Contemporary issues for men

The best involvements in men's or boys' issues, whether as a men's movement participant, a social worker or counsellor, or policy-maker, are guided by three interrelated principles: they are male-positive, they are gender-just, and they recognise diversity and are inclusive.

To be male-positive is to be affirming of men and optimistic about men; to believe that men can change; to support every man's efforts at positive change. It is to acknowledge men's many acts of compassion and kindness, to resist feeling hopeless about men and writing men off, and to build on the many positives already in current forms of manhood. In other words, the best practice shows a commitment to enhancing men's lives.

To be gender-just is to be guided also by principles of equity and social justice. It is to be critical of those aspects of men's behaviour, constructions of masculinity, and gender relations which are harmful to women or children (and indeed to men themselves). It recognises sexism and gender injustice and draws on the wealth of feminist insights and efforts.

It can be a delicate balancing act to combine these two principles, but doing so is vital in any work with men and boys.

Thirdly, any approach to men's issues must acknowledge both commonalities and diversities in the lives of men. Manhood and gender are structured by class, race, sexuality, age and region. Men share very unequally in the fruits of male privilege, and some forms of manhood are dominant while others are marginalised.

Introduction to the men's movement

I'll make some very brief comments on the men's movement, before describing in detail how we can respond to one particular agenda here.

Men have responded in complex and contradictory ways to the profound changes of the last three decades. One response among men to these changes takes the form of a movement, an organised and self-conscious exploration of men's lives and masculinities. The men's movement in Australia is certainly not the only, or even the most important, force for change in men's lives. But its influence is growing, and it is worth exploring how we might respond to this.

The men's movement is an unusual one as far as social movements go. It has had an often therapeutic focus, an emphasis on personal growth and healing, while other movements focus instead or as well on social change. But 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. And some wings are increasingly focused on political activism.

The men's movement is also unusual in that it represents a movement by members of a dominant or privileged group. It is more typical for people on the subordinate or oppressed side of a set of power relations to generate social movements (such as people of colour, gay men and lesbians, working-class people, or indeed women). So the parallel would be to have a "whites' movement" or a "heterosexuals' movement".

Under the men's movement umbrella there are contradictory impulses: the defence of men's privilege, and attempts to undo it. In other words, the men's movement includes individuals and groups with differing and indeed opposing agendas.

Four strands

One way to understand the men's movement is in terms of four overlapping strands: (1) men's liberation (the most widespread one), (2) spiritual or mythopoetic, (3) anti-sexist and pro-feminist, and (4) men's rights and fathers' rights.

(1) Men's liberation

The men's liberation strand argues that men are hurt by the male "sex role" and that men's lives are alienating, unhealthy and impoverished. Men here focus on the damage, isolation and suffering inflicted on boys and men through their socialisation into manhood. Men are overworked, trained to kill or be killed, brutalised and subjected to blame and shame. Men's liberation perspectives are shared by many men in the men's movement.

(2) Spiritual or mythopoetic

This is a more spiritual strand, emphasising men's inner work and often called "mythopoetic" in involving both myth and poetry. Masculinity is seen as based on deep unconscious patterns and archetypes that are revealed through myths, stories and rituals. By recovering these archetypes and through initiation into manhood by other men, men can restore their wholeness and psychospiritual health.

(3) Anti-sexist or pro-feminist

Pro-feminist men emphasise that the current, dominant model of manhood or masculinity is oppressive to women, as well as limiting for men themselves. Pro-feminist men encourage men to take responsibility for challenging sexism and men's institutional privilege. They also recognise the costs of masculinity - that conformity comes with the price tag of poor health, early death, overwork and emotionally shallow relationships - and typically also stress that men's lives are shaped also by race, class, sexuality, age and disability.

(4) Men's rights and fathers' rights

Men's rights and fathers' rights men share with men's liberationists the idea that men's roles are harmful, damaging and in fact lethal for men. But they blame women or feminism for the harm done to men, deny any idea of men's power and argue that men are now the real victims.

Four issues

In the last few years, four issues have been the focus of men's movement activity: boys' education, men's health, family law and custody, and interpersonal violence. This activity is informed by broader concerns that are central to the movement - of the emotional anorexia, alienation and isolation which many men suffer, of the limited models of manhood available, and the complex interrelationship between men's power and men's pain.

There is substantial and sometimes heated debate within the movement on how to understand each issue. I don't have the space here to give an account of this, but I do want to explore how we can respond to men's rights efforts in these areas.

Introduction to men's rights & fathers' rights groups

Men's rights and fathers' rights groups focus on the costs and destructiveness to men of masculine roles. They dispute the feminist idea that men (or some men) gain power and privilege in society, claiming that both women and men are equally oppressed or limited or even that men are oppressed by women. Men are "success objects" (like women are "sex objects") and burdened as providers, violence against men (through war, work and by women) is endemic and socially tolerated, and men are discriminated against in divorce and child custody proceedings. As far as "men's rights" are concerned, these men believe that men's right to a fair trial in domestic violence cases, to a fair negotiation in custody settlements, and to fair treatment in the media have all been lost.

Whether the issue is education, health, violence or family law, the same themes appear: Males are now the real victims, while females are advantaged. Feminists have taken over the institutions of power and policy. We need to dismantle female privilege, and re-establish men's rightful place in families, schools and so on.

The men in men's rights and fathers' rights groups are typically in their forties and fifties, often divorced or separated, and nearly always heterosexual. Participants often are very angry, bitter and hurting (with good reason, they would say), and they often have gone through deeply painful marriage breakups and custody battles.

Men in these groups provide support for men undergoing custody settlements, attack the existence of services for women through legal action and harassment, and lobby governments and the media.

Men's rights groups are the most anti-feminist wing of the men's movement. They are in the minority in men's movement circles, but are gaining in prominence and popularity and are among the most politically active men in this movement.

Hostility to feminism and the positioning of males as victims is not exclusive to this wing of the men's movement, and can be found also for example in Steve Biddulph's work and that of other groups.

Manifesto for responding

How can we respond to men's rights and fathers' rights groups? Here is a four-point manifesto.

(1) Assert a male-positive and gender-just perspective.

I've already mentioned what this looks like. We need also to show that anti-feminist men do not speak for all men, nor fathers' rights men for all fathers. And we need to defend women's organisations, services and feminism in general from these attacks.

(2) Take up men's rights issues and speak to men's pain, but differently.

Men's rights men so far have been far more effective than anyone else in speaking to certain aspects of men's lives, to do with experiences of pain, confusion and powerlessness. However, men's rights advocates frame this pain in ways which are women-blaming, anti-feminist and dangerous. They misdiagnose this pain, and thus they misprescribe the cure.

We need to take up the issues about which men's rights men are vocal, offering an alternative analysis of their character and causes. We have to try to reach the men who otherwise might join men's rights organisations and in some cases who have their pain turned into anti-women backlash.

One concern here is the issue of 'husband battering' and violence. This was one of the most controversial topics at the Men and Family Relationships Forum in Canberra in June, and Dawson Ruhl himself found himself in the middle of this.

Claims about 'husband battering'

Men in fathers' rights groups and men's rights groups have been claiming very loudly for a while now that domestic violence is a gender-equal or gender-neutral phenomenon - that men and women assault each other at equal rates and with equal effects. They claim that an epidemic of husband-battering is being ignored if not silenced.

To substantiate their claims, men's rights and fathers' rights groups draw on a particular body of American studies which use a particular methodology for measuring violence. This is the Conflict Tactics Scale, developed and used by Murray Straus, Richard Gelles, Suzanne Steinmetz and others.

To make this claim of equal violence, men's rights advocates must do several things.

(1) First, they have to only use these authors' work selectively, as the authors themselves disagree that women and men are equally the victims of domestic violence.

The authors of these studies stress that no matter what the rate of violence or who initiates the violence, women are 7 to 10 times more likely to be injured in acts of intimate violence than are men. Husbands have higher rates of the most dangerous and injurious forms of violence, their violent acts are repeated more often, they are less likely to fear for their own safety, and women are financially and socially locked into marriage to a much greater extent than men. In fact, Straus expresses his concern that "the statistics are likely to be misused by misogynists and apologists for male violence".

(2) Secondly, they have to ignore the serious methodological flaws in the Conflict Tactics Scale.

The Conflict Tactics Scale leaves out important forms of violence, such as sexual assault, choking, suffocating, scratching, stalking, and marital murder. Most importantly, CTS studies have excluded incidents of violence that occur after separation and divorce, while other studies show that three-quarters of spouse-on-spouse assaults occurred after separation or divorce.

The Conflict Tactics Scale treats violent acts out of context. It counts up violent acts only. It does not tell us whether the acts were in self-defence. It does not tell us whether they were a single incident, or part of a pattern of violence. It does not tell us whether the act was intended to hurt the other person. It does not tell us whether the victim was injured or how badly.

It depends only on reports either by the husband or wife, despite the poor interspousal reliability of these reports. Other studies show that wives and husbands disagree considerably both about what violence was used and how often it was used, and that wives are more likely than husbands to admit to their own violence.

(3) Thirdly, those who make the fifty/fifty claim about husband battering have to ignore or deny a a mountain of conflicting evidence, from crime victimisation surveys of the population, numerous studies using methodologies other than the Conflict Tactics Scale, calls made to domestic violence centres and services, hospital statistics on how people were injured, and applications for intervention orders.

This massive body of research continues to show that men are more often the perpetrators of domestic violence than are women, that women are more often the victims of domestic violence than are men, and that when boys and men are the victims of violence this is usually violence by other boys and men.

Some people claim that men are less likely than women to report domestic violence, out of shame or chivalry or the fear that they won't be believed. However, the available evidence finds instead that men are more likely than women to call the police, more likely to press charges and less likely to drop them.

But yes, some victims of DV are men

The claim that women and men are physically violent towards each other in equal rates and with equal effects is demonstrably false. However, some victims of domestic violence certainly are men. Some of these male victims have been subject to violence by other men - by brothers, fathers and step-fathers, male friends and acquaintances, and gay male partners. And some have been assaulted by women.

Male victims of domestic violence deserve the same recognition, sympathy, support and services as do female victims. And they do not need to be 50 percent of the victims to deserve these.

However, if our concern genuinely is "violence done to men", then we should not be concentrating our efforts on violence by women to men in the home. Men are frequently the victims of violence, but domestic violence perpetrated by women against adult men is a tiny proportion of such violence.

Men as victims of violence

Men and boys are bashed up outside the pub and on the street, bullied at school, sexually assaulted as children, subject to brawls on the sporting field, bashed in the home, bashed in public toilets, injured or killed in the course of robberies, muggings and burglaries, killed by parents, injured in workplace initiation rituals, shot on the battlefield, and daily experience frequent "aggro" and put-downs and threats.

Yes, often the victims of violence are male. And in the vast majority of cases, so are the perpetrators. Mostly this is violence by other men. Boys and men are most at risk of physical harm, injury and death from other boys and men.

Males are about 60 percent of homicide victims in Australia, and close to 90 percent of those accused of homicide. 75 percent of victims of serious assaults, and 90 percent of suspects, are male.

Physical and verbal harassment of boys in schools is common, and the harassers of boys are largely other boys.

One in four young male inmates in jail is sexually assaulted by other, male, prisoners.

There is thus a widespread pattern of male/male violence. The fact that this is ignored in favour of spurious claims about women's violence towards men is a symptom of the political agendas which in fact guide men's rights claims.

The political character of men's rights claims

Men's rights and fathers' rights claims on violence stem more from political and anti-feminist motives than they do from a genuine concern for male victims of violence. These men are using women's alleged violence against men as a way of resisting and discrediting attempts to deal with men's violence against women.

Some individuals and groups also make claims about violence as part of broader agendas to do with the Family Court, custody and access issues. Fathers' rights groups commonly complain that women falsely allege domestic violence and/or child abuse to gain a tactical advantage in family proceedings, although actual research on such allegations contradicts this. Fathers' rights groups also claim that domestic violence either doesn't really exist or is the responsibility of both parties, and that other forms of behaviour by women are just as abusive, such as verbal abuse, denial of men's sexual needs, denial of access and divorce.

Perhaps most troubling is that when fathers' rights groups do acknowledge men's violence, they usually blame the violence on factors outside the men who perpetrate it, such as the custodial parent, Family Court or Family Law Act. "In an ironic twist, male violence [including men's murders of their children] is used by these groups to demonstrate how victimised men are by the family law system."

So far I've said that men's rights and fathers' rights agendas are based on questionable evidence, that they are dangerous for women and children, and that they are contrary to social justice principles.

But there's another problem, and this is where 'compassion for men' is most relevant. Men's rights agendas in fact are harmful to men themselves.

(3) Show that men's rights strategies in fact are harmful to men themselves.

Men's rights advocates have attacked women's refuges and women's health centres, simultaneously while calling for either parallel services for men or services for both men and women. Attacking services primarily for women is no way to gain services for men.

There are at least four problems with such strategies.

(a) They focus on the wrong target (women or feminism, rather than unhealthy and destructive models of manhood).

On violence done to men for example, the problem is violent models of manhood and an ethic in masculine culture of mutual combat and honour.

(b) They antagonise potential supporters.

Attacking women or women's services in the health, violence and education fields is an attack on the very people who have raised these issues in the first place, who have often been key advocates for example for men's health. It antagonises people who could be key supporters.

(c) They taint as backlash the need to address such men's issues.

They're built on an 'us versus them' model of a war between the sexes.

The more quickly that people such as the Lone Fathers' Association drop their obsession with proving that DV is gender-equal, the easier it will be for others to hear of the fact of men's subjection to DV. The whole focus on proving that women hit men as much as the reverse is a monumental distraction from the very real need to get services and support for male victims, and does these victims a great disservice.

(d) Finally, they are based on a simplistic "You've got it, we want it too" logic which may not provide the most appropriate services for men.

The "us too" approach in men's rights agendas is motivated more by a knee-jerk logic of equality than by an informed appraisal of the kinds of services men are going to use and like.

(4) Set up services.

Whether the issue is divorce or men's health, we need to provide gender-just and male-positive services and resources for men. If men who have gone through painful divorces and messy custody proceedings, men who are hurting and confused, can find access to such services, they will be able to work through this in ways that are healthy and safe. What we don't need are services which incite men to murderous anger, pit men against women, and fix men in feelings of powerlessness and blame.


I see both positives and negatives in the men's movement, and I am very hopeful about the changes going on in men's lives at present. At the same time, I am very troubled by the organised anti-feminist men's groups in this country, especially as they are making themselves heard in an increasingly conservative political climate. It will be a continual challenge to assert a gender-just and male-affirming perspective. This is the challenge that faces us as we near the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. I hope that we can take it up with passion, pride and courage.

Appendix: What's wrong with men's rights?

In general, "men's rights" is an anti-feminist and sometimes misogynist (woman-hating) backlash. Its analysis is wrong, its strategies are misdirected and sometimes harmful, and ultimately it does not serve men's best interests. There are legitimate aspects to the issues it raises, but they will not be addressed when surrounded by its hostile and sexist agendas.

The power and privilege which many men receive and exercise are made invisible in men's rights claims. They ignore men's dominance of powerful institutions and positions (institutional power), men's power in relationships (personal power), and cultural support for traditional masculine ideals and attitudes (cultural power). This is not to say all men are powerful and all women are powerless: clearly neither is true, and some men are relatively powerless (Aboriginal men being a good example) just as some women are relatively powerful.

Some of the examples men's rights advocates give of men's powerlessness or oppression (being sent off to war, killed in factories) are in fact examples of some men's powerlessness at the hands of other men. Men's rights ideologies fail to recognise differences and power relations among men themselves, eg of race, class and sexuality, and the crucial role of these in the injustices which they attribute to men in general.

Some of the examples given of injustices or discriminations experienced by men (including some at the hands of women) are legitimate examples, which must be dealt with. For example, some boys are sexually abused, by adult men and sometimes women. Some men are unfairly treated in custody and divorce matters. But men's rights men wrongly use such examples to make much grander claims, for example that men are oppressed by women or that there is some kind of feminist conspiracy to cover up abuse of men.

Men's rights arguments correctly identify areas of male pain, but misdiagnose their prevalence and their source and thus misprescribe the cure. Men's rights men generally are wrong to place the blame with women, the loss of masculine rites of passage or the success of the feminist movement. Yes, let's acknowledge and tackle the ways in which men are hurt and disempowered. And let's not do this, as men's rights does, at the expense of women or gender justice.

Feminism is a movement and set of ideas to which many men's rights men show venomous and semi-hysterical hostility. They mistakenly hear feminism's anti-sexism or anti-patriarchy as anti-male or "misandrist" (man-hating), and oddly enough, they fail to hear the enormous hope for both women's and men's futures which feminism embodies.

Men's rights men in fact offer a bizarre caricature of feminism, a highly ignorant and selective misrepresentation. It is based on gross stereotypes and long-standing sexist images of women as ball-breaking and malicious. Most men's rights men show almost no acquaintance with the huge and diverse feminist literature now available and with the feminist women and organisations in existence.

Finally, the strategies adopted by men's rights men, which include attacks on services and resources devoted to women, will not be helpful for men themselves. They may result in propping up traditional and restrictive models of manhood or masculinity, which are harmful for women and unhealthy for men themselves


Presentation to the Relating to Men Forum, hosted by the Australian Association of Social Workers (WA) and Relationships Australia (WA), Perth, 27-28 November 1998. First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 5(1), Autumn 1995. XY, PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995