Men’s Silence

Why many men struggle to talk about women and men, and why we need to.

Being part of the “men’s movement” that kicked off in the early 1990s was a big deal for me. I was able to talk about many parts of my life that had never been voiced. At the same time there were things that could hardly be said between the men, conversations that were, practically speaking, unspeakable. Now, years later, the same conversations are still mostly not talked about – to the detriment of men and women both.

I’m talking about a respectful and frank conversation about the power balance between women and men. I’m connected to three different men’s organizations and none of them is having a frank talk about this missing ingredient to this day. There are innumerable women and men of good will – you know them and very likely are one – but the loving conversation between women and men? For the most part it’s still not happening in the public sphere.

It could be we got off on the wrong foot from the start. Warren Farrell who has written brilliantly on the interdependence of women and men, has said that perhaps what would have been better would have been to have had a gender transition movement. That is, a movement to a healthier place for both sexes, rather than a feminist movement alone.

The feminist position from the start was polarizing. Overall, it painted women as innocent victims and men as guilty perpetrators. (If one was looking for the birth of identity politics, this would be a great candidate.) The feminist perspective was ubiquitous in media, on a par with the Covid narrative today. It couldn’t be challenged without risking ridicule and censure. And men learned to stay inside the lines.

Women stayed inside these new lines too. A true story may illustrate it. My friend Bob McGuire started a men’s group in Windsor, Ontario in the early 90s. Pretty soon a group of women, some of them partners of the men, came forward and wanted to have Bob help them form a women’s group. Bob was surprised since he thought there were lots of opportunities for women to meet. They hardly needed him. The difference was that they didn’t want to take on the role of victim that they felt they were supposed to play They didn’t want to make men responsible for their ills. The group happened with Bob, by request, at the head. (This isn’t because women aren’t leaders but because Bob.)

I joined a men’s group around this time too, in Ottawa. Twelve men came together in a group that ended up lasting for about 18 years. For me it was an amazing experience of safety, connection and exploration. It was like a bi-weekly campfire-like in town, a conversation I’d always wanted but didn’t know I was missing.

A little background to what comes next. Around this time I co-founded a men’s paper, Everyman Men’s Journal that went on for some 13 years. We hosted ten national-ish conferences for women and men to explore gender issues.

But what I noticed in the group I was in, and my perception of other groups, is men, without a very strong and dedicated invitation, were reluctant to talk about the power balance between them and women. At first glance, this is counterintuitive. What gives?

I think it was because frankly discussing the power imbalance risked upsetting the delicate balance between men and their wives or girlfriends, the people we were going home to. The whole area was better left unspoken. We continued to see women as holding the moral high ground in the public arena and having the only allowable perspective. The masculine counterarguments to that narrative were  brilliantly articulated by such male writers as Warren Farrell – and many writers in Everyman. But none of that changed the conversation among men or between women and men. Even if we did have some intellectual understanding of the power balance between women and men, it remained hard to stand in it in our own lives.

That was then. Now two new generations have passed since the dramatic emergence of 60s feminism. Yet, there’s still not much talk about what healthy or complementary power dynamics look like between women and men.

I know of four organizations dedicated to men’s personal growth. You know who you are. To my knowledge groups of men within them aren’t having this conversation publicly or widely within their own ranks. Rather the historic habit of not talking about the power relations between women and men has become normal. There’s plenty of sensitive, politically correct language around diversity and inclusion but the conversation around the power balance between women and men is not to be found. This silence hurts men and boys. And because men’s issues and women’s issues are yang and yin, mutually arising, the silence hurts women and men too.

A  singular exception to the silence is A Voice for Men, which is willing to say and do what others won’t. They don’t do sensitivity well but they do do honesty.

We need the frank conversation. Men’s life struggles are inescapably connected to their sex roles and relationships with women. They take place in the system of men and women, not only in the man. When the systemic dimension is unknown, the difficulties that a man experiences are easily felt as shame and personal failure. He feels they’re his fault and blames himself. If his friends are ignorant of this they can’t help much.

All of us have personal growth work to do. But a part of it belongs to the community of men and not to the individual.