I spent a little time this weekend conversating with a men’s rights activist (MRA) on his insane little blog, which I posted something about here (that has now been deleted because it sucked), and I’ve decided to tackle the borderline oxymoronic concept of men’s rights activism. I’ll do my best to avoid mischaracterizations, because that’s an MRA tactic; most of their arguments are made in genuine Bill O’Reilly style by cherry-picking quotes in order to create straw men in place of legitimate arguments and by exaggerating the frequency and importance of such “outrages” as they think prove their argument that men’s rights are in serious danger of being trampled upon by “lesbians,” “feminazis,” and “lying whores” (their favorite labels for women who aren’t picking up what they’re laying down). Besides, I don’t think I’ll need to resort to any of that, since the general concept and all of its tenets are entertainingly absurd enough on their own.
Not all MRAs are advancing the same set of issues, but the Wikipedia entry (see what an advanced researcher I am?) has outlined the central features of the (capital M, capital R, capital M) Men’s Rights Movement as “the promotion of male equality, The rights to equal treatment in custody battles, rights, and freedoms in society [sic].” Their main areas of concern are “the effect that Divorce, Custody, Rape and Violence Against Women Act-type laws have on men’s rights and freedoms. It is argued that these laws cause violation of Constitutional rights such as the right to a fair trial and the right to due process [sic again, sheez].” In addition, “Men’s Rights Advocacy and Masculinism also promote the concept of ‘defending male identity’ [sic, what’s with all the capitalization?].” They’re also concerned that our education system, health industry, and laws leave them unprotected from the predations of vindictive and man-hating women. Let’s have a look at these concepts one at a time, shall we?
- The promotion of male equality. Equality with what, or whom? I have been thinking about this all day (OK, 45 seconds), and I cannot seem to come up with a group of people with higher legal, cultural, and social status than men. Are these guys honestly claiming that they are subordinated to women somehow? Whatever claims MRAs want to make about our legal system (which I’ll get to shortly), none of them can seriously claim that the status of men in our (or any) society is unequal to that of women.
- The right to equal treatment in custody battles. I’ll say up front that I think fathers, unless they’re total assholes, ought to be involved in their children’s lives. I had one around and it was an important factor in my personal development. That said, most fathers are fairly minor actors in the raising of children, which is simply a manifestation of the fact that our culture places the onus of childcare on women, and the fact that childbearing and rearing is seen in our society as nearly synonymous with womanhood. If these MRAs want to get all butt-hurt about the fact that our court system tends to favor mothers in custody hearings (which I doubt anyway), they ought to at least take these factors into account. I’m willing to bet that a lot of these disgruntled fathers, if they were honest with themselves, would have to admit that before the end of the relationship, it was the mother who provided most of the care for the child(ren), otherwise the judge would be unlikely to award custody to the mother in the first place. That men feel entitled to a woman’s labor in the form of childcare, and then to custody of the child(ren) that she raised in the event that the relationship dissolves, is pretty unreasonable. I think that in normal cases custody ought to be awarded in a ratio proportionate to the time that each parent spent with the child before the dissolution of the relationship.
- Divorce and men’s rights. We live in a society in which a large portion of women’s labor goes unpaid, and in which women’s paid labor is undervalued. Our social mores have loosened to the point where divorce is more often considered a given than an unthinkable outcome for a marriage (I ain’t saying that’s necessarily a bad thing). That combination of factors puts women in an often untenable situation: they are asked to give up their own career/life plans in order to work in the home, or to put their careers on hold in order to provide care for children, and are thus economically dependent on men, or at least put at an economic disadvantage by being out of the labor market during a crucial period in the development of their careers. That the law (partially) takes this into account is to be expected. If a woman expends her labor in order to make a home from which her partner can work outside the home to earn money, she ought to be considered to have contributed to the family’s combined property. MRAs assume women ought to be left at the mercy of their husbands in the event of divorce. I understand that they find the thought of having to give up a portion of their assets disquieting, but I imagine that fear is a little easier to deal with than the fear of being abandoned with no money and no job skills, which is something that many women, especially those in the generation before ours, are faced with. Men can’t expect the freedom to divorce dependent partners at will, and also the freedom to leave those partners with nothing with which to support themselves. And community property laws work both ways; if a woman earns a larger amount of money than a man, she may also be required to turn a portion of her income over to him after a divorce. The fact that this rarely happens doesn’t make the laws unfair, it merely points to the fact that men are still paid more than women for the most part and that women are rarely the chief breadwinners in a family because they are usually expected to take a backseat to their husbands and take care of the work required in the home.
- Rape and men’s rights. Twisty Faster wrote a post once about the legal presumption of innocence in rape cases in which she posited an alternative legal framework in which rape accusations were presumed legitimate unless proven otherwise. As at odds as that idea is with the entirety of American legal philosophy, it is worth thinking about. As things are now, as few as 10% of rapes are reported, and among those, as few as 6% of the rapes that are reported result in convictions. Those are pretty shitty odds. The reason the odds are so bad are many, but the chief reason for the low number of victims that report their assaults is the humiliation and trauma involved in most rape investigations and trials. Most rape cases come down to an accusation and a denial which, because defendants are presumed innocent, means that cases are usually decided in the defendant’s favor. I find it hard to believe that 94% or so of women who report rapes are vindictive assholes who are willing to endure being called a whore in open court in order to get back at a man who slighted them. I don’t deny that false rape accusations happen, but the numbers have to be quite a bit lower than that. Let’s say, as a joke, that 1 in 100 rape accusations is false. Without evidence other than victim testimony, that 1 in 100 is still likely to walk on the charges. But with as many as 94 in 100 cases decided in the defendant’s favor, doesn’t that mean that about 93 rapists are walking free? The MRA obsession with false rape charges, the arguments for which are usually based on overblown interpretations of extremely rare cases, points to a general reluctance to afford women the right to decide what they will do with their own bodies, a reluctance that stems from the male sense of entitlement to women’s sexual favors. It’s that same entitlement that fuels most sexual assault. Surprise, surprise. Men’s rights, gawd. How about the right to not get raped?
- Domestic violence and men’s rights. If a man beats anyone, he ought to go to jail. If a woman beats anyone, she ought to go to jail. What’s the problem? Again, this is an issue of MRAs claiming that women falsely accuse men of domestic violence out of vengeance. That probably happens sometimes. Know what happens more? Women being beaten to death by their partners, many of whom have been picked up for domestic violence several times before they eventually kill their partners. There just isn’t a way to structure the law to deal effectively and uniformly with cases in which two emotional (opposite of rational) people are giving contradictory stories, as evidenced by how many men go free on domestic violence charges when there is no corroborating evidence to back up the victim’s testimony. Our legal system favors defendants in all cases in which the case comes down to conflicting testimony, which means that more often than not, men who assault women are not punished.
- Men’s rights and the law in general. Our legal system, and its central concept of the “rights”of “citizens”, is a descendant of the ancient Roman law system that spawned both concepts and the British legal system from which our own legal tradition takes most of its central tenets. Rights in the Roman, British, and American legal systems transcend the rule of man and inhere in each citizen under a rule of law that binds all citizens equally. But citizenship has been founded on several bases throughout history, the most common of which has been maleness, the second most common being property (and/or slave) ownership. After a tradition of defining citizenship through maleness for over 2000 years, women have been awarded citizenship by men (despite the fact that legal rights purportedly transcend the rule of man) just in the last century or so in the western world. But equality before the law, which all men enjoy in America, is something that American women have not yet attained, despite being recently included in the category of “citizen” that ought to have guaranteed equality before the law according to the foundations of our own legal philosophy. We still, 43 years after the Civil Rights Act that awarded equal rights to all men under the law, do not have an Equal Rights Amendment for women. Additionally, as of today, men still make the laws in America; of 435 members of the House of Representatives, only 70 are women, and of the 100 members of the Senate, a mere 16 are women. For those who are worried about “legislating from the bench,” there is ONE woman on the Supreme Court. I find it difficult to take pity on men for their supposed lack of legal rights within a system that they have created, that they control, and that they administer according to their own needs.
- The healthcare industry. Be serious. Men run the health care industry, as evidenced by the kinds of “advances” that industry makes year after year. We have Rogaine. We have Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra. We don’t have a male birth control pill. Women are still held accountable for birth control, and most hormonal birth control methods pose serious risks to women’s health that include strokes and death. Plus, women’s health care costs more than men’s. Let’s face it, we are all in a shitty situation when it comes to health care, but men created this system, and it serves their needs better than it serves ours.
- The protection of male identity. OK, Bill Maher. I’m so sick of hearing about the “pussification” of American men. Jesus. Any time a dude treats a woman decently and realizes that the NFL is a boring, corporatized insult to the intellect, some asshole comes out and calls him a faggot. There is NO SUCH THING as a “male” or “female” behavior. All the bullshit macho nonsense these guys believe is inborn is virtually absent in cultures that are in some ways much more misogynistic than our own (India, China in some ways), but why would I expect an MRA to be interested in evidence?
- The educational system. MRAs are concerned that our educational system devalues and sidelines boys. What a fucking laugh. This argument is based on complaints that girls are allowed to wear things like “Boys are stupid” t-shirts without getting in trouble, whereas boys could do no such equivalent thing. That makes about as much sense as the old “It’s OK for black people to be racist, so why can’t I say the n-word?” argument. Don’t get me wrong, I think those t-shirts are stupid and parents shouldn’t let their daughters out of the house in something so uncool, and I suppose no one ought to be wearing fashions that denigrate any group based on immutable characteristics, but is this really a sign that our educational system is anti-male? There’s a general argument by MRAs that boys just aren’t free to be themselves at school anymore, that women run the place. They complain that girls are allowed to vent publicly about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault, and the boys “just have to sit there and take it.” What it looks like to me is that schools are trying to correct the long-standing problem of unequal treatment and rampant sexual harassment. As it is, girls are still being discouraged from pursuing subjects like mathematics and science that would bolster their future earning potential by teachers who (consciously or not) think girls ought to study “feminine” things like the humanities, and teachers still tend to call on male students more often than female students and assume that their male students are brighter than their female ones. Our entire public school system was designed in the first place to train boys for the workforce, a legacy that has far from disappeared. What these MRAs are complaining about is the gradual (though far from complete) diminishing of male privilege in schools, which they incorrectly perceive as the ascendancy of girls over boys.
This last point highlights the central feature of the MRA movement: these men see a zero-sum game when they look at relations between men and women. When women gain, they lose. MRAs are expressing the kind of anger that comes from feeling threatened but not being able to say clearly why. They feel entitled to the privileges they have come to see as their birthright, and when women want the same kind of treatment that they feel entitled to, they feel that their territory is being encroached upon. That mental process is understandable (though not excusable), but it’s intellectually weak and dishonest to argue that men’s “rights” are in danger. What these guys are doing is fairly transparent: they’re arguing for the maintenance of male entitlement and privilege and for the limitation of women’s rights vis-à-vis men, not for the protection of men’s rights. They can euphemize that in any terms they want to, but they still sound like a bunch of fucking crybabies.