The men of co-counseling

EuroPROFEM - The European Men Profeminist Network 


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08en_mas ... Masculinity

The men of co-counseling

by Michael Flood

Men are oppressed, says co-counseling.
Michael Flood assesses the co-counseling perspective on men,
finding that it only delivers some of the goods.

THE claim that men are "oppressed" is often heard in the men’s movement. One source of this claim is Re-evaluation Counseling (RC) or co-counseling: what does RC have to say about men?

Co-counseling perspectives have a presence in the Australian men’s movement. Co-counseling perspectives or techniques have been applied in work with boys and perpetrator counseling, and are occasionally evident in articles published in XY. It is therefore important to subject RC ideas to the same sort of scrutiny applied to other perspectives on men and masculinity. My comments are focused on RC as a perspective, rather than as a form of therapy or an organisation.

Before I say another word, I should make clear that I have no doubt as to the integrity and goodwill of men and women involved in RC. RC men have made important contributions to anti-sexist activism. Co-counseling stands out from most other forms of counseling for its explicit political concern with racism, sexism, homophobia and classism.

Men’s oppression

IN the RC perspective, men are seen to be subjected, like women, to restrictive social roles, and therefore denied our full humanity.

Men are seen to be "hurt" by male "conditioning". Men are treated as if we feel less pain than women; boys are physically and emotionally left alone. Men are treated as inherently aggressive and sexually compulsive, and pressured to "act like a man". Gay oppression is part of men’s hurt. Men are considered expendable, at work and at war. Men are burdened with unreasonable expectations, and suffer from over-fatigue, over-responsibility and isolation.

RC adopted the position that men are an "oppressed" group in 1982. Men’s oppression is viewed as different from other oppressions; there is no group enforcing the oppression, but there is a general "anti-male attitude" in society that men are inherently oppressive, and men’s oppression is seen as functional for capitalism.

I want to make three key criticisms of the RC perspective on men (and by implication, the understanding of men as "oppressed"). The RC perspective overestimates men’s powerlessness and uses the term oppression inappropriately. Its explanation of men’s oppressive behaviour gives too much weight to men’s hurt. And more generally, its theoretical assumptions are an inadequate basis for a theory of masculinity.

First of all, however, let me point out what the RC perspective does well. It names the myriad of ways in which men are emotionally limited and brutalised by the dominant form of masculinity. It speaks to men’s pain and isolation, offering men hope and encouragement and the vision of an expressive and healthy way of being. But the RC perspective on men is woefully inadequate if it is taken to be all we need to know about gender relations.

Ouch. That stings

RC is based on a "limitation" theory of oppression; men are oppressed because they are limited by the male role. Warren Farrell (not a co-counselor) writes in The myth of male power that, "Neither sex has power. Both sexes have roles." But roles are compatible with, and in fact integral to, having power. As Kenneth Clatterbaugh writes in May and Strikwerda’s Rethinking masculinity, people in privileged and dominant positions are constrained in the social roles they are allowed to play.

Men and women confront limitations for different reasons. Boys are discouraged from becoming nurses and girls from becoming doctors. But boys are told that certain roles are not worthy of them, while girls are told that certain roles are not available to them because they do not have the ability. There is thus an important difference in the social treatment of men and women, which is neglected in RC’s account of socialisation.

Male privilege and power are seen as only one side of the coin in the RC perspective (and dismissed as myths in men’s rights perspectives). One of the most important pieces of evidence for this claim is the fact that men die sooner than women and are subject to a range of diseases and health problems to which women are not. But by almost all accepted criteria of power (who occupies the government, who owns and controls businesses, who is sanctified as spiritual leaders, who sits on the judiciary, who controls the military, who earns the most money, who holds the management positions), it is men rather than women who have the power.

However, power is not without costs and burdens. As Clatterbaugh writes in Contemporary perspectives on masculinity, "those in power tend to work hard, are subject to stress, and may very well live shorter lives. But it is a strange twist to argue that men do not really have privilege and power because they suffer from the effects of privilege and power."

I take issue with other elements in the RC account of men’s oppression. Yes, men are dehumanised in the workplace, but men also receive material benefits from their access to paid work, benefits denied to women, in a gendered division of labour which leaves women financially dependent and more often in poverty than men.

I accept that there are particular areas in which men may suffer disadvantage relative to women; some aspects of health and family law come to mind. But these aren’t nearly enough to back up the claim that men, as men, are an oppressed group. The claim that our society is "anti-male" is absurd; while one can find isolated examples of man-hating rhetoric, masculinity is still treated as generic, superior and praiseworthy.


THE RC understanding of oppression has the potential to obscure the key insight of the term. Oppression conventionally means that one group holds power over another group, to the benefit of the former and the disadvantage of the latter. It is in this sense that people talk about the oppression of Aborigines, gay men and lesbians, women and working-class people.

I agree with RC that we must recognise the ways in which members of dominant groups are also constrained. But using the term oppression here is dangerous, especially in a non-RC context, in that it runs the risk of depoliticising and de-radicalising the above insight.

On the other hand, RC is streets and even suburbs ahead of men’s rights perspectives. RC does not claim that men are more oppressed than women, or that men are oppressed by women.

RC acknowledges men’s oppression of women in its literature. A recent issue of the international RC journal Present Time states, for example, "From physical violence to institutional discrimination to a simple failure to recognise humanness, men hurt women." My initial, more critical, impression of RC may be the product of context. RC literature only on "men’s oppression" circulates in the men’s movement, without this information on women’s oppression also being present. RC encourages men to treat women in respectful and liberatory ways, and this is also a strength.

Men hurt (others)

RC’S primary explanation of men’s sexist or oppressive behaviour is that men have been "hurt into the oppressor role" and then act this out on women. Men’s oppression causes men to act oppressively.

I feel ambivalent about such an explanation. On the one hand, it is partly true. Boys growing up are subject to punishments which keep them within the bounds of dominant masculinity, and within which they are pressured to treat girls and women in oppressive ways.

On the other hand, I have three counter-points, and these make up my second criticism of RC. Firstly, boys and men also gain rewards and privilege from their performance of dominant masculinity, and simply from their position as male in a male-dominated society. Secondly, men learn sexism in a variety of ways that do not involve being hurt. We soak it up as part of our culture, in the same way that we learn for example that it is normal to eat the flesh of other species. Sexism is a taken-for-granted and often invisible part of society.

The RC emphasis on men’s hurt, as an explanation for men’s sexist behaviour, is driven by a faith in innate human goodness. As John Irwin writes, "Human beings never hurt each other by choice, only when lost unthinkingly and unawarely reenacting an old hurt of their own."

It may be comforting to believe that deep down inside we are all caring and peaceful. I’ve believed it myself sometimes. And perhaps this belief functions as a motivator for change. But I think that the RC perspective is inadequate as a theory of men’s behaviour.

I don’t agree with a simple reversal of the RC position; that when men act in oppressive ways it is always because we consciously intend to hurt or exert power over women and we enjoy doing so. There is unfortunately a small strand of feminism, represented for example by Andrea Dworkin, which does see men as inherently nasty brutes intent on destruction, and I reject this perspective. However (and this is my third counter-point), some men do intend to hurt women. Have a look at the accounts given by convicted rapists in Diana Scully’s study Understanding sexual violence; they describe rape as a method of revenge and punishment, a form of recreation and adventure, and a source of power and sexual access.

Regardless of what we think is going on for men, we must acknowledge the consequences of men’s oppressive behaviour for women. For example, rape and domestic violence act as a form of social control on women, limiting women’s autonomy, safety, freedom and their access to paid work and political decision-making.

From roles to relations

RE-EVALUATION Counseling’s perspectives on gender rely on "sex role" theory. Sex role theory was popular in academia in the 1950s and 60s, and fed into early liberal feminism. However, role theory has now been abandoned by theorists of gender, and it is poorly equipped to supply a coherent, credible and contemporary theory of masculinity.

Role theory has a number of problems. It describes the "male role" as unitary and homogenous, exaggerating consensus and neglecting differences of class, race and sexuality. "Socialisation" is imagined as a one-way process of social imposition, with boys or men as the passive objects, and the messages are assumed to be "successful".

Men’s and women’s "roles" are seen as complementary. Sex role theory marginalises questions of power, and neglects the collective and institutional structuring of gender. Bob Connell argues in Which way is up? that role theory is logically circular, unable to account for behaviour, ahistorical, and ultimately conservative as an ideology.

It seems to me that in its concern with "sex roles", co-counseling is still largely dependent on a version of 1970s liberal feminism. Feminism has moved on, developing sophisticated critiques of the operations of language, representation and imagery, the law, medicine, violence, paid and unpaid labour, and sexuality. RC transcends role theory in recognising differences of class, race and sexuality, but is still caught up in other aspects of this perspective.

In place of role theory, I suggest a "social construction of gender" theory. Connell writes in his influential book Gender and power that there are multiple masculinities and femininities. One version of masculinity is socially dominant or "hegemonic"; that is, honoured and influential. This dominant masculinity is constructed in relation to various subordinate masculinities (eg gay, working-class, etc) and in relation to women.

In social constructionist accounts of gender, people are seen as actively involved in the construction of their gendered identities and behaviours, negotiating and resisting the ideas offered to them. Masculinity is both a personal and a collective project; this theory acknowledges collective practices of gender, for example in peer groups, schools and governments. This "gender relations" perspective recognises that masculinities are constructed in relation to femininities, and describes power relations both between and within genders.

Co-counseling is the source of powerful insights about the damaging and hurtful aspects of men’s lives. But its emphasis on men as oppressed is problematic. This should be balanced by a better grasp of power relations and a more sophisticated and feminist-informed theory of gender.

Thank you to Gerry Orkin and David Denborough, two close friends who continue to inspire and educate me.

The basics of Co-counseling

CO-COUNSELING, or Re-evaluation Counseling as it is formally known, is a type of counseling. It is also a theoretical framework, and a set of communities.

People involved in Re-evaluation Counseling (RC) exchange counseling with each other. They work in pairs to help each other, in turn, to heal their past hurts. For the first half of each counseling session, one person is the "client" and one person is the "counselor". The counselor offers clear loving attention to the client, and the emphasis is on the client directing her or his own healing work. The pair then exchange roles.

Through this process the client is able to re-experience past hurts and to allow the "discharge" of feelings, which is signalled by crying, shaking, laughing and so on. This healing process allows us to let go of old hurts or "distresses", and each person’s "natural" goodness emerges.

Co-counselors also participate in workshops and support groups. RC communities exist throughout Australia, and in 45 other countries.

Michael Flood is an Australian sociologist at the University of Wollongong. Flood gained his doctorate in gender and sexuality studies from the Australian National University. His areas of research are on violence against women, fathering, pro-feminism, domestic violence, the effects of pornography on young people, safe sex and heterosexual men, men's movements as a backlash to the feminist movement, men's relationships with each other and with women, homophobia, men's health and gender justice.

Flood is a co-editor of the International Encyclopedia of Men and Masculinities, and the author of academic papers on men and gender, men’s sexualities, violence against women, homosociality, fathering, anti-violence mobilisations, and youth and pornography. Flood has also worked as a profeminist educator and activist on issues of men and gender; he is involved in community advocacy and education addressing men’s violence against women. He coordinates, edits and contributes to XYonline, a profeminist website providing a range of commentary and research on men and masculinities, male sexuality, feminism, the men's movement and male violence from a feminist perspective. He also coordinates The Men’s Bibliography, an online collection of over 22,000 works on men, masculinities, and gender. 


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