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Why 'men's rights' groups are wrong

By: 
Jesse McLaren

November 7, 2012

“Men’s rights” groups are a growing phenomenon, with “men’s centres”, and “men’s issues awareness” clubs appearing on campuses. Manipulating men’s anxieties  faced with neoliberalism and austerity, “men’s issues” groups ignore the poverty, racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia that men and women face, and instead scapegoat the women’s movement and progressive movements in general.

Men’s Issues Awareness at UofT claims it wants to “build a movement centered on Men’s Issues which will engage in consciousness-raising, public education and efforts to change public policy” in order to “engage in critiques of contemporary society” and “focus on positive activism to advance a healthier society.” This group is part of the “Canadian Association for Equality”, who claim they “believe the goal of true equality and human rights is best served by conducting inclusive conversations based on facts and evidence, not by promoting ideology or special interest agendas.” They want “men’s centres” on every university campus.

The rhetoric of “equality”, “diversity”, “human rights” and “inclusivity” that these groups use can certainly seem appealing, as can their claim to “provide support for individuals whose equality rights have been denied.” And their claim of “evidence not ideology” gives them a semblance of objectivity, which they apply to issues many people are concerned about:  “men’s health, fathers and family issues, boys issues, suicide, violence, safety, workplace issues, crime and punishment.”

There is certainly a kernel of truth to what these groups claim: men do experience bullying, suicide, occupational injuries, violence, and specific health issues. But nobody has ever denied that (contrary to claims that these issues are being ignored in general, and undermined by women’s issues specifically). The problem with “men’s rights” is how they  generalize these experiences, who they ignore and who they blame. These groups claim there is a “large societal pattern of discrimination, ignorance and harmful public policy that disadvantages boys and men.” This implies that men are oppressed as men, and in relation or because of women—a claim that is justified using simplistic sound-bytes and “evidence” that is cherry-picked, ideologically-driven, and easily debunked.

SOUND-BYTES

1) health: “prostate cancer gets less funding than breast cancer.”

This is partially because women’s health has been ghettoized into what some have called “bikini medicine” that reduces women’s health to breasts, ovaries, uterus. Women have higher rates of misdiagnosed heart disease because their symptoms have been called “atypical”—because the science on heart attack symptoms (amongst others) was derived from middle-class white men. And as the documentary Pink Ribbons Inc shows, funding for breast cancer awareness is part of a  strategy that generates billions for corporations while ignoring the occupational and environmental factors that contribute to all forms of cancer—and ignoring health concerns of the global south. The complaint that prostate cancer gets less funding implies that men’s health suffers because of one simplistic measure of women’s health. But there is no feature of men’s health that is so systematically attacked like abortion rights—with violence and harassment at clinics and motions in Parliament.

2) bullying: “boys have high rates of being bullied”

Yes they do, but this is an abstract statement that ignores the main perpetrators and reasons. Boys are not bullied by girls for being boys, they are mainly bullied by other boys—who also bully girls. The main causes of bullying are sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia—issues “men’s issues” ignore. Boys are not subjected to the systematic sexist bullying that drove Amanda Todd to suicide, and when boys have been drive to suicide it is often from homophobia by other boys—not “reverse sexism” from girls.

3) suicide: “more men kill themselves than women”

Another abstract statement. Men do not kill themselves because of men’s oppression, they kill themselves of poverty and other real  forms of oppression along lines of sexuality, ability and race. And many more girls attempt suicide than men, often related to a history of sexual abuse—an endemic problem that “men’s issues” clubs ignore.

4) violence: “men are victims of violence”

In terms of interpersonal violence, the vast majority of domestic abuse and rape victims are women. There was no recent epidemic of men being assaulted in Toronto’s Christie Pits Park, and when men are assaulted the police don’t blame them for dressing like “sluts.” When men are victims of interpersonal violence it is usually from other men, and often related to police brutality, racism and Islamophobia, ableism, homophobia and transphobia. It’s true that more men die on the jobs (though less men are sexually assaulted on the jobs), but this is not because of women but because of the (often male) boss—and the solution is strengthen trade union rights, another issue ignored by “men’s issues” clubs. More men die in the trenches of war, because women—and queers—have until recently been excluded from the military; but women are not excluded from the civilians raped and killed by war. When male soldiers are sent to kill and die, they are sent by male generals and male presidents, not women, and the solution is to build a united movement against war and the racism and sexism that drives it.

5) education: “women do better on some educational indicators, like test scores or enrolment”

The main threats to education for men and women is corporatization, which increasingly imposes a rigid reliance on test scores (like was tried in Chicago), while undermining accessibility through tuition hikes (like was tried in Quebec). These threats to education harm both men and women, and a united fightback is necessary. Chicago teachers fought to defend education, and Quebec students fought back the tuition hike—while emphasizing that women would be more affected because they earn less. Despite advances in some educational indicators, women have still not achieved equality in the labour market.

6) legal: “women have higher rates of custody over children”

Given women provide the majority of unpaid labour raising children, it’s no surprise that courts might award more custody cases to the mother. But the legal system is not generally skewed towards women—as survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence can attest to. The legal system fails to challenge endemic sexism, while incarcerating poor, indigenous and racialized men—groups who also get no mention from “men’s issues” groups.

7) work: the major features of work are not considered by “men’s issues’ groups

In the home, women still do the majority of unpaid labour, despite entry into the labour market. In Canada 60 per cent of women are part of the paid workforce, but comprise 70 per cent of part-time workers, two-thirds of minimum wage earners, perform two-thirds of unpaid caregiving work, and earn 70 cents per dollar of what men are paid

There’s a pattern to these sound-bytes: framing these issues as “men’s issues” erases the dynamics of race, class, ability and sexuality that are at the heart of so many experience of men (and women). “Men’s issues” fail to address any issues related to men, and instead scapegoat women—appealing to two different audiences: the confused and the misogynist. The rhetoric of “men’s issues awareness” goups clearly appeal to people sympathetic to the language of equality and concerned about men’s health and safety. But this rhetoric hides the main drivers of “men’s rights” movement: misogynists who scapegoat women in specific and progressive movements in general.

“MISANDRY” = MISOGYNY

Paul Nathanson, who the Men’s Issues Awareness at UofT invited last month, has written extensively on so-called “misandry.” His theories begin with a heteronormative view of human society as rigidly divided between men and women, where men’s identity was biologically determined by “the male body’s distinctive characteristics: tis size, strength and speed.” His view of hunter-gather societies claims humans began with social structures like the 1950s (the era to which “men’s rights” look to with so much nostalgia), where men hunted for all the food and women provided the babies. According to Nathanson, the whole march of civilization has been a series of attacks on the mythical male identity: “Masculine identify has become increasingly problematic due to technological and cultural changes over the past 10,000 years, beginning with the horticultural and agricultural revolutions but gaining momentum with the industrial, military and reproductive revolutions. Egalitarian feminists have unwittingly exacerbated the problem, leaving men unable to make even one contribution to society, as men.”

Particular targets include any deviation from patriarchal family—including single mothers, same-sex marriage and abortion rights:  “The reproductive revolution undermined the only remaining source of masculine identity for men: fatherhood. Many factors have contributed to this problem: new movements that trivialize fatherhood (single mothers by choice, and same-sex marriage)…new legislation that undermines even the remnants of fatherhood (abortion on demand as a private matter ‘between a woman and her doctor’).”

Contrary to claims of inclusivity free from ideology, “men’s issues” groups directly attack feminism—relying on right-wing alliances like the National Post’s Barbary Kay, who claimed at a previous talk that “feminist-inspired policies have contributed to a devaluation of boys and men and their purpose in society…social services discriminate against men as a direct result of an ideological belief system that permeates university programs and churns out biased policies.”

Warren Farrell, author of The Myth of Male Power, is one of the most mysoginyst of their leaders, and has built a career promoting and profiting from the backlash against women—dismissing women’s oppression and comparing feminism to Stalinism:

“Hearing women’s internal stories – without hearing men’s – made the world seem unfair to women. Ironically, because we didn’t know men’s stories were being left out, the more we heard from women the more we thought we’d been neglecting women. Soon it became politically incorrect to interrupt her flow. So women’s stories became women’s studies, not to be interrupted by men’s studies… The Iron Curtain shut out opinions considered a threat to Communism. The Lace Curtain shuts out opinions considered a threat to feminism… Feminism has made women-as-victim so credible we would sooner think of saving whales than saving males… Why, though, would the feminists not debate? For the same reason any one party system has no interest in debating. When you have the power you have little to gain and a lot to lose.”

Farrell has dismissed statistics on women’s oppression as “victim data” used to “catalyze Victim Power.” In his book Why Men Are the Way They Are, he defends sexism: “we beg men to express feelings, but then when men do express feelings, we call it sexism, male chauvinism, or backlash.” (As someone who identifies as male I’m insulted by the claim that the only feelings I’m capable of expressing are sexist). He has also defended rape, claiming: “If a man ignoring a woman’s verbal ‘no’ is committing date rape, then a woman who says ‘no’ with her verbal language but ‘yes’ with her body language is committing date fraud, and a woman who continues to be sexual even after she says ‘no’ is committing date lying…We have forgotten that before we began calling this date rape and date fraud, we called it exciting.”

This is the hardcore misogyny at the heart of mens groups, which is why they have been labeled hate groups. But how can they pretend to be building a progressive movement, promoting “equality” through “consciousness raising,” and appealing to men’s perception of powerlessness? Understanding the roots of women’s oppression, and changes of last couple of generation, explains how mens groups attack women directly and scapegoat them for mens anxieties.

WOMEN’S OPPRESSION

Turning Paul Nathanson’s version of history right-side up, the evidence shows that for most of human history people lived in equality, with no rigid division between production/reproduction. There are obvious biological differences regarding childbearing, but child-raising was a collective task—and women also gathered food (which often provided more food than the hunt) and had equal say over community decisions. Without the nuclear family there was a free range of sexualities, and without a capitalist labour market there was neither racism nor disability oppression.

When the agriculture revolution provided a surplus, a small class emerged to control it and the nuclear family emerged to pass on private property. This produced a rigid and unequal division between the sexes: women were separated from production, confined to reproduction, and made subordinate to men who controlled production and the state.

As Engels described in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, the emergence of class society marked “the world historic defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.”

Capitalism remains dependent on women’s oppression for unpaid labour at home and reduced wages at work—with 30% more wages going to the boss—and attacks any alternative expression, including abortion rights, queer rights, or single parents. Capitalism has also bred racism and disability oppression to lower wages and divide resistance.

NEOLIBERAL BACKLASH

Capitalism has restructured in the past few generations, with women entering the labour force while still doing unpaid labour. With these changes the women’s movement emerged to fight for equality, alongside anti-racist and queer liberation movements.

These has been both a specific backlash against progressive movements and a general neoliberal and austerity offensive against working class. As Susan Falludi, feminist author of Backlash, documented in book Stiffed “the post-war restricting of the economy” has led to a “crisis in masculinity.” (We don’t need “men’s studies” to study masculinity, we have feminist and socialist analysis)

Men are socialized to be dominant and in control. But with capitalist restructuring, working class men are in precarious work, unable provide for their family as they were socialized to do. Working class men work harder for less pay, more tuition, less job security—and don’t see the 30% pay gap that goes to the boss.

“Men’s rights” groups blame this experience on few gains of women’s and queer liberation movements, while ignoring racism and disability oppression. This homogenizes men, and tries to dupe them into thinking they have more in common with 1% of men who exploit most men and women, than the rest of the 99%. The 1% uses sexism to further the austerity agenda—like Ontario Conservative attempts to defund abortion—while dividing resistance movements of the 99% along lines of gender, race, sexuality and ability.

RESISTANCE

It’s by uniting the 99%—by challenging the systemic oppression that divides it—that we all win. Though the process of struggle, men with sexist ideas can come to see they have more in common with women than the 1% of men who rule. The Russian Revolution started on International Women’s Day, culminating in a movement that ended WWI. The Egyptian revolution saw men fight side by side with women, overcoming sexist ideas which the regime is constantly trying to regenerate in order to weaken the revolution.Women were critical to the 1937 Flint sit-down strike that sparked a unionization drive, and the Canadian labour movement has been strengthened by the fight for maternity leave and abortion rights. Chicago teachers and Quebec students fought united strikes against attacks on education, and on November 14 there will be general strikes against austerity in Europe.

If we want “positive activism to advance a healthier society” we have to identify sexism and the backlash against women as a major barrier, and mobilize men and women against it. This means challenging “men’s rights” groups who attack women, manipulate men, and don’t care about poverty, racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia. Challenging these groups includes patiently explaining to people who are legitimately concerned about equality but have been misled by false rhetoric—and firmly exposing and challenging the misogynists at the core, because free speech doesn’t include hate speech.

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