This International Men’s Day, let’s all agree that masculinity isn’t working

If we care at all about men and boys – and if men and boys care about themselves – it’s time to drop the pretence.

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It’s International Men’s Day, when patriarchs the world over count the cost of being the dominant class, find it to be unconscionably high, feel a bit sad, then carry on regardless. Have a good one, men, for tomorrow it’s back to pretending that when you say “people”, you mean women, too.

I realise that this could sound harsh. It’s not that I don’t empathise with how tough it must be to find oneself stuck at the top of a gender hierarchy. Just as money can’t buy you happiness, neither can the systematic exploitation of female bodies and labour. That’s why, along with Emergency Aid for Rich People, we desperately need an International Men’s Day. I don’t begrudge you that. I just wish it could be done a little differently.

The official theme for this year’s IMD is Making a Difference for Men and Boys. The unofficial theme, currently being pushed by A Voice for Men, is Expanding Reproductive Options for Men. Yes, I know. Reproductive options for men, at a time when 47,000 women die every year due to complications of unsafe abortion and 830 die each day due to preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. A Voice for Men are a right bunch of comedians, aren’t they? Still, at least they’re not the only MRAs on offer. As most of us will be aware – and as these two examples show – there’s good men’s rights activism and then there’s the bad sort.

The good sort provides us with a through the looking-glass version of liberal feminism, led by cheery therapist types such as Steve Biddulph. It’s all about making sure boys have good male role models, look up to their fathers, and keep rough and tumble play within reasonable boundaries (not that you’d mind, obviously, but still). The bad sort is all about hating on women because your ex-wife was a bitch and now she’s expecting you to pay child support and how do you even know that those kids are yours. The major issues of concern for these MRAs are family law (biased), rape (false accusations) and violence (women’s) ie all the issues with which radical feminism concerns itself, only played out in some parallel universe, where over 90 per cent of violent crime is committed by women (can you imagine the trauma of growing up male in a world like that?).

If, like me, you are both a feminist and a mother of boys, it’s hard not to feel pressured to get behind the “good” version. After all, it’s not as if you don’t care about men’s higher suicide rates, greater exposure to violent crime and shorter life expectancy, is it? So what could you have against efforts to “highlight discrimination against men in areas of social services, social attitudes and expectations and law”? Isn’t it time, as Glen Poole puts it, for “the women’s sector to share the gender equality pie”? If women are seeking to liberate themselves from patriarchal oppression, isn’t it time for men to liberate themselves from, um, matriarchal oppression?

Actually, I think the answer to this is no.

If we care at all about men and boys – and if men and boys care about themselves – it’s time to drop the pretence. The systematic brutalisation of men and boys is not an equivalent to the oppression of women and girls; it is the price men pay to be the dominant class. Male socialisation is horrific, but it does not happen by accident and no amount of “highlighting positive male role models” can undo the harm this does. If men are, to quote Andrea Dworkin, “turned into little soldier boys from the day [they] are born”, it is because this is necessary for the maintenance of their power as a class.

Of course, the usual cry goes up: “How can male supremacy be real when men and boys are suffering? Why would men seek to protect something that causes them harm?” Patriarchy’s fetishisation of power can make it difficult to recognise that unhappiness can be an outcome of needing to fight to retain it. The desire to separate male violence from male suffering stands in the way of a clear analysis of what hurts men the most. As Dworkin points out, male supremacy requires men to enter into a cycle of violence and alienation:

“It means you can rape. It means you can hit. It means you can hurt. It means you can buy and sell women. It means that there is a class of people there to provide you with what you need. […] Now, the men's movement suggests that men don't want the kind of power I have just described. I've actually heard explicit whole sentences to that effect. And yet, everything is a reason not to do something about changing the fact that you do have that power.”

Instead of asking what this structure is that dictates that men cannot be nurturing or show emotion, men’s rights activism seeks to bypass analysis by barging on in and demanding “a unified celebration of manhood”. Well, no. Not yet. Manhood doesn’t deserve it.

In his book Irrationality, Stuart Sutherland offers an example of how “the rivalry between groups may be so irrational that each may try to do the other down even at its own expense”:

“In an aircraft factory in Britain the toolroom workers received a weekly wage very slightly higher than that of the production workers. In wage negotiations the toolroom shop stewards tried to preserve this differential, even when by doing so they would receive a smaller wage themselves. They preferred a settlement that gave them £67.30 a week and the production workers a pound less, to one that gave them an extra two pounds (£69.30) but gave the production workers more (£70.30).”

This seems to me a good analogy for how men’s rights activism functions. Men and boys must suffer in order to “preserve the differential” between them and women and girls. Events such as International Men’s Day seek to maintain male supremacy not only in spite of the huge cost it extracts from men and boys, but by using this cost as a justification. It’s clinging on to the thing that causes you pain in an effort to prove to yourself it was worth it.

But it isn’t. The shorter lifespan, the violence and the depression should tell us that it isn’t. If men want liberation, too, it’s time for them to cut their losses. Masculinity isn’t working; it’s time for men to let go.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.