A perspective on gender equality: neither feminist nor red pill

We need a more comprehensive perspective on gender that isn’t biased against particular genders.

© Dave DuBay

I began writing about men’s issues a few years ago because I wondered why mass shooters are almost always male.

In one article for the Portland (Maine) Press Herald I wrote that social pressure to be a “real man” can push some men and boys—especially if they feel insecure—toward violence. And the hazing men experience in all-male groups and frequent lack of deep male friendships can lead to social isolation.

The “real man” trope also creates problems for women. The chivalric notion that men must protect women can lead some men to feel like they’re entitled to control women, which can result in domestic violence. On top of that, increased gender equality can feel like a loss of status for some men, resulting in what sociologist Michael Kimmel calls “aggrieved entitlement.”

But a deeper problem is that we scold men instead of taking men’s issues seriously. Over three-quarters of suicides are male, but when gender is mentioned the focus is usually on women and girls. Females attempt suicide more than males, but a cry for help shows they believe someone might listen. Males commit suicide more often because they don’t think anyone will listen.

I pointed to our culture’s zero-sum approach to gender as part of the problem—talking about men’s issues means excluding women, except when moralizing at men about “toxic masculinity.” Instead, I wrote that “one way to encourage men to be more empathetic is to be more empathetic toward men.”

I’ve also pointed out that masculinity is multifaceted. I wrote two pieces saying we don’t need to redefine masculinity because positive masculinity has always existed.

In the second piece I questioned the agenda of redefining masculinity. I accused academia of having an anti-masculinity bias. Some academics even call for the abolition of men as a social category. But even mainstream academia finds little good in masculinity. I noted that,

The Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory has some positive descriptions of masculinity, but mostly negatives concerning things men to do other people. According to the Inventory, masculinity is about violence, dominance, being a playboy, having power over women, disdain for homosexuals, emotional control, self–reliance, winning, pursuit of status, making work primary, and risk taking.

The Conformity to Feminine Norms Inventory also describes femininity in positive and negative terms. The negatives, however, are the effects of masculinity on women and girls. Femininity is about self as mother, being relational and connected, being silent and dependent, being married, looking young and thin, being ornamental, pleasant, relying on and deferring to men, and being virginal while also being sexy.

In contrast, I quoted Dr. Martin Seager’s nuanced statement that it’s not gender that’s toxic, but “gender influences the way and the pattern that damaged people (of either gender) follow when responding to their damage.”

And I quoted writer Rick Belden who observed that healthy masculinity is often defined as how men treat women. But how would we respond to someone saying that healthy femininity is about how women treat men? Belden concludes that we’d do well to shift our thinking: healthy masculinity starts with how well a man treats himself.

Instead of redefining masculinity I said we should focus on a man’s self-determination to be the man he wants to be so long as he respects the equal rights of others.

Though I had written several pieces for the Good Men Project, they decided not to publish this piece. GMP is a male feminist website, and I realized that feminism is too narrow.

In retrospect, I’m surprised I got away with as much as I did at the Good Men Project. I wrote that men are not second class citizens, but a group need not be oppressed for us to take their concerns seriously. Our failure to sometimes even acknowledge male victims of domestic violence is one example.

Part of the problem, I wrote in another GMP article, is that research shows that society has significant bias for women over men. This bias often manifests as a lack of empathy for men. For example, feminists tell men to show their vulnerability but also mock men with hashtags such as #masculinitysofragile.

In yet another article for for GMP I wrote that telling men to show their vulnerability is problematic when there’s little support offered when men do. I noted that the international concern for the girls Boko Haram kidnapped was matched with silence about the boys they’ve killed or kidnapped.

And I pointed to a Department of Justice study which found that a significant number of boys in juvenile detention are sexually abused—almost entirely by female staff—but the media and sexual assault prevention activists have largely ignored them. A bigger problem than acknowledging male vulnerability is talking about female perpetrators.

In this same piece I questioned

the popular belief that men arranged society to privilege men at women’s expense. But this doesn’t account for the reality that throughout history the common man was used as a beast of burden and as cannon fodder. Or that even today when most world leaders are men, the bottom of society — the chronically homeless, victims of violence, prisoners, combat deaths, etc. — is overwhelmingly male.

Concluding that,

Rather than privileging men over women, patriarchy is more accurately a small group of powerful men exploiting both women and men. An important distinction is that while men have had greater opportunity for power and status, this power and status is not automatic or guaranteed. Instead, it must be earned with correspondingly higher risk. Failed men are disdained while successful men are lauded and rewarded.

On my personal blog I have rejected the claim that believing in gender equality means one must be a feminist. I think feminism is about left-wing women’s self-interest. Mostly that means equality, but not always. But because feminism is a movement of women and for women, a male feminist must take his talking points from women. Otherwise he’s “mansplaining” women’s issues to women. But this limits a male feminist’s ability to speak authentically about gender from his own perspective.

Despite my criticisms of feminist misandry, though, I also think the men’s rights movement is the wrong approach. I’ve criticized the MRM for its right-wing identity politics. While noting that MRAs are angry because they feel dehumanized, I concluded that both the MRM and feminism are focused on self-interest to the point of diminishing the concerns of the opposite sex.

I also criticized MGTOW—male separatists, or “men going their own way”—for playing the victim, promoting misogynistic stereotypes about women, and not really going their own way if they’re still preoccupied with women.

MRAs seem to blame feminism for almost every difficulty men face. But feminists didn’t create the modern world (though they have contributed greatly to it). However, we do need a more comprehensive perspective on gender that isn’t biased against particular genders and which takes the concerns of all genders seriously.

The perspective I’ve been promoting hasn’t yet accomplished that. I’ve been writing almost entirely about men and boys in an attempt to articulate a male perspective on gender that takes men’s issues seriously without portraying men as victims, which doesn’t promote sexism against women, and which promotes equality.

I do this because I believe that the well being of men and boys matters to society as a whole. For Arc Digital I wrote that men’s roles are changing in unexpected ways, including record numbers of men dropping out of the workforce. The job market has changed greatly, but expectations of men’s earning power—which relates directly to men’s ability to find love—haven’t changed. So young men are increasingly dropping out. Further, Warren Farrell and John Gray recently wrote The Boy Crisis about boys falling behind on several measures in 63 developed countries, and the role that father deprivation plays.

Our first concern should be to promote men’s well being. And that directly supports concerns about the impact of men and masculinity on society at large, including decreasing violence and supporting economic growth.

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The Red Pill: A controversial documentary about the men’s rights movement

The latest documentary by sometime feminist Cassie Jaye has caused no small amount of controversy. More so than previous documentaries such as Daddy I Do, where she criticizes purity balls and father’s attempts to protect their daughter’s virginity. Or The Right to Love, which supports the fight for marriage equality.

The Red Pill looks at the men’s right movement, challenging what we think we know about gender issues. 

Tough questions

The film is controversial because of its positive portrayal of the men’s rights movement. Jaye gives A Voice for Men founder Paul Elam a sympathetic hearing without challenging him on his ranting online persona. Also unquestioned is men’s rights activists (MRAs) failure to take women’s issues seriously while demonizing feminists and blaming them for problems men face. And left unexamined is the claim that society is gynocentric.

But Jaye does ask feminists tough questions. They avoid the issue of paternity fraud and stand firm in their opposition to a legal presumption of shared parenting. On the issue of father’s rights Katherine Spillar from the Feminist Majority Foundation says a man’s choice happens before he has sex. Another feminist in the film says men have a responsibility not to put themselves in these situations. Which would be misogyny if someone said that about women. 

Later in the film feminist Michael Kimmel denies that domestic violence against men is a serious issue despite a Centers for Disease Control report (tables 4.7 and 4.8) showing that 5.066 million men have been pushed or slapped by an intimate partner in the past 12 months compared to 4.322 million women. Even with severe domestic violence the CDC found more male victims than most people would expect – 2.266 million men and 3.163 million women in the past 12 months.

Men and gender: It’s complicated

Since the advent of second wave feminism a half century ago men have struggled to proactively discuss gender issues. Today the Internet is the primary medium for MRAs to vent their concerns and anger, often anonymously. And anti-feminism is their focus.

Meanwhile, male feminists advocate men checking their privilege and acknowledging their collective guilt as oppressors. But feminism is a female perspective on gender where men’s issues are usually discussed in terms of how masculinity affects women. It’s difficult for men to speak genuinely about men’s lived experiences when taking their cues from women.

It’s a complex situation without a clear solution.

A movement is born

The central text of the men’s rights movement is The Myth of Male Power, written in 1993 by former male feminist Warren Farrell. His key point that the male role requires men to devalue their lives in the service of others sparked a movement even if it didn’t become mainstream.

Male disposability garners such little concern that few people have even heard of it. But MRAs present several statistics backed by United States government reports, including men being 93% of workplace deaths, almost four in five suicides, and 98% of combat deaths. They note that Boko Haram kidnapping girls generated an outpouring of international concern while the boys they burned alive were ignored.

Male disposability isn’t just about death. High divorce rates have decreased father involvement in children’s lives, reducing men’s value to a child support check. Yet research shows the essential role of fathers in children’s lives – boys especially. And boys are falling far behind girls in school, but little is being done about it.

Anger

MRAs are angry because they feel dehumanized. But feminists feel dehumanized by MRAs. Jaye shows footage of a feminist protest against Farrell without giving the context for why feminists labeled him a rape apologist. In The Myth of Male Power Farrell writes, “before we began calling this date rape and date fraud, we called it exciting.” MRAs respond that this quote must be understood in its larger context. Though Farrell was not advocating rape, flippant comments about rape are always cringeworthy.

Where do we go from here?

Both feminists and MRAs seem passionate about equality and sensitive to gender bias while at other times being anti-equality and promoting gender bias. But this isn’t as inconsistent as it seems. Both feminism and the MRM are primarily about self-interest.

In the end Jaye concludes that she supports gender equality but is neither a feminist nor a men’s rights activist. But she’s not sure what direction that might go in. Despite my criticisms of the documentary, I agree with Jaye’s conclusion.

Can you believe in gender equality but not be a feminist?

If you believe in gender equality then you’re a feminist. If you doubt that then look feminism up in the dictionary. It’s a popular argument that’s difficult to disagree with without being labeled anti-equality.

But does it follow that if you’re not a feminist then you’re anti-equality? It reminds me of the question, “How can you be moral if you don’t believe in God?” The black or white dichotomy such questions create is problematic.

Another problem is the attempt to define other people’s labels for them. A better questions is, “What do you call yourself?” And, “What’s your perspective on equality?” These questions are open ended and don’t push an agenda.

Feminism advocates for gender equality from a female point of view. This matters because the Seneca Falls Convention was held 168 years ago, but recorded human history stretches back 10,000 years. But men seem inconsistent in finding their voice about gender equality.

Feminism has changed men’s roles because women’s roles can’t change without shifting men’s place in society. But that change happens to men – we don’t have a choice. And that feeling of having no choice is one reason why men’s rights activists are angry with feminism. Feminists sometimes respond by saying that men need to understand that men benefit from feminism too. And while that’s generally true, the patronizing tone doesn’t help.

The men’s rights movement isn’t the answer, though. Their rightwing talking points fail to support women’s issues. Men’s rights activists even claim that feminism isn’t really about equality.

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Beehive Mountain, Acadia National Park

So is being a male feminist the answer? I agree with blogger Ally Fogg that feminism is a movement of women, by women, and for women. Men can’t define the issues or offer solutions. Men can’t even takes sides in disagreements within feminism without it being mansplaining. As a result, a male feminist must take his cues from women. This means avoiding certain issues and having his statements scrutinized for ideological purity, all of which constrain his ability to speak authentically about the male experience.

Fogg also points out that feminism is mainly concerned with issues men cause, not issues men face. And of course, issues that men face are for men to describe.

A return to the pre-feminist past is neither desirable nor realistic. Instead, I write in an attempt to develop a male perspective on gender equality and gender issues without the constraints of male feminism, but also without the anti-feminist and rightwing perspective of the men’s rights movement. This is a male viewpoint that runs parallel to much of feminist thought but which is also free to disagree with feminism at certain points.

Final thought: while I don’t expect people to agree with me (I’m simply defining my personal viewpoint), I also reject the moralistic judgments people sometimes make because I’m not choosing the labels they think I should choose. It is each person’s prerogative to choose their own labels and to define their own perspectives, and the attitude that someone must call themselves this or that disrespects that individual’s choice.

Is There A Right to Become a Parent?

What do you do when one person’s rights conflict with someone else’s rights? You might see my alleged right as a sense of entitlement.

Your right to free speech conflicts with my right not to be offended. Your religious rights conflict with my right to marry the person I love. Your right to become a parent conflicts with my right to not become a parent without my consent.

I’ve written about boundaries on several occasions. The basic idea is that there is no right to impose yourself on others, even when the situation is heartbreaking. An op-ed piece in the New York Times asserts that a husband who agreed to have children has, upon divorce, an obligation to pay for his ex-wife’s fertility services. Calling it “alimony for your eggs,” the op-ed notes that “Her ex may have many years left to start a new family of his own, but by the time she meets a new partner, it may be too late.”

That a woman has a right to change her mind is accepted (though it took much effort to change society’s mind). Does a man also have a right to change his mind? Does a woman deserve compensation for delaying pregnancy? Or is it her choice for which she is responsible?

These are complex questions that vary for each couple and individual. Sometime a woman puts off pregnancy because she doesn’t want to have kids or doesn’t feel ready yet, because she can’t find a suitable partner, because her partner says he isn’t ready, because of her career ambitions, and so on.

Dr. Mimi C. Lee has no other chance to have children, except by using frozen embryos created with her ex-husband. He agreed to become a father when they were married, but upon divorce he withdrew his consent. But Lee is a cancer survivor in her mid-40s. That he could end her dream of motherhood seems hugely unfair.

But let’s reverse the gender roles. Sofia Vergara (from TV’s Modern Family) found herself in a legal dispute with her ex Nick Loeb, who wants to use embryos they created. Vergara wouldn’t have to be pregnant against her will – Loeb would use a surrogate. Still, a woman possibly becoming a parent against her will, even if she isn’t required to become pregnant, puts the debate in a different light.

But it shouldn’t. The issue comes down to consent. If a woman is already pregnant then it’s her body, and it’s her choice. If she wants to have the baby, but he doesn’t, then it’s an impasse and someone’s will must prevail. No one has the right to force something on her physically that she doesn’t consent to. So the man is out of luck, even if that means paying 18 years of child support.

Embryos, however, are in test tubes. Not implanting them in the woman’s body isn’t about what is being done to her. It’s about what’s not being done to her. And half the genetic material is his. The condition of pregnancy does not yet exist, and she has no right to force him into parenthood against his consent – even if he previously consented but now withdraws his consent.

The tragedy is that this might end any opportunity for some women to become a mothers. But no one, woman or man, is entitled to create a pregnancy (even with a surrogate) when the other potential parent has denied or withdrawn consent.

#MasculinitySoFragile

Bustle says criticizing toxic masculinity isn’t the same as criticizing men. The controversy Jaime Lutz writes about centers around the Twitter hashtag #MasculinitySoFragile.

She begins her Bustle article with a fair minded statement: “Masculinity isn’t inherently ‘bad’; neither, for that matter, is femininity. But there are certain brands of both that are toxic.” She then “reminds us how important it is to remember that criticizing a concept or a construct isn’t the same as criticizing a specific person or group of people.”

The distinction between constructs and the people who belong to groups associated with those constructs is a fine hair to split. My fellow atheists argue that criticizing religious belief isn’t the same as criticizing those who hold those beliefs. But Christians don’t agree. Though we’ve all heard Christians say that it’s not homophobic to criticize the gay and lesbian political agenda because it’s the issues and not specific people that they’re criticizing (“love the sinner, hate the sin”). And using the same logic, some say that criticizing feminism isn’t the same as criticizing feminists or women in general.

I’m neither feminist nor anti-feminist, and I’m not a men’s rights activist either. I don’t think feminism is anti-male in general, but I don’t think feminism always understands men and masculinity. Just as a man could never understand what it’s like to be a woman, a woman could never understand what it’s like to be a man.

Well, I take that back. Never is a strong word. It’s an absolute. Max Wolf Valerio’s autobiography is called The Testosterone Files: My Hormonal and Social Transformation From Female to Male. A radical lesbian feminist prior to coming out as transgender, he writes that his feminist education did a poor job of preparing him for the realities of the male gender role. He states that he lost feminist friends not because he is transgender, but because he spoke openly about the male experience and contradicted some feminist beliefs in the process.

The overreactions of many men, however, only seem to prove the point of #MasculinitySoFragile. Challenging feminists to a fist fight, telling women to go make a sandwich, claiming that feminists are destroying society, and so on show how easily offended some men are.

And as Lutz notes, many of the points made on #MasculinitySoFragile highlight serious problems men and boys face, but which society isn’t adequately addressing. For example, “that boys are taught to hold in all their emotions and that’s why boys are far more likely to die by suicide.”

However, the sentence structure {noun} so {negative adjective} is a classic taunt. While I wouldn’t leap to the conclusion that #MasculinitySoFragile is intended to demean, there’s an obvious insensitivity.

Further, opposition to something believed to cause great harm often assumes a position of moral superiority aimed at people believed to be unenlightened. In other words, moralistic movements are often patronizing. This is true of evangelical Christianity and New Atheism, as well as feminism and the men’s rights movement.

The distinction that feminists are criticizing toxic masculinity and not men is problematic because most people (right or wrong) unconsciously associate certain characteristics with their core identity. I’m a man, men are masculine, you say masculinity is fragile, therefore you’re saying I’m fragile.

And everyone knows that a weak male is not a real man. A man cannot rely on others to protect him – he must sink or swim on his own. A man is expected to protect others, but if he can’t even protect himself then obviously he is of no use to anyone else. In a social experiment posted on Youtube, bystanders intervened when a male actor appeared to physically assault a woman. But in a separate scenario when she appeared to initiate violence against him, no one intervened. Some laughed.

A hashtag perceived as taunting men about being weak is like taunting women about being slutty. I anticipate disagreement on this point. But I doubt the creators of the hashtag meant to hit that hard.

However, I do think they approached their campaign from a moralistic rather than an empathetic position, and that’s the source of the problem.