It’s now twenty years since I completed my doctoral research into Australian men’s profeminist politics, Feminism as ‘Men’s Business’. This project looked at a group of men engaged in profeminist politics in Brisbane in the 1990s as part of the group Men Against Sexual Assault (MASA). This particular group had an active life of around seven years, ending (coincidentally?) withf the first incarnation of Hanson’s One Nation politics in Queensland.
The principle research question — How was it possible for men to engage in a politics ostensibly against their own interests? — was answered through an exploration of the notion of ‘men’s interests’, which uncovered a much broader understanding of that term. My conclusion — that these men were not simply pursuing an ‘altruistic politics’, doing ‘what is right’, but that their own interests were also served through profeminism. It did not find favour with everyone in the group, but made sense: in any authentic liberation politics, one’s interests must be at stake.
I have been looking back at this period recently, at the thinking that I and a number of the men had about the possible future for such a politics, in particular, the notion that one shouldn’t pursue a profeminist politics on its own but incorporate it into a broader politics about inequality. Inequality is inflected by multiple issues including those of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and class, and not one of these can suffice as a politics around inequality on its own. Focusing on one aspect seems often at the expense of acknowledging others.
Perhaps the thinking that profeminist politics should be part of a broader politics also reflected a feeling at the time that feminist politics had been largely successful, that much of the work had been done, and, ironically, you could measure this success by the strength of the backlash against feminist gains.
Today, one would have to say that sexual assault and domestic violence against women seem not to have abated at all, that the cultural issues that MASA identified and campaigned against are as prevalent now as they were then. The #metoo campaign testifies to the strength of those attitudes among men, and depressingly, to the silence of those who may not be abusers, but at the very least are ‘accessories after the fact’. Calling it out – a conscious practice of the men in MASA – seems to have little contemporary equivalence among men.
The broader politics against inequality which we discussed back then is not happening either, although perhaps there are foundations being laid for such in a few other countries. Could we bring the same level of energy that we witnessed in the same sex marriage campaign to the broader issue of inequality in Australia? I am not confident. That message was focused and straightforward; it was easily resolved. The broader issue of inequality is complex, systemic, and its effects are largely hidden. To alleviate it would require a commitment of time as well as understanding, and, crucially, a commitment to spend money.