Crossing Masculinities: 
In defense of the idea of antisexist men’s groups

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Crossing Masculinities: 
In defense of the idea of antisexist men’s groups

Crossing Masculinities[1]

Daniel Mang

This text tries to place antisexist politics by men in a larger social context. It discusses men’s groups and the issue of identity politics in general. It demands a “renewal” of antisexist politics by men and ends with a look at some attempts at realizing some of the ideas discussed in the text.  

Part 1: In defense of the idea of antisexist men’s groups.

I’ve defined myself as profeminist since the early eighties[2]. I am in critical solidarity with attempts by men of the radical left to organize in antisexist men’s groups, to effect personal change and act politically, publicly, in antisexist ways.

The issue of antisexism is no less central for me today than it was 15 years ago. What’s more, I am convinced that men’s groups should be an essential element of any renewed antisexist political practice by men.

I find men’s groups useful because they sustain processes of personal change, processes made very difficult in mixed groups by the fundamental conflict between men and women in a patriarchal society, the pain and anger associated with this conflict, and the difficulty of empathy between different social “realities”. They constitute an alternative to the usual structures of emotional exploitation of women by men and create a space in which (heterosexual) men can learn to take care of each other more and engage with one another more fully than patriarchal norms usually allow for. Men’s groups can release a great potential of wishes for contact that don’t conform to the norms of hegemonic masculinity; in this way, they can be instrumental in beginning to work through homophobia, one of the central structuring elements of patriarchal social relations. To avoid situations where women are obliged to “coach” men in feminist thought, where conventional gendered patterns of speaking and acting are reproduced, or the discussion becomes completely paralyzed for fear of emotional injury, it makes sense, I believe, not to debate certain (many) issues in mixed-gender contexts.

I interpret the decline (compared to the late eighties) in the FRG of this type of practice, “antisexist men’s groups”, as, in part, one effect of an antifeminist “backlash” within the left and in society in general. Within the “radical left”, partial feminist gains have been taken as an occasion to relegate the issue of patriarchal domination and exploitation to somewhere near the bottom of the list of priorities; women have lowered their expectations and reduced their demands in private and in public; accordingly, particularly heterosexual men feel less pressure to question their masculine practices and privileges.

Today, “the men’s movement”[3] has come to be identified, in mainstream media, with antifeminist father’s rights groups, “wild men”, and masculinist reactionaries of the ilk of Robert Bly. In most of the left-liberal men’s group scene (counseling centers etc.) profeminism is seen as decidedly passe. Radical left men’s group structures – that were hardly ever free of the desire for a positive masculine identity and antifeminist tendencies – are, by now, almost non-existent[4].

The “backlash” image is of course too one-dimensional, it fails to do justice to the ambiguities and contradictions in the development of social structures, including the development of social movements.

It’s important to realize, in this context, that the proletarian-anticapitalist, antiracist, anticolonial, feminist and other struggles of the sixties and seventies were not simply defeated and extinguished, but have become, in a complex melange of repression and integration, part of a contradictory “modernization” of capitalist-patriarchal structures. As a result of this process, domination has - as social life, on a global scale, is increasingly penetrated by capitalist social relations – become, partly, unevenly, more flexible and virtualized[5]. Similar maybe to the way a culturalist “neoracism” appeared on the scene in many places - by the nineties at least - and coexisted with a more traditional racism of “heredity” and “blood”, patriarchal structures in the past decades, in part, have tended to disengage from strictly biological definitions of sex/gender; the patriarchal “principles” of masculinity and femininity[6] function as ever, just their relation to the sorting of people into men and women according to biologistic criteria is not as clear-cut as it used to be. Such “abstract-patriarchal” conditions, visible as yet only in outline, coexist with a renaissance of biologism in certain scientific discourses, with an intensification, the world over, of “classically patriarchal” violence against and exploitation of women (who are, in this process, very clearly defined by and reduced to their biology).

It is a contradictory development produced partly by the inner contradictions of the ensemble of dominant social relations themselves, partly brought about by the struggles of social movements.

On the one hand, there can be no question that, in relation to the aims of their more radical wings, the anticapitalist, antiracist, antisexist, gay liberation and other social movements have suffered one defeat after the other over the last 30 years (even though, of course, hosts of opportunistic renegades from the former critical intelligentsia try to make it look otherwise today). On the other hand, I do not wish to tell a one-dimensional narrative of corruption, into which the story of the decline of antisexist men’s groups, for example, could then be neatly fitted.

This is because firstly, the development of social movements over the last 30 years is just as ambiguous and contradictory as the development of society as a whole, of which it is, obviously, a part. That is to say: there is amnesia and deradicalization in the history of social movements, but there is also the “dicovery” of types of domination that had not been problematized before, the development of new social practices and forms of political contestation, radical theoretical breakthroughs etc.

Secondly, antisexist politics by men had problems for completely different reasons.

These I’ll address briefly in what follows:

[1] The title alludes to the “Crossover Conference” in Bremen, Germany, 17.-20. January 2002, organized by the antiracist antisexist summer camp project. More about both in Part 3.

[2] What exactly I mean by that has, of course, changed considerably over time. And how much or how little I have put my ideas into practice at different times is yet another question altogether (one I don’t deal with in this text).

[3] I always found the term “men’s movement” embarassing; as far as I am concerned, the reactionaries can have it for free; I just wanted to show how, under the ideological hegemony of sexism, terms that used to be associated with “progressive” politics have become emptied of meaning / redefined.

[4] see “Geschichte der Maennergruppenszene in der BRD” in “Maennerrundbrief” Nr. 10/1997 and 11/1998

[5] By virtualization I mean the tendency of social life to be determined less and less by, for example, material production, manual labor etc and the increasing role played by knowledge, information, signs, etc. The virtualization of gender becomes apparent in the tendency of (social) gender to separate from (“biological”) sex, mostly in the states of the “first world”, but not only there.

[6] To illustrate what I mean by this: as a result of the partial success of the liberal feminist strategy of increasing the number of female subjects occupying places in various patriarchal apparatuses of domination – take the Swedish parliament or the US Army as examples –women are increasingly taking over abstract-masculine functions and aspects of abstract-masculine subjectivity (which, of course, masquerades as universally human, adult, reasonable and self-possessed subjectivity and disavow its intrinsically masculine and bourgeois determination). Obviously this has some liberating aspects for the happy (?) winners, but that doesn’t change the fact that the model of personhood, of adult, reasonable subjectivity that is being gender-democratiized here, remains true to the principles of patriarchal masculinity.

 


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