The men's rights zeitgeist

Don't buy into this pretend battle of the sexes.

It's been one hell of a week for women. Not only did we see Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai vilified for her failure to lose her baby weight fast enough, but we also discovered that the SmoothGroove fanny protector (giving your vagina a more streamlined silhouette since 2012) was an actual product. On top of that, we have Grazia telling us to "send your butt to bootcamp", because, and we quote verbatim here, "butts are huge at the moment, both literally and trend-wise". As the inimitable Patsy Cline once yodelled (a maxim which now echoes through the karaoke bars of the north-west every Friday night): "Sometimes it's hard to be a woman." Yet, this week, we're being told that men are having a pretty tough time of it too. Maybe even a worse time, if the book The Second Sexism, by David Banatar is to be believed. Much of the coverage has suggested that men are the real victims of abuse here, you see. Unemployment affects white working class men the most, they rarely get custody of their children, and prisons are full of them (men, not children, obviously). As the feminist deity and all-round bullshit detector Suzanne Moore has pointed out, this might have something to do with men like, doing more crime.

Men's rights are, if you'll pardon us using the "media-speak" we've recently been exposed to in TV production meetings, pretty "zeitgeisty". Like your arse, men's rights are massive right now. Of course, this has been "a thing" since the Fathers4Justice superheroes first scaled a public building, reiterating in one fell swoop that irresponsible, life-endangering behaviour and silly costumes are not only newspaper-friendly, but are also not qualities many women look for in a potential birthing partner. Then we had Tom Martin suing the London School of Economics' gender studies programme for sexism, one of his complaints being that the chairs they sat on were too hard and not suitable for the comfortable positioning of his goolies. Poor Tom.

This week, alongside the incessant plugging of The Second Sexism, we have the American "National Coalition for Men" backing the Republicans' version of the Violence Against Women Act, claiming it will give the "true victims" of abuse the long sought for protection they need. These true victims? Heterosexual men, of course. Then we had Tony Parsons moaning about how having a successful partner makes men feel as though they have little willies, but that's the minor end of the spectrum when you consider the anti-woman agenda peddled by websites such as "A Voice for Men". We came across the site via RegisterHer, an online initiative which purports to be an alternative to the male-dominated sex offenders' register, in which they publicly name and shame women who have "cried rape" and label high-profile feminists as "bigots".

Their "brother site" A Voice for Men is essentially the EDL of the mens' rights movement, positing as it does such statements as "a single mother is a woman who in most cases chose to have, or to raise a child without a father. This demonstrates terrible, selfish values", and "fake boobs are a sexual advertisement. If your wife or GF wants them that means she's seeking to attract heightened male attention." It's extremist, bitter, and encourages men to "not get fucked" by taping every conversation that they have with a woman, like a troop of paranoid angry, ninja spies.

Such websites are ripe for ridicule, so it's hard to know how seriously we should be taking them. Many resemble the more radical ends of the feminist spectrum - with one crucial difference. Most feminists openly acknowledge that patriarchy is bad for men as well as women, and that concrete gender roles and unrealistic societal expectations, such as men being encouraged never to openly display emotion, are generally a bad thing. In light of that, having men splinter off to form these "cock coalitions" is rather puzzling.

Psychologist Oliver James stated that the reason for this is that men are feeling "sexually threatened". And of course, the reason so often touted for this is female emancipation - we have come too far. You only have to look at the popularity of pulling guide The Game and website The Ladder Theory- a pseudo-scientific attempt to explain the relationship dynamics between the sexes (choice quote: "Most guys know that women dig guys with money…. Women who are this way (and it is almost all of you) should be honest and admit that they are basically whores") to realise that these guys truly believe that they are under siege.

This debate is very much being set up as a battle of the sexes. Rather than joining us in our anti-sexism agenda, these men are attempting to fight back against vagina-wielding harpies by reasserting their masculinity in a way that is not only misogynistic but also deeply conservative. Fighting sexism means fighting it in all its forms in the hope that we will one day achieve an equal, happy society. Booting women back into the kitchen and stripping them of their voices will not achieve that, just as feminist bashing will not endear you to those who are engaged in fighting patriarchy and all the unpleasant consequences it holds for both men and women. Yes, stereotyping men as incompetent, emotionally illiterate buffoons is unfair, not to mention deeply impolite, but rather than engaging in a victim-war, rather than saying "I have suffered, and my suffering is of more important than yours," why not accept that we all suffer, in some way or another?

It is of course, a matter of historical fact that women have been systematically sidelined and regarded as second class citizens for much of our time on the planet, but here at the Vagenda, we also recognise that it must be terribly upsetting to be repeatedly told that you can't multitask. Which is why we're going to put ridiculing the anti-abortion lobby to one side for the time being and make this all about you guys. It's what you wanted right? You are, after all, the zeitgeist.

Neil Strauss, the author of The Game, a pulling guide for men. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty Images
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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.