Men’s rights and male hysterias

One of the signs that feminism might be getting traction in places it hasn’t before is the rise of the idea of a men’s movement that advocates for ‘men’s rights.’ It’s a strange and sad idea as we shall see, but often not well understood or acknowledged.

A piece in Slate described the men’s movement like this:

The oft-derided ‘men’s movement’ took this approach in its efforts to free men from the burdens imposed on them by unrealistic expectations. Growing out of feminism, the movement acknowledged that men had disproportionate and unjust levels of power but insisted this was not the unalloyed advantage it might appear to be. Men suffered from gender inequality, too, and faced a whole added level of stress born of the internalized belief that they must adhere to certain roles, especially those of breadwinner and protector, which discouraged them from expressing vulnerabilities, fears, and emotional needs.

I’m not sure that the idea of men’s rights is as derided as it should be and I’m definitely clear that it’s not some kind of outgrowth of feminism. ‘Men’s rights’ – or more specifically heterosexual men’s rights – seems like a cover story for a whole lot of agendas and ideas, and more significantly male hysterias.

There is no ‘movement’ as such either, but there is definitely a kind of pressure and a vague coherence around certain right-wing ideas being facilitated by different men’s groups. They can often take the form of a sort of complaint against feminism twinned with a feeling of being cheated out of something. But what is often intriguing about the various formulations of men’s rights are their interpretations and positioning of feminism, which I’ll come to in a minute.

The feminist critic Juliet Mitchell pretty much rewrote the history of hysteria in her book Mad Men and Medusas. Mitchell argued that hysteria is both a manifestation of something traumatically unspeakable trying to make itself known, and an attempt to speak to power – or, to use Mitchell’s words, hysteria is ‘the deployment of weakness as power’. Mitchell pointed out that hysteria disappeared from popular discourse and psychological understandings during the First World War as soon as it became understood that men could be hysteric as well as women. In other words, if hysteria could no longer be safely described as a feminine condition, then it followed that masculinity might have a long and unwritten history of hysterias.

Which needed to be immediately forgotten.

So if we think of the men’s movement as a kind of hysteria, what could be trying to be spoken and what is its relation to power? And what could be its unspeakable cause?

The gendering of boys under capitalism takes a very different form to that of girls. Boys are defined by what they are not, by an Other, by both the absence and the presence of something. And the thing that occupies that liminal space of absence and presence is the feminine. The worst insult that boys and men can use with each other is ‘girl’. Or variations thereof. No girl is going to be much bothered by being called a boy. The term ‘tomboy’ doesn’t cut it, and there is no equivalent like ‘tomgirl.’

Boys don’t … wear dresses, put on makeup, play with dolls, do ballet, collect Barbies, share clothes, cry, kiss their friends and so on. Whether girls choose to do these things or not – or are told or not told to do them – the terms are generally how girls are described. They describe to a boy of what a boy must not become. That’s why it’s intriguing that so many male sports, where depictions of an uber-masculinity are so rampant, have such an air of the homo-erotic about them.

The identity of girls is at least partly shaped by both the male gaze – the male gazing at the monstrous, incomprehensible, threatening feminine – and by imperatives that attempt to position themselves outside a women’s control: you have a uterus, therefore you must have babies. It’s as if definitions of femininity are too full and carry too much weight, and definitions of masculinity are too empty and carry too little.

If male hysteria about women is about terror of women, then perhaps what is trying to speak to power is the male sense of the fragility of masculinity, of masculinity’s precariousness.

At any rate the interpretations of feminism that the various voices of the men’s movement promote can more or less be grouped under the following headings:

1. Feminism is mostly about women attaining ‘equality.’
2. Feminism hasn’t tried to create any understandings of masculinity.
3. Feminism can be used to suppress masculine experience.
4. Feminism is for women.

Hysterically, one can see these as part of the men’s movement’s attempted claiming of feminism, of a new colonisation of feminine experience, a kind of clunky process of definition that reveals agendas of control and grievance.

The assumptions are dumb enough, but in their dead monolithic shadow comes creeping a whole lot of other somewhat sinister and more weirdly decorated and popularly disseminated ideas: that the judicial system is biased in favour of women, that violence against men by women in the domestic sphere is as big a problem as male violence against women, that schools prioritise girls learning over that of boys, that cultural understandings have shifted toward a preference for women’s voices and that the ‘pendulum has swung too far’ and it’s now men who are discriminated against.

It can be difficult, for men at least, to remember how endemic misogyny is. After all masculinity still undeniably confers certain advantages. Over a lifespan, a man will earn more than a woman, rise higher in his career, do less housework, less child care and won’t have to iron his own shirts. These differences hold right across class. Inhabiting notions of contemporary neocapitalist masculinity has many stresses and problems, and might explain why men’s mental health is in the toilet. But that is not the fault of feminism. It’s the fault of patriarchy, just as the financial crises with which global capitalism is riven are creations of capitalism.

One of the dead giveaways of the men’s movement is that it instinctively refines feminism’s critiques of masculinity as an attack on men.

In a terrific post on violence against women, Rebecca Solnit argued that a woman is raped in the US every minute, and I’d guess that she’s not far wrong in her estimate. The only surprise in the continual underestimation of violence against women is how much men continue to underestimate it.

An English woman, Frances Andrade, killed herself in February after being grilled by a prosecutor in the trial of her music teacher who she said raped her when she was 18. Andrade said that after the prosecution’s interrogation she felt she had ‘been raped again’. These were also the words of a Scottish teenager, Lindsay Armstrong, who killed herself last month after taking her stand in court, during the trial of her rapist, a younger boy. During Armstrong’s testimony, she had been made to hold up her g-string in court. After Andrade’s death the magistrate made a special point of stating that the prosecutor had behaved in ‘a proper’ manner.’

This kind of denial of masculine responsibility says a lot about the failure to understand what rape is, and how it is experienced and how misogyny works. What is deemed ‘proper’ might actually be cruel, stupid, callous and institutionally complicit in misogynist practices.

The austerity measures sweeping Europe are affecting women much more harshly than they are men. Political leaders are nearly always male, our feted cultural heroes are male, and the ones that aren’t are often forced to subscribe to patriarchal ideas and structures, or rejected if they don’t. That is why so many publicly successful women deny they are feminists.

Contemporary masculinity is a non-sustainable idea crashing and burning in spectacular fashion and taking the entire planet with it. Trying to reinvent it as a liberal ‘men’s movement’ seems like the desperate action of a defeated horde, a bit like BP going green or Rupert Murdoch agreeing that the Sun’s Page Three girls can wear clothes now.

Men taking responsibility for the redefinition of a toxic masculinity is not the same as seeking ‘empowerment’. It’s the abusive man’s last stand to say, ‘I have problems too’. Yes, it is often true that men have problems but beside the point. It’s beside the point because as long as the blaming of women continues, and unfairness or discrimination is claimed, the narcissistic circle of self-justification will grind on and on. When it comes to family violence, men generally greatly underestimate their own abusive behaviours and women wildly overestimate theirs.

I was surprised to discover that there is in fact an actual ‘International Men’s Day’. The IMD website describes IMD as ‘an occasion for men to celebrate their achievements and contributions, in particular their contributions to community, family, marriage, and child care while highlighting the discrimination against them’.

This seems very weaselly and problematic language to me, with alarm bells going off like mad for the final six words of the sentence.

The following sentences, a few paras down from the above, are even stranger:

The ability to sacrifice your needs on behalf of others is fundamental to manhood, as is honour. Manhood rites of passage the world over recognise the importance of sacrifice in the development of Manhood. Men make sacrifices everyday in their place of work, in their role as husbands and fathers, for their families, for their friends, for their communities and for their nation.

Is it just me, or does that read like something Kaiser Wilhelm II could have written?

‘Manhood, children’ says Joanna Russ in her famous science-fiction novel The Female Man, ‘is not reached by courage or short hair or insensibility … Manhood, children, … is Manhood.’
Having long been defined as the default definition of what it means to be human, masculinity has been thrown open to itself by its confrontation with feminism. Scrabbling for an identity that seeks both to accommodate the radical changes feminism has wrought while refusing to yield its entrenched attitude of sovereign power, masculinity can only come up with lame and pitiable pleas for the acknowledgment of its great sacrifices on behalf of women and children, an acknowledgment that nonetheless has coded within it an extortionate demand.

Personally, I think a more useful ‘Men’s Day’ comes in the form of White Ribbon Day, where men are invited to make a commitment neither to engage in violence, or stand by where violence against women is concerned. And while the presentation of the White Ribbon Day Pledge is a bit blokey and square-jawedly matey, and I’m not particularly excited by the idea that David Koch ‘has my back’, men making public commitments together about their collective responsibility for preventing violence against women is an idea whose has come.

Why does the men’s movement appear to be getting more appeal now? Juliet Mitchell reckons that between the original trauma and the hysteria there is always a time lag, and I’m inclined to agree with her. If that’s the case, the shock that masculinity experienced with second wave feminism and the approach of the freed and monstrous Other is only now starting to register. It’s annoying and something of a drag, but maybe explains why the men’s movement feels so very 1970s.

But really as far as the men’s movement goes, putting one’s energy into identifying discrimination against males, might meet male needs for grievance and a coherent, less frightening identity, but it seems like wasted energy to me. In fact, I’d like to draw the attention of the advocates of men’s rights to the fact that there has been a movement around for well over a century that has sought to helpfully and radically question and redefine masculinity.

It’s called feminism.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Leaders of all faiths have got away with blather about masculine sacrifice and honour to mask the grim civilizational facts.
    War and rape are blood brothers. If future civilizations ban war as some have already banned slavery, it will be feminism that will have done it. Fifty years ago no-one predicted feminism’s deep and permanent effects.

    1. It would be nice to think that feminism’s effects will be permanent. And even more that it might break up the brotherhood you refer to.

  2. I guess it’s difficult to know the precise effects of gendering under capitalism and why its culture is endemically misogynistic without knowing something of the gendering of males and females under a range of different pre-capitalist modes of production and consumption. Feudalism, in both Europe and Japan, for example, was a patriarchal affair, but that tells us little about levels and forms of violence against women and overall expressions of misogyny in each. Comparative studies may have been done; I just don’t know. The real question being will questions of violence against women and the endemic misogyny be faced wholesale under current regimes? Difficult to see it happening the way things are going.

    What too of gendering in matriarchal societies, should they have existed. Another topic on which I am sketchy.

    And what about “Men’s Sheds”? What the heck is that all about?

    1. In talking about gendering under capitalism I’m attempting to simplify some complicated understandings. However, I don’t thnk we need to be able to have a full knowledge of gender performatisation in feudal Japan to be able to make claims about gendering by capitalist psychological and economic systems.
      Mens Sheds have a variety of identities I think. They can give a space for lonely often retired men who want company and may have little social life now their work life is over. They can be a lot of other things too, more misogynist too. From my side, even if I were a lonely elderly man, a men’s shed is the last place I’d want to go.

      1. Thanks for the post and the reply, and considering the long line of inquiry you’ve had on this one – why none on the complementary concurrent post on the other highway I wonder? – You probably don’t need another, but to be fair to myself (and you, having stated how you simplified complications of capitalism for the sake of the argument (which is a good one, by the way)), I wasn’t really suggesting an understanding of how gender performed in feudal Japan was some sort of priority. I did state too how the more pressing need was to face up to violence against women / misogyny under capitalist regimes, which doesn’t look like happening – ever. My thinking being that capitalism needs to be charged with something on this issue. But what exactly? I could just as well have pondered about gender in so-called primitive communities, slave states, socialist states (which mostly means state capitalism). It’s not a categorical imperative to know how gender performed under such modes of production, but it sure might help the argument against (or for capitalism, as some sort of advance), depending on what is currently known or might be revealed.

  3. “Contemporary masculinity is a non-sustainable idea crashing and burning in spectacular fashion and taking the entire planet with it.”

    Actually, men’s rights is a response to a lengthy feminist campaign of hatred against men (well illustrated in your hateful statement). We demand equal protection under the law for all, and equal protection of government for all.

    1. I think this is exactly the kind of statement that undermines a men’s movement credibility, and also emphasises its misogyny and lack of understanding of feminism. A feminist attack on masculinity is not an attack on men. Men, the set of individuals identifying with that gender, and masculinity, the performatised political and psychological construct of identity can be separated. If they couldn’t it would be impossible for anyone to reflect on their own identity.
      The evidence for a feminist campaign of hatred against men is miniscule. The evidence for a male campaign of hatred against women is vast.

      1. Precisely. Your statement is sexist in that it presumes that men, either as individuals or as a gender, don’t have the right to self-construct their own political or psychological identity. It presumes that feminism somehow has a right to re-define the psychological construct of identity of men, without accounting for where this presumed ‘right’ comes from. If men and women are equal, why shouldn’t men, either as individuals or as a gender, have a monopoly as to their own construct of identity?

        What feminism is attempting to do with the construct of male identity is exactly the same as what happened when Europeans made contact with indigenous peoples in Australia and the Americas – to colonize it. That didn’t work out very well. The decision to colonize came first, and the rationale to justify it – demonizing the indigenous culture, claims of a ‘white man’s burden’, etc. – came later.

        1. It’s very difficult to see how you can reasonably equate the extermination of entire civilizations and the slavery and abuse of millions of others with the development of feminism.
          If you had read any feminist literature at all, you could not possibly be functioning under the delusion that feminism constructs male identity for men. Feminism as a movement of justice and of philosophical investigation asks questions of identity – male and female – and interrogates notions of masculinity.
          All of the arguments and abusive statements I’ve received since this post went up all operate on the principle that feminism is out to ‘get’ men and hates men. This is not just preposterous and a stereotype for which there is zero evidence, but openly displays your misogyny, intolerance and fraught mental states for the world to see. It’s not a good look.
          Read some feminist literature, or at least get better arguments, because the one’s that are being presented are eye-wateringly difficult to comprehend.

          1. No, no, no, no…back up. YOU said “A feminist attack on masculinity is not an attack on men. Men, the set of individuals identifying with that gender, and masculinity, the performatised political and psychological construct of identity can be separated.” My response – even if conventional constructs of maleness and masculinity (even presuming they are static) are problematic, it doesn’t follow that anyone but men themselves, should determine its reconstruction. Every human being, regardless of their ethnic identity, gender, etc., has and should have the right to autonomy in their self-development and construction of identity. No one would make the assertion that men have a right to ‘re-construct’ female identity, yet somehow the right to reconstruct male identity is presumed by some feminists.
            As for your comment ‘ how you can reasonably equate the extermination of entire civilizations,’ etc., you are confusing genocide with colonization – the process of substituting an indigenous and indigenously-developed sense of self- and ethnic identity with an imported one, justifed on a presumed (but ultimately unprovable and false) excuse that it is a superior identity set. My assertion – some feminists (not all) are attempting to do the same – substitute the indigenous sense of male self and group identity with an assumed ‘superior’ one constructed by feminism. Colonialism didn’t work, and did nothing but create problems, and re-constructing male identity by anyone other than males will not work either.

          2. Your assertion about misogyny on my part is also false and unproven. I said nothing about women at all – I simply pointed out that your reasoning is sexist, in that you presume the acceptability of separating men from their sense of self-identity and how it can be reconstructed at will by people presuming to know better…when no one in their right mind would assert that men can or should do the same for female self-constructed identity.

          3. .
            Wayne, you have clearly read no feminist literature. The ‘feminists’ you refer to as wanting to control male identity – where and who are they? Do they even exist?

            There is no such thing as an ‘indigenous’ male identity, or a female one for that matter. Gender is something that is fluid and psychologically constructed, a kind of performance as many feminists have convincingly argued. It’s a misogynist argument to try and establish an indigenous male identity as a premise. That is why many advocates of male rights try and use biological arguments to prove their case, and ignore the more sophisticated psychological and political arguments.
            For the last time (how many times can I say this?) feminism has never sought to control or construct male identity either in practice or in theory. It asks questions of male identity, and as these are often very penetrating statements misogyny has a lot of trouble with them.

            Separating out colonialism from genocidal practices can only be done in the abstract by the way. Either way, feminism isn’t a colonial practice, though I appreciate that misogyny sees it that way.
            Misogyny is not merely an abusive statement about women. It’s also a set of beliefs, and arguments, beliefs which you seem to be very very clearly displaying. And now i really must go.

      2. Well, Mr. Wright, since your foundation is built on the theory that any notion of men’s rights is miscalled, doesn’t it stand to reason that his simple, clear statement of belief in equal rights for all, including men, would be dismissed as undermining men’s movement credibility?

        I mean, what could he possibly say to someone that has predetermined he has no credibility that would not result in a reaction that affirms that already held belief?

        It seems to me that you have invested in this writing some considerable effort to demonstrate a glaring lack of understanding about the men’s movement. There is abundant conjecture, nearly all of it inconsistent with even casual observation of what most (non feminist) men’s advocates have to say.

        Don’t you think it might seem strange to an unbiased observer that with your multitude of conclusions about the mindset and beliefs of men in the men’s movement that you have not supported any of them with anything but one quote from an obscure “activist”?

        I have been a men’s rights activist a long time, and I am very well known in that community and I have been writing against that antiquated notion of manhood for years.

        I find it fascinating, especially since every men’s rights writer that I know of who is well known in our circles would also reject the sentiments you quoted as your sole representation of how we think.

        It strikes me that you may be writing about a social phenomenon without actually knowing anything about it. At least that is what shines through the body of your text.

        Perhaps I should not be surprised. I note in your credits you earned recognition for “creative non fiction”


        1. I really don’t know where to start with this. I expected the various forms of trolling and so on. What I didn’t expected was to be so concerned about the mental states of the men’s rights supporters who have been commenting. I’m not sure I can even begin to work through all the ways in which your comment doesn’t make sense Paul. As far as your website goes, words fail me. It’s fairly vitriolic, often disordered in its arguments, to a degree that s disturbing.
          And ‘Elam’? You’re kidding.

          1. Elam is my real name. Proud line of them immigrating to America from Britain circa 1610.

            And it is indeed apparent that you don’t know where to start with this, any more than you have known where to start refuting any of the dissent (trolling, in your vernacular) that you have encountered.

            If going through all the ways my comment “doesn’t make sense” was too burdensome or difficult for you, perhaps you could have just started with one? Oh, well.

            Is there any specific point of fact that you are capable of holding up to scrutiny, or is your entire intellectual repertoire limited to insulting people while adding in that you don’t know how to say things?

            You are doing no more here than you do in your article. One straw man on top of another; one unfounded, derogatory insinuation after another. Not a shred of substance to any of it.

            You have a mild flair for prose, but it is beginning to appear that you are much more enamored of how witty you imagine you sound, while completely missing the fact that you aren’t actually saying anything.

            I was informed about this piece from a reader who though, for reasons I cannot imagine, that you might be worthy of debate.

            I have to disagree with that.

            Nothing going on here, and since there is not I won’t stay and bother you.

  4. Feminists are sensing a threat to their privilege. More frightened screeds like this one will be forthcoming.

    Keep up the hatred. It’s what drives more and more people of both sexes to reject feminism.

    1. It would be interesting to know what ‘privileges’ you think feminism bestows. And in fact, what you think ‘feminism’ is.

  5. Visit the link at my my name, and read the relevant links or FAQs on the sidebar.

    As for what feminism is – it’s an ideology based on the false idea that men collectively oppress all women. Having this axiom, it regards men as the enemy, and has become a hate movement in consequence.

    As with all hate movements, at some point the targets will fight back.

    1. Mm,. Actually your definition of feminism is something that I haven’t seen replicated in feminist writing and theory. Which makes me wonder where you got it from.

          1. My observation as a woman whose partner was involved in men’s rights groups is that he and his mens shed mates indulged in regular misogynistic behaviour including approving of, standing by during or perpetuating violence, economic abuse and ‘slutshaming’ against myself and other women.

            I reiterate, this is only my personal experience. But on getting out of that little shark pool, I now find it difficult to empathise with this so-called mens movement, especially those who still blame their own mother for all their problems with women!

            I’ve never seen feminism as a divisive or man hating exercise, rather as an opportunity for men and women to grow, cooperate with each other and share power. It’s a real shame when unacknowledged fear carves it up (in the manner of some of these comments.)
            Your patience is admirable Stephen.

    2. MRA wants to explain feminism to readers of a literary journal by linking them to a Reddit thread.

      “You’ll have to do better than that” – understatement of the year.

  6. Maybe you could start telling me how exactly women are oppressed and discriminated against in western civilization?

    1. It’s hard to take this question seriously to be honest. Perhaps the easiest thing to do is refer you to Rebecca Solnit’s essay I linked to in my post.

  7. I am a gay man and someone with strong sympathies toward causes the men’s rights movement espouses.

    In a strong standing, this is quite possibly one of the most disgustingly misandric, bigoted, dogmatic, hateful, and yes homophobic articles I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading. You are an exceedingly vile individual whose perverse obsessions with the demonization of men and masculinity represent a good portion of the reason for feminism’s now well deserved bad name.

    It pleases me immeasurably to see serious rebuke now forming against the kind of repugnant bigotry heretofore promulgated by people like you and unchallenged by the public at large.

    1. That’s an awesome set of insults you’ve got happening there. I’m not sure where the homophobia is in my piece though, and I’m very sure that Overland wouldn’t have posted it if they thought it was homophobic.

  8. Sometimes even a simple distinction between, like that between sexual organs and identity, is too much for some people to comprehend. What baffles me is how some of the people posting comments here even found Overland.
    They must have taken a wrong turn somewhere (the understatement of the year).

      1. The men’s movement is a small and fairly homogeneous group Kieran, so things go viral very quickly within it.

  9. this is such a toxic article
    “Over a lifespan, a man will earn more than a woman, rise higher in his career, do less housework, less child care and won’t have to iron his own shirts” what world do you live in man? It must be so shocking to see that horrible reality in the miniscule bubble you live in. In my country there is no such thing as this “career” you speak of for 90% of the new generation, as a college graduate you can be lucky to find part time work at a super-market. Blaming all of your problems on a collective hive-mind that doesn’t exist (the partriarchy). Your ignorance on gay men’s issues and dismissal of the above commenter tells it all. Gay men are beaten, exterminated, raped, humiliated (by male and female alike) and the media conveniently sweeps it aside , the abuse shelters turn them away, the government tells them to fuck off. You need to recognize that the fight is over and Feminism won, of course you don’t see it YET but look to the middle east and tell me you think we live in a partriarchy.

  10. I’m well aware that gay men are subject to discrimination and violence abuse, as are lesbians and transgender people. However, what they have in common in their experience of violence, as do heterosexual men and women who experience abuse and violence is that it is almost all perpetuated by men, within a context of sanctioned values of masculinity.
    It’s true that neoliberalism in its current ‘austerity’ costume has devastated the lives of millions of working people and young people have been badly affected. Still, the evidence is that women, children and the elderly have fared a lot worse under austerity capitalism than men. This is not the fault of feminism, which is a long way from claiming ‘victory’ but the fault of a system of values and practices that privilege certain types of power relations often tied up with specific constructions of gender.

  11. While unsurprising, these responses are still gobsmacking. Mostly because not one of these ‘men’s rights’ activists has provided a single concrete example of how feminism has won, or managed to refute any of the concrete examples Stephen cited above, nor the fact that women – across the world – are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war or malaria. Source:

  12. More evidence for the old advice to never read the comments. The men’s rights mob are so nasty and so often wilfully stupid. Thanks for articulating things so well.

  13. Great piece. And as so often, some of the comments deftly illustrate the points made…

  14. You only need to read these comments to understand why we still need a feminist movement. There is such a long way to go.

    This quote by Helen Razer sums it all up for me.
    “Feminism is the struggle against masculinsed violence and feminised poverty. Or, the acknowledgement that physical violence is enacted disproportionately by men and poverty is experienced disproportionately by women. That’s it, really.”

    1. This was definitely a post where women’s voices were critically needed in the comments thread. So thanks Jacinda, Stephanie, Alison, Sarah and Misha.

  15. Certainly men may have grievances of their own, but those who adopt the antics and rhetoric of an MRAgitator are tellingly poor in communication skills. If they could stop and listen, one might think they could be reasonable and measured fellows. But they don’t listen to anything, that’s the thing. They TELL you whether you have suffered oppression, and they don’t need to know anything about you to start their TELLING.

    So, really, these are guys dealing with psychological problems of their own, not much more.

  16. Though-provoking piece, thanks.

    To keep thinking: it seems a little contradictory to ridicule the men’s movement and then to propose that one of the solutions to the problem of violence against women is a movement of men.

    Obviously there are huge power differences, and I find much to laugh at myself within some of these men’s groups, but we wouldn’t say that the appropriate response to female hysteria was laughter, and the idea of White Ribbon Day as a suitable replacement for Men’s Day suggests you don’t think it is to male hysteria either.

    As laudable as White Ribbon Day is, if the argument is that strong, healthy masculinity consists mainly in not being violent to women, you’ve essentially vacated the space of what it means to be a man, which–as the comments here attest–will be filled. In that sense I find the ending a little glib.

    Feminism clearly has been and is central to questioning and redefining contemporary masculinity. But telling the average bloke that the most important thing about being a man is that he’s a feminist? Not sure how successful that will be. Don’t get me wrong: it’s essential. But it’s insufficient.

    It’s true that the average teenage male Homo sapiens needs to be broken in. And, at the risk of invoking old Kaiser Wilhelm II, I think it is those (absent) rites of passage where as a society we’re letting down our boys. But that opens up fraught questions of biology and the threat of essentialism, a powerful social taboo (albeit for good reasons).

    Here’s an exercise. Most men and women would say the sexes are different. What are five positive qualities of womanhood? What are five positive qualities of manhood? And what are the best ways to develop those qualities in young men?

    I’d be interested in any answers, but more than that whether you think they’re legitimate or useful questions. If not, then there’s your answer to why lots of men seek refuge in a frightened and threatened masculinity: they can’t find any other one. Is this a bigger problem than rape and the continuing oppression of women? No. But in some sense that’s the wrong question. Unless it is dealt with, the feminist project will remain unfinished.

    1. Sticking with the notion of five questions, and extending the reply to Chris’s questions from the angle of culture rather than nature, so looking toward the “bizarre(ness of) gender perceptions”, the answer is yes, there are some biological differences between the sexes, of course, but most of the alleged natural differences between the sexes have no relation to biology, and are gender representations linked to power, which culturally constructs forms of social organization that in turn produce inequalities between men and women.

      The five questions then translate as: What are five ways social and cultural inequalities are produced between men and women? What are five ways to produce social and cultural equality between women and men?

      It *should* be easy to list the inequalities; but to gain equality, and here’s the true bizarreness of current gender perceptions, both women and men might be amazed by what might need jettisoning.

      1. Thanks Dennis – I like where this is going… in starting to think about this, I actually start to wonder what we might mean by ‘equality’. I know that’s a pretty basic question, but maybe that’s where we need to start: what could equality look, feel, sound, smell, taste like? what exactly is being equivalented (if that’s a word) within our myriad of differences and commonalities?

        1. Been travelling myself for two days, as happens.
          I must confess I wasn’t thinking of a philosophical discussion on what might constitute equality – as interesting as the question is in itself – and I doubt that full equality or equity is possible in any sort of social or cultural pursuit. I was more ruminating on how cultures divide males and females into different power positions through social practices like sport, religion, occupations, education, recreation, dress, school curricula, family, traditions etc, as well as allocating personalities for those different positions of power, and then backing up the power divisions with cultural myths (along with naturalised ways of reading those myths) to reinforce the idea of natural differences between men and women – and as this is Stephen Wright’s blog, many of the topics covered in his posts – supposed natural differences supported by naturalised ways of reading romantic love, film, literature, advertising etc – all designed to instil ideas of natural emotional, intellectual and ethical differences between male s and females.
          On my reckoning, this adds up to a lot of baggage to get rid of to gain any sense of gender equity.

          1. “to gain any sense of gender equity.” well yes to do this don’t we need to ask each other, anyone, everyone, what that might be for them? (in the first instance I’m assuming equality of opinion/voice about what being-treated-with-equality means to each individual whoever they are).

            and you sat “I doubt that full equality or equity is possible in any sort of social or cultural pursuit”… so are you questions — re: “What are five ways social and cultural inequalities are produced between men and women? What are five ways to produce social and cultural equality between women and men?” — asked in vain?

    2. [NB I come at this from more of a mathematical than literary bent, and this will become very clear in the way I construct my argument]

      What are five positive qualities of womanhood? What are five positive qualities of manhood? And what are the best ways to develop those qualities in young men?

      I’d be interested in any answers, but more than that whether you think they’re legitimate or useful questions.

      They are not legitimate or useful questions, and here’s why:

      For any given person ‘A’, that person can have a number of different chromosomal combinations. The most common are XX and XY, but “intersex” combinations also exist, usually involving an extra chromosome, IIRC. Focusing on XX and XY, we call the first “female” and the second “male”. At birth, doctors typically observe the primary sex characteristics of a child and assign a binary gender designation based on the assumed chromosomal configuration that these characteristics indicate. From observation, it is possible to state that sometimes this “assigned-at-birth” designation is a poor fit for the embodied experience of the person (that is, the person is transgender or transsexual).

      Based on a person’s gender-assigned-at-birth, certain roles are expected of them, and when their personality and behaviour steps outside of those bounds, they are seen as being defective in some way. Violence from men, supplemented by psychological violence from some women, are the usual ways of policing and “correcting” this.

      Now, going back to person ‘A’, with gender assigned-at-birth g (thus, ‘A(g)’ refers to the gender of A). Person ‘A’ will have some personality traits and characteristics a(1), a(2), a(3) etc.

      Now, we prescribe some set of characteristics that we view as “positive”. To each of these characteristics, we assign a gender-value – it is either a “positive characteristic of womanhood” or a “positive characteristic of manhood”.

      Person A, with gender A(g) and sex identity A(s) (that is to say, the sex zie feels hirself to be). Let’s for the moment assume that A(g)=A(s). That is to say, that A identifies hirself as being the same sex as the doctors diagnosed at birth, and in some respect accepts that social designation.

      Person A has personality traits and characteristics a(n), amongst which may be some of the traits that we assigned to being either positive “manhood” or positive “womanhood” characteristics. Let’s say we order a(n) by how positive we feel the characteristics are. Some or all of the top 5 most positive characteristics of A, we can expect to appear on our lists of positive “manhood” or “womanhood”.

      Recall hat we are assuming a cissexual person A (that is, gender assigned at birth and personal sex identification match).

      Regardless of what the characterstics actually are, what happens if A identifies hirself as male (that is “a man”), but possesses the characteristics that are associated with “womanhood”? What if A has 3 “womanhood” characteristics and 2 “manhood” characteristics? What if A is a woman and these things hold true?

      Assigning “positive characteristics” to a specific gender makes no sense. A positive characteristic is a positive characteristic for any human being, regardless of gender assigned-at-birth, sex-identity, chromosomal configuration, or anything else. By assigning a gender to it, you turn a positive into a negative for half the population, because society as it stands places a value judgement on how well a person performs their assigned gender.

      The only approaches are either to abolish gender entirely, so that nobody is called “masculine” or “feminine”, and the concept of “manhood” or “womanhood” is also abolished; or to redefine gender radically, as a multi-dimensional space within which each person occupies their own region based on various personality/social characteristics that they possess but independent of their physical characteristics (such as chromosomes or genitalia). This would be such a radical redefinition that, to all intents and purposes, it would be the same as abolishing gender.

      why lots of men seek refuge in a frightened and threatened masculinity: they can’t find any other one.

      But the problem is, why are we teaching them to look for one in the first place? Bearing in mind that men are overwhelmingly the police force of gender, both maleness and femaleness, through both social pressure and violence. While I think that a sense of belonging and “place in society” is an important drive in humans, there is no reason for gender, and specifically, masculinity, to take that role for male-identified persons. Finding our own paths and then identifying with the groups who walk similar paths, is a healthier way of living in any case. Any definition, however it may be framed in “positive characteristics”, of gender, must take the form of telling a person which path to walk and whom their fellow travellers are to be. I was never comfortable on that path, and it did me harm.

  17. Thanks for the questions Chris. I think the whole ‘rites of passage’ thing is overstated and is an easy go-to when dealing with the difficult terrain of adolescence. It’s a a big thing for many in the men’s movement, based on scant developmental theory and a considerable amount of hokum and essentialist ideas about gender. A passage to what? From what?
    Masculinity has to find ways to engage with the ideas that feminism has been throwing around for decades. That’s a huge ask, but just thinking is a good place to start. As far as suggesting feminism as a panacea I’m particularly aiming that at the men’s movement whose understanding of feminism is bizarre and amazingly ill-informed.
    The ‘5 great things about women/men’ idea I think also pushes toward the biological essentialism beloved of mens rights advocates. At best it could show us just how bizarre gender perceptions can be, but I imagine there are better questions that could be framed.

    1. Stephen, could you throw us few suggestions at some better questions that could be framed?

  18. Yes, Luke, you’ve caught me out on a contradiction. The questions, and question of gender equity / equality are valid, but not for me. I’d be more than happy to hear everyone’s responses though, as there are far more nimble minds in the world than mine. It’s simply that my thinking on gender doesn’t seem to extend to the positive column while there is such a backlog of baggage stacked up in the negative column.

    1. I would just like to point out that the defence for the two Steubenville rapists in the US has moved to ‘they are teenage boys so their brains haven’t properly developed.’ The very silly ‘boys brains vs girls brains’ argument crops up quite a lot in the education debates around the academic performance of boys. Though first time I’ve heard it used to excuse rape.

      1. With that sort of shit (and worse) continually being promulgated I guess it won’t hurt to suggest a positive list of sorts:


        1. Promote texts which don’t promote traditional (natural / biological) gender divisions

        2. Apply resistant reading practices to those texts which do promote ossified gender divisions

        3. Tear apart hegemonies which work together to effect unequal social relations between women and men.

        4. Study your own place in society and refute all commonsense assumptions about natural gender divisions by questioning the cultural values (ideologies) underpinning the way life is being lived within that social situation.

        5. Power is an effect of unequal gender divisions and not an absolute hierarchical force, so nobody is totally powerful or totally powerless on gender matters because we move in and out of power situations on a daily basis – so you are free to speak up and seek to change gender arrangements which are counter-productive to achieving gender equality.

        Like the negative ledger, the list could go on and on…

        1. I’d also like to add to this some framing by Valery’s comment above, about avoiding a binary male/female distinction. I could have done better than that myself in the post too.

          1. Good point.

            6. There is no society without texts and no texts without society. So reject all semimented (‘natural’) gender divisions conveyed through binary oppositions, both textually and societally.

            Male Female
            masculine feminine
            mind body
            logical intuitive
            rational emotional
            active passive
            culture nature

            Refuse to read the words down the columns for their accumulated meanings (to be masculine is to be all these things and to be feminine is to be all those things), and refuse to carry concepts across the rows to avoid inaccurate gender descriptions (males are made this way biologically (men are naturally active) and females the other way (women are naturally passive)). Such words and concepts work to avoid contradiction by masking the gender differences they appear to be accentuating.

      2. This idea comes up in neuroscience quite a lot. The fact that the frontal lobe is the last brain structure to become fully myelinated and therefore reach its full processing capacity until a person reaches their late 20s or even 30s has been cited as grounds for all sorts of adolescent and young adult phenomena. It is not peculiar to young men however.

        What falls by the wayside in the interpretation of this ‘fact’, however, is the concept that it is precisely how we react to such ‘unregulated’ (read: impulsive, dangerous or criminal) behaviour as a society that either entrenches or extinguishes it. And when it is used to explain away phenomena such as rape, which are neither peculiar to adolescents nor dissociable from a broader cultural context of rape apologism, it has clearly no validity.

        Then there are the implications this idea would have if applied to supposedly ‘adult’ privileges such as the vote or the right to bear arms. Methinks the same people who argue for clemency in Steubenville would hastily withdraw their argument in the latter scenarios.

        1. Yes, exactly. And in my experience a 2 year old is quite capable of fully understanding that it’s not ok to beat another child with a rock. So a 17 year old can probably comprehend the violence of rape.

  19. This is starting to sound like a dismal exercise in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.
    We should all be congratulating Stephen for yet another big writing Award. Stephen is exemplary in the way he can eloquently put forth damaging arguments without staking out a position – a known guerrila warfare tactic!

  20. Well I have every respect for behavioural psychology but not so it’s widespread therapeutic use in CBT and the reason is one voiced by Valery that it’s pretty much ‘telling a person which path to walk’. If you do the ‘exercise’ yourself assigning items to positive and negative columns then you become your own Calvanistic or Foucaultian thought policeman.
    I recall a striking comment from you, Luke, some time ago along the lines of tackling problems ad hoc each as they arise within unique circumstances rather than applying a formula, a code, a rule, a standard etc. Of course, people will infer a label for you from your expressed opinions. Particularly in academic discussions of mega- dichotomies like gender race or class. But being derided for things you don’t actually believe can be kinda fun after a while. Belonging to that gives a sense of freedom, and freedom to speak up within power inequalities because it undermines us and them mentalities and inequalities. Gloomily, I don’t think we can achieve desirable behaviour and cognitive modifications under current social conditions. They can happen naturally, according to Solnit, in disasters for example.
    Also, I wanted to transition to celebrating Steve’s writings.

  21. “Semimented”, by the way (if you’ll allow a point of poeticity, if not semiosis), is a nonce / portmanteau word: “to semi-cement something in place; from the psychological etymon, ‘sedimentary’.

  22. Feminists, even supposid mainstream ones, can be quite biggoted. I sat through more than one undergrad lecture where a feminist prof made groslly offensive comments about men. Usually they are along the line that all men are rapists or wife beaters. Unlike the MRAs being attacked in the article, these feminists are employed by public institutions and my tax dollars pay their inflated salaries.

    Capitalism is a problem in gender politics. But it cuts both ways. Women have made amazing gains in the past 50 years. So much so, the continued relevance and continued funding of women’s groups is now questionable. These women’s groups, like any other entity, want to survive. To do so they need to be “Chicken Little” organizations. This is usually inflating abuse statistics or being outright misleading.

    1. Look, while it may be true that you heard a feminist academic make bigoted remarks, it doesn’t follow that ‘women’s groups’ funding needs curtailing. In fact, there are no generic ‘women’s groups’ funded by taxpayer dollars. There are a variety of services (usually very poorly funded) that exist to respond to the epidemic of violence against women, many of which had their funding drastically affected in the Howard years. There have been many claims by men’s rights groups that rape statistics and so on are hugely inflated. There’s no evidence of this. In fact the evidence points the other way – that violence against women continues to be grossly under-reported.

  23. How remarkably interesting that you should identify the primitiveness of men’s movement groups as resembling the sorts of feminisms that existed in the 70’s. I would argue that the sorts of popular strands of feminism which align themselves with the mainstream causes now and, those strands which marginalize men from occupying a role in what is essential a social goal remind me of more old school versions of feminism.

    Not only is it unhelpful to exclude people on the basis of a physical technicality, it is also inherently contradictory because it reaffirms the myth that these sorts of goals are not the responsibility of society as a whole and belong to only a select few to define them. If the social construct of GENDER is the site which produces patriarchal consequences, then I would INVITE men to sit down and think about the patterns which exist that disadvantage them, too. The theoretical deconstruction and undermining of patriarchy is the ultimate goal of each movement, I would argue. Stephen, you scoff at a completely fabricated, mythologized, stereotypical vision of the goals of a men’s movement: you remind me of a feminism who professes to be all about solidarity of a movement, and then ascribes to one, highly specific form of feminism and undermines the views and opinions of others. That is a patriarchal process in itself- and to fail to recognize masculinity, or hegemonic masculinity, as a fluid model of behavior which produces it’s own set of consequences for men who adhere to it, reject it or transgress it perpetuates the cycle of difference and violence.

    I think I would identify as having a respect for all strands of feminism, but I don’t understand why they seem be limited to this constant need to highlight rape and physical domination of women as being the major priorities of contemporary feminism (or rather the eradication of these). These problems are systemic- extreme? Yes. But it seems kind of patriarchal in itself to place so much emphasis on the sexed body as a site of violence. Much in the same way that postcolonial studies seems to have been able to eh-hem, get over rape of the colonial subject as a metaphor for colonial domination, I’d like to imagine that contemporary feminism is capable of the same advances. I think most people would agree that the symptoms of such violence and inequality are obvious: it would be nice to focus on the voices of marginalized forms of feminism to address ideas which extend beyond the “Rape is bad and a crime more women are victims of. Women should be able to wear what they want. Julia Gillard experiences sexism because she occupies a powerful role” (I agree with all of these, but I wonder whether we have more important things to think about). I think most men would probably agree with these statements, too. They’re a bit of a given, really, aren’t they? I think it would be exciting to shake it up a bit and start asking questions about how gender operates as a site of difference and exploring the different types of violence which function at different levels (family units, workplace organization, religious etc) of institutional organization…that’d be a bit more exciting. Maybe start imagining ways in which we could create spaces for victims of gendered violence to speak about and negotiate ways to challenge systemic patterns, rather than demean them or ascribe some sort of category you as a white, educated male individual chose to devalue- you are disadvantaged in very different ways to other men. Why would you discourage a movement which seeks to highlight the plurality and far-reachingness of disadvantage?

    Perhaps the appearance of various forms of a “men’s movement” is as crucial to dissolving patriarchy as the many forms of feminism which exist out there- the point is that people are taking the time out to reflect on and challenge sites of inequality- and I think this is very refreshing.

    Also, while we immerse ourselves in the very narrow forms of “pop” feminism reproduced by the mainstream media, let’s try not to forget that men account for the majority of the homeless in this country (!OpenDocument ) , that men are more likely to be victims of substance abuse behaviors (helpful to consider when we try to understand systemic violence?), that men who align themselves with a sort of sexuality beyond the heterosexual norm are more likely to experience abuse than women- aren’t we all in this together? Isn’t that the point?

    1. ” Why would you discourage a movement which seeks to highlight the plurality and far-reachingness of disadvantage?”

      Because the men’s rights movement doesn’t do that. I’m not a objecting to men’s movement per se. The men’s rights movement essentially blames women for the problems with male health and so forth. If you are trying to align the men’s rights movement with a men’s movement that seeks to address the issues of male suicide, or homelessness for example, you’re really barking up the wrong tree. A men’s movement that engaged in a discussion of the those issues without blaming women and understanding that these issues are probably likely to be solved and understood by engaging with feminist ideas about power, marginalisation, violence etc is likely to make interesting gains. But that’s not what the men’s rights movement does.
      Violence against women and girls is still endemic. It’s not really about siting ‘the sexed body’ but about investigating violence and the sexualisation of violence and the structures of violence. Understanding and responding to sexualised violence is critical because (a) it’s everywhere (b) a good marker of the true colour of gendered relations (c) a way into thinking about the nature of violence as it is gendered.
      Nowhere in the men’s rights movement is this discussed. The men’s rights movement takes a critique of masculinity as a a broadside against men. This is not just idiotic, but also very disturbing and a real pointer to a deep seated misogyny that is so one-eyed it is very hard to undo. It’s a thinking that is very common with men who are abusive.
      I think of the men’s rights movements as having a 70’air, not because I want to compare it to 70’s feminism, but because reading men’s rights stuff seems like a kind of feminism that Led Zeppelin might have advocated for, as if ‘Stairway to Heaven’ were a song that empathised with women. Men rights screeds read like manifestos written in flairs.

  24. Violence in all its socio-cultural and institutionalised forms is the world’s most pressing problem in my book, and as patriarchy has a long historical tradition of engendering violence, gender issues come at the forefront of the world’s problems. I could get all utopian and go,

    O for the quick fix of a Subjectivity Rewriting Machine which erases the subjectivities of individual agents controlled by ideas of nation / violence, state / violence, GENDER / VIOLENCE, race / violence and the organisation of capital and private property / violence – and rewrites subjectivities anew! Where are Margaret Atwood and HG Wells et al when you need them most? …

    but that’s not going to solve such problems. Arguably only a long talking cure until problems caused by gender violence (the topic here) are distilled to an Orwellian plain language so that everyone can see and understand the problem will allow for some real purchase on the problem and therefore possibilities for real change. Other than that, it is business as usual when tackling social issues. Solving problems by preterition only: forgetting about them and moving on to something else.

  25. This is incredibly arrogant, emotion-based writing. You dress it up well but your argument amounts to “men’s rights is ludicrous – because I say so.” You put no effort into rebutting men’s rights ideas – but then again you don’t really even mention men’s rights ideas. In fact, apart from your arrogant dismissal of men’s rights without feeling the need to engage their concepts, the other thing that comes through clearly is your complete ignorance of what they actually believe.

    If your goal in this piece is nestle comfortably in the warmth of feminist dogma while denouncing the ridiculous infidels, mission accomplished. But please don’t delude yourself into believing this article has anything to do with critical thought.

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