It’s mid-November at the University of Toronto and a crowd is chanting.
“No hate speech on campus.. No hate speech on campus!”
Protesters heckle and shout down students who attempt to enter a lecture hall where a professor is speaking. Police try to keep the path clear.
“You should be fucking ashamed of yourself. You’re fucking scum,” a woman shouts at a man waiting to get into the hall.
Inside, guest speaker Warren Farrell, author of The Myth of Male Power, waits. According to posters promoting the event, he’s here to talk about the “boys’ crisis,” about how “our sons are about a quarter century behind our daughters — dropping out of school, preoccupied with video games, committing suicide and demonstrating a ‘failure to launch.’ ”
Farrell’s work aims to debunk the idea of male privilege. He disputes statistics about the pay gap and domestic violence. He refutes the commonly-accepted theory of patriarchy, asking how men could really hold all the power when society treats them as the most “disposable” sex.
He was invited to U of T by the Canadian Association for Equality (CAFE), an organization involved with six “men’s issues” groups at universities in Ontario and Quebec. At this campus, CAFE worked with the U of T Men’s Issues Awareness Society.
Needless to say, Farrell’s views are not popular among many feminists, some who accuse him of being a misogynist and rape apologist. Farrell isn’t overly fond of feminists either. In another book, Does Feminism Discriminate Against Men, he praises feminism for giving women new opportunities but suggests the movement has demonized men and distorted data.
Most feminists would refute this, saying that their fight against patriarchy has helped men, too.
After the event, videos of the protesters make it on to social media and men’s rights websites, with titles like “this is feminism” – more evidence, the sites contend, that feminism is “a broken ideology with nothing of value to add but vitriol, nastiness, blatant lies, and psychotic claims with absolutely no basis in reality.”
Names and faces of the protesters will later end up on a “registry” website of female “offenders” alongside other images of women charged with crimes such as murder, false rape accusations, sexual assault and child molestation.
It would be easy to dismiss the campus event and protest as a small, noisy slice of gender activism, but what happened at U of T is illustrative of a growing men’s rights movement driven by some male members of Generation Y (adults born after 1980, also known as Millennials) who are questioning their place in society and whether their rights are being violated. While their views on feminism and the extent of male oppression vary, all agree that we need to talk more openly about issues that affect boys and men.
WHAT IS MEN’S RIGHTS?
Iain Dwyer, 28, remembers a poster in his high school that proclaimed: “Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them.” He went to high school in the 1990s when messages about girl power were everywhere and gender equality was a given, said Dwyer, a spokesman for CAFE and one of the organizers of the Farrell lecture.
He says that as Millennial men like himself grew up, they realized that the world was not as equitable as they had been led to believe. Men and boys, they would find out, were suffering too.
Dwyer said CAFE uses the label “men’s issues” rather than “men’s rights” because the latter “implies legal changes are necessary. It implies that there are rights exclusive to men, which we don’t believe is true.”
The men’s rights movement has existed, in some form, since women started rallying for voting rights. The modern movement, however, emerged as feminism entered its second wave in the 1970s. Some men’s rights activists at the time agreed with and supported feminism; they believed that the liberation of women would in turn bring the liberation of men, allowing them to grow into domestic roles more traditionally filled by females.
Other men’s rights activists were stridently anti-feminist, fearful the goal of the feminist movement was to elevate women above men, stripping them of rights and privileges.
Now the movement is making rumbles again as young men watch their female peers outpace them in educational achievement, as a stagnant economy crushes traditional male career paths, and as the definition of manhood is picked apart. Some Milliennial men have picked up the men’s rights torch and, given a louder voice and greater ability to find one another online, are making their presence known. There are women among the movement and older men are acting as guides, but Millennial men seem to be feeling the brunt of the struggle.
The controversy over Farrell’s talk, as well as subsequent activities by CAFE on campuses, has helped make Toronto the de facto centre of this renewed movement.
CAFE has set up men’s issues groups on six campuses, mostly in southern Ontario, with more to come. Dwyer said that students appear to be more open to social justice causes and they’ve been attracting many curious young men to their lectures.
Key issues for Dwyer and other activists are fatherhood and paternity rights, men’s health and the education of boys.
“I think that when they (young men) hear about these sort of things, about boys not doing well in school or children not having equal access to both parents, I think that speaks to their equality mindedness,” Dwyer said.
Fatherhood and paternity issues are one of the most established tenets of men’s issues activists, who focus on the question of equal parenting and the benefits of being raised by a father figure. At issue is the fact that women are more likely to get custody of children in a divorce, depriving children of a steady paternal role, while denying fathers access to their kids.
More from Asking Y, HuffPost Canada's special project on the Millennial Generation:
Men’s health issues entail everything from awareness and research for prostate cancer and other diseases that affect only men to workplace deaths, the vast majority of which involve men. Mental health is another focus, especially given that men, especially young men, are more likely to die from suicide than their female peers.
The boys’ crisis, a term that has been used outside the men’s rights context for decades, asks why boys are falling behind in school and why young men are enrolling in and graduating from post-secondary education at increasingly lower rates compared with women.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the renewed interest in men’s rights has taken root among a diminished population of male post-secondary students.
Janice Fiamengo, an English professor at University of Ottawa, said she sees this gender discrepancy in her own classrooms, with her humanities course students being about 80 per cent female and only 20 per cent male at a campus where 60 per cent of 2012’s undergraduate students are female.
She spoke at another CAFE lecture at U of T about this topic. That event was also met with protest.
According to Statistics Canada, about 58 per cent of post-secondary graduates were female in 2011. Women make up at least a slight majority of most university programs, although males still greatly outnumber women in fields such as engineering, computer sciences and math. Eighty-three per cent of architecture, engineering and related technologies graduates in 2011 were male, only a slight drop from 85 per cent in 1993.
Women have maintained a strong lead in humanities graduation, and Fiamengo said this may have something to do with how gender issues are taught in universities.
“My sense is that to be a young man in university today is to be told over and over again that you’re part of the half of the human race that has always had it really good, and that it’s your turn to step back and turn power over to your sisters,” Fiamengo said.
She said that young men are being asked to apologize for privilege they no longer have.
“Many men are, if not consciously, then unconsciously, demonstrating an awareness of that fact by dropping out of university.”
WHAT IS MANHOOD?
Fiamengo and Dwyer agree that universities are a place for debate and discussion of social justice issues such as gender inequality and that CAFE is attractive to men who are questioning gender roles and, ultimately, what it even means to be a man after decades of feminist influence in humanities studies.
Dwyer said that feminism has done a good job of redefining what it means to be a woman, expanding opportunities and choices beyond the home. He says, however, that it’s time to do that for men, to take them beyond the role of aggressor and breadwinner.
“I felt that there really wasn’t any message about what it meant to be a man except for the occasional, frankly misandric, message that you would see,” Dwyer said.
“The message was just that you’re not wanted, not needed. I think that is the message a lot of Millennial men are getting.”
Blye Frank, dean of education at the University of British Columbia, has been studying boys, men and masculinity for 25 some years. While interviewing young men about what it means to be a man, there’s one answer that stuck with him: “Sports, looks, women.”
“Lots of young men don't feel they measure up to a gender regime, a gender code around what constitutes being an appropriate boy, around the practice of masculinity,” Frank said.
He said that many problems specific to young men, such as suicide, bullying and risky behaviour leading to injury and health issues, can be traced back to the pressure on boys to act appropriately masculine. Boys enforce this pressure by harassing their peers who behave effeminately.
“In some way there is a boys crisis, but the crisis is around measuring up to dominant codes of masculinity,” he said.
Even as this traditional prototype of masculinity endures, the realities of being a man have shifted, York University professor Miriam Smith said. There was once a clear transition for men from education to a breadwinner career, but with the economic downturn and the rise of women in post-secondary education, that path has faded.
“If you were a C student way back in the day, and you were a white male, you just kind of cruised into a good job. And now, you can't do that anymore,” Smith said.
She said that this struggle to get ahead could be part of what is getting Millennial men interested in men’s rights activism. These young men are watching their female peers get ahead of them as their own economic power declines. Smith said that higher depression and suicide rates could be a reaction to that.
There is a vocal subset of men’s rights activists that put some of the blame for men’s ills on the movement that liberated women – feminism.
“Patriarchy is a system of male privilege, so the transformation of patriarchy means that men lose their privileges. And in that sense, the men's rights movements is a backlash against the loss of traditional privilege,” Smith said.
Edward Sullivan thinks you should oppose mainstream feminism. He believes modern feminism flat-out oppresses men and actively blocks their voices.
You could say the 21-year-old software engineering management student at McMaster University is one of those men’s rights activists engaged in feminist backlash.
His route into men’s rights activism started with “correcting” statistics commonly used to support women’s rights initiatives.
He runs a Tumblr blog where he argues against statistics about the gender wage gap and systemic gendered violence. More controversially, he also writes about his disbelief in rape culture (cultural norms the implicitly tolerate rape and shame victims), asserts that drunk sex is not necessarily rape and defends what many would call victim blaming. He also rejects the traditional notions of patriarchy and male privilege.
Sullivan says that the core set of principles that feminist work from — patriarchy, male privilege and the systemic oppression of women — are just plain wrong. He says that feminists have incorrectly based their actions of the premise “that society was somehow organized by a shadowy cabal of men to oppress women.”
“It's not true. It's simplistic, it's easy to understand, but when we look at a more nuanced version, we see that in fact there are advantages and disadvantages on both sides of the past.”
He asserts that although men traditionally held responsibility, women benefited from being protected and sheltered from, for example, having to fight in wars.
Sullivan maintains that he is not anti-feminist, but it’s clear that he takes issue with modern forms of the movement.
“At its core, the premise of feminism is the idea (that) we should have gender equality. That is a really good idea,” he said. “The problem is that large portions of modern feminism – and I'd say the portions of modern feminism that are getting listened to the most – are not really doing a very good job of that.”
In a blog post bashing “misandry” among feminists, he writes, “In my experience, the majority of women treat the majority of men like shit.”
These sort of statements have many feminists like Heather Jarvis worried about the men’s rights movement.
Jarvis is the co-founder of SlutWalk, one of the most visible, widespread feminist movements going. It all started after a Toronto police officer told a group of students that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Rallies filled with men and women decrying victim-blaming have spread from Canada to as far as India, Brazil, Australia and Israel.
Jarvis is concerned about the anti-feminist and misogynistic tone within the men’s rights movement.
“They’re frustrated and angry at feminism, which is predominantly involving women and women’s struggles. Therefore it turns into this misogynistic zen thing about women, about how awful women are, how awful feminism is and how women have not done enough for men,” Jarvis said.
She has seen self-identified men’s rights activists engage in victim-blaming, misogyny and sometimes much worse, she said.
“At the extreme end, there is absolutely laughing at and encouraging the rape of women and men that they see as inferior,” she said.
Jarvis worries that even those with good intentions, who aim only to support struggling men, may inadvertently contribute to the silencing of women, the derailing of conversation and the spread of false ideas about feminism.
“Just because your gender is male does not mean you're not going to face challenges or not face oppression. And feminism recognizes that,” she said.
Jeff Perera, 36, spends a lot of time talking to boys and men about healthy masculinity in his role as the community and youth engagement manager for the White Ribbon Campaign, which fights violence against women. He, too, is skeptical of men's rights activists.
"It’s an impossible standard to be this perfect, tanned superhero guy .. and it’s important to acknowledge that. Men are struggling in everyday issues, in everyday reality, but we are not being oppressed," Perera said.
In his work with young men, Perera talks about the pressure on males to “man up” – to be that aggressive, unflinching pillar of strength and manliness and to bottle up any emotions that pop up along the way. Perera attributes these problems to the patriarchy, the same system that feminists have been fighting since the beginning. He worries that men’s rights activists are playing the “oppression Olympics” and ignoring how gender issues are inherently linked.
“The argument is that we’re looking specifically at men, at men’s issues, and I appreciate it, absolutely,” he said.
But, he adds, “when you have the conversation about the reality for men and boys, it’s impossible to leave women and girls out of it. The problem is that the conversation for men ends there.”
Perera wants boys and men to be liberated from the confines of traditional gender roles too, but he said men’s rights activists need to acknowledge root causes – namely patriarchy – and work toward healing, rather that simply blame women or feminism.
Although they aren’t the loudest contingent of men’s rights activists, there are many men who identify with the movement who believe feminism and the men’s rights movement need not be at odds.
Zach Rosenberg, 33, is a blogger who writes about men’s and father’s issues. A father of a four-year-old boy, he co-founded 8-Bit Dad, a blog about modern fatherhood culture, and he contributes to The Good Men Project, a web magazine that asks, “What does it mean to be a good man?”
“I think that at its core, feminism is a movement that was designed to fight for women, to get them back to a place where they could feel equal in treatment. I think that men’s rights does the same thing,” he said.
There’s no need to knock women down a peg for men to move up one, Rosenberg added.
“There’s a way for all of us to win without any of us having to lose.”
Rosenberg’s main focus is on fatherhood. When Millennial men become dads, they’re going to notice that media portrayals of fatherhood have not kept up with the times and will ask where their role models are.
You probably know the portrayals he’s talking about – the bumbling, childlike father who can’t figure out how laundry works, let alone how to be a caregiver.
In his writing, Rosenberg looks to tear down this tired image and support fellow dads in navigating modern fatherhood.
“Now that the men are home, they’re looking at their image in the media now and saying, ‘I don’t like what I’m seeing, I’m still seeing this old image of manhood when obviously it’s changing,” Rosenberg said.
Another significant adjustment in family gender roles is the increasing likelihood that women are the family’s primary breadwinner as more fathers are staying home to raise children than ever before.
In 2011, 12 per cent of fathers from two-parent families with children under 16 were stay-at-home dads, according to Statistics Canada. In 1976, such men were only one per cent of fathers. Sixty-eight per cent of two-parent households in 2011 were also dual-income, compared with 36 per cent in 1976. Single fathers also made up 20 per cent of lone-parent households in 2006.
Rosenberg lives in California and sees these trends in the United States as well. His own observations about the changing roles of fathers got him into men’s issues, and he suspects that other young fathers are experiencing the same thoughts.
Rosenberg would consider himself a “moderate” when it comes to men’s issues activism, but he knows that it’s the more radical contingent who are grabbing headlines for now.
“The loudest voices are the ones that get heard, and the loudest voices generally are the ones with an axe to grind.”
Back at the University of Toronto, CAFE held a third lecture on April 4, this one titled “From Misogyny and Misandry to Intersexual Dialogue.”
Again, the event drew protesters and a fire alarm was pulled. Again, videos of the feminist protesters went online with commentary deriding them as the face of feminism.
Dwyer said that the back-and-forth attacks on both sides serve only to distract from the real struggles that men face.
“We wanted the coverage to be about boys and the content of the [Farrell] talk, but it ended up being about what one group of activists did and then what another group of activists did to them,” he said.
He would rather the protesters be left the to police while the rest of us get back to talking about the struggles of boys and men – and that they be taken seriously.
“‘Boys will be boys’ isn’t going to cut it anymore.”