By Bettina Arndt
What's happened to the reputation of men? Something's wrong. To be a man was once to be admired, envied. But not any more. Certainly not from the female perspective. As far as the fair sex is concerned, men have fallen from grace.
A recent episode of the American television series Roseanne makes the point rather nicely. Roseanne's husband, Dan, is shown making an insensitive remark to one of his daughters causing her to run off in tears. "Oh Dan, you're such a ... a man," exclaims Roseanne as she goes to comfort her daughter.
Dan Junior is puzzled. "Dad, why did Mom call you a man?" he asks. "Because she's mad at me," Dan replies. "I thought it was good to be a man," puzzles the boy. "Oh no son," comes the reply. "Not since the late 60s."
It is still good to be a man. Look around you and you'll see ample evidence that men are having no trouble retaining their power in the public domain. It's their private reputation which has taken a battering. Open the newspapers and every day there's further proof of men's poor showing. They are presented as incompetent lovers, inept, often irrelevant, family members incapable of expressing emotions or showing intimacy. Worse, they are seen as evil, violent and dangerous - a threat to women and children.
In part, it's a reflection of a very real change that has occurred in women's perception of men. Roseanne's husband had it right. It did stem from the late 60s when women began to flood into the workforce. Their new-found economic independence led to a dramatic increase in their expectations of men's behavior. Having gained the power to walk out of relationships which failed to please them, women began to judge men with a more critical eye.
Fuelled by the women's movement, there was a historic shift in women's thinking away from the self-sacrifice requiring for the role of someone's wife and someone's mother towards a new sense of entitlement. Women embraced the 70s' quest for self-fulfillment and came to define relationships in their terms. they gained valuable allies in the female-dominated helping professions, who supported their push to normalize female expressiveness and emotionality and pathologies male reserve.
Women's critical view of men's private behavior now totally dominates the cultural dialogue. It is rare that a man publicly defends himself or supports masculine behavior without being accused of sexism, on the grounds that, by implication, he must be demeaning women. Any male promoting the role of fathers is seen as criticizing single mothers, the man who supports his wife's role as a full-time home-maker is suspected of thwarting her career ambitions.
Former editor of Punch magazine David Thomas has taken the brave step of challenging this new critique of men in his book, Not Guilty - In Defense of the Modern Man (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993) -a book which contains the telling Roseanne anecdote mentioned earlier.
Thomas does a particularly good job in examining evidence for that most damaging of all complaints about men, namely the image of men as violent and dangerous. Thomas takes issues with the boot-in-the face portrayal of men in recent times: the notion of all men as potential rapists, wife batterers, child molesters.
His concern is to put the record straight: "I just want to say that men do rather less harm than is currently believed and women do rather more," says Thomas. He shows, for instance that the group most at risk for homicide in the United Kingdom is that of children under the age of one. Their murderers? Generally women. Yet we don't even refer to this crime as murder, we call it "infanticide". The female perpetrators of this particular crime are rarely charged, let along convicted. Women are the main physical abusers of children - as the Australian Institute of Criminology confirms. Statistics are usually only available on a State-by-State basis but as an example, NSW 1986 Youth and Community Services statistics on physical abuse of children show female offenders outnumbering males by 55 per cent to 45 percent. NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research figures show, between 1968 and 1986, that women committed 53.2 per cent of homicides involving victims under 10 years of age.
Yet female aggression towards children rarely rates a mention in the stream of propaganda depicting children at risk from men's violence. The knocks and bruises children receive from women are now discounted in the light of the heinous damage caused by that most fashionable of crimes - child sexual abuse. The headlines are all about male perversions, men peering under little girl's skirts, groping in their knickers, mutilating their tender psyches.
"Why are we so obsessed by that particular means of doing harm to a child? asks Thomas. "is a child who has been beaten, or starved or verbally humiliated any better off than one who has been sexually assaulted?" Such questions are no longer permissible.
Indeed, Thomas mentions a British researcher who was refused funding because she intended to investigate "harm done" issues in child abuse. He notes a research study for the German police conducted by Dr Michael Baurmann involving more than 8000 German children, research which suggests that in many cases of adult-child sexual activity, no harm was done neither emotional nor physical.
Such a contention is regarded as heresy, as writer Blanche d'Alpuget discovered when her article was published in The Australian describing a sexual encounter she experienced as a 12-year-old, with a judge who was a family friend. "Neither good nor bad" was how d'Alpuget summed up the experience: "I always felt that my relationship with the judge continued according to my will not his, and that he was doing me a favour in initiating me into the world of sin I was so eager to know."
Her article met with a torrent of abuse. Her experience was quickly redefined as "rape" by angry letter writes who warned her that permanent emotional scars of her assault would resurface in 30, 40 ears' time.
Back in the 70s, as a sex therapist and editor of Forum magazine, I talked to many people, who, as children, had experienced some sexual encounter with an adult which they saw as neither traumatic or particularly eventful. Now, in the advice column I write for Cleo magazine, there's a steady stream of letters from women blaming all manner of current psychological problems on the mere suggestion of past sexual contact with an adult. Even if they can't remember any abuse, they'll write suggesting it must have taken place - what else could account for them feeling so lousy?
I am not denying the very real damage that is caused by serious abuse, and the tragic effect on victims' lives. There is also no question that sexual abuse of children is far more widespread than previously suspected. We do need to be vigilant and to find ways of protecting children from adults intent on harming them.
But this protection needs to be balanced by the risks of damage to children by over-reacting to events which, in the absence of parental hysteria, would have passed relatively unnoticed, the risks of exposing children to over-zealous, child-abuse "experts" intent on furthering their professional reputations. Appalling damage has been inflicted on children in the search for evidence of male villainy-the Middlesborough hospital case involving the Australian-born pediatrician, Dr Marietta Higgs, is one such example.
My major concern is the damage we are doing to children, and to our society, by promoting a view of men as risky companions for children. The other day I was watching a man driving a children's train in a seaside park. He invited a neighborhood child for a free ride and pulled her up to sit between his knees. As I watched her settle in his lap, my instinctive reaction was "uh, oh!"
I am ashamed of myself. I am appalled that I have been so influenced by anti-male propaganda that my reaction to a man cuddling a child is one of distrust. I am ashamed to live in a society where male teachers are warned not to pick up and comfort a child who falls over, warned never to be alone in a room with a child. We plead with men to become more involved in children's daily lives, yet what hope is there, in today's distrustful climate, of furthering this cause, by introducing baby change-tables into men's public lavatories.
Why is it we take such a different view of the female perpetrators of crimes against children? We search for explanations for women who murder or batter their children blaming post-partum depression, isolation, stress. We set up help lines, prevention services to save such women from themselves.
Yet I constantly hear from people working in the child abuse area of the resistance to conducting any research into the reasons why men abuse children. It is extremely difficult to obtain funding for any prevention or counselling services for men. Insight into the causes of male violence is seen as offering men excuses for their behavior. "No excuses, never ever!" is the slogan used to apply to men, while women are seen as eternal victims of their damaging environments.
And it is simply not true that male violence is as prevalent as modern mythology suggests. Ask John Walker about the survey on international crime rates he conducted for the Australian Institute for Criminology. Figures from the survey were used, in September 1992, to promote the AB rape documentary Without Consent, painting a picture of Australia as the most sexually violent country in the world.
Yet John Walker would be the first to tell you the figure were extremely suspect. The sample size was far too small to draw any real cross-cultural comparisons about violent behavior, the definition of sexual violence was extremely broad and the subject of widely varying cultural interpretation.
"A woman in NSW has a one-out-of-eight chance of being raped," said the television publicity. Built into the equation used to produce this alarming statistic was a purely hypothetical "guesstimate" of the ratio of real versus reported rape figures. According to John Walker, the risk of rape or attempted rape is around one in 200 women a year, which is one-fifth the chance of having one's car stolen.
To add to the confusion, victims' surveys based on self reported sexual assault - which can include any behavior the victim defines as offensive - are often promoted as if they represent actual crime figures. "Multiple rape very common!" was one such recent headline.
Remember the fuss in early 1992 when the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics released a report showing domestic violence was more common in lower socio-economic areas. Media reports of the research were inevitably accompanied by hostile quotes from spokeswomen for women's groups denying the validity of the statistics.
"We have been trying to get the message across that domestic violence is a serious crime that can happen to any woman, and that there are never any excuses for it. What this report does is create excuses," said Jane Stackpool from the Women's Advisory Council. So even if some women are more at risk, they don't want to know about it. At issue is the holy cow that domestic violence has its origins in universal patriarchy.
Contrary to Susan Faludi's assumption that the media conspires to promote a backlash against feminist views, in fact it is rare that the media makes any attempt to counter the constant stream of pro-women, anti-male propaganda. As we have just seen, women's groups are regularly given opportunity by the media to criticize reports that run counter to feminist arguments.
Extremist feminist views on men are regularly promoted, with no attempt at providing a counter-view - despite the fact that the majority of women, including many who see themselves as feminists, regard these views as offensive. When it comes to the defense of men, the silence is deafening.
But men are not just seen as violent and dangerous. As far as children are concerned, men, their fathers, are increasingly regarded as irrelevant. Anyone who promotes the importance of fathers in children's lives, who dares to suggest there is something wrong with women raising children on their own, is met by a howl of protest. Witness Dan Quayle.
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead is author of a powerful recent article in the Atlantic Monthly - Dan Quayle Was Right - which traces the cultural shift that has occurred in the United States away from the traditional belief in the value of the intact families to promotion of diverse family structures, single parents, step-families, etc., as equally beneficial to children. Divorce is now heralded as a new beginning, with children benefiting from their parent's search for renewed happiness. The Murphy Browns are applauded for their courage and determination, single mothers seen as triumphant in adversity, step-families as opportunities for personal growth.
The reality, according to Whithead, is different. She has gathered the growing American evidence that father absence means greater risk for children: of living in poverty, experiencing emotional and behavioral problems, dropping out of school, of lowered educational achievement. Of course, particularly in the US, the issue is complicated by the perilous economic situation faced by single mothers - largely due to fathers' withdrawal of financial support. In Australia, long-term effects are likely to be less severe, as Macquarie University research, released last week, shows.
But the fact remains that contrary to popular assumptions, the quest for adult fulfillment is often at the expense of children. And that quest is being led by women. There is an increasing trend for women to be the spouse seeking to end the marriage-65 per cent of Australian marital separations are instigated by women. For all the men who willingly abandon their children, there are many others who are forced out of their families.
Australian Family Court research shows many fathers have difficulty maintaining regular contact with their children after divorce-women usually have custody and often impede fathers' access. The recent parliamentary joint committee on the Family Law Act noted how little legal action is ever taken to rectify the widespread access denial by women. Many men give up because access relationships are too difficult to maintain, because they are pressured by second wives to transfer emotional and financial support to second families, and because they buy the message that they are not important in the lives of their children.
Even in intact families, with fathers still on the scene, the men are not likely to be seen of much benefit. Open any women's magazine and you'll find abundant relationship "experts" lamenting men's pitiful inability to contribute to the emotional life of the family. With women proclaimed as the Intimacy Experts, men are portrayed as poor souls who can't love, don't express themselves, won't allow themselves to be intimate.
This puts men in a no-win position. Listen to this man, talking about his wife's emotional demands. "I honestly try to do what she says she wants. I really do. But I swear there must be some book of rules somewhere that only women read, which tells what's a feeling and what's not and how to show what you are feeling. According to her, I never get it right. I'm not really being 'honest', or get this, I'm not really being 'real'."
Men will never get it right if we continue to regard males as fifth wheel, poor substitutes for the communication skills so abundant in a woman. Yet recent American research on fathering suggests men's traditional way of relating to children offers a unique contribution to their development: that the rough-housing and wrestling so denigrated by women fosters children's sense of mastery; that men offer a different, but valuable form of intimacy through their more silent side-by-side relationships, based on shared activities, i.e., the fishing trip, rather than emotional exchange.
Men are constantly sneered at for showing their love by doing ... he fixes the toaster, he mows the lawn, he goes to work and through his actions, he believes he's showing he cares. He does the same job he's always done yet the credit isn't there any more. The female emphasis on the verbal expression of love has diminished the importance of these loving actions.
Listen to the debate on the second shift - the contributions men and women make to childcare and house-work. We constantly hear about how little men do to help at home and at if you compare the combined total of men's paid and unpaid work, with that of women, the figures aren't so different. Research by sociologist Michael Bittman for the Office for the Status of Women finds that if paid work is taken into account, women in the workforce actually work less than an hour a day more than men on their dual shifts.
The pressure is on men, as it always was, to be successful, to be a good provider. Survey after survey continues to show a man's earning potential is the major factor in determining women's attraction to men. Knowing this, men believe they are doing the right thing, acting as providers for their family. What a sad world it is for men. To work hard to do what you thought was required of you - to be successful, to be a man. And then discover women have changed the rules and are now judging you by quite different standards - namely their own.
There's one final arena where men's reputation has suffered a perilous decline - and that's in the bedroom. When it comes to matters of the flesh, men know, as never before, that they are totally at the mercy of women's whim. They grovel for sexual favors, risking the indignity of rejection in the eternal hope of sweet smiled, open-thighed acquiescence. With women now firmly convinced of their right to say "no", men must struggle to please, to conform to the new female-lead standards required for "love-making", forsaking the ruttish piston mechanics they once preferred.
Irma Kurtz, the delightfully outspoken British agony aunt, has commented on this shift: "Naturally women think their own loving, languorous way of sex is better, and so it is ... for them. Recently, they have been trying to bully and shame men into thinking it would be better for them too, though the truth is it would be less demanding, enslaving, perplexing and strenuous for a healthy man to screw a thousand women in his lifetime than to try to please one, and the potential for failure would be less."
Trying to please women is the unenviable task facing men in so many aspects of their personal lives. Every day they are confronted with evidence of the growing gap between the way men are and the way women expect them to be. The business of helping men negotiate that distance is made infinitely more difficult by media-promoted lies and distortions which exaggerate men's deficiencies and play down their personal talents and achievements. The reality is that neither sex has a monopoly on vice or virtue but men have real work to do to restore their damaged reputation.