Last month, the student society at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, approved $30,000 to establish a men’s center. The center’s main supporter, a student named Keneen Midgely, said the volunteer-run men’s center would only be equitable, considering SFU already has had a women’s center since 1974. It would be a space, he pointed out, for men to support each other and deconstruct masculinity and gender roles just like SFU women can.
I couldn’t agree more. Yet somehow, establishment of the SFU men’s center is controversial. Instead of being seen in a positive light as a “safe space” for men, it is being seen as an unnecessary, even frivolous, expense to give men their own space in what is already a patriarchal culture.
Of course men have it easier than women, generally speaking. Western culture is largely patriarchal, heteronormative and sexist. There is no doubt about it that sexism faced by men does not compare to the sexism faced by women. Yet the part of feminism — which is fundamentally about breaking down prescribed gender roles and letting each individual choose for himself or herself how to “be” — that requires more attention, in my opinion, is changing gender roles for men. Feminism isn’t just about empowering women and girls to do everything men and boys can do; it is also about the reverse.
Keenan Midgely has said that the volunteer-run men’s center will offer “peer support” for mental health issues and dating/relationships. He cites numerous statistics about men’s mental health issues, like suicide rates, but one could argue that those sorts of services may already be available at a counseling center. Yet I think he makes a valid point that some men can feel so much of a stigma about needing help and needing to appear strong at all times that they wouldn’t be comfortable going into a counseling center in the first place. (Anecdotally, I’ve certainly seen in my life how men are much, much, much more resistant to seek counseling or professional help for mental health issues.) For what it’s worth, SFU counseling director Martin Mroz supports the idea.
Yet, ironically, the establishment of a men’s center as a special place on campus for men is apparently being objected to based on the very same sexist stereotypes that we want men to break free from. Mroz told the newspaper Burnaby News Leader, “I know some people have thought, ‘okay this is going to be a cigar and whiskey club or something like that with pinups on the wall'” when in fact that is not the intent. My larger concern, personally, would be about whether the proposed men’s center would become a safe haven for “men’s rights activists” nutburgers. Unless I’ve missed something in my research, though, no MRAs on campus seem to be affiliated with this proposal — although Canadian MRAs themselves are in support of it. (Non sequiter: that blog I linked to has a lovely post on it called “30 Similarities Between Feminism And Nazism”!)
For what it is worth, The SFU’s Women’s Center has addressed the men’s centre debacle on its web site. Under a Frequently Asked Questions section, it explains whether the Women’s Centre would support a men’s center:
Our support would be contingent on that centre’s mission statement, vision, and mandate. If the centre were about challenging popular conceptions about masculinity, confronting homophobia, sexism, racism, classism, and ability issues then we would definitely be the first to promote and fundraise for such a group. On the other hand we would not be cool with a men’s centre focussed on maintaining the old boys club. We are not interested in seeing a group or centre develop that promotes the status quo, encourages sexual assault, or fosters an atmosphere of competition and violence.
Now, I know it may seem random that I’m so passionate about this topic, considering it’s a school I’ve never heard of in a country I don’t live in where they spell the word “centre” funny. But I do passionately believe that there are areas in feminism that need bolstering: providing safe spaces for men that may encourage them to deconstruct masculinity and gender roles in the exact way we want them to is one of them.
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