This week’s story about a controversial event hosted by the Ryerson-based Men’s Issues Awareness Society highlights the simmering tension between gender-based organizations both on and off campus. The event is set to be hosted by controversial anti-feminist blogger Karen Straughan, best known for her Youtube Channel GirlWritesWhat. The group’s status on campus hinges on whether or not they are deemed hateful. Straughan has at times contended that women have never actually been oppressed in western society, they have simply taken on different roles. While there are certainly many who would dispute this sentiment using anything from historical or political expertise to basic common sense, it is not in itself hate speech. But the implication that generations of feminism have been useless and deluded invalidates centuries of political struggle and is deliberately inflammatory to anybody with a tie to the issue. This raises the question: are groups like the ones forming at Ryerson inherently hateful, or is there room for discussion?
The concept of men’s issues, especially its opposition to feminism, is difficult to discuss objectively because the majority of discourse takes place online. The anonymity and accessibility of such a forum allows the conversation to quickly deteriorate into the worst of both sides, especially highlighting the misogyny and desperation inherent in aspects of men’s rights philosophy. There are countless stories of feminist activists becoming victims of malicious online stalking, including graphic death and rape threats, from self-proclaimed MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists).
One such story started in Toronto, when a woman known online as “Charlotte” was publicly heckled outside a U of T Men’s Rights event. Even though she was trying to read an article sympathizing with men’s issues from a feminist standpoint, she was shut down and insulted by a crowd of male demonstrators. Once video of the incident spread over Youtube, her personal information was disseminated and she received various unprintable messages that, without context, would appear to have been written by a group of prolific serial killers. But they weren’t. They were written by men you have probably walked past on the street, men who hold regular jobs and have families with mothers and sisters. I can’t even begin to convey the regularity with which these thoughts are perpetuated and approved by what seems like a majority of MRA forums like A Voice For Men (at which Karen Straughan happens to be a contributing editor), whose advice for stopping rape has included “telling feminists to shut the fuck up.”
But as is true with any political discussion, the worst and loudest of both sides can dominate and hinder constructive progress without necessarily representing their movement. This takes away from the very legitimate points brought up by either side, clouding the ability to find common ground or understand their true goals and potential. But what if the misogynist Internet crazies are a reflection of men’s rights philosophy? Granted, many high-profile academics who speak on the subject do so with the best intentions, typically employing minimal amounts of violent or hateful rhetoric. But none of these public figures received death or rape threats from feminists, even though it seems to be an acceptable strategy for much of their supporter base.
Let’s get real here for a second: the term “men’s rights” is a misnomer, used deliberately to equate their philosophy with the legitimate political struggle of twentieth-century women’s rights. That historic movement granted half the human population privileges like voting, land ownership, the legal ability to hold their rapists accountable, and recognition as a person under the law within the last century. This current swing towards “men’s rights” has tackled the perceived marginalization of male-specific issues like body image, domestic abuse, financial burden and media representation that they feel have taken a backseat to decades of feminist progress.
These are legitimate concerns that most men have recognized in their lives to some extent. However, they are not rights in the legally-codified sense because there is no governing body that bars men from equal legal status. These are issues with roots in far more abstract cultural concepts, which is what makes them so hard to define and discuss. The greatest detriment to MRA groups’ approach to addressing these concerns is seeing them as the direct result of feminism, as if the feminist movement deliberately runs counter to their beliefs and identity. To their credit, the Ryerson-based group has excluded the term “rights” from their title, though I don’t know the reason behind this decision.
As a man, and a straight one at that, I have a very limited perspective through which to view gender issues. I don’t have to schedule travel around the possibility of sexual assault. I do not have the first-hand experience of being ogled, whistled at, and grabbed in public, nor have I ever heard a song explicitly glorifying my sexual objectification on the radio. These are just some of the perks that come along with having a penis from birth.
Despite this, my own experience with body image and masculinity would be a rather astonishing article on its own; something with which most men would inwardly sympathize but outwardly deny. There is definitely such a thing as casual sexism perpetuated by women, part of which expects men to “man up” and suppress with shame the gut-wrenching anger or fear they have experienced as a result. But just because these things happen to both sexes does not mean the playing field is level, and it certainly doesn’t mean that feminism is unnecessary.
“Gender equality” is not pretending all genders are equal, ignoring centuries of historical context and glaring imbalances in our current political and cultural spheres. It is not sexist to acknowledge that, in our society, there are fundamental disparities between the sexes that typically disadvantage women. It is not sexist to acknowledge that men are far more likely to commit violent acts, sexual or otherwise, against women and each other. What is sexist is to think of any of these qualities as inherent, that men are born prone to violence or ignorance; feminist theory understands that this is not the case.
So where are all the rational, empathetic MRAs if they aren’t chiming in on Twitter? They’re off being feminists. They realize that patriarchy’s expectations of masculinity only benefit the subsection of men who fulfill them. They know that any oppression they feel at the hands of hegemonic masculinity still pales in comparison to the everyday experience of being a woman. They understand that they live in a society historically constructed by men for the purpose of maintaining male power. Most importantly, they realize that men’s issues and feminism are far more similar than MRA philosophy would like to admit.
Remember poor “Charlotte” from earlier? The piece she was trying to read was by Jezebel columnist Lindy West, entitled If I Admit That Hating Men is a Thing, Will You Stop Making It a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy? and it actually explained this pretty well.
“The thing is, you’re not really that different from the women you rail against so passionately … plenty of women know exactly what it feels like to be pushed to the fringe of society, to be rejected so many times that you eventually reject yourself,” West writes. “That alienation is a big part of what feminism is fighting against. A lot of those women would be on your side, if you would just let them instead of insisting that they’re the villains.”
My favourite definition of feminism comes courtesy of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In her TED lecture, We Should All Be Feminists, she defines a feminist as “a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” By this definition, it would be absurd for a person to voluntarily reject the label. Yet many men still do. This is due to an underlying false dichotomy between feminism and masculinity, as if choosing one erodes the other.
Men: I crossed over a while ago. It’s not that scary. Feminism does not want you to pay for the whole date. Feminism does not require you to hand in your hockey jersey and stop downloading porn forever. It certainly doesn’t hate you. The only barrier between men and feminism comes from within men themselves, because it requires us to admit that we have played an unwitting, unconscious role in perpetuating sexism throughout our lives simply by doing what was expected of us. It is not only easy, but beneficial to seize upon the opportunity to change this.
If men’s rights groups want to be active on campus, then must do so in a non-confrontational way. This unfortunately seems to run counter to their core philosophy. Many men already understand their own oppression at the hands of traditional gender roles; that just because our society is patriarchal does not mean that all men benefit equally. The same forces that helped establish our ideas of masculinity without us realizing have also shaped our concept of women, and we have to take into account this fundamental gap in experience.
In the end, all we’re up against are ideas. Ideas that have been accepted as fact for generations, like homophobia and racism before them. How we conceive gender from today onward will shape the progress of men’s issues and feminism. Just remember that the whole thing is in our heads, which means it’s also in our power to change it.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on February 5, 2014.