Four strands

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Four strands


by Michael Flood

There is plenty of diversity among the groups and networks that make up the men’s movement, and even some outright and fundamental conflict. Michael Flood tells it like it is.

For men new to the men’s movement, as well as innocent bystanders, the movement can seem a harmonious place in which we all share common goals and hopes. But for crusty old veterans like me (at 29, I’ve been involved for 9 years), the term "the men’s movement" can hide what some very important disagreements.

Talking about "the men’s movement" in one sense is like lumping together the Ku Klux Klan and Aboriginal land rights groups and calling them "the race movement". Participants all belong to the category "men", all are engaged in some sort of exploration of men’s lives and men’s issues, but the fact is, some men’s groups are in direct opposition to each other. (A current example of this is the conflict in Brisbane between the Men’s Rights Agency and Men Against Sexual Assault.) More generally, there is considerable diversity and disagreement over basic political questions, ways of working and a range of specific issues.

These disagreements and conflicts are sometimes hidden, denied or trivialised at men’s movement events. One reason is that words like "conflict" and "political" are dirty words to some men grounded in spiritual, therapeutic and personal growth approaches. They’d rather not know that disagreement exists, or if they do, they represent it as irrelevant, as an "attack" and thus illegitimate, or as embodying an overly intellectual, "from the head not the heart" position. There is some truth in all these responses, but they should not thwart the respectful exploration of understandings and dialogue across difference.

I’ve sat in big circles of men and been told that "we’re all brothers here" and "we all love each other", when I know full well that I and other men do not always feel this way. I’ve also been at men’s events where "diversity" is acknowledged, but this is token only and a particular perspective remains dominant in the organisation and content of the event.

How then are we to understand the makeup of the men’s movement? I suggest a model of four strands: anti-sexist and pro-feminist, men’s liberation, spiritual, and men’s rights/fathers’ rights. The first two however have substantial overlap, as you shall see in the following discussion.

(1) Anti-sexist

The core assumption of this strand is that the current, dominant model of manhood is oppressive to women, as well as limiting for men. Society is seen as characterised by injustices and inequalities based on gender. Men must take responsibility for their own sexist behaviours and attitudes and work to change those of men in general. Men and groups in the anti-sexist strand are sympathetic to various feminist understandings of society.

So far, everything I’ve said could also be applied to the "men’s liberation" strand, and in this sense, it could be argued that we’re really talking only about one strand, not two. Kenneth Clatterbaugh in his book Contemporary perspectives on masculinity does just this, writing about "radical profeminist" men and "liberal profeminist" men together. However, he also identifies differences between these streams, which I also see in Australia. Both are pro-feminist, but they draw on different streams of feminism, liberal and radical. For Clatterbaugh, radical pro-feminist men give greater emphasis to the organisation of masculinity and men’s lives as privileged over women’s and as violent and aggressive. Liberal pro-feminist men give greater emphasis to the ways in which both men and women are constricted by gender roles, and some say that men, like women, are "oppressed".

This distinction may not be worth the space I’m giving it here. Men who call themselves "pro-feminist" and "men’s liberation" men are important allies in the Australian men’s movement, and disagreements over whether to call men "oppressed" (for example) may obscure their fundamentally shared commitments to goals of equality and justice. Furthermore, such men are learning from each other, so that pro-feminist men give more attention to men’s pain and the damaging effects of masculinity on men themselves, while men’s liberation men give more attention to men’s power and gender injustice. While I and other men have sometimes claimed the term "pro-feminist" to distinguish ourselves from other participants in the men’s movement, including those who espouse men’s liberation, I think that this has overlooked our shared political visions and hindered the development of productive alliances.

Men’s violence has been an important focus of action for anti-sexist men, and this is reflected in the formation of Men Against Sexual Assault (MASA) groups in most cities in Australia. MASA groups include men at various points along the continuum between "anti-sexist" and "men’s liberation". It is also worth noting that some self-identified pro-feminist men do not consider themselves part of the men’s movement. Men both in and outside MASA have conducted anti-violence work with boys and schools and run community education campaigns such as the White Ribbon Campaign. Unlike most other groups in the men’s movement, this work has often been in collaboration with feminists and women’s services (such as domestic violence and rape crisis centres). Anti-sexist men are also involved in men’s health policy, the development of gender equity curricula in schools, the counselling of male perpetrators of violence, and more.

(2) Men’s liberation

As I wrote earlier, the men’s liberation strand argues that men are hurt by the male "sex role" and that men’s lives are alienating, unhealthy and impoverished. Men’s liberation perspectives are shared by many men in the men’s movement, and such ideas can be found in any of the strands described here.

Men’s liberation perspectives give a very worthwhile attention to the damage, isolation and suffering inflicted on boys and men through their socialisation into manhood. Men are overworked, trained to kill or be killed, brutalised and subjected to blame and shame.

One of the most important movement activities to embody this perspective is the men’s support group. Such groups are a relatively private aspect of the men’s movement, but also its lifeblood, and they are are very often a highly formative and profound experience for the men involved. Other activities include therapy and counselling, and involvement in more public efforts on such issues as violence and men’s health.

(3) Spiritual or mythopoetic

The third strand involves particular types of spiritual perspective, emphasising men’s inner work and often called "mythopoetic" in involving both myth and poetry. Mythopoetic men derive their thinking from psychoanalysis, and especially the work of Carl Jung and Robert Bly. Masculinity is seen as based on deep unconscious patterns and archetypes, that are revealed through myths, stories and rituals. Clatterbaugh summarises this perspective as follows: "men start life as whole persons but, through wounding, lose their unity and become fragmented. Eventually, if men probe the archetypes buried in their unconscious, they will be able to heal these wounds and restore themselves to a state of wholeness and psychospiritual health." Personal growth is central and urgent in this strand, and this perspective is not overtly political. It is more symbolic than literal, more therapeutic than theoretical.

Boys must be initiated into manhood by older men, according to this perspective (or at least, to the most Bly-influenced sections). Thus, one activity here is men’s and boys’ camps, in which fathers and other men take young men through processes of initiation. Male Aboriginal elders sometimes attend such camps, and Aboriginal culture sometimes is a resource for these processes, much like white U.S. men’s use of indigenous American Indian cultures.

For Bly feminism is a mixed blessing: while a positive force for women, it has held back men and made some men "soft". Some of Bly’s ideas about men’s lives appeal to men’s rights adherents, while others appeal to men’s liberation or liberal profeminist men. (See Kimmel’s The politics of manhood for a range of commentaries on mythopoetic perspectives and movements.)

Other versions of the spiritual strand are a male parallel to feminist spirituality and the Wicca tradition and are more pro-feminist. In contrast to Bly, they suggest that men are cut off from the feminine and prevented by patriarchy from seeing the feminine side of their nature. Environmental and pacifist agendas are also evident in the perspectives of some men in this strand.

(4) Men’s rights and fathers’ rights

Men’s rights men share with men’s liberationists the idea that men’s roles are harmful, damaging and in fact lethal for men. But they blame women or feminism for the harm done to men, deny any idea of men’s power and argue that men are now the real victims.

Men’s rights is generally an anti-feminist perspective, and described by many commentators as representing a "backlash". For some men’s rights advocates feminism began as a movement for the liberation of both sexes, but is now a movement aiming to give advantage to women, and they distinguish between "equality" feminists (the goodies) and "victim" or "gender" feminists (the baddies). For others, it never had any positive potential, and it has even tried to keep men in their traditional roles. Men’s rights men dispute the idea that men (or some men) gain power and privilege in society, arguing that men are "success objects" like women are "sex objects", and burdened as providers. Violence against men (through war, work and by women) is endemic, although tolerated or hidden by malicious and dishonest feminists, and men are discriminated against in divorce and child custody proceedings.

Men’s rights groups have a substantial overlap with fathers’ rights groups and with non-custodial parents’ groups, whose members are often fathers. These men are often very angry, bitter and hurting, and they often have gone through deeply painful marriage breakups and custody battles.

There is disagreement among men’s rights and fathers’ rights groups, with some supporting a traditional patriarchal family as the only real and natural form of family (often influenced by Christian conservatism), while others have more flexible visions of family and gender relations. Some are more vitriolic and hysterically anti-feminist than others. Groups in this strand include the Men’s Rights Agency (Brisbane), the Lone Fathers’ Association, Dads Against Discrimination, the People’s Equality Network (Melbourne), the Institute of Men’s Studies (Melbourne), the Men’s Confraternity (Perth), Family Law Injustice Group Helping Together, and many others.

Men in these groups provide support for men undergoing custody settlements, attack the existence of services specifically for women such as women’s health services and rape crisis centres (through legal action and harassment), lobby state and federal governments, challenge what they see as the feminist-dominated mainstream media, and so on.

Related to this strand, there are also conservative Christian men’s organisations, with the best known example being the Promise Keepers. This organisation is huge in the U.S., and has just begun in Australia, defining itself as "a Christ-Centered ministry dedicated to uniting men through vital relationships to become Godly influences in their world". Such groups are anti-feminist, primarily evangelical and fundamentalist Christian, and favour a return to traditional gender relations and roles. In the U.S. conservative Christian men’s groups have important links to the Christian Right, itself a very powerful political force. In Australia they are only beginning and have relatively little influence in the men’s movement, but this may change rapidly.

It would seem that these different strands each have their own pet issues, with men’s rights men focusing for example on family law and custody, men’s liberation men on men’s emotional growth, pro-feminist men on men’s violence and mythopoetic men on the initiation of boys. However, there is no issue or area that in itself has to be associated with a particular strand of the men’s movement. For example, there is no reason why family law and custody issues cannot be taken up as pro-feminist men’s issues too. In fact, precisely this is happening, as pro-feminist men (in alliance with women and other community groups) respond to men’s rights campaigns.

Having covered these four strands, I am obliged to point out that this does not capture all the perspectives and focuses of participants in the men’s movement, let alone of the literature on masculinity. Clatterbaugh’s book Contemporary perspectives on masculinity devotes chapters for example to the perspectives of socialist or working-class, black and gay men.

So what?

What do we make of these strands and these disagreements? The answer to that depends of course on where in all this you stand. For myself, I have been committed for a long time to engaging in dialogue with those with whom I seem to disagree, and seeking alliances and respectful exchanges where I can. At the same time, I see some "men’s rights" points of view as beyond the pale, as so offensive, hateful and destructive that they simply should not be condoned. I believe that the men’s movement must be able to accomodate critique and intellectual debate if it is to move forward, while I acknowledge the point that expending too much energy on this can bog down our diverse projects.

What will the men’s movement itself do with these tensions? There are encouraging signs of dialogue, as different strands of the movement rub shoulders and occasionally take the courage and the patience to listen to each other. On the other hand, I wonder if we will go the same way as they have in the U.S., towards a factionalisation that eventually expresses itself in separate national organisations and events. This is already happening—while events such as the Men’s Leadership Gathering and Sydney Men’s Festival attract men from all four strands, the organisation of men’s groups itself reflects political differences. Some pro-feminist men, while very active in men’s issues, disassociate themselves from the men’s movement and are wary of its conservative leanings.

The point of this discussion is to open the eyes of both participants and interested observers to the genuine differences which weave themselves through this strange thing called "the men’s movement". I hope that this will prompt a more politically aware involvement among men, and a greater willingness to acknowledge disagreement, to think strategically and where necessary, to criticise those sections of the men’s movement which promote or defend injustice. I hope also that it will prompt among non-participants a more informed and considered assessement of the politics of the men’s movement, and among women, feminist groups and other progressive groups in particular, a greater interest in the formation of coalitions and alliances for social change.

[Printed in XY magazine, 6(3), Spring 1996.]


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