At universities around the world, men’s groups are banned.
The widening gap between the proportion of men and women who attend university seems to be coinciding with a rise in militant opposition to men and men’s issues on campus.
Have our alma maters really become so matriarchal that men now need to take action to reclaim the campus? Recent events in Canada certainly suggest that something is amiss.
The University of Toronto has become a symbolic battleground in the gender wars, with violent opposition to a series of talks by leading experts on men’s issues rapidly becoming a cause célèbre for men’s rights activists around the globe.
Protestors clash with police chanting “this is what men’s rights looks like” and men’s rights activists circulate footage of the protests with the title “this is what feminism looks like”.
A recent broadcast by CityNews Toronto described this controversy as “an ugly battle…a battle of the sexes [that] includes allegations of hate speech, free speech, bullying, harassment [and] even violence”.
The video footage of protestors trying to prevent Dr Warren Farrell, the creator of the proposed White House Council on Boys & Men, from delivering a talk on ‘the boy crisis in education’ is certainly shocking.
So is this an isolated drama stirred up by a handful of troublemakers who see it as a perfect opportunity to vent their political grievances, or is it symptomatic of a more widespread anti-male campus culture?
Internationally, education is clearly one of the first areas where women make ground and overtake men when nations make the transition towards greater gender equality.
In the UK, the University of London became the first to admit women in 1878 and by 1900, 30 per cent of graduates at the university were women. Just over a century later, women graduates outnumber their male counterparts all over the developed world.
The World Economic Forum, which produces a league table of gender equality in more than 130 countries, reveals that two thirds of those countries send more women to university than men. Ironically, some of the biggest university gender gaps are found in the countries that are rated as the most gender equal. In New Zealand, for example, 46% more women go to university than men, in Sweden it’s 54% in Norway 63% and in Iceland 87%.
It is too simplistic to suggest that the drive towards gender equality is pushing men out of university as participation rates have increased for both men and women. And the fact remains that women graduates now outnumber men in 89 of the world’s leading economies.
According to the UK’s Universities Minister, David Willetts, this is “the culmination of a decades-old trend in our education system which seems to make it harder for boys and men to face down the obstacles in the way of learning.”
So what exactly are the obstacles that men and boys face when it comes to learning?
As the conflict in Canada has shown, there is certainly fierce opposition to men’s issues being discussed on campus. At the University of Toronto, the Student Union wants to ban the Men’s Issues group, which invited experts like Farrell to speak.
At nearby Ryerson University, the students’ union (RSU) is one step ahead of the game and has successfully prevented three students—two of them women—from setting up a men’s issues club on campus.
Samuel Greenfield, a Ryerson student, says the decision is political:
“The principle is this: if you challenge official narrative, you don’t have the right to speak. It’s as if the spirit of closed-minded religious dogma has jumped into bed with modern political correctness to prevent blasphemy against RSU ideological orthodoxy.”
There is of course a distinction between hostility to men’s issues in general and hostility to men specifically. So is this political resistance, personal to men?
Miles Groth, a psychology professor at Wagner College, New York, who edited the anthology “Engaging College Men: Discovering What Works And Why”, suggests that the resistance to men’s issues is consistent with a campus culture that tends to opposes “male positive” activities. He told me:
“The formation of men’s groups on campus is discouraged. At Wagner College, as most places, there are ‘gender guards’, faculty who report any activity that would be considered male-positive since such activity is deemed anti-female and indicative of continuing to favor males.”
Warren Farrell, who has led anti-sexism workshop sponsored by feminist organizations on college campuses in the past, also believes that some aspects of university life are anti-male saying:
“Freshman orientation alone has had a distinctively anti-male cast for years: heavy emphasis on date rape, stalking, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual harassment amount to an unmistakable message that males are patriarchal oppressors and potential sex criminals.”
And there lies the heart of this problem. Where does being pro-female become anti-male and where does being pro-male become anti-female?
According to the University of Toronto Student Union (UTSU) “free speech ends where hate speech begins” and UTSU believes that the Male Issues campaign crossed that line by providing a forum for Dr Farrell who they say spreads “misogynistic, hateful theories”.
Student Samuel Greenfield provides a different perspective:
“Some fear that the discussion of men’s issues will somehow silence women’s voices. No one is saying women’s issues shouldn’t be discussed. But if women’s issues can be discussed, then the tent ought to be large enough for men too.”
That fear was clearly felt by Ryerson Students Union (RSU) who introduced a new policy that helped block proposals for a university men’s group. The student newspaper described the move as “an effort to guard the empowerment of women’s voices on campus” by “rejecting the concept of misandry—the hatred or fear of men”.
Sarah Santosh, one of the female students who co-founded the men’s issues group said:
“The ironic thing is my voice is being silenced right now because I can’t even form a group without having to face this really back-handed deal that’s really attacking our group.”
As we start to unpick what seems to be happening on campuses in Toronto and beyond, it becomes clear that this isn’t so much a gender war as a gender ideology war.
When you filter out the loudest and most extreme voices on both sides of the argument you find men and women who simply want some space to view things and do things differently.
One such man is Dennis Gouws, a Professor of English and Director of Arts and Education, of the Australian Institute of Male Health and Studies (AIMHS).
Gouws is one of a group of scholars who are working to pioneer a male-positive approach to academia in America, Australia, Canada, South Africa and Europe. Their initiatives include publishing an international journal on New Male Studies, promoting men’s centres on college campuses and developing post-graduate courses in Male Studies which are due to launch in 2014.
Gouws has developed a British-Literature course on Victorian Manhood that offers students a male-positive approach to understanding the texts. He has found that the course gives both men and women fresh insights into literature, history and the way they view men.
One of his students, Alex, summed up the experience as follows:
“Throughout my life I had never really thought about a male positive approach to anything. I will always read and analyze stories with a slight male-negative view out of habit, but now I know to stop and look at the same story from a male-positive view in classes and in life.”
As a result of taking the course, Alex said he was committed to becoming “a better me based on what I want and not on what others project onto me.”
There can’t be many university courses that leave young men wanting to be “a better me” and yet this male-positive, non-feminist approach to understanding men is so at odds with mainstream gender studies that its proponents have called it ‘male studies’ to distinguish it from pro-feminist ‘men’s studies’.
For some people there is a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’ to think about gender and this fundamental belief can drive them to violently oppose those who they think are looking at gender in the ‘wrong way’.
It is too simplistic to say that this fundamental view of how gender should be viewed is causing more women to go university than men. There are, after all, still plenty of courses where men are in the majority.
But when it comes to tackling our failure to educate men and boys to the same standards that we educate women and girls, surely we are more likely to address this gender inequality by encouraging the discussion of men’s issues on campus, rather than opposing such activity.
The Toronto students are not the first to campaign against men’s groups. A similar storm broke out in England in 2009, when a student at Manchester University, Ben Wild, set up the MENS Society with fellow students (male and female).
Jennie Agg who was editor of the city’s student newspaper at the time said:
“A whole lot of valuable feminist energy has been directed at prohibiting groups like these – and to what end? It seems that all that has been achieved is a rather soured relationship between those defending women’s rights and those who would tackle enduring male stereotypes. Hardly a brick in the road to true gender equality.”
Reflecting on his experience four years on, Ben Wild told me:
“The resistance that we encountered was initially surprising, however with dialogue came understanding and acceptance. My advice for those setting up their own initiatives would be: first, develop your ideas and learn from others. Those that will initially oppose you are not usually crazy or ill-willed. They are almost always people with genuine motivations and concerns, so treat them as such.”
One of the benefits of protesting is that it can bring greater attention to a problem and cause people to think more deeply about the issue in question. It’s too soon to say whether the Toronto protests will cause more people to oppose men’s issues being discussed on campus or have the opposite effect.
Right now, those who have witnessed the demonstrations in Toronto see little hope of reconciliation between the two sides. As local TV reporter, Avery Haines, said:
“Both sides feel harassed and bullied by the other and neither show any signs of backing down. It’s shameful to me that women and men can’t talk about their individual issues without it being against somebody else.”
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Wherever you are in the world, whatever your viewpoint, if you are committed to improving the lives of men and boys and have something to say on the matter, then I am waiting to hear from you.