men, masculinities and gender politics

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The best place for pro-feminist men's efforts is not within the men's movement, but in alliance with those of other progressive groups, says Bob Pease.

As readers of XY are well aware, within the last twenty years a network of men's activities has arisen, including men's support groups, men's ritual healing groups, therapy groups for violent men, programs for boys in schools, men's health programs, fathers' rights groups, courses on men in adult education and academia and profeminist men's social action groups and yes, magazines focusing on men's issues. Some media commentators, writers on masculinity and participants refer to these diverse activities as a "men's movement".

While some men have heralded this men's movement as the missing half of feminism, men's social dominance remains as entrenched as ever. Hegemonic (culturally dominant) forms of masculinity continue to subordinate other masculinities, men's violence against women reaches epidemic proportions and most men continue to resist the changes brought about by feminism.

Some men in the men's movement deny that they have power in society and argue that men are more oppressed than women. They express anger at feminism for its challenges to men and they focus their energies on what they see as the relative advantages of women vis-a-vis men. These men comprise the "men's rights wing" of the men's movement.

However, the dominant trend in the men's movement is the emphasise on therapy and the "healing" metaphor to address men's emotions and pain. Promoted as "men's liberation" in the seventies and eighties, this trend finds its most recent expression in the mythopoetic writings of Robert Bly and others.

Profeminist men have also been an identifiable part of this movement. They have stressed the importance of men working as allies with women in a struggle to transform hegemonic masculinity and patriarchal relations of dominance. These men have focused on men's violence against women, pornography, sexual discrimination and gender power inequality as priorities in their men's work. I have been one of that small number of men.

These three trends have been the source of considerable conflict in men's politics from its beginning. I have lived through these historical developments from my initial involvement in an anti-sexist men's consciousness-raising group in the 1970s and early 1980s, through to being a father at home, reading feminist theory, redefining my relationships with women and men, teaching and writing about men and masculinity and involving myself in public campaigns against men's violence. During that time I have also been party to the conflicts within the men's movement and have participated in the debates within "the left" and other progressive movements about the potential for men to change.

A key premise of the trend towards personal and spiritual growth in the men's movement is that men will only change their behaviour by acknowledging and dealing with their own pain and abuse and healing themselves. It is claimed that the only way for men to eliminate sexist behaviour is to reclaim their pride as men.

However, will a men's movement motivated only by male self-interest, encourage men to overcome their restrictive masculinity and do nothing else? Will the men, who say they want to change the definition of masculinity, simply want to feel better? There is little (if any) mention in the mythopoetic and therapeutic men's books about men's social power or men's violent and abusive practices.

I believe that awareness of men's privileges and socially legitimated oppressive behaviours constitutes the minimal requirement for a progressive change in men's lives. In this context, to what extent can the men's movement become a progressive force for change? In recent times, I have not shared the optimism of those who continue to see the present men's movement as representing a progressive change in gender relations because I believe that it overemphasises men's emotions and men's pain.

Those of us involved in profeminist men's politics do acknowledge the importance of enhancing men's lives, although we believe that one of the ways of doing this is by living our lives in ways that make a difference and we resist the tendency to portray men as victims. Research demonstrates that men who desire equality with women seem to be more contented with their lives.

I believe we should be sensitive to men's need for healing and personal fulfilment in their lives, but I believe that we must reject the view that men's oppressive behaviour can only be understood as a result of men's hurts or deprivations. We should also challenge the view that men's attempt to address hurts and the restrictions they feel as men is a sufficient way to address the consequences of exploitation in women's lives.

I do not believe that individual, personal and spiritual change will address the problems of exploitation and power inequality. Men's personal growth will not automatically lead to personal or political actions in support of gender equality. It could even assist men in accommodating women's demands in a more modernised patriarchy.

In spite of these major divisions between men, the men's movement has been portrayed as a new social movement in the sense that, whether men are working for social change and violence prevention, involved in personal growth or part of the backlash against feminism, they are said to be articulating new identities as men. Thus, men's movement politics (and profeminist men's work within it) is constructed as a form of identity politics.

Identities are said to enable people to become active subjects who define who they are in the world. However, what are the implications when the source of identity is connected to one's privilege rather than one's oppression? Is the men's movement's search for "authentic maleness" a new form of essentialist identity politics of the privileged? (Essentialism is usually understood as a belief in fixed properties that allegedly define the nature of things, leading to the idea that women and men can be identified on the basis of eternal, transhistorical, immutable essences.)

It is much easier to examine the ways in which we are denied our full potential than to see how we benefit where others are denied their's. Thus, the problem, as I see it, is how does one construct an identity that both acknowledges and at the same time breaks with heterosexual and gender dominance?

I believe that the most progressive strategy open to heterosexual men is to destabilise rather than essentialise our identities as heterosexual men. This means creating solidarity with women and gay men on the basis of a respect for difference. It means constructing new masculine subjectivities that loosen men's connections to heterosexual dominance and hegemonic masculinity. (Subjectivity refers to the conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions of the individual, their sense of self and their ways of understanding their relation to the world, according to Chris Weedon in Poststructuralist theory and feminist practice (1987).)

I no longer believe that the men's movement can provide the best vehicle for this loosening and I have become increasingly concerned about the closer links being developed between the men's liberation and men's rights wings of the men's movement. It is perhaps not surprising that some of the men's liberationists of the seventies, such as Warren Farrell and Herb Goldberg, went on to become prominent men's rights advocates in the eighties and nineties.

As profeminist men, I believe that we should be more openly critical of those parts of the men's movement that engage in a polemic against feminism and women. We must address the pain in men's lives arising from ill health, custody arrangements, sexual abuse, work stresses, youth male suicide and men's experience of powerlessness. However, I believe that this can best be done by contextualising these issues within the power relations of class, race, age, sexuality and so on, on the one hand, and the contradictory effects of patriarchal power on the other.

Dialogue across difference, alliance building and coalition politics represent alternative locations from which profeminist men can work for gender equality. Exploring alliances with feminist women, gay men, migrant and Aboriginal men and socialist, working-class men and developing profeminist men's politics in progressive social movements and the state suggest different priorities than locating ourselves as part of the men's movement with all its contradictions.

 

First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 6(3), Spring 1996. XY, PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. © 1996 Reprinted with permission.