Column: There's nothing to fear from feminism

For as long as I can remember, feminism has been a dirty word. Feminists were always depicted as man-haters; women who couldn't find a partner in their life and lashed out at men. It never really concerned me. I'm a man, but I wasn't one of those men. I wasn't part of the problem, so I didn't see the need to be part of the solution.

By definition, though, I am a feminist. I think that men and women are entitled to equality by whatever standards we use to measure that. There is no stronger, greater sex. We need one another, so how does inequality benefit any of us?

Even so, I refused to be associated with feminists. A lot of the women and men I met who publicly supported feminism were judgmental people, often throwing stones at men who refused to join their movement while degrading their cause by getting into abusive relationships and making me feel bad for my gender.

Of course, feminism is much more than that, but at the time it was enough for me to dismiss them and what they stood for. I have always been a complacent feminist; I believed in the ideals of gender equality but refused to join any movement in fear of being associated with that culture.

And could you blame me? Even the word itself suggests that feminism is less about gender equality and more about putting women above men. That notion fuels the feminist political machine, gets people emotionally riled up, and ultimately self-defeats itself because it alienates men from their movement.

So when I watched Emma Watson, the British actress who played Hermione Granger in the "Harry Potter" films, speak at the UN this week, I was very interested in seeing her take on an issue that all too often feels gender exclusive.

Watson was appointed as Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women six months ago, and this week they launched the HeForShe Campaign. Its goal: to mobilize men to become advocates for change.

Getting men involved isn't new, but it's never been truly successful. It was never branded as our issue, and the high-profile men who publicly support feminism can easily be seen as people stirring up publicity to increase their fan base.

Watson's speech took that attitude and turned it on its head by saying that feminism, or the more neutral term "gender equality," is a man's issue, too.

"We don't often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that they are," Watson stated after talking about men suffering from mental illness because they are "unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man."

She's right. Male identity is shifting, and men have no idea how to handle it. We are struggling to find out what it means to be masculine, and taking notes from a culture permeated with chauvinistic men representing success is supporting the antiquated gender role system. Men, and women, too, are suffering an identity crisis that we refuse to acknowledge.

This isn't a hypothetical power issue, either. In Kingman, there were 718 reported domestic violence cases and 17 reported sexual assault cases responded to by the Kingman Police Department in 2013. The Mohave County Sheriff's Office reported 547 cases of domestic violence and five cases of sexual assault in the same year in the Kingman area. As a community, we shouldn't be dismissive of how our gender roles played a part in those crimes.

Rape, sexual assault and domestic violence are violent exercises of control and power, with both genders falling victim. Many of these cases go unreported, whether for fear of retribution or fear of looking weak and not in control. Men and women both feel the pressure to fit into their societal-mandated gender roles, and they lash out when those roles are challenged.

Watson had wise comments on that, too:

"Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong. It is time that we all see gender as a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals. We should stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by who we are."

Looking back, my complacency stemmed from the perceived need to preserve my male identity. I had to make excuses about the movies I liked or the way I carried myself. Saying my gender is either/or honestly makes no sense, and admitting that doesn't make me any less of a man.

Nobody should struggle with who they are. Struggling with gender roles is an issue that we inflict on ourselves, and the fix is simpler than you would think.

It takes a small shift of thinking and being self-aware of our own prejudices and needs. Vulnerability. Strength. Sensitivity. Courage. These traits aren't what make you a man or a woman. They are what make you human.

Feminism needs to be reframed, yes, but us men don't have to wait for that to happen to support what it truly stands for. It's our issue, too, because without equality, we all lose equally.