Do We Really Want Cis Men to Speak Up About Abortion?

We are long past the “raising awareness” stage of this fight

RENO, NEVADA, UNITED STATES - 2022/05/14: A protester holds a placard saying, "men are responsible f...
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Sarah Manavis

When the news broke last month that the Supreme Court had actually overturned Roe v. Wade, my initial reaction was fear: fear for the millions of people — particularly those who are currently pregnant — in states with trigger laws; fear for the new and crafty ways technology would make it easier to criminalize those seeking, as well as those providing, an abortion; and fear over what would come next.

My second reaction was that I should brace myself for how unbearable people were going to be about it on the internet.

Alongside many well-meaning messages, genuine expressions of anguish, and the useful sharing of resources, June 24 cracked open new territory for people to make claims on social media that were either absurd, completely untethered from reality, or some combination of both. Many of the most pervasive arguments sounded like an echo of something correct, despite being practically unhelpful or simply wrong — like this declaration that, because it affects disabled, trans, and working-class people, abortion is not a “women’s issue”; or the insistence that wealthy white women will have “zero” issues with abortion access in a post-Roe world. These types of arguments are now everywhere online, usually borne of some convoluted inclusivity-minded impulse and followed by vague instructions about how the privileged demographic in question should subsequently behave in light of this unearthed truth.

Within this category, no argument has dogged my timeline more in the last several weeks than the contention that men aren’t speaking up enough about abortion on social media — and that not doing so is not just a moral failing, but a fundamental abdication of their “place” within the pro-choice movement. These posts, typically in the form of viral tweets or popular Instagram infographics (which themselves are often screenshots of viral tweets), say things like: “thinkin bout all the men who have also benefitted from abortion rights and how quiet they’re being,” “the men who had their high school and college girlfriends get an abortion are very very quiet. fuck you,” and “NOT SEEING ENOUGH MEN TALKING ABOUT ABORTION RIGHTS, BUT KNOWING A LOT OF MEN HAVE BENEFITTED FROM ABORTION SERVICES.”

You can see why, for some, this argument sounds almost rational. Should cis men not be doing something in the wake of what has happened, given that they are, of course, the obvious villains in this issue? Should this not especially be the case if they have gotten someone pregnant who then had an abortion? But while the instincts for this argument may be understandable, the contention at its heart is misguided — and more than that, it is also useless. Its greatest achievement (beyond serving as a vehicle for online clout) is creating a set of false metrics for what activism and allyship truly look like, which claims that posting online equates to doing meaningful work for the movement.

The number of tweets, stories, and grid posts that someone has done can be lazily summed up into a score to grade others.

It’s easy to see why this idea has taken hold. Because the internet played a significant role in increasing our cultural awareness of social justice issues, it has become, for many people, the default space where they expect activism to be performed. Over the years, whenever a national crisis has arisen, the idea that activism should be visible on social media — and if it isn’t, the assumption that support for a movement isn’t happening at all — has flared up in different iterations. The number of tweets, stories, and grid posts that someone has done can be counted, lazily summed up into a score that can then be used to grade others.

Wrapped up in this tabulation is the implicit, extraordinarily inflated belief in just how much social media activism can achieve, particularly at an atomized level. Logically, demanding that individual men be “louder” about abortion should suggest that being louder would do something. But, on a practical level, what would this actually look like? Should every man who has benefitted from abortion services be firing out a series of tweets on the topic — and possibly risking the privacy of the person who actually had the abortion — until abortion rights are restored? How many posts from one man would be “enough”?

I imagine the counterargument might go something like this: Of course there isn’t a strict quota for the number of posts or number of men, but it’s vital to see some consistency of support for messages on this issue. Even then, though, it’s hard to see what exactly more posts from men would do, beyond increasing the total number of tweets on the subject and generally engaging in the vague project of “raising awareness.” You could say it might change a few people’s minds, or encourage others to view this issue differently, but, by and large, we are long past the “awareness” stage, especially in a social media ecosystem that infamously entrenches people’s views rather than shifts them.

The sheer number of social media posts also rarely signifies how much work is being done to make real change and, equally, activism that achieves significant results — such as action like donating to an abortion fund, volunteering as an abortion escort or at a local clinic, or even just engaging in real conversations with friends, family, and neighbours who support the end of Roe — isn’t going to be overly focused on a nebulous number of Instagram stories or the ability of a handful of men to reshare standard pro-choice talking points. These demands really only satisfy the aggrieved on a personal level, an understandable but ultimately useless response to the frustrations of having to bear with feckless individual men in their lives.

And despite the widespread insistence to the contrary, does anyone truly want to hear from men on this subject right now, if ever? Sincere attempts to meaningfully bring men’s voices into the conversation in recent months have been met with indignation, seemingly from the same demographic of people demanding their involvement. A few weeks before the Supreme Court ruling, the New York Times appealed for men to send in their experiences with abortion for a forthcoming story. This was, predictably, interpreted by many Twitter users to mean that the Times only cared about men’s opinions and that women should go fuck themselves. (Much of the response also failed to note how some men, as well as non-binary people, can also get pregnant and seek abortions). “It’s about time someone looked at this from the man’s view” and “The New York Times is looking for women based in the U.S. to share their experiences with erectile dysfunction” were two replies emblematic of the sarcastic, clapback-style reaction the call-out received. Those responses, and many others, were written by men, who were praised for weighing in on the debate by saying that it was not their place to weigh in.

The resulting Times piece, which cited “advocates from all sides of the issue [calling] for men to be part of the conversation,” was swiftly decried by hundreds of people on Twitter, all saying roughly the same thing: that we hear from men enough already, and that, to platform their voices now was tone deaf. So what are we actually asking of cis men? To say nothing, which is taken as evidence of indifference; to say something and be eyed — rightly or wrongly — as a virtue-signaling show-off; or to do an even worse third thing, be extremely annoying, like this congressman posting pictures of himself doing yoga and this guy talking about how crypto investments can get people the money they need to fly abroad to seek an abortion?

There’s a sinister ease that comes with reposting and sharing every infographic or tweet related to abortion rights that comes across your social media feeds, as if a tap of the screen in itself is enough of an earnest effort in the ongoing fight.

This isn’t to argue that men’s voices should be prioritized on this issue, or to invite cloying heaps of sympathy for the poor men. But it does serve as an illustration of one of the greatest dangers of looking at activism through the deceptive correlatory frame of “volume of social media posts = how much you’re doing to help abortion access.” It’s a shallow, misleading metric for how much work is actually being done to make change on an issue, while also providing a handy scapegoat for everyone — not just men — to pretend they’re doing something meaningful when it may just be mindless. There’s a sinister ease that comes with reposting and sharing every infographic or tweet related to abortion rights that comes across your social media feeds, as if a tap of the screen in itself is enough of an earnest effort in the ongoing fight.

The utility of social media can’t be dismissed: it can be used to help to spread productive, factual information, as well as to share talking points for debate. But important nuance is lost when we put so much stock into how random individuals are engaging with any given issue, boiling down our arguments to some version of “just post more!” The instincts at the heart of these calls are understandable: that women alone cannot be burdened with this movement; that cementing abortion rights for all will inevitably involve a broader coalition involving cis men. But in this movement, social media’s value is strictly limited; focusing on this particular squabble distracts from what can truly improve the circumstances of anyone who needs access to abortion care, bodily autonomy, and reproductive rights. Greater demands — ones that have a record of making change — should and can be asked of everyone.

Sarah Manavis is an American writer, living in the U.K., who covers culture, technology, and society.