21st century man: lost and anachronistic? (SMH article)

March 10, 2013


Today’s Sydney Morning Herald features an article by Guy Mosel titled 21st century man: lost and anachronistic. Overall it’s a very good overview of the various strands of the men’s movement. However, it suffers from a couple of problems that most media coverage of men’s issues falls into.

Firstly, while highlighting many of the issues that are faced by modern day males, it sometimes presents them as if they are “men’s own fault”, rather than focusing on the social determinants that give rise to them. For example, men are called “stupid and “lacking ambition.” Imagine we called women “stupid and lacking ambition” in the 1950s when females were underperfoming at schools and in the workplace! Imagine we called girls suffering from eating disorders “stupid”! We don’t do this for women – we see the larger social structures in place that cause their problems – so there’s no reason to do this for men.

By taking this at times hostile and sneering look at the men’s movement, the article illustrates very well the challenges faced by men’s activists. Media coverage of the women’s movement is, on the whole, favourable and sympathetic. When the men’s movement actually gets some media coverage (such as Mosel’s piece), it is treated quite differently.

Secondly, the article ignores all the wonderful things that men and boys do every day to make the world a better place: fighting bushfires and floods; building the roads, buildings and infrastructures that we all depend upon; mining, logging, deep-sea fishing, long-distance transportation; doing frontline dangerous work in the military, police and security – risking their own health, safety and well-being to help others. Not to mention being great husbands, boyfriends, partners, lovers, mates and mentors, and increasingly being irreplaceable hands-on dads.

And while the article presents the men’s movement as a rag-tag mish-mash of disparate views and opinions, the same can easily be said of the women’s movement. Both movements are essential to make the world a better place for all people – men, women and children. And both movements are necessarily diverse – as diverse as our societies are.

But these quibbles aside, Mosel must be given credit for taking the time to research and write such an in-depth article about the men’s movement – one that will raise these issues with a wider mainstream audience, and hopefully stimulate some much-needed discussion about men and boys and their needs.

Here’s the article…

It’s a Monday night at the Parramatta City Library and a bald, bespectacled man is perched on a tiny red plastic stool in the young adult section, trying not to cry. Five other men, also balanced on stools not designed for grown-ups, sit close by, forming a misshapen circle with him. Dads in Distress doesn’t usually meet here, but the convener left at home the keys to the meeting room in the nearby council building and the security guard is nowhere to be found. So here they sit, these six grown men, among the Harry Potters and The Hunger Games and the Twilights.

The man is talking about his son. Earlier he’d dashed off to a quiet corner when his phone rang; he says he gets to say goodnight on the phone but it’s not the same as tucking him in. There are nods and murmurs and wearied sighs of understanding. There’s also plenty of anger. Some of the language used to describe the mothers of their children is not for polite company, but this is not a place for political correctness; this is not court-ordered mediation. This is a place to talk and rant and cry, safely and free of judgment.

DIDSS Parramatta convenes weekly. The group’s regulars know all of the stories inside out, but they sit patiently while everyone has their say. The tales are uniformly saddening, often maddening. One talks about the four vexatious apprehended domestic violence orders taken out against him by his ex-wife, each one causing him to miss months of contact with his children. Another is panicking that his daughter’s mother may be plotting to move her overseas. He reads a stream of abusive, threatening messages from the woman off his phone.

When James Fraser* separated from his wife, he still supported his family and was able to see his six children daily. That all changed when he started seeing another woman. They divorced, sold the house and the pair’s respective lawyers worked out a parenting plan that allowed James time with the children every second weekend. His ex-wife hasn’t always kept to the arrangement.

“Nobody has to keep to [the parenting plan] because it’s not enforceable,” James says, smiling as if to underscore the ridiculousness of it all. “I asked my lawyer if we should go to court to get a court-ordered arrangement and he said, ‘No, they’re pointless. There’s no one to enforce them either’.”

The breakdown of his second relationship and ongoing depression and medical problems means that James, a teacher with a degree in psychology, is now jobless and living in a boarding house. “I feel very hopeless,” James says. “I’d love to be able to work and get a job and get a place, but I don’t think [my ex-wife] is ever going to stop preventing me from seeing the kids.”

“The library will be closing in five minutes, thanks,” an officious young man interrupts. He casts a quizzical eye over this motley crew of sorrowful men, huddled together like campers around a fire. “You’ll have to leave, I’m sorry.”

Men, some say, are in trouble. They’re stupid, they lack ambition, they’re depressed, they’re killing each other and they’re increasingly alienated from their children. In popular culture, idiots and Peter Pans are celebrated, from the degenerate buffoonery of the The Hangover gang to Charlie Sheen’s uber-douche bag on Two and A Half Men. While women have made incredible strides in the past 50 years, substantially reshaping the expectations of their gender, men have wallowed in their own cliches.

Males are increasingly becoming second-class citizens in education, with boys falling behind girls both in participation and literacy, while the gap between the genders in tertiary study completion is growing. In 2009 in Australia, 77 per cent of all suicides were males, while they also accounted for 71 per cent of murder victims. And according to a 2010 Family Court report based on almost 4000 cases, fathers were awarded the most time with their children in only 18 per cent of litigations; in instances when the parents came to an earlier agreement, that number fell to 9 per cent.

In her book The End of Men, Hanna Rosin says men are in a “transition moment” but have failed to adapt. “A century can go by and [men’s] lifestyle and ambitions remain largely the same,” she writes. “For most of the century, men derived their sense of manliness from their work or their role as head of the family.

“Some decades into the 20th century, those obvious forms of social utility started to fade. [Men] lost the old architecture of manliness, but they have not replaced it with any obvious new one.” Lost, floundering, underachieving, anachronistic: introducing 21st century man.

In response to this crisis in masculinity, a fledgling men’s movement has emerged. While men’s groups have existed since the middle of last century, it’s only in the past decade, driven in part by the growth of the internet, that something approaching a movement has materialised. It is, however, a broad church, containing a spectrum of male advocacy organisations from pro-feminist groups that believe feminism’s aims benefit both sexes, to extreme misogynists who treat gender relations as a zero-sum game.

Yet while the movement remains deeply divided on just how great the problems facing men are, and who exactly is to blame for them, they are united in the belief that men’s issues are largely ignored by policymakers, the media and the broader community.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick concedes that the Australian Human Rights Commission has no initiatives targeting men. “We have very limited resources, so our work is necessarily directed at identifying the greatest areas of gender inequality,” Broderick says. “So, while we actively engage with men and some of the men’s groups, we have not directly worked on men’s rights issues.”

Many men’s groups would not be surprised in the least by this, especially those whose members call themselves “men’s rights activists” or “advocates”. MRAs argue that the problems men face are not merely a result of oversight, but fundamental, systemic, gender-based discrimination. Mothers are favoured in parental disputes because men are perceived to be less nurturing and more violent; males are falling behind in education because women have been favoured by government education programs; men are all-but-ignored by public health initiatives.

For years a number of Australian organisations have been trying to push men’s issues to the front of the national agenda. Barry Williams of the Lone Fathers Association has been advocating, quite successfully, for fairer treatment of men in separations since 1973, while the Men’s Rights Agency, founded by Sue and Reg Price, has been working for two decades to end “hostility” towards men and provide legal and other professional services to men in need.

Some organisations take a more attention-grabbing approach: witness the controversial “Domestic violence: women are half the problem” posters plastered all over the Monash University campus in August by A Voice For Men.

And yet the men’s movement, locally and globally, remains less a “movement” than a Wikipedia entry; a catalogue of individual groups, each arguing for some form of “change”, often at cross-purposes. Even those who share fundamental agreements on key issues are often unable to reach a compromise. Nowhere is this more evident than in the interaction between two of Australia’s most prolific and public men’s advocates.

Greg Andresen from Men’s Health Australia has emerged as a fresh face of the men’s rights movement. Raised by a feminist mother and now a father of two young children in a modern, responsibilities-sharing relationship, Andresen is as far removed from the “angry old divorce” cliche as you can imagine. He, in fact, rejects the MRA tag, noting the extremist tendencies of many who share that label, and prefers to think of himself as a human rights activist.

Meanwhile, University of Wollongong lecturer in sociology Michael Flood is a prominent, pro-feminist, men’s advocate and an ambassador for White Ribbon, the campaign to stop violence against women. Also a father of two young children, he’s written dozens of papers and articles about male-on-female violence, making him a bete noir of MRAs the world over.

On paper, there seems to be more that unites the two men than divides them, yet Andresen and Flood have traded cyber-barbs for years. Andresen believes there is “institutionalised discrimination against men”; Flood acknowledges areas of male “disadvantage” but says the men’s rights movement “vastly overstates” it.

It’s the subject of domestic violence that most bitterly divides the pair. Andresen is one of the founders of the One in Three campaign that argues at least one in three victims of family violence is male. He points to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2006 Personal Safety Survey that shows 29.8 per cent of victims of current-partner violence since the age of 15 are male. Other research collected by Andresen suggests women are just as likely to be the perpetrator of “family violence” as men. He says organisations such as White Ribbon perpetuate the notion that men are always the aggressors.

“Instead of supporting female victims and reducing male violence … [organisations such as White Ribbon] attack, diminish and downplay male victims of violence,” Andresen says. “The gender of the victim shouldn’t matter. If a man’s being abused, he’s being abused and he needs support.”

Flood acknowledges some men are indeed the victim of domestic hostility, but makes no apologies for White Ribbon’s emphasis on male-on-female violence, arguing that One in Three and others cherry-pick data. “[They] draw on studies … that don’t address issues of impact or intensity or meaning or severity or fear or injury and so on,” he says.

Flood contends that men’s rights groups are obsessed with proving female aggression when they should be focusing on the biggest perpetrators of violence against men: other men.

Still, cultural resistance to the notion of female-on-male domestic violence remains. Some men do suffer at the hands of their female partners. Data released in 2009 by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics reveal the number of women charged with domestic abuse had risen 159 per cent in the eight years to 2007. MensLine Australia, which provides online and phone counselling for men, handles 40,000 cases every year, many to do with domestic violence.

Bill Stephens* suffered a 15-month onslaught of verbal, emotional and financial abuse from his wife after an illness left him partially paralysed. She verbally attacked him for not being able to provide for his family, withheld money and ostracised him. Eventually, the abuse turned physical and Bill fought back. His wife fell, knocking her head on the floor. She called the police.

They asked Bill if he wanted to press charges. “In hindsight I should have said, ‘Yes, charge her’. I didn’t. I regret it now.”

The police recommended Bill leave the family home. With nowhere to go – “How do you tell your mother that your wife’s bashing you up?” – he lived in his van for six weeks. Then he rang the NSW Department of Community Services domestic violence hotline. “The woman there told me, ‘I don’t believe you were assaulted by your wife. Only men assault women’.”

Bill says he came close to suicide. Then a woman at the UnitingCare Burnside centre, which generally helps at-risk children, invited Bill to come to counselling.

It saved him. He has since remarried, completed a chaplaincy course and now helps homeless men, many of whom find themselves in circumstances he can relate to.

“Trying to tell people your story, when they won’t believe you … it’s just soul-destroying,” Bill says. “The first thing I say to men who’ve been through something like me is, ‘I believe you’.”

Another group, A Voice for Men, takes a somewhat paranoid tack. Its legion of writers and followers present a more extreme face of the men’s movement than the likes of the moderate Men’s Health Australia. “It’s unfortunate,” says founder Paul Elam, “but we live in a world where, if we talk nice, if we just say everything with concern for mainstream sensibilities, then we will end up where men’s issues all end up – which is totally ignored.”

Says feminist and sociologist Eva Cox: “They’re determined to be victims.” Cox, who’s often sparred with MRAs in a long career at the pointy-end of the so-called “gender wars”, laughs at the word “activist”. She says if these activists are serious about social change, “they should try some activism”.

“That’s why I think most of the men’s movement is crap. All they want to do is complain about how hard done-by they are, rather than trying to adjust those things they think might be contributing to that,” she says.

Cox says many of those things that MRAs complain about are a direct result of a system that still views gender roles through an outdated prism. “I certainly think there are men that get a rough deal in society … but how many men are out there asking for shorter working hours? How many men are out there asking for more money for the care jobs?” she says.

Flood, meanwhile, argues that men can benefit from groups pushing for “changes in models of masculinity”, but says “men aren’t suffering systematic discrimination or oppression, so we don’t need collective advocacy” for rights in that sense. “There are all sorts of ways in which dominant roles of masculinity are limiting for men. And harmful.”

In June 2011, Thomas Ball, a leader of a branch of the Fatherhood Coalition in the US, stood on the steps of a courthouse, doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire. In a 10,000-word “last statement”, he blamed 10 years of custody battles for his actions and advocated violent overthrow of the police, the courts and the government: “There will be some casualties in this war. Some killed, some wounded, some captured. Some of them will be theirs. Some of the casualties will be ours.”

Ball has become a hero for fathers’ rights advocates; a martyr prepared to pay the ultimate price for his beliefs. And yet, more than a year since the horrific act, the men’s movement appears no more unified or organised; they may be angrier than ever before, but the anger remains unfocused and scattershot. There is no universally accepted umbrella group, no broad doctrine on which all can agree.

In fact, in Australia, MRAs will tell you the movement has been set back this year by amendments to the Family Law Act. Ostensibly designed to increase the system’s ability to protect children from harm, fathers’ rights activists claim the changes are a politically motivated move by a feminist government to deny fathers’ rights.

Back in Parramatta, the DIDSS group has moved to a nearby takeaway. There is more talk about individual cases – good lawyers to speak to, bad lawyers to avoid, forms to complete – but discussions about how unfair “the system” is are rare. Would they like family law to protect men’s interests better? Sure they would. But this is not a political action committee, and the various concerns of the men’s rights movement are as irrelevant to these guys as the prices of haute couture in Milan. They just want to see their kids.

The mood is brighter now. The hustle and bustle of dinner peak-hour is more energising than the sombre quiet of the library, with its ominous warning signs about respecting the silence. Bitterness and worry remain, but now they’re tempered with optimism, even some humour.

“It’s the 70 million tomorrow night,” says one, referring to the OzLotto jackpot. “Bloody hell, that would change a few things.” “I’d hire the best lawyer in the world,” says another, “and just buy my kids back.” Everyone laughs but, when the guffaws die down, a prolonged silence follows.

There are worse ideas.

* Not his real name.

Percentage of mothers given sole custody

7% in litigated cases
Less than 1% in non-litigated agreements

Percentage of mothers given primary custody

59% of litigated cases
67% in non-litigated agreements

Joint custody

15% of litigated cases
18% of non-litigated cases

1% of litigated cases

Illustration: Simon Bosch

On March 15th the following letter appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Violence against men is not played down

In Guy Mosel’s article “21st century man: lost and anachronistic” (March 11), a Men’s Health Australia spokesman claimed that “[organisations such as White Ribbon] attack, diminish and downplay male victims of violence”. This is untrue and I challenge MHA to provide evidence of such attacks.

We believe that violence against men (by women or other men) is a serious problem, and we often say so. It’s just that our organisation is dedicated to eliminating a different problem, namely violence against women. We can’t do it all, but we fully support the right of MHA to challenge violence against men.

By and large the two types of violence have different causes and different impacts, and must be tackled in different ways. But if we do our bit and MHA does theirs we believe that our efforts should complement each other to help create a society that is safer, happier and more equitable for women and men.

Andrew O’Keefe Chairman, White Ribbon Australia

We sent the following letter in response but the Herald didn’t print it.

Dear Sir/Madam,

In Friday’s letter, Andrew O’Keefe from White Ribbon Australia (WRA) challenged Men’s Health Australia (MHA) to provide evidence of WRA attacking, diminishing and downplaying male victims of violence (as claimed in Guy Mosel’s article “21st century man: lost and anachronistic”).

In a Nov 2010 letter to Mr O’Keefe, we raised our concerns that WRA had sent its Ambassadors a document titled “What about the men? White Ribbon, men and violence” containing statistical errors and unreferenced claims which downplayed violence against men and boys.

Since then however we have met with the new CEO of WRA and agree that WRD and WRA should be able to work side by side with the common aim of creating a society that is safer, happier and more equitable for men, women and children.

Yours sincerely,

Men’s Health Australia


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