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.

University is not for everyone (and that’s perfectly okay)

Oh, my bright shiny graduating face.

June 2009 – oh, my bright shiny graduating face.

I realized this week that come September, I will have been involved in higher education for nine years. As in, I have been going to a university nearly every weekday for nine years, sometimes to study, sometimes to work. Nine years of higher education is enough to put most people well into a PhD, but all I have to show for it is one BFA degree (achieved four years ago), a whole lot of books, and an amazingly generous student bus pass. My job is pretty good, as desk jobs go, but the job I have has nothing to do with the bachelors degree I completed in 2009, or the one I’m haphazardly declared in now.

And you know what? I’m okay with that. I have long known what many unfortunate undergrads and their parents are still not not grasping: a university education ≠ a job. And we need to be okay with this.

Over the course of my nine years immersed in post-secondary education, I have encountered many angry students and parents who feel cheated because their (or their child’s) university degree is not yielding the immediate economic benefits they had hoped for (I’m not sure why everyone is so surprised; a university, after all, is not a vocational college). Despite this, many students and parents erroneously believe future success and happiness depends solely on university performance, placing absurd amounts of pressure on themselves and/or their children for high grades, a pressure that borders on hysteria even at the high school level (i.e. “You have to get an A in English 12 because if you don’t get an A you won’t get into a good university and if you don’t get into a good university you won’t get a good job and if you don’t get a good job you’ll end up homeless and a prostitute and addicted to crack cocaine!”, etc.) To cite a personal example of this kind of pressure in action, in first year, a student I lived with in residence who flunked out of his second semester had to be put on suicide watch because he was so afraid of his parents’ disappointment and anger–it’s obvious to me this young man wasn’t ready for university and was only there to please his parents, so why had he been pushed into it in the first place?

The harmful effects of this misguided emphasis on university performance include, but are not limited to: an explosion in incidences of student cheating and plagiarism (they’d rather cheat to get the grade than learn anything from the course they’re paying for), students pursuing degrees they hate because their parents insist (usually incorrectly) that this particular degree will lead to job success, parents of high school children paying independent “credit mills” to boost grades in core subjects and improve university applications (which of course leads to incredible anxiety down the road when the student can’t be successful in university courses because they weren’t academically prepared for them in the first place), students “negotiating” their grades with their professors (as in “I know I don’t understand any of the required concepts but I worked really hard!“), and countless lecture halls and tutorial rooms stuffed with students who aren’t interested and couldn’t care less and whose contribution to the learning environment is the bare minimum required to obtain their “participation grade”. I keep encountering university students who are miserable being here, and their shitty attitude is making learning miserable for poor souls like me who actually consider three-hour seminars with an expert in their field a privilege.

When I went back to school a few summers ago to study writing and English literature, it was with the understanding that I would be older (and dare I say more mature?) than many of my classmates, and I expected to encounter the issues listed above at the 100 and 200-level. When you’re in your first couple of years of university, you’re still feeling your way through academia, taking your breadth requirements, figuring out what your strengths and interests are, etc., so I can’t hold it against you if you’re not on your A-game in Introduction to Early Modern Literature. What I had not expected was to be participating in seminars or online discussions for upper division courses where nearly a third of the students were admitting they hadn’t actually read the book we were studying (with one student bragging he hadn’t read a single book we’d been assigned all term), or reading online discussion posts for a 400-level course written at a high school level of literacy and comprehension and an even lower level of interest.

You know what? If you’re going to be routinely hungover or stoned in lecture, and you aren’t going to do the readings, and you aren’t going to attempt to think and communicate at a university level, and you aren’t interested in the material, and you don’t like scholarship, and you consider every class you take to be just another hoop you have to jump through on your way to a job that doesn’t suck, you shouldn’t be in university.

Let’s be honest: university is not for everyone. This isn’t an elitist statement–this has nothing to do with intellect or class. This is simply an acknowledgement that not everyone has the temperament or the drive or the interest to make good use of a university education. So there’s no need for people to be pushed or pressured into getting one, okay?

I have very intelligent peers who did not go to university–some of them took apprenticeships or completed vocational training, and some went right into the workplace. Virtually all of them now have jobs that allow them to live enjoyable lives. Unburdened by the bitterness and gargantuan student debt that usually follow the completion of a “useless” university degree, these peers of mine have been free to move ahead with their lives: advancing their careers, buying their first homes, and starting families. I also have very intelligent peers who went back to complete vocational training after completing a university degree. They are less debt-free and less far ahead, but hey, at least one of their qualifications got them a job. :S

This is not to say that people shouldn’t give university a try. My (nearly nine) years in university education broadened my horizons, honed my writing and critical thinking skills, and fostered rewarding friendships. Universities are places of ideas and possibilities (though nothing kills this potential faster than an emphasis on results), and some people love academia so much they stick around for masters and doctoral degrees (though some people stick around because they, again mistakenly, think it will get them a job…sigh). If you aren’t sure what you want to do with yourself in life I absolutely recommend signing up for a variety of university courses and seeing if something sticks. Just don’t expect what you learn in university to be a direct link to the job market, and be prepared to have lost out on some money if you don’t like it.

There are a few careers for which it is absolutely vital to have a university degree (teaching, law, scientific research, and medicine for example), but for the rest of us, university studies are just that–study. Study for the sake of learning. Scholarship is a wonderful thing and I feel I’ve benefited immensely from it, but spending that kind of money and time just to rub shoulders with great thinkers and new ideas isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. And that’s just fine.

So if you hate what you’re studying–switch majors or take a break to figure out what you really want. If your kid doesn’t appear to be university-bound, let them be (if they really want a university education they can always go back to school when they’re ready). Stop cheating and half-assing your way through your courses (ever wonder if you’re the reason bachelors degrees don’t mean anything nowadays?) and free up your seat for someone who really wants to learn. There’s a whole wide world just waiting for you to encounter it, and university is only a part of it. Before you sign up for a university education, make sure it’s a part you’re actually interested in.