I became a feminist with the realization that a number of problems I struggled with in life could be explored in a wider context and that a lot of other people (or more specific: women) dealt with very similar issues. I cannot deny feeling comfortable in my “bubble” where people are treated with respect and listening to someone’s experience has a higher value than shouting the person down. However, I still like to take strolls through the realms of those who are regarded to be the opposition to feminism. The MRAs. Men Rights Activists.
I sometimes wonder if this habit points to some kind of political masochism. Reading postings written by rape apologists or simply by men who see themselves as superior to women hurts my brain and my heart. Nevertheless, I have often complained about people who judge feminism by its dumbest supporters and meme-ifying statements that serve the old argument of the men-hating-easily-triggered-irrational-feminazi. Criticising the selectiveness of Men Rights Activists when it comes to feminist statements on one side, yet in turn disregarding some of their points due to an easy generalisation on the other, is pretty hypocritical — and I try not to be that.
So instead of disregarding these positions, I waded through the many forums and videos; from 4Chan to interviews with Milo Yiannopoulos, through their Wikis and their comment sections. And of course, I found your general trolls, misogynists, and assholes — but I also found some men, who are just really concerned and for one reason or another, don’t feel like being part of the conversation. Often times when some of the core topics of male rights come up (usually as a “counter point to feminism), I found myself thinking “Wait, I care about that too.” The instant assumption of some of the opponents of feminism seems to be that “as a feminist” I wouldn’t care about custody cases, abuse and mental health as long as it was men who were suffering. But I do think that many of the serious concerns of MRAs are actually feminist issues as well.
1. Mental Health
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, men die by suicide 3.5 times more often than women. A big problem in connection with this surely is the health system which is (depending on the country) lacking in support for those who suffer from depression, PTSD and other disorders. Being able to find help when you most need it, can save your life. However, we also live in a society where seeking help in the first place is seen as a sign of weakness. And men are not supposed to be weak. A great deal of that can be attributed to the archetype of the strong male. Being a hero, laid back, cool or unfazed by what is happening is strongly connected to the ideal of manliness — and striving for it, regardless of inner turmoil, causes pain.
Everywhere on TV we can see how men display these kinds of traits and are being honoured for it, while watching them fail serves as a source for comedy. As much, as I love the show Friends, I frequently get annoyed when a display of emotion or “girliness” (e.g. speaking in a high pitch voice, appreciating flowers or enjoying crafts) by one of the male characters is met with ridicule from the others and the audience. We degrade both men and women, by ridiculing “damaged masculinity” and acting like the damage is done by all things that seem female.
This, believe it or not, is a feminist issue. Deconstructing the roles we are supposed to play because of our sex and/or gender, is a key aspect of feminism. Granted, many writers and scholars focus especially on why women are told to be nice, clean, cute and beautiful, but the other way round is also important. If a woman is told she is to be protected, guess who is supposed to do the protecting? Liberating women from those harmful stereotypes, would help liberate men from theirs (and the other way round). So, helping men to explore and verbalize their emotions is important.
Another source of anger and frustration is an apparent bias in the system when it comes to questions of child custody. Consensus.gov states :
“Mothers accounted for the majority of custodial parents (82.6 percent) while 17.4 percent were fathers, proportions statistically unchanged from 1994.”
Yeah. This actually does seem pretty unfair. As someone without children, I cannot imagine the horror to be given only a visitor’s pass to my own child’s life.
While this is horrific in instances where the father was absolutely willing and qualified yet wasn’t given custody rights, the causes that account for a portion of these numbers are worth talking about. For example, only 37% of married mothers have a higher income than their partners. Being the primary care giver is a role that still falls to women in the majority of cases. So, if a court is posed with the question who should get custody and who should pay financial support, it makes sense to continue the arrangement the couple had previous to the divorce. The question, whether or not this is a fair distribution of labour and finances is also at the core of feminism.
I do believe that besides that, there is a bias when it comes to women and motherhood that doesn’t do fathers justice, who are equally involved in raising a child. Somehow it is widely believed that nurture is at the core of a woman’s existence and having a child is some kind of inevitable step for them. The biological clock is ticking. If I don’t have children, I’ll just have a bunch of cats as a substitute. But a substitute is needed. In no way, am I saying this is true on an individual level (that is kind of the point) but the myth of motherhood can elevate the woman above suspicion and automatically degrades the father’s abilities to do the same work; because we expect him to be always one step behind the mother.
So from a (my) feminist perspective, the bias against fathers in custody battles points to unrealistic expectations for women that contribute to them being primary care givers, earning less and giving up careers to fulfil their “purpose” as a mother. The point here is not to put mothers down who want to do exactly that, nor saying they aren’t equipped, but to deconstruct the expectations we have for women and motherhood, and to elevate the role of fathers in children’s lives to more than the guy who brings home the money.
The third and, for this article, last argument that is often made to argue the ways in which men are disadvantaged, is abuse. In case of sexual abuse, male victims often report to be laughed at or met with disbelief (actually, they have that in common with many female assault survivors). The ridicule that men, who were sexually assaulted, have to endure is of a different variety, though. It is not about what they were wearing or how they were acting but more along the lines of “It’s not even possible for a man to be sexually assaulted”. And this is a major problem. Somehow being a man who was raped is treated as a punchline in popular culture. The often cited “I’ll make you squeal like a pig” comes from a rape scene with a male victim. You can can buy this shit it on a t-shirt. Male on male sexual violence is seen as an act of dominance that hurts the victim’s masculinity rather than its soul, identity, intimacy and personal safety. And apparently, we live in a world where that is supposed to be “funny” (because, as stated before, damaged masculinity is “funny”). Don’t drop the soap. Haha. This also contributes to a shitty image of consensual gay sex, but that’s a different story.
When there is sexual violence where the woman is the perpetrator it often isn’t even seen as an assault. In the movie 40 days and 40 nights, Josh Hartnett’s character is tied to his bed to help him abstain from having sex (Yeah, I never said it was a good movie). His ex-girlfriend comes in, assaults him and now he is supposed to apologize to his now-girlfriend for having “cheated”. This is beyond fucked up.
Again, I would argue that there is a connection to harmful stereotypes about men and women. Guys always want sex, right? So if he always wants it, he must have wanted it then. It also says something about the role of the woman as a perpetrator. Her sexuality is often portrayed as passive, gentle and receiving. This stereotypical image automatically excludes being active, aggressive and taking. If a woman is portrayed as the latter, it is usually a means to an end, to deceive or get something else in return. It is very rarely portrayed as something a woman is for the sheer pleasure of it.
As for cases of domestic abuse, all those mentioned stereotypes come into play again. The strong man, the gentle woman. Even though cases of male violence against women are much more prevalent, denying male victims help and support cannot be the answer to it. Sometimes we freeze, we get scared of the repercussions of defending ourselves or we just hope it will stop soon. This is true for everyone, regardless of gender.
On first glance, acting like women can do no harm looks like a feminist over-correction, but it is actually indicative of the myth of female fragility. Violent actions and peaceful actions are two ends of one spectrum and to pretend that women can’t cause physical harm is ultimately denying them the full scope of human behaviour. In no way, am I saying that women must or should be violent, to be equal. But not allowing the possibility that they can be -just like everybody else-, is sexist.
Most of the men I know, who socialize in feminist circles, have reflected on these kinds of issues and came to the conclusion that feminism has something to offer them. By no means does that say everyone needs to identify as a feminist, but it would be nice if we could realize that we all want to solve similar issues, just that our perspectives on what caused them and how to solve them is different. Pretending that feminists don’t care about harmful gender roles when they inflict upon men, is a cheap shot and ultimately exploits the issues and the victims for some political score board, where we pitch men and women against each other. Let’s stop.