WORDS || Regina Featherstone
It occurs to me when I walk up the stairs of the Townie in Newtown that we hadn’t given any markers to identify each other. I didn’t even have a mental image of what a Men’s Rights Sydney supporter should look like. I think that’s because so many of our preconceptions and stereotypes are defined by trending social media and the news. Portrayals of Men’s Rights activists in the media are few and far between.
Men’s Rights Sydney (MRS) is a small Newtown-based movement that aims to raise awareness in the community of the “largely ignored and unreported discrimination that exists against men and boys in our society”. Also, they insist that criticism of feminism does not equate to misogyny. MRS strives for gender neutrality in society, where neither men nor women are put on a pedestal. Ultimately, they want Sydney to become a society that “doesn’t discriminate on the basis of gender in any way”.
On their website is a sort of call to arms: “Come & join us or, like those opposing human rights for black people in 1960’s America, you may find yourself on the wrong side of history. In the immortal words of Martin Luther King: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. Not only are the facts on our side but we also hold the moral high ground.”
When I reach the top of the stairs I pan the room in somewhat of a fluster. Maybe it’s the unprecedented August warmth, but also I fear having to canvas each table in search of my niche social activist group. Then I spot a white t-shirt with a punctuation-less slogan that reads: ‘MENS RIGHTS SYDNEY’.
I’m sitting with Tom Voltz, 45, and Adrian Johnson, 27, who founded MRS two years ago after meeting on ‘A Voice For Men’ online. I excuse myself to get a drink. Tom quickly ushers me to sit down and goes to grab it for me.
Tom and Adrian feel as though there is a lack of representation of men’s issues in Australian society and decided to do something about it. Tom says that having children was the catalyst for his interest in gender issues. “I started thinking about my daughter and son and what sort of world they would grow up in. I didn’t like what I came up with.”
Adrian, however, got his first taste for gender inequality in high school. He felt disempowered standing up against female bullies. “I decided to treat them how I would treat a male bully, that was punch them in the face. That was a bad idea,” he confesses. “The men in school were traditionalists and the women basically feminists. But she was intimidating a guy in an electric wheelchair – what am I supposed to do? He couldn’t defend himself, and I couldn’t do nothing.” It was around this time in adolescence that Adrian decided to leave Jehovah’s Witnesses and pursue the personal beliefs he holds today.
MRS’ perfect society would be one where women are treated the same as men. I ask how this approach differs from feminism, because on paper it sounds quite similar. “Feminism is not about equality,” Tom replies. “They say it is but it’s not . . . it completely ignores the issues that affect men.” The two ideological problems that face MRS are gynocentricism and feminism. Gynocentricism is the dominant or exclusive focus on women in theory or practice.
Tom and Adrian acknowledge that feminism has been good in some areas, but also “a disruptive force” in others. MRS believes women are favoured and considered more precious than men in society. That statement confused me. I thought the current situation was closer to things like women’s suffrage, rape in wedlock, women still earning roughly eighty per cent of male wages, and one in five Australian women suffering domestic violence from their partners.
I wonder how women are exactly ‘favoured’ throughout history. Because to me, it seems like the history books call for the exact opposite.
“It’s natural for us to feel like men have more power,” Tom says, “because they tend to hold more high-up positions. But of course, that sort of power isn’t the only one you can have in the world.”
MRS believes feminism has exploited gynocentricism to fulfil ideological aims. “It’s part of our evolutionary make-up. Women can only have one baby a year at most, but men can theoretically have many children. It makes sense for us to find men disposable. They do dangerous work and risk their lives to protect women because they are the bottleneck in population growth.”
Adrian asks me to imagine a scenario. “A man and woman are applying for a CEO job. The guy will take the woman a little less seriously because of neoteny and the man looks a different way and so subconsciously he might think that the man is more competent than the woman for no other reason than biology.” Neoteny is the endurance of juvenile traits into adulthood, which usually affects facial features such as having big eyes and small noses. Studies indicate that men are usually more attracted to a neotenous female face.
But putting biology aside, what else is preventing the MRS achieving their goal of gender neutrality?
“In terms of the feminist grip over society,” Tom says “. . . In the US, Canada and Scandinavia, ideologically feminist lobby groups have control of politics, the courts, a very tight grip on stuff. It’s partially to do with the culture.”
“What happens in America will be mirrored in Australia,” Adrian remarks.
“That’s why we’re fighting so hard.”
“We don’t want it to get that bad here in Australia.”
Adrian and Tom cut in over each other’s conversation and weave together the MRS mantra out of the clash. They are like two talking heads on the same body.
“In Sweden,” Tom says, “They tried to pass legislation to make it illegal to criticise feminism. An actual crime.”
“That is just insane,” Adrian agrees. “No matter what side you are on, you are generally better if you can be criticised. I would still be a Jehovah’s Witness if I wasn’t criticised.”
With a Facebook page pulling in only 1700 likes, the Men’s Rights movement in Australia is yet to gain traction. The MRS’ monthly meeting averages between four to ten people.
If the plight of MRS resonates with you, check out the full listings of their activism at www.mensrightssydney.com.