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I was looking for a phone in an isolated area. The campus had about as many acres as students, but there were only a handful of public telephones. There were several near the cafeteria and that was where I would go to call my parents about once a week or so. That, however, was one of the most public places. There were two dormitories about two miles away from the center of campus. I had rarely ever even been in one of them, but I had a vague recollection of having seen a pay phone there, so I walked over.

The walk down the narrow curving road with woods looming on either side reminded me of a recurring dream I’d been having for about a year. In it, I was riding a bicycle on a road very much like that one, perhaps slightly curvier. Slowly, I would lose my eyesight until couldn’t see the road anymore. I would try to stop, but instead I’d be speeding up. Through partial vision, I could barely see the road well enough to follow it. Finally, I wouldn’t be able to see anything at all and I would crash. An anxiety dream, it was almost ridiculously easy to analyze.

A precocious student, I had graduated from high school early and received a nice, big, fat helping of scholarship money to attend this private liberal arts college. My first year, I loaded up on courses and was taking more than the suggested number of credits. My grades were excellent. Then my social life began to fall apart and, with it, my grades. I changed majors. Then I changed majors again. A year earlier, I went through a phase during which I didn’t bathe, didn’t get out of bed for days at a time and ate nothing but peanut butter. I received grades of incomplete in all the classes I had taken that semester. I had a year to make them up. The previous semester, the fall semester of my junior year, I finally settled on literature as a major for no better reason than I liked to read and it seemed to come easily to me. Read a few books. Mull them over for a day or so. Churn out twenty pages. I could do that even as I was falling apart. In fact, I felt as if I was finally beginning to put myself back together.

That’s where the anxiety dream came in. Unlike when I was younger, I no longer had a plan. I couldn’t see where I was going, I was just trying to navigate each curve as it came up on me. My grades were finally back up. I was attempting to make a few friends who were not part of a New Age cult. Did I really want to study literature? That certainly hadn’t ever been part of my plan, but now my plan was just to get the hell out of this fucking hell hole of a school with a bachelor of arts degree and my brain intact. What would I do after that? I barely had a clue.

And I had been so alone throughout all of this. When you’re young, and pretty, and talented, and bright everyone wants to be your friend. When you’re lost and confused, no one knows who you are. With help from no one, I was getting back to being someone people actually wanted to know.

Now, there was this.

The dormitory was a converted mansion. It was an odd building. Heavy and dark, it looked as if someone had tried to build a set for a production of Wuthering Heights without ever having so much as seen a picture of England. The first floor was a series of rooms, a kitchen and several other rooms with seemingly no purpose. It was the middle of the day while classes were in session and the dormitory was almost empty, as I had hoped. I walked into one of the purposeless rooms that had an array of institutional furniture that seemed nearly random. An indestructible club chair. A table. A couple of dining chairs. In the corner, as I had recalled, was a pay phone.

I dialed the phone number of the man I had met on New Year’s Eve. It was a long shot that he would even pick up the phone at that moment in the middle of the day, but he did. Without any introduction, I blurted out that I was pregnant, that I would probably have an abortion but male friends of mine had convinced me that it wasn’t fair that women make this decision on their own, so that if he wanted me to continue with the pregnancy we could talk about that. I had planned to add that he’d have to want sole custody, but I can’t recall if I got that far.

How did I know it was his?

Because he was the only man I’d fucked recently.

He didn’t believe me.

Fine, I was planning on having an abortion anyway. I was just trying to be fair to him.

Then this man about whom I knew next to nothing except that he loved Kant and had a larger than average penis, launched into one of the more shocking speeches I had heard at that point in my life. He accused me of trying to trap him into marriage. His family were aristocrats. They would never accept this. I was just a common slut and I was trying to trap him into marriage. He was outraged.

I never spoke to him again.

I’ve been writing down my experiences as a way of understanding why I believe some of the things I believe and why I hold some of the political positions I do. This conversation resulted in me feeling somewhat skeptical of men’s rights advocates when they complain that it is not fair that they have no say in abortion decisions. It’s not that I feel that they are disingenuous about their own position, but that they don’t actually represent men in general. Most men, I suspect, don’t really want the responsibility that this decision entails. Women have abortions, men don’t. Women have to bear the responsibility and the stigma. Many men, perhaps most, would prefer to keep it this way. However, I think I did the ethical thing in approaching this man, and it was obvious that he would have preferred that I hadn’t. I don’t know his position on abortion, but he was a practicing Catholic. One word and I wouldn’t have had an abortion. I don’t think he wanted that responsibility.

A while back, Dan Savage expressed the opinion that women should inform a man if they are going to have an abortion. I agree with everything he says, even the part that many feminists objected to, that the man’s desires should be taken into consideration. However, I think he is underestimating humans’ potential for denial and self-deception when he writes:

Guys need to know when they’ve dodged a bullet, CL. Being made aware that he came this close to 18 years’ worth of child support payments can lead a guy to be more cautious with his spunk—and, in some cases, more likely to support choice.

There’s an interesting assumption that Savage makes here, that what they are dodging are child support payments and not custody of a child, because the only way I would have considered carrying that pregnancy to term is if the man had agreed to take full custody. I can’t be sure, but I strongly suspect that the man in question barely remembers this incident. He probably doesn’t acknowledge having dodged anything at all. It would be all to easy for him to rationalize it away. The incident changed the course of my life and I suspect it didn’t register for him at all.

It was also my introduction to notions about social class. Growing up in suburbia in the United States in an environment in which people ranged from the upper end of stable working class families to the lower end of the professional upper middle class, I was only faintly aware of class differences that weren’t simply linked to income. I’ve had a hatred for social class ever since.

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Drummer Boy had two posters taped to the cinder block walls of his dormitory room. One was of a man with a saxophone. “Who’s that?” I asked a little bit tentatively.

“You don’t know Bird!” He said with evident surprise. For a moment I was afraid he was going to run me down for being lowbrow. I’d gathered from the picture that the man was probably a jazz musician and my experience with jazz lovers was that they were a bunch of snobs. Much to my surprise, Drummer Boy gestured for me to sit down. “Well, you’re in for a treat” and with he slapped a record on the turntable. He was more interested in sharing what he loved than in playing a game of one-upmanship.  I’d only met him about a half an hour earlier and he was already throwing my stereotypes out the window.

We sat on his bed listening to records for much of that afternoon. Mainly we just listened, but sometimes he pointed out something he liked about a particular piece. Eventually, I asked about the other poster, not what it was, because I could see that it was the text of the Bill of Rights, but where he had gotten it.

“My father works for the ACLU.” Drummer Boy would turn out to have two passions, music and civil liberties.

A few days later we were lying in the grass in sloping field outside of some classrooms. By that point, we had both become aware that our acquaintance would remain platonic. Still, I enjoyed his company and continued to spend time with him. He was telling me about an older musician he knew growing up in New York and how he was a role model for him, not only as a musician, but he saw him as a role model for what it meant “to be a man.” It was a difficult thing to for me to relate to. I couldn’t think of anyone teaching me what it meant “to be a woman.” I couldn’t even conceive of the concept. So I encouraged him to talk.

He fumbled for words a bit. I don’t think he had ever had to articulate exactly what it meant. It had a lot to do with ethical behavior. How to treat women was part of it. He put it in terms of gallantry and chivalry that seemed a bit out of step for someone whose politics clearly fell to the left of center. I questioned him a little about that, but the conversation remained friendly. Another matter was taking care of any children you may have. As someone who had grown up in a more sheltered, suburban world, I don’t think I understood the context from which this was emerging. I had grown up always being told, by all the adults around me, that my biological parents had done the right thing in putting me up for adoption. In fact, I would venture to say that I had never heard a contrary opinion. Certainly, no one had ever so much as suggested to me that there would have been anything virtuous in two, terribly unprepared, young people trying to raise a child. No one ever suggested that biological father should have “been a man.”

Then, considering the passion he felt for civil liberties, he shocked the hell out of me. “If I were to get a woman pregnant and she wanted to have an abortion, I’d file a lawsuit to force her to go through with the pregnancy.” As he saw it, he had rights and the law did not acknowledge those rights. We argued about this until we were interrupted by another of his friends. At the point we let it drop, neither of us had made any headway in convincing the other or our positions. He did impress upon me the strength of his feeling on the subject. In the discussions about unwanted pregnancies that I’d had throughout high school, most of the focus had been on the pure horror of the idea. It was taken for granted that a man always wants to escape from the situation. The notion that a man, in that situation, might actually want the child, and not simply oppose an abortion but actively want to raise a child, had never occurred to me, at least not seriously.

After that conversation, I canvassed a few of my male friends and acquaintances about their feelings. I was quite surprised. Although Drummer Boy was the only one who would want to go as far as forcing a woman to continue with a pregnancy against her will, several of them did say that they, too, would want a child. Every single one of them said that they would want to know and would like to at least be consulted before the woman made a decision. This really presented me with something of a quandary.

In many ways, I feel that being raised without a religion forced me to think deeply about ethics starting at a young age. I don’t mean that people who are raised in a religion don’t ever think about it, but I didn’t have a ready-made set of behaviors that I could fall back on, no one to tell me what to think when I couldn’t figure it out myself. In the end, I had to acknowledge that Drummer Boy had made an important point. Although I didn’t, and still can’t, see how it could be practically implemented from a legal stand point, I did conclude that, from an ethical standpoint, a woman should consider the man’s desires and take them very seriously.

A flat rock in a river speeding rough river with water flowing over it.

This week, rather than posting several links I’m just going to post one. Recently, I’ve started reading Ally Fogg’s Heteronormative Patriarchy for Men blog. Apparently, he’s had a WordPress blog for a while but he recently joined Freethought Blogs. His claim to fame is being a white male heterosexual. In other words, he writes critically about gender roles from the point of view of a straight white man. I think he’s British, although most of what he writes could apply to the rest of the English-speaking world, and probably much of the allophone world as well.

Recently, I’ve read quite a few times on blogs known to be feminist the acronym MRA. I written elsewhere about the pitfalls of activist bloggers using terms that will only be understood by a small number of like-minded activist bloggers from your own age cohort, your own social class, your own region and, probably, only your own narrow sub-culture. Finally, I figured out what MRA means. It means “men’s rights activists.” Actually, I’m not even certain of that because I’ve never seen the acronym defined, but those are the words that best fit the usage. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, I don’t assume that men who are interested in men’s rights are inevitably anti-feminist because I was first introduced to men’s rights in a women’s studies class by a male professor who was very obviously and actively supportive of feminism. That he realized that there were issues facing men that feminism didn’t address didn’t turn him into an anti-feminist.

Ally Fogg does not call himself a men’s rights activist, but he does write about gender issues from a man’s perspective and that does occasionally include issues that wouldn’t normally be taken up by feminists, like a recent blog post about the shadow health minister’s comments about masculinity being in crisis. At least most feminists would be unlikely to write about it in a way that would put men’s interests first. Fogg makes some excellent points about the shadow health minister’s speech. I don’t know how things are in Britain, but from the point of view of an American woman going on fifty, the “hyper-masculinity” that Abbot, the shadow health minister, discusses has gotten better than it was when I was younger. The rise of social media and the accessibility of porn has definitely changed some dynamics, but I’m not sure that pornography presents men and women with any greater distortion of gender roles than the average beer ad. Focusing in porn while not worrying about the myriad of other representations of women and sexuality is really not seeing the forest for the trees.

Fogg’s world view is summed up in a post entitled Welcome to Global, Inc. (The actual title is longer, but contains a period which presents me with a punctuation problem.) In it, he creates an elaborate metaphor of the world as a large company. That company has a binder full of its stated rules, but it also has unstated rules and each department has its own internal culture. “But so long as the department is doing well enough, meeting its targets and making profits, the hierarchy at Global Inc doesn’t really mind too much, and doesn’t interfere.”

I have concocted this grand and rather clumsy analogy to illustrate a key point of my political views, which underpins everything I write on this blog and elsewhere. Socialised gender roles are not there by accident. They are functional. Oppressive acts of sexism, misogyny, misandry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, class prejudice and the rest do not arise from individual weakness or venality but because we have all been induced to retain and reinforce them as essential components of our role within the company. Necessary social progress in emancipation, liberation and human rights will be indulged by Global Inc when it can be turned to the company’s advantage – the welcoming of women into the professions, for example – and fiercely resisted when it challenges the bottom line, such as union rights or decent parental leave entitlements.

It is simplistic nonsense to think of patriarchy, in particular, as a system in which men oppress women by choice and for our own interests. Patriarchy often requires men to do horrible things to ourselves, to each other and to women. Patriarchy imposes dominant roles on men whether we want them or not, and punishes us when we fail to fulfil them adequately.  It’s all there in the job description. It is equally simplistic nonsense to imagine that male suffering (on the battlefield and in homelessness, suicide rates, alienation and loneliness) is a consequence of women’s behaviour, choices or social liberation.

Anyway, I’ve been finding his blog fairly interesting, so I thought I’d put a link up to it.

I came across this Atlantic article, The Lonely Existence of Mel Feit, Men’s-Rights Advocate, via Skepchick. Stephanie Fairyington describes her first meeting with a group from the National Center for Men:

My entrance is met with restrained courtesy—and a perceptible cloud of suspicion. Why, they must wonder, would I, a lesbian feminist, want to break bread at their masculinist table? As cautiously as I tread their terrain and as much as I disagree with most of their politics, I believe that some of their views are in the interest of feminism.

A feminist like the writer, I, too, have some sympathy with the arguments put forth by  men’s rights groups. Perhaps I don’t have the instinctive negative reaction that some feminists do towards the men’s rights groups because I was first exposed to it at sixteen by an economics professor who was also vocally a feminist himself. Consequently, it was first presented to me in the context of a more general search for just and equitable treatment for both sexes. Many feminists have long maintained that gender equality would be beneficial for most men as well. Fairyington quotes Amanda Marcotte as saying, “There is already a movement for people of both genders who want to end stifling gender roles: It’s called feminism.” However, feminists, who have often been highly sensitive to the language we use and the implied meaning of words, should be able to see that, while feminism may imply a more liberating role for men, the word itself does not explicitly include them.

But I wonder if feminism’s assumption that being male necessarily situates men at an advantage makes it harder for feminism to address the struggles unique to men. By diminishing male-specific challenges, feminists fail to recognize that women’s progress hinges on understanding that antiquated standards of masculinity hurt both sexes and are linked to men’s unstable relationship with the family.

Although I’m highly aware of the fact that feminism addresses ways in which women are put at a disadvantage, there’s a tendency to ignore the implied corollary, that men therefore benefit from advantages. This dovetails somewhat into my discomfort with the use of the word privilege. (Although, let me be clear I have no problem with the concept.) Is the lack of a disadvantage necessarily an advantage?

A parking lot in a blizzard in New York City late at night.In the mid-eighties, I moved to New York City, the place I had wanted to be ever since I was a small child. At the time, the city was wracked by racial tension. It’s something that no longer seems to exist in the public imagination, sandwiched between the radical movements of the sixties and New York’s rehabilitation as a playground for the rich. New York just past its nadir, the city called “ungovernable” during Ed Koch‘s tenure as mayor, is vividly remembered by those who lived there, a period dramatically rendered by Tom Wolfe in his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Robert David Jaffee summarized some of the incidents from that period. (h/t swilliamsjd )

New York City endured a spate of hate crimes in the 1980s, beginning with the case of Michael Stewart, the subway graffiti artist, who by most accounts died from asphyxiation after the police got him in a chokehold. Many other incidents followed, from the shooting of Eleanor Bumpurs, an elderly black woman, suffering from health problems, who was killed by police in her Bronx apartment after she allegedly brandished a knife; to subway gunman Bernard Goetz’s clash with a group of black teens; to the rape and beating of a Central Park jogger; to Howard Beach, where several African-Americans, whose car had broken down, wandered into a white neighborhood before one was beaten senseless and another chased to his death on the Belt Parkway; to the Tawana Brawley hoax, in which a young black woman claimed that white men spread feces over her and raped her, though no evidence of penetration existed, and she had made up a similar story not long before. (links mine – fojap)

I remember well, all those incidents. At the time, I was living with a man who read the tabloids, The Post, The Daily News and Newsday. I read The Times. Between the two of us, our apartment was filled with newspapers. Shortly after leaving him, I remember clearly reading about the Crown Heights Riots and feeling conflicted.

The riots began on August 19, 1991, after the child of Guyanese immigrants was accidentally struck and killed by an automobile in the motorcade of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

The riot unleashed simmering tensions of the Crown Heights’ black community against the Orthodox Jewish community. In its wake, several Jews were seriously injured; one Orthodox Jewish man, Yankel Rosenbaum, was killed; and a non-Jewish man, allegedly mistaken by rioters for a Jew, was killed by a group of African-American men. (Wikipedia: Crown Heights riot)

The local papers and conversations at work or among friends were filled with opinions. One theme seemed to come up again and again: Who had suffered more throughout history, African-Americans or Jews. I was neither African-American nor Jewish, yet I was a New Yorker. Something inside me rebelled at the thought that suffering should be compared in this way.  It stuck me as a perversion of a leftist vision of the world that puts so much emphasis on the oppressed and oppressors. Previously, I had heard conservatives sneer about “victimization.” I should be clear that I don’t accept their disdain of discussing oppression or injustice. The relief of injustice is a moral imperative. However, the Crown Heights Riot was the final incident that caused me to distance myself from a leftist perception of events. With two sets of victims, two sets of oppressors, the left had, at that time, nothing to offer to make sense of what was happening.

It would be another year before the word “kyriarchy” would be coined.

Returning to men’s rights, several of the men in the group Fairyington met, although it should be noted not Mel Feit himself, believe that feminists are their opponents. It would be nice if there was a men’s movement that did not have so many members who see themselves as in opposition to the women’s movement.