I have written about Men's Rights Activists (MRA) before. No doubt there are several subtypes of MRAs, some quite sane and interesting, but some neither of those.
One can always spot the latter type in comments threads, because they appear to share a canned and condensed message (like Campbell's tomato soup) which is always the same, whatever the topic of the article they comment on, as long as it's about women and/or feminism. That canned-and-condensed message always has certain parts, though other parts may vary. The shared bits amount to an argument that the traditional societal roles indeed were either equal OR that men are naturally the ruling sex among humans.
This argument also involves an interesting departure from the definition of feminism in the following sense:
Feminism, in my working definition, is the goal of offering all people equal economic and social opportunities irrespective of their gender and of equal valuation of the traditionally female and male fields of activity*.
Thus, one might expect an anti-feminist to work on that definition, especially the equal opportunities part, and some anti-feminists do (as seen later in this post). But the most important MRA principles really DON'T discuss equal opportunities for both genders and how traditional patriarchy might short-change not just women but also men. Instead, the main argument is that even in the traditional patriarchy men are worse off than women, and that this is the reason WHY traditional patriarchy should be brought back.
Here are a few of the most common anti-feminist (and anti-woman) arguments I keep reading in MRA comments and on the more careful MRA sites, together with my responses to them.
1. Women live longer, on average, which is a consequence of unfairness in the medical care systems of various countries. In particular, too much money is spent on breast cancer research and too little on prostate cancer research. Feminists don't care about this terrible inequality, and until they do so, MRAs will pee upon feminists. And, incidentally, all women.
I care about increasing the average life expectancy of men, because they don't deserve early deaths any more than women do, and lonely old age is not much fun for women who lose their male spouses, either.
But the reason for the differences between the life expectancies of men and women isn't in some horrendous plot by a feminist-manipulated health care system. It may be partly a biological difference (sorta like the difference in menstruation or who gives birth) and therefore not perhaps altogether amenable to changes in health care policies. Mostly, however, the difference comes from greater male mortality at earlier ages.
A death at an early age has a large impact on the life expectancy figures, and men are more likely to die early due to accidents (especially car accidents) and homicides. These are not some feminist plot against men, and neither are men required by feminists to engage in, say, reckless driving or to be the victims of violence (committed mostly by other men).
Rather the reverse. Any societal influence on these tragic early deaths is likely to come from traditional masculine cultures and the traditional male role models, the very kinds of values that many feminists question. So why is this an argument against feminism which tries to expand the opportunities of individuals irrespective of their gender? And why don't MRAs work with young boys to make them less likely to end up dead in a traffic accident or as a victim of violence?
2. Men are 95% (the figure from a comment by an MRA and not checked by me) of all on-the-job deaths. Feminists can only complain about earning less once 50% of those on-the-job deaths are of women.
This is an argument very much like the first one in that the MRA activists don't actually mean that men are forced by feminists to take up dangerous jobs. It's an argument for the traditional status quo of the type where women's lower average earnings are somehow balanced by men's greater on-the-job deaths.
But the gender gap in earnings is not much caused by those men who work in dangerous occupations. If we reallocated men and women across industries so as to get a gender-neutral division in the most dangerous occupations, women would still earn roughly as much less than is the case today. This is because the number of workers in dangerous occupations is not terribly large and because most earnings differences are caused by other characteristics than the dangers of a job.
Finally, as I have written earlier, the list of the most dangerous jobs only covers legal occupations. Prostitutes are excluded, even though one study suggested that they may have the most dangerous job of all jobs, and if we take the traditionalist argument of women's main jobs being the care of their children and husbands, so is that occupation excluded, which means that deaths from domestic violence are not counted.
Still, deaths on the job are a valid concern and I'd expect the MRAs to work hard to make the dangerous jobs safer. Incidentally, women were traditionally discriminated against or even explicitly excluded from many of the dangerous jobs and from night-work. One shouldn't turn that fact around into a supposed benefit that women reap by being under-represented in those industries.
3. Men are much more likely to be the victims of violence, yet violence against women gets more attention.
I'd like to rephrase that first sentence to "men are much more likely to be the victims of male violence than women", because the point is important. It's not feminist women who are out there killing men but mostly other men.
All violence is deplorable. Traditionally, much of the violence women experienced wasn't really counted as violence. Rape was not spoken about because it tainted the victim, date rape wasn't a term that existed at all and wife-beating was a private matter between the spouses. Because of the way traditional definitions of violence paid little attention to the types of violence which, in fact, were common experiences of women, feminists changed those traditional definitions. I'm not sure that violence against women gets more attention than violence in general, but it does get attention, these days.
As far as I can tell, the MRA guys aren't addressing the most common type of male-on-male violence. Doing that would be most admirable.
4. Men are much more likely to die in wars.
This is a fact, of course, but the point of presenting it is not to offer an astonishing new fact, but to argue that because women die in wars in smaller numbers (unless we are talking about nuclear war, say, or some modern types of warfare inside densely-populated communities) they have an advantage over men which should be taken into account when discussing gender equality.
That's the nice interpretation. Men fight wars to protect their women and children, and hence deserve a higher position on the totem pole. Of course the fighting is done against other men, not against women of the other "tribe", and of course women were traditionally banned from the armed forces. They still are banned from the armed forces of many countries. Even when women can serve they rarely are allowed to engage in roles where hand-to-hand combat is a possibility. And of course women (with the exception of a few queens) had traditionally very little power to start wars and so on.
This is a fascinating argument, because I've read it so many times as implying that feminists somehow have caused women to not be included in the armed forces! The memory hole swallows everything! The fact that women have been explicitly banned from the military is forgotten! The fact that women have had little power over starting wars is forgotten! The fact that feminists, in general, have advocated for women's full inclusion in the armed forces is forgotten!
5. Men are the majority of prison populations all over the world.
This is usually brought up as if prisons are filled by some method of just scooping people off the streets and as if there should be an equal number of men and women in prisons.
But the way one gets into a prison is somewhat different. The judicial systems of the world can be biased, and often are. The American system, for example, has been found guilty of both racial and gender bias in sentencing. Still, the main reason why there are so many more male prisoners is that men commit more crimes, i.e., even if the judicial systems worked fairly we'd find more incarcerated men.
Why is that the case? As I've mentioned, it could be that women (or at least the mothers of young children) get shorter sentences for similar crimes, because they are viewed as needed by children more often than men who might also be fathers. This bias is deplorable and should end. But its impact on the overall difference of male and female incarceration rates is unlikely to be large.
The larger reason is a gender difference in the rate at which crimes are committed, especially violent crimes. Here is another area in which MRAs could do commendable work, by changing the likelihood that young men drift into a life of crime. At the same time, the ideal feminist world would probably also work in that direction, so I'm not sure why the continuous use of this argument against feminism.
After all, one reason why men commit more crimes has to do with the traditional definitions of masculinity, the idea of man-the-provider and greater opportunities for men to commit crimes by their greater traditional presence in the public sector (including streets). Feminism would like those traditional definitions of masculinity to be less violent and feminism would like to see more sharing of the breadwinning role. Those could reduce the male need to commit crimes. Even the not-so-great move towards more women committing (especially non-violent) crimes with greater opportunities for crime works in that direction. So what's not to like in the feminist views?
6. Women have all the choices. They can choose a career or to stay at home or both. The only choice men have is to work and work and work.
Interesting. I didn't know that there are laws banning men from combining family and career or laws that state that men must work until they drop.
Here comes the first of all these principles which is explicitly about unequal opportunity by gender and it's not based on facts.
HOWEVER, the MRAs do have a point about the pressure of the traditional male gender role here. While the female gender role has changed pretty dramatically in the last forty years, the male gender role has changed much less. As a consequence, many men feel as if they are forced into paid work as the sign of what men should do. But it's all inside their heads. Any man who wishes to have a different kind of combination of work and fatherhood should negotiate this with his partner and should think about this while choosing a partner in the first place.
That's the advice I always see offered to women. But I should repeat that no law bars men from becoming SAHDs. I should also point out that most women don't actually have all those choices. Most women work because they need the money, just as most men do. I'm all for a more egalitarian sharing of household and child-rearing chores, by the way, and so are many other feminists. So why the anger towards us when it comes to being able to have more choice in the labor market and at home? Why don't the MRAs join with us to negotiate more humane working conditions, better parental leave and so on?
Variants of this argument state that women decide to stay at home eating bonbons, decide to take long maternity leaves and otherwise ride on the backs of men who work until they drop while their wives go out shopping. Similar answers suffice for those, though of course they are much more misogynistic versions. A heterosexual man wanting to take a long paternity leave or to ride on the back of his wife or to go on shopping sprees should negotiate that with his partner.
It sounds as if the MRAs don't like the traditional male gender role. Feminists tend to agree. But while feminists would like to make gender roles less rigid, many MRAs want to see women put back into an equally rigid female gender role.
7.Most homeless people are men. Because the homeless are the poorest of all people, men are worse off than women.
This argument conflates two different things. Though it is true that men have a higher homelessness rate than women, it's not because men are poorer than women. In fact, the poor may be more likely to be female than male, even in the US.
According to 1996 data, the best estimate for the percentage of homeless people who are male is 68%. This percentage is higher in cities (71%) and lower in suburban areas (55%). The latter figure suggests that one reason women are a small percentage of the homeless in the cities may be the additional danger that being female causes them on city streets. Another reason may be more help available for women who are homeless together with young children.
The male-homelessness argument is used to defend the idea that the men at the top of the society are balanced by the men at the bottom of the society, and that therefore the overall patriarchal society is a fair one. But note that none of this is about equal opportunity, and given that the homeless may not be the poorest of the poor, neither is this evidence for some weird kind of balancing mechanism.
Indeed, any analysis of more international data refutes the argument that men are both the richest and the poorest individuals. Women are the majority of the global poor, for example.
I should also point out that homeless men and the damage caused by past wars may be correlated, so that the other MRA arguments above could in some sense seen as causing this one!
8.Custodial courts are biased against men and fathers. Domestic violence cases are biased against heterosexual men or for heterosexual women.
These arguments are major ones among the MRAs. Indeed, they may be the reason why some men become Men's Rights Activists (which really is an inappropriate term for those men who are Patriarchy Activists and/or misogynists, see this comment thread for a zillion examples). Losing custody of your children can tear a heart apart and being accused of domestic violence when you didn't commit it or when you think you didn't commit it can make a person bitter towards the whole world. Of course being the victim of domestic violence can literally stop your heart and leave you no time for bitterness.
The problem with discussing these bias arguments is in the need to read not only the studies MRAs proffer but also the studies their opponents offer, and I have done neither to a sufficient extent to conclusively judge the fairness or the unfairness of these court systems. But in principle the question is an empirical one and should be capable of an empirical answer, with good enough research.
That sounds so lame, doesn't it? I should end with some kind of a snappy summary of all the research in these two fields. But I haven't read it. Though neither have the MRA guys, except for the studies which support their point of view. And one family court lawyer I talked to (NOT a feminist, by the way, oh no) stated that the courts in at least his state are biased towards fathers and against mothers. Thus, to make a claim about bias in the court system is not the same as finding such a bias. As I stated, the latter is a task for empirical research on a wide scale and carried out by as neutral researchers as possible.
The domestic violence argument the MRAs make is even trickier. The Wikipedia link on domestic violence gives you a flavor of it, though beware of the possibility of bias in Wikipedia, too. I quote from it:
Hmmm. Note, however, that physical chastising of wives by husbands has traditionally been accepted in many cultures and still is in many, whereas we don't have similar traditions about wives chastising their husbands. This historical difference makes me somewhat mistrusting of arguments which suggest that both genders are equally guilty of intimate partner violence, especially as women are more likely to be found in the death statistics.
Dr. Martin Fiebert, from the Department of Psychology of California State University, has compiled an annotated bibliography of research relating to spousal abuse by women on men. This bibliography examines 275 scholarly investigations: 214 empirical studies and 61 reviews and/or analyses, which demonstrate that women are as physically aggressive, or more aggressive, than men in their relationships with their spouses or male partners. The aggregate sample size in the reviewed studies exceeds 365,000.
However, in a review of the research Michael Kimmel found that violence is instrumental in maintaining control and that more than 90 percent of "systematic, persistent, and injurious" violence is perpetrated by men. He points out that most of the empirical studies that Fiebert reviewed used the same empirical measure of family conflict, i.e., the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) as the sole measure of domestic violence and that many of the studies noted by Fiebert discussed samples composed entirely of single people younger than 30, and not married couples. Kimmel argues that among various other flaws, the CTS is particularly vulnerable to reporting bias because it depends on asking people to accurately remember and report what happened during the past year. However, men tend to under-estimate their use of violence, while women tend to over-estimate their use of violence. Simultaneously men tend to over-estimate their partner's use of violence while women tend to under-estimate their partner's use of violence. Thus, men will likely over-estimate their victimization, while women tend to underestimate theirs.
Similarly, the National Institute of Justice states that the studies that find that women abuse men equally or even more than men abuse women are based on data compiled through the Conflict Tactics Scale, a survey tool developed in the 1970s and which may not be appropriate for intimate partner violence research because it does not measure control, coercion, or the motives for conflict tactics; it also leaves out sexual assault and violence by ex-spouses or partners and does not determine who initiated the violence. Furthermore, the NIJ contends that national surveys supported by NIJ, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics that examine more serious assaults do not support the conclusion of similar rates of male and female spousal assaults. These surveys are conducted within a safety or crime context and clearly find more partner abuse by men against women.
Straus and Gelles found in couples reporting spousal violence, 27% of the time the man struck the first blow; the woman in 24%. The rest of the time, the violence was mutual, with both partners brawling. The results were the same even when the most severe episodes of violence were analyzed. In order to counteract claims that the reporting data was skewed, female-only surveys were conducted, asking females to self-report, and the data was the same.
The simple tally of violent acts is typically found to be similar in those studies that examine both directions, but some studies show that men's violence may be more serious. Men's violence may do more damage than women's; women are much more likely to be injured and/or hospitalized, wives are much more likely to be killed by their husbands than the reverse (59%-41% Dept of Justice study), and women in general are more likely to be killed by their spouse than by all other types of assailants combined.
What always strikes me as odd about the most fervent MRA guys is how very focused they are not on men's rights but on the return of a complete patriarchy where women would have few rights. The position of the most extreme type of MRAs can be summarized as "Heel, bitch." That there are so many of that type makes it hard for me to take the rest of the MRAs seriously. Add to this the eagerness with which the average blog commenting MRA embraces all sex differences that benefit men as biologically or divinely determined and you have to admit that I have exerted admirable tolerance in writing this post as politely as I did.
*A comment to this post made me realize that I should have defined those traditionally male and female spheres of activity more precisely. It's not a reference to male- and female-dominated job categories in the labor force, but a reference to older gender-based division of labor in the public vs. private sector of society and within the households.