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The men’s rights movement is a collection of groups who believe that men are downtrodden and disadvantaged in our society.  They see feminism as an ideology which has taken over the world in the name of female supremacy, and they see themselves as somewhere between a male civil rights movement and an underground resistance to the female hegemony.  If you think I’m joking, you might look up groups like A Voice For Men, Spearhead or the Red Pill subreddit, but not without bracing your stomach for the combination of misogyny and self-aggrandising inanity which they offer.  For some time this movement, whose members call themselves men’s rights activists (or MRAs) was confined to America, but recently they have found kindred spirits in Britain, in groups such as Justice For Men And Boys.

The trouble with the men’s rights movement is you cannot simply laugh at them.  Their ideas are ludicrous and their methods are often repulsive, but they have managed to articulate some of the discontentment a surprisingly large number of people seem to feel about the gains made by feminism over the last century.  I find the idea of “red pill men” who imagine they are part of a rebellion against the matriarchal Matrix laughable, but I can’t count the number of people who have told me that feminism “went too far” and that our society is sexist against men.  In fact, MRAs sometime bring up issues which do need to be addressed, such as the high suicide rate amongst men, but frame them in ways which obscure the real problem.  Here are a few talking points which get trotted out again and again – and why I think they can only be solved by more feminism, not less.[1]

Men and Suicide

The higher rate of suicide amongst young men, when compared to young women, is often cited as proof that women have it easier in our society, or that men are “the disposable gender”.  It is an absolute tragedy that so many young men come to see killing themselves as the only way out of their problems, and we need to do so much more to support them.  But I honestly believe that this is an effect of the damaging model of masculinity which patriarchy tries to impose upon men, not a result of women in power.  The insistence that young men should never show weakness, never admit to anxiety or to worrying that they are not up to the demands being made of them, has a terrible effect.  The traditions of “bottling it up” or keeping a “stiff upper lip” whatever happens, can take a horrific toll on the emotional life of any man who finds himself in a situation he can’t deal with on his own.  It may make him much less likely to seek help, and even make him less able to accept and implement the help he is offered.

I don’t think this makes men a disadvantaged gender, however.  In individual cases this idea of “manhood” destroys lives, and can do a great deal of harm to personal relationships.  On a structural level, however, it is unlikely that men as a group will lose institutional power because they are not permitted to express fear or doubt.  Preventing young men from expressing these emotions, even at the implicit cost of their lives, merely bolsters the myth that men should be invulnerable, all-powerful and never admit any weakness.  That myth normalises men’s control of Fortune 500 companies and their position as the “head” of families.  In a perverse system of masculinity, actual men can die as a result of the power base their gender has entrenched.  Women don’t benefit from this grim irony.  Other men do.

Family Courts

Some of the most extreme rhetoric from the men’s rights movement has come on the issue of divorce and family courts.  In some cases, this has involved calls for domestic terrorism and the firebombing of courthouses.  The fact that family courts are perceived as favouring the rights of mothers over fathers in custody disputes is frequently advanced as evidence that the state is favouring women, and that feminism is intent on destroying the traditional family.  In fact this is a situation which feminists have been equally eager to critique.  Children being placed with mothers during family breakup is not based on a secret feminist cabal influencing judicial decision-making, but on the default assumption in our society that women are the primary caregivers.  That traditional family MRAs take as the model for “normal” living depends upon women taking the major share of responsibility for the emotional and physical wellbeing of children.  They are supposed to be naturally nurturing and emotional, better suited to homemaking and raising children.  The family courts are simply taking a sexist society at its word, and placing children with the group supposedly designed to care for them.  If men want more “rights” in the family courts – which is what they seem to be equating with a greater share of custody – then they should throw their weight behind dismantling the patriarchal dogma that a woman’s place is in the home.

Maternity Leave

This is another area where women’s supposed extra rights turn out to be part of a system which advantages men.  I have sat a dinner parties where maternity leave is described as a good reason not to hire young women, and at other parties where women mention employers asking (illegally) about their future plans for a family in job interviews.  Why, the MRAs demand, do women get paid time off to have children, leaving male colleagues to pick up the slack in their workload.  Why is their right to defraud the company legally protected?  This does look like an astonishing anomaly: female employees are entitled to a period of time in which they are paid but do not work, and which male employees cannot claim.

But again: who benefits from this system?  On a short-term basis, perhaps women do.  They have the chance to recover from the physical effects of birth, bond with their child and look after it in its early months (assuming, of course, they have a job which provides such benefits.)  But what about all the men in the company?  Have they not got families?  If they have, who is taking care of the children?  If they’re sufficiently well-paid, perhaps they can afford childcare.  Or their partner may be looking after the children, freeing up their time to devote to the company.  In other words, women who take care of children at home are massively subsidizing the firms their partners work for.  Instead of asking why one female worker gets to “defraud” the company by taking paid time off, we should be pointing to the invisible female labour which male workers with children represent.  Men don’t agonise over whether they can “have it all” by undertaking a career and starting a family.  They aren’t hectored by magazines and talk-shows about what they’re doing to their child by working, or what they’re doing to their career by reproducing.  Because the men in the company are assumed to be able to call on the unpaid labour of another person to ensure their productivity isn’t too badly affected.  The way to rectify this imbalance is not to remove maternity, it’s to campaign for more generous paternity leave, and a culture which believes men should take that leave.

Erotic Capital

Otherwise known as “sleeping your way to the top”, “feminine wiles” and so on.  Men’s rights activists, and even a couple of pseudo-sociologists such as Catherine Hakim, suggest that women are at an advantage in the corporate world.  When job performance is not related to something physically measurable, such as trenches dug or boilers stoked, they argue that women have an extra attribute that men do not.[2]  A way to make more money, or money-maker, if you will.  The argument boils down to the idea that women can exploit their sexuality to gain competitive advantages over men.  They can flutter their eye-lashes, exert their charisma, and even go further, if they see fit, in the scramble up the company ladder.  The poor men are left at the bottom of the ladder, whilst women take all the power.

There are a couple of problems with this, as I see it.  Firstly, women are not the only people with a sexuality.  Men have one too, which might lead us to ask why men can’t sleep their way up the corporate ladder.  After all, I’m told that guys in suits are pretty hot.[3]  But men’s sexuality is seen as a part of them, not as implicitly always up for grabs or for negotiation with other people.  Put another way, our society sees women as possessing their sexuality almost as a commodity: something which can be evaluated, traded or bought.  If that is an advantage because it provides them with some sort of “capital” in certain circumstances – which I don’t believe is even the case – then it is outweighed in orders of magnitude by the perception that women’s bodies are regarded as tradeable objects.  The idea that a woman is opening up her sexuality to comment and negotiation simply by being in public, is at the root of so much abuse and assault that it cannot be counted as proof of women’s superior station in life.

Secondly, the “sleeping your way to the top” argument doesn’t even make sense on its own terms.  It is logically incoherent. After all, if women are able to leverage their sexuality to achieve an advantage over male colleagues, that presupposes they are not in charge.  For a woman to sleep her way to the top, don’t all the people above her in the hierarchy have to be male?  Because men’s rights activists always seem to imagine sexuality as synonymous with heterosexuality.  Unless they are alleging that there has been a wholesale lesbian and bi takeover of our major corporate institutions, this whole argument seems to hinge on first admitting that men are overwhelmingly still holding the positions of power.

Not in my name

Though they may pick on important issues, and tap into a trendy backlash against women’s rights, MRAs uphold a deeply unpleasant ideology.  Men are not oppressed in our society, and to claim that they are merely bolsters a sense of male entitlement which all too often expresses itself in aggression and violence towards women.  It’s time for men to disagree, loudly and publicly, with these people who claim to be acting in our name.  Men do not want men’s rights, and we want nothing to do with their movement.

[1] A note on terminology: the men’s rights movement always frames arguments in terms of “men” and “women”, meaning cis men and cis women.  They assume a rigid gender binary which translates into gender essentialism, and base their arguments on a heterosexist view of human relations.  Since I am engaging with their arguments, and seeking to demonstrate that they are in fact arguments in favour of feminism on their own terms, I will not be continually pointing out the ways in which trans men, trans women and gender queer people undermine the very propositions they start from – let alone how queer sexualities plant a mine beneath their worldview…!

[2] We’ll be leaving aside, for the sake of this argument, the fact that women were a mainstay of the physical labour force out in the fields for centuries…

[3] I did a quick poll amongst friends, colleagues and tweeters.  It was fairly conclusive.