men, masculinities and gender politics

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Nerdvana: Men and the Internet

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You would need to be a recluse to have avoided the Internet in recent years. From humble beginnings as a network of American academic and military sites designed to maintain communications in the event of a nuclear war, the Internet has grown and transformed itself into a huge repository of information and a global community of some 30 million people. It's beyond the scope of a short article to cover every aspect of the net (there are a squillion books and magazines available on the subject anyway) so I'm going to look at some of the issues it raises in the context of men and masculinity. I'll also provide a short list of on-line resources that may be of interest to readers of XY.

Boys' toys

You can't avoid the gendered nature of the Internet. Besides anything else there appear to be far more men on-line than women - some estimates I've seen suggest that up to 80 percent of users are male. From a glance through 50 randomly chosen Internet newsgroups I'd say that figure is close. The net is more than just a boys' club, although in some places you'd be hard pressed to tell.

Computer use fits well into certain aspects of dominant western male culture. It's obvious to me that most computer games for boys serve to support dominant masculine values by promoting violence and competitiveness. Research by Nola Alloway and others has also shown that boys tend to dominate computer time in primary school classrooms. Is there something inherent about being male that drives us towards this technology? I suspect not - I'd suggest that social factors are responsible.

Boys seem drawn to these games and to computers in general like moths to flames. They are responding in part to the value placed on expertise in this area but also to the sense of certainty and control that computers seem to offer. One self-confessed net junkie puts it this way: "Computers are much easier to get on with than people. They tend to do what you want, they come with manuals and they have far fewer bugs than human beings". In a society in which the construction of masculinity leaves many boys and men tragically ill-equipped to sustain close friendships and relationships and where work and status are so closely intertwined, it's not so surprising that some men are strongly drawn to computers and to the net.

While many men on-line undoubtedly feel part of a real community, I suspect that for a good number computer use simply feeds into their more general patterns of isolation and personal or social disconnection. I wonder if my earlier analogy may be taken further - do men's spirits die in the glow of the computer screen?

Women on the net

Dale Spender and others have written about the net from a feminist perspective, pointing out that women need to claim a share of cyberspace as their own and not allow it to remain a male-dominated space. There have been a number of well-publicised cases of sex-based harassment on the net, particularly on university campuses in the United States, but it would be a mistake to think that the net was unsafe for women.

Female friends have told me that they often feel more confident on-line than they do in the "real" world, because on the net they can deal with people they don't like with a click of a mouse button. A number of women I've met on-line have also mentioned that the ability to be ambiguous about their gender has meant that their views are respected in certain forums where they might otherwise be trivialised if the other participants knew they were female. One woman said this with more than a touch of irony in her voice.

One place where there are thousands of women on-line are those sites that are devoted to pornography. This is hardly a cause for celebration, however. Besides extending the exploitation and objectification of women to another medium the presence of so much pornography on-line feeds once more into men's isolation and particularly into our compulsions around sex. This has become big business, and commercial pay-to-view porn is thriving on the net.

Spiderman

So, what's on the net that may be of interest to readers of XY? I'll discuss three areas here - the World Wide Web (the 'web'), newsgroups and mailing lists. All of these areas should be available to any user of the net. (Contact your service provider for details on how to access them.)

The web is the fastest growing part of the net. It consists of millions of 'pages' of information which are placed on-line by companies, organisations, government departments, universities and, increasingly, individuals. You'll need 'browser' software to use the web but this is freely available at no cost.

Web pages may be purely text, or may contain graphics or even animations. Most pages contain links to other related pages which may be anywhere on the web. These links are implemented as sections of "hot" text or graphics embedded within the page. Clicking on a link will jump you to another page or may display a larger version of a graphic - in this way web pages become dynamic "live" documents. The web is probably the precursor to more commercially orientated services such as on-line entertainment (pay-TV on your PC) but for the moment it remains a brilliant resource for just about anything you could imagine and most of it is free.

There are many web sites that cover men's issues. Using a couple of web search facilities I quickly found 324 web sites that covered one aspect or another of the men's movement or related subjects such as men's health.

A frighteningly large number of these sites are devoted to men's rights groups and publications, including the quaintly named "Backlash" and the far-right Christian "Promise Keepers" organisation. Fathers' rights and "male choice" groups also have a considerable presence. Almost all of these groups are based in the United States. To see what they have to say check out The Mens' Issues Page. This site lists hundreds of men's movement resources, book reviews, contacts and information, mostly from the mythopoetic and men's rights area, although I noticed that XY's page is also mentioned.

Pro-feminist groups have been slower to take up the web as an outreach or resource tool. While the men's rights sites are comprehensive and contain many links to related resources the pro-feminist group's pages tend to just announce their existence and provide contact names and addresses. This may reflect the relative lack of resources available to such groups (men's rights groups tend to be made up of older, more financially secure men) or it may reflect differences in political strategies and priorities. There are plenty of gems to be found, however. Check out XY's links page for links to interesting sites.

An interesting project first revealed at the recent 5th Men's Leadership Gathering is Manhood Online (http://www.manhood.com.nf),maintained by Paul Whyte in Sydney. This site contains essays, news of interest to men in the men's movement, a diary of upcoming events and discussion forums.

Newgroups

Newsgroups have been around on the net for a long time. They are essentially bulletin boards: you post messages to a newsgroup and anyone with access to the net and with the appropriate software will be able to read them, plus any responses. At any time there may be many 'threads' of discussion active on a newsgroup.

Newsgroups which may be of interest to XY readers include soc.men, soc.feminism and alt.mens-rights. The first two tend to be dominated by arguments between a small band of feminists and pro-feminists and men who adopt various shades of anti-feminist positions. In the period I monitored these newsgroups I noticed that a good number of these men are involved in activism in the areas of reproductive "choice" for men, family law reform and abortion.

There is a lot of traffic on the soc.men list in particular - up to 100 messages per day. The men's rights group is smaller but more vicious. A typical quote from one message: "We need to be much more assertive regarding the control by females of access to sex ." Hmmm. I once thought it was useful to respond to such drivel - now I stay well away. Anything resembling a thoughtful response to these men results in a flaming (net-speak for a torrent of insults).

The debates on newsgroups tend to vary a lot in terms of quality. At their best they can illuminate and inform, while at their worst they are perpetual motion machines where the arguments go round and round. Like the rest of the net there is a strong US bias in terms of participants and in the range of issues covered. For all that it's clear that some Australian men's rights lobbyists are drawing their inspiration, and language, from contacts made on the net.

Mail lists

Mail lists are a cross between personal e-mail and a newsgroup. A list may contain hundreds or even thousands of members. Each member subscribes to the list and from then on any mail sent to the list is automatically distributed to all other members using standard e-mail. Mail from lists may come as individual messages or in digest form, which is easier to read.

Most lists focus on a specific issue, such as bonsai tree growing or ferret husbandry (no, seriously). Like newsgroups, lists may support many concurrent discussions or threads. The best thing about mail lists is that the crap-to-quality ratio is better than on newsgroups, and that they can become a kind of on-line community. Since continued membership of a list usually depends on members following basic rules of politeness and respect there is less flaming or abuse, and more intelligent contributions.

Log on

There you have it. A short tour around the net, plus some starting points for resources and information. If you don't want to jump right in and subscribe to an internet service why not go to a cyber-cafe and have a browse around (and take your XY with you to try the sites mentioned here!). You might also try your local library - many are installing terminals for internet access.

XY is excited by the possibilities of the World Wide Web in particular, and is planning to expand our own presence on the net. You may even meet an editor or writer from the magazine as you wander about!

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