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.

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Leader: On capitalism and insecurity

The truth behind Philip Green's business practices is out, as Theresa May pledges to ensure the benefits of growth are shared amongst workers.

Although it sounds contradictory, we should count ourselves lucky to read about the hideous business practices at Sports Direct and the management failures that led to the collapse of British Home Stores (BHS). Such stories are hard to investigate and even harder to bring out into the open. That both firms were excoriated by select committees proves that parliament still has teeth.

It is less comforting to wonder why the two retailers were allowed to operate as they did in the first place. Sports Direct pursued “Victorian” working practices, according to Iain Wright, the chair of the committee on business, innovation and skills. The firm is being investigated over allegations that it did not pay the National Minimum Wage, while staff were treated in a “punitive” and “appalling” manner. They were penalised for taking breaks to drink water, and some claimed that they were promised permanent contracts in ­exchange for sexual favours.

Days later, another select committee castigated Sir Philip Green, the former owner of BHS, describing what had happened at the company as the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. The Green family extracted more than £300m from BHS – “systematic plunder”, according to the parliamentary report – even as its pension fund was accumulating a deficit of £571m. Although the committee also criticised Dominic Chappell, who bought BHS a year ago, it concluded: “The ultimate fate of the company was sealed on the day it was sold.”

It would be easy to dismiss Sports Direct and BHS as isolated cases. Yet there is an important connection between them and it is one that illuminates the tides in British politics. Both highlight how economic insecurity has become central to the lives of far too many people in the UK.

Sports Direct treated workers with contempt and left them terrified of losing their employment. The downfall of BHS, meanwhile, cost 11,000 workers their jobs and left its pensioners needing government assistance. Sir Philip Green retains his title, although the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has called for it to be rescinded. After all, the committee found “little to support the reputation for retail business acumen for which he received his knighthood”.

In this climate, it is easy to understand the widespread mistrust of private companies. As the business, innovation and skills select committee report concluded: “Although Sports Direct is a particularly bad example of a business that exploits its workers in order to maximise its profits, it is unlikely that it is the only organisation that operates in such a way.”

Anger about the behaviour of companies such as BHS and Sports Direct is rife and was palpable during last month’s referendum on the European Union. In Bolsover, the constituency in which Sports Direct has its main warehouse, 71 per cent of voters opted to leave the EU. Little wonder that voters there did not feel inclined to listen to warnings from the same big businesses that treated them and other people they knew so badly. The company, whose buildings occupied the site of a former coal tip pit, also relied on immigrants who would be less able to insist on employment rights.

Now that the problems have been elucidated so clearly, we must strive to find solutions. As Britain negotiates its exit from the EU, the hard-won labour gains of the 20th century – workers’ rights, provision of state pensions and the minimum wage – must be protected and expanded.

The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has rightly taken heed of public anger against corporate greed. She has pledged (in statements that could have come from Ed Miliband) to curb irresponsible behaviour and ensure that the benefits of growth are shared. She has supported ideas such as worker representatives on company boards and strengthening the power of shareholders by making their votes on director ­remuneration binding, rather than advisory.

While the Conservatives audaciously try to portray themselves as the “workers’ party”, Labour must campaign hard to ensure that Mrs May backs up her promising rhetoric with meaningful policies. For the good of the nation, business leaders such as Sir Philip Green and Mike Ashley of Sports Direct must be held to account for their actions.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue