Men's groups

Men's groups are the backbone of the men's movement. They are a good thing, says Michael Flood.

I JOINED my first men's group when I was 20, and it profoundly changed my life. Seven years on, I'm passionately committed to men's issues.

For the last three years I've been part of two great men's groups: the Canberra branch of Men Against Sexual Assault, and those lovely men in the XY editorial group.

"Why do you need men's groups?" the cynics ask. Don't we have enough men's groups already: the army, the government, the police!" The difference is, the men's groups I'm thinking of are ones in which the participants consciously question the meaning of masculinity. I believe that men's groups are a key way for men to develop what XY calls a "healthy, life-loving and non-oppressive masculinity."

Small, self-organised groups are the vehicles for many types of personal growth and social change. Their use exploded with the emergence of new social movements in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, such as the women's, green, peace, and gay and lesbian movements. Consciousness-raising, therapy and political action were also taken up by men's groups in the mid-1970s, in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

Men's groups provide a source of support for personal growth and change, and a safer and affirming environment in which to confront our oppressive and self-destructive behaviours. We pick up skills such as listening, communicating and relationship-building, which are essential for healthy relationships with women, children and other men. We develop an awareness of our own emotional habits and attitudes.

The group experience offers a sense of belonging, friendship and commitment to a common purpose. Groups offer the chance to laugh, play, share, cry, confess, heal emotional wounds, joke, confront and pull together with others towards a goal. They offer an antidote to the loneliness and isolation reported by many men.

Radicals and rituals

BE a fly on the wall of a men's group and you might see men talking about their relationships, grieving for their fathers, designing an anti-violence workshop, invoking the god Zeus or giving a massage. Men's groups usually consist of four to eight men who meet regularly.

Several sorts of men's groups exist among the network of groups in Australia. Support groups exist for men to gather together to experience the support of a group of men, to share the pain and joy of their lives and to learn more about what it means to themselves and to others to be a man.

Some men's groups explore our personal involvement in sexism: how we learnt sexism as we grew up, how we practise it now and how we can unlearn it and change. Men Against Sexual Assault groups combine public activism (rallies, forums, and work with boys and men) with personal exploration. In Canberra for example, the MASA group runs occasional "self-education" sessions to educate and empower its members.

Spiritual discovery is the focus of some men's groups. Participants use rituals, ancient myths and initiations to redefine men's role. "Twelve-step" programs are the basis of other groups, in which the focus is on controlling addictions - to alcohol, other drugs, gambling and sex.

Men's groups vary wildly in their perspectives on men and masculinity, sexism, feminism and gay issues. I attended the meeting of a Canberra support group in which, in two years, the issue of sexism had never been raised. But I don't think that's half as bad as the "men's rights" groups with their bitter hostility to women and their efforts to roll back the gains of feminism. Luckily, such groups are so far only a small part of the Australian men's scene.

There are some men's groups I love, some I don't mind, and some at which I cringe and groan. I won't defend all men's groups, because I think that some groups are destructive to the community or to their own members.

Personal is political

IT WAS in the women's movement in the 1970s that the phrase "the personal is political" was first coined. It means that our personal lives - what goes on in the kitchen, the bedroom and in all aspects of our everyday experience - are political. They are shaped by power relations and often unjust and oppressive.

Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell in Sweet freedom describe what happened when small groups of women started getting together to share their experiences and feelings: "They began to see that it was both necessary and possible to change their lives, and they realised that this would require a fundamental shift in the social order 'Consciousness-raising' was what happened when women translated their personal feelings into political awareness."

Men's consciousness-raising can not be the same as women's: we are not in the same oppressed position, and at least one of our goals is to dismantle our own privilege and sexism. Consciousness-raising allows us to bridge the gap between our intellectual beliefs and an emotional acceptance of them. Making a wish to live in a non-sexist world becomes empty rhetoric if it is not put into practice.

At their best, men's groups embody the idea that the personal is political. At their best, men's groups provide both support for and pressure to change. While there are a whole bunch of ways in which I can try to change my sexist attitudes and behaviours, I've found that a men's group is an especially useful place in which to do this. An anti-sexist men's group provides a safer environment in which to acknowledge my sexism and discuss what I can do about it.

Men's groups can make men into nicer people. One of the most common outcomes is that men find it easier to talk personally to or hug other men; their comfort with emotional and physical closeness is enhanced. That's what happened to me, and I got to know one of my closest male friends in my first men's group.

Another outcome is that men have a different sense of what it means to be a man to that offered in the dominant model: a sense that is less dependent on proving ourselves, having power and being top dog. Men's personalities can change too, as men adopt respect for women, acceptance of themselves, sensitivity and nurturance.

The men who join men's groups are trying to change in these ways anyway, but the process and experience of the men's group encourages and accelerates their learning and changing. I'm not saying you have to go through a men's group to be a nice man: many men don't, and some of the good stuff of men's groups can also be found in good friendships with men.

Crying isn't enough

MEN'S groups are much more likely to make men into nicer people, and to benefit society, if they have an anti-sexist or pro-feminist perspective. A concern with emotional awareness and sensitivity is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Here's why. Ours is a sexist society, and sexism shapes men's lives. If we want to understand how we became masculine, how we took on the attitudes and emotional patterns and behaviours, then we have to look also at sexism - the ways in which we've been socialised to be dominant and to be disrespectful to women.

Many men come to men's groups wanting to improve their relations with women, but they don't have a hope if they don't recognise and challenge sexism. Beyond all this, there's the ethical duty to examine the ways in which we may be oppressive to others.

By the same token, men's groups need to look at homophobia, which has a huge influence on men's relations with other men. To get close to other men, to break down that classic masculine isolation, we will have to tackle homophobia.

The danger otherwise is that our men's groups will become just another form of feel-good male bonding, based on pretending we're not sexist. We all are.

Why have men-only groups? Some of the reasons should already be obvious. But an all-male group can function in good and not-so-good ways: it all depends on what the group does. In a mixed-sex group we may slip into the traditional pattern of depending on women for emotional and psychological support. ("Massage my ego, luv.") This drains women's energies and inhibits supportive and trusting relations with other men. The other danger is that we will look to the women for all the answers and all the action. ("Tell us what to do, luv.") Men must take responsibility for acting against sexism, while remaining aware of feminist analysis.

Men's groups are both a space for personal growth and a grassroots tool for political activism. Through men's groups, men can increase both our emotional sensitivity and our empowered political awareness.

Reprinted with permission from the magazine XY: men, sex, politics. PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. © Copyright 1995