What is it about men?

[Transcript of podcast created 9 February 2018] Hello, I’m Betty McLellan for Radical Feminist Reflections.

     In 2011, I wrote a guest blog piece for the RadFemHub site in which I focused on the question “What is it about men?”. Now, in light of all the sexual harassment and abuse allegations in the entertainment industry, against men like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey in the US – Don Burke and Craig McLachlan in Australia – this seems like a good time to revisit that question: What is it about men?


In the wake of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein being made public, we have seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of courageous women coming out and saying #metoo. “Me too”, they say. “I too have been a victim of ongoing sexual harassment, indecent assault at the hands of a man or men I’ve worked with”. And, of course, it’s not only in the entertainment industry. We’ve heard about the abuse (including rape) that many women working for the United Nations around the world have had to endure from their male colleagues. We’ve heard about it occurring in certain specialisations in the medical profession. A national survey conducted in 2017 by the Australian Human Rights Commission at the request of 39 universities revealed that one in five university students reported being sexually harassed or assaulted. We’ve heard from women abused while aiming for the highest level of fitness in gymnastics… and on and on it goes. It’s a common occurrence. In every workplace. In every social situation. Of course, feminists have known about this and been railing against it for decades. So many women, in the course of their lives, socially and in the workplace, attest to the fact that they do not feel safe. They have to be on guard every day, careful not to be in a situation where they could be cornered and abused by a colleague, an acquaintance or so-called friend.

     And the #metoo campaign has been followed up by the TimesUp campaign. In the entertainment industry, women actors, producers, directors, sound engineers and others announcing loudly to their perpetrator colleagues: Times Up. We will put up with this no longer.

     Now, these campaigns are important because they catch the attention of the general public in a way that radical feminist campaigns have never been able to. But we, feminist activists, must remember and give ourselves credit for the fact that the kinds of courage we’re seeing today would not be possible without all the hard work, the “never-give-up” attitude, the dogged determination of feminists like ourselves who refused to stop speaking out about the inequalities of patriarchy, about male privilege, about the trampling on women’s human rights that occurs simply as a matter of course. All the privileges of patriarchy allow men to feel that they have a right to touch, kiss, assault, rape women whenever they feel like having “a bit of fun” – as some of them call it. Well, patriarchy’s time is up!!

     When I wrote my blog piece in 2011, I actually called it: “The question on nobody’s lips”. Because nobody except radical feminists was asking: What is it about men? That’s the question on nobody’s lips – still today: What is it about men? It’s a difficult question but so important because it’s a question about structures. It’s not asking about individual men. It asks: How is society structured? How does our society socialise boys so that they become the kind of men they are?

     Even now, responses to the #metoo declarations and the TimesUp campaign seem to be focusing almost exclusively on the individual perpetrators. What is it about Harvey Weinstein, we’re asking? What is it about Craig McLachlan? – which is good in itself, but the focus on the individual doesn’t go far enough. If we want to bring about structural change, we need to ask: What is it about men?

     Now, I know there’s a reluctance on the part of many women because they don’t want to upset the good men. Women with male partners, male children don’t want the men they love to be tarred with the same brush as those who abuse women. But that won’t happen! Of course, there are good men, pro-feminist men, men who hate male violence as much as we do. But, why do we have to keep saying it? Why not just take it as a given? Those men among us who really are aware, don’t ask us to keep harping on about how good they are. I think it comes from some kind of inbuilt reluctance in women – in us. We have learnt from a very young age that it’s not a good thing to upset men. I say, surely it’s time to drop that fear and have the courage to ask: What is it about men?

Look, every thinking person knows that the first step toward resolving a problem is to go to the root cause, ask the right questions and refuse to avoid the difficult questions. But that’s rarely done in relation to male violence. People shake their heads and mutter something about testosterone, or an individual man’s need for anger management, or “boys will be boys” – as if male violence is just something societies have to put up with.

     If only we would realise what a disservice we’re doing to men – implying that they don’t have it in them to aim higher, to get above their baser instincts, to come out of the masculine haze and see women as their equals.

Of course this kind of question (what is it about men?) always attracts abuse and accusations of man-hating. When my blog piece somehow found its way to a broader audience than members of the radfemhub group, there was hell to pay. For a time, I was the favourite feminist for Men’s Rights Activists in Australia to hate!

     But, this is not a question that comes from man-hating. It’s a question that needs serious consideration because I believe governments and societies around the world are doing men a great disservice by not asking and addressing the question.

After many decades of Second Wave feminism – since the 1960s – what we’ve seen is women advancing in so many ways, in personal awareness, social awareness, global awareness, academically, professionally, while men as a group, still holding the power, have remained virtually unchanged.

     Why is that? Well, as I see it, it’s like this: because they see themselves as the “superior” specimen, because society is built by them for them, because most religions teach that “man was made in the image of God” (man, which doesn’t include woman), they have no reason to question themselves. No reason to change. This is a sad state indeed. All minority groups are forced to question themselves and work to improve themselves as they respond to the demands of the superior group, but there is no compulsion on men in patriarchal societies to do the same.

     Consequently, they remain captive to their socialisation. Some individual men have released themselves from their socialisation and worked hard at changing themselves, but men as a group have not. In a world that’s changing all around them, they still hold on to the belief that they are superior to women. And, as the #metoo campaign has shown so clearly, there are many who still believe that women are on this earth to service their needs – that women should be flattered, even, when a man chooses to touch them, kiss them, rape them.

     It has to stop! But it won’t stop till societies have the courage to ask: Why are men like this?

     US feminist Kathy Barry bravely asks this question about men in relation to war. It goes without saying that she received flak from some quarters, but her analysis in her book Unmaking War, Remaking Men, (2011. Santa Rosa: Phoenix Rising Press) is spot on. In a positive and caring way, she writes about the burden of expectation society puts on men. Because most nations of the world are always “war ready”, there’s a sense of expendability built into the socialisation of boys and, with it, a contempt for what they see to be weakness. She speaks of “core masculinity” which, in her words, includes these two things: men’s expendability and men’s contempt for women (the so-called weaker sex). It’s not fair on men – and it’s certainly not fair on women who, since time immemorial, have borne the brunt of men’s frustration and anger.

     Kathy Barry’s work is an example of the kind of thinking that needs to be done, the kind of analysis required – and it does begin with the question “What is it about men?”

     Women are so OVER the violence men perpetrate against us. Every single day, Women’s Centres, Women’s Health Centres, Domestic Violence Services are inundated with women seeking help as a result of men’s violence. Every week, in Australia, we hear of yet another woman killed by her male partner or ex-partner.

     Every day, we hear of women being raped, and the #metoo campaign is revealing the extent of the sexual harassment and abuse by men, as more and more women come forward to tell their stories. Tracey Spicer, the journalist who dared open up this explosive issue in Australia, after doing her own extensive research, says that she has the testimonies of over 1000 women who contacted her in the course of her research. “Me too”, they are saying. And, while I agree with Germaine Greer that this courage to say #metoo may not end well for the women, as the full force of patriarchy lines up against them in support of the alleged perpetrators they, nevertheless, have spoken out, uncovered the secrets, and challenged patriarchy at its core. Already, we are witnessing a huge dent in patriarchy’s power. So it’s not surprising that we are also witnessing the beginnings of the fight back as predicted. And it will be fierce!

     Craig McLachlan has already signalled that he will fight the accusations against him to the bitter end. Already he has engaged one of Australia’s most prominent barristers and filed defamation proceedings against the two media outlets involved in reporting the allegations (the ABC and Fairfax Media).

     And here’s the interesting bit: he has chosen to name ONE of his accusers in the defamation suit. Not all of them. Just one.

     Now, we know how patriarchy works. Christie Whelan Browne has been singled out – separated from her co-accusers. And, using the full force of the law which, remember, has been designed by men to favour men (especially men who can afford to pay big money), the aim will be to destroy this one woman’s credibility, indeed, to destroy her as a person utterly and completely. It’s already begun. As reported in the news, McLachlan’s claim states that Christie Browne was “herself a notoriously foul-mouthed person who publicly distributed offensive matter and had expressed interest in deviant sexual practices”. So??? Most of us have been taught from a very young age that ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’. However bad her wrongs may have been, it does not excuse his wrongs.

     But the patriarchal tactics are obvious: paint an unpalatable picture of the accuser and public sentiment will turn against her. She will be destroyed and he will be exonerated. All will be well. The status quo will be restored and patriarchy will continue to reign supreme.

Let me state clearly that we, radical feminists, have no interest in the Craig McLachlans or the Harvey Weinsteins of the world being accused falsely. If they’re not guilty, then they should not be found guilty. But we DO have a huge interest in justice being done – in women having the courage to say “me too”, and having their testimonies judged fairly.

I say again that I do see this movement of women around the world, women breaking their silence, as the beginning of something that has the potential to change the dynamics between women and men at a deep level. But, I say with confidence that this movement will fizzle out if it remains on the level of the individual. We, all of us (feminists, other women, men of goodwill) must use this as a springboard to demand fundamental change, the kind of real change that shakes the foundations and creates a new and better society for women and, also, for men.

With this current change that’s taking place, radical feminists need to be in there – not standing back judging, critiquing from a safe distance. We need to be in the middle of it, helping to shape the change. Usually, when change is called for, the tendency in mainstream is to be satisfied with somewhat superficial change. But that is never enough. This time, we need to be in there bringing our influence to bear so that the change that does take place includes: our emphasis on the collective, rather than the individual; our radical analysis of power relations; and our insistence on examining structures – so that the change is real.

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