This text tries to place antisexist politics by men in a larger social context. It discusses men’s groups and the issue of identity politics in general. It demands a “renewal” of antisexist politics by men and ends with a look at some attempts at realizing some of the ideas discussed in the text.
Part 1: In defense of the idea of antisexist men’s groups
I’ve defined myself as profeminist since the early eighties2. I am in critical solidarity with attempts by men of the radical left to organize in antisexist men’s groups, to effect personal change and act politically, publicly, in antisexist ways.
The issue of antisexism is no less central for me today than it was 15 years ago. What’s more, I am convinced that men’s groups should be an essential element of any renewed antisexist political practice by men.
I find men’s groups useful because they sustain processes of personal change, processes made very difficult in mixed groups by the fundamental conflict between men and women in a patriarchal society, the pain and anger associated with this conflict, and the difficulty of empathy between different social “realities”. They constitute an alternative to the usual structures of emotional exploitation of women by men and create a space in which (heterosexual) men can learn to take care of each other more and engage with one another more fully than patriarchal norms usually allow for. Men’s groups can release a great potential of wishes for contact that don’t conform to the norms of hegemonic masculinity; in this way, they can be instrumental in beginning to work through homophobia, one of the central structuring elements of patriarchal social relations. To avoid situations where women are obliged to “coach” men in feminist thought, where conventional gendered patterns of speaking and acting are reproduced, or the discussion becomes completely paralyzed for fear of emotional injury, it makes sense, I believe, not to debate certain (many) issues in mixed-gender contexts.
I interpret the decline (compared to the late eighties) in the FRG of this type of practice, “antisexist men’s groups”, as, in part, one effect of an antifeminist “backlash” within the left and in society in general. Within the “radical left”, partial feminist gains have been taken as an occasion to relegate the issue of patriarchal domination and exploitation to somewhere near the bottom of the list of priorities; women have lowered their expectations and reduced their demands in private and in public; accordingly, particularly heterosexual men feel less pressure to question their masculine practices and privileges.
Today, “the men’s movement”3 has come to be identified, in mainstream media, with antifeminist father’s rights groups, “wild men”, and masculinist reactionaries of the ilk of Robert Bly. In most of the left-liberal men’s group scene (counseling centers etc.) profeminism is seen as decidedly passe. Radical left men’s group structures – that were hardly ever free of the desire for a positive masculine identity and antifeminist tendencies – are, by now, almost non-existent4.
The “backlash” image is of course too one-dimensional, it fails to do justice to the ambiguities and contradictions in the development of social structures, including the development of social movements.
It’s important to realize, in this context, that the proletarian-anticapitalist, antiracist, anticolonial, feminist and other struggles of the sixties and seventies were not simply defeated and extinguished, but have become, in a complex melange of repression and integration, part of a contradictory “modernization” of capitalist-patriarchal structures. As a result of this process, domination has – as social life, on a global scale, is increasingly penetrated by capitalist social relations – become, partly, unevenly, more flexible and virtualized5. Similar maybe to the way a culturalist “neoracism” appeared on the scene in many places – by the nineties at least – and coexisted with a more traditional racism of “heredity” and “blood”, patriarchal structures in the past decades, in part, have tended to disengage from strictly biological definitions of sex/gender; the patriarchal “principles” of masculinity and femininity6 function as ever, just their relation to the sorting of people into men and women according to biologistic criteria is not as clear-cut as it used to be. Such “abstract-patriarchal” conditions, visible as yet only in outline, coexist with a renaissance of biologism in certain scientific discourses, with an intensification, the world over, of “classically patriarchal” violence against and exploitation of women (who are, in this process, very clearly defined by and reduced to their biology).
It is a contradictory development produced partly by the inner contradictions of the ensemble of dominant social relations themselves, partly brought about by the struggles of social movements.
On the one hand, there can be no question that, in relation to the aims of their more radical wings, the anticapitalist, antiracist, antisexist, gay liberation and other social movements have suffered one defeat after the other over the last 30 years (even though, of course, hosts of opportunistic renegades from the former critical intelligentsia try to make it look otherwise today). On the other hand, I do not wish to tell a one-dimensional narrative of corruption, into which the story of the decline of antisexist men’s groups, for example, could then be neatly fitted.
This is because firstly, the development of social movements over the last 30 years is just as ambiguous and contradictory as the development of society as a whole, of which it is, obviously, a part. That is to say: there is amnesia and deradicalization in the history of social movements, but there is also the “dicovery” of types of domination that had not been problematized before, the development of new social practices and forms of political contestation, radical theoretical breakthroughs etc.
Secondly, antisexist politics by men had problems for completely different reasons.
These I’ll address briefly in what follows:
Point # 1:
From the very beginning, men’s groups had a problem of legitimacy: Identity politics by members of privileged groups just is something completely different from identity politics by underprivileged/oppressed people. It was never possible to base men’s group politics on an emphatic sense of one’s own suffering and you were always confronted with the legitimate misgivings of women/lesbians towards this practice. You were always having to deal with the question of what exactly the difference between antisexist men’s group and a “normal” league of males was supposed to be. Similarly, suspicions that the main intention of “men’s group-men” was really to obtain an antisexist “clean record” by means of public penitence, or that the whole project was in fact a subtle or less-than-subtle attempt to usurp feminist positions, and in this way regain a dominant speaking position, now in the “field” of antisexism as well, could never be so easily dismissed. All this was reason enough for many men to give up on men’s group politics or not even get started doing it.
Point # 2:
As social movements developed and differentiated – in a climate marked, but not simply determined, by the political defeat of emancipatory projects – the critique of certain types of identity politics (as it would later be called) intensified:
In the United States, Black and Latina women questioned the collective subject “women” as it had been constructed by the USAmerican women’s movement in the seventies.
Divers struggles by lesbians within the women’s movements of various countries for visibility and appreciation of their existence also worked to destabilize the category “woman”.
As far as antisexist men’s groups in the FRG are concerned, there was, for example, a wave of differentiation at the end of the eighties, beginning of the nineties, in which radical left gay men increasingly separated from radical left heterosexual men with antisexist ideas; many, especially the heterosexuals, only now began to realize and criticize the widespread and unwitting equation of “men” with “heterosexual men” in “men’s movement” discourse7.
Point # 3:
With the belated (compared to France, Britain or the USA, for example) reception of poststructuralism in the FRG, which by the nineties had increasingly filtered through the universities into the activist radical left, the feminist debates around J.Butler’s “Gender Trouble” and the interest in queer theory that began to appear by the mid- to late nineties in parts of what was left of the left8 …, a general scepticism concerning any kind of identity politics spread among many of those interested in “gender relations” – that’s how it was called now, the term “patriarchy” being deemed “too monolithic” by many.
Although I do claim that there has been an extension and consolidation of a “sexist consensus” within the mixed left and that the decline of antisexist men’s groups is somehow connected to this, I don’t want to reduce this development to the effect of an antifeminist backlash (especially not if this concept is understood one-dimensionally). I take the fundamental problem of legitimacy of a politics of identity by privileged groups seriously (point # 1), as well as the critique of identity politics in general (point # 2 & 3).
I found attempts by men at antisexist politics back in the eighties pretty wretched already; therefore, I have no reason at all for any kind of political nostalgia. Still, I find the situation today, as far as men and antisexism in this country are concerned, even worse than it was 15 years ago. I do not believe antisexist politics by men should be the same today as it was 10 or 15 years ago. But it should be.
Regarding the problems of antisexist practice by men, particularly men’s groups, here’s what I have to say:
Regarding point # 1, the fundamental problem of legitimacy of men’s groups: I think antisexist politics by men is no less legitimate than “white” antiracism and I am frequently annoyed by the double standard that is often employed here. What’s more, I believe that a politics that tries to get its motivation exclusively, or even mainly, from a sense of being the victim of or directly affected by something or other, is bound to fail. Such a politics has to disavow the complex situatedness of people in different networks of power and the non-unitary composition of subjectivity (which develops over time and may change depending on the situation) and is bound to hallucinate ostensibly uniform, unambiguous, morally good subjects. Now this is not at all to say you can’t determine who is the perpetrator and who is the victim of a specific act or who is privileged and who is underprivileged in terms of a specific type of exploitation. On the contrary, you can and I think it’s ultra-important you do. My point is, though, that, firstly, no subject is exhaustively determined by being victim or being perpetrator, being a man or being black (for example); no person is permeated in every fiber of her or his being by such determinations of identity. And secondly, the relations between what you could call “objective social situatedness” on the one hand and political motivation on the other are sometimes highly mediated, complex and opaque. I’m not trying to completely deny the link between “material conditions” and political consciousness (as some post-marxist intellectuals do9). What I am saying though, is that it’s necessary and legitimate for privileged people to politically address precisely those structures of domination that privilege them:
“Emancipation is not only the liberation from external, but also from internal constraints. It’s not just about changing structures between people but also inside people (and distinguishing structures inside and outside individuals doesn’t make sense anyway most of the time: it’s a bourgeois illusion). Emancipation is also about liberating oneself from wishes that are part of the system (to put it bluntly: addictions) and unfolding wishes that exceed the limits of the system. That’s the context for our assertion that what actually characterises left radicalism is acting against one’s own interests – as men, as whites – while striving to fulfil our desire for autonomy and collectivity. We think it’s important that men begin to see their masculinity, whites their whiteness, as a political problem; that, generally speaking, privileged people take issue politically with their, ostensibly normal and universal, unmarked difference.”10
Regarding the issue of “usurpation” of feminist positions by antisexist men: I think this suspicion that that is what men’s antisexism is actually about can never be entirely gotten rid of; for men with antisexist ideas there is no alternative to continually and critically questioning their motivations11, preferably without completely losing the ability to act. In this context I’ll return to the comparison of antiracism and antisexism: Racist as well as sexist attitudes are fundamentally ambivalent. Desire and disgust are as mutually conditional as slum and palace. “The Others” are just as much targets of projection of white desires as of white fears. It is not as easy to distinguish exoticism or racist romantisation/xenophilia from “truly” antiracist attitudes as one would like. What’s true for the antiracism of whites holds just as well for the antisexism of men: The close connection between hatred and contempt for women on the one hand and (masculine hetero-)sexual desire and romantic idealization on the other is well known. And some forms of heterosexual male profeminism do, under closer scrutiny, turn out to be highly suspect variants of romantic idealization. To simply trust male protestations of profeminist solidarity would be naïve, to treat them, without further differentiation, as subtle sexism and purely tactical does not do justice to the complex realities. Real trust between privileged and less privileged people must remain a rare occurrence anyway, in a society structured by domination and exploitation, and can only exist between people who know each other a little better, I think.
Regarding point # 2 and 3, identity politics in general:
“It’s necessary to develop a strategic identity politics that constructs unities across differences, without disavowing differences and without positing unities as natural; that remains conscious of the dangers of essentialising, naturalizing and homogenizing. This entails a pragmatic and flexible approach to identity-defined groups, a ceaseless problematization of homogenization inside and boundaries to the outside.”
“Identity politics of priviledged groups raises completely different issues from that of underpriviledged/oppressed groups. Identity politics of priviledged people can be a progressive practice only as self-abolitionist12 or negative identity politics. This means that the goal of abolishing one’s identity should not only be present – as in any non-reactionary identity politics – but should be clearly in the foreground, in uncompromising antagonism to the propagandists of masculinity, home, the nation and the like.”13
Regarding point # 3, identity politics and “postmodern thought”:
“Radical left thought means, quite crucially, I believe, to try and reflect the social conditions under which one’s own theoretical tools come into being. For me, radical left thought today means questioning classical left theories, using poststructuralist ideas and by way of postmodern critiques, discarding what is historically outmoded (and what was always false), whilst, at the same time and as part of the same process, attempting to grasp – our – “postmodern thinking” as an aspect of the ideology of the latest stage of development of global patriarchal class society, and trying to adopt a critical distance towards it.”14
I find sweeping and unequivocal assessments of poststructuralist approaches as being theoretical and political advances over “classical” left/feminist approaches problematic15; equally sweeping condemnations of “postmodern thought” as an expression of deradicalization and the decline of critical thinking strike me as absurd.
As always, it’s important to look closely at which critiques are being employed when by whom and to what ends.
Anti-essentialist critiques of identity politics, for example, were used in debates within the German “autonomous left”16 during the nineties to slander (pro)feminist politics as such. The new bogey(wo)man was the “identity feminist” and “identity politics” was recognized as the root of all political evil17. Generally, crypto-antifeminist discourses within the “radical left” have, in the last few years, shown a tendency to disfigure the concept of sexism in “pseudo-deconstructivist” fashion, ignoring the relations of domination of men over women, separating the violence of gender stereotyping from these relations of domination and making gender stereotyping out to be that which mainly and exclusively needs to be scandalized about the system of patriachal gender relations18.
Now this is not at all to say that poststructuralist critiques of identity in and of themselves somehow further antifeminist tendencies. Certainly deconstructive feminism – a self-criticism of the feminist movement, undertaken with emancipatory goals – offers key words and figures of thought to people who were never in solidarity with feminism. But that’s the disadvantage of self-criticism and unavoidable.
Part 2: Towards a critical renewal of antisexist politics by men
If antisexist politics by men is to have a future worth talking about it must, in my opinion, become part of a kind of organising that, on the one hand, takes constructions of identity seriously in their social reality and efficacy, and on the other, and equally, attempts to resist the excluding and homogenizing violence of identities. I refuse the dichotomous choice between “identity politics” and “critique of identity”.
In practice, this could mean the simultaneity and overlapping of mixed and separate forms of organizing within an alliance network.
Critiquing the homogenizing and excluding effects of gender categories should become part of the “program” of men’s groups much more than it has ever, to my knowledge, been in the FRG. In my eyes, this means first and foremost, dealing with the differences between men. When speaking of “men’s groups, men’s ‘movement’”, the term “man” calls up the association “white heterosexual man from the new middle classes” – this needs to be addressed as a problem and taken more seriously than it has been up to now. White bourgeois groups of heterosexuals should call themselves just that – or something else, but not simply “men’s groups”. The issue of class differences and the debate about different types of masculinity (subaltern, complicit, hegemonic…) needs to get more attention than it has. It’s necessary to try and (re)start dialogues between straight, bisexual and gay left, antisexist men. And of course I think a debate on the political status of masculinity among women/lesbians, intersexual, transsexual and transgendered people would be very valuable. But before anything of the kind could work out, many left men with antisexist ideas have some serious homework to do. To put it mildly.
Another huge issue, of course, is the narrowness of the “ethnic spectrum” of “traditional” men’s groups and the sidelining of ethnicity as an issue in their practice. Masculinity is a resource that gets used, along with ethnicity, class etc., to gain status; different racialized/ethnicized identities include different kinds of masculinity. Differences among men of different ethnic backgrounds and the potential for emotional injury when communicating across such divides should be taken into account much more than they have ever been in my experience (or my own past practice, for that matter). One precondition for better communication between between white men of the majority population and men from a migrant background would be for the former to take a hard look at and and really deal with internalized racist and antisemitic stereotypes, images of “other men” and the tendency to project “bad”, disavowed and split off aspects of oneself onto “other men”.
The analysis of German antisemitism, be it in the mainstream of society or within the Left, has, up till now, largely remained the project of usually gender-blind male theoreticians. It is high time the connections between sexism and antisemitism, Germanness and masculinity were explored, by means of consciousness-raising as well as theoretically, and political practice was informed with this knowledge.
Regarding sexuality, too (a “classical” topic of men’s groups), I would like to see some new approaches:
In view of the antifeminist offensive in the current debate over rape within the German “radical left”, I consider a debate on sexuality, reaching as many people as possible, more urgent today than ever. I find many people on the left pretty disoriented regarding this field in terms of theory; and, as far as I know, in terms of communicating about sexuality outside the classical private sphere, it’s not looking any better: I haven’t seen any kind of verbal and somatic communication about erotic wishes and boundaries – that’s really different, in a positive way, from what’s going on in the mainstream of society – establishing itself in any of the left subcultures I am familiar with.
I do believe men’s groups can be one suitable place to talk about sexuality. But I absolutely do not think men should speak about sexuality only or mainly in men’s groups. The argument that some proponents of men’s groups have often used, that it is easier for men to talk about sexuality in such groups has always put me extremely ill at ease. For one, this implicitly defines a men’s group as a desexualized and thus pacified space, because, it seems, it’s supposed that all men involved are super-straight and totally not interested in each other anyhow, so that we can all finally have a good talk now, in peace and quiet, about our problems with women. I find this unspoken supposition annoying, and I’d consider a group that really did work like this quite a conservative institution in fact, and extremely boring, too. What’s more, I find heterosexual men telling other men things about their sexuality that they’re not telling the women they’re involved with, for fear of conflict or shame or whatever, quite problematic. That may be acceptable, in particular circumstances, as an interim solution, but as a permanent practice what is this but masculine “solidarity” of the worst sort?
Another problem I see in men’s groups’ dealing with sexuality is the common tendency – shared by most discourses on sexuality – to narrow down the field of the erotic to gender. Whereas in fact, all kinds of difference, cultural, ethnic, what have you, are eroticized; sexuality is never just about gender but always about race, class, ethnicity etc., as well19. If sexual politics is not to remain a field dominated by white middle class perspectives, it is, in my opinion, very important to work out the racist dimensions of sexuality, among others, and foreground them politically20.
If I’ve created the impression now that I see sexuality mainly as an assemblage of relations of domination – this is not the case. It’s true I don’t think much of schematically separating out good sexuality from bad violence21: domination is not external to sexuality. Domination works within and through sexuality and helps constitute it. Yet I believe it’s completely wrong to reduce sexuality to domination.
Certainly, as I see it, sexuality emerges when, in the socialization process, desires are forced under the primacy of genitality and heterosexualized. (A liberation from this sexualization would be a liberation towards other sexualities, or post-sexual practices – or whatever this might be called in the future – that would no longer have to bear the “burden” of being this secular religion that modern sexuality is, this only form of ecstatic satisfaction and energetic exchange22 available to humans).
Yet the diversity of desires persists within the sexual, the conformist formation of sexuality fails just as necessarily as the construction of unambiguous gender identities must fail in the end. And this is why sexuality has its own “logic”, that cannot be reduced to politics and discourse.
Part 3: A Look Forward
Since june 2001 efforts are under way23 to organize a larger, interregional meeting that is supposed to serve as a starting point for new antisexist politics by men. There’s a text to go with it, “On the Disappearance of the Anti-sexist Men’s Group Scene”. If you’re interested, e-mail [email protected] or send regular mail to “sissies” c/o Infoladen Bankrott, Dahlweg 64, 48153 Muenster, Germany.
The Antiracist Antisexist Summer Camp Project, with which I’ve been involved since it started, is planning the “Crossover Conference”, 17.-20. January 2002 in Bremen, Germany.
In a manifesto for the project, which we wrote in the spring of 2001, we say:
“Our starting point is the conviction that the different relations of power and domination are inseparably bound up with one another, permeating and stabilizing each other. We want to develop a practice that reflects this. Our aim is to contribute to the construction of a new constellation of political tendencies.
A “new constellation” would be one where, finally, antisexist positions would not have to be fought through by women/lesbians against the passive resistance of the majority anymore, but be a matter of course; and where, finally, men would, of their own accord, become active in the field of antisexist politics.
We want an end to the dominance of a heterosexual culture within the radical left, for which gays are good for adding color and entertainment to the serious business of politics, in which lesbians are nearly invisible and for which intersexual and transgendered people are, at the most, objects of scientific curiosity.
Such a new constellation would be one where the presence of migrant and jewish people, people of color….(no matter where they’ve grown up) would be a matter of course; where the manners and the language of the majority would not constitute the norm and where white antiracists would deal with their own racisms instead of only speaking for and about the “oppressed”.
Last but not least, we want an alliance that would make it as difficult as possible for people from the middle classes to assert what they take for granted, feel to be normal or are interested in as the norm – that which is generally taken for granted, experienced as normal or seen as interesting.”
These noble goals remain lightyears away.
I see the conference as a stepping stone on the way towards a camp in the summer of 2002 and towards new alliances and new campaigns.
The program of the conference is still being worked on, if you want to know more, e-mail
[email protected], or send regular mail to summercamp c/o A6-Laden, Adalbertstr. 6, 10999 Berlin, or visit our web site www.summercamp.squat.net.
Daniel Mang – danielmang at gmail dot com