Two weeks ago I went to New York to give two talks about my research with men’s anti-sexist groups. The first was by invitation of the Women’s Empowerment student group at Fordham University, the second was at SUNY Stonybrook’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities. Having presented some of my research at conferences for sociologists and gender studies scholars, I was really exciting to get to discuss my results with a student activist groups and a group of scholars that specifically researches men and masculinities. I was hopeful that I’d find new ways to make my research useful to people actually working on the ground, and I was not at all disappointed!
The conversations we had after those talks inspired me to do something a little different with this post. I won’t say too much about either presentation, other than to thank everyone who was involved in putting them together and everyone who attended, and to mention that the video for the CSMM talk is online. There were some similar questions after both talks, though, which I do want to say a bit about, in hopes of starting a conversation here. The questions I was asked were things like: Is it better to have a co-ed group or separate groups? How can our men’s group support our women’s group while making sure we’re not getting in their way? How do we make sure we’re accountable to them without burdening them or asking them to babysit us? How do we give our male/masculine-identified members a chance to think, talk, and learn about their own gendered lives without losing focus on sexism, women’s experiences, and feminist analysis?
Messner’s “The Limits of “The Male Sex Role” highlights the importance of these kinds of issues. He shows how the men’s liberation movement, an ally movement which peaked in the late 1970s-1980s, struggled “from the outset [because] there were obvious strains and tensions from the movement’s attempt to focus simultaneously on men’s institutional power and the ‘costs of masculinity’ to men” (p. 256). Losing the focus on the ways sexism harms women, he explains, allows men’s politics to slide into anti-feminist “men’s rights” activism. So, for our groups, focusing too much on how patriarchy hurts men or how they benefit from working to end sexism can actually mean forgetting about social change and anti-sexist activism. On the other hand, going too far in the other direction, focusing exclusively on women’s experiences of oppression, risks making members it hard for men to see how it relates to their own lives, what they can do, or where their own lives and interests are aligned with women’s.
A similar tension I found in my own research was that both of the men’s groups I studied struggled about how to be accountable to women without asking women to do too much work for them. One group’s members told me they tried to be very careful not “put the burden of talking about sexism on women,” but as a consequence they “weren’t as involved [with women’s groups or concerns] as we could’ve been. . .I feel embarrassed to say that.” The other group, though, erred too far in the other direction, asking for so much oversight from women that they hardly accomplished anything unless women were involved and doing a lot of the logistics and organizing work.
In addressing these kinds of issues, I think the first important thing to note is that every situation is different and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to these kinds of problems: as the folks on the internet say, YMMV. The other thing is to just point out that this is a problem a lot of people and groups are struggling with. It may well be one of the core challenges in men’s gender justice organizations, and it may not really have a solution. Hopefully it helps to know you are not alone.
What I suggested to the folks I was talking with in New York is that, once aware of this issue, it may be possible to creatively tack back and forth, like a boat navigating against the wind. This could mean alternating gender-segregated meetings with co-ed meetings, or meetings focused on self-education/consciousness-raising with meetings focused on organizing events. You could start with one meeting where the guys meet together and talk about how gender-based violence has impacted their lives, how they’ve felt pressured to comply to masculine norms, or what to do when a friend discloses their experience of sexual violence. The next meeting could be spent organizing a supply drive, a public education project, or some other externally-oriented event. These could also work really nicely together, like if one week was viewing and discussing a film or blog and the next is planning an event to bring that discussion to a wider audience. Or, the second week could be a meeting with a women’s organization, where a (very) few minutes are spent telling them about the guys-only meeting and the rest is spent supporting the women’s group with whatever they’re working on (and supporting may just mean sitting back and listening sometimes).
Another really useful part of the conversations that came from these presentations was about practical ways men and men’s groups can support women and women’s groups without making more work for them, centering men, or taking leadership roles and projects away from women. I pointed out that there is a long history of women supporting other social justice causes, and a lot of critique of how when men are in the group women often get disproportionately relegated to making coffee and copies. Maybe men who want to support the feminist movement and women’s groups should start by doing these kinds of important but unrewarded support tasks, to take the onus off of women and give men a chance to just listen and learn from women’s experiences.
I’d love to hear other folks’ thoughts and experiences about this accountability/burden concern, or any of the other questions or issues above. Please contribute to that conversation below; feel free to also post queries about other problems you’re running into, or other conversations you’d like to see here!