How modern day men’s rights movements harm the men they claim to help
*All names have been changed for anonymity
“It’s hard to point to something specific,” says Harry*. As a young man he says factors such as age, impressionability and a lack of critical thinking skills led him down a path towards the men’s rights movements.
“You’d get these [men’s rights activists] come along on YouTube [and now TikTok] and say things like, ‘if you divorce a woman, there’s an 80% chance you’re never seeing your kids again,’ and that feels scary, when you’re twelve and don’t know that’s not strictly true.”
It wasn’t discussed at home, either, so his ability to discern “fake arguments” posed by the right was limited. “My household has always been pretty progressive, but my parents weren’t revolutionaries in any respect, and they didn’t really discuss these issues.”
These issues began almost fifty years ago. In the 1970s, men’s liberation movements, as they were then known, began to pop up around the world. These groups stood alongside feminist values—fighting for substantive equality in the workplace and the homes—and argued for a reconsideration of gender normative roles.
However, from the 1980s, several men’s rights groups began to suddenly turn in opposition to feminism: blaming the women they had once sat alongside for the pressures they faced. These groups have become popularised in the age of social media, and have become highly intertwined with radical manosphere online movements, which seek to return to the age of “traditional familial values” through racism, misogyny and forced violence.
When asked about this radical shift in ideology, Associate Professor in the School of Psychology Dr Danny Osborne says that, “the same things that motivate progressives to pursue collective action are the same factors that motivate conservative movements: identity (identifying with the group and/or issue), efficacy (feeling like your group can make a difference and change the system), and perceptions of injustice.”
The men’s rights movement gives young men all three, without asking them to deal with the baggage of patriarchy. As the movement has aged, its rejections of patriarchy have only become more explicit. Ironically, the movement’s roots in feminism mean this appears to be quite a contradictory position, but as Harry notes, it doesn’t really matter. “Realistically we’re dealing with a conspiracy theory here. Any conspiracy starts out as ‘do your own research’ and then eventually they’re talking about the blackpill.”
Dr Kris Taylor, a research fellow also in the School of Psychology, is quick to qualify this. He adds, “I find it interesting in speaking with young men about the issues that they care about as the pressures that they feel to behave in ways that limit their emotional expression, pressures to pursue sex, and pressures to conform to a masculine status quo are all well explained in feminist theory. In this sense, I think that one of the biggest issues that young men face is a limited repertoire for making sense of themselves.”
Max* echoes this. “People have been taught since birth to think about themselves as individuals. So when you talk about systemic issues often a response is ‘well I haven’t done anything wrong’. Most people aren’t equipped to have these conversations and it can often be quite upsetting.”
Harry agrees, adding, “I was twelve and I thought, ‘well I haven’t done any of that’. I’ve done a lot of thinking about my place in patriarchy now; but I don’t think I’d have been able to do that without getting my foot in the door first.”
It’s certainly clear that traditional notions of masculinity are hard to escape from, and have dire consequences: in the 2021/2022 period, the Chief Coroner ruled that men were more than twice as likely to die by suicide in New Zealand than women.
Men also continue to be disproportionate victims of physical assault, and compulsory conscription for young men and boys continues to impact several nations in periods of war, among other issues.
This is where men’s rights recruitment comes in: exposing vulnerabilities in young men, and capitalising on their fears. Dr Osborne believes that, “people like Jordan Peterson and Andrew Tate have… done a disservice to young men by radicalising (even further) what it means to identify as a man.”
“So, rather than it being seen as a normal or healthy thing, strong identification as a man has a rather radical and counter-progressive association with it. In that sense, it’s become even more confining and rigid to strongly identify as a man.”
As men’s rights recruitment trends ever younger, Harry notes that, “it’s very important for privileged people to educate their children properly on systemic issues. It’s really easy to say sexism is bad, but we often don’t talk about the systemic component. Without a systemic understanding, kids are defenceless to a lot of men’s rights arguments”.
Fortunately, there are men’s liberation movements seeking to plug these gaps in understanding. Dr Osborne is an advocate for these types of movements. “We need to see more structural and cultural change to occur in order to break down traditional masculine values. Rigid gender roles are ultimately confining for men, women, and non-binary people, thereby limiting everyone’s potential. At the end of the day, I’m a strong believer in the personal being political. The decisions we make every day will eventually change society and make the world a little bit better, more inclusive, place.”
Take, for example, Shifting the Line, a project run by the University’s School of Psychology and supported by Dr Taylor. The project started life as a study about how boys and young men would respond to a ‘change-oriented’ methodology that introduced questions about gender and sexism and online ethics.”
When asked about how they’re helping young men, Dr Taylor comments that they use a process of gentle enquiry, in which, “we engage young men in long discussions about gender [and] sexism… as boys become aware of the ways that these gendered norms constrain their lives, they are more able to recognise the ways that the status quo of rigid masculinity isn’t really beneficial to anyone.”
Harry is positive about the future. “The internet makes everything more visible, while that does mean more people are exposed to negative content in the first place, it also makes the shortcomings of movements such as men’s rights more obvious. It’s easy to lose perspective on the internet, but I do think we’re heading towards a more equal society.”