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."

Farrell's book is filled with startling challenges to the standard view of gender inequity. Why, he asks, do we hear about the clustering of women in low-paid jobs but not about the clustering of men in dirty, physically demanding, hazardous jobs, or about the fact that 94 percent of workplace fatalities are male? Why is it that the higher mortality rates of blacks compared to whites are seen as clear evidence of racial disadvantage but the higher mortality rates of men compared to women are overlooked? If women killed themselves four times as often as men, rather than the reverse, wouldn't we be hearing about it from NOW and from Pat Schroeder? How were men empowered by the fact that they were the ones who got killed in wars?

In short, Farrell wants us to see the sacrifices often involved in the male role, from risking one's life in battle to breaking one's back in a factory. (The traditional husband who wanted his wife at home also made himself work harder to support her and the kids.) According to this view, both sexes were equally enslaved by a division of labor that was historically necessary to ensure survival: Men provided and protected so that women could bear and nurse children—and, since the survival of the species required more females, males were more "disposable."

Technological progress, Farrell says, eliminated most of the need for the old division of labor, enabling people to seek personal fulfillment. But because men were seen as the powerful sex, the reexamination of gender roles focused solely on female disadvantage. So role restrictions that oppressed women were largely eliminated, but those affecting men, such as the male-only draft, remained.

This version of history is surely more accurate than, say, Marilyn French's The War Against Women (Summit, 1992), according to which the human male is always in search of ever more ingenious ways to abuse and degrade the human female. Traditional sexual arrangements always had elements of social contract, not merely subjugation.

And yet it is far too simplistic to say that men's dominance in the outside world was balanced by women's dominance in the family. "Doesn't Farrell understand that economic power outside the home translates into power within the home?" says feminist writer Wendy Kaminer. "Of course, if the man loves the woman more than the woman loves the man, she has a certain power, and that's a real power. But it's so difficult to generalize. We can find five relationships in which the woman has more power emotionally and five relationships in which the man does."

Even many of Farrell's admirers, such as Barbara Dority, have doubts about the lengths to which he takes the "equal oppression" argument—particularly when it is not limited to recent Western history. On the status of women in Islam, Farrell comments, "If women had to promise to provide for a man for a lifetime before he removed his veil and showed her his smile, would we think of this as a system of female privilege?" He forgets that men in Muslim societies generally have had the power not only to restrict their wives' movements, and in many cases to kill them, but also to divorce them at will.

"If we can make meaningful comparisons," says Ferrell Christensen, a philosophy professor at the University of Alberta in Canada and co-founder of MERGE, the Movement for the Establishment of Real Gender Equality, "I'm inclined to say that in this culture and in this century men and women have been pretty equal. I would not say that this is true historically and at all times." It is more accurate to say, he writes in the pamphlet The Other Side of Sexism, that women often received compensations for their subordinate state (such as greater protection) and that men's dominant role often carried a high price.

One of the key issues that animated earlier feminists, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Simone de Beauvoir, was that the human condition was seen as embodied in men, and the activities that defined what it meant to be human were defined as male. "It is [the] unique human capacity…to live one's life by purposes stretching into the future—to live not at the mercy of the world, but as builder and designer of that world—that is the distinction between animal and human behavior," wrote Betty Friedan in 1963. "[M]an has always searched for knowledge and truth." Friedan knew that this destiny was not an easy one, and she even suggested that "men may live longer…when women carry more of the burden of the battle with the world" (anticipating the men's movement's concern with the longevity gap). But she clearly felt that women were hurt more by being left out.

If masculists often seem oblivious to this historical male advantage, it is in part because participation in the human enterprise no longer ranks high on the feminist agenda. In most universities today, the above passages from The Feminine Mystique would be branded as conservative. "Battle with the world" reeks of militarism; to speak of the search for knowledge and truth is to accept the patriarchal model of knowledge as possession; to exalt the capacity for building and designing one's world is to glorify white male rape of the earth; to elevate humans above animals is specieist. We are now supposed to see male "separateness" rather than female dependency as the problem, and to scoff at "male" notions of unique genius rather than lament the absence of a female Shakespeare.

The irony is that when "male" civilization and its accomplishments are devalued, the notion of male privilege is much easier to question. If traditionally masculine qualities turn from virtues to defects, some men will say that gender oppression made them that way. And if individual liberty is declared to be a (white and bourgeois) male prejudice, the distinction between the burden of oppression and the burden of risk as the price to be paid for freedom will be blurred. Thus radical feminists undermine their own critique of patriarchy.

Similar contradictions can be observed within the men's movement. Many masculists seem to be saying simultaneously that the works of men have been a boon for humanity and should be admired and that the roles which enabled and sometimes pushed men to do those things were oppressive and bleak. Although Warren Farrell writes that the socialization of both sexes should combine the best of the "male" and "female" heritage, the overall sense one gets from The Myth of Male Power is that being expected to strive is a dismal fate ("Men are not human beings, they are human doings") and that to admire a man for his achievements is as sexist as it is to admire a woman for her large breasts.

Thus, although masculism challenges the politically correct view of women as an oppressed class, it often shares some key elements of P.C.: the "politics of identity," which eclipse the notion of a universal human condition; an antipathy to such Western values as rationality, competitiveness, and individual achievement; the tendency to view human experience as shaped primarily by restrictive social forces rather than individual will and action. Even Kammer, who generally urges both women and men to embrace self-reliance and optimism, echoes academic radicals with their theories of subtly enforced self-policing in liberal societies. He writes, "Men…are in the most maximum security prison of all, the prison that convinces its inmates that they are right where they want to be…and that if they ever begin to think otherwise, they must have a 'personal' problem."

Kammer says the prison metaphor is simply a dramatic way to make a valid point: Men often fail to see their problems as related to gender bias because they have been taught that they are the powerful sex. Yet the result rings uncannily similar to the radical feminist position caustically summed up by Christina Sommers in Who Stole Feminism (Simon & Schuster, 1994): "If…some women point out that they are not oppressed, they only confirm the existence of a system of oppression, for they 'show' how the system dupes women by socializing them to believe they are free, thereby keeping them docile and cooperative."

At its worst, masculism can sound like the ne plus ultra of political correctness: The pantheon of the oppressed is completed by the admission of straight white guys. (That leaves us with no oppressor, but an impersonal entity like "the sex/gender system" might do.) Men's advocates often rail against the victim mentality, but they are hardly immune to its temptations: High-school football is "male child abuse"; circumcision is socially sanctioned violence against infant boys comparable to female genital mutilation; women who walk around looking sexy yet remaining unavailable are abusing men; and anyway, men's higher mortality rates are unassailable proof of victimhood.

Barbara Dority has often joined men's groups in opposing pro-censorship feminists. "As long as we're talking simple egalitarianism, we're delighted to work together," she says. "But I refused to participate in anything in the feminist movement that went under the banner of victimhood, and I don't think the mantle of victimhood looks much better on men than on women." The tendency to adopt "the politics of victimization" also disturbs Asa Baber, who has written Playboy's "Men" column since 1982 and is a strong advocate of men's issues. "The focus on the male as victim," he says, "is simply going to deepen this culture of victimhood."

An ex-Marine, Baber has written about the damaging effects of the "masculine mystique," but he bristles at Farrell's description of the soldier as "war slave." He believes that the men's movement, including "mythopoetic" groups, can play an important role in countering negative cultural messages about men. But he does not like to see the movement collude in attacks on traditional masculinity—"the trashing of things like courage and fortitude is just absurd," he says—or try to "get men into therapy." In a speech at the Chicago Men's Conference last February, Baber noted, "It turns out that the men of this culture have been told by both the men's and the women's movement that they are not OK."

Baber warns, too, that the strident, chip-on-the-shoulder, Us-vs.-Them mentality that has made much modern feminism a caricature of itself has a mirror image on the men's side. As an example, he cites the angry mail he got from some regular readers after a column that advised men to be aware of the ways in which women often feel uniquely vulnerable in public places.

Other men sympathetic to the movement share these concerns. Mike Arst, a former photographer and typesetter in Seattle who became involved in men's groups a decade ago, moderates the men's issues forum on the Fidonet electronic bulletin board. Many of the complaints aired on such networks are understandable. A common theme is the perception that women want to have it both ways: to be equal in the workplace but to be protected from rough talk; to have the same opportunity to work in trades that require stamina, yet to enjoy special protection from violence. But Arst finds himself put off by "angry men" in search of causes. He recalls the activist who tried to draw him into an anti-circumcision crusade, demanding, among other things, the right for "mutilated" men to sue the hospital for trauma 20 years later.

"I agree with much of what Warren Farrell says about men and power," says Arst, 43. "But if I think of the men of my father's generation, the bottom line for them was support: They worked their asses off to support their families. It was something of which they were proud, and rightly so; they were not in a gulag."

It is easy to poke fun at male victimism, a stance likely to be dismissed as misogynist by the left and unmanly by the right. Yet it is ultimately a male response to the "culture of complaint" in which, with major help from feminists, we are now enmeshed. If victimization is the way to gain status—"authenticity," as Arst puts it, or "innocence," as Shelby Steele has written—one can hardly blame men for figuring out what works and trying to claim their share of the moral high ground.

One reason that laughable tit-for-tat arguments about which sex was more oppressed 500 years ago continue is that many feminists still use the "centuries of oppression" as a stick to beat men. It is hard to argue with Farrell's remark that the perception of men as having all the power and women as powerless (which was never quite true, and is plainly ludicrous when applied to American women in the 1990s) makes us reluctant to question any expansion of female power. Increasingly, people are coming to see that here and now, biases against men are as harmful as biases against women (even Naomi Wolf teeters on the brink of this idea in her latest opus, Fire With Fire.

After all, feminism has not only displaced men from their traditional ground as the human norm but has often depicted them as less than human. While 19th-century notions of male superiority in intellect, creativity, and leadership are now taboo, Victorian views of female superiority in compassion, morals, and parental love are very much alive. Male putdowns of women are relegated to the lowbrow culture of Andrew Dice Clay; female putdowns of men ("What is the difference between bonds and men? Bonds mature.") are found on greeting cards and in the halls of Congress. Recently at the publishing house HarperCollins, a woman editor irked by a male colleague's behavior designed a "stamp out HarperCollins men" button (the male symbol and the letters "HC" in a red circle with a slash) that was spotted on quite a few female staffers.

Mike Arst speculates that most of the men drawn to the men's movement are reacting at least as much to male bashing as to a frustration with male roles. Some, like Warren Farrell and Ferrell Christensen, started out as champions of women's liberation but were repelled by the rise of anti-male feminism. Christensen says that he sought out men's groups such as the National Coalition of Free Men and Men's Rights Inc. because he was "more and more distressed at the hate movement that feminism was becoming."

The roles have changed as well as the images. One of Farrell's strongest points is that this century's social developments have reduced women's burdens far more than men's burdens. Childbirth became much safer and warfare became much deadlier. The notion that a husband owed protection to his wife outlasted the notion that a wife owed obedience to her husband. And since the advent of feminism, women have gained much greater role flexibility and much more choice between traditional and non-traditional lifestyles.

Accordingly, some activists see the "men's agenda" as a matter of truly equalizing the options available to both sexes. While young women today rarely see full-time homemaking as a viable long-term prospect (even if that is the way of life they would prefer), working part-time or taking a few years off to raise children is something many expect to do. Farrell's assertion that 90 percent of the men he has spoken to would like to do the same sounds a bit dubious. But even if it's only 33 percent, as a 1990 Time survey of college men showed, these men are likely to find that they have fewer opportunities than their female peers to exercise such a choice: For all the paeans to the new fatherhood, a great many people still look down on Mr. Moms.

"When [women] call and say, 'I have a family situation,' managers or employers think, 'Oh God, those women with their children,' but they think it comes with the territory," says Karen DeCrow, a feminist attorney in Syracuse, New York, and a former president of the National Organization for Women who works with men's activists on fatherhood and custody issues. "When men do it, they're considered somewhat weird, or not really interested in their jobs." Many masculists also complain that while women want equality in the "male" sphere of careers and achievement, they often want, at the same time, to preserve the superiority of motherhood.

This complaint has some validity. On a radio show I did with Jack Kammer, the host, Ann Devlin, chided us for our lack of outrage at the fact that women still earn less than men. When I suggested that the way to gain parity in the workplace was to encourage male participation in child rearing, Devlin huffily replied that I obviously didn't understand the "mystical bond" between mother and child that no other relationship could replicate.

In its attempt to change attitudes, the men's movement deals with some explosive issues, including false accusations of rape and alleged bias against men in the treatment of family violence. When men's activists insist that husband beating is as big a problem as wife beating, it seems a sure way to make most feminists see red. Even Wendy Kaminer, who is highly critical of the "woman as victim" party line, comments that "it's like saying the moon is made out of green cheese." But while the claim is undoubtedly exaggerated, a body of solid research—from the 1985 National Family Violence Survey sponsored by the National Institute for Mental Health to a number of studies conducted in communities and in marital therapy clinics—supports the view that female violence is a major part of the problem.

Most of the evidence indicates that spousal assault is usually mutual, initiated in equal numbers by men and women. (When only one partner is physically abusive, it is as often the woman as the man.) True, in those domestic violence cases in which one partner is completely controlled and terrorized by the other, most of the victims are female; but such cases make up a tiny percentage of abusive couples. And while women obviously are at far higher risk of bodily damage in domestic fights, up to 15 percent of the serious injuries are to men. Researchers such as Anson Shupe, chair of sociology and anthropology at Indiana University/Purdue University in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and co-author of The Violent Couple (Praeger, 1994), confirm that male victims of even severe violence by female partners encounter widespread bias if they try to get the authorities involved. This side of the story, men's advocates say, is ignored by the media and by government, which see domestic violence as synonymous with woman abuse.

Meanwhile, the outcry over battered women is increasingly leading to a situation in which men in some jurisdictions are virtually helpless against the flimsiest charges of abuse. This claim is made not just by men's advocates but by Massachusetts Bar Association President Elaine Epstein, who recently wrote in the bar association newsletter: "The recent media frenzy surrounding domestic violence has paralyzed us all … The truth is that it has become impossible to effectively represent a man against whom any allegation of domestic violence has been made … In many [divorce] cases, allegations of abuse are now used for tactical advantage."

The men's advocates clearly have issues, but do they have a movement? Many men and women who are sympathetic to men's issues don't think so. It is difficult for most men, especially if they are not in the midst of a custody battle, to see any of their problems as gender issues. The movement's image can also be a handicap. Armin Brott, a Berkeley marketing consultant and writer who got involved in men's issues after becoming a father four years ago, says, "If you get labeled as being part of the men's movement, you're either out there dancing with wolves, or you're a woman hater. There's really no place to go if you're a progressive-thinking man."

One way to escape what can become a vicious cycle of masculism and feminism trying to outshout and out-whine each other is for men's activists to focus on specific issues, particularly disparities in the legal or social treatment of women and men. Divorce is a good example. The traditional paternal role may not have been such a bad deal in the past, with unique satisfactions that were not necessarily inferior to those of maternal nurturing. But high divorce rates mean that many men bear the burden of providing without the rewards of any kind of real fatherhood—old or new.

Whether or not pro-maternal bias exists in the courts is the subject of intense debate, with men's advocates (and many divorce lawyers of both sexes) on one side and many feminists on the other (claiming that, on the contrary, men with more money to pay for legal services can ride roughshod over their ex-wives). But it seems that many judges still take the view that the father's main post-divorce function is to provide financial support—what Al Lebow, founder of Fathers for Equal Rights of America, sums up as the "men as wallets" attitude. To many, the fact that non-custodial fathers' child-support obligations are enforced far more vigorously than are their visitation rights is a bitter symbol of the low regard in which fatherhood is held.

"The availability of the father is a crucial issue, and it's also one of the key issues around which a political men's movement can organize," says Laurie Ingraham, a family therapist in Milwaukee who was drawn to men's activism as a result of her relationship work, in which she "noticed that men were always being painted as the bad guys." And indeed, disenfranchised fathers are the political vanguard of the men's movement. Lebow, a Michigan salesman who lost custody of his two daughters and spent six years in courts battling for visitation enforcement, started his organization in 1979. Today, he says, there are about 275 fathers' rights groups in 47 states.

These groups have been pushing for joint custody laws, with varying degrees of success, and for better treatment of non-custodial parents. They complain that divorced fathers are unfairly stigmatized as "deadbeat dads" and viewed as targets for punitive action, even though studies find that support non-compliance is related to many factors, from insolvency to denial of contact with children.

As the example of Ingraham shows, the issue of how parents are treated after divorce has attracted interest from women as well as men. The Children's Rights Council, founded by David Levy in 1985, advocates shared custody and has often addressed fathers' concerns. But it is also affiliated with Mothers Without Custody and Grandparents United for Children's Rights. About 40 percent of its members and state chapter coordinators are women. Palo Alto, California, attorney Anne Mitchell is the founder and executive director of the Fathers' Rights and Equality Exchange (FREE) electronic net; in Michigan, lawyer Kay Schwarzberg works with Fathers for Equal Rights of America.

Basic fairness is not the only reason for women to work on behalf of men's issues. Perhaps the ultimate lesson we have still to learn is that most gender issues are women's and men's issues. As Brott says, "You can't achieve the goals of sexual equality without getting men involved." The most obvious example of this is the issue of parenthood: Greater male involvement in child rearing is essential if women's opportunities in the workplace are to be expanded.

Men and women of good will working together is a theme Playboy's Asa Baber frequently emphasizes. "What is needed is an equal rights movement, not a men's movement and a women's movement," he told the Chicago Men's Conference, which had a record number of women this year (about 30 out of 200 attendees). "Not men's rights, not women's rights—equal rights. That should be our goal."

Baber is encouraged by signs that "victim feminism" is waning, and he is confident that "victim masculism" will not prevail either: "As the complaints build, we're going to get tired of it, both sides, and then both men and women are going to ask, OK, now what are we gonna do? And so the culture of complaint will eventually burn itself out."