Times are changing. The explosion of the feminist movement in the last half of the 20th Century appears to have left traditional masculinity in a state of crisis. But how far have the tables turned? SALIENT Feature Writer Nicholas Holm gets to grips with the men’s movement.
Castration Anxiety is the unlikely fear experienced by a man who upon seeing a women’s vagina becomes concerned that his own penis will be removed. Like many other ideas arising out of Freudian psychoanalysis, castration anxiety is pretty much complete bullshit when taken in a literal sense. However the term does serve some use at an allegorical level, where the penis, or phallus if you like to sound educated and wanky, can be seen as a symbol of power. Castration anxiety, then, becomes the reaction of some men who feel their personal power slipping away in what many see as a world increasingly (over)receptive to feminist principles.
Over the past hundred years the feminist movement, in its various guises, has done much to improve the quality of life for women across the world. The flipside of this however, is that, while many women feel empowered by changes in society, there have arisen groups of men who, for whatever reason, feel that they have been left behind. Trapped between out-dated conceptions of masculinity, which they know have become obsolete, and modern mores, which assume the oppression of women to be the be-all and end-all of gender inequality, these men cannot fathom why, if they supposedly hold all the power, do they feel so powerless? Contributing to this sense of isolation is a scepticism on the behalf of society towards this new ‘Men’s movement’. Their complaints are met with ridicule and disbelief. Their concerns are dismissed out of hand, but the reality is that these men do feel aggrieved, and ignoring them will not make the problem disapear.
“The significance of feminism and its effect on society over the last twenty years is regularly underestimated by the mainstream mass media and the general public,” says Caroline Prendergast, the VUWSA Women’s Rights Officer. And in many respects the rise of the men’s movement is closely intertwined with the growing presence of feminism.
“There are backlash elements to the men’s movement, a backlash to feminism and all that,” says Prue Hyman, a research assistant is Gender and Women’s Studies. “A lot of men feel that feminism is a threat and I think some parts of the men’s movement [do as well], though that too is very varied in its perspectives. I don’t think feminism should be seen as a threat.” Hyman explains that the goals of feminism were to create equality and to liberate both men and women from social constraints, and therefore should be regarded as beneficial for everyone involved. Stuart Birks is a senior lecturer in Economics at Massey University, who has a special interest in issues of gender. He disagrees that feminism has helped out those with Y chromosomes “Since 1980 the influence of a feminism that portrayed men as bad and women as victims has put barriers in place, not least a downplaying of the role of fathers and the exclusion of many fathers through their non-custodial status.”
Peter Crosland and Keiron Horide- Hobley have both been involved with the local Men’s Movement in its various guises over the last decade and both agree that feminism has had a huge impact on New Zealand society. “My immediate response is it’s been bloody enormous, especially in the workplace, especially in government,” says Crosland. “Like a pendulum swing … before it was all run by guys who didn’t know what they were doing … but like in a lot of things the pendulum’s gone right the way out the other side and now we’ve got feminist cabals through most government departments,” he adds. While both of them are quick to explain they don’t begrudge women their increased power in society, they are concerned that men’s empowerment has not kept pace. “If we’re talking gender issues I’m interested in what it is to stand tall,” says Horide-Hobley, “this sense in the body of being masculine that can be experienced on many levels.” For both of them, the men’s movement is about much more than just fighting the cliterati; it’s about finding ways to help men be proud about being men. Crosland became involved in men’s issues after attending a retreat in 1992, and cautions against a view of the movement as a monolithic entity: “The men’s movement covers a huge domain, there’s many different colours within it, many different groups and it is an organic thing that meets real needs that are personal to the individual,” he says.
“Before it was all run by guys who didn’t know what they were doing … but like in a lot of things the pendulum’s gone right the way out the other side and now we’ve got feminist cabals through most government departments.”
However to a large extent, popular conceptions of men’s issues remain fixated on several key issues, contributing to a caricatured perception of the men’s movement. Child custody battles in particular seem to have seized centre stage in recent press coverage and to many the men’s movement begins and end with angry fathers. “I’d have to say the men’s groups have largely arisen in response to a very specific thing,”
says Wayne Mapp, the National Party’s spokesman for political correctness eradication, “and that is the family court, access to their children and custody. That seems to be the grievance, so it’s not a generalised thing, it’s quite a focussed issue.” A men’s Group recently demonstrated outside Mapp’s North Shore house after he criticised them for protesting outside a law office. “I said, ‘look this is pretty unfair, they’re just representing their clients just as you expect representation … if you want to protest against anyone you should protest against the law-makers: and they subsequently protested outside my place,” he explains.
Wayne Mapp: “I think there was a period when actually it was all together too easy for allegations to be made and very difficult for them to be rebutted. Now that still happens, but the thresholds are a bit higher now, and that’s actually due to the pressure from the men’s groups to be honest,”
Mapp believes that the family courts have become more balanced in their treatment of child custody in recent years, partially in response to pressure brought to bear by the men’s groups. “I think there was a period when actually it was all together too easy for allegations to be made and very difficult for them to be rebutted. Now that still happens, but the thresholds are a bit higher now, and that’s actually due to the pressure from the men’s groups to be honest,” he says. Hyman ties the preoccupation with custody issues into wider themes of backlash amongst the men’s movement. “All that backlash stuff and the family court is a very interesting one … where I think the men’s movement are entirely wrong and totally blinkered about family court is that practically always, when the women does get major custody and the man gets minor access, there hasn’t been shared parenting within the marriage,” she says. “I don’t see how men can expect to get half the rights and responsibilities outside the marriage if they haven’t in fact done it during the marriage.”
Crosland admits that it is often difficult to avoid getting caught up on family court-related disputes at men’s movement gatherings, due in large part to the amount of emotion and intensity where children are involved. “There is an enormous group of extremely angry fathers who have been excluded from their children by what ever means and the mechanism in the middle is the family court, he explains. “When we organised political forums … we had to be extremely mindful of the group of men who were going to come there and seek to use that as a forum to express their anger and frustration.” Battling against the often seemingly irrational machinations of the family court brings out a feelings of hopelessness in true Kafka-esque fashion. Stories abound of men who have squandered their life savings to no effect. “Men’s anger is alive and well, but when it actually shows in the family court it gets hit and squashed and excluded.” Horide-Hobley adds that the exposure around these issues often leads to the men’s groups being “vilified and demonized”.
Crosland agrees men are being taught that masculinity is inherently negative, and men have become the targets of derision against which there is no defence: “If you’re a stepdad, you’re assumed to be second-rate, you’re assumed to be an abuser. If you’re a father, you’re assumed to be violent. In a lot of people’s minds, men are violent.” He compares these assumptions to those faced by mental health patients upon their integration back into society, an area in which he previously worked. “Anybody coming out into the community, the community called them rapists, murderers. Didn’t matter how bad you were. It’s the same things with guys,” he says. Birks agrees with the diagnosis that the public image of men has been on the decline. “The image of men has changed, with an emphasis on the negative and a lack of recognition of positive aspects,” he says. “Along with this there have been vocal women arguing against stable relationships with men and contending that ‘girls can do anything’, without a balancing encouragement of boys to see themselves having a worthwhile and valued role as adults in society.”
“If you’re a stepdad, you’re assumed to be second-rate, you’re assumed to be an abuser. If you’re a father, you’re assumed to be violent. In a lot of people’s minds, men are violent.”
Masculinity, these men feel, is no longer something that men are encouraged to be proud of. Horide-Hobley understands this in terms of testosterone, that most male of hormones. “The saying is, ‘testosterone has a lot to answer for,’” he explains, though it’s not entirely certain who actually says this. “The things that’s not said is what [testosterone] actually positively supplies to society, to the workplace, to daily life. I think there’s a lot of positive things guys can offer through having that energy through their veins.” Testosterone is regarded as more than a physiological fact of masculinity in this instance: Horide-Hobley talks about it as a crucial element of how he defines himself as a man. “I really feel I want to be challenged in what I’m doing and thereby made better and I think that [for] women … the emphasis might be slightly different but for me that’s important that I feel I’m working at my edge that I’m sharp and … I feel like that’s the testosterone working and its not a bad thing.” By casting testosterone as a negative influence, a society increasingly intolerant of all things masculine manages to bring down men by association. “It’s about being able to apply myself as an instrument and what can be bad about that? These things are vilified in the media … there’s all sorts of ways in which the language turns what can be quite a good intention into a negative ‘masculine’ apparently un-PC attitude.”
“The things that’s not said is what [testosterone] actually positively supplies to society, to the workplace, to daily life. I think there’s a lot of positive things guys can offer through having that energy through their veins.”
The continuing failure of the men’s movement to receive positive media exposure is often traced back to the political correct control of speech, which is assumed to automatically favour a feminist point of view. As political correctness eradication spokesman, Mapp believes that the men’s movement is not entirely disconnected from issues of political correctness. “Part of contemporary political correctness does have its origin in the whole battles of feminism back in the 1960s,” he says. “Political correctness is really taking a good idea too far in many respects.” Horide-Hobley fears the connection is a little more concrete and that to talk about men’s rights and issues is inherently to talk in an un-PC manner: “I daren’t be politically incorrect, challenge things that maybe need to be challenged to bring things back into [gender] balance. Sometimes even seeing the middle road can be a wee bit too challenging for people.” To Crosland and Horide-Hobley, maleness is attacked in many subtle ways everyday, from double standards of dress and fashion to TV ads where men fail to follow simple instructions.
Crosland has complained to the broadcast authority on previous occasions about advertisements that represent fathers as incapable parents, unable to empathise with their children. He was told that the ad was in no way unsuitable and his claim was dismissed leaving him feeling frustrated at a system that seemed unable or unwilling to appreciate that a male could take offence in such a manner. “The male sensitivity has been battered out of us. What do I have to do to actually make a stand about that advert? I have to go through that process and I’ve already done that and they said no it’s not offensive, well it fucking well is to me,” he profanes. Horide-Hobley also feels that the influx of foreign programming, in particular American sit-coms, onto New Zealand screens is detrimental to men’s self-identities: “There’s never the picture of the competent father… It’s always the guy is some sort of dumb idiot and if you were to turn it round and make the women the dumb idiot in the same position you would have all hell break loose.”
“It’s all about the double standard,” intones Crosland, who believes that in many areas males are penalised by a system which does not allow them the same liberty as females. “Dress and fashion is something that’s been getting my goat for awhile,” he explains. “Summer comes and here we get accosted by all these clothes hanging off and if you even say anything … you’d get bloody laughed out of court, people saying, ‘get real, what’s your problem?’” He feels that women are permitted to dress in a manner which he personally finds offensive, but if he were to dress comparably he would run into trouble. “This is the thing you turn it around, go to my office, you imagine if I turned up in a pair of shorts with my balls hanging out, do you think you’d get away with that?” he asks. “So there’s a whole issue of double standards, I don’t feel that I actually have a right to say, ‘excuse me, but I find that offensive.’ I have to go through a while lot of issues and it takes energy to do that stuff.”
“There’s never the picture of the competent father… It’s always the guy is some sort of dumb idiot and if you were to turn it round and make the women the dumb idiot in the same position you would have all hell break loose.”
And of course there are always the practical considerations. Horide-Hobley points out if a man were to complain about the dress of a female colleague “it can be pretty career damaging too.” Which brings home the question of power, which Crosland says is, “an overlying issue about all of what we’re talking about. It’s what it’s all about. Power is wielded differently by women than men, and that’s whats not talked about.” Hyman disagrees that the gender power in society has shifted as much as is often made out: “Although we’ve got a lot of women in top jobs, I think there’s a bit of a tendency to say we’ve got our prime minister and governor-general and this and that and the other,” she says. “An awful lot of the positions just below those levels are still very heavily male, for example of the directors of the top 100 companies on the stock exchange only seven percent are women so there are still some very big gaps and places where i think women are not taken as seriously and given the opportunites.”
Both feminists and masculists agree that the unequal distribution of power manifests systematically throughout society, they just can’t seem to agree where. Prendergast argues that “women do still receive less money than men for the same amount of work, at least 25 percent of women will be the victim of rape or sexual violence at one point in their lives, and the media continually degrade the female form placing more and more pressure on women and their bodies to conform to unrealistic expectations.” Paul Callister, a senior researcher at Victoria’s Institute of Policy Studies, with a personal focus on gender offers as a contrary interpretation: “In some situations, women may still be discriminated against,” he says, “but increasingly it seems there are official biases against men and at times there is much biased information presented by government agencies in terms of behaviour of men and women. For example, bad behaviour by men is often exaggerated.” Callister draws attention to three particular areas in which he believes men are biased against: the portrayal of domestic violence, eligibility for paid parental leave, and of gender imbalances in tertiary education. Callister has taken a complaint before the Human Rights Commission on behalf of the Father and Child Society over fathers’ access to parental leave, which currently goes only to the mother who can then transfer it to the father if she wishes. “The case was never resolved by the HRC so we applied for support from the Human Rights Tribunal to take the case forward,” he explains. “After much deliberation they thought we had a interesting case but they couldn’t give us legal support as they had more pressing issues, such as domestic violence, to deal with.”
Hyman believes that most social institutions embrace a reasonably neutral gender policy, with the possible exception of the health system. “Some would say some of men’s diseases are not taken as seriously and that may be so. I think prostate cancer is starting to get decent treatment,” she says. “Breast cancer has been taken very seriously for a long time, but we need more improvement in all of those. The trouble with the health system is it could take 100 percent of GDP without any trouble.”
Crosland agreed: “There’s a huge amount of research and public money that goes into cervical and breast cancer research and mitigation, yet we don’t have a test that can be trusted for prostate cancer. Maybe that might be because there hasn’t been enough funding for the research compared to say the amount of research that’s gone into other forms of cancer for women,” he says. “I mean I don’t begrudge women that there has been funding for them, for the cancers, because we don’t want them, they’re horrible, but at the same time has it been balanced.”
Crosland suspects that if men are going to ever achieve equality in areas such as health research, that they’ll have to step forward and claim it. Political battles though are just one aspect of the man’s movement, which he believes is about men creating a space where men are free to be themselves, “creating a space where men are prepared to tell their stories and men are prepared to listen and learn from it.” Horide-Hobley conceives of the men’s movements and the men’s groups as a place for men to challenge and provide strength for one another. “To be able to stand up to that challenge, to experience taking up the challenge and moving with it and forward … it’s a real powerful experience and then know that that’s in you,” he says.
Some may discount the men’s movement out of hand, some may question their motives, but what can’t be questioned is their commitment and passion for what they see as an important and overlooked cause. In this they have much in common with the myriad strains of feminism. Both groups seek to correct what they see as glaring inequalities in society and its institutions, both feel that the opposing team has the upper hand and both are desperate to be taken seriously by a world that increasingly seems to be worrying about other things beside gender. Perhaps it’s about time we started listening to what they have to say, because maybe then we can put all this to rest and start hating each other as individuals, instead of genders.