women may lump you in with those other guys who do those things. It may lead to being pissed that your friend is saying, "Men suck, because they do things that lead me to feeling small, insignificant, and afraid" - because you aren't one of those guys who does that. But, as long as the "men suck" stems from something of significance, generally the "men suck" isn't so much a personal philosophy (unless they're of the Mary Daly persuasion) than a moment of utter personal frustration. A moment of personal frustration she thinks you can handle, because you are her Safe Space. And that ends up sucking doubly for you, because instead of getting a cookie for being an Enlightened Man, what you get sometimes is access to the fear and anger and hurt that the women closest to you may hold, from time to time, toward men, because of the debasing things some men do and say to them. That can become your cross to bear, and it isn't a fun or stylish cross at all.
Now, my view on what "men suck" means comes primarily when it exits a woman's mouth who has an interest in gender and gender construction, or is uttered in response to a sexist act.
There's another side, a side John didn't touch.
And that is the side of women who are either jerks, or who demonstrate a want for men to behave in the traditional masculine way, and who then claim that men suck when they do, actually, act in that traditional masculine way. That? Isn't what I'm talking about here. That "men are stupid because they can't make dinner, so I'll go home and make dinner" bit needs to be challenged, anywhere and any way it can be. Same thing with the jerky, "Those guys won't date me, so all guys suck", and it should be challenged in the same way a guy saying that same thing about women should be challenged. Because the first is a reinforcement of male inadequacy as dictated by gender norms, and the second is a personal myopic moment that has no baring on whether the greater gender in question does suck. Or even if the people who rebuffed the asker-outer suck, because they may not.
Those women are complications in an already complicated matter, because gender inequality is that strange conundrum where men and women are certain to interact. Men have mothers. Straight men have (or want) women as significant others. Women have fathers, and straight women have (or want) men as significant others. Since boys and girls are oftentimes socialized together, due to the phenomenon of schooling and also of the possibility a sister may have a brother, the dynamics are incredibly interwoven. And that's part of why men hear how much their fellow men suck. Because unlike some other groups - where whites can limit their interaction with people of other races (and thus not hear, unless they go poking around, how much they suck), and straights can oftentimes limit their interactions with people who are out and proud (and thus, again, not hear how much they suck unless they make an effort) - men and women are fairly bound together.
Because of that, in the end, I think the guy on the receiving end of "men suck" have the ability to suss out the situation at hand, to see if it is of the "a guy did something untoward, and now I'm hurting" persuasion, or if it is of the "this guy I'm dating can't do his own laundry, and instead of taking him to the washer and teaching him, I'm doing it for him and complaining about how much men suck because they can't do simple household tasks". And from there, decide if this is really the correct moment to go, "But I don't do that" or to be the Safe Space. The choice is, ultimately, yours. As it is for all of us who carry some bags of privilege around.