To the SFU Advocacy for Men and Boys Club,
We the Communication Graduate Caucus and the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Student Union write this open letter to express our concern with your November 8 2015 event, “Toxic Masculinity & TOXIC FEMININITY” co-sponsored by the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) and the Canadian Foundation for Equality (CAFE). We are not alone in our concerns. Both the Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) and the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group (SFPIRG) are troubled by this event and by what seems to be the rise of anti-feminist and anti-woman activism on campus. SFPIRG will be releasing their own open letter soon.
We believe that your student fee-funded club is not organizing in good faith and that you are using men’s issues as a way to attack feminism. You seem to be framing feminism and efforts to address sexism as being in necessary opposition to the interests of boys and men – we see this as a false polarity. You claim that your club and your events are not anti-feminist, even as you invite anti-feminist speakers and brand your posters with a biohazard graphic surrounding a sign historically used in Western culture to symbolize womanhood. That is an extremely offensive, hostile, and aggressive move coming from a group that claims not to hate women and seek only to help men and boys. We ask, how does that help raise awareness of men’s issues or help them in any way?
You claim that your use of this is justified because feminists discuss toxic masculinity, but the idea of toxic masculinity has nothing to do with declaring men or masculinity to be inherently toxic. Rather it is a critique of dominant discourses of masculinity, and the belief that these forms of masculinity harm people of all genders, men and boys included. Further, when feminists talk about toxic masculinity, we ask what we can do collectively to remedy its effects. We do not invite speakers like Karen Straughan who promote ideas that men are irrational subjects who commit violence against women because they cannot find consenting sexual partners. But you do.
You claim that men are oppressed by feminism. You seem skeptical of the validity behind social issues such as men’s violence against women and the gendered wage gap, presenting flimsy evidence in an attempt to discredit us and deny our incredibly well-documented lived experiences. These claims are ridiculous and insulting. But we will acknowledge some of the valid points you make. You cite elevated suicide rates, workplace injuries/fatalities, and child custody decisions as examples of issues men face. Many feminists acknowledge that men deal with these issues and actively work on them. That is why some of us specifically focus on challenging hegemonic models of masculinity that sanction men for expressing emotions. This is why many feminists support socialist governments that fund mental health. It is why many feminists support unionisation and occupational safety efforts to end worker exploitation. It is also why so many feminists seek to end women’s economic dependence on men by challenging the wage gap and the patriarchal assumption that women are “naturally” suited for childcare. Those of us working on these issues believe that our work benefits everybody, and yet you still cling to the belief that our work advantages women while disadvantaging men.
If you are serious about improving life for men and boys, you might want to learn from those branches of feminism working from a broad commitment to ending all forms of oppression instead of attacking an imaginary monolithic version. Feminism at its best is firmly grounded in a commitment to things like anti-racism, decolonization, disability justice, justice for all gender identities, and so much more, and when we work from this model, we are an immensely strong and effective movement. We recommend doing the following to strengthen your activism and broaden your work:
- Consciousness-raising: The personal is political. This means that the issues that people face are not simply individual and privatized but collective and social. Consciousness-raising occurs when people gather and discuss common experiences to build a group identity, and we can see that you are doing this. But consciousness-raising is more than just that. It also involves engaging with new information and the perspectives of people who are different from ourselves. It involves naming the many systems of injustice that are working together to shape our society, and acknowledging how members of our own group or community are advantaged/disadvantaged along the lines of race/ethnicity, nationality, class, sexuality, disability, and more. Consciousness-raising asks people from privileged groups to acknowledge how they benefit from, and even perpetuate, certain forms of oppression themselves. Does your group actually consider the evidence that sexism works to harm girls and women, and at the same time creates a narrow and rigid understanding of what a ‘real man’ is, thereby doing harm to boys and men? Do you talk about the ways that some men oppress other men, and how they can try to unlearn or challenge these patterns and behaviours?
- Structural analysis: Intersectional feminism has come a long way from forms of feminism that simply identify patriarchy as the sole cause of women’s oppression. Due to the efforts of women who are facing multiple forms of oppression—and indeed people of all genders who are multiply marginalized—that narrow understanding of sexism is being challenged. Globally, many feminist movements examine how racism, colonialism, imperialism, economic exploitation, heterosexism, ableism, and other forms of injustice affect women and indeed all of society, at both the local and transnational level. We must name the systems that harm us and discuss how they harm us in order to help each other heal – but feminism doesn’t stop there. Sometimes those who dislike feminism frame our work as playing the victim, but quite the contrary – around the world, feminist movements are working to empower people to take action in ways that actually address the root causes of oppression. Your group seems interested in the rates of violence men face during times of war and incarceration. This is an incredibly important issue, and yet we see little evidence that you are interested in confronting militarization or the prison-industrial complex. Nor do we see signs that you are working to identify how racism, colonialism, and poverty lead to men of colour, Indigenous men, and poor men’s overrepresentation and victimization in these institutions. Given how necessary it is to address root causes of injustice in order to achieve meaningful levels of social change, we ask, which structures you are working to dismantle?
We are under no pretence that feminist movements are immune from critique. Those of us who identify as feminist regularly find ourselves in conflict as we wrestle with systems of injustice that cut through our communities and organizations. And of course, there are many versions of feminism. We all have our knowledge gaps and social movements often contain divisions, but we are all committed to ending sexist oppression by placing women’s diverse lives and experiences at the centre of our inquiry, analysis, and activism. If you want to work alongside feminist efforts to build a more just world, while focusing on boys and men, we support that. But if your activism continues to spread lies and misinformation about women and feminism, agitates angry men online without giving them a way to address destructive systems and heal, and attempts to restore an historically unjust imbalance of power, then we do not think that you are working in the interests of men and boys. Right now your “activism” not only reads as thinly-veiled misogyny, but, we believe, it also harms men and boys by failing to address the social, cultural, political, and economic issues that affect them. In short, you are doing a disservice to the people you claim to want to help.
We hope that this open letter sends a clear message to SFU AMB as well as members of the broader university community. The rise of what has been framed as “men’s rights” activism on university campuses is sadly in line with other conservative reactionary groups (e.g. White supremacist student groups, Gamergate) that often use the language of liberty and free speech to both discredit the experiences and voices of marginalized groups and commit co-ordinated campaigns of terror against them when members of those groups speak out. Until SFU AMB can demonstrate that they are interested in doing anything more than blaming feminists for problems that are in fact rooted in patriarchy, racism, colonialism, heterosexism, capitalism, ableism, and other forms of oppression and exploitation, we encourage other members of SFU to join us and speak out against them. In a campus climate where women are always already dealing with intolerable levels of institutionalized sexism in the form of discrimination, harassment, and violence, SFU AMB’s insistence that we should allow this “activism” to go unchallenged in the name of liberty and equity is perhaps the most intolerable of all.