Man Troubles

Making sense of the men's movement.

Masculism (mas'kye liz*'em), n. 1. the belief that equality between the sexes requires the recognition and redress of prejudice and discrimination against men as well as women. 2. the movement organized around this belief.

Not to worry: This word is not in the dictionary. But it would be if the decision were up to Warren Farrell, Jack Kammer, and others activists in the men's movement. The men's movement? Even the term evokes ambivalent feelings. Whenever, while working on this article, I mentioned that I was writing about the men's movement and added, "but not the guys who go into the woods and beat drums," the typical response from both women and men was, "Is there any other kind?"

In fact, there are hundreds of men's groups in the United States and Canada. Some are mainly "mythopoetic," geared to "healing" and rediscovering masculine archetypes (typified by Robert Bly's retreats for men). Most, however, emphasize social and political issues, protesting what they see as unfair treatment of men in areas ranging from divorce to health care.

Is sexism against men an oxymoron? A few points to ponder:

* Despite gender-neutral laws in many jurisdictions, pro-maternal bias in custody cases remains widespread. In a Georgia court recently, a father who stated at a hearing on support payments that the child was with him nearly half the time was told, "It's admirable that you want to spend time and actually do spend time with your child, but the mother has the responsibility for nurturing, parenting, and raising this child. Your responsibility is to provide child support."

* Alleged bias against girls in schools has been the focus of great concern even though boys are more likely than girls to drop out of school and less likely to go to college. Studies indicating that boys get more teacher attention in the classroom have been widely discussed, while findings that boys are punished much more often and more harshly than girls for the same misbehavior are ignored.

* The judicial system tends to treat female defendants more leniently than males. When a man and a woman are accomplices in a crime, the woman is more likely to be offered a plea bargain. And violence against women is singled out for media attention and legislative action. The Violence Against Women Act, passed by Congress this year as part of the crime bill, defines many crimes against women as federal civil- rights offenses and allocates federal funds to areas with the highest rates of crime against women. Yet nearly 65 percent of violent-crime victims and 75 percent of homicide victims are male.

* While 35,000 American men a year die of prostate cancer and 43,000 women die of breast cancer (at a somewhat earlier age), breast-cancer research gets six times as much federal money as prostate-cancer research.

* Abortion is widely available without the father's consent, but men can be forced by the courts to provide financial support for children they never wanted in the first place. Does this mean that only women have reproductive rights and that only men can be forced into parenthood?

The question is how to confront the real biases affecting men without lapsing into the whining and gender warfare that permeate modern feminism--and also show up in some masculist publications, where men said to be unjustly convicted of sexual assault are described as "political prisoners" and the status of American males under feminist rule is compared to that of Jews in Nazi Germany. Men's advocates have had, at best, limited success in reaching the public. Whatever people may think of the National Organization for Women, they know about it; very few have heard of the National Coalition of Free Men (NCFM) or Men's Rights Inc. Representatives of these organizations are rarely asked for their opinions by the media, let alone by legislatures.

"We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that women are the only gender with valid items for the agenda, and that men constitute the only sex that has advantages to share," writes Baltimore journalist and activist Jack Kammer in the introduction to Good Will Toward Men (St. Martin's, 1994). The book consists of conversations with 22 women, including me, who speak of cultural norms and biases that are hurting men today--from the tendency to view sexual miscommunication as unilateral male victimization of women to the devaluation of fatherhood by both the welfare system and the treatment of divorced parents.

The interest in men's issues is a much-needed corrective to the increasingly obsessive tendency to focus on real or fictitious disadvantages affecting females and ignore those affecting males. Moreover, by encouraging more role flexibility for men as well as women, and in particular greater male involvement in home life, the men's movement may be an essential step in achieving the work/family balance often described as the key issue on the "women's agenda." Most men's activists see their cause as the other, neglected half of the feminist enterprise of gender-role transition. "The best, constructive message of feminism," Kammer says, "was to ask men to examine whether they believe that they are inherently superior to women in any important ways. That's very good, but that's only half the problem."

Unfortunately, masculism also has a tendency to adopt the less constructive traits and tactics of modern feminism, including polarizing rhetoric, exaggerated claims of victimization as the basis of political demands, and the tailoring of facts to fit ideology. If the movement becomes simply feminism with a scratchy face, it will be rightly derided as an attempt to convince the world that white heterosexual men are victims, too. But if men's advocates are consistent in applying principles of fairness and equality, they will have much to say of value to women as well as men.

Perhaps the main reason that male claims of gender-based inequities are not taken seriously is that, in the minds of most people, gender oppression is synonymous with oppression of women. In their effort to counter this perception, some men's advocates are challenging not only the view that women are oppressed today but the assumption that women were historically the oppressed sex.

The strongest attack on this assumption comes from an unlikely source: Warren Farrell, formerly an activist in the women's movement and the only man elected three times to the board of the National Organization for Women. Farrell is the author of The Myth of Male Power (Simon & Schuster, 1993), which Barbara Dority, co-chair of the Northwest Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce, says has the "potential for being The Feminine Mystique of the men's movement." Farrell writes: "Feminism justified female 'victim power' by convincing the world that we lived in a sexist, male-dominated, and patriarchal world. The Myth of Male Power explains why the world was bi-sexist, both male and female-dominated, both patriarchal and matriarchal--each in different ways."

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