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The conditional lives of men

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/storydisplay.cfm?storyID=223937&msg=emaillink

The Sydney Morning Herald
Friday, 26 October 2001

The conditional lives of men
by Bettina Arndt

[Photo caption: Finding what makes men happy ... Warren Farrell at a
seminar in Sydney. Photo: Edwina Pickles]

Men have a harder time than women because they have fewer choices
about hat they can do. That, at least, is what Warren Farrell is arguing.
Bettina Arndt reports.

Warren Farrell was once the darling of American feminists. His best-selling
1975 book, The Liberated Man, embraced the women's movement as
being in men's best interests. Women's liberation was men's liberation,
wrote Farrell, and quickly found himself feted by the media, elected three
times to the board of the National Organisation of Women and buddies with
Gloria Steinem.

Steinem no longer returns his calls. Farrell, in Australia for the next
two weeks to promote his latest books, is out of favour in the US as a
result of a challenging series of books presenting provocative views on
the lives of men - views which have seen him dropped by the US media,
vilified by prominent feminists such as Susan Faludi, and after years of
lecturing at prestigious universities, locked out of American academia.

Farrell's central argument is that the traditional image of
male-as-oppressor is inaccurate, that power is about choice, freedom to
explore options that men don't have. Being a man means being obligated to
earn money that other people spend, he says. Farrell recently received an
email from his 91-year-old accountant father telling him to give up the fight.
"If you continue this way you are going to starve to death," his father wrote.

Farrell shows no sign of starving to death. His recent books (The Myth of
Male Power, Women Can't Hear What Men Don't Say, and Why Men Are
the Way They Are), are sold in more than 50 countries in 10 languages. But
he's no longer driving a Maserati. "I've gone from being wealthy to struggling
to be able to afford to keep doing this type of work," he says, forlornly
looking around him at the glitter of the Double Bay coffee house.

But passion drives him on. On a warm night earlier this week, Farrell was
in his element, microphone in hand, confidently drawing in the audience of
men and women gathered in a comfortable Parramatta theatre. Convincing
an audience that men may not have all the power isn't easy but Farrell knows
all about how to challenge common perceptions.

Think about your father, he tells us, asking us to imagine what our
fathers might have wanted to do if they hadn't been required to earn a
living and support our families. What was it that gave Dad the glint in
the eye, that made him truly happy?

And the shock for many of us was we didn't know. We'd never thought to
ask about the path our dads might have taken - if given real choices in their
lives. Within half an hour of meeting the group, Farrell touched on some
very raw emotions.

"I can never remember talking to my father, never remember him talking to
me," says Ron Parnell, a retired tennis coach, describing the man who'd
been forced to sell the family farm, move with his seven kids to the city
and spend the rest of his life working in factories. As a teenager,
Parnell used to get into trouble for refusing to buy smokes for his dad -
who eventually died of lung cancer. Watching his father spending hours
just sitting by himself in the back shed, the boy knew tobacco was the
only pleasure the man had but rightly feared for his health.

We watch Michael's lips tremble as his describes his dad who died 10 years
ago - "a great man", he says, struggling to describe the tough life of a
country butcher who would go out on horseback and drive in the cattle or
sheep chosen for slaughter.

Many of the group were converts, men who had attended previous gatherings
on men's issues, plus a range of professionals who work with men. There
was Michael Green, family law mediator and author of Fathers After
Divorce. Green had read Farrell's earlier work and was attracted by the
new emphasis on fatherhood in Farrell's latest publication Father and
Child Reunion.

"Warren Farrell is a revolutionary who has been very instrumental in using
authoritative research to shoot down myths about men," says Green,
commenting that he does find some of Farrell's language somewhat grating.
"Sometimes his stridency can be irritating, and doesn't always do the
cause much good. But he creates an effect and that's useful."

Green points to Farrell's tendency towards overstatement such as the following
quote from Women Can't Hear What Men Don't Say: "Most men I know
who have back problems have aggravated them by moving furniture, often
while a woman he loved directed." Then there's the Farrell suggestion
there should be compulsory paternity testing once pregnancy is confirmed -
hardly a realistic proposal.

But many of Farrell's ideas do hit home. Brian Jones is an IBM engineer
who joined a men's group 18 months ago, just after his 26-year marriage
broke up. He was surprised by the insights gained at Farrell's seminar.
Questioning what his father might have preferred to have done led him to
apply the same question to himself. "For me the answer was not what I am
doing," he says. He also started thinking about the pressures he'd felt to
earn a good income for his family. "You think income is very important in
satisfying the needs of the family but a lot of marriages break up because
men are working too long away from the family. I hadn't consciously
realised that before."

THERE were also men and women with no previous contact with the men's
movement, drawn to the evening by advertising promising new understanding
of men. "I want to learn where I went wrong," says June, a preschool
assistant from Blacktown. June learnt that one mistake women make is they
tend to fall in love with the men least likely to satisfy them. Farrell
argues that by choosing men who are successful women find themselves with
men unable to satisfy their need for communication, intimacy, closeness.
"The qualities it takes to be successful at work are often inversely
related to the qualities it takes to be successful in love."

But men are caught in a Catch 22, says Farrell. "Men know the higher they
go on the ladder the more chance they have of being loved. Men who look
inside themselves and choose a path to lower income, lower rank or less
status often fear they will be left, not loved." Producing the figures to
prove men are right to be afraid, Farrell spells out the male dilemma.
"When a man loses his job, he often loses his wife. And with his wife go
the children, and their home. Men sense their support systems are conditional."

Uncomfortable truths are a specialty of Farrell, truths that most men
haven't begun to think about, let alone dare to voice. He comes to
Australia armed with challenging facts - like NSW Department of Corrective
Services figures showing women prisoners in NSW jails are 350 per cent
more likely to assault prison officers than male prisoners. Or the fact
that children growing up with lone fathers do better than with lone
mothers - not just because their fathers are more affluent, educated and
have been sufficiently committed to fight for custody - but because they
are more likely to facilitate shared parenting. Or that divorced women are
more likely than divorced men to avoid paying child support.

It's hardly surprising that Farrell provokes angry responses. Last week
RMIT University social work professor Bob Pease wrote a letter to the
Men's Health and Wellbeing Association, the organization sponsoring
Farrell's seminars in Australia, objecting to the support for his work.
Pease regards Farrell's books as "an affront to men and women concerned
with gender equity".

"If men feel disempowered, it is either because of the price men pay for the
power they have or because of the power that other men have over them.
It is not, as Farrell claims, the result of women's power over men," Pease
wrote.

Objections have also been made to the Moonee Valley Council, which is
staging Farrell's seminar in Melb-ourne next week as part of an ongoing
men's health promotion. The council is firm. "We don't have a position on
the books. The council is simply interested in promoting a range of
activities to facilitate discussion of men's health issues," says the
council's manager of social development, Kerry Stubbing. The council is
planning a discussion after Farrell's session, which may involve Pease or
other members of pro-feminist men's groups. Pease is likely to challenge
Farrell's view that statistics on housework underestimate men's
contribution, that the media fails to promote men's issues and women
initiate violence as often as men.

While Pease suggests most incidents of violence against men are a result
of women taking defensive action after being attacked, Farrell quotes the
growing body of research challenging this assumption - including the
finding by US researchers Murray Straus and Richard Gelles that 53 per
cent of women acknowledge striking the first blow.

Despite Pease's objections, Farrell is finding a receptive audience for
his views, with a strong Australian demand for his latest books and
interest in his seminars. Yet he's only too aware that his followers
aren't always keen to promote the fact they agree with him.

He tells the story of a prominent American social scientist he is
reluctant to name, who attended one of his seminars - a man who had
featured on the cover of Time magazine as one of the world's opinion
leaders. After the seminar he went up to Farrell and said: "I can see the
value of everything you are saying and if I were to mention it to my wife,
I'd be kicked out."

The story underscores Farrell's point that communication between the
sexes has a long, long way to go.

Copyright 2001. All rights reserved.
Sydney Morning Herald Home: 
http://www.smh.com.au/index.html
 

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