At times it seems as if the debate around gender on university campuses has rarely been more volatile and polarised. On the one hand, there are frequent reports of intolerance on campus towards non-feminist views, with student men’s societies being blocked by feminist campaigners and last year’s plans to mark International Men’s Day at the University of York vetoed by a joint letter from students and professors. On the other, the NUS and feminist campaigners claim sexist “Lad Culture” is rife on university campuses.
So in light of all this, you might think it would be a brave man indeed who would offer to give a talk on men’s issues to his university’s Feminist Society. But that is exactly what third-year Surrey University psychology student Mike Parker did to mark International Men’s Day in November last year.
Here he describes what happened -- it may both surprise you and give you reason for hope that the gender war may not be as intractable as at times it may appear.
Up until November last year, all my discussions around the contemporary issues facing men had been online. A very small corner of a particular website where, for the most part, I could expect most people to agree with me. Not exactly the most productive past time, I know. So when my University’s Feminist Society, of which I am an occasional member, invited me to give a talk on men’s issues I leapt at the opportunity. I asked my subscribers on YouTube and great organisations like the Mankind Initiative, SurvivorsUK and insideMAN what I should cover, before devoting time probably better spent on my degree researching and structuring a talk.
'Culture of silence'
So, with the muffled sound of a jazz band playing below us, giving an inappropriately chirpy air to a talk about domestic violence, sexual assault, suicide and depression, I presented my case to a surprisingly full room of feminists as to why they should care about men’s issues. I titled my talk “Silent Sufferers” because, as far as I can tell in both politics and general life, men and their issues are systematically ignored. There is quite simply a culture of silence when it comes to men’s issues. Perhaps after that night, though, they’ll be a few more voices speaking out for them.
To be sure, I did not pull any punches. I opened by talking about domestic violence, and laid out the rather damning critique of the feminist theory in domestic violence research that researchers like Prof. Murray Straus have presented. I explained the suppression of data and the harassment of researchers whose findings acknowledge female perpetrators and male victims, by people calling themselves feminists, and in the name of feminism. And to the credit of the society, they simply took this on board. No heckles, no complaints, no “how dare you!”s. Just an acceptance of “this happened”. Later, during the discussion, I asked if anyone had any disagreements. When they said no, I was surprised. “No-one found any of this controversial?” I asked. “Well it was all controversial”, someone replied “But you presented us with good evidence so we can’t really disagree with you.”
I couldn’t have asked for a better result, to be honest. To have people admit to simply being convinced by sheer weight of evidence is rare in any situation, and many of my online comrades in men’s issues think it is impossible when it comes to feminists. In fairness, the odds were perhaps stacked in my favour. I’m a regular member of the society, and my particular “studenty”, pro-feminist and leftist brand of men’s liberation might be a bit more palatable to them than the political opinions of many online men’s issues advocates. But then I would argue that for anyone to have any effect they need to integrate into other groups and make bridges, so perhaps the ease of convincing them was just a sign of this particular approach working.
In reality I realise that this will change little. As well intentioned as the people in the room were, and no matter how convinced they were that action was needed, none of them are in any position of power. They do have a few projects which, either on the initiative of someone else or by my insistence, have been broadened to include men’s issues. It’s a start, but it’s unlikely to change the culture of silence overnight. But though they cannot change anything directly, they can start to change the narrative. Perhaps the next time someone talks about rape or domestic violence only as a woman’s issue, or say that men need no help at all, one of them will perk up with a “well actually” and be able to use the evidence I gave them for a good cause. Perhaps, even if it’s only at one small pocket of one small, distinctly south England university, the culture of silence has been broken.
Mike Parker is currently a third year psychology student at the University of Surrey. He is also a walking online cliche, covering men’s issues and his Humanist beliefs on YouTube when he should really be studying. Visit his YouTube channel here
A member of the Surrey University Feminist Society gave their response to hearing Mike’s talk, you can read it here