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The broken dialogue on men’s rights

Never mind the “war on women:” According to growing numbers of bloggers, activists, and authors — some of them women — 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 important and 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 consider: 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? Yet, reversed, the disparities go unnoticed.

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 (through deception about birth control or even, however rarely, such extreme methods as use of stored semen from a condom) 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 the answer to men's issues is feminism. Male adversities, they argue, stem from patriarchal norms, which 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 a 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. Supporting paternity leave is one thing; supporting equal parental rights after divorce is another. While the feminist push for gender-neutral laws in the 1970s helped dismantle the formal presumption of maternal custody, actual efforts by fathers to get sole or joint custody brought on a swift backlash from the women's movement. Likewise, when the campaign for tough domestic violence policies netted more female perpetrators, women's groups pressed for anti-male double standards, promoting the myth that nearly all female violence is in self-defense. Meanwhile, laudable feminist efforts to secure justice for rape victims have often turned into calls for a presumption of male guilt.


Is a men's rights movement the answer? Advocates of men's causes such as author Warren Farrell have made needed contributions to the understanding of gender issues. 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.

A new book on men's issues, "Men on Strike" by psychologist and blogger Helen Smith, discusses real male concerns in such areas as divorce, fatherhood, and male-bashing in colleges, and offers good insights into how traditional chivalry toward women leads to neglect of male disadvantage. But these points, too, are undercut by Smith's embrace of extreme "war on men" rhetoric — including the dubious thesis that men are shunning marriage as a rebellion against their disenfranchisement — and her tendency to quote bitter men obsessed with female treachery.


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 like we know that.

Cathy Young is a columnist at Newsday and