A Feminist’s Case for Men’s Centres on University Campuses

male-sign-bathroom-bw-boarder-hiWomen’s Centres have been a regular fixture on many university campuses for a number of years. These spaces provide a safe environment for self-identified women to hang out on campus, but also to access support, referrals, and resources pertaining to sexual and reproductive health, sexual assault, domestic abuse, and mental health. Women’s Centres are usually pro-feminist, pro-choice, anti-racist, and anti-homophobic. Which is all to say that Women’s Centres on university campuses are something I wholeheartedly support. There are numerous issues that affect women and I understand completely the need and desire for women to have a safe, non-pressured space at university.

What often dismays me is the backlash that follows any institution’s forays into developing Men’s Centres. While I know that the fear of a designated “male space” being co-opted by MRA groups to push an anti-woman agenda is legitimate, I feel that the status quo is not really working either. If disenfranchised young men can’t find support on campus, where do you think they’ll end up? MRA internet forums are ready to welcome angry young men with open arms, and believe me, the discussions there are a lot more scary and stomach-churning than anything that would occur under a university administration’s purview.

The issue of whether or not Men’s Centres belong on campus is very complex and a lot of factors are at play here. I suppose when I voice my support for Men’s Centres on university campuses, I should clarify what I mean and why: I mean a safe space for self-identified men to hang out on campus, but also to access support, referrals, and resources pertaining to sexual and reproductive health, sexual assault, domestic abuse, and mental health. When I say “self-identified men” this of course includes trans men and men of any age, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. As a woman, I have always felt more comfortable discussing my emotional, mental, and sexual health with other women, and I imagine that men would feel similarly about discussing these issues with men.

Of course, it’s not as simple as this, as last year’s debate over Simon Fraser University’s proposed Men’s Centre demonstrates (I should note that while I support Men’s Centres in principle, the way in which funding for this proposed Centre was acquired and the reasoning behind it was problematic and over-simplistic to me). There are very legitimate concerns, including a long-standing history of female oppression, that would need to be addressed before a Men’s Centre should go ahead. Open and cooperative communication between Women’s and Men’s Centres on campus should be a must. The attitudes expressed in either Centre should never be adversarial or competitive towards its counterpart and the objectives of each Centre, including a code of conduct for staff and volunteers, should be clearly stated and adhered to (this would hopefully prevent a Men’s Centre from devolving into a misogynistic clubhouse).

I think debates around the rationale for Men’s Centres are important because the “target” of such a Centre would need to be identified. Is the Men’s Centre being established to blame, fight, or otherwise “push back” at women/feminism? If so, such a Men’s Centre would not be an appropriate use of university space or funds–it would basically be a university-sanctioned hate-space. But if the Men’s Centre is being established to address issues related to men’s mental and physical well-being, and to recognize the harmful ways patriarchy puts pressure on young men (by telling them that “real men” don’t cry, or providing them with only a very rigid and outdated framework for what it means to “be a man”, promoting steroid use or violence as a problem-solver, etc.), then this is absolutely the kind of initiative I would support.

I’ve heard the sound byte that “every space outside the Women’s Centre is already a Men’s Centre”, and I see where this is coming from. Historically, the world we live in was for centuries strictly a man’s world, and in the majority of private and public spaces, it still is. That being said, I also know the following:

  • Men suffer from mental health issues; many suffer from drug and alcohol addiction; many commit suicide
  • Men are victims of sexual assault (their attacker can be male or female)
  • Men are victims of domestic abuse (their abuser can be male or female)
  • Men are victims of childhood abuse (their abuser can be male or female)
  • Men have health concerns specific to their gender (prostate cancer, for example)

It has always seemed strange to me that what would be immediately (and rightfully) recognized as assault (by most people) if it happened to an unconscious woman at a party is often dismissed as “hazing” or “a joke” if it happens to a man (a couple examples involving amateur sports teams come to mind). I’m always surprised to hear from those who believe that a man can’t be raped by a woman because “something has to be cooperating” in order for the rape to occur (news flash: boner or no, if the guy is passed out and hasn’t said yes, it’s not consensual and it’s not okay). Most of these male victims are shamed into invisibility–they’re “pussies” for not being able to prevent their own assault, and “reporting” usually gets no further than hallway whispers on Monday morning or a pained admission to a spouse. I believe that creating a space for men to receive help and support sends three important and very useful messages:

  1. Rape, sexual assault, and domestic abuse do occur.
  2. No one, regardless of their gender, and regardless of the gender of their attacker, deserves to be raped, assaulted, or abused.
  3. If you are a victim of rape, assault, or abuse, you can receive help regardless of your gender. Being attacked does not make you a less worthy woman, or a less worthy man.

While it is true that women are victims of sexual assault more often than men, an official acknowledgement by men (as enshrined in the mandate of a Centre, for example) that these crimes do exist would, in my opinion, be a very good step in the fight against rape culture. And I am simply not interested in comparing wounds. How can I say that a woman’s rape is worse than a man’s (except to say that it was more likely to happen to the woman)? I can’t. And how can I say a male rape victim would be less deserving of a safe space on campus? I can’t–the patriarchy that put him in an historically-advantaged position obviously did not prevent his rape, and is not his fault.

I should note that the resources and referrals offered through Simon Fraser University’s Women’s Centre are also available to men, and that the Women’s Centre welcomes the involvement of “Male Allies”. While I applaud these initiatives, I don’t think they can be as effective as they are well-intentioned. The fact of the matter is, if you are the kind of “manly man” that cares about his masculine image to the point that it would be hard for you to ask for help or support if needed, I highly doubt you would be caught dead approaching the Women’s Centre for assistance (I’m not saying it’s a very sophisticated attitude to have, I’m just saying it’s true). I also believe that a man wishing to learn more about the effects of gender constructs and the legacy of patriarchy in his own life shouldn’t have to do so through the Women’s Centre as an Ally, he should be able to do so simply as a man who is interested in gender (yes, I know he could just go to the library but he might not know where to start). A male gender studies professor might be the perfect person to help curate such resources in a Men’s Centre on campus.

Finally, while I am not a fan of patriarchy, I don’t believe men themselves are the problem. I respect that there are some instances in which men would prefer to turn to other men for advice, resources, or support, the way I expect men to respect my preference for discussing sensitive personal matters with women. The bottom line is, I trust men to investigate and support their gender without being misogynistic, the way I expect my feminism not to be aligned with misandry. The more we push against Men’s Centres, the more MRA groups (the exact opposite of the kind of groups we want to see on campus) will use this as “evidence” of some kind of feminist conspiracy to oppress men. What I want to see is less angry, suffering, and disenfranchised men on campuses with nowhere to turn. I think Men’s Centres could help.

All I’m saying is give the guys a chance. Established correctly and run with sensitivity and a spirit of collaboration, Men’s Centres could become some of our most useful allies as we try to make university campuses a safe and supportive place for everybody, no matter their gender.