Say It Loud: Male, Feminist and Proud!

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Bob Pease, Men & Sexual Politics: Towards a Profeminist Practice, Dulwich Centre Publications, Adelaide, 1997, 158 pages.

            “Second Wave” feminist in the ‘60s and ‘70s threw down a challenge to capitalism. Women told the patriarchs that they would no longer be used as breeding machines, domestic servants or cheap labour. They wouldn’t be demeaned as sex objects. Doors being opened for them wasn’t good enough – they wanted the world. Women were on the march for equality.

            The rebellion of women sent shocks throughout the global capitalist system which needs male supremacy to survive. Over the past three decades, a sexist counter-offensive – from bosses to religion zealots and household tyrants – has become increasingly vicious as capitalism flounders. Family values are being pumped out in courtrooms, the halls of legislature, cinemas and the media – to demonise disobedient women and pull them back into line. But many men have joined their sisters – in struggles for childcare, equal pay, equal opportunity and reproductive freedom. They understand that by debasing women, this system also diminishes and control the majority of men.

            Bob Pease’s Men and Sexual Politics: Towards a Profeminist Practice is an important record of the anti-sexist men’s movement in Australia. Pease himself has at least 20 years’ experience in raising men’s consciousness about gender injustice. He helped form Men Against Sexual Assault (MASA) in Melbourne in 1989 and has been involved in its sexism awareness education program for men. Since 1989 Pease has taught a course called “Men, Masculinity and Anti-Patriarchal Practice” to women and men Social Work students at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).

            Just what women don’t need. Pease looks at what he calls “men’s movement” which compromise a politically diverse range of groups. The “men’s liberation wing”, according to Pease, sees the movement “as the missing half of feminism and [emphasises] therapy and the ‘healing’ healing metaphor to address men’s emotion and pain”. Then there’s the “men’s right wing” which “[expresses] anger at feminism for its challenges to men and they focus their energies on what they see as the relative advantages of women vis-à-vis men”. The Promise Keepers, Christian patriarchs who recently marched on Washington D.C. to “renew” their “commitment” to their families – are a logical extension of this virulent form of anti-feminism.

            Pease also exposes the “mythopoetic arms” of the movement, which have some popular support. These men grab onto centuries-old legendary images and symbols to “retrieve” a long-lost wisdom. First, there are the men who get in touch with their “feminine side” in order to better understand women. Pease says that women don’t benefit from this: it’s all about men being absorbed with themselves, leaving no space in their heads for real-life women or their real-world struggles. In another camp are those who delve into ancient mythology to find their “instinctive male energy”. What’s invariably unleashed is the so-called “wild man” – Sylvester Stallone-like warrior in all his misogynist glory. Pease correctly says this navel-gazing is about men living comfortably with patriarchy, definitely not fighting it. He criticises these “mythopoetic” men’s groups for allowing men to, at best, withdraw from the battle and, at worst, become women’s even fiercer adversaries.

            Men’s responsibility. Pease sees patriarchy as a social force which men must resist. He stresses that men have to take responsibility for sexism and actively oppose the institution of male supremacy. His own part in establishing MASA is an example of his political commitment to fighting women’s oppression.

            The formation of a grassroots organisation of feminist men aimed at ending violence against women was a significant development. MASA quickly spread nationally. For some time, I was involved in the group in Brisbane.

            The first National Gathering of Men Against Sexual Assault was held in 1991 to talk about building national links and education/publicity campaigns. It White Ribbon Campaign against men’s violence attracted interest from New Zealand and the Philippines. There have been plans to extend the campaign into Asia.

            What attracted me to MASA was its feminism which is explicitly pro-gay as well as pro-women. MASA’s program recognise the connection between sexism and homophobia and commits to working closely with women’s and lesbian/gay groups. Equally attractive is MASA’s rejection of the idea that men are innately violence or oppressive – holding, instead, that we can change our sexist behaviour and be effective fighters against institutionalised sexism.

            Pease reflects: “The development of MASA was my first experience of a relatively successful attempt to create among men a collective public response to men’s violence … The organisation of the first march [in Melbourne in 1990] … highlighted the issue of men’s responsibility to address men’s violence”.

            This “collective public response” is objectively political. It’s about men saying to other men, particularly the patriarchs who hold real power – State power: “we’ve crossed the line, and we side with women”.

            From the personal to the political and back again. Pease explains how his personal background shaped his rejection of sexist male bonding. His father and brother worked in timber yards, as he did until he was 19. He describes the sexist environment of his home and workplace and how he didn’t fit in. He recalls: “I did not find the misogynist jokes funny. I did not feel part of the camaraderie. I felt alienated from the physical labour. I felt alienated from my father. I also felt his disapproval because I did not fit in with the male banter of the workplace”.

            This is so often the experience that moves men toward feminism. Unfortunately, Pease goes no further than “deconstructing masculinity”. He doesn’t examine patriarchy as a central prop of capitalism.

            Pease acutely felt the stifling male “culture” of his early life. But he doesn’t look at the lives of the women involved. There were the few women employed at the factory whose pay in this male-dominated industry would have been a fraction of what his father earned. If jobs had to be shed, theirs would go first. He doesn’t mention how sexism was used by the timber bosses to keep the men’s pay in check and conditions minimal and to prevent unified industrial action that would benefit them all. He doesn’t discuss his mother’s social role in the home: to reproduce wage slaves and personally look after the well-being of these three timber workers to ensure that they clock on each day and do a full day’s work.

            “Deconstructing masculinity” instead dwells on men’s personal responsibility for sexism, ignoring the systemthat profits from it. A political program to end women’s oppression disappears into ever-decreasing circles of personalising and moralising. While I was in MASA, I saw this immobilise many men. They became paralysed by guilt or silenced by radical feminist stereotypes of “male” (read “sexist”) behaviour. I recall MASA marches being forbidden to chant – because chanting could be seen as a form of aggression!

            Lacking a class perspective of struggle also distances the “profeminist” men’s movement from most other men who have an interest in fighting for women’s liberation. All too often, working class men are assumed to be white, straight, blue collar and beneficiaries of capitalism and get written off as hopeless sexists.

            Connecting oppressions. In his section entitled “Theorising Oppression”, Pease examines the interrelationship of class exploitation, sexism, racism and homophobia and argues the critical importance of uniting around these struggles.

            While he soundly rejects separatism for ignoring “the interconnectedness of different forms of oppression”, he misrepresents Marxism as a theoretical model which treats class struggles as separate and disconnected from all other oppressions. Some Marxists are guilty of this – an example being those tendencies that counterpose feminism and class struggles and accuse feminists of dividing the working class. Marxist feminist, however, say that feminism unites the struggle of all who are oppressed by capitalism. Marxism is inherently feminist. Marx and Engels’ writing on the historical connection between private property and women’s subjugation as a sex broke new political ground.

            Women’s leadership. Feminism is about the liberation of women, and therefore about the liberation of humanity from global capitalism. Men should be part of this liberation movement.

            Men will inevitably make mistakes along the way. As Pease says: “when men first start getting involved in this sort of work, women are understandably cautious. And men think we’ve got a lot more sorted out than we really have”. It is crucial that men learn from the mistakes and from feminist criticism. From this base, men can go on to become responsible feminist leaders themselves.

            Pease’s work provides an interesting insight into “profeminist” perspectives. But the influence of postmodernism ensures that it gives neither decisive analysis nor direction. It is not an activist’s stirring call-to-arms. It’s cautious and somewhat flat. In fact, the academic and esoteric tone of the book seems to prevail over his previous activism.

            For stirring reading about men and sexual politics, I recommend a visit to the Freedom Socialist Party bookstore.

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