Even more than racism, sexism—men’s and women’s—is hard to identify in ourselves. It’s conditioned into us even earlier than racism and class prejudices; it’s woven more tightly into our egos; and our first consciousness that something is off kilter in our gender-based value systems is a blur, like something seen through glasses with an outdated prescription.
Women who worked alongside men to end the war in Vietnam, to bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa, pointed out that men who were heroic in their efforts to end other kinds of injustice were often clueless about gender inequalities. It can take time, maturity and information about what happens to people in the world men and women inhabit together to bring that issue into focus.
That coming into focus—the achievement of clarity, often painful but eventually liberating—is described over and over, in great richness of detail and variety of context, in Voice Male: The Untold Story of the Profeminist Men’s Movement, a book of writings edited by profeminist activist Rob Okun of Amherst. Typical is this statement by sociologist Jon Snodgrass: “While… aspects of women’s liberation … appealed to me, on the whole my reaction was typical of men. I was threatened by the movement and responded with anger and ridicule. I believed men and women were oppressed by capitalism, but not that women were oppressed by men…
“I was unable to recognize a hierarchy of inequality between men and women… or to attribute it to male domination. My blindness to patriarchy, I now think, was a function of my male privilege.” Other voices in the book are more personal, extraordinarily open and infused with pain. One gender role counselor recalled his shock at the frankness of a teenager in a workshop who said he “kind of liked” being a traditional young male. “Yes, he admitted, ‘acting like a man’ meant you often had to seek out danger to prove yourself, but the danger could be fun. Yeah, you had to disrespect girls and gays with your friends, but that’s how you got to be a part of their clique. Most important, acting like a man gave you power and privileges in this society that were withheld from most other groups of people.”
The alternative, the youngsters in the workshop knew, was to leave oneself open to “name-calling, threats and violence.” The boy’s remarks, the counselor admitted, triggered memories of his own past, of “being a desensitized teenager, struggling to feel in a desensitizing culture.”
Voice Male, which got its start as Valley Men, was a newsletter published by the Men’s Resource Center of Amherst and edited by Okun for 20 years. The Men’s Resource Center was an early harbinger of a movement that today is notably underpublicized considering how widespread it is. From the Emerge Center for Domestic Abuse in Cambridge, Mass. to RAVEN (Rape and Violence End Now) in St. Louis and the Oakland (Calif.) Men’s Project, from White Ribbon Campaign of Toronto (which includes a branch called Muslims for White Ribbon) to the Sonke Gender Justice Network in Capetown and Johannesburg, men, and women as well, are confronting the gender stereotypes that constrict and often threaten the lives of people of both sexes. A Valley institution with global outreach is the Springfield-based Men’s Resources International, started up with mentoring from the Men’s Resource Center. MRI has partnered with CARE International and other nongovernment organizations to run trainings in Europe, Asia, and half a dozen African countries.
Voice Male contains an inventory and description of these organizations and their accomplishments, as well as the personal reflections of contributors to the Voice Male newsletter and other profeminist publications. The book distinguishes the profeminist movement from other, better publicized “men’s movements” such as the fathers’ rights movement, which focused on furthering divorced fathers’ rights to custody, and the “mythopoetic” movement, known for developing nature-based manhood rituals aimed at bonding fathers with sons. Profeminists are respectful of the problems that gave rise to both those movements, but see the former as driven by anger at women, the latter as concerned with father-son bonding, and neither as primarily devoted to promoting gender equality.
Voice Male is much more than a litany of predictably formatted success stories: I abused my partner, I found counseling, we worked out our issues. The variety of situation and tone coloring here is rich, deep and surprising; the book even includes poetry. Voices that chronicle broad social patterns mingle with other voices speaking intimately, drawing the reader in to situations not often discussed.
In a culture that apotheosizes virility, for example, what does a man feel when he learns that he is infertile? One contributor recalled his feelings on learning, three months after he married a woman who already had a child, that he had no sperm. Would raising another man’s child compensate?
“After mourning the loss of experiences I had always thought I would, but never will, have—going to the hospital with [his wife] for the birth of our child, holding that baby in my arms, all the firsts—I have discovered that true parenting comes in raising, not siring, a child,” he wrote. “Throughout this time, Aidan’s presence has served as balm for the pain my barrenness has caused. Each time he calls me ‘Dad,’ even in conflict, my wounds have healed ever so slightly.”
What about the man whose beloved partner is a rape survivor? He must deal daily with his anger at the members of his own gender who abused her, and with the lingering results of her trauma. “People tell me our relationship will be so much stronger on the other side of this… I don’t know if that’s true,” one man wrote in an article first published in 1991. “Judging from my current experience, I can’t say what will happen. I fear sex will always be a challenge. I fear there will always be issues we have to discuss because, say, I moved my fork in a way that triggered a flashback, or performed some other act precipitating a similar result. I fear we may never have children if she doesn’t feel emotionally prepared.”
One of the major accomplishments of the Voice Male newsletter and other profeminist publications was that they drew out information about the interior lives of men, including men who had to battle through worlds of pain to tell their stories. For none was that truer than for survivors of sexual abuse and incest, who early learned the worst about the destructive forms other men’s drive for domination and control could take. The abuse set in when they were young and physically and psychically defenseless. One writer was nearly 50 years old in 2002, when he wrote this wrenching reminiscence:
“I was six year old the first time I was raped, by my then-17-year-old cousin Jake (a pseudonym). I grew up in a tenement, surrounded by a dozen cousins, all but two of them male. Jake made me his sex slave—he tortured me sexually, taunted me, showed me off to his friends, and occasionally had me sexually service his buddies, just to show off his total control over me…My father, who ignored me, except to belittle me as a “little pansy” by day, used me for his sexual pleasure by night. I believed I was unworthy of love; I felt profound guilt and shame because I believed everything that happened to me was somehow my own fault…By age ten, I was desperately seeking love and approval, offering my still prepubescent body to every man whose love or approval I sought. At seventeen, I made my first suicide attempt.”
The voices in this book need to be heard not only by other men but by women, to whom it may come as a revelation that men feel as frightened and oppressed as many of their mothers, sisters, partners and friends. To hear these voices is to see a vast landscape of fear—the fear that pushes men into controlling, dominating and sometimes violent behavior—but also a vast landscape of possibility.
“One man tearfully talked about the moment he awakened to the truth of his abusiveness—when he really noticed how frightened his children were of him he cried, and the tears sprang from my eyes as well,” a worker at the Men’s Resource Center recalled. “Then he told how he is slowly but steadily gaining back their trust, and the trust of his wife, through his daily practice of staying nonviolent…he talked about how some of his coworkers now teased him because they sensed he was becoming ‘different’—no longer a tough guy, but more gentle and vulnerable. He said that in spite of the teasing, in spite of the incessant pressure to ‘act like a man,’ his path was clear…for the first time ever he was proud of the man he was becoming.”
The rape survivor’s partner wrote, ““My partner and I love each other very much; we continue to be in love. We have learned how to talk about a great many things, and our relationship is getting stronger. She has taught me—among many other things—new ways to listen, new ways to look at my masculinity, and new ways to love.”
Besides these day-to-day victories, what larger mission awaits the profeminist movement in the second decade of the millennium? Okun says the mass shootings of the last few years point to an important new focus for gender equality movements.
“This much is clear: the movement is growing, younger men are joining, women and men are collaborating in greater numbers, and our voices are beginning to be heard above the mainstream din,” he writes. “Men are playing key roles in state domestic and sexual violence coalitions around the country. … Still, among the places where men’s voices are especially needed today is in the national conversation about violence—a conversation engaged with renewed urgency in the wake of the mass murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December, 2012.”•
Rob Okun discusses Voice Male at Booklink Booksellers, 150 Main Street, Northampton, 6 to 7 p.m. Feb. 27. Free; for more information, call (413) 585-9955.