men, masculinities and gender politics

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Mourning masculinity

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When you’re told you’re going to die, you go through five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. I remember learning about these Stages of Death and Dying, by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

I’ve noticed that, as men, we tend to go through these same stages when confronted with the reality of men’s violence against women.

Denial: “Surely it can’t be happening to so many millions of women! Aren’t most women lying about being victims of violence? I’d much rather make jokes about the violence than do something about it.”

Anger: “All you women who are whining about violence are just feminazis! I’m going to ignore you, make fun of you and turn up Rush Limbaugh when you try to get through to me.”

Bargaining: “There are studies that show women are just as violent! Men are the real victims – and feminism is the perpetrator! Besides, I know a male victim who tried to get help and couldn’t.”

Depression: “Wow – it really is my gender that creates all this violence? That’s awful. I’m crawling in a hole now.”

Acceptance: “How can I help?”

There are entire movements of men that seem stuck in one or more of these stages. The so-called “Father’s Rights” or “Men’s Rights” movements paint men as the real, unsung victims – the perpetrators of the violence are not just their female perpetrators, but the feminist movement for social change. And we feminists have apparently squelched all the evidence of male victimization in order to hang on to our cushy jobs and six-figure salaries.

Never mind that there is an avalanche of studies that point to men as the primary perpetrators of sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking and so many other violent crimes. The “Father’s Rights” folks usually haul out the same few studies that show relative gender violence parity – often by using flawed methodology – in order to try to bolster their arguments.

Sure, many in the “Father’s Rights” movement are men who have been “falsely” accused of abuse, rape or child rape. But many have not – for those folks, I wondered - why do they hang on to these beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence? Kubler-Ross might shed some light on a possible answer.

I think that for men, to accept the reality that our gender is responsible for so much violence changes our belief systems that we’ve long clung to. And not just any beliefs: our beliefs about masculinity, femininity, relationships, sex, power, friendships, pornography, violence, jokes, etc. That’s a lot of challenge for a lot of belief!

For some men, this kind of challenge can feel like death. And we respond in kind, going through the same stages as we would if it were a real death.

The process or reevaluating these beliefs can be painful. But the process has much less real suffering than, well, actual death does!

In the long term, once we have accepted that it’s our gender that’s responsible for much of this violence, the feeling can be extremely liberating. For myself, I’ve joined the feminist movement against men’s violence – the most amazing, inspiring, smart people I’ve ever met are in this movement.

I went through all of the five stages while learning from feminist women. During many of the stages, I blamed victims, belittled activists in the movement and was generally a pain in the butt for many feminist women. I’m not sure why these women stuck with me, but they did – now hopefully they think it was worth it.

Looking back, I’m embarrassed about my behavior during those stages. But I’m not the only guy to go through them – many guys don’t even make it through these stages, as I mentioned earlier. And since feminist women have told me that we need more men involved, I think it’s important to understand just how to involve men, and what challenges we’ll be facing when we do so.

For many men, to truly accept many feminist concepts will require a shift of consciousness and worldview that might feel like a death to them. So threatened, they may go through some of these stages of death and dying. If the rest of us (especially those of us who are men and have gone through the same stages ourselves) can hang with them and have some patience as they go through the stages, then I think more men will get involved and stay involved.

This is a tall order for many women working to end violence, considering the urgency to change men’s attitudes and behaviors immediately, in order to promote safety in these women’s communities. Having patience with men’s process is not something women need to take on – for those women willing to take it on, however, an idea of possible the root causes of our strange behavior will hopefully make that work easier.

22 January, 2008.

Ben Atherton-Zeman is a freelance writer living in Maynard. He can be reached at benazeman[at]hotmail.com.