This time last week, I attended a conference hosted by Men’s Voices Ireland entitled Who Cares About Men?
I have been a feminist for a long time now and as a feminist, I am passionate about many men’s issues. However, I often find myself disagreeing with the approach by MRA’s (men’s right activists) to tackle these issues.
I went to this conference with a cautiously open mind. I was hoping that it would be a vibrant, hopeful discussion about what needs to be done to tackle men’s issues. I was hoping it would be as inspirational as the many different feminism events that I have attended in the past. I was hoping that I would leave that room feeling optimistic and ready to do what I could for the case of men.
I’m afraid this is not what happened.
Admittedly, I didn’t arrive at the event until 2pm, even though it started at 9am. I have no idea what happened beforehand and I can only speak about my experience during the time that I spent there.
Walking into the old fashioned room in a hotel in town, I encountered an elderly security man. After looking me up and down disapprovingly, he checked my name off the list and granted me access to the conference. I felt quite intimidated. As a tall, blonde, vibrantly dressed young person, I stuck out immensely. To begin, I was the youngest person there by far. There were one or two people walking around who looked in their mid-20’s, but I was the only teenager that I could see.
The majority of people there were middle aged men, with the occasional (and I do mean occasional) woman thrown into the mix. Everyone there seemed to be clutching notebooks and pens in their hands. This was serious business. It was something I’d never seen at a feminist event, but maybe this was a different type of event. There were also not as many attendees there as I had anticipated. I would guess that about 30 people were sitting around to observe the guest speakers doing their thing.
The first speech that I witnessed was entitled the case for male friendly health services: lessons from the Men’s Sheds movement. The speaker, John Evoy, started by saying that most of the speeches relating to men’s issues were quite negative, but he intended to be different.
He began by making a joke about that day’s football scores. He received an appreciative laugh and looked pretty chuffed with himself.
He went on to describe the service entitled Men’s Sheds that he provides to Irish men. There are 350 member sheds of this kind around Ireland with 10,000 participating men. They are mainly a network of meeting places for men of all ages across the whole of Ireland.
Pretty soon into his address, somebody asked the question that I was dying to, are women welcome?
He responded by saying that men work best together. “The lads need the male only space,” I believe were his exact words. However, he did say that women may be in the background, but it’s important to mainly keep it male-only. I couldn’t help but hear the implication that any women would distract the men from doing their “manly” stuff together.
Evoy went on to contrast his service with others that are available. He said that there is a reason that men don’t participate in certain services (I don’t really know what he meant by that) as much as women do. According to him, most initiatives don’t suit fellas, but they still get the blame. “Men are absolutely fine the way they are, there’s something wrong with the services.”
This received vigorous nodding from the audience as I wondered what this was even referring to.
The motto of the organisation then flashed up on the screen and I had to hold my chin to prevent it hitting the floor. “Men don’t talk face to face, they talk shoulder to shoulder.” I suppose if men were seen actually speaking to one another, people might start talking. I’m being sarcastic of course.
It got worse. Evoy stated that men don’t talk about depression, instead, lads need to get their hands dirty. He said that they rarely have meetings as it’s better for the men to be doing stuff. Also, they never name their activities, they just refer to everything as a men’s shed event.
He actually stated that if it looks like things have been analysed and thought about, the men won’t come as it will seem too formal. It must be exhausting to be an organiser of these sheds as there seems to by many rules to follow to prevent the men from immediately closing their minds to the idea.
Gender Blind Services.
The next presentation was entitled Male Gender Blind Services: Square Pegs in Round Holes? The speaker was a Consultant Clinical Organisational Psychologist named Dr. Tim Dunne.
He began by questioning why society kept the spotlight off men’s issues, suggesting it may be too uncomfortable. He spoke about male suicide, an issue that should obviously be of huge concern to everyone. However he followed this by saying that if the suicide rate was the other way around, every feminist society would be up in arms about it.
At this point, I was pretty sick of everyone speaking about issues without coming up with solutions to them. One of his points that I did agree with was that Western society tends to believe that only women can suffer because of their gender. I do think that there are certain people out there who think like this. And there are certain areas where men are at a disadvantage. Like I said, I wanted to hear solutions to these problems.
At this point his speech seemed to get even more ridiculous. He quotes the lower life expectancy as a disadvantage that men suffer from, as though that’s anything that could be solved by society.
He blames feminism for these issues. He states that the feminist movement to minimise gender diversity goes against universal preferences and does not suit men.
He states that there is no equivalent of feminist societies for men. I felt like standing up and shouting “join a feminist society then!”
He believes that talks therapies are dangerous for men and that they “make things worse.” Society should “change the way we listen rather than expecting men to change the way they talk.” He believes that “banter” is a process that men need. It establishes trust and connection for them. In his words, “personal feelings are a feminised culture.” He even cited the fact that waiting rooms don’t have magazines about “sports or cars” as a reason that men don’t attend talk therapies.
At this point my poor feminist, non-gender stereotyping brain was about to burst.
He finished his speech by stating that most men are involved in road accidents because of speeding. He then asked what the reason could be that women caused accidents. One audience member shouted “doing their make-up.” He responded by saying that they caused them through driving on the wrong side of the road. The room loudly giggled as I sunk down lower into my chair.
He then asked where were the ad campaigns addressing that issue? Personally, I can’t imagine that driving on the wrong side of the road causes nearly as many accidents as speeding. It may be the most frequent road crime that women are involved in, but that does not mean it’s a common factor in road accidents. But no, Dunne insisted that ad campaigns were targeting “our lads.” Honestly he was only short of saying that the “lads” need to speed in order to get that testosterone pumping through their bodies.
The final presentation I witnessed was entitled Parenting Outcomes in the Irish Family Courts and it was by Dr Róisin O’Shea.
I’ll admit that I had my reservations when she stated that she was going to start with a sexist remark. She proceeded to make a smart comment about the state of the milk at the tea station, saying that you’d know it was mostly men here. She then laughed and stated that “we have our differences and we should celebrate them.”
I clicked my pen in preparation for more furious note-taking, but O’Shea made an excellent proposal. In fact, she was so progressive that I wondered whether her previous joke had been because she was smart enough to know her audience.
She made an excellent presentation about the imbalance in custodial agreements, the topic that I was looking forward to hearing about. She broke down her immense research into this issue in an engaging and fair manner. It was refreshing to see a speaker who didn’t intend to blame all of the issues on women. The attendees of the convention seemed to be really receptive to her points.
Until she said the word.
She recounted about speaking to a journalist and the journalist telling her that “it was a feminist issue.” And it is a feminist issue. We’re talking about a gender imbalance here, something that feminists strive to solve. But at the mention of that word, I can see she’s lost them.
The atmosphere in the room immediately changes. One man, who sits right in front of her, vigorously begins shaking his head. Another man, who sits right in front of me, begins sighing, shaking his head, clicking his pen a number of times and squirming about in his chair. I think how much of a pity it is that one word can cause such discomfort in these people.
Due to certain time constraints, I could only manage to stay for a little while during the Q&A sessions. Although, as is often the case with Q&A’s, there weren’t many questions, just statements and anecdotes. One man stated that men can go into a box to deal with stress, but women can’t do that. He seemed to believe that men’s repression of their own emotions is a reason for them to be awarded custody of children.
An elderly man told us all the story of his divorce, using every means he could to insult his ex-wife in the meantime. One man stated that “women don’t want to work the same amount of hours as men do,” and that’s why they get custody.
The statement that most shocked me came from a man who looked younger than most. He told the story of a young boy he knew who was self-harming. Well actually he lowered both his voice and his gaze and muttered “cutting himself.” He said how everyone around the boy wanted the boy to verbalise his feelings to a counsellor or something, but the man insisted that he shouldn’t. He took the boy to do some boxing. “And he never did it again,” the man finished, looking very proud of himself indeed. I stared at him in disbelief, disgusted by his naivety.
Overall, I believe that I was in a room full of scared, bitter people. People who are feeling left out in this new equal world that’s slowly emerging. People who are scared of the word feminism and who are happy in their patriarchal oppression. People who are hiding their old-fashioned views behind a men’s rights organisation.
I feel that it’s necessary to include that almost everyone we heard from had a country accent. Could it be that men in rural Ireland feel more oppressed than men in Dublin?
My hope for this group is that they see the light. I hope they realise that feminism is not their enemy and that their causes should be united with those of women. It was incredibly disheartening to sit in that room with all of those people, but I hope that they find their place in the world and stop trying to go backwards.
I have to laugh when I hear men making those tired jokes about women being fussy. This event only made it clear that masculinity is one of the most delicate things that you could encounter.