Unpacking Men’s Rights Activists Part 1: The Basics

By Patrick McTague.
Edited by Jessica Sutton.

This is the first in a series of articles on Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) and the men’s rights “movement” (MRM), investigating and dissecting their ideology and rhetoric to help feminists combat their problematic talking points.

If you’re actively feminist, you’re likely going to come across Men’s Rights Activists, because they are notorious online for invading feminist spaces and discussions with “what about men” comments and MRA talking points for the sake of having feminists argue with them. And while I typically wouldn’t advocate engaging with such behaviour, sometimes it’s unavoidable. In this first article, I explore a couple of key tenets of MRM and how they are based on misguided reasoning.

MRM is a social and political movement which focuses on perceived discrimination and inequalities faced by men. MRM was one of two groups formed when the men’s liberation movement dissolved in the late 1970s. [1] The men’s liberation movement was struggling to simultaneously acknowledge men’s institutional privileges and the costs of masculinity to men, which led to the conservative members forming MRM and the moderate members forming the pro-feminist men’s movement.

While both branches focus on similar issues, the difference lies in how they look to solve social and political problems. The pro-feminist men’s movement generally embraces the goals of feminism and sees feminism as an ally. They see toxic masculinity as the cause of a lot of problems impacting men, and they acknowledge that patriarchy creates and perpetuates issues which harm both men and women.

On the other hand, MRM typically views feminism as at odds with men’s rights and actively fights against the development of feminism. There are various reasons given for this anti-feminist ideology, an example of one is “the feminization of public institutions with the result that these institutions now discriminate against men”[2].

When talking about MRM, I believe it is important to understand that there are men’s activists who advocate for feminism and believe that the way to create an equal and just world for all is to work alongside and with feminists, not against them. However, those who constantly pop up in feminist spaces, discussions, and even in real life, are most often aligned with MRM and ally themselves with patriarchy, rather than against it.

The first tenet of MRM beliefs is that movements towards gender equality constitute discrimination against men. To refer back to the quote above, MRM base a lot of their rhetoric on supposed “feminisation” of public institutions, and sometimes of men,[3] as leading to perceived discrimination against men. They see the (gradual) movement towards equality as threatening the very basis of masculinity. A more caring, equal world is described as being “more feminine”, and therefore as a threat to men. Which means that, in their opinion, anything “female” is inherently bad, anything “male” is inherently good, and the definition of each gender is strict and immovable. The result is outrage from MRAs when time and resources are spent on women-specific issues. It is seen as discrimination against men. “Why aren’t you including men in the conversation?” “Men are affected by this too.” “Why are you spending more money on helping women than men?” Historical and continued discrimination against women, in a system built by men, is completely ignored or disregarded as not relevant.

The consequences of the scales being tipped in favour of men for all of history are two-fold: it is seen as the norm, and how life should be, by those who benefit from it, and it means that eventually justice needs to be done for society to progress. When the scales are tipped one way, justice does not mean levelling the scales, it means tipping them in the other direction long enough for that side to catch up. In most western countries, women largely have formal equality in terms of legislation (how those laws are carried out and discrimination in the judicial system are discussions for another day). However, that is not justice, it is formal legal equality. Justice means that all the issues which were not addressed historically due to legal discrimination, are addressed and rectified. Justice requires that time and resources are spent on women-specific issues. It may mean that more resources are spent on women-specific issues right now than on universal or male-specific issues. Taken out of context this could be seen as unjust. In context however, it’s clear that specific attention for women now is necessary to right these historical wrongs.

Another common belief amongst MRAs is that women have had all the power in society all along, and male-dominated society is a myth. This supposed feminine power is gained through “sexual leverage” which they use to influence men for their own selfish purposes.[4] This belief is most notable in the works of Warren Farrell an author and MRA who has written one of the most popular MRM books, published in 1993, The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex, in which he argues that “female sexual power was eclipsing any societal advantages that men might have”. The argument is basically saying it is women’s fault that men can’t resist perceived sexual temptation, because women are intentionally too attractive. This may be where the myth of women threatening men with false rape accusations originates or, at least, was popularized. So, in the fevered mind of an MRA, even though men have been the majority of lawmakers, heads of state, heads of churches, business owners, executives, and other positions of power throughout history (and continue to be currently), somehow, it’s women who have had all the power and who make all the decisions.

This begs the question, why couldn’t women vote anywhere in the world until 1893? Why were there ever laws discriminating against women in the first place? Why has the United States’ Equal Rights Amendment still not been added to the constitution? Or is it perhaps more likely that women don’t secretly control the world and men have held power over them ever since the first city-states were established?

Men not being able to control their sexual urges is not proof of women’s power over them, it’s an excuse for men sexually assaulting and raping women. If anyone has power, it is the men who are typically not being prosecuted for these crimes. If women had the power, they wouldn’t be afraid to report sexual assault and rape when it occurs, let alone have the perpetrator prosecuted. As it stands the vast majority of sexual assault goes unreported, how many is difficult to estimate as they are not being recorded by Police. Research into the number varies, a 2009 study in New Zealand found that 9 out of 10 cases go unreported,[5] and the Ministry of Justice reports that only 7% of cases were reported in 2008.[6]

Ultimately, the above major tenets of MRM, argue that women are corrupting institutions and society by making them focus on women’s issues, and that women are the ones who hold power over men making men the subjugated class. And when you add historical context to either tenet, they don’t hold any water.

All of this is not to say that men have not suffered under patriarchy, after all that’s what the pro-feminist men’s movement believe, and if you ask a lot of feminists they’ll tell you that too. Patriarchy hurts everybody. The issue with MRM is that instead of focusing on patriarchy and societal injustices brought about by a system developed and perpetuated by men, they have decided that the rise of feminism and equality for women is the root of their issues. It’s the difference between viewing men’s emotional expression being villainised as the result of toxic masculinity developed by patriarchy, versus blaming women, who have suffered more under this system, for “not being attracted to sensitive men”. Yet, to solve their problems, MRAs feel they have to continue to oppress women and advocate for a more intense patriarchy.

Breaking down these basic tenets is key to understanding MRAs’ rhetoric and how they develop their arguments, however it doesn’t show us how to respond to them when they cross our paths or invade our space. For that, an in-depth look into specific MRA talking points is required, which I will be focusing on in subsequent articles on this topic. For now, remember that MRAs aren’t genuinely concerned with realistic problems impacting men. They want to silence women and draw energy away from feminism. We can’t let them.

[1] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0891243298012003002

[2] https://web.archive.org/web/20131020163216/https://newcastle.edu.au/Resources/Schools/Humanities%20and%20Social%20Science/JIGS/JIGSV4N2_039.pdf – p. 48

[3] https://books.google.co.nz/books?id=f2qM2ULqDK0C&pg=PA180&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false – p. 181

[4] https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/01/warren-farrell-mens-rights-movement-feminism-misogyny-trolls/

[5] https://women.govt.nz/sites/public_files/responding%20to%20sexual%20violence%20attrition-pdf.pdf

[6] https://www.justice.govt.nz/justice-sector-policy/research-data/nzcass/survey-results/results-by-subject/sexual-violence/

Photo by Lukas from Pexels

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