men, masculinities and gender politics

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Men's Movements (Encyclopedia entry)

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Citation: Flood, Michael. (2007). Men’s movements. In Michael Flood, Judith Kegan Gardiner, Bob Pease & Keith Pringle (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of Men and Masculinities. Routledge, pp. 418-422.

Note that the published version of this piece is available below, in PDF.

The men’s movement is made up of networks of men self-consciously involved in activities related to men and gender. It emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s in Western countries, alongside and often in response to the women’s movement and feminism. The men’s movement, comprised of groups, networks, organisations, and events, engages in a variety of activities from self-help and support to political lobbying and activism.

The men’s movement is distinct from other mobilisations comprised largely of men such as the gun lobby or early trade unions by its self-conscious orientation towards gender issues. Twentieth century men’s movements have historical precedents such as organized male support for women’s suffrage in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (John and Eustance, 1997). While the term ‘men’s movement’ is useful in capturing the array of activities and organisations through which men have explored and contested gender relations, the term is problematic in several ways. In contrast to most other social movements, the men’s movement has had a largely therapeutic focus, is internally contradictory, and is comprised of members of a privileged group.

The men’s movement has been preoccupied with therapeutic goals, showing stronger affinities with self-help movements than with movements centered on social change. Much men’s movement activity, and that in men’s groups in particular, is oriented towards personal growth and healing. This reflects the intertwined influences of therapy and counseling on the one hand and spiritual and ‘New Age’ cultures on the other. Common goals among men’s movement participants include finding support and intimacy among other men in a community of men, healing from past hurts and injustices, and developing positive identities ‘as men’. Some participants are also involved in or have come from twelve-step programs, counseling groups, and psychology, and some participate also in alternative spiritual events and communities.

However, recognition is growing that personal growth and the reconstruction of individual masculinities are useless without an accompanying shift in the social relations and ideologies that support or marginalize different ways of being men. One wing of the men’s movement engages in increasingly politicized and often anti-feminist campaigns on such issues as family law and domestic violence. For some men, the men’s movement has always been a tool for social and political change, whether through anti-violence activism or radical cross-dressing to confuse gender boundaries.

The men’s movement shares with many other social movements a preoccupation with identity. The women’s, black, and gay and lesbian movements which erupted in the late twentieth century were characterized by ‘identity politics’, the articulation of social identities as the basis of collective mobilisation and resistance to oppression. The profound phrase ‘the personal is political’, coined by early second wave feminists, embodied the recognition that women’s everyday and personal lives are shaped by power relations, often unjust and oppressive, and therefore are a necessary part of the terrain of political activism (hooks 1997).

The men’s movement’s engagement with identity and personal experience has been less politicized than that of these other movements. For many participants, examining one’s personal life is a means to personal growth and interpersonal intimacy rather than to radical political consciousness. At the same time, the more politicized wings of the men’s movement, both pro- and anti-feminist, have taken up differing forms of identity politics. In the early 1970s, anti-sexist men’s groups, inspired directly by the women’s movement, adopted *consciousness-raising in small all-male groups to reflect critically on their involvements in sexism and to build non- or anti-sexist identities (Hornacek 1977). Contemporary pro-feminist men’s groups continue this tradition, using group discussion, education, and social marketing. From a very different political direction, men’s and fathers’ rights groups draw on their members’ experiences to articulate a public vision of men and/or fathers as the victims of a man-hating social and legal system.

Nor has the men’s movement followed the same trajectory as other movements centered on identity politics, in which there has been an increasing questioning and destabilization of the identities on which mobilisation was first based. Identity politics involves potentially contradictory impulses, essentialist and deconstructionist (West 1990). However, only the more feminist-informed strands of the men’s movement have paid much attention to deconstructing male identities and masculinities. This draws on feminist scholarship on the social construction of gender, although less so on recent and more philosophical feminist debates regarding the category ‘woman’ and its deployment. Elsewhere, essentialist tendencies are more apparent, whether in Jungian-inspired accounts of transcultural masculine archetypes, ahistorical accounts of men’s ‘natural’ place at the head of the family, or biologically determinist defenses of male aggression. More widely, the crude stereotypes of male and female psychology offered by pop-psychological authors hold sway among many men’s movement participants.

The men’s movement’s agendas and understandings can be understood in terms of five overlapping strands: men’s liberation, anti-sexist or pro-feminist, men’s rights and fathers’ rights, spiritual and mythopoetic, and Christian. 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. This perspective, perhaps the dominant one, focuses on the damage, isolation and suffering inflicted on boys and men through their socialisation into manhood. While the anti-sexist strand acknowledges men’s pain, it gives greater emphasis to male privilege and gender inequalities. Clatterbaugh (1990) describes the first of these tendencies as ‘liberal profeminism’ and the second as ‘radical profeminism’. Liberal pro-feminist men stress that both men and women are constricted by gender roles, and some say that men, like women, are ‘oppressed’. And in saying this, some versions of men’s liberation slide into men’s rights.

Men’s rights and fathers’ rights advocates also argue that men’s roles are damaging to men, but 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. For some advocates, feminism has largely achieved its goals and women have more choices, while men are still stuck in traditional masculine roles. For others, ‘feminazis’ are involved in a conspiracy to discriminate against men and cover up violence against them (Flood 2004).

Mythopoetic men derive their thinking from Jungian psychology, especially through the work of Bly (1990). Masculinity is seen as based on deep unconscious patterns and archetypes that are revealed through myths, stories and rituals. By exploring these, men can ‘heal’ and restore their psychospiritual health.

Another strand of men’s movement activity with a spiritual focus is *Christian, with the best known example being the Promise Keepers. This network defines itself as a Christ-Centred ministry dedicated to uniting men through vital relationships to become Godly influences in their world (Claussen 2000). Such groups are primarily evangelical and fundamentalist and favor a return to traditional gender relations.

The most feminist and politically progressive wing of the men’s movement is also the smallest. Pro-feminist men emphasize that men must take responsibility for their own sexist behaviours and attitudes and work to change those of men in general. Many advocates distance themselves from the men’s movement, which they see as defending men’s privilege. While they often work in all-male groups, they also build alliances and coalitions with other progressive movements such as feminism and anti-racism.

The most unusual aspect of the men’s movement is that it represents a movement by members of a dominant or privileged group. It is more typical for people on the subordinate side of a set of power relations to generate social movements. The men’s movement involves groups and activities aimed at both the defence of men’s privilege and its abolition. The term ‘men’s movement’ invites the misleading assumption that this movement is the male equivalent of the women’s movement. Given the reality of pervasive gender inequalities which benefit men as a group, collective mobilisations among men cannot have the same meaning or trajectory as mobilisations among women.

The experience of personal crisis, and especially of separation and divorce, is a common path to men’s participation in the men’s movement. Having gone through deeply painful marriage break-ups, men join men’s groups in search of solace, support, or justice. Other men join out of realizations that they have no close male friends, they lack intimacy and community, their working lives are meaningless and soul-destroying, or the traditionally masculine lives they have tried to lead are hollow and corrupt. Some men find their way to the men’s movement in dealing with substance abuse and addiction, violence, anger, or sexuality. While the men’s movement is largely heterosexual, small numbers of gay men participate.

Second-wave feminism tapped into a widespread frustration and resentment among women, speaking to the domestic isolation, dependency, and abuse they suffered. Women continue to join the women’s movement through realising the ways in which their lives are constrained by gender. While some men’s paths to the men’s movement are broadly similar, men’s and women’s contrasting social positions mean that these paths also are different. There are certainly areas of male suffering to which the men’s movement speaks, but there is not the same potential for an explosion of consciousness or social catharsis among men. Many men experience their involvement in gender relations as normal, natural, and invisible, and many experience privileges and benefits under the current gender order.

Because men in general are privileged in relation to gender, their collective mobilisation involves the danger of enhancing this privilege (Flood 2003). This is apparent in the energetic and masculinist activism being conducted by men’s rights and fathers’ rights groups. At the same time, men have other interests that can be mobilized in more egalitarian directions, such as their concerns for personal health and well-being, investments in their intimate, familial, and social relations with women and girls, collective interests in community well-being, and their ethical, political, or spiritual commitments.

Over the past decade, men’s movements have undergone proliferation, professionalization, and institutionalization. Men’s groups and networks have spread across the globe. While their preoccupations are shaped by local and regional formations of gender, Western and especially U.S. understandings have a global influence, reflecting patterns of Western political and intellectual hegemony in both publishing and internet communication.

Issues of men and gender have been taken up by community and social sectors and to a lesser extent articulated in government policy. This trend is most apparent in three areas: fathering, men’s health, and boys’ education. For example, in Western countries since the late 1990s, policy interest has been growing concerning the need to promote fathers’ involvement in families. In the U.S. there is bipartisan support for new fatherhood initiatives promoting ‘responsible fatherhood’ through increasing fathers’ contact and co-residence with their children and strengthening marriage. Nevertheless, compared with most other social movements, men’s movements have had relatively little direct involvement in policy-making.

Community and social sectors also have taken up ‘men’s issues’. Men’s movement activity, including men’s groups and male practitioners within workplaces, has been influential in shaping overt attention to men among health and welfare agencies. However, in Australia and elsewhere, it is often women who have advocated for and initiated programs on men’s health, fathering, and so on. And there has been growing demand for such services from men and fathers themselves (Russell et al. 1999).

Considerable controversy surrounds the attention to men and gender being shown by governments and community sectors. Some initiatives are criticized for reinstating or reinforcing patterns of male advantage, treating males as an homogenous and disadvantaged group, or taking away from resources from women.

There is also growing professionalization. Community courses, training programs, and university curricula focused on men’s issues have proliferated, such as those concerning men’s health or work with male perpetrators of violence. Such trends have both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, they signal the establishment of men’s issues as legitimate areas of government and public concern, and they involve the development of ‘best practice’ standards in working with men. On the other, such trends can de-radicalize and de-politicize men’s movement activism (to the extent that this activity was radical to begin with), and their corporatist and entrepreneurial emphases diverge from potential emphases on community development and grassroots mobilisation.

References and Further Reading

Bly, R. (1990) Iron John. Dorset: Addison-Wesley.

Clatterbaugh, K. (1990) Contemporary Perspectives on Masculinity. Colorado & Oxford: Westview.

Claussen, D.S. (2000) The Promise Keepers. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc.

Flood, M. (2003) ‘Men’s Collective Struggles for Gender Justice’, in Kimmel, M., J. Hearn, J., and R.W. Connell (eds) The Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Flood, M. (2004) ‘Backlash’, in S.E. Rossi (ed.), The Battle and Backlash Rage On. Philadelphia, PA: Xlibris Press, pp. 261-78.

hooks, b. (1997) ‘Feminism,’ in Kemp, S. and Squires, J (eds) Feminisms, Oxford & New York: Oxford UP.

Hornacek, P. (1977) ‘Anti-Sexist Consciousness Raising Groups for Men,’ in Snodgrass, J. (ed.) A Book of Readings, Albion CA: Times Change.

John, A.V., and C. Eustance (1997) (eds) The Men’s Share? London: Routledge

Messner, M.A. (1997) Politics of Masculinities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Russell, G., L. Barclay, G. Edgecombe, J. Donovan, G. Habib, H. Callaghan, and Q Pawson. (1999) Fitting Fathers Into Families. Canberra: Commonwealth Dept of Family and Community Services.

West, D. (1990) Authenticity and Empowerment. Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

MICHAEL FLOOD

 

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