Monday, 9 January 2017

The Red Pill - An uncomfortable but important conversation

I recently had the opportunity to view a private screening of Cassie Jaye’s controversial new feature documentary “The Red Pill”.

As it opens Cassie asks her audience if they have ever been through something after which they felt they weren’t quite sure what had just happened, but just knew it had been an important experience to go through.

This was an apt precursor for me as I watched “The Red Pill”. It is an uncomfortable experience. I found myself squirming in my seat, at times wanting to stand up defiantly and plead my case, at times smouldering in shame for the statistics and stories I had so sure-footedly dismissed.

Screenings of “The Red Pill” have been met with hostile resistance in the digital hemisphere here in Australia. I first came to know of Cassie’s film and the Men’s Rights Movement on Triple J’s Hack program (as you do). It raised an interesting debate and I was immediately intrigued. A Melbourne screening at Palace Cinemas was shut down after a petition garnered more than 2000 signatures in opposition to the documentary and the culture of “rape apology” and “hatred toward women” it allegedly espoused.

Coming from South Africa where rape culture is a very real thing and has been fuelled by cultural spiritual leaders in various degrees, I was more than eager to watch this documentary.

Upon watching the film, I was quite baffled as to how its critics had drawn from its contents charges of such against the Men’s Rights Movement and the film. This is a lingering question for me. Let me be quite clear, I have not delved into the websites that spurred Cassie Jaye into her journey “down the rabbit hole.” It’s likely that I will find some grounds for these accusations therein, but in the film itself I can assign no such ill.

What “The Red Pill” did for me was shine a light on the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM) and the issues Men’s Rights Activists (MRA) are raising.  It is a debate I believe is critical for us to engage in. Make no mistake, it’s an uncomfortable one.

Are men and boys in crisis? Do they need our help? And does The Red Pill help?

I went into the screening armed with pen and paper, determined to call out and highlight the woman-hating, counter-equity ideology these MRA’s were apparently propagating, instead I found myself deeply challenged, humbled and inspired.

One response to the MRM is that it is a backlash against feminism by white men who are starting to feel displaced because women are now sharing space with them. I have no comment on that but thought I’d leave that there with you to chew on.

The film succeeds in bringing to your attention a number of issues you may not have spent much time pondering before. That boys and men are most prone to video game addiction, pornography addiction, are less likely to go see a doctor or get health insurance, make up the vast majority of inmates in prison, high-school drop-outs, have the highest rates of suicide, mental health and homelessness.

As a journalist in Australia I was confronted by the staggering statistic, released in the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Causes of Death report in September last year, that suicide was the leading cause of death among people 15-44 years of age and the second leading cause of death among those aged between 45 and 54. 

Over a five year period from 2011 to 2015, the average number of suicide deaths per year was 2,687.
In 2015, preliminary data showed a total of 3,027 deaths by suicide of which 2,292 were males and 735 were women. Consistently over the past 10 years, the number of suicide deaths in Australia was approximately three times higher in males than females.

In 2015 75.6% of people who died by suicide were male

Why aren’t we talking about this? Why aren’t we enraged? Why aren’t we driven to action to protect our boys and men from falling into the pit?

Let me regale you with a personal story. In 2016, as the editor for The Logan Reporter I interviewed a gentleman during suicide prevention month. He had tried to kill himself after being made redundant. 

He told me how, in the face of not being able to provide for his family he had measured his worth against that of the financial security his insurance would pay out to his family and chose to take his life.

Let that sink in.

Fortunately for Justin his attempt was thwarted. He told me how transformational the words of his wife had been upon regaining consciousness in the hospital bed; “I would rather be broke and struggling and have you with us than not.” 

These words changed the course of Justin’s life and he now dedicates his time and life to getting other men to see the same. But how on earth did Justin believe the wealth he could provide his family in death could ever replace him?

That was the uneasy question that trailed me as walked away from the interview. And I’m not proud to admit that my automatic mental response was that he had looked for an easy way out of the problems he was facing. The possibility that he saw himself as disposable, replaceable by a cheque, due to a patriarchal society that treats men as expendable did not even cross my mind.

Men’s Rights Activists in "The Red Pill" are asking us to consider the possibility that throughout history boys have been taught to be disposable – as soldiers, warriors, fire-fighters and ultimately as dads. That their worth is tied to their work and traditional gendered role of providers.

Do we value female life more than we do male life?

I for one have never questioned the culture of “Women and Children first”. This position is accepted and validated in popular culture without question.

Titanic remains one of the biggest box office successes of the 21st century. A hefty portion of the film is spent on getting women and children off the sinking ship. As viewers we don’t question this bias, in fact when the character who plays Kate Winslet’s fiancĂ© pushes his way onto a life raft, we recoil in horror and despise him for his weakness, lack of chivalry, lack of compassion and selfishness at choosing a seat for himself instead of giving it to, a woman or a child.

What message are we drumming into our boys’ minds here? That it is selfish for them to value their own life ahead of the lives of women and children? Has this notion of disposability created an oppressive environment for boys and men? Is it time for us to sit down and open our ears and our hearts to what our boys have to say. I believe it is.

"The Red Pill" and MRAs are asking us to look at these uncomfortable truths. Did our mothers and grandmothers not ask for the same when they marched through the streets demanding equality and the right to be heard?

Feminism vs Men's Rights?

Why are so-called feminists and women’s rights supporters trying to silence this film and ultimately our men’s voices? I have my own theories, but until I give adequate airtime to the women and men who oppose the movement and the film I will not jump to uneducated conclusions.

It is a pity that feminism and men’s rights have pitched themselves in opposing camps. Aren’t both groups trying to achieve the same thing? The right to have their gender-specific issues and inequalities heard and amended by society.

Is the issue today truly about advantage or is it actually about fostering dialogue about the issues men experience in a patriarchal world and just as importantly, the issues women continue to face in a patriarchal world? The feminist debate is sadly, a long way from being reconciled. Issues of pay-gaps and workplace inequality are still rife in Australia. In fact, I believe a pitiful effort is actually being made to address the enormous disparity that exists for career men and women when they become parents.

Just before Christmas I had a conversation with a man I have a lot of respect for. He said that if he were an employer he would rather hire a man over a woman, because of the “risk of becoming pregnant and having children” that women carried. I was appalled, because as a professional and a mother, I have had to watch my male colleagues overtake me on the ladder of success, while I took on the responsibility of raising my babies until they were ready to be placed in day-care so that I could return to my career.

So make no mistake, the scales are not tipped in our favour and having worked in a newsroom that resembled a boys’ club, where hard and investigative news was seen as the domain of men, while the female journalists were assigned the fluff pieces, we still have a very long way to go before we’re truly on an even playing field in the workplace.

The work by feminists in continuing to advocate for these rights is still critical to achieving gender equity

That doesn’t mean the issues MRA’s are raising aren’t valid and should be dismissed.

The film says the MRM and feminist movement disagree on men in power and invented rules at the expense of women in a patriarchal society.

It asks us to consider if patriarchy is the result of traditional gender roles and if what we call patriarchy is a system created through men giving in to the gender role expected of them - men as providers and protectors, women as homemakers and mothers. 

I think the film makes a solid point here. It certainly appears that the honouring of traditional gender roles gives rise to a variety of inequalities between men and women.

The complex territory of reproductive rights

MRA’s argue that women are granted ultimate control of their pregnancies. It’s her body and it’s her right to determine the fate of her pregnancy right? I know that is how I’ve always seen it.

But the film, in giving airtime to the MRM’s assertion that this is actually an example of the inequalities that exist between men and women when it comes to reproductive rights, asks us to really explore our culturally accepted positions on the rights and place of mothers and of fathers in present-day society.

This was probably the most uncomfortable part of the film for me and my immediate response was that Cassie Jaye was giving a very unbalanced report into reproductive rights. But then I asked myself why I needed to be presented with issues of false paternity, inequalities in the family court system and pregnancy entrapment (if I can call it that) within a broader, balanced scope, weighed up against the evils committed by men against women through forced pregnancies/abortions, pregnancy rejection and abandonment.

Would it have made the stories of women tricking their partners into pregnancy, lying to their partners about their children’s true paternity, and refusal to let their ex-partners visit their own children easier to confront? 

But Cassie Jaye isn’t tackling the complex world of reproductive rights with The Red Pill, she is shedding light on the specific issues being voiced by MRAs.

My overwhelming instinct was to stand up and point out to my fellow audience members that not all women are like that, and it is an inaccurate representation of women.

And my mind raced to formulate an argument with which I could challenge the assertions that somehow men are on the losing end when it comes to reproductive rights. But an interesting thing happened. As I whipped through the filing cabinets of my own life experience I made a startling discovery that once again challenged me to re-examine my beliefs.

I saw my friend, whose husband had dropped out of university to accept his paternal responsibilities after an ex-girlfriend rang him up to tell him she was pregnant with his baby. This turned out to be a lie. The child was not his and the woman knew it. But his life was altered irrevocably by leaving university and raising a child, only to learn many years later that the child was not his.

I saw another friend, whose wife had an affair and birthed a child conceived by the other man. The upheaval, when years later my friend would discover the truth.

Another friend who has been robbed of the opportunity to be a father and raise his only child after the child’s mother disappeared with their 8-month-old baby, whereabouts unknown.

A very dear friend who did the unthinkable of kidnapping his own daughter after the family courts granted custody to the mother and she refused him visitation rights. I will never forget the sheer desperation to see his daughter, who is the apple of his eye. He returned her to her mother and has never seen her again. It has been years.

I have two other friends who are haunted by the abortions their ex-girlfriends had, without discussing the pregnancy and the options with them first. Her body, her right.

Where are the support networks for these men? What are their rights in these circumstances? Why is this happening? Why aren’t we having these conversations?

Violence against men

My tenure at The Logan Reporter was dominated by stories of domestic violence. It is an issue that is a near-permanent news item in publications throughout the country.

Marches against domestic violence are commonplace and in October 2015 I covered a campaign wherein community members were asked to pledge "never to commit, excuse, or remain silent about violence against women or families" - #theloganpledge.

As I write this, one of the finest journalists I have ever had the privilege of working with has, on her Facebook profile picture, the words “I say no to violence against women and girls”.

In "The Red Pill" a MRA asks why the media paints only women as the victims of domestic violence.
"Because they are dumbass," my inner voice piped up.

But Cassie Jaye then goes on to make a staggering revelation that not only shuts up my inner voice  but sends me back to the filing cabinets where I encounter a deeply challenging picture.

Citing statistics from the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (USA), Cassie Jaye says one in three women and one in four men in the United States will be victims of domestic violence.

This is not the case in Australia. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics' Personal Safety Survey, which was last conducted in 2012, one in six women and one in 20 men have been victims of domestic violence since the age of 15.

The film asks us to question if there is gender symmetry when it comes to domestic violence, and if domestic violence is actually a violence issue instead of a gender issue.

Sifting through my personal collection of life experience it suddenly dawned on me that among the close friendships I have had, I have only known one woman who has been a victim of domestic violence but when it comes to the men in my life I have three close friends who have been victims of violence within their intimate relationships.

My own shame

I am deeply ashamed to admit that I have been guilty myself. One night, many years ago, overcome by the acid burn of betrayal and a violent feeling of being violated I shoved my boyfriend away from me. When he approached me with apology and regret I started hitting his chest with the palms of my hands over and over again.

Of even deeper shame is that it was actually only after watching Cassie Jaye’s film that the grievous crime I had committed dawned fully on me. We grow up seeing ladies deliver a smart slap to the cheeks of men who have done them wrong on our TV screens. It’s acceptable right? But it is absolutely unacceptable for a man to ever raise his hand to a woman.

This accepted norm saw one of the men in my life endure five years of relentless physical assaults from his then-partner without ever defending himself. Not once. And when he left the relationship there was no shelter for him to go to, there was no state-subsidised counselling service he could access, no support group he could join. As he explained to me, he just had to man up and get on with it. He did so without ever fully acknowledging the trauma he had endured, he never untangled the emotional scars and tended to them with self-love, compassion and self-worth.

How often is this happening? How many men’s lives have been affected like this? How many men out there are in need of healing? Has the silence on these issues and severe lack of support structures for men created a world wherein boys and men are most prone to video game addiction, pornography addiction, are less likely to go see a doctor or get health insurance, make up the vast majority of inmates in prison, high-school drop-outs, have the highest rates of suicide, mental health and homelessness?

What is the solution?

In my own investigations into domestic violence as a reporter I met a man, entirely by chance, who works with men in the combating of domestic violence. I remember rushing home to tell my partner with feverish excitement everything Adrian Hanks had told me about his work. For the first time someone had made some sense, someone had a real solid strategy to take into the fight against domestic violence. 

Not the tokenistic pledges, marches, shock campaigns and speeches that had permeated the so-called fight against domestic violence, but a real, meat-and-bones strategy, and it was all about encouraging boys and men, in a supportive and nurturing environment, to explore their attitudes, feelings, beliefs and emotions. Adrian Hanks said self-realisation was where it all had to begin.

I do not know why a group of feminists are trying to silence the film here in Australia. I do not understand the reasons for charges of “misogynist, racist, gay and woman-hating” by those who oppose the MRM in the US.

But one thing I do know is that there is definitely, undoubtedly a need for boys and men to talk to us about the male experience. They have a right to be heard and we all have the responsibility to listen. 

These things are uncomfortable but without a willingness to look at these issues we stay in the dark and accept a status quo that serves neither men nor women.

Ok guys, we’re listening.