The Ethics Of… The Men’s Rights Movement

As a feminist I do the usual little token effort on International Women’s Day and post something up on Facebook. And while most people either like it or ignore it, every single year I get at least one comment along the lines of “Why isn’t there an International Men’s Day?”.

It may sound like just a snarky throw-away line (and often is), but the idea behind that comment is the tip of a very large cultural iceberg that has been floating around for a while now: what about the men?

No seriously, before you sneer at that question and dismiss it as blind privilege, take a moment to consider how men might find the world today a bit frustrating. For the most part everyone agrees that women’s liberation was a great thing; the right to choose your own career, lifestyle and the right to vote are all fundamental human rights and it’s ridiculous they were once denied to half the population. But then feminism kept going. And going. And going, until suddenly men found themselves in a significantly different world than the one they were told they were going to grow up and inherit one day.

Image result for 90s masculinity

This is what we were promised. Reality spectacularly failed to deliver.

Yeah sure the ‘treat women as human beings’ bit was pretty easy to master, but since when can you get strung up for sexual harassment for paying someone a compliment? It used to be that pursuing a romantic interest was romantic, now all of a sudden it’s ‘creepy’ and ‘inappropriate’. Physical prowess used to be the icon of masculinity, but now it’s brushed off as ‘bro culture’ or even diagnosed as ‘the male anorexia’. And whatever happened to the respect we used to have for a solid day of physical labour? Used to be a working man was the backbone of the nation, the symbol of progress. Now their jobs are getting outsourced, their unions are turning on them, and the cultural and business elites sneer down on them and talk about blue collar workers like they’re a relic, or worse, a cultural backwater we need to get rid of.

And it’s not just the ideals of masculinity that are in trouble, men face some pretty serious practical problems as well.

Yet there are no dedicated programs in place to help male victims recover from these crimes or ad campaigns addressing this gender bias. Sure you might argue that this is because men are more likely to start and then lose fights, but isn’t that exactly the sort of stereotyping and victim blaming that feminists have been railing against for years? Why do female victims get the benefit of the doubt and not male victims?

You might argue that children need their mothers more, that mothers have a stronger connection with their children, or that fathers are less likely to want to have sole custody, but guess what? Those are perfect examples of gender roles; the idea that an individual person must hold certain qualities because of their gender. Those gender roles used to be used to argue that women who don’t want kids are unnatural failures – why have we been so thorough in wiping out that stereotype but so happily assume fathers can’t or shouldn’t be the primary caregiver?

You can debate the validity of those figures if you like, point out that female victims are more likely to suffer repeated and far more serious attacks, and that’s all worth considering. But when these male victims speak up and the overwhelming response from the public is disbelief, statistical nit-picking or even mockery for being beaten up by a women, they’re not exactly going to feel supported, are they? In fact that sort of response sounds exactly like how misogynists respond to the idea of rape culture. And speaking of which…

Again, those figures are significantly lower than the rate for women, but for a male who has been raped, that’s not going to make the experience less traumatic. True, perpetrators of sexual violence are overwhelmingly likely to be male, but what does that have to do with male victims? Are we seriously going to argue that male rape victims deserve less sympathy because most attackers are male? That’d be insane. And while no rape victim is going to have a good experience with the legal system or social reaction, male victims don’t even have what little support there is for women. There are no shelters or dedicated support services, and imagine a man trying to report he was raped to the police. Yeah, that’s going to end well.

Image result for prison shower
One of the best known entertainment tropes is a joke about how funny male rape is. Think about that for a second.

Given all this, maybe it’s not too surprising that Australian men are more than twice as likely to commit suicide compared to women, but it’s a damning statistic nonetheless.

So combine these clear cases of gender discrimination against men with the sustained efforts of feminism to undermine traditional concepts of masculinity, and it’s not too hard to see how a man could begin to feel a little resentful. And thus became the Men’s Rights Movement (or MRM).

But hold on a sec, how is it fair for me to say the MRM is motivated by ‘resentment’? That’s like saying women only become feminists if they’re butch lesbians who hate men – not exactly a fair representation, is it?

That’s a fair complaint, but it sort of relies on the assumption that the Men’s Rights Movement is in practice generally focused on the well-being of men. Unfortunately, this is largely not the case.

Here’s a fun game: go ahead and google up “Mens Rights Movement”, find a site from that movement and see how long it takes you before you find someone blaming everything on women. As of writing I have spent about 15 hours trawling through over 20 different MRM websites, desperately looking for one that doesn’t, and so far have found just one.

Image result for face on hands despair

You lot better appreciate this. I haven’t been this traumatised from researching a post since the one on Kim Kardashian.

And this isn’t just criticism of feminism as a idea, or disagreement with cultural changes I’m talking about here. Nope, the MRM in general seems to believe that feminism’s interest in ‘gender equality’ is all a front to throw people off their real agenda: systematically supplanting men from all levels of society. Even relatively mainstream groups like the One In Three campaign that is focused on male victims of domestic abuse almost immediately stoops down to this sort of resentful muttering, with a massive list of ‘Misinformation about Family Violence’, which basically boils down to a long list of examples of how ‘domestic violence against women is overstated and not as bad as everyone says’ – you know, the exact opposite of the message they’re meant to be promoting about male domestic violence victims.

Dig deeply and broadly enough and this is the foundation of nearly the entire MRM; this isn’t a movement based on helping men, but rather on attacking the advances of women. They believe that the problems facing modern men are caused by feminism.

So to summarise, here we have a movement founded on male gender inequalities, that blames people who aim to overcome gender inequality, and attempts to improve the situation for men, by undoing the advances made for women. And just like the question ‘Why isn’t there an International Men’s Day?’, it’s not actually about wanting to focus on men, but rather about why women are getting special treatment.

And you know what? I get it. I seriously do. Feminism has been pretty devastating to the traditional concept of manliness – after all, you can’t empower one group of people in society without disempowering another, that’s not how power works. And while feminism might have been completely correct in taking that power in order to bring about equal rights, there’s no denying that as the freedoms of women have expanded, so the traditional ideals of masculinity have had to shrink to make room. And for many men, that’s scary as hell – they no longer know where they ‘fit’ in society, the masculine ideals that once guided them are under attack, and the great social, economic and political power their father once wielded so comfortably has dwindled away – and while this re-balancing of power might have been completely justified to bring women up to equal footing, for a man it’s involved a lot of loss for a benefit they personally may not have shared in. And so you get resentment, the drawing up of a list of grievances, and the collection of these angry people into a movement who then vents their frustrations at those they deem responsible: feminists.

The huge and utter tragedy of all this is that among it’s many claims the MRM has some seriously legitimate examples of gender inequality that need serious attention. The automatic bias against men in custody cases not only unjustly assumes men are inferior parents, but reinforces the idea that women are mothers first and foremost. The loss of traditional male identity, the persistence of destructive male stereotypes, and the overwhelming likelihood of men being involved in violence all speak to a crisis facing the modern men that must not be dismissed and swept under the rug. And the horrifying stigma against male rape victims, regardless of the attacker, must resonate with every feminist who’s ever fought for justice for victims of sexual violence.

Yet all these good and noble and urgent causes are lost completely in the quagmire of hate that the MRM has attracted from every misogynist, sexist and terrified chauvinist that can identify a bandwagon when they see one.

And worst of all, in their frustration the MRM has managed to blame discrimination against men on the exact set of ideas that can solve those problems; you remember those five examples of discrimination I gave at the start of this article, and how I explained how so many people use stereotypes, gender roles and victim blaming to dismiss those issues? Well those are feminist concepts – tools used to identify, explain and combat discrimination against one gender over the other. And they are equally valid for discrimination against men as they are for discrimination against women.

Equal rights are not a tug of war – men do not need to compete with women for fair treatment. Men can benefit from the same theory and campaigns that have taken women so far, but opnly if it is a collaborative effort; seeing justice for men as only coming by taking power back form women merely holds everyone back, tearing down the institutions that took so long to build in a sullen and hateful attempt to retain control.

And don’t get me wrong here, the feminist movement is in no way immune from this sort of ‘us or them’ bullshit either. Both sides have their fools, their cowards, those acting on hate and malice, seeking to destroy rather than build – those for whom the fight against bigotry is just an expression of a different form of bigotry. But just as modern feminism has largely marginalised such extremists and thereby progressed, so too must the MRM. Because until they do, their message and their movement is being corrupted.

Ultimately, true men’s rights advocates and true feminists want the same thing: justice, regardless of gender. We fight for the same thing, but are coming from different fronts. Now those fronts are meeting, and we must decide whether we work together against the common enemy of gender discrimination, or fight each other while that enemy prospers.

This justice we seek is inevitable over time. The only question is how long it takes, and what we choose to destroy in the process.

Oh, and as it happens there is an International Men’s Day. It’s tomorrow, 19 November. Interesting that no one seems to know that.

10 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… The Men’s Rights Movement

  1. Reblogged this on Cloak Unfurled and commented:
    I know many feminists and I am sure some may find points to disagree with, but as always I find this blogger does a well balanced look at the issues. He does, I think, an excellent job pointing out serious issues that men face today, while criticizing excellently the Men’s Right Movement, which really isn’t about fighting about male issues, but rather about tearing down feminism. The fight for equality is a common fight, not a tug of war.

      • It’s definitely one that generated some discussion. It’s hard not to be emotional about the subject, but as always you raise points in a thoughtful way that helps people consider more sides deeply. I had been looking for a good way to express what was wrong with the MRM even though there are valid complaints, and you really hit it home here.

  2. Reblogged this on So Far Left I'm Right and commented:
    Perhaps it goes without saying that I care deeply for the men in my life, as well as the women. I want society to value the contributions of all people. And I firmly believe that as we all deserve equal rights, we also deserve to be unique and embrace our differences.

    This article addresses some very real benefits as well as missteps of the emerging Men’s Rights Movement, in a graceful and respectful way.

  3. Your analysis is enlightening – feminism (as with any human endeavor) has had factions that 1) ignored women of color, 2) blamed men for everything. There are other elements of feminism that seek complete gender equity, that work to make gender an irrelevant variable in decision-making. One misperception in the article, however, is the application of empowerment as an interpersonal variable (If I am to win, you lose). Empowerment is a central goal of feminism. It is intrapersonal, it is “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights,” and it does not involve the lessening of someone else or denying their rights in any way (that would be aggression). Thanks for writing this – made me think and recenter my feminist intentions!

    • Hi Holiday Adair, thanks for the comment!
      Yeah feminism gets simplified quite a bit by the general public I suspect, and unfortunately the louder, less nuanced members get more attention than they deserve at times.
      Regarding power, I understand that feminism is about empowering women rather than disempowering men, and I agree the women’s liberation has lead to improvements for all people in society, but I’d suggest that my point is still valid in the short term: if we define power as the ability to control your circumstances, then 100% power would involve total control of everything around you, including people. In a patriarchal society men have control of the behaviour of women – not 100% of course, but control nonetheless. By seeking equal rights women took back their power to control their circumstances, which requires that men lose the ability to dictate their behaviour. In this sense men lost power as women gained it. Of course this was all perfectly justified as men never had a right to that control in the first place, but nonetheless that is a loss of power for men and losing control can be distressing.

      Ultimately I’d argue that feminism has lead to improvements for both sexes as liberated women are able to capitalise on their personal potential and contribute more to human progress, effectively multiplying the amount of control EVERYONE has over their circumstances. But to get there they had to take their power back, and for men that could be seen as a threat.

      • Incidentally if any of that theory sounds flimsy it’s because it’s a new idea I’m still in the middle of ironing out! A comprehensive theory of power is pretty relevant to ethics, needless to say.

  4. Great post. I would like to add, however, that women are at least 3 times more likely to attempt suicide than men. Men tend to be fore successful at suicide because they use violent means, such as firearms. Women who attempt suicide tend to use nonviolent means, such as poisoning, which includes overdose.

    In western societies, overall rates of mental health disorders (such as depression) tend to be around 20-40% higher for women than for men. For hundreds of years, hypermasculinity has been pushed on boys and men as something to aspire to. It still is, but it’s so much apart of our culture and collective psyche, that it’s not seen as abnormal. You see it in mass communications, such as magazines, video games, movies, the internet and advertising. Harris O’Malley did an eye-opening article on this regarding the search for identity — The Selling of Masculinity.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that men are 80 percent less likely than women to use a regular source of health care. Lately, I’ve been seeing advocacy commercials on TV making it “cool” for men to see a doctor. I’m glad to see that — that men are starting to become organized and proactive in a benefical way, and advocate for themselves. There have been several doctors that told my mom that had it not been for her encouraging my dad to see a doctor, he’d be dead by now. Men are not allowed to show weakness, and if they do they get compared to women, often in a derogatory way.

    It wasn’t until very recent years that International Women’s Day started to get any world-wide exposure, and it’s been around since 1909. Probably didn’t get much attention in the U.S. because it was founded by an American socialist party in remembrance of the strike organized by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers union the year before — a product of working women who wanted change. The term “socialist” is a 4 letter word to most Americans.

    I know you’re in Australia, but here are some child custody states in the U.S.:

    A Pew Research study found that even with both parents working full time, a married father spends on average 6.5 hours a week taking part in primary child care activities with his children. The married mother spends on average 12.9 hours. So, if a custody case go to trial, they will take into account the amount of time each parent spends doing primary care activities.

    I do agree that gender bias exists, which does impact fathers. Women are generally expected to have more primary care responsibilities, and that ends up working against fathers if the case goes into litigation.

    Approximately 91 percent of child custody after divorce is decided with no interference from the family court system.

    Happy International Men’s Day.

    • Hi NeuroNotes, thanks for the comments. Very good points. Unfortunately I can never cram all the detail into these articles, so thanks for adding those points. As you say, gender roles have persisted quite strongly for men unfortunately. I have noticed the younger generations seem a bit less beholden to masculine ideals these days and happier to be more feminine, but that might just be my optimism coming through.

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