A reflection from Ray Jones, a Founding Donor of Strengthening Ties
In 1980, while studying journalism at Langara, I heard about a men’s liberation conference in Los Angeles. I had no idea what men’s liberation might be, but a friend’s suggestion that I could probably get a story out of it for one of my journalism courses was persuasive.
Shortly after returning to Vancouver, a TV producer asked if I’d care to appear on a program to talk about the LA conference and men’s lib in general? The celebrated broadcaster Laurier La Pierre was interested in the subject and might do the interview.
When I arrived at the studio, however, Mr. LaPierre was nowhere in sight, and the woman facing me wasted no time in letting me know what she thought of the subject on the table.
“Men’s liberation,” she began, “is an oxymoron, like military intelligence. “ She then held up her hand and ticked off the many advantages—in work, pay, power, physical safety—she said men had over women. So what exactly, she wanted to know, was it that men needed to be liberated from?
It was a good question, and at the time I had no clear answer.
More than three decades after that interview, in May of 2016, I came across a letter to the editor in a Toronto paper. It opened with a description of sexual assaults the letter writer had experienced as a young woman in her first job, working for a prominent lawyer. Her complaint at the time had been met with a familiar response: “Boys will be boys.”
The letter writer, 80 years old in 2016, went on to say that she was, “appalled to read about women still suffering sexual abuse or harassment in the workplace.” She would have thought, she concluded, “men would have “smartened up” by now.”
The phrase “smartened up” was not explained, but its implication seemed clear. The letter writer would not have been reading the stories that had so upset her if men had changed in some way; the acts being committed would have become a thing of the past, and clearly they were not.
The brutal truth of this was highlighted in the latter part of 2017 when a tsunami of stories began pouring out of Hollywood about the sexual misconduct of powerful men in the entertainment industry. Famous producers and actors were involved and media coverage was extensive.
Because of a long-held interest in men and violence I’d been keeping a clipping file of stories about violence against women. When the Hollywood stories appeared it was already a thick file, and eventually I stopped adding to it and began rereading the stories I’d collected.
One theme quickly became apparent. The wide range of sexual violence women experienced had significant long-term effects. Globe and Mail’s columnist Elizabeth Renzetti, who has written extensively on the subject, heard many stories from her female readers:
Some of the women I heard from are in their 60s, 70’s and 80s, Renzetti wrote in one column. The pain they carried through the years is palpable. In many cases they knew what was happening to them was wrong, even if the culture at the time was more accepting of predatory behaviour. Often they told no one…
Now, thanks in part to the #MeToo and Times Up movements, millions of women have spoken out about their own experiences of sexual violence, revealing in the process the global dimensions of misogyny.
But if one silence is being broken in a way that is unprecedented, a second silence, the silence of men, has remained largely undisturbed. Which brings me back to the TV interviewer’s question posed almost four decades ago: What is it exactly that men need to be liberated from?
Mostly I would argue men need to be liberated from outmoded ideas about masculinity that, among other things, perpetuate the idea of male supremacy, turn a blind eye to misogyny in all its many forms, and fail in any serious way to break the silence that is part of the oxygen that fuels the violence.
Whether men in significant numbers will choose to challenge these entrenched ideas remains unclear, but if they don’t do so, an editor at a future newspaper will surely receive a letter from an elderly reader appalled by the stories of sexual violence she’s reading and wondering when men will ever “smarten up.”
Ray Jones is a former newspaper editor—The Province and The Globe and Mail—with a long interest in issues relating to men and violence.