What about the menz?

A couple of weeks ago, I tweeted a picture from the Consenting Sexualities conference [pdf] organized by the Canadian Women’s Foundation and McGill University’s Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies. The picture clearly resonated with a lot of people (including myself, or I wouldn’t have tweeted it), and to date the tweet has been retweeted almost 1,500 times. That’s about five times more retweets than even my most popular previous tweets.

You might wonder what this tweet was about. If you follow me on WordPress or Twitter, you might expect that the tweet would be about rape culture, victim-blaming, revenge porn. Maybe a funny feminist comic or joke. Nope. It was this:

List of things 4th grade boys don't like about being boys, incl. "not able to be a mother," "not suppost to cry," and "suppost to like violence"

This photo captures some important and difficult truths about the toxicity of normative masculinity in our culture – truths that organizations like the White Ribbon Campaign¬†(who delivered this workshop) are working hard to eradicate. Toxic masculinity is, without question, a feminist issue. My feminism is about gender justice, and men and boys are necessarily part of that equation. Furthermore, some of these features of normative masculinity (for example, “suppost to like vilence”) contribute directly to the oppression of women, girls and trans* people. Gender norms are bullshit all around, including the norms that pressure cis men and boys. We need to tackle this problem. HOWEVER…

The tweet’s popularity revealed a number of things to me, some of which are deeply perplexing. For one thing, the tweet may have been popular among feminists and trans* rights activists and anti-violence advocates and others doing great work that I respect. But it was also very popular with men’s rights activists. Many of them were not shy about replying to the tweet with a) ridicule for the “sissy” boys who wrote this list and are failing at being Real Men, or b) sympathy for the boys (great!) and indictments of feminism as the imposer of these unhealthy gender norms (sighhhhhhhh/LOL wut?). While I’m glad the tweet resonated with those in the b) category, it is yet another sad example of how men’s rights crusaders and feminists share some of the same frustrations and could be allies, if only the former would realize that the latter are not their true antagonists.

Indeed, the tweet drew an unusually high volume of overtly or subtly combative/hostile responses. Unusual even for me, a person whose Twitter feed is no stranger to heated discussion and unholy outrage. This is especially interesting because no value judgments or commentary from me accompanied the picture – my tweet just describes what the picture contains, pretty much at face value. People really wanted to argue with me about it though, despite the fact that I hadn’t even presented my opinion on the issue. I know this is part and parcel of being on Twitter, but it can be pretty distressing to have an Interactions feed filled to the brim with people directing anger at you for no good reason. This is still happening, nearly two weeks after I shared the tweet. It is exhausting.

The argumentative people were not, by and large, arguing against the plight of these boys (or arguing that the problems girls, women and trans* people face are more pressing, which is certainly valid). Nope. They were arguing that the plight is indeed real, but as a feminist, what would I know about it? How dare I insert my feminist nose into this discussion? What was I really up to? A veil of suspicion about my real intentions shrouded even the less overtly hostile responses, which was both befuddling and painful to behold.

Finally (and most deeply perplexing to me), there seems to be a much larger swath of the population interested in the plight of boys and men than in the plights of other genders. I know, I know – what, am I new to this patriarchy thing or something? Of course a larger swath of the population is more concerned about boys and men than other genders – even those members of the population who are interested in gender issues, apparently. But this was a vivid illustration of that problem and it produced a kind of visceral, emotional response in me that I wasn’t expecting.¬†Consider this tweet, which is perhaps my second most popular of all time:

Tweet about rape threats as proof that rape is typically about power rather than sex & self-controlNotice how this one generated only about 1/5 of the interest that the tweet about boys’ struggles did? And notice how it’s about a physically, sexually and psychologically violent problem that is a daily destroyer of lives and crusher of spirits the world over (mostly for women, girls and trans* people, though of course men and boys are affected as well)? I know that other factors influence the popularity of a tweet, such as topicality, novelty, compelling multimedia (like, say, a picture) or even timing. But I still feel the disparity is also illustrative of how our society prioritizes the problems of men and boys.

It’s especially frustrating because, when it comes to the problems faced by men and boys, many feminists are highly engaged in pushing for social change. A lot of the people who retweeted my picture had the word “feminist” in their Twitter bios. We care. It seems that folks who are perhaps more apathetic about gender issues have a propensity to get teary and “we’ve gotta DO something”-y about the pressure boys live under. That’s good. We should do something. It’d just be nice to have those people on our side when we talk about the pressure, pain and ambient threat many women and trans* people live with daily.

I do not think this is a “boys vs. girls” issue, which at least one commenter will probably argue. First of all, that’s a binary understanding of the problem, and second, the issues all genders face are intertwined – they’re part of the same violent system of power. So let’s get incensed, let’s feel pain, and let’s do something about the challenges we all face.

What should we call… Men’s Rights Advocates?

The term “Men’s Rights Advocate” and its shorthand, MRA, loom large in many feminist circles. The term is far less familiar to the general population and on its face, the connotations of “Men’s Rights Advocate” seem positive and wholly defensible. After all, patriarchy may bestow privilege upon men and boys (duh) but it also foists on them a variety of problems and sexist expectations worthy of an advocate’s attention. Unfortunately, the term does not honestly represent the modern project of men’s rights advocacy. While today’s MRAs (not necessarily cut from the same cloth as earlier iterations) rail against the sexism men and boys face, their chosen culprit is not patriarchy but feminism.

Men are not denied custody of their children because a sexist society and family law system deem child-rearing a woman’s domain. It’s feminists trying to make sure women take all the kids!!! Women don’t have an easier time getting laid [sometimes against their will, it bears noting] because men and boys are socially instructed by a patriarchal, heterosexist, cissexist culture to view them first and foremost as sexual objects. It’s those pesky feminists encouraging women to lord their sexual dominance over lonely men, muhahahahaha [evil feminist laugh]!!! Girls don’t perform better in the school system because social cues encourage them to be obedient and polite, while boys are encouraged to roughhouse and interrupt. It’s a teaching system brainwashed by feminists to ensure women’s supremacy!!!!

Okay that’s enough, but it should give you some idea of what most MRAs are really about, which is anti-feminism. Some sites and organizations make this agenda more obvious (see: A Voice for Men), while others (see: Canadian Association for Equality) push their agenda more insidiously by, say, hosting a speaker who has a history of calling date rape “exciting” and pontificating about the positive impacts of incest. In fact, A Voice for Men used facial recognition software to doxx and actively encourage the harassment of teenage women who protested this speaker’s appearance on the University of Toronto campus in late 2012. What ties the extreme and less-extreme groups together is their belief that feminism is a barrier to men and boys overcoming gender-based challenges and realizing their potential.

The truth is that men do face challenges in a world that, ironically, has largely been governed by men. Perhaps this is why it’s so easy for MRAs to make feminism the scapegoat – it seems illogical to presume that men are holding themselves back. But patriarchy isn’t one big, discrete, conscious decision. It’s the composite of zillions of decisions: conscious and unconscious, big and tiny, made by humans of all stripes including men, women and trans* people. Collectively these decisions hold back all genders in different ways, but men by far the least so. Their challenges are also counterbalanced by myriad privileges they accrue (often without noticing, because privilege is like that) for simply being guys. On the whole, men (in particular cis, white, straight, able-bodied men) occupy the position of greatest privilege on the gender spectrum.

Recently I got together with some feminists and feminist allies to discuss how to address a recent spread and intensification of anti-feminist activity in Canada, especially on post-secondary campuses. These men and organizations are not so much concerned with reclaiming men’s rights as they are with preserving men’s power and privilege. So we thought let’s call a spade a spade, scrap the “Men’s Rights Advocate” handle and call them Men’s Power Advocates. MPAs: they’re a thing.

Epilogue: Shout-out to the men’s organizations doing great work to challenge sexism and foster positive masculinity, including the White Ribbon Campaign.