Wade Davis is a former player for the National Football League and a self-identified feminist advocate. But when I meet him at a women’s leadership forum sponsored by the technology firm AppNexus, he tells me that if I’d known him 10 years ago, I would have dismissed him as a total jerk.
“Every day I have to be actively involved in educating myself to understand that women’s lives are very different than mine,” Davis says. “And I am actively complicit if I’m not doing work to make your lives better.”
It’s this attitude that makes Davis such an important figure at this particular cultural moment. As women and gender nonconforming people around the world drive a much-needed conversation about the realities of sexual harassment, feminism, and gender equality, many men are wondering what it looks like to be a feminist ally. And the gender-equality movement badly needs men to get on board. While it sometimes pains my ego to say so, women need male allies—men who feel implicated by sexism, and who are willing to take personal responsibility for bringing about social change.
If anyone is aware of this reality, it’s Davis, whose football career includes signing with the Tennessee Titans, the Washington Redskins, and the Seattle Seahawks. Davis participated in training camps and played preseason games for all three teams, but never played a regular season game. Since then, Davis has dedicated himself to working to dismantle toxic masculinity and helping men become better advocates for women and girls. In 2014, he became the NFL’s first diversity and inclusion consultant, where he leads inclusion trainings and national initiatives including the Hi-Five project, working to further create safe space in sports for LGBT athletes. He partnered with Ms. Foundation and Ebony Magazine in 2016 to launch the #BlackMenAndFeminism campaign, and is currently writing a book about how masculinity, gender, and sexual orientation collide within the NFL.
As a man who spent time embedded in one of the world’s most traditionally masculine institutions, Davis had to learn to challenge his own preconceptions about gender. I spoke with him about how men can follow his example and help themselves—and each other—in the fight for gender equality.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Quartz: Often, when I or other women try to talk to men about sexism, we’re met with defensiveness. You know, this idea of “Are you saying I’m a bad guy?” Have you experienced that defensiveness personally?
Davis: Yes, I used to be defensive, too. I used to be the person who would say “Not all men” [Editor’s note: a rally call created by men to deflect systemic responsibility for sexism]. I really think the key for me, and a lot of men, is that we actually have no clue what your lives are like. To be honest, we have no idea. We think about how to attract you—I’m a gay man but I spend enough time with straight men, and I know that straight men think about how to attract you, but they’re rarely deeply invested in actually learning what your lives are like. So when I started reading books written by women about women I was like, “Oh shit, they are talking about me. Literally this is me! And I’m a gay man!”
I remember I read bell hooks’ book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, and there’s a part in the book where hooks talks about women of color’s experience in slavery. And I realized in that moment that, as a black man, I’ve never thought about slavery through women’s lens. I say that in part just to say that there’s so much distance between men and women, and that’s part of my work is to close that gap—is to create the conditions for men to engage in these conversations openly and honestly, in a space where they can take certain risks.
So when I go in and train an NFL team, or a high school team, I create the conditions for men to say things like “not all men,” and then my next question is the most important, which is: “Tell me more.” I’m really deeply invested in getting them to talk so that I can figure out where my point of intersection is, where I can move them along on this journey so that they can realize that it’s not just about being a “good guy,” language I learned from Mychal Denzel Smith, author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching. It’s about what are you actually doing, what actions can you tangibly take to make the world a better, more equitable, and safer space for women and people of all gender identities.
When you’re trying to discuss sexism and feminism with other men, and they get defensive, how do you respond?
One strategy is I give intentionally specific examples of when I was a “not all men” guy, so they can see that I’m not showing up in their space as a god-like figure, like walking on water. I have to get them to see that we are similar on certain matters.
One of the examples that I use is this time when I was telling my talent manager on the phone that I was excited to be an ambassador for this LGBT homeless youth initiative, along with the mayor’s wife. And she paused and asked me “with who?” And I said, “ the mayor’s wife.” She paused again and said “sorry, who?” And I realized what she was trying to draw my attention to, and said, “I’m sorry—the first lady of New York City, Chirlane McCray.”
And I use this story to make the point that we, men who identify as feminists, and all men who claim to advocate for gender equality, should be on one-day contracts, a notion I learned from Juan Ramos. Meaning that we aren’t any better than other men who are not active feminists, and we must surround ourselves with people who will hold us accountable, and feel comfortable to challenge us when we have blindspots to the patriarchal politics that work to make women objects instead of subjects.
But one of the challenges that I have is that men say to me, “Well, you’re a ‘feminist’ so of course you would think that.” But when I give an example of me screwing up too, they go “Oh, okay.” And then they feel safer to actually offer their opinions. It’s very slow. It’s me just asking smart questions, then listening to what they say and allowing them to talk out their own contradictions.
The other major strategy to combat male defensiveness is that the messenger really matters. Unfortunately, men do not listen to women. It’s just a problem where we think that the way the world is set up is such that anyone can change their life, and the world, if you really work hard enough, and you want it. We actually believe they we are not complicit in any of the systemic biases holding women back. So besides this sharing of stories in which you’ve messed up, you have to have the right messenger.
The best example I can give you is recently, when I was in a car with four friends of mine, and we were driving back from practice, maybe like four or five months ago. And we’re talking about rape culture, and one of the guys was like, “Yeah man, I know a guy who was falsely accused of rape.” And then another guy in the backseat says, “Oh yeah, I know a guy, too!” And then I say, “Hey, have you ever thought about this, that you all know one story of a guy who has been falsely accused of rape. But one in four women will be survivors of sexual assault in their lifetime, and you don’t know any of them. How does that happen?”
And then I just let them sit with that question, literally in silence. And what I found is that these same guys will want to talk to me about issues like rape culture again. Because instead of judging them, I just ask questions. And so often I’ve had a male friend say, “Hey man, something happened and I thought about what we talked about, and you know what you’re right.” So now, once they come back to me, I have another opportunity to keep that man open, to engage him in more dialogue about gender equality.
So you have to ask questions and give them space to think, because again, men don’t want to believe that they could ever be complicit in sexism or sexual harassment or assault. So that’s why they come up with these stories of, you know, “I know a guy.” But long as we allow that distance to exist between people like Weinstein, and everyone else, men don’t have to take ownership of anything. So I have to get them to see the fact that me, this guy who they think is a feminist, can own his problems, and discuss sexism without being interested in being “right.” I’m interested in keeping the conversation going, not being right.
I’m always asking myself, “How can I keep men talking?” As long as you’re talking, you’re learning more and more about what you really think about the world. And if I shut a guy off, or if I get combative in the conversation, he will stop listening, and I won’t be listening either, and we will both be wrong.
In these situations, when you’re getting men to talk about sexism, are there other questions that you ask to keep the conversation going in a productive manner?
There’s two types of questions that you have to ask: A “What” question, and a “How” question. If you ask a “Why” question—like “Why would you think that?”—it’s a judgment question.
Instead, a “What” question is something like, “Tell me a specific time when you saw a woman being abused, assaulted, treated like she was nothing, whether physically mentally or in the corporate space, and you did something about that. Please, share with me.” And what you will find the vast majority of the time is he doesn’t have an example of a time where he actually did anything. So you’ve got to get men to realize that they actually have not been these “good guys,” that they have not done the right thing in many situations. So I advise asking them to share their own stories of when they did intervene, or should have intervened but didn’t, and then ask, “How do you feel about that?” and, “If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?”
Is there a benchmark that men can work toward in their pursuit of becoming better feminists? Or a way that they can know they’re making progress toward becoming a “good” feminist?
When a man asks you that question, “How do I know if I am a good feminist,” it’s like someone asking you “How do you have sex?” It’s something you actually have to do. So I would say to all those men: You know what to do, you know how you would like to be treated, so act in that form and fashion. You know how it would feel to be silenced, or if you’re talking and somebody cuts you off. It’s not that hard, but we actually have to care deeply. We actually have to sit and think about these realities.
I get afraid to offer the idea that there is a benchmark for feminist success, because then men will feel like there’s a destination that they’re going to arrive at, and there isn’t. But a good temporary destination is when he feels confident enough to challenge other men in spaces when they are being problematic in various ways. And not just challenge a stranger, but challenge your friends, challenge the people who we actually respect and there’s something to lose. Because it’s really easy to challenge a stranger when you’re never going to see them again. But are you willing to lose a close friend who will not stop being sexist, misogynistic, or homophobic? That willingness is a destination worth working towards.
What advice do you have for men when they do speak up in those situations, and they face backlash from other men?
I think that when we get attacked by other men, that’s the cost that you pay for being an advocate. As an ally, you’re supposed to take the bullet so that other women don’t have to. If you’re not willing to pay that cost, then you are not ready to join the movement. Because women have to take backlash all day, every day, so why is it okay for them to take it, but you’re too afraid to take it, as a man, when you’re in the position of power?
Men have to walk out of that nightmare of thinking “I’m going to lose somebody, or part of my masculinity, if I speak up.” You never had them (or it). Are you really friends with somebody if they can say problematic stuff all the time and you say nothing? The question that men need to ask is “Do I want to be friends with somebody who denigrates women in any way, and doesn’t treat women in the way that I believe they should be treated?” If you’re okay with that, then you need to own that you’re okay with it.
Frequently, when I and other women talk to men about sexism, gender equality, or sexual harassment, men respond with comments like “you’re being aggressive,” or “emotional,” or “you need to calm down.” How can men check themselves if and when they feel this reaction to women?
One thing that men should think in this situation is, “What is happening in her life that would cause her to act this way? It must be really important.” So in that moment men can humble themselves to listen. Actually listen. There is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is I’m just waiting for my turn to talk. But listening means that I’m actually going to follow up with another question—a question that is not an attempt to make the person I’m speaking with feel anything, but rather shows that I am trying my best to empathize, suspend my own beliefs or ideologies, and actually trust that this woman is bringing something to me because it’s important to her, and ought to be important to me, too.
In these moments men need to suspend the need to respond, or to be right, or to pretend like you understand every element of the experience being described to you. It’s not your experience. If men read books we will learn that every woman in the world is experiencing discrimination, and they’re not making it up.
What are the top books you would suggest to men interested in becoming better feminists?
Toni Morrison’s book is tiny, so guys can read this easily, for starters. If you’re ready to really dig in to feminist theory, I’d suggest starting with the bell hooks—that book changed my life, and I had to read it twice. Because when you’re reading it, as a man, you realize hooks is talking about you. So I had to read it twice in order to not reject it, and instead realize, “well, that’s me, I’m not a ‘good guy.’”
You mentioned that men just don’t listen to women, could you expand on that a little bit more?
What I mean by that is, Are you hearing her just to respond? Or are you hearing her to actually deeply interrogate exactly what she’s saying, and your role potentially in her experience? And by your role I mean the role you play as a man within social systems that are actively working—for lack of better words—to destroy women.
For example, when guys say, you know, “women accuse guys of rape all the time when they didn’t do it.” Men should research what goes into a rape kit. If they knew what went into a rape kit, and thought about if they had to have that happen to them, they would realize how unlikely it is that women will falsely accuse someone of rape. If a man had to have a straw stuck up his penis, there’d be a rare time where he would actually accuse somebody of rape unnecessarily.
So men have to try to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes. Listening is not just about what you’re going to say next, it’s trying to understand, one, what is she saying, two, how does it relate to me, and three, is my response about what she said, or is it about what I’m feeling?
There’s a difference between I am responding to what you’re saying, and I responding to how what you’re saying makes me feel. If you’re a man, and you say “Hey, Harvey Weinstein probably didn’t rape all of those women,” are you saying that because of how this reality makes you feel, or is it real? Because often times men say minimizing things like this just because they fear that at some point, whoever they’re speaking with is going to point the mirror on them.
But if you’ve never done anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about. And I also don’t think that men educate themselves on the issues that women are talking about. If you were talking to me about consent 10 years ago, I would have no clue what you’re talking about I would be like “uhh, yeah, sure.”
So men need to realize that while there’s no such thing as a “good guy,” there’s also always room for progress. And it can’t happen overnight, but you need to take real, frequent action if you want to be a better ally. Be the friend that guys can text when they’re not sure about a situation with a woman. Listen, and be willing to challenge other men when they say sexist things. Literally if you knew me 10 years ago, you’d be like I’m never talking to that guy again, he’s an idiot. None of us are perfect, but it’s all of our responsibility to change.
And, as a last comment, I’ll say this: Women have laid themselves bare to educate us. If you’re a man, all you have to do is fucking read their work, and listen to them. It’s just all you have to do: Read, and listen.