Illustration by Asia Martusia King
Illustration by Asia Martusia King

SocietyJune 2, 2019

I went to the ‘NZ Men’s Summit’ and they tried to recruit me (UPDATED with response)

Illustration by Asia Martusia King
Illustration by Asia Martusia King

Why would anyone go to a men’s summit, in an age of online self help videos and feminism, let alone bother to host one? Critic sent a reporter to find out by spending a day with Dunedin’s Men’s Rights Activists.

Update, 10 June 2019: Hans Laven, the clinical psychologist who appears in this story, has contacted The Spinoff contesting the account of his speech. Please scroll to the foot of the article to read his rebuttal.

The ‘NZ Men’s Summit’ was hosted at the University Rugby clubrooms near campus, but we were the only students who attended. At its peak, the conference had 17 attendees (including us), 13 of whom were speakers, their partners, or organisers. Besides us, only two people were below the age of 40. It was $80 for nine-and-a-half hours, seven speakers, and budget finger food.

Kerry Bevin, whose Republic of New Zealand Party received the lowest number of votes for any party in both the 2005 and 2008 general elections, is the leading man behind the NZ Men’s Rights Activist (MRA) scene. He was proud that this is the fourth year of the summit, and said the summit for next year is already planned for Hamilton. He hopes to “wake up society to the neglect of men and boys … Men are raised from the get-go to carry heavy loads and not to complain. We need to complain.” He also highlighted male suicide, the 15:1.5 ratio of women’s to men’s shelters, and that the MRA movement is “not anti-women.”

“We want real gender equality, not sham gender equality.”

Some leaflets adorned tables – one of them labelled Clementine Ford, a feminist writer from Australia, a “misandrist”. Another said the domestic abuse/White Ribbon campaign is “feminist propaganda”. A third detailed why there should be a Ministry for Men’s Affairs.

The first speaker is Sean, the leader of the ‘Oamaru Wolfpack’, a group which formed almost four years ago after a suicide in their community revealed a need for men to start talking to each other. Sean gave a solid talk in sync with a creative and well timed YouTube video about his grassroots efforts to connect men with support.

The second speaker, Donald Pettitt, directs CANMEN, a men’s centre in Canterbury that emerged out of a summit on men’s wellbeing in 2007. He encouraged Otago to start one too, describing his role as creating “happy, healthy men,” and his shelter as being “for all men, not just men in trouble”. Apparently, over half of the counsellors, students, and volunteers are women.

“Men don’t care about the gender of the help, just that they are getting it,” he said.

In the Q&A, a man named Steve contributed a bizarre comment about modern drinking culture, regarding “how much worse the young women are now when they get drunk, especially in the pubs and the clubs, and it’s quite a danger to men”.

The next speaker, self-described “professional friend” Tone Miller, delivered an engaging and fiery talk (complete with trigger warnings) about his work with male survivors of sexual abuse, which brought a round of applause. In the Q&A, clinical psychologist Hans Laven objected to Tone’s repeated use of the word ‘survivor’.

“I think that’s a bit of a manipulative term that’s been used by the Women’s Movement a lot,” Hans said.

A few minutes later Hans bizarrely suggested that there has been “a whole lot of people who have been ‘sexually abused’” – in inverted commas – “as children, for whom it’s not really not much of an issue.”

The Minister for Health, David Clark, was mentioned, prompting Steve to call him a “soyboy”. A couple of awards were also handed out by the organisers. Clementine Ford received the ‘Misandrist of the Year’ award in-absentia. Kerry cherrypicked a few of her zanier quotes, which stirred the room up a bit. Two fathers received self-congratulatory awards for fighting “parental alienation”. Wolfpack Sean got the ‘Man of the Year’ award, which was genuinely touching.

“Once the canoe’s in the water, everyone starts happily paddling,” says Bettina Arndt, pictured. Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images.

After morning tea, a video entitled “I Like Getting F**cked” by anti-feminist Bettina Arndt was played. According to her, Western feminism has created a switch from women “taking it” (referring to unwanted marital sex – or, rape) to “forcing men into a life of sexual repression”. At one point, Steve commented, “Yeah. Don’t get married to a Western girl.” Arndt claimed that “men risk everything if she decides she’s had enough [in the relationship]”, but she also claimed that “women can enjoy sex without desire”, so it’s hard to take her points too seriously.

Susannah Kruger was one of only two women. She started her talk with a quote from the Bible. She then spoke about being a “very powerful woman” back home in Namibia, but that she had struggled to find her place in New Zealand, especially in the workplace, because she is “too traditional” for the feminist ideology of the country. This was greeted with cheers from the men in the audience. However, as the subject turned to her experiences with divorce and the family court, the audience quietened.

Kruger talked about her former husband running off and refusing to share custody, and her subsequent difficulties in accessing adequate child support. At one point she lamented that she couldn’t afford television for her children. She has written a book, The Family Court and I. “I really try and not make it a gender issue,” she said. Then she sat down.

Her current husband Raphael, a tall man with a shaved head, immediately stood up, and broke the tension by bursting into song. His song asked Merlin, “how do you tame a woman?” The cringe factor was next level, exacerbated by the fact that he sang well. We didn’t dare look at each other, or at him. I looked down at the sweaty palms on my notebook. He received a wild round of applause. I felt like I was losing my mind.

Then, it was time for Hans’ very not-gender-neutral talk, “Scandalous Apathy Towards Male Suicide”. He accused the Spinoff of harbouring SJW (social justice warrior) tendencies, and a deep bias against men, which elicited a guffaw from the room. He seemed to be more interested in espousing male victimisation than offering solutions, squarely blaming feminism and “women’s behaviour towards men” for high rates of male suicide. The Q&A provided heated comments. Tone claimed to have gone to a conference about mental health where he was specifically asked not to talk about men. Hans called the phrase toxic masculinity “hate speech”. The fact that women are half as likely to succeed in committing suicide was explained by women just wanting attention, and therefore not using as lethal measures as men. Hans is a practising clinical psychologist.

Jordan Peterson at The Cambridge Union on November 02, 2018 in Cambridge, UK. Photo by Chris Williamson/Getty Images

Lunchtime came and [Critic chief reporter] Sinead left, closely followed by the Oamaru Wolfpack. I was sitting in an under-heated rugby clubroom on a Friday afternoon watching an extended Jordan Peterson interview with a group of grey-haired men. I felt very alone. Had I accidentally taken the first step towards becoming an MRA?

The next speaker was Australian author Stephen Holden. By this point I was deeply disoriented, and couldn’t get a read on the more moderate speakers. On one hand, not all of them were cranks and some were talking about real issues. On the other, they all seemed to be encouraging each other’s woman-bashing. The undercurrent of fear and anger in the room had begun fill me with paranoia. Stephen’s talk was technically the best of the lot. He was a good speaker and clearly media savvy. He credited men’s spaces and groups with turning his life around following – shocker – an acrimonious divorce.

Finally, it was Gordon’s turn to speak. It was mostly a long, mumbled ramble about writing letters to various government organisations, delivered with the airs of an ineffectual jailhouse lawyer. I felt sorry for whoever has to pen the many “fob off” letters he complained about receiving.

As I spooned instant coffee into my mug, Kerry approached me. “I hope you’ll join the movement,” he said. As someone would say later on in the discussion, there was a lot of hope in “the next generation”.

The final session was a discussion forum. Kerry unzipped his polar fleece to reveal a T-shirt that read ‘MRA’. He spoke about testosterone therapy and high blood pressure, then segued into setting up an MRA political party. Of all the parties Kerry has reached out to, he said “New Zealand First is the only one that’s listening”. What followed was a series of complaints about the family court, false rape allegations by women, and that men’s rights activists cared way more about equality than feminists did. All the nuances of their concerns were lost in a fog of anger and zealous antifeminism. I wanted to leave, or laugh, but I barely had the strength to roll my eyes. I turned to watch the drizzle on the playing field.

As the summit finally began to wrap up, they insisted that I, as a younger person, contributed a final remark. I was reluctant, and told them they wouldn’t like to hear what I had to say, but they very enthusiastically said they would like to hear it, handing me the microphone. I told them that they had utterly failed to convince me of the necessity of a men’s rights movement, and that I found feminism more convincing. A small furore followed. Steve heckled me about believing in more than two genders. “It must be nice living in fantasyland,” he said before walking out. Hans accused me of not caring about male suicide. I tried to give a half-hearted explanation of the patriarchy before I realised I didn’t have it in me, and it was time to go home.

Over the course of the conference there were some powerful statements about men’s mental health and wellbeing, as well as productive and thoughtful discussions by some speakers. But the key agenda of the organisers and attendees seemed to be to shit on women and equate the rise of women’s liberation to the decline of men’s.

I left around the same time as Donald. I was genuinely perplexed at the hostility towards feminism from some of the men. “It’s a bit of a bête noire [pet peeve],” he said. We shook hands as we parted, and I ate an orange on my way home during a lull in the rain.

Additional reporting by Sinead Gill.

Hans Laven writes:

More NZ men commit suicide than our entire road and homicide tolls combined. I call for this to be taken seriously. Oscar Francis cared so little about suicide, bereaved families and friends that his article ignored what my talk was about and instead sought to damage my reputation through lies and distortion.

Let me make it clear that in no way did I ‘squarely blame’ feminism for high rates of male suicide, a ridiculous claim. In fact, I referred to research on causal factors none of which were feminism.

I did not allude at all to ‘women’s behaviour towards men’.

I did not say anything about women being ‘half as likely to succeed’ with suicide or explain this by ‘women just wanting attention’. More fabrication.

My talk suggested many solutions none of which Francis mentioned.

I did refer to current denigration of men as possibly contributing to male suicide. If feminism encourages such denigration then it deserves blame but my talk made no such attribution.

My contribution about the term ‘survivors’ during another speaker’s discussion time included thanks for the speaker’s work in this important area. My point was that the term ‘survivors’ suggests victims need to believe they suffered deadly harm. Although many people are seriously harmed, it’s also true, not ‘bizarre’, that a significant group who experienced something under the title ‘sexual abuse’ don’t suffer significant problems and don’t need their resilience to be invalidated.

Why would Francis seek to cause harm to me? It appeared to be because he heard a few statements that challenged his beliefs and he couldn’t cope. At the event he said he had done ‘gender studies’ at university and he suggested men’s high suicide rate was due to guilt for their bad behaviour. So indoctrinated.

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