If you haven’t heard of “Men’s Rights Activists”, they’re a disturbing bunch: A loosely organized network of men primarily concerned with the injustices of being stuck in the “friend zone” and women accusing them of rape, whose activities of choice seem to be writing angry and threatening things about feminists in the dark corners of the internet.
But although the conversation has mostly been dominated by fundamentally bad people, there is an undeniable need for an open conversation between men about gender in our society.
Deeply ingrained gender roles and expectations touch every aspect of our families, our jobs, our health, in ways that are incredibly harmful not just to women, but also to men. We grew up within the constraints of a warped vision of manhood, one that says masculinity is not just about strength, but about violent aggression, not just about protective care but about possession, not just about resilience, but about never being vulnerable. This twisted caricature of manhood is reflected in the ways we treat each other every day, our laws and institutions, our economy and popular culture. A real men’s rights activism would appreciate the good in masculinity while pushing back against the ways in which our society’s distorted understanding of manhood hurts us.
The problem starts with the idea that men are invincible. That we are the ones born with the strength to fight wars and build economies. But it ends with the idea that men are disposable. That our bodies can be thrown down coal mines and into battlefields and prisons, often in the name of “protecting” women, who we view as too weak to work long or dangerous hours and endure such harsh violence and punishment. A real men’s rights activism would stand up for the rights of workers, fight our relentlessly expanding prison system, and demand an end to war.
Women continue to bear the brunt of poverty in America, with low-wage jobs justified by the assumption that women don’t need to be paid equally. But gender is also used as a tool to exploit male workers through long hours and dangerous conditions. The most under-regulated sectors of the economy, where worker injuries and deaths are commonplace, overwhelmingly employ men. Attempts to improve worker safety standards in constructing buildings, extracting minerals, managing waste, and operating heavy machinery are crushed by deep-pocketed corporate lobbying that manipulates powerful social norms viewing men as indestructible work machines. While other countries have shortened the work-week, mandated paid vacation time, supported earlier retirement, and even provided paternity leave for men to take care of newborn children, the American man is supposed to be tough and hard-working. He is not supposed to mind late nights at the office away from his family or missing most of his child’s first months of life. American males work more hours in their lifetimes than anyone else in the industrialized world. As more and more women have entered the workplace in recent decades, men are not working less hours as some might have predicted, if anything they are working more, particularly white-collar college-educated men. Where is the outrage from so-called “Men’s Rights Activists”? Who stands up for men’s rights to be more than cogs in the machine of economic production, to be safe at work and spend time with their families?
The explosion of America’s prison population in recent decades overwhelmingly affects men. The US holds more prisoners than any other nation in the world. With 5% of the population, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners, due to harsh laws mandating unusually long prison sentences, heavy imprisonment of nonviolent drug users, low investment in prevention and rehabilitation, and a parole system that throws people back in prison as a response to minor violations like missing meetings. While prison policy is often labeled a black or Latino issue, it would more accurately be described as a men’s issue, with men representing over nine in ten inmates. Our ever-expanding prison industrial complex is made possible by our society’s perceptions of men—young men, low-income men, men of color—but ultimately men. We stubbornly reject proven cost-efficient and effective reforms like preventing crime by investing in programs for at-risk boys or helping formerly incarcerated men adjust back into society with education and job opportunities. Those are “hug-a-thug” women’s solutions. Real men understand that other men are violent and irreversibly dangerous—they cannot be helped by compassion but instead must be separated for decades from their families and communities. The show “Orange is the New Black” is largely successful because it depicts a women’s prison—we are capable of being horrified by the shocking conditions only once we can imagine women having to endure them. But we will never reform our prison system until we can recognize the humanity of other men.
There is no greater testament to our society’s willingness to treat men as disposable than war. Who fills the caskets that return home draped in flags? Who are the faces of the homeless veterans who line freeway exits and downtown sidewalks? Who are the survivors of war facing job discrimination and social isolation from disabilities and post-traumatic stress? When women and children are victims of war we are disgusted, horrified, inconsolable, outraged—why can’t we muster the same compassion for fellow men? We have swallowed the lie that we are so strong that our lives aren’t worth saving. If “Men’s Rights Activists” truly cared about fundamentally improving the lives of men they would be marching in the streets for peace, not grumbling about feminists on Reddit. It is not women who are sending us to die overseas, but powerful men who place such little value on the lives of other men.
These problems fall most heavily on working-class and poor men who fill our prisons, our most deadly jobs, and the ranks of our military. This puts men under an unrelenting pressure to succeed in today’s brutally competitive economy to escape the fleeting life expectancy of low-income men in America. It’s easy to think that only young men or only black men or only poor men end up behind bars or dying in Afghanistan or working in a steel mill, but middle-class college-educated men should remember that this system thrives on that mentality. Men are constantly running an economic rat race because somewhere inside we recognize that we are only one slip away from the fate we condemn other men to because we think they should be tough enough to handle it.
If we want to make life better for men, we must stop blaming women. We must remember that the gender roles that reduce women to silent property and sexual objects are the same that reduce men to emotionless machines made for fighting and hard labor. Feminists are not enemies of men, but allies in a common struggle to reclaim our humanity. When we refuse to believe women who survive rape and blame victims for “asking for it”, we feed a society that views us as uncontrollable sexual monsters who must not be provoked, that makes women afraid to see us on the street and parents afraid to trust us with their children. When we try to justify the pay gap by saying men work harder or negotiate better or deserve to make more because we financially support women, we feed a society that judges men’s worth by our ability to make lots of money and be cutthroat competitors who live for work alone and never see our families. When we defend the domination of all levels of government by “strong, tough” men and not “irrational, weak” women, we feed a society that continues to send millions of our fellow men to die in battle and rot in prison because that’s what strong, masculine leadership supposedly stands for.
So-called “Men’s Rights Activists” have only succeeded in carving out a little online world that provides an outlet for validating a few men’s deep-seated bitterness towards some particular women in their personal lives. But we deserve better than that. We deserve a world that doesn’t treat men as disposable machines, one where we live longer, freer, happier lives. We can’t get there by hating women. We can only get there by loving ourselves.