Is XY anti-male?

Is XY anti-male? Is it male-bashing? Founding editor Michael Flood thinks not, putting the case for the defence and raising broader questions about men and men's politics.

While XY gets its fair share of positive feedback, it also regularly receives the feedback that it is "anti-male". Is this true, why might XY be seen this way, and what can we do about it?

XY is also charged with blaming men for everything, being uncritical of feminism, and having too much gay-related content. The Letters pages of XY regularly include one or two letters making such criticisms (and we've received this feedback in person too). Their authors typically point to content which focuses on the negative aspects of men's lives or masculinity, such as men's violence. They find XY's content to be apologetic, guilt-ridden, and all too politically correct.

Before I say another word, I should point out that XY finally is conducting a survey of its readers, to find out what you like and dislike. This will be a very important source of information, and I urge you to respond. Also, the following opinions are mine alone, and I cannot speak either for the other editors or for XY as a whole.

That XY is anti-male

Why is XY magazine perceived by some men to be anti-male? I make sense of it in terms of four factors. Firstly, XY's content sometimes has been focused on the negative, so there is some truth in the criticism. Secondly, because of the cultural context of both feminism and an "us and them" model of gender warfare, some men will hear any criticism of men's behaviour or masculinity as attacking and blaming, and XY's editors and authors have done little to prevent this misperception. Thirdly, the label "anti-male" is a response to disagreements over how to understand men's position, and XY could be described more accurately as anti-sexist or anti-patriarchal. Linked to this, the perception is expressive of a defensive reaction by members of a dominant group to criticism.

I should also state at the outset that I and other editors of XY are keen to publish more male-positive content. The editorial group's choice of "Heroes" as a feature topic reflected this desire. I have been very pleased to publish such explicitly male-positive content as "Parent as hero" (XY, Spring 1994) and Wheatley's piece "Hero" in this edition.

Flipping back through recent editions of XY, I find numerous articles and items on men's health, fathering, intimacy, growing up male, friendship, sport, men in prison, class, violence both by and against men, sexuality, and much more. Together they demonstrate a fundamental concern with the quality of men's lives and of men's relations with other men, women, children and themselves. As the first lines of XY's editorial policy state, "XY affirms a healthy, life-loving and non-oppressive masculinity…".

I do not believe that XY accurately can be described as anti-male. However, I accept that on occasion XY has been male-negative - focused on the negative and repeatedly critical of the bad things men do, without appropriate qualification or context. The editors, and the authors we've published, could do more to discourage such an interpretation of XY's content.

The label "anti-male" typically comes in response to pieces critical of men's power and privilege, material on men's violence and so on. I think that such content can be anti-male, but it doesn't have to be, and I don't think that XY's content on these topics has been. I would judge an article on men's violence (for example) to be anti-male if it stated that men were essentially or biologically violent or aggressive, if it stated that men were always and ever violent, or if it implied that all men were personally responsible for any man's violence. As far as I know, no content in XY has even done this, and thus this content is not anti-male.

Why then do some men continue to see such content as "anti-male"? Because of the way in which they hear it and the context in which their hearing occurs. This context in part is three decades of feminisms and the women's movements, and the presence in this culture of a fair amount of anger and despair at men. While I personally don't experience this presence, I have to take it on faith when I'm told that many men do. They feel worn down and blamed. Hence, when men's violence or some other aspect of the organisation of gender relations is being criticised, many men go through a kneejerk response and hear this as yet more blame and attack.

Another related aspect of the context is a culture soaked in images of "men versus women", a "war between the sexes". Content seen to be concerned with women's welfare, or describing itself as "pro-feminist", thus sometimes is read as opposed to men's welfare or as "anti-masculinist".

Given all this, it's obvious that I and other authors and activists need to explicitly state what we had taken for granted in writing such articles. Yes, men are not intrinsically or essentially aggressive or bad or nasty. Yes, women can and do perpetrate violence, including violence against men. Yes, feminism gets it wrong sometimes, and yes, there are strands of feminism that are anti-male.


Such inclusions will not be enough to satisfy some men. For example, any article that claims that adult men perpetuate more physical violence against adult women than the reverse (a claim I happen to believe) will be attacked by some men as "anti-male". Here, we are not disagreeing over whether men are intrinsically violent or aggressive or whatever. No one believes this. We are disagreeing over how to understand men's situation and the relations between men and women.

What I'm saying is that the criticism "anti-male" is a symptom of the differing perspectives in the men's movement and in wider society. We are disagreeing for example over whether men have more or less power than women (or something else altogether), over the prevalence and character of interpersonal violence, over men's health versus women's health, and so on.

Even with a substantial increase in male-positive content in XY, some of its articles will continue to be unpalatable to those men in the men's movement with an explicitly anti-feminist perspective. However, I am very keen that XY be, or continue to be, relevant and meaningful to the majority of men in the men's movement, those men involved in personal growth, co-counselling communities, 12-step groups, nonviolence networks, fathers' groups, men's health projects, and so on.

In responding to the "anti-male" criticism, we have to make a crucial distinction: between individual men on the one hand, and systems of power (sexism or patriarchy) on the other. XY magazine is not male-bashing, and (sometimes) it is patriarchy-bashing. XY is not anti-male, and it is anti-sexist.

I will happily criticise the systems of power or the ideologies which privilege men as a group, without blaming individual men for those systems or ideologies. It is more complicated that this 'individual versus system' dichotomy however, as individual men can be supportive of, complicit in, or resistant to sexism through our own behaviour and attitudes. So, I will happily criticise the behaviour or attitudes of individual men too, including myself, again without being anti-male. A crucial aspect of this approach is to emphasise that these behaviours and attitudes are socially constructed, that is, the product of dominant models of manhood in society. I encourage myself and other men to take personal responsibility for confronting our involvement in supporting relations of inequality between men and women, and to join with other men to take collective responsibility for undermining these inequalities and the models of manhood which are linked to them. All of this is motivated by a desire to enhance men's lives, as well as those of women and children.

Making the analogy with race gives us a clearer picture of what produces this "That's anti-male!" response. When Aboriginal people criticise the racism or the privilege of white people, sometimes they are accused of being "white-bashing" or "anti-white". Some white people will react defensively to anti-racist criticism and will go on the counter-attack. I've experienced this reaction myself, and it feels very similar to the reactions I sometimes experience when faced with feminist criticism. That is, members of a group who historically have been priviledged and culturally dominant, are reacting defensively to criticisms of this privilege by members of a subordinant group. Calling feminism, or pro-feminist men's arguments, "male-bashing" obscures and trivialises what is usually a fair critique of injustice.

Such hostile reactions are by no means inevitable. In the same way that white people have been important participants in struggles for racial justice, so there are men who individually and collectively 'swam against the tide' by supporting women's struggles for citizenship and equality. (This is documented for example in Michael Kimmel and Thomas Mosmiller's book Against the tide: pro-feminist men in the United States, 1776 - 1990.)

Of course, anti-sexist criticism can be unfair, if it is condemnatory, generalising or hostile. ("You men are all fucked!") In such cases it could fairly be described as anti-male. I don't condone criticism delivered in these forms, whether by feminist women or by supportive men. At the same time, I try to remember that hostility, anger and generalisations are understandable responses to oppression or injustice.

Pain's acknowledgement

Calling XY, or other pro-feminist men's perspectives, "anti-male" is a substantial misrepresentation of these perspectives and of the lives, connections and theories on which they're built. But there's also some truth in the criticism. While I feel that I'm relatively free of this in my own life, I know that some pro-feminist men have been too steeped in guilt and apology.

Pro-feminist men have not done enough to acknowledge men's pain. We have drawn on feminist analyses of men's behaviour and men's institutions and their impact on women, and these have been and continue to be very important. However, such analyses miss important dimensions of men's experience, dimensions that are important for our ability to support men and to inspire men's commitment to gender justice. On the other hand, while mythopoetic and men's rights men have given more acknowledgement of men's pain, they misdiagnose its source as being women or the loss of masculine rights of passage or the success of the feminist movement (and in doing so, they misprescribe the cure) . The black American men's activist Victor Lewis stated this in my interview with him in the previous edition of XY, and I think it holds true for Australia as well.

At the same time, this lack of acknowledgement has been changing. XY has published pieces on men's poor health, unemployment and isolation, emotional alienation, circumcision, the sexual abuse of men and boys, and the strains (and joys) of single fathering. I've been very pleased and proud to publish these, and I'd love to see more.

A friend pointed out that the hardest job in the men's movement is to be both male-positive and pro-feminist. Accidentally slip over the line one way and immediately you're cast as a panty-wearing, guilt-ridden wimp bent on self-denial or a politically correct, holier-than-thou moral cop. Slip over the line the other way and you're a woman-hating, responsibility-denying defender of the patriarchy.

Well, like many men (and women), I want XY to be both. The words I wrote three years ago in XY on "male-positive", one of the magazine's editorial principles, still hold true for me. "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. To be male-positive is to build close relations and supportive alliances among men. It is to acknowledge men's many acts of compassion and kindness. To be male-positive is to resist feeling hopeless about men and writing men off, and to reject the idea that men are somehow intrinsically bad, oppressive or sexist.

"To be male-positive is to realise that individual men are not responsible for, and can't be blamed for, social structures and values such as the social construction of masculinity or the history of women's oppression. This has to be balanced with the recognition that individual men are responsible for their oppressive behaviour (such as violence) and can choose to change it. If a man displays sexism or homophobia, a male-positive response is to help him in trying to change this, to affirm the man and challenge the behaviour, instead of attacking that man.

"Male-positivity is also about recognising and praising the positive aspects of masculinity. Strength, determination and courage are all aspects of traditional masculinity, and yet they are useful traits for men's ability to change society.

"Male-positivity is balanced by pro-feminism. Being male-positive of course doesn't mean supporting whatever men do. We have to retain a sense of ethics or values, and to assess men and masculinities accordingly. To give a simple example, a violent masculinity is unacceptable, because violence is ethically unacceptable. And being male-positive is compatible with criticising oppressive or destructive aspects of men's groups or the men's movement."

Not guilty?

Critics have claimed that XY blames men for everything, and does not acknowledge women's abuse and violence. This isn't the case. Dez Wildwood's ground-breaking article "Sexual abuse of men and boys" (XY, Winter 1992) discussed women's perpetuation of this abuse. A more recent article, "Missing pieces" (Autumn 1993), told one man's personal story of being sexually abused over thirteen years by several women and criticised the silencing of the fact of such abuse. XY supports the growing network of groups and support for male survivors of physical and sexual abuse, carrying contacts for such groups and publicising details of resources in this area.

XY is accused of being uncritical of feminism. Various articles in XY have criticised strands of feminism or aspects of feminist theory. My review of Stoltenberg's book Refusing to be a man (Summer 1992/93) criticised anti-pornography feminism. Our pieces on the sexual abuse of boys and men complained of a feminist silence on women's perpetration of this. Much of the content published in XY is not directly informed by feminist theory. Many of the articles focus on areas of male experience which are relatively unanalysed in feminism.

Frankly, I would like to see more use of contemporary feminist theory in those articles which are analytical or political in emphasis - not for the sake of doing so, but because I think feminist theory has much to offer for an intelligent analysis of men, masculinities and gender relations, especially when complemented (and challenged) by grounded analyses of men's lives. I also keep in mind the fact that some male readers of XY think that it's not pro-feminist enough.

Finally, critics have also complained that XY publishes too much gay content, or even that it is anti-heterosexual. While the first claim is merely inaccurate, the second is ridiculous. For reasons of space, I won't offer a detailed response. Firstly, the perception of "too much" gay-related content is prompted less by the actual proportions of such content in XY, which are tiny, and more by the unfamiliarity and discomfort many heterosexual men experience around gay issues. Secondly, homophobia - fear, hatred and prejudice towards and about homosexual people - is a central issue for all men and a crucial constraint on boys' and men's lives, and thus such content is important. (See my article "Straightjacket", XY, Winter 1993.) Thirdly, XY is hardly anti-heterosexual, and I for one bluntly rejected such a stance in this same article. In the same way that content focused on men is not therefore anti-women, gay-focused content is not by definition anti-heterosexual.

Finding content

One response I have to the complaint, "You don't publish enough pro-male content," is to say, "Well, yep, how about you write something?" Let me explicitly invite you to send in some male-positive or pro-male content. We'd love to publish it. And it is not as if the editorial group regularly receives male-positive articles, and decides not to publish them. XY publishes the majority of the material that it receives. The seven-man editorial group, plus a multitude of contributors, artists, and magazine distributors, have put out XY on a entirely volunteer basis for six years, and I think we've done pretty well.

Perhaps this whole discussion has been dwelling on the negative. There are 8 - 900 people who regularly subscribe to or buy XY magazine. Over two-hundred people have contributed articles and graphics, publishing over 400 articles between them. XY regularly receives positive letters and feedback. I suppose one hears criticism more loudly than one hears praise. I'm keenly awaiting the results of the reader survey, to see just what XY's readers think and want.

Thankyou to Gerry Orkin for helpful and challenging feedback on an earlier draft. While I never move as far as Gerry hopes, I appreciate the dance all the same.

First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 6(2), Winter 1996. XY, PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. ©Reprinted with permission.