“We believe men need to think carefully about the assumption that women necessarily benefit when men work on their own healing,” write Lundy Bancroft and Rus Funk, longtime antiviolence activists and trainers. After reading “Women Supporting Men Supporting Men” by Frederick Marx in the Spring issue, Bancroft, author of Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men and When Dad Hurts Mom: Helping Your Children Heal the Wounds of Witnessing Abuse, and Funk, author of Reaching Men: Strategies for Preventing Sexist Attitudes, Behaviors, and Violence, say “the thorny question” Marx’s article raised about the impact of some kinds of men’s work prompted them to respond.
What man wouldn’t agree that it is valuable for men to focus on our own healing? Yet it doesn’t necessarily follow, as Frederick Marx suggests, that men can only heal in men-only spaces. To us, such a notion is erroneous at best, and dangerous at worst—for both men and women. Both women and men have strong and powerful relationships with one another. Most men need, deserve, and experience relationships with both women and men that can help men heal from our wounds.
In his article, Mr. Marx suggests men know better than women what is best for women. While we appreciate his expression of support for women’s equality as expressed in an earlier article, “Defining Masculinity in Our Own Terms” (Voice Male, Fall 2011), we are concerned about the rigid boundary he seems to be erecting to keep women out of men’s healing. Women have long been subjected to core sexist beliefs held by men: that women are filled with irrational fears; that they do not know what is best for them; and that they don’t recognize when men are actually acting in women’s best interests. We examine below some of the ways this perspective seems to have crept into Mr. Marx’s writing.
Are There Good Reasons for Women to Raise Questions About Some Men’s Healing Work?
Many women—and some men—are suspicious of men’s claims that when we spend time freeing ourselves from the straitjacket of traditional masculinity, women always benefit. In our decades of antiviolence men’s work, we have heard from many women as they recounted experiences of their male partners’ involvement in the “male liberation” movement. Some recurring themes include:
• His participation in men’s weekends—or other personal growth activities—often leaves her burdened with family responsibilities, including caring for small children. If she questions him about his plans, some men may irritably respond, “You want me to be more the kind of man you are looking for, so why are you complaining when I try to work on myself?!” In that act, her feelings and needs are discounted.
• His process of becoming more aware of and “in touch with his feelings”—along with developing a better understanding of a “deeper masculinity” and an increased sense of bonding and connection with other men—doesn’t necessarily result in his treating her any better than he did before (being more patient, respectful, caring, understanding, empathic…).
• His bonding with other men, sometimes by complaint sessions about women—including that women don’t understand “men’s healing work”—results in men being more impatient with women’s questions about what they are doing. He may be gaining “evidence” for his focus—blaming her—and women—for his unhappiness.
One of the great—and regrettable—ironies of Frederick Marx’s article is that it contains within it examples of the kinds of statements and attitudes that are exactly why women might not trust men expressing this mindset. For example:
“All the smart women I know (and I know plenty) cherish the men in their lives for doing personal growth work. They realize how it makes women themselves safer, happier, more loved. They realize they need not be threatened… Smart women understand that there are multiple venues and circumstances where men teach other men, and boys, about being men.”
Marx is unambiguously telling us he knows who the smart women are, what smart women think, and that all smart women agree with him. In effect, he is implying that women who disagree with him are stupid and unwise. He also is taking a swipe at some of us men who don’t agree with him, suggesting we are not smart and are not in touch with smart women, too. The truth is, men don’t get to tell women what is in their best interests; only women get to decide that. And, if women are expressing mistrust of the process at some men’s retreat—as Marx himself acknowledges (see the anecdote he recounts at the beginning of his article)—then it is our responsibility as male allies to look closely at the source of that mistrust. Doing so would be much more productive than disparaging women—at times openly—for their mistrust. The fact that Marx feels he has a right to do so in this article is ironic; it offers strong evidence for why women have good reason to doubt that men’s liberation work includes—as part of men’s healing—facing, challenging and changing belittling attitudes towards women. Consider another assertion Marx makes:
“A wise woman always recognizes when a man needs to get out and be with other men. He’s getting short with her and the kids, he’s not listening anymore, or worse, he’s starting to act out aggressively. A wise woman will urge her man to take space. Now.”
Marx seems to be suggesting that when men behave badly it is women’s responsibility to figure out what he needs and urge him to get the support he needs. Where is the equality in that? Such a standard is one of the pillars of sexism—that women should cast aside their needs and put men’s needs first.
Here’s another approach: If a man is getting short with his partner and the kids, and has stopped listening, first, he needs to take responsibility for his behavior and start paying attention. Second, he needs people in his life challenging him to respect women and children and to treat them kindly. And, if he’s beginning to “act out aggressively,” what he could probably best benefit from, according to research, is to be removed from the house (and, depending on the circumstances, perhaps in handcuffs). Mr. Marx, though, proposes he be rewarded for his aggressive behavior by going off to spend time with other men, leaving his wife to bear the consequences of his absence. How liberating is that—women left doing the labor at home while men are off thinking deep thoughts?
Next most bothersome is Marx’s statement that women feel “if it’s good for men, it must be bad for women.” What possible evidence does he have to support such an inflammatory statement? Most of us working alongside women have found that often women do have concerns about men’s undertakings. Still, overwhelmingly they support our endeavors to be good to ourselves (as long as it’s not at the expense of women or children). Historically, it is men who have considered women’s advances as having negative consequences for men. Imagine if a white person wrote an article explaining the mistakes people of color are making in failing to trust white people; or if a straight person wrote about the supposed thinking errors of gay men and lesbians—those pieces would be widely considered to be offensive. We don’t think a man writing about what women are doing wrong is any different.
While it may have been outside the scope of Mr. Marx’s intentions for his article, we would have wished to read at least some discussion of efforts to prepare men to become more involved in their communities, more active as mentors and supporters of younger men or women, more engaged in combating violence against women or other forms of oppression. We would have appreciated hearing Mr. Marx address how we can best integrate men’s healing work with developing men’s alliance with women and girls in the healing of our communities and world. Men’s healing, in and of itself, is not enough.
A significant part of men’s healing involves learning how to support and be true partners with women—as well as compassionate mentors to girls—while also working for a world promoting justice and respect. Studies suggest that men who live in environments of relative gender equality have much better health, better relationships (among a range of other outcomes), than do men who live in environments of gender inequality. What that suggests to us is rather than going off by ourselves to heal in the absence of women, men actually may be better served by working—and healing— alongside women while working to create a world that respects and values everyone.
(We are aware that Mr. Marx’s newest film project on mentoring has expanded from a focus on boys alone to boys and girls. That is encouraging news.)
Still, when Mr. Marx says, “The fact is men need to be taught by men how to be men,” it strongly suggests that single women raising sons are doomed, ineffective or worse. Countless women, particularly African- American, would question such a position, as would the many men who have had highly successful lives that they attribute to their mothers’ guidance and leadership (again, African-American men in particular). Our own lived experiences as men, supported by a wide range of readily available evidence, suggest that when men are taught to be men in the absence of women, men are more unhealthy, and women, children and our communities suffer.
Of course men can provide good guidance to other men— compassionate, caring, challenging— and such guidance certainly is an important contributor to our wellbeing. But the ability to listen well to women, to learn from them, and to take guidance from women in forming our identities, is every bit as important. We believe the survival of the planet depends on men’s efforts at listening to women.
Building Successful Alliances
The beginning of Marx’s article features a derisive description of a woman who called Marx with a lot of questions about the weekend gathering her husband was considering attending. Marx shared his agitation with the woman, thinking it ridiculous that she accused him of being sexist. He dismissed her by claiming she was determined to find something wrong with the retreat. It wasn’t just the tone of his description we found troubling—we, too, have questions about what was worrisome to her. Was it necessary to project such bitterness and condescension towards her in particular, and women in general?
We both have been involved in the struggle for gender justice for more than thirty years. During the early years of our involvement, there was widespread mistrust of males who presented themselves as women’s allies. Some men chose to disparage women for not welcoming men. Fortunately, many of us chose to respect women’s concerns and listen carefully to their experiences. And what they described to us was multiple experiences of having been betrayed by men who claimed to be profeminist allies in the movement. Some, they reported, disparaged women’s opinions, or pressured them for dates, or advised battered women that the man they were with “was really serious about changing” and that she should give him another chance. In a few cases we learned of men in the movement who were perpetrating physical or sexual violence against women. By taking the women’s sources of mistrust seriously, we were able to work on developing systems of accountability for men in the movement, making it harder for men who were not genuine allies to hide out. The result? Men are increasingly welcomed as allies in the struggle to end violence against women, and the level of mistrust is far lower. Still, women do get burned sometimes.
The lesson, then, is that women will trust us when we prove ourselves trustworthy. And so far many involved in the “men’s healing work” movement have not been doing so. One choice is to blame women for not trusting the movement. That appears to be what Marx’s article is primarily devoted to doing. The other alternative, which we hope men will choose—in the name of solidarity with women in their battle for liberation—is to make the changes that we need to make to deserve women’s trust.
Lundy Bancroft is the author of Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. He has been a women’s rights activist for 25 years.
Rus Ervin Funk, MSW, has been involved in the movement to end sexist violence since 1983. He is the cofounder and executive director of MensWork: eliminating violence against women, Inc., a Louisville-based organization that focuses on educating, engaging, and mobilizing men to address, respond to, and prevent all forms of sexual and domestic violence.