Why Men’s Societies Could be a Step Forward

This post was written by Reuben Bard-Rosenberg on November 27, 2009
Posted Under: Feminism,Gender Politics

Across the left there has been an explosion of mockery and outrage at the formation of men’s societies at Oxford and Manchester universities. This is, in part, because of the reputedly dubious activities of the Manchester men’s society in particular. Equally there has been an instinctive – and to some extent reasonable – reaction against the presumed idea that men’s societies can play an equivalent role to women’s groups within a society characterised by male privelege. Jim Jepps of the Daily (Maybe) has been amongst those leading the charge. Nonetheless, it is my contention that students’ mens societies have a potentially progressive – and perhaps  even irreplaceable – role to play in the sphere of gender and in the struggle for male and female liberation.

Over on facebook, many of my friends and  comrades have joined a group set up by a number of leading student lefties to protest the creation of mens groups. The reason given for such opposition is stark. The group description states, under the subheading of ‘why?’ that ‘men are not oppressed’ before listing the huge number of ways in which women genuinely are shafted by present social circumstances. As such it is suggested, there is no need for men to explore their interests as men.

Nobody with a brain would suggest the position of men in western society is remotely comparable to that of women. Yet with this said, relations between men and women cannot and certainly should not be understood in terms of two people sharing a cake. The fact that women have less does not mean that men universally and collectively have more. And while the gendered expectations that permeate our society are clearly most oppressive to women, this does not prevent the dominant notions of masculinity from bringing shame and unfreedom to the lives of men.

This all may seem a little abstract. Yet I am reminded of some government propaganda that I witnessed from the 1920s. With Britain gripped by an  unprecendented wave of strikes, the Tory government tried to shame men into going back too work by telling the country that these hideous creatures were failing to ‘provide for their families’. A decade earlier the same men had been cojolled into the trenches with deeply gendered ideas of heroism and cowardice.  The point here, is that while the ideas of men as providers or as soldiers have characteristically confirmed the subordinate position of women, these same ideas took a heavy toll on certain men. As the gender historian John Tosh reminds us, notions of masculinity do not simply mediate relations between men and women but between men and men. In these cases, masculinity was a tool through which the men of the ruling classes could shackle the men of the lower orders. Today a man who, like millions, loses his job is faced not only with material hardship but with the cultural onslaught that arises from his failure to live up to gendered expectations.

Relations between men and women are not, I repeat, a zero sum game. That men happen to be priveleged relative to women does not mean that men cannot have a legitimate interest in collectively addressing what it means to be a man.

And thus the stated aim of the Oxford Men’s Society is to explore the meaning of masculinity today. Now we may not expect them to  come, necessarily, to the conclusions we would like -not least given rumours of ‘beer and top gear’  that surround the Manchester mens soc. Yet the fact that this question is being asked – and that a space is being created in which it can be asked, by men, is undoubtedly a step forward. If you doubt this, you need only consider the now-well-syndicated reaction of the loaded editor to the issue of men’s socs. In a statement – that for some fucked up reason was quoted approvingly by Jim JEPPS – the editor said, presumably in a deep voice:

“”I don’t think men are remotely confused about what it takes to be a man. They just get on and do it. My generation would not sit round and build a website about being confused. It’s complete navel-gazing bullshit.”

The implication is that men ‘just know’ what it is to be a man, as though it were something innate. Against this background, the idea that men might actually get together to discuss what masculinity, and perhaps even exersize some agency over its meaning surely opens an important door.

And the attitude expressed by some opponents of mens socs to the idea of men exploring masculinity is, i’m afraid, rather stupid if not appalling.  On the front page of the anti-mens socs facebook group, prominence is given to comment by Kent Student Aaron Kiely, who tells mens soc members that   ‘If you want to campaign on the issues of gender and identity, the LGBTQ society and liberation officers should be able to help you out.”   His thoughts are echoed – again quoted approvingly – by another student who asserts that “since this is more a gender identity issue than one of a bias against men as men, I agree that it falls under the remit of the LGBTQ.”

Amazingly these people cannot imagine that  heterosexual men have reasonable interest in discussing, let alone challenging the dominant gender norms. It is a view that is incredibly simplistic and in fact deeply pessimistic.  It barely needs saying that the gender roles ascribed to both sexes are indterdependent and mutually reinforcing. And if people cannot percieve the need for the 90 odd per cent of men who are heterosexual to discuss and reconsider what it means to be a man, then there is little hope of liberation for any of us.

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Reader Comments

Jacob

Superb article, Reuben. I couldn’t agree more. I mean on a broader level, part of the issue here is the reificatory role played by “liberation campaigns” in general. Think about all the shit that went on when people wanted to add the T to LBGTQ, and then even more shit when people wanted to add the Q. On a general level, these campaigns need to start seriously talking about femininities and sexualities as things that are properly qualitative and able to be theorised rather than their import being reduced to the marginalised natures of the groups they represent.

#1 
Written By Jacob on November 27th, 2009 @ 8:25 am

“The implication is that men ‘just know’ what it is to be a man, as though it were something innate.”

There is no such thing as ‘what it is to be a man’ and setting up circles of gormless university students to discuss what they should or should not be according to some unwritten rules that these chaps feel confused about because they haven’t read them wont help their self esteem, nor produce any great insights into gender theory.

If men want to think about gender that is good. If they want to whinge about how confused they are because they don’t know how they are ‘meant to be’ that is bad because they should be attempting to live authentic lives as themselves, not play acting pre-ascribed social roles.

PS I don’t subscribe to the ‘men are not oppressed’ notion because it is a simplistic black and white understanding of the oppressive function of gender roles – for a quick example see my piece in the Morning Star from a few weeks back here.

#2 
Written By jim jay on November 27th, 2009 @ 11:05 am
Vicky

Do you also support white groups on university campuses, or is it only men who have the right to organise against the liberation campaigns? How about straight societies?

In Manchester, the idea of exploring male identity is not an aim of the Men’s Society. “Creating” a male identity, however, was the primary objective under which the society attempted to register with the Students’ Union. I think you can guess exactly what the basis of that singular male identity was, without me stating the very obvious.

I also find it rather disparaging to see you refer to the “rumours” surrounding the Men’s Society here. The rumours, as all who are actually here experiencing the ill effects of the Men’s Society on the ground know, are facts. This group was formed with the aim of creating a male identity through Top Gear, gadget shoes, Iron Man and Tough Guy competitions, beard growing contests and mandatory pub crawls. These were the original stated aims of the group. The founder expressed interest in the creation of a Men’s Officer over the internet (citing it as one of the things the group would aim for), those recruiting on their freshers’ stall argued against the existence of a Women’s Officer and Women’s Groups, and support for the society was drummed up through a list of ways in which men are oppressed, which included the fact that men cannot prevent women having abortions.

If the writers of this left-wing blog wish to defend the endeavors of an evangelical Christian, two members of Conservative Future, a member of the Officer Training Corps and supporter of the Orange Lodge, and a former UKIP supporter who cites Goebbels as her favourite historical figure, then that’s very sad indeed.

I cannot for the life of me work out where your idea that these groups may have an interest in “challenging” gender norms has come from. In Manchester at least, chauvinist cries of “mysandry” amidst macho bullying of all who don’t concur, is the only qualitative impact of the Men’s Society.

All left-wing and socialist activites interested in something other than appeasing the most reactionary and harmful anti-women forces on campuses, can join this Facebook group:

http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=198504168108&topic=10496#/group.php?gid=81643431047&ref=ts

#3 
Written By Vicky on November 27th, 2009 @ 8:32 pm
Vicky

Activites is supposed to be “activists” in that last sentence.

#4 
Written By Vicky on November 27th, 2009 @ 8:35 pm

Vicky, I think Reuben made it quite clear he was not supporting the nature, form or composition of these particular groups, rather the more general concept of exploring male identity. It’s ridiculous to suggest there is no such thing as a male identity, as much as I hate Top Gear and tough guy competitions. Gender may be culturally constructed, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as ‘just being yourself’ unless you live in a vacuum completely removed from all cultural, social, religious and political influences. Even male feminists like Jim, indeed like myself, are not just being themselves, they’re reacting to cultural norms and trends precisely by defining themselves by what they’re not.

#5 
Written By Salman Shaheen on November 27th, 2009 @ 10:12 pm
Stu

Men are oppressed in may ways. The fact that society can even place limits on what men can do in regard to the formation of mens groups is evidence of that. Society thinks it has the right to make it illegal for men to freely associate or exclude who they want from their privately funded activities……while at the same time…..paying for….or subsidizing practically every type of club, gym, womens group under the sun from tax payers money as well as allowing every other groups interests.

The bottom line is that men are “forced” to pay for womens everything but are not allowed to pay for anything for themselves….if that is not oppression I don’t know what is.

#6 
Written By Stu on November 27th, 2009 @ 10:48 pm
Vicky

I don’t think it’s in the slightest bit the case that Reuben is merely supporting, as you put it, “the general concept of exploring male identity”, Salman. In fact, may I suggest that if that is indeed the case, he retracts the following:

“…students’ mens societies have a potentially progressive – and perhaps even irreplaceable – role to play in the sphere of gender and in the struggle for male and female liberation.”

“…that a space is being created in which it can be asked, by men, is undoubtedly a step forward.”

Progressive? Irreplaceable? A step forward? All of these are comments quite explicitly praising the creation of men’s societies as the vehicles for debates around gender to take place. I’m rather astounded that you would try to wiggle out of this.

Of course there is no such thing as a “male identity”, in the same way that there is no such thing as a “female identity”. Men are not inherently macho, aggressive, domineering hunters, in the same way that women are not born predisposed to like shopping and makeup. Like you say, we do not live in a vacuum and men are subject to what society expects of them according to their gender: the majority, of course, do not live up to this expectation. But gender is entirely a social construct. This means that it does not exist outside of the patriarchal society we live in and as people who wish to argue against the status quo, we don’t write articles in support of societies attempting to formulate a male identity on the basis of aiding men in the attainment of every negative quality society expects of them.

I would still like to know this: Reuben has declared these societies – not the mere exploration of gender politics, as Salman is attempting to argue – to be “positive” and “irreplaceable”. Does he think white societies can fulfill a similar role?

#7 
Written By Vicky on November 27th, 2009 @ 10:49 pm
Owain

I don’t mind at all if they feel the need to form a men’s society. I’ve never felt the need for one, but I’m not going to assume because of that no-one else does. I’m quite happy for women to have a women’s society, and men to have a men’s society. They will be different, but hey, men and women are different, and in different situations.

And yes, if whites want a white society, they can have one of them too. And be subject to the same rules of membership of all the other societies too. Again, I don’t see the need myself, but each to their own. If it’s not inciting hatred or discrimination against others, OK. If men’s groups, women’s groups, LBGT groups , or black students’ societies, or asian students’ societies, or Jewish societies, or Islamic students’ societies, or I-like-dressing-up-like-a-pirate-every-third-Sunday-in-the-month societies don’t incite hatred or discrimination against anyone, they can keep on keeping on too. If particular examples of those groups do incite hatred or discrimination against anyone, they can be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Some may well have the suspicion a men’s society would not be used for dealing with important and sensitive men’s issues, but for superficial debates and pub going nonsense (all good fun as far as I’m concerned, but fun and nothing more). But to decide that is reason alone to prevent them existing, would definitely be the oppression of prejudice onto a group. One could equally well say if no women’s groups existed, we shouldn’t allow them to form, as they’d only use it to gossip and go shoe-shopping.

A group that was protected ground for misogyny would be reprehensible, as would a group that was protected ground for misandry, or any other prejudice. But it would be tyranny not to let them try to form a men’s group, even if they fail to make it all that it could be.

#8 
Written By Owain on November 27th, 2009 @ 10:59 pm
Vicky

Stu, the only reason that women’s groups and women’s spaces should exist and receive public funding, is as an attempt to counteract the fact that we live in a society in which women are oppressed and men are not. Women-only shortlists exist as an attempt to rectify the lack of women in government. Women’s Officers in Students’ Unions exist to counteract the fact that the governing bodies of these Unions are still overwhelmingly male-dominated. Women-only gyms exist because women are intimidated, leered at, wolf-whistled at and subject to numerous sexual or offensive comments in ordinary gyms.

Men are not oppressed because small steps are being taken to ease the oppression of women. How utterly ridiculous.

“If that is not oppression I don’t know what is.” Try thinking about the group that is under-represented in every governing body in the country, is paid an average of 20% less or experiences domestic violence in huge numbers (1 in 4 women), before making up your own oppression.

#9 
Written By Vicky on November 27th, 2009 @ 11:01 pm

Vicky: I don’t think it’s in the slightest bit the case that Reuben is merely supporting, as you put it, “the general concept of exploring male identity”

It is probably fair to say that I was going a bit further than supporting “the general concept of exploring male identities”. But what is also incorrect is the implication in your posts that I expressed support for the specific mens societies that exist as they are currently constituted. Rather I was suggesting that this kind of institutional arrangement *could* play a worthwhile role. As I said, and you quoted me, ““…students’ mens societies have a potentially progressive – and perhaps even irreplaceable – role to play in the sphere of gender and in the struggle for male and female liberation.”

There is then, no need for me to engage with the accusation that i am “the endeavors of an evangelical Christian, two members of Conservative Future, a member of the Officer Training Corps and supporter of the Orange Lodge, and a former UKIP supporter who cites Goebbels as her favourite historical figure”. Put succinctly I was neither making a purely abstract point about the necessity of male self exploration, nor defending specific organisations but defending, and asserting the potential utility, of a particular institutional form. This is reasonable given the general opposition expressed in the statement ‘no to mens groups on campuses’.

#10 
Written By Reuben on November 27th, 2009 @ 11:04 pm

“But gender is entirely a social construct. This means that it does not exist outside of the patriarchal society we live in”

I would agree. But I would suggest that a crucial part of the struggle against patriarchy is creating a space – discursive and institutional – in which men and men, or men and women or women and women, can percieve such identities not as something that is innate but as things that can be discussed and perhaps affected. Since men, in the final analysis, do have an interest in questioning the dominant gendered expectations – and are affected in specific and specifically negative ways by the gender status quo, i see mens socs as a potentially useful development.

#11 
Written By Reuben on November 27th, 2009 @ 11:11 pm

And no I would not support the emergence of white societies. Can you think of any ways in which whiteness is used institutionally shames, shackle and cajole white people that is analogious to the way I describe masculinity affecting men in the original post.

If you like apples why don’t you like oranges?

#12 
Written By Reuben on November 27th, 2009 @ 11:14 pm
Vicky

Some men not adhering to the role they are expected to in society and suffering because of it, does not mean they are institutionally shamed, shackled and cajoled. That’s rather offensive. Men’s Societies don’t support suffering men; they form part of a backlash against women, in the same way that a White Society could only arise as a reaction against the fight for a society free from racism.
I still think you’re equivocating on why Men’s Societies are apparently more acceptable to cover your own double standards.

#13 
Written By Vicky on November 27th, 2009 @ 11:59 pm

Im not equivocating at all. I Have given my reasons. You have said the reasons that I have iven do not hold true, offering no reason but asserting that what I say is offensive. I do not need to ‘cover my own double standards’ because there are none.

#14 
Written By Reuben on November 28th, 2009 @ 12:22 am

The point is that being a man is different from being white, just like being white or being a man is different from being a member of the ruling class. The point is that these forms of inequality and oppression are qualitatively different. As such I see no need to justify why I would support certain institutional arrangements in relation to one but not the other.

#15 
Written By Reuben on November 28th, 2009 @ 12:25 am
AdamP

Vicky: “Men’s Societies don’t support suffering men; they form part of a backlash against women”

This may be true, but you’re still engaging with the specific example of your own society and the kinds of people – As Reuben points out above, he’s discussing the hostility to men’s groups as a concept, which are seen as having no place in a society where men are not oppressed by women, but rather the other way round. This seems mistaken, and there’s a lot to be gained by engaging with the ways that men are constricted by the gender roles – these roles are largely organised in a patriarchy to benefit those who play along, sure, but are oppressive in ways that should be obvious to any opponent of patriarchy. Currently presiding notions of masculinity have demonstrable negative effects on men, and thus men’s societies can be defended as a concept that allows expression and exploration of male identity.

This is the difference that Reuben points out between men’s societies and hypothetical white societies – It is much harder to find ways in which ‘white’ identity has a negative and damaging effect on white people, while men’s gender roles impact negatively on a whole range of situations (speaking from personal experience, the number of young men involved in volunteer childcare, for example).

So while being against the sexist and reactionary attitudes of the individuals in your society, it is also perfectly possible to be thankful that they have brought the topic of male identity into the open, and welcome the opportunity to explain why the idea of men’s societies need not be a bad one in all respects. It may be wishful thinking to suggest that lefties take over these specific societies at Oxford and Manchester, but it is by no means naive to push for more attention to be paid to the issue of masculinity and bring the negative sides such notions to the attention of a wider audience – and maybe work to bring about a culture where men’s societies could be put to good use.

#16 
Written By AdamP on November 28th, 2009 @ 12:46 am

“Men are not inherently macho, aggressive, domineering hunters, in the same way that women are not born predisposed to like shopping and makeup.”

- Gender is a social construct, sex is not. If we strip away every last cultural variable, would you really expect to find androgenous clones? No, we are a product of nature as well as nurture. It’s well documented that increased testosterone levels leads to aggressive tendencies. Of course, women can find themselves with increased testosterone levels, but it is much more common amongst men, feeding into the male culture of aggression, being driven by it, but also driving it. Simon Baron-Cohen’s work on autism – overwhelmingly a male affliction – has produced some compelling research on what he calls the ‘male’ and the ‘female’ braintype. These are his own terms, many men have what he calls a female braintype and many women have a male one, but he finds that the male brain is predominantly predisposed towards logic and systematising, whilst the female braintype is predisposed towards creativity and empathy. Hence the overrepresentation of male students on maths and science courses. Hence, when I called a meeting as Varsity’s Literature Editor, twenty female English students turned up, and not a single male. The point is, there are differences between men and women, both physically and, yes, mentally, hormonally and emotionally. Quite simply there are differences between people. This isn’t something we should be afraid to admit. And it certainly doesn’t mean we can’t argue for complete gender equality whilst accepting these differences. This is a slightly different argument to the very valid one Reuben is making, but I wanted to make it clear that although we should fight for gender equality at every level, we should not be affraid of sexual difference.

#17 
Written By Salman Shaheen on November 28th, 2009 @ 9:16 am

R “Even male feminists like Jim, indeed like myself, are not just being themselves, they’re reacting to cultural norms and trends precisely by defining themselves by what they’re not.”

I should say I don’t describe myself as a feminist – but that’s a pedantic theoretical point too far for this thread so I’ll address the rest of the sentence instead.

I think there is a different between saying that we are socially constructed individuals and denying the idea that someone can just be ‘themselves’. I don’t mean that there is an innate ‘them’ that emanates from their soul or whatever but rather I was reacting against the way these men’s societies advocates were concerned about what they ‘should’ be.

There is a world of difference between the way gender roles are ingrained into our day to day lives and the stereotypes of male identity that often fit very poorly with the reality of actual men.

Of course we’re all social creatures but the gender norms in society are far less fixed than the ideologically barren versions found in common-places such as the ‘man’s man’ ‘new man’ et al.

It seems to me that the attempt to live an authentic life is more important than the conscious attempt to conform to impossible ideals. These societies have expressly stated that men are confused about how to conform to dominant social norms. I would suggest they do not try to.

I would also suggest that because gender roles are culturally directed it means they are ours to change.

#18 
Written By jim jay on November 28th, 2009 @ 11:47 pm
Vicky

Rueben discusses everything so entirely in the abstract that it’s impossible to argue against him. He’s utterly removed from reality, otherwise he would be supporting his comrades in their struggle on the ground in Manchester, where we have recently discovered one of the Men’s Society Committee to be a fascist and our student paper has become a vehicle for anti woman hate (“she should be shaving her armpits and doing the dinner”, being an extract from the latest bit of sexism in a line of many). The Men’s Society here is fueling prejudice and what side is Reuben on? He’s living in his own imaginary world of abstracts and hypotheticals.

#19 
Written By Vicky on December 14th, 2009 @ 7:35 pm

Vicky, when the facebook group was established it moved the issue from the specific to the more general and abstract. It was not ‘no to manchester men’s societies’ but ‘no to men’s societies on campuses’.

I did not pass comment on the manchester mens society itself and were I there I would perhaps support you. But a debate DID start up and become current regarding the whole institutional form. Given such a debate did become part of the political landscape I make no apology for addressing the issue in such terms.

Comradely,

Reuben

#20 
Written By Reuben on December 14th, 2009 @ 11:56 pm
Croslandite

Vicky’s first argument seems quite naive. In order for it to stand up to scrutiny, we must believe that those who are oppressed and those who are the oppressors can be determined in simplistic, black and white terms. For example, she suggests it is no more valid to have a men’s society than it is to have a white’s society. Further, she suggests both are at odds with the ‘liberation campaigns.’

Now, I cannot disagree that, if not logically then in practice, a white’s society is clearly against the liberation campaigns, because members believe that being white makes them superior. In other words, their purpose to exist in practice is to oppress others. Black societies typically do not do this in practice; their role is normally to achieve equality and they’re normally welcoming to their white supporters. Of course, there is scope for abuse of their privileged position of trust (i.e. the power to label others as racist as a political tool) but no evidence to suggest this has ever happened.

The same cannot be said for women’s organisations. They are not merely seeking equality, because logically equality in a world where all the rules were written by men and where all the infrastructure was developed by men is not enough. If a woman only seeks equality, then they must enjoy that equality in a man made world. As such, they do not seek only equality but also fundamental changes to the world in their favour. As such, unlike black societies, women’s organisations are typically hostile even to potential support from men.

That is the reason why men’s societies must exist. Women’s societies are seeking to change the world not only to make themselves equal but also to fundamentally change society the influence for which comes from within a structure that excludes men. Men therefore need an organisation from which they can respond.

Some, certainly not all but some, feminists have dangerous ideas of female supremacy that men must be able to respond to. For example, a commonly quoted belief is that ‘all men are rapists.’ Large contingents of feminists also believe men have no role to play in the rearing of children. On a more micro level, we face issues such as biased family courts and skewed pay gap statistics that men must have a right to respond to as equals. Unless men’s societies can exist and can garner respect, then over time men will replace women as second class citizens. That, of course, will not be a permanent resolution!

#21 
Written By Croslandite on September 20th, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

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