Pain and progress

Rod Mitchell decided to take up the challenge when Michael Flood posed some tricky questions in "Activism 101" (XY Spring 1994).

Michael's article has inspired some very useful thoughts for me, particularly the questions he posed at the end of the piece. The first question asked how anti-sexist activism relates to the issue of men's pain - for me the short answer is this: Sexism is a central part of men's pain; anti-sexist activism, if conducted correctly will directly address and consequently reduce men's pain Sexism separates us from women in a way that is very hurtful to us. Deep down we all want good intimate relationships with women. We want to feel completely at ease with them. We don't want sexism and our distorted and damaged sexualities getting in the way of this. Sexism also separates us from other men. It was primarily other men (actually boys) who taught and imposed sexism on us and then enforced it on us. The pressure to conform was enormous. If we do not perpetuate sexism as adult men we may be attacked and ridiculed by other men. How can we develop close friendships with men with this threat hanging over us?

Sexism hurts us badly. It also prevents us from healing our pain because many of the ways we can heal are considered un-manly by sexism .

No surrender

Michael went on to wonder about ways we can acknowledge and respond to men's pain without surrendering to a men's rights and anti-feminist agenda.

The sexist thinking and behaviour of men's rights advocates and anti-feminists is an expression of their pain, much of it inflicted in their early lives but triggered and reinforced by later events. By going beyond recognising and responding to their pain and actually facilitating some healing we will reduce their sexist thinking and enable them to move away from their men's rights and anti-feminist positions. While doing this, of course, we must not buy into their blaming of women for their pain. Whilst some of it may have been inflicted by individual women, particularly in their early lives, we must always come back to the fact that the main source of our sexist conditioning and the pain that goes with is the sexist culture embedded in our society. The primary agents of this conditioning are other men and boys. Women can also be important agents of this conditioning, but they are very much the secondary agents.

Michael also asked some specific questions about how anti-sexist activism related to the broader men's movement. Because sexism hurts all men as well as women the ending of sexism is entirely in the interests of all men and all women. The "privileges" of patriarchy are paltry compared to the enormous cost we pay to maintain them. We give up so much of our humanness to become sexist patriarchs and no man who could clearly see what he has lost and is still losing by maintaining patriarchy would hesitate to give it all up. For example the power accorded to us by patriarchy is as nothing compared to the joy of real human connections to other people, men, women and children, based on equality and true relationship. We can't exercise this power and have truly equal relationships with women.

The relative wealth and material comfort we enjoy, which can be considerable, is almost meaningless when we consider the poor emotional lives we lead as a consequence. We have to be numb and senseless to be able to ignore these and other inequalities which patriarchy affords us.

So anti-sexism work is men's work. And it will benefit men enormously. Crucially but almost incidentally, it will also greatly benefit women and children. All parts of the men's movement, with enough support and challenging from us and from women, should eventually be able to come around to this view.

Anti-sexist or pro-feminist?

I NOTICED that Michael alternates between the terms "anti sexist" and "pro-feminist" to describe a strand of the men's movement. Whilst I appreciate that he was not necessarily using them interchangeably, I got thinking about the relative merits of each one to describe our work.

It seems to me that "anti-sexist" is the more useful of the two. This is partly because, as I mentioned, eliminating sexism will greatly benefit men. So will pro-feminism, but the focus of pro-feminism is by definition on feminism. I think this is less likely to attract men than anti-sexism which can be more easily presented as a men's issue.

Whilst feminism is undoubtedly the most important movement of this century, it is also a diverse movement with some strands that are too challenging for many men to cope with. Hostility and contempt are too often the responses of many men to some aspects of feminism. Whilst we know that it is important for us to listen to the most challenging strands of feminism, it is not realistic to expect more than a small percentage of men to do so. I think it is more feasible and more realistic to present "anti-sexism" as a men's issue than "pro-feminism".

However, to be for something makes more sense than being against its opposite. So perhaps "the elimination of sexism" is a more attractive term. It is not as easy to fit into grammatical sentences as the other two but I think it is worth the effort to re-work our language.

First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 5(2), Winter 1995. XY, PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995