This is the text which I wrote for my presentation to the 2nd National Conference for Men and Boys in Brighton last week. As is the way of these things, I went slightly off script on the day. I believe a video of the actual presentation is due up soon, I’ll add that when it is available. I’ll be writing more of my thoughts about the conference in the near future.
What an honour it is to be here today. It is humbling to be around so many amazing and effective charities, campaigns and agencies who are making such a difference to people’s lives in the real world.
I feel like a bit of a fraud if I’m honest. While you guys are out getting your hands dirty and working on the ground, as a writer, blogger and journalist I’m mostly hunched over a laptop in my underpants. And there’s an image you’re invited to bleach from your mind as quickly as you can. Actually there are a lot of things I’d like to bleach from my mind too. It’s not always a pleasant experience to be involved in debates about gender and masculinity in the media and on the internet. You could probably boil it down to this:
Misogyny, misandry and kittens. The entire internet in a Powerpoint slide. Those memes come from the social networking site Tumblr where they find such things hilarious, and in truth I think they add up to little more than a bit of playful pigtail pulling on both sides. Things are not always so twee.
Earlier this summer a feminist cultural critic called Anita Sarkeesian launched a kickstarter proposal. She wanted to crowd-fund a series of videos that would examine portrayals of women in video games.
Now if I’m honest that doesn’t strike me as the most urgent cause around. If I had a few quid going spare I could think of more useful things to do with it but each to their own. But look at the bottom line of that slide: Comments : 14,212. Comments on that video were open for only 12 days. It quickly became one of the most controversial videos in YouTube history. Why? Because a huge proportion of the comments were like this:
A couple of things I’d draw your attention to here. First is that if you’re going to accuse someone of stupidity, it generally helps if you can spell the word. Secondly, there’s that sandwich thing again. I can’t help noticing that an awful lot of angry men on the internet seem to be hungry a lot of the time. That might explain a lot – keep your blood sugar levels up guys, really.
That was only the beginning. People set up Anita Sarkeesian hate sites, blogs and groups on Facebook. They vandalised her Wikipedia entry with abuse, they created a video game where you could beat up Anita Sarkeesian until you changed her photo into a bruised and bloody pulp.
This is just one example of something endemic within online media, I could give you endless examples of a seething tide of resentment towards feminism that is often indistinguishable from outright misogyny.
The only blessing, perhaps, is that most of this hatred and anger can be found in the comments on articles, on social media and on blogs. When issues are raised about men, a different, but perhaps no less disturbing phenomenon emerges.
A few months ago psychologists published an important paper into the effects of fathers’ depression. It showed that a baby born to a depressed father is vastly more likely to develop behavioural, educational and physical and mental health problems. Here is how Observer columnist Barbara Ellen responded
I know that several people and organizations who are here today are involved in the Shed initiative, and I think most of us are now aware of the benefits it can bring to men’s mental health. When the initiative was first brought to the UK, here is how the Guardian’s Lucy Mangan reacted
It all adds up to an ugly picture.
But out in the real world, the one occupied by you guys every day, I see men and women, boys and girls, muddling along just fine. I firmly believe that most men do not hate women. Most women are not indifferent or dismissive of men’s issues. But people like you need people like me in the media to highlight your issues, raise awareness, help raise funding, steer public understanding and opinion. I cannot tell you how much harder it is to do that when surrounded by mood music of hatred and bigotry. It is not only needless and offensive, it is downright damaging.
Men and women are interdependent. Men’s issues are women’s problems and vice versa.
If we want genuine equality in the domestic realm and the workplace, where better to start than the institutional discrimination of the family courts and criminal justice system, the parental leave regulations and every other institution that equates parenthood with motherhood.
If we want to rid the world of the horrors of female genital mutilation, how much easier would that be if we agreed that it is inexcusable to inflict unnecessary genital mutilation on any child, girl or boy?
Despite the impression one might get from the swamp of the internet, I firmly believe that the interests of men, and the interests of women are inseparable. There are so many issues on which we could and should agree.
As a man, I know that if I find myself alone with a woman on a train carriage or isolated backstreet, she will worry that I might attack or sexually harass her, and I hate that. There is only one solution, and it is to work together to make sexual assault, abuse and harassment so rare that it does not even enter a woman’s head that she might be at risk.
I won’t suggest this will be easy. There are bitter people on both sides who see men and women as locked in conflict for power and control. Well if we have learned anything from the history of human conflict it is that hate begets bigotry and bigotry begets hatred. No conflict has ever been solved by squabbling about who has it worse or who started it. That is the politics of the playground and it is fruitless.
There are some genuinely difficult, if not irreconcilable differences between the men’s sector or the men’s movement, and feminism. The issue of domestic abuse remains laden with ideological baggage. Intimate partner violence springs from a well of interpersonal conflict, abuse, neglect and anger. Violence against women cannot be separated from violence against men, violence against children. It is all part of the same self-perpetuating machine. To reduce the amount of violence inflicted by some men – against women, other men or themselves, our first priority must be addressing the ways in which we socialise, marginalise and often brutalise our boys and men, how we normalise violence in the male identity.
Another obvious problem will be between supporting the right to justice of victims of rape and the rights of men who may have been wrongly accused of the crime. How do you reconcile the demand that a woman reporting a rape should always be believed with the demand that an accused person always be considered innocent until proven guilty? The truth is you can’t. However we could get much further if both sides were prepared to accept the perspective of the other, accept that difference of opinion stem from genuine concern and good faith, and work together to try to find the best solutions for everyone.
The men’s sector, the men’s movement if you prefer, has much to gain from working alongside feminists. Most of us are pretty new to this gender business, feminists have been at it for decades. I’m not a religious person, but I always quite liked the little wristbands worn by some evangelists with the letters W.W.J.D. – What Would Jesus Do? As someone who cares about men’s issues, I have my own version. Whenever a relevant issue turns up in the news, I ask myself “what would feminism do?”
When news breaks that another child in London or Bristol has died following a botched genital mutilation, what would feminism do? It would attempt to channel the outrage and anger, publicise the case, campaign, lobby and petition to try to ensure it never happens again. Indeed feminism would react exactly as Glen and the team do here with the end circumcision campaign. But their voices – our voices – are few and far between.
You may be aware that according to the Fawcett Society, today is National Equal Pay Day. November 2nd is the point in the year where women would stop earning if their hourly wage was exactly the same as men. But did you know that if men died at work at the same rate as women do, every year there would be no male workplace fatalities after January 10th? I hereby declare January 10th to be Fatal Injuries at Work Day! That is what feminism would do, it would declare zero tolerance of workplace fatalities.
Of course as men’s advocates and activists, we cannot charge into feminist space and tell them what to do. Take it from me, that really doesn’t go down well. But we can make sure our own house is in order. I believe we should be clear that the men’s movement gathered here today is not anti-women or anti-feminist. We should offer no quarter and no harbour to misogyny. Where there is a genuine conflict of interest and opinion, we will aim for the moral high ground not the lowest common denominator.
If we can do that, we will bring many feminists along with us. Not all, but many. Not only will that be better for men, it will be better for women too.