State of the Mens Movement

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11en_mas ... Masculinity


State of the Mens Movement

by Michael Flood

XY Magazine  
Mens Movement Organizations 
Men's Studies:  
Men stuff 

What is the men’s movement? 
Who joins it, why and what kind of movement is it? 
Michael Flood has the story.

The men’s movement now has a presence in Australia’s cultural and political landscape. Its ideas, issues, images and agendas take up popular and policy space. At the same time, the general public has very little idea of what this "movement" is.

Here then is an outline of the content of the men’s movement, its groups and participants, and its different strands. I will discuss what brings men to the men’s movement, and comment on the notion of a "men’s movement" itself. In my companion article in this edition of XY, titled "Four strands", I discuss what the men in the men’s movement want.

 Who and what?

Movement-specific organisations, groups and activities are at the core of any social movement. The backbone of the movement in Australia is the various men’s groups. They include support groups, well-established organisations with offices and staff, activist groups, private groups meeting in somebody’s loungeroom, men’s phone helplines, and groups that are little more than a contact number. Depending on what you include, there are somewhere between 50 and 200 men’s groups in Australia. Guessing even more, I’d say that there are somewhere between 500 and 2,000 men directly involved in these groups.

Men’s gatherings and festivals are an important part of the movement. Important annual events include the Sydney Men’s Festival (which began in 1985), the Australian and New Zealand Men’s Leadership Gathering (which began in 1992), and annual or semi-annual men’s festivals in Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast and elsewhere. A host of other men’s events also occur, including spiritual or mythopoetic men’s and boys’ camps, mini-conferences of Men Against Sexual Assault activists, and so on.

Like any movement, the men’s movement has its publications. These include XY magazine, Certified Male, and ten or so newsletters, including one or two which go back at least to the mid-1980s (such as Male Exchange) and others begun only this year. There is now a huge literature on men and masculinity, with my own bibliography listing over 3,000 books and articles, and some male and female academics in Australia are at the cutting-edge of this work. At the same time, there is relatively little overlap between academic discussions and the perspectives in the men’s movement itself, although pro-feminist men’s groups and individuals tend to be more influenced by academic work than other participants.

Other activities connected with men’s issues, although not necessarily part of the men’s movement, include health programmes for men, counselling and crisis services for both male perpetrators of violence and male survivors (especially of child sexual assault), and education programs and curricula directed at boys. "Men’s issues" are now regular parts of courses and programs in counselling services such as Lifeline, in drug and alcohol programs and in many other sections of health and welfare provision.

It is important to note that this is is an expanding movement. My own impression is that men’s movement numbers and activities have swelled especially in the last three or four years. This is particularly evident in such areas as men’s health, boys’ education, men’s violence, and family law and custody.

Off a sinking ship

Two questions are common among people exposed for the first time to this thing called "the men’s movement": Who are they? What do they do?

The men involved in the men’s movement are ordinary men. They’re your fathers, your brothers, your mates, your sons and your husbands. Typically however, men involved are in their thirties, forties and fifties. They are from all classes and ethnic backgrounds, although my impression is that they are only very rarely from the highest socioeconomic strata of society (what some call the "ruling class"), more usually from white-collar and lower middle-class backgrounds, and occasionally from blue-collar or working-class backgrounds. I’m guessing here, and no-one has done the research to examine this. (For more detailed discussions of class issues to do with men and the men’s movement, get your hands on the Spring 1993 edition of XY.)

Men’s movement participants are usually from Anglo-Celtic backgrounds, at least judging by appearances and surnames, although Aboriginal and Maori men play important roles in some men’s events. Most participants are heterosexual, and it would be reasonable to estimate gay and bisexual men’s involvement at anywhere from 10 percent through to 30 percent. Finally, the profile of the men involved varies with the type of men’s group they are in.

Why do men join? Men’s realisation of the hollowness and corruption of traditional masculinity is a common path to the men’s movement. Men in their thirties, forties and fifties become aware that their marriages are collapsing, they lack emotional connectedness, they don’t have close friends or their working lives are grey and cold.

Some men’s journeys into the heartland of the men’s movement begin when their wives leave. I’d guess that perhaps one-third to one-half of the men in men’s groups around Australia have been divorced or separated. Some men, the ones who are still functioning enough to realise they’re in trouble, then reach out for help. Some are part-time fathers and some have sole responsibility for their children.

The men’s movement offers emotional support and friendship. It offers the company of other men, men who understand the pain and confusion. Groups allow men to share their experiences, of fatherhood, relationships, sexuality, anger and a host of other areas loaded with emotion and history.

Many men are able to develop a positive male identity through their experience in the men’s movement. This is an identity built not on toughness and isolation, but on emotional connectedness, groundedness and caring. Men can learn to be playful, open, relaxed and loving. The men’s movement offers men an understanding of how they’ve come to be the way they are: how boys are trained to become men.

Many men come out of a sense of distance from traditional masculinity, an unease as boys and throughout their lives with the ways in which they have been expected to hold themselves and to interact with others. They have become aware of the toll taken by the dominant models of how to be a man—the toll taken on their own emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing, and the damage done to their relationships, families and communities through violence, self-centeredness, isolation and addiction.

While I’ve described some common paths to the men’s movement, these are not shared by all men involved. Some men come to the men’s movement because of other deeply felt experiences—because their loyalty and closeness to a particular woman in their lives—a mother, a lover, a cherished friend—has forged an intimate understanding of the injustices suffered by women and the need for men to take action. Some men come to an anti-sexist stance and an advocacy of feminism, adapting this because of their commitments to other sorts of principled political activism—to pacifism, economic justice, green issues, gay liberation and so on. They have been exposed to feminist and related ideals through their political involvements, their workplaces or their higher education. Others get involved through dealing with their own experience of sexual violence or sexual abuse from other men and sometime women, perhaps as children or teenagers. (I am indebted to John Stoltenberg in Refusing to be a man for his eloquent portrayal of such involvements.)

A movement?

So far I’ve been using the label "men’s movement" without comment, but it is worth pointing out that this "movement" is different from others such as the women’s, green, gay and lesbian, and labour movements. Much of the men’s movement has had an overriding emphasis on personal growth and healing. It has had an important therapeutic emphasis, while other movements focus—either instead (green, labour), or as well (women’s, gay and lesbian)—on social change. I say "has had" because I think that this is shifting, as more and more men realise that personal growth and the reconstruction of individual masculinities are useless without an accompanying shift in the social relations, institutions and ideologies which support or marginalise different ways of being men. Nevertheless, many participants are politically inexperienced and for many social change is not an important focus.

The languages and perspectives of therapy, counselling, spirituality and New Age culture have a strong presence in men’s movement circles. Some participants are also involved in or have come from 12-step programs, co-counselling groups and psychology, and for some the movement is a resource with which to make a career as a counsellor or therapist. On the other hand, there are men for whom the men’s movement has always been a tool for social and political change, whether it be through anti-violence activism, radical cross-dressing to confuse gender boundaries, or wearing Santa Claus outfits in shopping centres to protest the marketing of war toys to boys.

As far as social movements go, the men’s movement is also a relatively small one. It has certainly touched far less lives than say the women’s, labour or green movements, and it has so far had far less influence on the character and direction of social institutions, governments and popular culture. Again, this is changing, and there are increasing signs that sections of the men’s movement are learning how to flex their growing political muscles.

However, the most important problem with the term "the men’s movement" is that this movement includes groups with fundamentally opposed agendas and perspectives. I understand this in terms of four strands: men’s liberation (the most widespread one), anti-sexist and pro-feminist, spiritual or mythopoetic, and men’s rights and fathers’ rights. See my companion article in this edition, titled "Four strands", for an elaboration.

Delicate politics

The men’s movement is an unusual movement in another sense. To explain this point, let me start with an example. If similar movements existed to do with race or sexuality, they would take the form of a "whites’ movement" or a "heterosexual’s movement". It is more typical for people on the subordinate or oppressed side of a set of power relations (such as people of colour, gay men and lesbians, working-class people, or indeed women) to generate social movements. For some commentators, the men’s movement represents a very particular kind of politics or movement, in which members of the dominant or privileged group mobilise. Of course, many men in the men’s movement itself would reject the idea that men are privileged or dominant in society, and some will go so far as to say that women are the new oppressors.

In fact there is a whites’ movement, a network of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. Unlike the men’s movement, it is wholly dedicated to the protection and extension of its members’ privilege and power, and it does not also include people who support black struggles and call themselves anti-racist (that is, men who support women’s struggles and call themselves anti-sexist). This comparison makes clearer the point that there is a potential for backlash within the men’s movement, a potential for the movement to turn towards the defence of men’s privilege and position. I have no fear in stating this conservative potential has already been realised among some men’s groups in Australia.

I have always thought that men’s politics at the very least was a delicate politics. And I’ve long believed that it is possible and indeed essential for men to act together to dismantle gender injustice, just as it is for whites and heterosexuals to dismantle racial and sexual injustices. The question is, is a "men’s movement" the way to do this? This is too complex an issue to explore here, but I will mention that I am far less sure now that the answer is yes.

Women’s and feminist responses to the men’s movement show a mix of hope and scepticism. This ambivalence is clear in Kay Hagan’s edited collection, Women respond to the men’s movement. While I can’t give an overview of feminist responses here, allow me to quote a favourite passage from the book. Starhawk, a feminist and peace activist, writes:

"Feminists long for men to heal. Those of us whose lives continue to be bound up with men want to see them become whole. We dream of a world full of men who could be passionate lovers, grounded in their own bodies, capable of profound loves and deep sorrows, strong allies of women, sensitive nurturers, fearless defenders of all people’s liberation, unbound by stifling conventions yet respectful of their own and others’ boundaries, serious without being humourless, stable without being dull, disciplined without being rigid, sweet without being spineless, proud without being insufferably egotistical, fierce without being violent, wild without being, well, assholes. […] At its best, I believe the men’s movement also aims for this goal."

Finally, it is worth keeping in mind that the men’s movement is not the only, or even the most important, force for change in men’s lives. Men’s lives in Australia have already undergone radical transformations in the last half-century, under the influence of changing patterns of work and economy, the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, gay liberation and more. Not all the changes are positive—this conservative Federal Liberal government has already begun rolling back some of the gains made, reasserting traditional masculinity through its economic and family policies. While it’s easy to point to new media images and styles of masculinity in existence (the "New Man", the "New Father"), it’s more difficult to claim that the lives of men in general have changed. Yes, men can now cry on TV, but the institutionalised power relations between and among men and women have hardly gone away.

At the end of the twentieth century, we will able to look back and count the men’s movement as one of the new movements which sprang out of the upheavals, shifts and blossomings of the last four decades. The men’s movement is more contradictory than other movements, and its overall impact on gender relations is so far unclear, but no discussion of men’s changing lives is complete without mention of this movement of men.

Michael Flood is the founder and one of the editors of XY magazine. But his day job is as a PhD student, researching heterosexual men’s sexuality and safe/unsafe sex. He was involved in Men Against Sexual Assault (MASA) for several years, before the damn PhD made him far too busy. He’s been to seven of the last eight Sydney Men’s Festivals, three of the last four Men’s Leadership Gatherings, three of the last four MASA gatherings, and he collects far more books and articles about masculinity and sexuality than is good for him.

[Printed in XY magazine, 6(3), Spring 1996.] 


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