The one where I need help understanding why MRAs don’t become feminists

The International Conference on Men's Issues

I have to confess that I’ve never paid much attention to “Men’s Rights Activists.” By “not much” I mean “none at all and why would I do that to myself.” Even before I identified as a feminist, the whole concept of an MRA seemed silly. Our entire society is centered around guaranteeing the rights of cisgender hetero-identified men, with a corrupted definition of “rights” that has included the ability to oppress. What exactly is an MRA fighting for?

Apparently, there are issues MRAs care deeply about, where they believe men have been disadvantaged. OK. Sure. I’ll bite. Talk to me MRAs. Tell me what’s on your mind.

“Men’s rights activists have a long list of grievances,” writes MSNBC’s Adam Serwer. He reported from the First International Conference on Men’s Issues, the very conference that came under a lot of heat after the Elliot Rodger shooting rampage. “They say fathers have to navigate a family court system that unfairly privileges mothers in divorce,” he continues, “and that boys are falling behind in education. They worry about high unemployment among men and the fact that men are more likely to commit suicide. They argue that domestic and sexual violence against men is underplayed by the media, and that men are unfairly stereotyped as violent sexual predators. These are all fruits of a society where women are valued and protected, while men are not.”

So… some of those aren’t completely unreasonable grievances. In fact, some of them are really serious issues that need to be addressed (I do wonder which men they’re talking about with regards to high unemployment, because something tells me it isn’t about black men). There also isn’t an issue among this bunch that wouldn’t be solved by undoing patriarchy/misogyny/sexism and redefining masculinity/manhood.

Start with jobs/unemployment. Jessica Roy at TIME points out “Men and women were hit unevenly by the recession. Women recovered job losses this spring. Men did not.” But the recovery is also characterized by replacing relatively well-paying jobs with low-wage work. Part of the reason women have outpaced men in getting those jobs is that women laborers are devalued. Low-wage work is women’s work, and vice versa. That’s not a disadvantage for men; that’s capitalism and sexism screwing us all.

There’s also the issue of “domestic and sexual violence against men [being] underplayed by the media.” No, we don’t talk much about men being victims of domestic or intimate partner sexual violence. And yes, part of the reason is that men don’t come forward to speak about these issues. There is shame and stigma. But that shame and stigma is born out of the idea that if they come forward they will have their manhood called into question, that they are suddenly “less than” for having been abused. They’re adhering to the strictures of masculinity that would have them deny experiencing any pain.

(We also don’t discuss intimate partner violence experienced by men at the hands of women because there isn’t the same history of using that violence as a means of subjugation. Violence against women is a form of social control used to ensure male domination. The same can’t be said for the inverse.)

I’m not well-versed in family law and custody battles, but it’s true that in my own life I’ve seen women be awarded custody of children after a divorce more often than men. But I think that has more to do with the role that we assign fatherhood and motherhood. We believe mothers to be nurturers and caregivers, while fathers are supposed to provide discipline and financial support. With that in mind, it only makes sense to award custody to mothers, because a father can write a check from anywhere on the planet. Now, if we were to redefine manhood… See where I’m going with this?

And I simply don’t believe men are stereotyped as sexual predators. I believe men are taught not to respect women’s bodily autonomy, that women exist solely for their sexual pleasure, and that rape/sexual assault have absolutely nothing to do with sex but are an assertion of power.

But again, all of the grievances expressed here by MRAs can be solved by undoing patriarchy/misogyny/sexism and redefining masculinity/manhood. Which… are all goals of feminism. So why aren’t MRAs feminists?

“”The vast majority of female students alleging rape on campus are actually voicing buyer’s remorse, from alcohol-fueled promiscuous behavior involving murky lines of consent on both sides. It’s true! It’s their get-out-of-guilt-free card. Like Monopoly!””

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. This has absolutely nothing to do with men’s rights. They just really, really hate women.


MychalMychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for and Salon. As a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate his work has been seen online in outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, Al Jazeera English, Gawker, The Guardian,, Huffington Post, The Root, and The Grio.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for and Salon.

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  • Paul

    “And I simply don’t believe men are stereotyped as sexual predators.”

    Stereotype isn’t the correct word, but since men are the ones who rape it makes sense for women to be wary of the men. For example, a woman walking in a parking garage at night is totally justified in assuming that guys there are going to attack them because, statistically, that’s likely. This bit by Louis CK nails it.

    The answer for this, however, is also more feminism. It’s about understanding the existence of this fact and being aware of how women need to be defensive towards men. It’s also about pushing for tougher investigation of rape cases and not perpetuating rape culture.

  • Navin Kumar

    “And I simply don’t believe men are stereotyped as sexual predators. I believe men are taught not to respect women’s bodily autonomy, that women exist solely for their sexual pleasure, and that rape/sexual assault have absolutely nothing to do with sex but are an assertion of power.”

    So… men are fairly stereotyped as sexual predators, and feminists are doing the incredibly important work of explaining why they’re sexual predators.

    I’m pretty sure this is why MRAs (who I don’t especially like) aren’t feminists.

  • Mike

    And as it turns out, their claims about divorce and child custody aren’t true.

    For example, men seem to have an advantage in contested custody cases, among other things:

  • Ben

    MRA complaints about custody are not even correct anymore, see here:

    As usual, these MRAs have no warrants to their claims. Unfortunately, more than just MRAs buy into this particular belief. Many women also believe that child custody cases favor them – meaning they believe that women more often get full custody, men are completely removed from parenting, and the only way men contribute is through child support.

    This, however, is all untrue. According to the Children’s Placement Arrangements in Divorce and Paternity Cases in Wisconsin survey, divorce cases in which the mother got full custody have dropped from 60.4 to 45.7 percent between the years of 1996 and 2007. The percentage of equally shared custody cases doubled, from 15.8 to 30.5. This signifies that as the U.S. implements policies that are somewhat more equitable to women, the courts realize that women should not (and are not always) the sole agent of child-care.

  • Nick Riviera

    Hi Mychal,
    As someone who has spent a lot of time reading about MRAs recently I find myself sympathetic to a lot of their issues. I think your piece makes clear you haven’t spent enough time really considering what they have to say – it’s easy to focus on the hyperbole and misogyny that undoubtedly plays some role in the movement and ignore the details of the arguments.

    Most, if not all, MRAs will acknowledge that societally imposed gender roles hurt both men and women – where MRAs disagree with feminists is “who is hurt more,” which to me seems like a pointless pissing contest but results in “point scoring” involving debates about measurably different outcomes (differences in wage gaps, life expectancy, suicide, homicide, rape, domestic violence, legal system, etc.). I find these debates interesting but perhaps somewhat pointless (my own take – based on a John Rawls Veil of Ignorance type thought experiment – is that it’s better to be a man, but a lot of women I know say they would rather be women).

    Where the difference comes in – and what you are failing to understand – is why the MRA movement (though not all groups) can be explicitly anti-feminist. Here I think there are two key issues:
    1.Legal discrimination: MRAs want a rebuttal presumption of shared parenting (i.e. burden of proof that one parent is unfit otherwise shared custody is the default). Our current system is “best interest of the child” which the courts interpret through the lens of the “tender years” doctrine, awarding custody in contested cases to the mother almost all of the time (even when there is no evidence of abuse or parental unfitness). MRAs and father’s rights advocates have campaigned for this for some time. Guess who opposes them? Feminist groups, ranging from NOW (whose opposition to this is what led Warren Farrell, one of the founders/leaders of the MRA movement, to split with the party) to various woman’s advocacy groups. In turn, this primary custody decision has implications for child support.
    There are other related issues:
    * paternity testing and paternity fraud, for example, and the issue of how and when DNA testing can be carried out to establish paternity for legal and child support purposes. You mention black men – one of the speakers at the Detroit conference was a black man named Carnell Smith, who fought for and won a longer window for paternity testing in Georgia and then won his own false paternity case on that basis. As he puts it, paternity fraud isn’t just about hurting men – it hurts the other women in that man’s life including his future partners.
    * reproductive rights for men: most MRAs are not traditionalists and they are for a woman’s right to choose. However, they are also for a man’s right to choose. That means that a man should be able to “give up” his child, absolving himself of any legal and financial obligations, in the same way that women can through abortion or no-questions adoption.

    Needless to say all of these issues are opposed by many (though not all) feminist groups. And these are not issues that are solved by eliminating “patriarchy” or fighting traditional gender norms- they are legal statutes that are actively supported by many feminists.

    To this one could add various forms of “legal” discrimination like affirmative action, allocation of money for medical research, allocation of money for support and social services, male-only draft, etc. It is laughable and insulting to the intelligence to claim that quotas or funding that goes to women directly at the expense of men is “good for men.” Feminists want more for women; MRAs want more for men. I tend to side with feminists on the funding of women’s issues and support some (milder) forms of affirmative action but then I’m for way more “support” in general; in our current environment these things are sometimes zero-sum.

    2.Culture/gender norms:
    So moving beyond legal issues there is the issue of gender norms, which can hurt men and women. This can be seen in areas with formal legal equality – criminal sentencing for example where women get much more lenient sentencing than men (the black-white gap is actually smaller than the male-female gap in sentencing for most crimes!) , or the current court system where “best interests of the child” gets interpreted usually as maternal custody.
    Are MRAs and feminists on the same page here?
    MRAs would argue that the way feminists take a primarily gendered view of violence – whether it’s high publicity rape and domestic violence campaigns (don’t be that guy, real men don’t buy girls, etc.) , frequent talk about “rape culture” the minimization of studies that find a lot more symmetry in rape and domestic violence than most people would expect (the 2010 CDC survey), etc. – and even the core idea of “patriarchy” (our current social structures are created by men to oppress and dominate women) necessarily REINFORCE these gender norms to the detriment of men. One can debate whether these things vilify “men as a whole” rather than certain behaviors or social structures, but I think they have a point that by reinforcing male villain/female victim in the public eye they are influencing the judgments of juries when it comes to contested rape cases, “spousal battery” defences of murder, or which parent would be a “better” caretaker.

    Try thinking about it from a race perspective as well. As a black man you surely face discrimination in many ways because of the actions of others from the police, court system, etc. Wouldn’t you be upset if there was a group of people who focused mainly on crimes by blacks against whites, even if all they are doing is repeatedly citing factual statistics? Aren’t you upset by popular culture that portrays blacks as stupid, criminal, lazy, etc.? I know it’s hard to have sympathy for white men but a lot of MRAs are working class white men – the patriarchy isn’t working so well for them, and they have the same “excuses” (poverty, broken homes, etc.) for bad behaviour that black men have. I know it’s not exactly equivalent but there is a delicate tension between challenging “group” (gender/race) behaviors and actively reinforcing group stereotypes. Feminists say they want to fight gender stereotypes but they spend a lot of time and effort focusing on a male villain/female victim narrative, almost never talking about issues like child abuse or domestic violence by women that perhaps contribute to the “broken” men who rape and assault women.

    Anyway I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

  • John

    One more thing. Feminists claim that MRAs don’t actually try to help men. They say what we need are more feminists. Feminists are already addressing men’s issues. Care to put your money where your mouth is? Their is a documentary in the making called Breaking the Silence. It has a female director. You should like that. That probably warrants feminists contributing in and of itself.

    It talks about the abuse and rape of men. I’ve made a $35 contribution. Care to match it? If your readers care to donate and they feel comfortable to identify yourself as a feminist. Place you’re a feminist in the donation comments. I’ll look at it in a week. If there are several, I’ll personally link the donation page on a comment on several MRA sites telling them that the feminists are donating and challenging them to do the same.

    Here is a brief over view.

    Another sample video

    You can find the donation page on the first link, but here it is in case anyone has an aversion to GMP.

    If feminists want to call MRAs non-activists, then you need to prove your cred.

  • Chad Smith

    So instead of talking to an MRA or watching the conference videos, you regurgitate feminist talking points and googled other people who agree with your prejudices.

    Courageous of you.

  • Zoe

    This is really frustrating because it’s quite apparent you did little to no research for this article. If you had, you would know that actually, when men request custody in custody hearings they are granted it at an OVERWHELMING percentage. As high as 93% in some states. The real problem when looking at why women often have custody after divorce is that men don’t seek custody of their children, not that the courts are biased against them. In fact, the courts have a strong and very clear bias for them.

    From the Gender Bias Study of the Court System in Massachusetts (this information is also all over tumblr, the feminist blogosphere, and general feminist circles.)
    “We began our investigation of child custody aware of a common perception that there is a bias in favor of women in these decisions. Our research contradicted this perception. Although mothers more frequently get primary physical custody of children following divorce, this practice does not reflect bias but rather the agreement of the parties and the fact that, in most families, mothers have been the primary [*748] caretakers of children. Fathers who actively seek custody obtain either primary or joint physical custody over 70% of the time. Reports indicate, however, that in some cases perceptions of gender bias may discourage fathers from seeking custody and stereotypes about fathers may sometimes affect case outcomes. In general, our evidence suggests that the courts hold higher standards for mothers than fathers in custody determinations.”

    • T.A.O.

      Did the Gender Bias Study of the Court System in Massachusetts look into how often the other parent was deemed unfit in cases where the mother was awarded custody as compared to cases where the father was awarded custody?

      Well, they don’t, but a hint can be found in the section on child support:

      One contributing factor to this difference may be that women who lose custody often do so because of mental, physical, or emotional handicaps that prevent them from earning comparably to men.

      So unless his ex-wife has emotional, physical or emotional handicaps a man’s chances of getting sole or even shared custody plummets – so much that he probably won’t even try.

      From your quotation:

      Fathers who actively seek custody obtain either primary or joint physical custody over 70% of the time.

      The problem with using this statistics as proof that there is no bias in the court is the fact that this statistics itself suffers from sample bias. It is a self-selective sample. These men believed or were advised that they probably would get custody if they sought it. That probably means that they have enough money to retain legal councel over some time and that they have some evidence of the mother being unfit as a custodian parent.

      Or as your quoteation says:

      Reports indicate, however, that in some cases perceptions of gender bias may discourage fathers from seeking custody and stereotypes about fathers may sometimes affect case outcomes.

      which is further detailed later in the Gender Bias Study of the Court System in Massachusetts paper (my emphasis):

      And though the outcomes of contested custody challenges do not reflect [*830] a pattern of bias against men, stereotypes about fathers’ roles may be a problem in some cases.

      Although custody challenges by fathers have increased recently, n49 custody is contested by fathers in only a small percentage of cases (see finding 2, below). This low rate of serious custody challenges may not entirely reflect fathers’ preferences. Several men reported at regional litigant meetings in Boston and Northampton that their attorneys had strongly advised them against seeking custody.

      Some attorneys may discourage fathers from seeking custody because of perceived gender bias in the courts. A quarter of the family law attorneys surveyed thought that fathers rarely or never “receive fair and serious consideration by the court when they actively seek primary or shared physical custody.” Whether this perception is accurate or not, it would tend to discourage custody challenges. n50

    • John

      Here’s a link that looks at the study data and that does not support your assertions. In fact it refutes it. When mothers ask for custody, custody was awarded to the fathers on only 8 of 515 case. Fathers were granted custody only 1.6% of the time. When fathers asked for custody, mothers were granted custody 12% of the time (7 of 58 cases). So mothers are 8 times more likely to win sole custody even when a father requests custody. When mothers asked for custody, they were given joint or sole custody 95% of the time. That’s 33% more often than fathers. If that’s not a sign of bias, you can forget about the gender wage gap because the difference is only 23%.

    • JustPassingThrough

      Strictly speaking, you cannot determine that the courts are biased towards men from the evidence you have provided, as the fact that men who seek custody obtain custody in the majority of cases (even if it is 93% of the time) is not inconsistent with the assumption that courts are unbiased or even that courts are biased toward women. For example, it is possible that, due to perceived bias in the courts toward women, only men with slam-dunk cases actually go to court for custody. It is also possible that many man who seek custody win custody, but they receive less custody than they sought; for example, it might be the case that a man without any physical custody goes to court for equal physical custody and technically wins, but he only receives physical custody every other Tuesday (or something). There may be other explanations as well, the “true” explanation may even be some combination of these.

      In spite of all I’ve written so far, my main purpose for posting here is actually your second paragraph. I rarely actually post comments on websites, but I was just reading (literally an hour ago) a article disputing the results of the “Gender Bias Study of the Court System in Massachusetts” paper you mention in your second paragraph, and I thought it was completely relevant to your post. This article can be found at the following url: I have not read the article in much depth (checked sources, etc.) but, assuming that the claims made in the article are true, the article is a strong rebuttal of the claims made by the paper.

      Just as an additional note, the paper you reference in your second paragraph is using data from over 25 years (more than a generation) ago. My personal rule of thumb when it comes to social sciences studies is that the data in the studies should be less than 20 years old. Otherwise, one runs a significant risk that the data is no longer an accurate reflection of today’s society.

  • Diaspor Lys

    We also don’t discuss intimate partner violence experienced by men at the hands of women because there isn’t the same history of using that violence as a means of subjugation. Violence against women is a form of social control used to ensure male domination. The same can’t be said for the inverse.

    One reason that I oppose feminism.