Never mind the “war on women:” according to growing numbers of activists and authors, it’s males in modern Western society who are under siege and whose rights need defending. Is this the next frontier for gender justice or a woman-hating backlash? Men’s advocacy raises worthy issues that often draw unfair ridicule. Unfortunately, it is also prone to toxic rhetoric that subverts its valid points and alienates potential supporters.
To many, the very notion of men’s issues or men’s rights seems laughable. But if women were dying in 90 percent of workplace fatalities and three out of four suicides, would we not see such numbers as troubling—and as legitimate women’s issues?
Unlike racial profiling of minorities, the disproportionate targeting of males by law enforcement gets no attention (women account for more than a third of illegal drug use, but fewer than 15 percent of arrests). And, while men are often presumed dangerous to children, actual female molesters tend to get lenient treatment. Attempts to restrict abortion are decried as patriarchal control over female reproduction, yet there is virtually no recognition of ways in which current policies treat paternity as a public resource. Men coerced into unwilling fatherhood must still pay child support. Even those tricked into supporting children they didn’t father find little recourse. On the flip side, divorced fathers often feel they are treated more as wallets than as parents.
Even when imbalances that disadvantage men or boys —such as male academic underachievement—become the subject of concern, such concerns are often viewed with suspicion as potential attacks on women.
Many feminists (of both sexes) claim that the answer to men’s issues is feminism. Male adversities, they argue, stem from patriarchal norms that feminism opposes, including the stereotype that women are better parents or the stigma against men showing weakness. Feminist battles against sex discrimination have sometimes focused on the rights of males, from equal parental leave to benefits for husbands of female veterans. Yet, with few exceptions, feminists have balked at any pro-equality advocacy that would support men in male-female disputes, acknowledge that women can mistreat men, or undermine female advantage.
Is a men’s rights movement the answer? Unfortunately, any movement championing one gender seems doomed to devolve into victim politics and demonization of the other sex. Some leading men’s rights websites such as A Voice for Men offer a steady diet of vulgar woman-bashing that discredits any valid points they may make.
Perhaps what the 21st century needs is not a women’s movement (which was once essential to secure basic rights) or a men’s movement, but a gender equality movement. The problem today is not a “war” on anyone, but rather biases that limit and hurt both sexes in different ways, and the challenges of adapting to new rules and new roles. Men and women, we’re all in this together. Let’s act as though we know that.•
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe.