A semi-balanced look at men’s rights

Originally posted on January 25, 2013

The Atlantic’s Stephanie Fairyington, who is also the co-founder and editor of The Slant, wrote a piece about Mel Feit, the founder of the National Center for Men. The piece is somewhat balanced. While Fairyington did not skewer Feit in their article as many feminists writing about the men’s rights movement would do, she does try to score several points by presenting a skewed view of the movement and citing anti-MRAs like Amanada Marcotte.

According to her piece, Fairyington first profiled Feit for Elle magazine in 2007 and 2010 regarding Feit’s support for “Roe v. Wade for Men.” This was a legal petition to allow men who did not want to become fathers to severe their parental rights. The petition was roundly mocked and failed.

Feit invited Fairyington to the 25th anniversary dinner for NCM. AS Fairyington described:

I arrive at the gathering at 4 p.m. on December 17 to a group of about ten men, casually dressed, imbibing tea and coffee and chatting around a long wooden table. My entrance is met with restrained courtesy—and a perceptible cloud of suspicion. Why, they must wonder, would I, a lesbian feminist, want to break bread at their masculinist table? As cautiously as I tread their terrain and as much as I disagree with most of their politics, I believe that some of their views are in the interest of feminism.

She later went on to state:

As a feminist, it’s hard not to wince at some of the assertions Mel and his fellow MRAs make. For one thing, they continually err in thinking that feminism’s ongoing quest to remedy the injustices and imbalance of power between the sexes are meant to disempower them. And they often draw pat conclusions from skewed observations.

Take Charles, for example. He thinks it’s a “trick” of feminism that “if there are more women than men in a profession, women are blazing the way; but if there are more men than women in a given field, men are oppressors.” How’s that for reductionism?! Then there’s Roy. He recalls an incident from the 1970s that made him realize that “something is going wrong” in this country: A relative returned from the war, and on his first day back in the job force, he asked a woman on a date and was fired for sexual harassment. Narratives like these—and they abound in the men’s movement—lack historical context and philosophical nuance and seem chillingly misogynistic.

These sort of anecdotes pepper the article, and that is why I find semi-balanced. Fairyington allows that Feit may have a point on some issues, like the draft, but that seems to stem from her belief that he is difference than the “typical” men’s rights activist. As she stated in the article, “Unlike most MRAs, Mel’s a liberal democrat who supports a woman’s right to choose and equal rights for LGBT people.”

While I do not follow most men’s rights blogs, from what I have read, there is little to suggest what political spectrum most activists side with, what political party they belong to, or necessarily what their position on abortion is (if the latter should even matter).

Fairyington argued that men’s rights activists “seem blind to the vast power differential that has historically positioned men above women—and continues to in much of the world, including in our own country. They also seem unfamiliar with the innumerable ways men have deployed their greater power to enslave, exploit, demean, limit, and hurt women. That’s not to say that some women don’t manipulate or abuse the laws and policies that are meant to protect them, but those women are the exception, not the rule.” Yet she seems equally blind to that herself.

Take Charles’ complaint: whenever women outnumber men, this is taken as a sign of progress.  At a 2012 commencement speech, President Obama stated, “In fact, more women as a whole now graduate from college than men. This is a great accomplishment—not just for one sport or one college or even just for women but for America. And this is what Title IX is all about.”

How is that great? The reason more women graduate than men is because fewer men enter college and fewer men finish their degree. The reason that happens is because of gender biases against men that prompt them to lose interest or give up. Again, how is that great? How does it benefit our country if there are a third more women in college than men, and significant number of those college men drop out?Better yet, what is the “historical context and philosophical nuance” that makes men dropping out of school acceptable? What makes it “chillingly misogynistic” to point out that since the ratification of Title IX men have done worse in all levels of education compared to women?

Where is the sexism in Roy stating that he was fired for sexual harassment after asking a female co-worker on a date? We do not have any context about how Roy approached the woman, but let us assume he did the usual fare for the 1970s. Other than asking out a woman who was not interested in him, what did Roy do wrong? Where is the “chillingly misogyny” in pointing out that there is something off about firing a person for the one-time offense of asking someone out?

The historical context in Charles’ situation is simply that people feel that women have been oppressed, and so anytime women are in the majority people justify it with the philosophical nuance that it makes up for that oppression, even if their majority results from or in the direct discrimination against men. In Roy’s case, it is simply that some women were harassed, and so the attitude is that any sexual interest in women by men at work is harassment. The reverse does not apply, and most people, including feminists, balk at the notion that women can sexually harass men, let alone that women should face any legal course if a man complains.

Fairyington did concede one point:

But I wonder if feminism’s assumption that being male necessarily situates men at an advantage makes it harder for feminism to address the struggles unique to men. By diminishing male-specific challenges, feminists fail to recognize that women’s progress hinges on understanding that antiquated standards of masculinity hurt both sexes and are linked to men’s unstable relationship with the family.

However, that view fails to note feminism’s impact on how society treats men. After 40 years of feminism at the forefront of culture, no feminist can claim that feminism plays no role in the current state of our culture. Many of the negative responses in the comments on the article are tried and true feminist talking points. They are routinely seen in feminist spaces whenever men’s rights are mentioned.

As much as Fairyington and other feminists want to avoid it, the simple truth is that feminism has had a negative impact on how we view and treat men, and that in turn created or worsened things for some men in some areas.

This is not to say that every complaint is valid. It is only to say that starting from the position that men’s rights activists are extremists with few valid concerns while feminists are rationalists with only valid concerns gets us nowhere. We must take these issues seriously, and we must also stop defining groups by their most extreme wings. It takes no effort to find some loony comment from feminists, which are more likely to appear in print or on TV in reputable media outlets than anything men’s rights activists say, and skewer it. The better analysis is that of the mainstream, the middle of the group, and the same is true of the men’s rights movement.

As we see with Mel Feit, who is the mainstream of the men’s rights movement, some of his points are valid, some are out there, but clearly the man is genuinely concerned and not a raving lunatic (much to Amanda Marcotte’s dissatisfaction).

It is great that Fairyington did not paint Feit as such on  personal level, but it is unfortunate that she kind of painted his views as such.

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11 thoughts on “A semi-balanced look at men’s rights

  1. I know it was a short article…

    when it touched on the idea of a “paper abortion”–it didn’t mention that men have less birth control options-sure condoms can be used but they can break. Sure a man can get a vasectomy but that may be permanent should a man later decide he wants children. Women have better birth control available and barring that, they can still legally obtain an abortion….

  2. More interesting I find with the idea is that ‘keep it in your pants’ is often suggested as an option for men, however when applied to women it’s either misogyny or so implausible in the modern world as to be unworkable.

  3. “As we see with Mel Feit, who is the mainstream of the men’s rights movement, some of his points are valid, some are out there”

    Just for my own curiosity, what are some of Mr. Feit’s positions that you think are “out there”? I don’t think it’s outlandish to give a man the opportunity to opt out of parental obligations if he so chooses. Men have been sued for child support after sperm they donated conceived a baby–why should that happen? Certainly ending one’s legal obligations to a baby is less extreme than aborting that baby, a right that is well within the mainstream of current American thought.

  4. Just for my own curiosity, what are some of Mr. Feit’s positions that you think are “out there”?

    I think Mel’s concern over the clothes men can wear is a little much. It is important to most men that they have means of separating themselves from women. One of those means is their clothing. While I agree that men are limited in what they can wear, the notion that men need to be able to dress in “feminine” ways ignores the reasons why men began dressing as they do: it was a symbol of their status and an attempt to mimic men who were considered “manly.” If you want men to wear “feminine” clothing, find a man they respect and get him to wear such clothing. It will not take long for other males to copy his style.

  5. I think Mel’s concern over the clothes men can wear is a little much.

    Tell that to the transgender community – which is significantly more marginalized than women. Try getting a job wearing a skirt. The term “glass ceiling” wouldn’t do it justice.

    If you want men to wear “feminine” clothing, find a man they respect and get him to wear such clothing.

    How? How do you “get him” to wear something he doesn’t want to wear? Who’s the role model for the role models?

    It will not take long for other males to copy his style.

    He’ll either just lose that respect or he’ll be given a kind of celebrity-eccentricity pass and it’ll be swallowed as a “quirk”.

    The reason this fails is that it’s not men who enforce the clothing standard but women. The same women who would go ballistic if a man dared to deny them the right to wear trousers, tend to go just as ballistic if a man wears a skirt.
    Why do you think men are pressured to look “manly” and by whom? And who do you think decides what is manly?

    They say women are far ahead of men in expanding their gender roles. Well, men are far ahead of women in accepting partners with expanded gender roles. It’s time to demand women do some of their homework too and it’s REALLY time to stop laying it at the feet of men.
    I suggest you talk to the transgender community for more insight.

  6. Adi, the transgender community would not provide much insight as they wish to be considered the opposite sex. Most men have no intention of being thought of as feminine, let alone female.

    As for getting a well-respected man to wear “feminine” clothing, that actually is not that difficult. Many “man’s men” already do such things. The difference is the approach. For example, most men would balk at wearing a skirt, but probably would consider wearing a kilt. They are the same thing, but one has a feminine aspect attached to it, and the other was what Mel Gibson wore in Braveheart. Also, look at glam metal in the 1980s. That caught on like wildfire.

    It is all about context and understanding that many men simply may have no interest in wearing women’s clothes.

  7. the transgender community would not provide much insight as they wish to be considered the opposite sex.

    While it is true that those who are actually the opposite sex are a tiny minority, I’m not talking about them though. The vast majority are people who just want the freedom to not be constrained to the narrow definition of “man”. Clothes are an obvious expression of that. Thoughts of TS might go through their minds – but not because they are the opposite sex, rather because they often see no other way to be free. The way I see it, they are the true MGTOWs.

    I can only repeat my suggestion to look at the community, talk to them or just read their stories and you’ll see what their concerns are. I think you’d be surprised how many there really are. You might like the dark side of the force more than you expected.

    As for getting a well-respected man to wear “feminine” clothing, that actually is not that difficult.

    I ask again: how?
    Try and see it from an individual’s point of view. Here’s man who wants the freedom to wear feminine clothes. How does he get a celebrity to take the first step? And why should he not address this as a legitimate issue facing men? You think people haven’t died or been assaulted or incarcerated for wearing the wrong clothes? Really?

    most men would balk at wearing a skirt, but probably would consider wearing a kilt. They are the same thing

    I think this is a distorted picture. Leaving aside the fact that a kilt and a skirt are not at all the same thing (one important difference is again the variety), the men you describe who would “balk at wearing a skirt” but “consider” wearing a kilt, are a small minority – and if they wear a kilt it would have to be part of the full costume/outfit among others doing the same thing. Just like Mel Gibson basically. That would have been a better example had he done so in Lethal Weapon.

    many men simply may have no interest in wearing women’s clothes.

    You did not just use an appeal to numbers there. Besides, I think you underestimate the number. The reason they seem rare is because, just like male abuse victims, they get shamed for coming out and pay a heavy social and professional price if they do. I’m surprised you of all people are so quick to rely on numbers-visible-to-outsiders.

    Here’s all you really need to know:
    1) It’s a case of sex discrimination and denial of freedom.
    2) It affects many men’s lives negatively – some very tragically.
    3) It’s a symptom of the same very problem you have to deal with when trying to get male abuse victims taken seriously: narrow gender roles and male disposability.
    4) Individuals like you not being affected by it, says absolutely nothing about its validity and seriousness as a men’s issue.

    From what I’ve read of your writing, I can’t believe you can look at those points and still dismiss it as “out there”.

  8. While it is true that those who are actually the opposite sex are a tiny minority, I’m not talking about them though. The vast majority are people who just want the freedom to not be constrained to the narrow definition of “man”.

    I do not think that is the case. There is a difference between wanting to wear different types of clothes, being transsexual, and being transgender. The first is a desire for variety, the second is specific desire to take on the opposite sex’s characteristics, and the third is the belief that one is the opposite sex. The last two would not help most men because they have no interest in being perceived as feminine or female.

    Try and see it from an individual’s point of view. Here’s man who wants the freedom to wear feminine clothes.

    Ah, now I see the issue. Do not think about a man wanting the freedom to wear feminine clothing. Most men do not think like that. Think about it as a man not wanting a particular article of clothing deemed “feminine.” Then it becomes quite easy to have a cultural shift. As long as the respected man is still presenting himself as masculine, many men will adopt the look.

    I pointed out glam metal before, but there is another incidentally subversive example. Judas Priest helped make leather and metal synonymous. Rob Halford dressed in leather as an expression of his homosexuality, yet most of the fans had no idea whether the leather came from. This prompted scores of men and boys to dress in skin-tight leather gear that they thought was the pinnacle of masculinity, even though if they saw a gay man dressed the same way they might think differently.

    I think this is a distorted picture. Leaving aside the fact that a kilt and a skirt are not at all the same thing (one important difference is again the variety), the men you describe who would “balk at wearing a skirt” but “consider” wearing a kilt, are a small minority – and if they wear a kilt it would have to be part of the full costume/outfit among others doing the same thing.

    It depends in part on the circumstances and culture. For example, most Japanese men would have no problem wearing a kimono, but most western men would consider it feminine. However, let us say western men did not consider the kimono a “dress.” Some might then consider it acceptable clothing because while others might find it “silly,” it is still considered masculine.

    You did not just use an appeal to numbers there.

    Two points. One, we are discussing whether men want to wear women’s clothing, so it is reasonable and logical to point out that most men do not want to wear women’s clothing. We cannot claim men in general have a problem with not being able to wear certain clothing if they have no interest in wearing that clothing. Two, you cannot object to an appeal to numbers while using it yourself (“the men you describe […] are a small minority” and “I think you underestimate the number”).

    Besides, I think you underestimate the number. The reason they seem rare is because, just like male abuse victims, they get shamed for coming out and pay a heavy social and professional price if they do. I’m surprised you of all people are so quick to rely on numbers-visible-to-outsiders.

    I am not. I am instead relying on men’s actual behavior, particularly in situations where they have the option to dress however they want. Again, I think you misrepresent the problem. A small number of males seem interested in wearing “feminine” clothing. Most men and boys seem more interested in being perceived as male, and therefore will not wear clothing that would socially hurt their masculinity. The proper question in that instance is whether men and boys would certain clothes and colors if they were not associated with femininity. I think the answer is yes, and again that is based on men’s actual behavior. Other cultures dress in different ways, and what may be considered feminine in one culture may be hyper masculine in another.

    Also, the comparison male victimization does not work because the predominant factor at play has nothing to do with male survivors wanting to be like or be perceived as feminine or female. That some men want to gender bender does not mean that it is a serious men’s issue precisely because it is not representative of the general male experience or opinion. You can argue that those men ought to be able to dress how they want, but to say that all men want to dress that way because a few do is not a very good argument.

  9. There is a difference between wanting to wear different types of clothes, being transsexual, and being transgender. The first is a desire for variety, the second is specific desire to take on the opposite sex’s characteristics, and the third is the belief that one is the opposite sex.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the world came packaged in neatly discrete sets?

    Do not think about a man wanting the freedom to wear feminine clothing. Most men do not think like that.

    Speak for yourself. And even if that were true for all but a negligible minority, that still does not mean there is no issue.

    Think about it as a man not wanting a particular article of clothing deemed “feminine.”

    And why do you think that is? The reality is that you just can’t know what men would want so long as their choices are accompanied by such risks. In other words, you can only know what “most men want to wear” if they can pick their clothes (feminine/masculine/whatever) as freely as women can (women aren’t 100% free either). Then and only then can you claim to have an idea of what men want to wear.

    it is reasonable and logical to point out that most men do not want to wear women’s clothing.

    It is not for the reasons I gave above. It’s like saying “most North Koreans don’t want to travel and see the world”. Only not as extreme but just as false.

    you cannot object to an appeal to numbers while using it yourself (“the men you describe […] are a small minority” and “I think you underestimate the number”).

    I did nothing of the sort. Just using a quantitative description does not make that statement an appeal to numbers.
    You’re effectively using an appeal to numbers to justify why an issue is not serious. I.e. “this issue is not important because many people aren’t affected by it”.
    The truth value rests entirely on a quantity.

    When I used what you falsely claim to be an appeal to numbers, I was responding to this:

    most men would balk at wearing a skirt, but probably would consider wearing a kilt. They are the same thing

    Lets break that down:
    You’re describing all men who have the two characteristics: 1) they would balk at wearing a skirt and 2) would probably consider wearing a kilt.

    Then you claim that that subset constitutes a majority of all men (“most”).

    I believe that claim is false and so I made a counter claim saying that that subset is a “small minority”. That is NOT an appeal to numbers. It’s simply a disagreement with your characterization of that subset as a majority. For it to be an appeal to numbers, I would have had to draw some conclusion from that assertion.

    You, on the other hand, did draw a conclusion – namely that the issue is not important. And you reassert that conclusion. Curiously, you never tell us what the actual number is that is required for it to qualify as a serious issue.

    the comparison male victimization does not work because the predominant factor at play has nothing to do with male survivors wanting to be like or be perceived as feminine or female.

    I didn’t say that. I described it a symptom of narrow gender roles. Now how is that not also a symptom of the mainstream dismissal of male abuse victims?

    That some men want to gender bender does not mean that it is a serious men’s issue precisely because it is not representative of the general male experience or opinion.

    Ok, there are several errors in that:

    1) Wanting the freedom to wear clothes most people consider “feminine”, does not imply wanting to “gender bender”. No, it really doesn’t.

    2) Nobody said “some men wanting to gender bender” is an issue.

    3) Something not being “representative of the general male experience” does not disqualify it from being a serious issue. A brief thought will easily turn up counter examples.

    You can argue that those men ought to be able to dress how they want, but to say that all men want to dress that way because a few do is not a very good argument.

    That is a classic straw man.

    To finish off, I’ll repeat the list I made above because I think you must have missed it:

    Here’s all you really need to know:
    1) It’s a case of sex discrimination and denial of freedom.
    2) It affects many men’s lives negatively – some very tragically.
    3) It’s a symptom of the same very problem you have to deal with when trying to get male abuse victims taken seriously: narrow gender roles and male disposability.
    4) Individuals like you not being affected by it, says absolutely nothing about its validity and seriousness as a men’s issue.

    From what I’ve read of your writing, I can’t believe you can look at those points and still dismiss it as “out there”.

  10. Speak for yourself. And even if that were true for all but a negligible minority, that still does not mean there is no issue.

    As far as we can observe, the majority of men appear to have no interest in dressing in women’s clothing. Likewise, the social dislike of gender bending may be an issue for the few people who want to do it, however, that does not mean it is a serious issue.

    And why do you think that is?

    Many reasons, but two specific ones come to mind: cultural norms and male identity. The first is obvious. Cultural norms would make people avoid doing things that would ostracize them. The second, however, is the more likely reason. Most males want to be perceived as male. They do not want their masculinity challenged. Even men interested in breaking down “gender roles” do not want their status as men questioned. Therefore, they will avoid doing things that would prompt such questions.

    The reality is that you just can’t know what men would want so long as their choices are accompanied by such risks.

    That assumes that there are such risks, that the risks are so great as to prompt men from doing the act, and that men’s choice not to do the act is directly informed by said risks. However, If we cannot know what men want, how can we know what they choose to do or why they choose to do it?

    In other words, you can only know what “most men want to wear” if they can pick their clothes (feminine/masculine/whatever) as freely as women can (women aren’t 100% free either). Then and only then can you claim to have an idea of what men want to wear.

    That assumes that men cannot pick their clothes as freely as women can. That is not entirely true. That depends on the context and situation.

    It is not for the reasons I gave above. It’s like saying “most North Koreans don’t want to travel and see the world”. Only not as extreme but just as false.

    That analogy fails because plenty of men do choose to wear women’s clothing, whereas North Koreans cannot just leave their country. In the former, we have actions we form conclusions from, whereas in the latter we do not.

    Just using a quantitative description does not make that statement an appeal to numbers.

    I agree, which is why I pointed out that you accused me of using an appeal to numbers for simply using a quantitative description and then you proceeded to use the same kind of description.

    You’re effectively using an appeal to numbers to justify why an issue is not serious. I.e. “this issue is not important because many people aren’t affected by it”.

    No, I am not. I stated, “It is all about context and understanding that many men simply may have no interest in wearing women’s clothes.” There is no conclusion drawn, only the statement that many or most men have no desire to dress like women.

    In any case, my argument would not count as an example of ad populum because the question is the importance of the issue to men. In other words, we are asking whether men in general are concerned about not being able to wear women’s clothing and to what degree. It does not appear that most men are interested in wearing women’s clothing, even in situations where they can do it without question. Therefore, it seems odd to argue that this is such a pressing issue for men in general.

    I didn’t say that. I described it a symptom of narrow gender roles.

    You stated, “It’s a symptom of the same very problem you have to deal with when trying to get male abuse victims taken seriously: narrow gender roles and male disposability.” That is not the same problem at all. One involves a person deliberately dressing in a way to question social conformity and then being judged for doing so, while the other involves a person having an act done to them against their will and then being judged for the act having occurred. The latter is the symptom of narrow gender roles; the former is the result of someone questioning social norms.

    Wanting the freedom to wear clothes most people consider “feminine”, does not imply wanting to “gender bender”. No, it really doesn’t.

    You wrote, “While it is true that those who are actually the opposite sex are a tiny minority, I’m not talking about them though. The vast majority are people who just want the freedom to not be constrained to the narrow definition of ‘man’. Clothes are an obvious expression of that.” That statement suggests that the issue is not wanting to wear certain clothes just for the sake of wearing them but wanting to wear certain clothes as an expression of opposition to the cultural definition of “man” in order to bend that definition into something new that now includes feminine aspects. In other words, gender bending.

    Nobody said “some men wanting to gender bender” is an issue.

    You did when you wrote, “The vast majority are people who just want the freedom to not be constrained to the narrow definition of ‘man’. Clothes are an obvious expression of that.”

    Something not being “representative of the general male experience” does not disqualify it from being a serious issue.

    I did not say that it did. I said that a few men wanting to do something does not automatically or inherently make it a serious men’s issue.

    That is a classic straw man.

    If your position is that this is a concern for most men or should be, then my statement is not a straw man.

    As for your list, the logic is flawed. Here is how, and I apologize in advance for the egregious comparison:

    Here’s all you really need to know about adults who want to have sex with children not being able to do so:

    1) It’s a case of age discrimination and denial of freedom.
    2) It affects many adult’s lives negatively – some very tragically.
    3) It’s a symptom of the same very problem you have to deal with when trying to get gay people or polygamists taken seriously: narrow social roles.
    4) Individuals like you not being affected by it, says absolutely nothing about its validity and seriousness as a issue.

    Again, I apologize, however, I used that example to show easily one could claim anything is a pressing problem by listing four politically-motivated talking points. I think serious issues deserve a better explanation.

  11. I don’t know Mr. Feit’s specific argument, but I think it’s within the purview of a men’s movement to argue that men should not be ridiculed, threatened, or beaten for wearing arbitrarily disallowed clothing.

    Moreover, after seeing “You like being able to wear pants, don’t you!?” as a reason why women should be feminists, I can’t help but think it’s a relevant counter-observation that men can’t wear skirts in most places without being seen as shocking gender transgressors.

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