Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Between feminism and counter-feminism: Where does a Men's Centre sit?

By Ernest Velasquez

Last Monday saw the opening of Toronto's first Men's Centre - the Canadian Centre for Men and Families (CCMF). Run by the Canadian Association for Equality (CAFE), the CCMF is billed as a place for "research, outreach and public education dedicated to men’s issues." A place focusing on counselling for men and boys, but open to men and women both, with the goal of "mutual understanding and compassion" across the divide of gender.

But, while the CAFE's rhetoric is apparently noble, its history and associations are a little more troubled.

You may recognize CAFE from its increasing campus presence in places like U of T, York, and Guelph. Or, more likely, you may have heard of them earlier this year when the group was barred from marching in Pride.

The most problematic of these associations are with speakers like Warren Farrell and organizations like A Voice for Men (AVFM) - the latter being an explicitly anti-feminist organization. And while the recent relationship between these two organizations has been tense they can still both be placed broadly within the 'Men's Rights Movement.'

But why bring up these associations at all when discussing the centre? Especially since it looks like CAFE has made some effort to distance itself from what they vaguely described as radicals? Aren't CAFE's projects - things like coping with men's suicide in the wake of Robin William's death or addressing the sexual exploitation of young men - deserving of some grudging acknowledgement?

Even if we can take for granted the distance between moderate and radical MRAs, between CAFE and AVFM (and it may be that we shouldn't take it for granted), and accept many of the issues that the men's right movement and CAFE are trying to address are real, it's still necessary to look at CAFE and the opening of the men's centre with a critical eye. While moderate MRAs like CAFE set themselves apart from AVFM and redpillers through their focus on providing services like counselling and their non-feminist rather than explicitly anti-feminist language, the rhetorical 'silence' of this moderation still implicitly supports the same kind of assumptions that are explicitly - and vitriolically - expressed by groups like AVFM. Namely, that the advancement of feminism has come at the expense of men, and therefore an authentic men's politics must either be articulated either outside or against feminism.

This is not a political project of dismantling patriarchy or hegemonic masculinity - though it does involved shades of critiquing the latter. The discourse of even the moderate MRA's is , if not anti-feminist, then counter-feminist. It assumes that taking men's experiences seriously requires setting up an unconvincing equivalency between men and women's experiences; a misandry to mirror misogyny; a neutered language that talks about 'gender equity' by avoiding discussions of patriarchy; that treats critique of hegemonic or traditional masculinity as evidence for feminist misandry even while acknowledging how these traditional gender roles are damaging to men as well.

So while the new CCMF is ostensibly focused around some very real issues – issues that do need to be addressed – and while CAFE is, in some ways, rhetorically distinct and moderate compared to groups like AVFM, the framing of this ‘moderate’ and counselling focused work still reinforces a serious problem with the men’s rights movement: a tendency to dismiss feminism politics and theory as ‘misandry’.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Violence, survivor-blaming, and sex work in Newfoundland

By E. A.

Reports of gang rapes and sexual assaults have been reported by sex workers in St John's, Newfoundland since October. As early as October 2, there have been reports of sex workers being called into and then abducted in hotel rooms with as many as 20 men. Although there have been multiple reports, it is feared that there could be a much greater rate of violent incidents that have not been reported because sex trade workers face a high degree of stigma.  The alarmingly large number of these attacks has created controversy, not just from the repulsion of such vicious acts, but also from the lack of legal retribution. The reports of, and subsequent warnings against, the sexual assaults stem from an outreach group (S.H.O.P) that provides social assistance to the sex work community. As of now, there is nothing more than word of mouth and personal warnings that protect the community in St John’s from these incidents.  

Worth noting is the lack of response from law enforcement. They defend their inactivity by stating that no incidents have been reported to them by survivors. It has been reported that the rift of communication between the two parties is based on social stigma. In a small community like St John's, workers find themselves open to exposure and shame. The problem is compounded by the common misconception (stemming from both law enforcement and common discourse) that sees the issue as the fault of the survivors.  Workers complain that when they do go to police to report incidents of this nature (assaults or robberies) they are often seen as responsible for the assaults, creating understandable tension and mistrust. 

Although the survivors include both women and men, we can see that there is a strong objectification of femininity at the cause of these issues. Firstly, those who engage in the horrific acts against sex workers may see it as a thrill or an act of violence. Regardless, sex trade workers are targeted due to the perceived stigma that they are beneath attackers either socially, economically, or both. This reinforces the archaic dichotomy that sees women as objects, a conception furthered by the socio-economic conditions surrounding sex work. Women (and men) who are engaged in prostitution or other fields of sex work are stigmatized; there is a stereotype that sees them as destitute, wayward, poor, or unable to assimilate into society. These conceptions are dehumanizing and are furthered by patriarchal notions that define women as disposable tools for the gratification of male selfish desires (whether they be violent, sexual, or anything else). The women who engage in sex work, through no fault of their own, become a vehicle for the reinforcement of dominant, masculine ideology.

Secondly, the reaction from law enforcement reflects broader social attitudes: victim-blaming and a lack of response point to a belief that such crimes are to some degree justified. The insidious "she was asking for it" motif underlines these conceptions. There is still an institutional acceptance that the appearance and attire of an individual (specifically women) can create a legitimate justification for the sordid violence perpetrated by predatory individuals (typically men). 

The issues outlined in St John's are as complex as they are disconcerting and speak to broader social attitudes that simultaneously legitimize the objectification of women and blame survivors of sexual violence for its perpetration. In order to create a society that is safe for women of all occupations, we need to acknowledge just how deeply-rooted these patriarchal beliefs are. Sexual violence is not a problem instigated by women ever, regardless of appearance or occupation. It is a problem endemic to a society that tacitly legitimizes the objectification and dehumanization of women.