"The whole batch of apples needs a different basket": Why it's up to men to help stop violence against women

Scholar Mike Messner on his book "Some Men," men's rights activism and what to do with back-patting male feminists

Published March 8, 2015 10:00PM (EDT)

 Male feminist allies march in San Francisco, 1980.  (Rick Cote)
Male feminist allies march in San Francisco, 1980. (Rick Cote)

When I read last summer that Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong had suspended two players indefinitely while they were under investigation for sexual assault -- because "treating women with respect is one of our core values" -- I felt deep pride course through me along with the burnt orange blood in my veins. I am a proud Texas Longhorn who couldn't give two shits about football, but I make up for that lack of concern by caring very much about how male-dominated institutions, especially, approach the issue of violence against women. We've already seen the effects bystanders can have influencing gender-based violence; they can allow it to happen by staying silent, or they can try to prevent it by speaking out.

Michael Messner knows this well. The University of Southern California sociologist has spent years studying men's role in the feminist movement, and has recently turned his attention to male involvement in campaigns to stop violence. His new book, "Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence against Women," was co-authored with two of his former Ph.D. students who were also involved in anti-violence work, and explores the ways in which male leaders have helped shape feminist consciousness and break harmful traditions of masculinity. Unfortunately, the work couldn't be more pertinent than it is now: At a time when men like Charlie Strong don't often depart from the course charted by men like Roger Goodell, the men profiled in Messner's book are men we need to hear from.

Salon spoke with Messner by phone this week about how the anti-violence movement has changed, the ways male feminist allies can check their privilege and the long road feminism still has ahead. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

I’m curious why you decided to write about feminist allies in anti-violence movements, as opposed to different feminist projects.

Part of the shaping of the project came from having these young, wonderful feminist men coming to work with me on their Ph.D.s five or six years ago, and they had just come fresh from undergraduate experiences where they were doing anti-violence work on campuses. They were learning more about networks of younger men and what I saw as kind of a revival of younger men [fighting violence] on campuses. It really sprang out of a conversation with [coauthors] Tal [Peretz] and Max [Greenberg], and my having this feeling of this activism being something that is really echoing, in a somewhat different historical context, what men of my generation were doing back in the '70s, early '80s.

This book feels particularly timely to me this week, given the recent release of “The Hunting Ground” and, more broadly, the rise of the fight against campus sexual assault.

It’s funny because six months ago, when the book was going into press, I was thinking, “I wish the book was going out right now because all of this news was breaking with the NFL.” Then somebody pointed out that, unfortunately, this issue isn’t going away. We knew that when the book came out, it would probably be relevant to breaking news that week, too. I think violence against women [and men’s role in it] is an important issue that’s been going on for a long time and it’s showing no signs of going away.

So how has the work that feminists and male feminist allies are doing to combat violence changed over time, and how do you think it still needs to change?

Well in the 1970s and early '80s, all of the men doing this work were literally winging it. They had some feminist theory they were reading and they had some women in the domestic violence movement and the anti-rape movement that they were learning from, but they were making this stuff up on the fly, trying to figure out how to talk to boys and men about this. Today, there’s a whole generation of experience that younger men have to draw on, and they’re usually doing it within these institutionalized settings -- centers for women and men on campuses, rape crisis centers, domestic violence centers. Another difference is that in the late '70s early '80s, there was still a really powerful and vibrant, in-the-streets kind of feminist movement. A lot of it was focusing on pornography, and so a lot of the men back then were really caught up in the feminist sex wars. Today, for men who engage boys and men around these conversations about violence, pornography is not really the central core issue in the curricula. They focus more on issues of consent and bystander intervention that have emerged in the last few years.

There’s a section of the book where you discuss bystander intervention, and how -- while it is a good approach that appeals to men’s sense of honor and responsibility to other men -- it doesn’t quite get to the other heart of the issue, which is respect for women. I wonder if you could speak to the friction between using helpful, appealing approaches that still don’t necessarily teach the “right” message about respecting women.

So one of the core insights I think feminists had that really shifted the ground back in the '70s and '80s is the idea that the man who hits his wife or abuses his children, or the date rapist who sexually assaults a woman, he is not deviating from some “normal” conception of masculinity. He’s not a bad apple. He is over-conforming to the dominant conception of masculinity. So one way we think of stopping violence is not by weeding out a bad apple -- we think of this as the whole batch of apples needing to be put in a different sort of basket. Having conversations with groups of men and boys about what it means to be a man, and how it makes it much more likely that they end up harming other people and themselves by conforming to these standards of masculinity -- that helps. And we want men to step up when they see something, such as another man trying to have sex with a woman who is too drunk to consent. We do. But at the same time, I think just focusing on how men should be good men and responsible bystanders, risks pulling us away from the normal operation of male groups, and the normal ways that we teach boys to be men. It reproduces a rape culture and reproduces men’s objectification of women, and ends up putting women in danger.

GQ recently ran an investigative report about men’s rights activism, and one thing that stuck out to me is that a lot of the concerns MRAs raise are literally feminist issues (for example, men being forced to perform society’s most dangerous jobs and put their lives at risk). I’m so curious about that departure -- how one goes from recognizing an objectively gender-related problem and, instead of seeking change and equality, favors this regressive, sexist men’s rights activism. What do you make of that?

It often comes from trying to balance two contradictory principles. The one principle is the feminist insight that men enjoy institutionalized power over women and that if you’re a feminist, you commit yourself to undoing that in order to create equality between women and men. The second principle is that narrow and traditional perceptions of masculinity hurt men. They limit us emotionally and lead to us having shorter life spans. They enmesh us in a glorification of violence. That first principle can appeal to men on an ethical level. We think it’s wrong for one group to dominate another, but the self-interest part is really directly that principle that feminism is good for men. When you link those two things, we can see that empowerment of women is linked to the humanization of men. The more we are equal with the women, the more fully human we can be and the healthier our relationships and our bodies will be. But the link between those two gradually starts getting severed, especially when some of the men who are more interested in enhancing men’s lives start to feel as though they are getting the cold shoulder from feminist women and are being criticized by feminist women. Men start getting angrier, and that became a sort of central tenet of developing the men’s rights movement. I think that fissure happens early on and largely because of the way that those two principles are already kind of contradictory, but certain groups of men sort of empathize with one over the other.

There’s a quote in your book that stood out to me, from someone who says that no matter how many times men acknowledge their privilege -- they can say it until they’re blue in the face -- it still can’t change the reward system. So what does change the reward system?

I think we haven’t seen that happen quite yet, but I think a foundation for changing that is institutional changes where you have greater equality for women and empowerment of women. I don’t know. It’s strange, because for this book we were looking at feminist or feminist-inspired organizations, and what we’re seeing is that even within those organizations, you see male privilege being reproduced in certain ways. Certainly, you wouldn’t argue those are organizations where women are not empowered. But they’re also organizations that are sort of pointing out to the outside world that hasn’t been transformed, and what they’re saying is that if they want to have a certain kind of impact on the world, not only do they need male allies but ironically they have to deploy those male allies in ways that reproduce male privilege. There’s a whole idea that people in many circles will actually hear men’s voices better than they will hear women’s voices. And that’s really sad. I’m glad to play that role but at the same time, when you’re in that position, you have to think of ways to undermine that privilege. Many men are very aware of this pedestal effect, and they figure out ways to try to use that position where people are listening to them but at the same time undermine it by saying, “This is what I learned from women,” or “Everything I know about this I learned from her.” They make sure they’re modeling men listening to women and learning from women rather than just being the mouthpiece. You gotta be pretty self-reflexive to do that, and not to get caught up in that feeling of, “Oh wow, I’m the man.”

By Jenny Kutner

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