The first day of the First International Conference on Men’s Issues ended on Friday with a short speech by Paul Elam, who was introduced (twice, thanks to a troublesome microphone) by Warren Farrell. Farrell testified to Elam’s warmth and kindness, his love for his wife, and his passion for the so-called men’s rights movement.
The bromance continued on Saturday, as Elam rose to introduce Farrell. The Financial Times named Farrell one of the 100 Greatest Thinkers of the 20th century, Elam said, but he would count him as one of the greatest of the 21st century too. It was Farrell’s book The Myth of Male Power that crystalized his thinking about the troubles between the genders—and that inspired him to create the movement he leads. Two years ago, Elam was posting pictures of women who had committed “offenses against men” on his Register-Her.com website and vowing to “fuck their shit up.” Today, he high-mindedly declared that his goal is to “build bridges between men and women instead of walls.”
Farrell, who once served on the board of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, has come in for his share of controversy and misunderstanding over the years. Renewed interest in the forty-year-old interview he gave to Penthouse about his research on the positive side of incest (cousin-cousin, uncle-niece, aunt-nephew, brother-sister, and same-sex sibling incest are beneficial, he said, in 95 percent of the cases he looked at; mother-son incest is 70 percent positive) hasn’t helped matters; the angry protesters he attracted when he spoke at the University of Toronto in November, 2012 must have stung him too (though men’s rights activists, aka MRAs, made good use of the publicity).
Warren’s embrace of Elam and the corner of the Manosphere that A Voice for Men occupies seems like something of a come-down for a man who has hobnobbed with high-wattage celebrities, appeared on network talk shows, taught at major universities, written bestsellers, and taken calls from the White House. But he clearly hopes that he can help to elevate the movement’s tone—to shift its focus away from reactive hatred of feminism and empowered women, and towards a positive agenda. In his speech, he focused on issues that he believed could attract female allies to the movement, among them the crisis of boys, children’s need for both parents, the need for better communication, the development of a birth control pill for men, and the importance of veterans care.
Provocatively, he suggested that the name “men’s rights activist” be retired. “You know and I know that men do need rights. We need the right to equal parenting. We need the right to not be the only gender registering for the draft. We need the right to have Men’s Studies,” he said. “But men’s rights is a tougher than necessary fight in a world that believes that men made the rules and have all the rights to begin with. It’s like asking for king’s rights.”
Karen Straughan, an LGBT divorced mother of three, identified herself as a lifelong anti-feminist. Going all the way back to Seneca Falls, feminism was always wrong, forever blaming men for problems that women never had. “It is huge, huge power we have as women,” she declared, to the loudest and most sustained applause of the day. “And it’s really time that some of us stepped up and started to use it responsibly.” She was talking about women, of course, but her words echoed Warren Farrell’s admonitions to MRAs as well.
Carnell Smith, a crusader against paternity fraud, told some hair-raising stories about men who had been entrapped into paying the upkeep for other men’s children; he made the point that both the men and the women who lied to them were being used by the “evil empire” of Child Support Enforcement, which collects money without regard to whether the putative father is the biological father—or whether he even has a relationship with the children. Robert Franklin, an attorney and father’s activist, eviscerated the family court system; Terrence Popp, a war hero who lost custody of his children and became homeless upon his return from Iraq, testified to his sense of betrayal by his wife and by the courts.
The last speaker was the libertarian Stephan Molyneux, who reframed circumcision as male genital mutilation and turned the tables on the feminist notion that men are uniquely violent. 90 percent of a child’s brain and character are formed in the first five years, he said, when boys spend most of their time with their mothers or the mostly female caregivers in day care settings. It is women’s violence against boys—corporal punishment, yelling, shaming—that creates violent male adults, he said, referring to a study of Texas mothers, who reportedly hit their children more than 900 times a year. Mothers like those are as stressed as they are, he added, because of the bad choices they made—they picked the wrong men to have children with; they put their careers ahead of their responsibility to their children. In the good old days before the welfare state, he concluded, illegitimate children were given up for adoption to two-parent homes, where they invariably thrived. Thanks to subsidized daycare and a host of other public services, single mothers now have the wherewithal to ruin their children’s lives. Molyneux’s enthusiasm for compelled adoptions clashed a little with the sentiments of many of the other speakers, who deplored how little efforts courts made to involve unmarried fathers in their children’s lives, but there was no push-back from the attendees in the Q&A that followed.
The event closed with a panel discussion on activism, which all agreed was the movement’s next phase and defining challenge. Farrell declared that he used to tell people that the men’s rights movement was embryonic, but he would say that no longer.
All and all, the weekend wasn’t an unalloyed hate fest, though there was plenty of rancor, contempt, defensiveness, and anti-feminism on display. Some of the female speakers were the least restrained in that respect, especially on the contentious issues of domestic violence and sexual coercion and modern women’s infuriating desire to determine their own destinies. Many of the speakers signaled that they were chafing a little under Paul Elam’s no trash-talking rule.
It will be interesting to see how much bridge-building A Voice for Men engages in from here on out—starting, perhaps, with the comments about this very post.