Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
Warren Farrell, the feminist, had two houses, including a “gorgeous, gorgeous” home in the country. He drove a Maserati. Every article he wrote about women for the New York Times was published, without exception. When he made presentations at conferences, he was offered teaching positions in departments where he “was not even qualified to teach.” (His doctorate is in political science, not psychology, the subject of his five books.) He was the only man to be elected three times to the board of NOW in New York. He was invited to appear on Phil Donahue’s talk show no fewer than eight times.
Warren Farrell, the masculinist, has one house, which he does own, but it’s “nothing phenomenal.” He drives a 1989 Nissan 240SX. Nothing he has written about men for the New York Times has been published, without exception. The college professors have stopped calling and so have the feminists (although to this day the bio on his book jackets still begins with his NOW credentials). During his last appearance on “Donahue,” Farrell says, he started to address men’s issues. And that was, well, his last appearance on “Donahue.” Phil didn’t want him back, and Betty Friedan, if she didn’t actually want him dead, would probably have preferred to see him muzzled.
It’s hard work being a gender radical, especially when you switch sides.
Farrell says he was “100 percent” feminist in his thinking until sometime in the mid-1970s. At that time, he was leading anti-sexism workshops on college campuses across the country, most of them sponsored by feminist organizations. Farrell made men participate in “beauty pageants” to make them see what it was like for women to be judged on their looks alone. The feminists were good with that; they loved him; they sponsored him; they took him out to dinner and told him how wonderful he was.
But Farrell also wanted the women to see what it was like to be a man. Men, according to Farrell, “take 152 risks of rejection from first eye contact with a woman until intercourse.” He decided that women should have to participate in a role-reversal exercise in which they were forced to ask a man out. The feminists did not like that. According to Farrell, most of them, after watching the men go through the beauty contest, walked out when it came time to participate in the role-reversal “date.”
But Farrell’s biggest argument with feminists came in the mid- to late ’70s, when, one by one, NOW chapters across the country came out in support of giving mothers primary custody of children in cases of divorce.
“I said, ‘Uh-huh. I see what this movement is about. It’s about women having choices, not about fairness,’” recalls Farrell. “I definitely agree with choices for women, but I do not agree with choices for women when they eliminate choices for men. Rather, I think that the sexes need to make choices that lead to the maximum amount of win-win for both sexes.”
Divorce, according to Farrell, leaves men who are dependent on women for their emotional lives with a gaping “love void” that must be filled. After his divorce with the feminist movement, Farrell experienced a political love void, and into it stepped men — angry men, wounded men, men who want to be “nurturer-connectors” but who, according to Farrell, are simply viewed as “killer-protectors.”
For Farrell, the stereotype of men as “success objects” came to feel just as pernicious as the stereotype of women as “sex objects,” a fact that he believes has been ignored both by feminists, who see men as the keepers of power, and by traditional women, who rely upon men to support them.
Warren Farrell, masculinist, writes books that tend to make headlines because of their often inflammatory content, but that doesn’t mean they are always taken seriously in a culture that views “men’s issues” with derision on the one hand, and as a last, vicious grab for patriarchal power on the other.
His latest book, “Father-Child Reunion,” claims that American children suffer from a “father wound” that can only be healed by ending the matriarchal domination of family life. He seeks to integrate fathers into the lives of their children, putting an end to maternal gatekeeping in intact families. He believes that mother-only households should be discouraged, in part by overturning the “tender-years doctrine,” which for most of the 20th century has encouraged judges to place young children in the primary care of their mother in cases of divorce. He also derides alimony and welfare — which he calls “mother-subsidy” payments — because he believes they encourage women to be economically dependent.
In the chirpy prose and rhymed couplets of self-help-speak, Farrell exposes the pathologies of feminism and calls on men to fight back for their domestic rights. Over 30 years feminism has replaced the benevolent patriarch with an emasculated monster: We have gone from the “Era of Father Knows Best to the Era of Daddy Molests; from Dad as family head to deadbeat dad.”
Politically speaking, the ideas presented in Farrell’s book lurch from the left to the right and back again. He spells out the ABCs of men’s and women’s reproductive rights, calling for more research on a male birth control pill (he blames the lack of a male pill on the sexist assumption of “the unconscious moral superiority of women — that men can trust women to tell the truth more than women can trust men”), while advancing the argument that a man should have the right to choose whether to “abort” his parental rights and obligations by refusing to pay child support, or to veto a partner’s abortion and compel a woman to bear a child he has fathered.
“Father-Child Reunion” will be known, at least in sound-bite form, as the book that claims single fathers are superior to single mothers on almost every measurable scale: Farrell has marshaled data to show that single fathers raise children who are, among other things, more empathetic, less violent, less likely to become teenage parents and perform better in school than children raised by single mothers. He even claims that girls raised by single fathers have more orgasms than those raised by single mothers.
According to Farrell’s data, single fathers are less likely than single mothers to bad-mouth their absent spouse (a practice that Farrell calls “the most insidious form of child abuse”), and also less likely to abuse their children, in all categories, including physical and sexual abuse (though men are more likely than women to be accused of sexual abuse). Also, says Farrell, single fathers, who make up 19 percent of all single parents, tend to be better educated and have a higher income than their female counterparts.
“I’m not saying that men make better fathers than women do mothers,” he says. Rather, Farrell likens the man who wants to be a stay-at-home father today to the woman who wanted to be a surgeon in the 1950s. Because men are not encouraged to be “protector-nurturers,” any man who wants to be the primary parent to his child is likely to encounter legal, social and familial discrimination every step of the way, says Farrell.
And thus, explains Farrell, any man who is strong enough, emotionally and financially, to fight that systemic discrimination is likely to be well above average in his motivation and desire to be a parent. (Indeed, this process of self-selection may explain why gay and lesbian parents, who have consistently had to fight for their parental rights, have come out so far ahead of their straight counterparts in studies that measure their commitment and skill as parents.)
Oddly enough, Farrell is not, himself, a father. He has twice been a stepfather. The first time, his relationship with the mother lasted five years; the second relationship, which is still ongoing, “depending on the week or month,” has lasted for seven years. “But,” says Farrell, “I am still very close to the children and spend a lot of time with them. And I’ve spent a lot of time as a camp counselor and I helped to raise my brother.”
Stepfathers do not fare well in Farrell’s book — at one point, he claims that “sexual abuse from stepfather to stepdaughter is a common problem” and says that biological fathers keep a distance from their children because they know that courts will allow mothers to replace them with the man of their choice — but the author points to this as evidence of his own impartiality.
“I am always someone who follows the research more than my self-interest. It certainly has not been in my self-interest to defend men. I’ve gone from being quite wealthy, when I was defending women, to being quite poor defending men. I don’t have children that I’ve lost in a bitter custody dispute. But I see an enormous wound in kids due to a lack of their dads. The word of the day is blinding us to what we could otherwise see, and that is what drives me to write.”
As it turns out, I am probably not the best interviewer for Warren Farrell. He has complained in the past that publications repeatedly send young women to interview him (a ploy that must have been particularly entertaining for editors around the time of his last book, which, among other things, claimed a man’s sex drive is his greatest point of vulnerability, which puts him in particular danger when forced to interact with young, attractive women on a professional basis).
What’s more, I am a single mother, though Farrell, who is nothing if not open-minded, does not seem to hold that against me. (He does claim, however, that censorship from a single mother-editor at Simon & Schuster caused him to switch to Tarcher-Putnam for “Reunion.”) He relays a brief history of his relationship with his last woman-friend, a divorced mother, which flourished despite the fact that she is a born-again Christian and he is an atheist. He says that making love to a mother is so much better, because a mother is a woman who has been “humbled” by motherhood, and brings an entire “tapestry” to lovemaking.
To find Farrell I go to Pleasanton, Calif., a Bay Area bedroom community that is indeed pleasant in the suburban sense. At the end of two very long, very non-pedestrian-friendly blocks, across a four-lane highway, at the end of a very long strip mall that contains a Wal-Mart, is the Borders bookstore that will host Farrell this evening.
Farrell is an amiable, round, bearded man who, a Borders employee points out, looks something like the actor Sir Derek Jacobi. He’s dressed in a denim shirt and denim jeans and is already on a first-name basis with his audience. They form a ring around him — two couples, one with a baby; three men accompanied by neither woman nor child; and one man with his son — in plastic chairs, swapping stories, comparing the relative differences in family law between Alameda and Santa Clara counties, interrupting each other in their eagerness to lay their lives bare before their mentor, a man they seem certain will not only understand them but fight for them as well.
In fact, the woman with the baby has already spoken with Farrell, having worked her way through the call queue on a radio show that hosted him this morning. (According to Farrell, the host had to place a moratorium on calls from “angry men,” who flooded the phone lines with their personal tales of custody woes.) She is a second wife, a position Farrell holds in particularly high esteem, because, according to him, the second wife is the single most important asset a man can have when it comes time to duke it out with the ex-wife in gynocentric family court. Farrell praises her intelligence and she beams. “I’m not one of those defensive women,” she says.
Her husband worked as a Y2K programmer last year, which, she says, explains why this year, the amount of child support he is required to pay should be lowered. “And do you know what she said in court? She tried to paint him as a Y2K lunatic!”
Another Farrell fan, a man dressed in a worn suit and wearing thick glasses with a vaguely aviator cast, nods solemnly. “There are a lot of war stories out there,” he says, and proceeds to share his own with the group. He can’t even go to church because his church happens to be located across the street from his children’s elementary school and his ex happens to have a restraining order that prevents him from going within a certain distance from the school.
He says that his wife was a career woman during the first two years of their marriage, while he stayed at home with the children. Then they divorced. Now his oldest son is 13 and he hasn’t seen his children in 10 years. He’s trying to sue his wife’s attorneys in civil court, and has a bewildering theory that somehow he can prosecute someone — whether it’s the ex-wife or the attorneys or the child support collection bureau is unclear — under RICO, the statute designed to prevent racketeering. He’s trying to start a fathers’ rights group and he’s brought his business cards, which he begins to pass around the group.
At a little before 8 p.m., a Borders employee breaks up the discussion to acknowledge that, while Warren Farrell certainly needs no introduction to this group, it’s probably time to begin. Farrell nods genially at his host, smiles at his new friends, stands, plants one foot on his chair and launches into his favorite exercise, a pop quiz meant to measure men’s desire to nurture.
Here it is:
Men, would you choose to stay home with your child full time if the following three conditions prevailed?
1) You knew that you would not hurt your family economically.
2) You had your wife’s approval.
3) Society had the attitude that a well-balanced child required bonding time with both parents, and that father time was especially essential after a baby has spent nine months in a mother’s womb.
In Farrell’s workshops about 85 percent of the men answer yes; in this group 100 percent answer yes, which is no surprise, as even Farrell himself readily acknowledges that any group that is exclusively made up of Farrell followers is likely to share his views on the need for men to nurture their children. Of course, the real question is: What parent — of either gender — wouldn’t choose to spend time with their children if their choice had no effect on their family’s income and they knew that they wouldn’t be looked down upon by their spouse and society as “just” a house spouse?
The fact is that all three of these conditions are almost never met, for any stay-at-home parent. Parents who choose to stay at home know that they are choosing to place more value on time with their child than on family income and position in society. It’s what we do within this crucible of choice — knowing we will inevitably sacrifice one thing for another — that reveals what we ultimately value.
(Farrell says he once met a man at a panel discussion for NOW in the mid-’70s who had negotiated the delicate balance of fatherhood and career. This man, who was seated next to Farrell, explained that he had just left his high-paying career, with more than enough money to retire, to stay at home with his son full time. His wife approved; she needed time to devote to her own career. Then, someone reached over Farrell to ask the man for his autograph. The man was John Lennon.)
Throughout history, says Farrell, men have been encouraged to be “disposable,” that is, ultimately willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the community. Men are trained for this through competitive sports, like football. They learn that they must buy love with their own pain (on the field or the time clock) and, ultimately, be willing to die. And they do, mourns Farrell. Not only do men die an average of seven years earlier than women, but they are five times more likely to commit suicide — and 13.5 times more likely after the age of 85.
“Do you know the root word of hero?” he asks the Borders audience.
Turns out it comes from “cero,” which, in the original Greek, means “servant,” or even “slave.” Historically, men have been servants, says Farrell, slaves to the greater community, the servant-protectors of women, children and old men. The mistake of feminism, says Farrell, is that women equated serving with power and privilege, when in fact both sexes were simply acting out their roles.
Now, for the first time in history, says Farrell, we don’t have to rely on such antiquated notions of gender. In fact, if we do, it will only lead to mutually assured destruction. Western industrialized society has put “our genetic heritage in conflict with our genetic future.” This, Farrell tells us, is because, among other things, we have the nuclear bomb, and men who are bred solely as “killer-protectors” will certainly destroy us all.
And yet, sadly, says Farrell, women are still choosing men as mates based solely on their ability to be “protectors,” at least financially speaking.
Which brings Farrell to another exercise, during which it is established that 100 percent of the women in the audience married for money; all the men married for looks.
It is one of the stranger aspects of Farrell’s followers: The very woman who is the most likely to be open to the idea of “allowing” her husband to express his nurturing side, who is the most likely to consider a nontraditional family situation in which either partner, regardless of gender, has the option to choose between the breadwinner role and the role of stay-at-home parent, is likely to be, well, a feminist.
And it’s not likely that such a woman is going to see much of herself in a book that insists that most women still “equate one act of intercourse with a lifetime of economic security” and see men as “walking wallets.” It’s equally difficult to imagine that the men who are willing to enter into marriages in which they play the “success object” to their wives’ “sex object” are the same men who would clamor for their rights to be stay-at-home dads.
Feminism happened, says Farrell, because women naturally chose to marry men who would be the best providers. And men who have good jobs don’t tend to have much of a nurturing side. How can they? They spend all their time at work, the better to show their love by earning money for their families. So these rich women, not understanding that their husbands were demonstrating their love the best they knew how, had a lot of time and money on their hands. Rich women went to therapists. Therapists told them they were oppressed. A movement was born.
“What I want to know,” asks one man, “is how do you do this? How do you go on doing what you do? If I knew as much as you do, I wouldn’t be able to stand it, I’d be so angry. There are 2 million men in jail. That’s a national crisis! You never hear anything about men, just women and minorities.”
Yes, says Farrell, “we have more empathy for whales than males.”
That wraps up the lecture portion of the evening. Farrell sits down to sign books, but he insists that each person not only tell him his or her name, but a little bit about their lives, so that he can give each and every one a personal inscription.
Warren Farrell is nothing if not a fountain of empathy. I get a generous helping of his brand of personalized attention the next morning, when I meet him for breakfast at his hotel in downtown San Francisco. He wants to know if I slept well and inquires about the health of my daughter. Farrell, who lives in Encinitas, Calif., just outside San Diego, would prefer to live in the Bay Area, but he is waiting for the housing prices to drop. He’s spent one day at this hotel, but he already knows the wait staff, and they already know that he prefers his eggs over easy.
Today, Farrell can’t choose between grilled polenta and French toast. Finally, he comes up with a compromise: The best way to satisfy our mutual cravings for sweet and savory is to order both, and share. “Is that OK with you?” he asks. “Now that we are sharing, it’s no longer my decision.”
If American society is suffering from a father wound, then Farrell may be suffering from a feminist wound. “I’m an awfully loyal friend,” he says. “Once I’ve started a relationship with someone, it’s like they are syrup and I’m a pancake. Their syrup gets into my pancake, so to speak.” The rejection he received from feminists hurt, especially because he just sees himself as “a 1970s feminist completing the revolution.”
Feminists may claim that they want men to be involved in the home, says Farrell, “but every single fathers’ rights organization in this country would not exist if women were open to men being involved in their children’s lives. Women say, ‘Get involved, but you can’t take the child here, or you have to be liberal and not conservative.’ Women want men to follow their rules, because they think their rules are better and their values are better. And that’s understandable, but that’s not equality.”
“‘Women’s bodies, women’s business,’” Farrell says, “is a crock. It’s very, very bad. It can only come out of an insidious form of sexism that doesn’t consider anybody but the woman.” True reproductive rights, says Farrell, would take into consideration the rights of the man, the woman and the fetus. Farrell believes that both men and women should have the right to choose abortion (in the man’s case, “abortion” could also mean refusing to pay child support for an unwanted child), “but I believe that abortion is killing. But I also eat meat and wear leather, and that is killing as well.”
Once a pregnancy has occurred, says Farrell, “there should be a minimal level of involvement for both parties. If I am requiring a woman who does not want to be a mother to be minimally involved for nine months, then a man who does not want to be a father should perhaps be required to be involved for a year or so, to some degree. But if either partner makes a unilateral decision to have a child that the other partner does not agree with, then that person should have close to 100 percent responsibility.”
The previous night, at the lecture, Farrell said that he makes a point to “never write more than two paragraphs that I think other people would readily agree with. After all,” he mused, “if these ideas are already in the culture, why write?” Indeed, when reading Farrell’s work, one sometimes gets the impression that he is merely taking unpopular stands in order to stir the waters up. When I suggest as much to him, he laughs.
“Well, the closest thing to that in this book is the section on reproductive rights. I care more about making men part of the discussion. I’m not sure what my final stand on that would be.”
So what exactly is Warren Farrell: Curmudgeon, rabble-rouser, neotraditionalist, feminist, masculinist or gender transitionalist? He is a masculinist who champions second wives as the strongest political force for getting parental rights for their husbands, a feminist who does not believe in the absolute autonomy of a woman’s body, a man without children who has devoted 10 years to writing a book on fathers’ rights, a man who would like to see women become breadwinners, but who also says, “The workplace benefits from women, but the family needs men.” Who, exactly, does he see as his ideal audience?
“When I write, I have to admit, I’m writing to women in my mind more than I’m writing to men,” says Farrell. “I’ve always been more comfortable with women than with men, ironically. For somebody who is one of the leading male advocates in the world, that may seem strange. My style, my method, my desire to listen rather than to dominate or interrupt conversation, my values are a lot more female-oriented than male-oriented overall.
“I’ve grown to like men,” he assures. “But it’s been much more of an intellectual journey, which has now taken on emotional components, than it was an initial attraction or feeling.”
When I last speak to Farrell, he is in a hotel room in Seattle, surrounded by men. Seattle is the hotbed of the men’s movement, with more men’s organizations than anywhere else in the country. There are “wisdom councils” for men who want to look inward and fathers’ rights groups that focus on legal advocacy.
Farrell sighs, and begins talking about “the irony and paradox” of being a father denied parental rights. The men who are the most nurturing, who most want to be with their children, are the ones who are the least likely to want to be embroiled in a legal controversy. “It’s a very tough combination of qualities that eliminate the men for one reason or another. Either they’re too introspective to get involved in the legal process, or they are so aggressive that you see why they got the divorce in the first place.”
Is he ever afraid that his work will be misappropriated and used as a legal bludgeoning device by men who simply want to punish their ex-wives by taking their children?
“Every piece of legal ammunition will be used by people of bad will,” says Farrell. “But fathers rarely fight for sole custody. And I make it clear in my book that shared custody is the preferred option.”
“Now, if the father is a jerk enough to want to take the children to spite the mother — hah! Let the jerk experience what raising children is like. This is no picnic! The payback is the kids. And if he’s not good at this, the kids will ruin him! There’s no form of abuse in the world that is greater than the abuse by children of parents.”
Warren Farrell, masculinist, believes that there should never have been a women’s movement that blamed men for the ills of society. There should not be a men’s movement blaming women. There should only be a gender transitional movement that encompasses both genders. Sadly, he says, 30 years of feminism have made the men’s movement necessary. “But as soon as things get anywhere near balanced — if I live that long — when men start blaming women, I will be on their backs just as hard and as strong as I am now that it’s the other way around.”
Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.More Amy Benfer.
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia
Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, U.S.
Eiffel Tower, Paris, France
Colosseum, Rome, Italy
Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Siena Cathedral, Siena, Italy
Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France
Lost City of Petra, Jordan