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We need a better men’s rights movement

A tiny sculpture of a man with a suitcase, looking very lonely.

I’m a former men’s rights activist and feminist, and it’s time to talk about how to fix both movements.

According to The Huffington Post, over 82 percent of people believe that men and women should be equal. Feminism defines itself as a movement that seeks equality for men and women, and many feminists, when confronting the men’s right’s movement ask: “Why do we need a men’s right’s movement? Feminism is about equality for everyone!” Meanwhile, a simple search on Reddit shows many men’s rights activists (MRAs) arguing that feminism is not about equality for everyone, but equality for women while ignoring men’s issues.

There’s a disconnect here; it’s unfortunate, because ultimately we have two sides who desperately want equality for everyone but who severely disagree on the how and why. We’re still stuck with the same men’s right’s movement that produces people like Paul Elam (founder of A Voice for Men) and anger directed at the progress made by the feminist movement, and we’re still stuck with the same men’s right’s movement that thinks articles titled “Bash a violent bitch month” make good satire. The current men’s right’s movement can argue day and night against feminist ideas, but when it comes to spearheading their own initiatives, they prefer to sit online and simply complain.

It’s a movement where the root of the effort comes not from a desire to help men, but in finding feminists and “Fucking their shit up.” Sure, talking about inequality men face, or injustices going on in the world, sometimes takes place on their forums. More often, however, they talk about the “evils” of feminism, or simply examples of “women behaving badly,” to the point the Men’s Rights Subreddit has a special tag for articles about it, doubly so if said woman is a feminist.

There may be good news on the horizon for widening the scope of feminism and connecting men’s issues with a movement that’s pushing for gender equality. Emma Watson recently delivered an opening speech at the UN for a new campaign, HeforShe.

“I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society, despite my need of his presence as a child, as much as my mother’s. I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man,” she said.

Her speech should have been the greatest speech about gender equality in recent history, in that it actually addressed men’s issues more openly, and made a powerful statement about the need for feminists to engage directly with men. This is not to say such conversations never happen, but they’re still not exactly an everyday event.

Unfortunately, the speech aligned itself with a program that specifically does not even address men’s issues and in fact continued to paint men solely as the abusers and the problem. When your campaign to get men to address domestic violence opens with: “Gender equality is not only a women’s issue, it is a human rights issue that requires my participation. I commit to take action against all forms of violence and discrimination faced by women and girls,” your very mission statement only reinforces the idea that only men are abusers, and only women victims.

Patricia Hill Collins, in a recent speech at Mount St. Joseph University, said: “Intersectionality is not just what is there, but is identifying what is not seen.” Could we do more for male victims of intimate partner violence and sexual violence so they would have an easier time coming forward and recognizing what happened to them was wrong? Should we help more men organize to address the male suicide rate? Even something as simple as demanding that the White House start a Council on Boys and Men could go a long way.

If we want to really be intersectional, we need to recognize and oppose oppression or discrimination in all its forms. When men are coming together to try to address the issues they do face, if they are shouted down, told that other issues are more important, or told that they should simply be happy for the discriminations they don’t face, we are failing to identify in our own movement for equality the need to address those issues.

For example, intimate partner violence against men is common in movies, sometimes even celebrated by the actresses who portray it. With the idea that it’s “for the sisters,” as Natalie Portman put it in an interview about hitting male actors in character, she said, “It’s not like I’m a strong girl, so they can handle it.” Portman further added, “A lot of girls know what it feels like to have someone not call you back,” and here we can see how violence against men is normalized and even encouraged in society, made into the subject of humor instead of identified as domestic violence. What does it say when it’s viewed as acceptable to hit a man simply because he hurt your feelings?

What if instead we started by addressing the violence men have experienced and treating them as humans who experience these issues themselves? What if we recognized the issue of the frat boy waking up from drinking too many beers next to a girl he doesn’t even know? What if he feels shame, violation, or even guilt as he walks outside to high fives from friends, while on the inside he feels incredibly uncomfortable about what happened the night before?

He might go on to worry only about her consent, never having even considered if he himself had been able to consent the night before. What if instead we had talked to him about his own consent, about enthusiastic consent; wouldn’t it be infinitely easier to address teaching him about respecting women’s consent and experiences from that position?

When we’re talking about these issues, privilege comes up a lot because there are so many threats and issues that men don’t face. We tell women to protect themselves from rapists, we tell men not to be rapists, but we never address where rape actually comes from or men’s own experiences with the issue. Roni Caryn Rabin of the New York Times notes: “Some experts believe that one in six men have experienced unwanted sexual contact of some kind as minors.”

We have successfully gendered sex crimes so severely that to be a victim of them is to be emasculated. If we do not change that narrative and if we do not change how these crimes are gendered, we will continue to see male victims not getting the help they need. In a conversation with Dr. Curt Brungardt (one of the founders of Jana’s Campaign) at a recent conference on Masculinity in Higher Education, he brought up the fact that studies on offenders suggest that at least some report trauma in their own past.

So it leads me to ask: If we know past trauma is a factor in the creation of abusers, why do we not focus more energy on getting these men the help they need before it creates an abuser? Why not start a bigger public campaign with real compassion for men, to help them break free from their gender role that keeps them silenced?

We need a new MRM, and there is a real opportunity for the feminist community to step up, even if for a short time, and speak out in favor of establishing some basic groundwork: A Council on Boys and Men; a campaign to address helping male victims of sex crimes and domestic violence, and another one that will seek to help batterers before they harm. These simple measures could work wonders for building a new MRM that doesn’t need to resort to hatred and anger to motivate itself but could be built instead around an opportunity to improve their community.

Photo via JD Hancock/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)