It’s International Men’s Day!
If you are at all like me, your first reaction upon learning that this is a reality is that the holiday must be a joke, a smug retort to International Women’s Day, which is observed on March 8, mostly in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia, although it actually began as a socialist celebration in New York. (If that was not your first response, congratulations on your light heart.) But it isn’t. The day doesn’t exist to celebrate machismo, or to ask why American women are whining about pay when women in other countries are worse off (sound argument), or to complain that women are confusing and/or overly sensitive (hey!).
On November 19 (if you’re reading this on its day of publication, that’s today), 60 countries—including the United States, apparently—observe International Men’s Day. What is it? Why does it exist? And, in a world where, to quote Manuel Contreras-Urbina, who runs the Global Women’s Institute at the George Washington University, “There is not one society that is not patriarchal” (disclaimer: there are six), do we need an International Men’s Day?
Maybe, maybe not. We do, however, need to talk about men’s issues.
But first, to briefly discuss the day: In 1999, Dr. Jerome Teelucksingh of Trinidad and Tobago began International Men’s Day to improve gender relations and celebrate and support positive male role models. The day only reached a wider audience, however, in 2007, when Australia’s Warwick Marsh, co-founder of the Fatherhood Foundation, and India’s Uma Challa, founder and president of India’s Men’s Welfare Association, came together to promote the day.
“Right now,” Challa said in an interview, “society is very anti-male … Boys are not given any kind of support. Boys are forced out of school. They aren't given any encouragement … there's no effort to keep them in school. Health—we have [this] national family health and welfare service. The only way men are mentioned is how they're going to be contributing. But not to their health and safety. Men are not considered part of the family, men and boys.” Challa also noted, however, that she believes feminism is antithetical to her own society’s values; her aim is not gender equality, as she she sees men and women “not as equal, but as equally powerful, complementing.”
But what do those who believe in equality of the genders—namely, gender equality experts—think of the idea of International Men’s Day? They are, if not divided, then not in agreement over whether we need it. Jorgen Lorentzen, of the Hedda Foundation (and author of the first PhD in Norway on the subject of masculinities), thinks the day is a good idea, and an opportunity to talk about men’s particular issues, which he feels are left out of the discussion about and understanding of gender equality.
On the other hand, the aforementioned Contreras-Urbina articulated a difference between Women’s Day, which he feels to be a commemoration of the hardships of women (again, it was borne out of labor struggles), and Men’s Day, particularly because, as he put it, “We still live in patriarchal societies … I don’t see what there is to commemorate. Men should be more committed to work in gender equality issues in different ways, rather than to have these types of campaigns that can confuse the society.” Gary Barker, founder and director of Promundo, an organization dedicated to gender justice through engagement of men and boys in partnership with women and girls, expressed concern that the day might pit men and women against each other instead of encouraging everyone to focus on our common humanity, our “being fully human in all the things we want to achieve.”
All agree, however, that there are men’s issues that are on the one hand unique to men and on the other an integral part of making ours a healthier, more equal, and less patriarchal world for everyone.
Specifically: family, school, and health.
Fatherhood, a central tenet of International Men’s Day, is “very, very important,” according to Lorentzen. “When we are supporting fathers in Norway … we see a lot of interesting changes going on both with the children and the fathers. It’s not true that children only have priority to be connected to the mothers, as a lot of psychological theory has told us … We see that bringing fathers into the home is both good for the men and for the kids. And we see that a lot of violence is going down.”
Support from the school system (or lack thereof) is another issue that is not, of course, specific to boys (there are places in the world where girls are killed for trying to go to school), but unique to boys in its modern manifestation. “So many men,” Lorentzen said, “are dropping out of school. Fewer men are taking education. We know very little about this. It’s an under-researched area.”
But then, men’s lives themselves are an under-researched area (I was going to make a joke here about the irony of this, considering that men surely dominate sociology, but it turns out that they do not). Contreras-Urbina and Lorentzen both pointed to the issue of men’s sexuality, and the pressure to be proactive and perform, and how little men themselves know and discuss their own sexuality. Barker and Contreras-Urbina noted that men are expected to outwork each other in high-stress jobs. “Depending on the country,” Barker said, “60 to 80 percent of men say they’d like to work less. We’re in this box as the provider that says if you’re not bringing home a paycheck that’s big enough, you’re worthless—men tell us in survey research they’d rather be at home, but we’re driven to be achiever/breadwinners.”
Men are expected to be strong, and that strength is expected to be natural and tested. According to Barker, “Men are overrepresented in leading causes of death worldwide. We die earlier—six to seven years earlier, maybe a year biologically-based. Because we don’t take care of our bodies. We’re less likely to see doctors, we don’t go for chronic disease, don’t go for mental health, we’re twice as likely to kill ourselves.”
Still, there is an argument to be made that these issues are not as pressing or as daunting or as deserving of attention as women’s issues. Lorentzen said he is often confronted with the idea that we have to focus on women’s issues, gender equality for women, to reach the level of men when it comes to women and positions in society. That is not without cause. Contreras-Urbina and Barker both concede that, even in 2015, there are tremendous challenges for women. But, says Barker, “We speak of gender equality as, ‘how do we improve lives of women and girls?’ And there’s a very good reason for that. We need to keep the focus on women and girls. But we only achieve that gender equality if we include men in the occasion … We all win through gender equality.”
This is to say: The challenges facing women are real. Women’s incomes are 20 percent lower, and 80 percent of world leaders are men, and one-third of women experience violence from their partner (this, all according to Barker). Forty to 60 percent of working women (and similar proportions of young women in universities) in the United States say they have experienced sexual harassment, and if you think that those who brought claims against sexism are taken seriously, I invite you to look at the Internet. It is the opinion of this particular writer that feminism is not misandry and that we have not yet and will likely never see the end of men. And this is to say nothing of the individual issues facing non-white, non-cis women.
But. Men’s issues—that boys are not staying in school; that men do not see themselves as part of their own families; that they are killing themselves, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not; and that they feel that they cannot talk about any of it—are part of the patriarchy, and they are real, and the consensus seems to be that they need, in some way, on this day and every day, to be addressed.
And since the day does exist, I, surprised as I am to be typing this, hope that all who identify as men have a very strong, sympathetic, and sensitive International Men’s Day.
I look forward to your best wishes on March 8.