Eamonn Marra infiltrates the ‘Men’s Summit’ in Wellington, and finds a group of damaged men. They seem like sympathetic characters. Then the presentations start…
The morning I was due to attend the Men’s Summit, organised by the unofficial Ministry of Men’s Affairs, I changed clothes twice. I had a wave of anxiety that I would be outed as an imposter, and was trying to find my most conservative men’s-rights-esque outfit. As I cycled to the conference, I worried that cycling was somehow a feminist act that would give me away. I was certain there would be something inherently ‘pro women’ about the way I looked or dressed, something that would easily identify me as an outsider amongst the Men’s Summit.
As it turns out, there wasn’t. No one questioned my right or intentions being there throughout the day. Still, I chose to park my bike around the corner, just in case.
The journey to the summit had been tumultuous, with organisers having lost both their guest MC (Labour MP Kelvin Davis) and two different venues (The Grand Hall at Parliament and Miramar Links Golf Course conference room). On the day, they had settled for Kerry Bevin, head of men’s activist organisation The Ministry of Men’s Affairs, as MC and the boardroom at the Master Builders’ building in Wellington as the venue. The size of the new location did nothing to alleviate my fear that I would be seated at a table with less than 10 men and would be caught out as an imposter.
Although the summit was about men’s rights, I do not want to label it as a Men’s Rights Activist or MRA conference. There are certain associations with the term MRA that they are generally young, right wing, anti-feminist men, that generally hang out in parts of Reddit and Twitter abusing women. The Men’s Summit was not that. There was very little discussion of the internet and not a single mention of either Reddit or Twitter. No one was called an SJW or Social Justice Warrior, and the word ‘feminazi’ was only used once. They called themselves Masculinists rather than Men’s Rights Activists or Meninists.
Demographically, middle-aged men were in the majority. They came from all over the country, some from as far as Waiheke and Oamaru, and many had fundraised in their local communities to cover their travel. The mood inside was cheerful and brotherly. I watched from my seat near the back of the board room as the men introduced themselves to each other and greeted old friends. Kerry Bevin gave out Men’s Summit t-shirts, illustrated with lady justice holding scales with the male and female symbols that balanced in the favour of female. One of the men said “the female symbol was pointing straight down to hell”. Bevin tapped his nose. “You said it not me,” he replied.
The room packed out at around 30 men and three women, with more seats brought out to accommodate the larger-than-expected turnout. One man I chatted to early on had formed a group in Helensville aimed at helping young at risk men. They started off as five members but have grown massively, and he said they’d supported a lot of men through difficult times.
The second man I met asked me “if I had been through the big split up” and if that was why I was there. He had gone through a messy divorce and lost access to his children in the family court. That seemed to be a common story amongst the men. There was a lot of bitterness surrounding the family court and many had found comfort and support in men’s groups around the country.
Unexpectedly, I felt an early wave of empathy. Most of the men in the room were hurt and damaged and were doing what they thought was right. They felt like they had been neglected by society and its institutions, finding solace and comfort in mens groups.
The summit was officially opened with a singalong of ‘Ten Guitars’, a famous song to which I do not know the lyrics. Luckily, most other men there also did not know the lyrics, so I was not outed. Bevin ran through the programme quickly and introduced a few ideas that would carry on without the day. He bemoaned politicians for their disgraceful neglect of men’s issues in this country, and pointed out the $150 million that had gone towards the Ministry for Women (over the 20 years it has existed) and how men have received nothing. ACT MP David Seymour received a special mention as the only glimmer of hope in parliament, for his campaigning for a Ministry for Men.
Bevin was quick to bring up the feminist media, and its role in the problems men face. He said there were some media people in the room and suggested that maybe they would have some answers. My face went red and I worried that everyone would start looking at me, but he motioned at a woman who was taking notes the row in front of me. An attendee chipped in, saying it was because 86% of all money is spent by women, so advertisers want to target women more than men, so media is targeted at women, and this wouldn’t change until the economics of the media had changed.
When I first heard about the summit, I did some of my research on the website Masculinist Evolution New Zealand. It’s a blog-based website that boasts headlines like ‘What We Can Learn from Adele’s Popularity’ (That Adele’s fame proves the world is tired of feminism) and ‘This is what a Labour MP thinks of a man’s rights’ (that Stuart Nash’s recent comments about scalping paedophile Phillip John Smith were part of an anti-men agenda, not because of Nash’s macho hard line approach to justice). This approach to the “feminist media” was not dissimilar to Trump supporters brandishing mainstream media organisations as ‘fake news’, relying on ideological blogs as the only non biased sources of news.
Other than the media, there were some other topics that appeared frequently across the six presentations I saw. A big one was the family court, an issue which was clearly very close to many of the men in the room. These men felt like the court favoured mothers unfairly, which followed on to discussions around fatherless homes and their impact on society. Occasionally, this ignited talk of solo mothers and their lifestyle choices, promiscuity and how it impacts on their children. Which, of course, are funded by men’s child support and taxes.
Rape was another frequent discussion topic that stirred the crowds. There were two presentations on rape. One was by Peter Joyce, who self-published Dry Ice: The true story of a false rape complaint in November. The second was by Greg Newbold, a criminology professor at the University of Canterbury, who gave the same lecture that sparked controversy at UC last year.
Whenever rape was mentioned, the room erupted into conversation. Many men at the summit believed false rape complaints was a huge issue, with numbers as high as 50% being thrown around as the rate of false allegations. Rape had become a political tool to suppress men, it was argued, and there were claims of a double standard in the law saying men could not be raped by women. I found this discussion upsetting. There was not a thought given to women’s experiences or feelings once throughout the day.
The most disturbing presentation was also my most anticipated. Hans Laven, a clinical psychologist with 30 years’ experience, was to deliver a presentation on male suicide. I was interested to see the masculinist perspective on a subject I care deeply about, and was certain that I would be able to find some common ground on the subject.
Laven started off his presentation with statistics: 75 percent of all suicides in New Zealand are men. The most significant factor is gender, more so than race, wealth or age. Despite this, suicide is not treated as a gendered issue and there has not been a strategy to target men’s suicide specifically. He said there was no research into why men were killing themselves and dealing with suicide as a mental health issue in a case by case basis was not working. I agreed that suicide cannot be treated simply on a case by case basis, and that we need to understand the social and cultural reasons that causes men to want to die.
But that was about where our agreement ended.
Laven addressed the commonly-presented statistic that although men commit suicide more, women attempt suicide more, and that this makes suicide not a gendered issue. Laven suggested that much of the the statistics of self harm and attempted suicide hospitalisations is the result of manipulation or trend following, and often by a small group women and even smaller group of men with Borderline Personality Disorder who know they will be rescued. And this doesn’t warrant the same response as men’s suicides.
I found this comment incredibly harmful and distressing, especially coming from a clinical psychologist. It was not only a minimisation of very real mental health issues, but also potentially deadly to men in his care who might make sure to go through with suicide attempts so as not to be tarred as “manipulative” or “trend followers”. He threw away the comments “male suicide is a factor of patriarchal dominance” and “flawed masculine traits of not wanting to talk through issues” as if they didn’t even warrant a discussion, and said that “toxic masculinity” is a term of hate speech.
Laven squarely blamed feminism for the high male suicide rate, and suggested the high male suicide rate came from society’s supposed ongoing denigration of men.
He claimed that there was no recognition of men’s successes in politics, technology, or business, which seems a stretch, and said that men only hear they’re bad because the wage gap. According to him, men have lost rights to free speech, are shown disdain by the state to which they pay taxes, and are forced to pay for the lifestyles of women who have tormented them. Women are actively encouraged to abandon relationships for financial gain, he said. Men are in constant fear of being accused of rape, and despite being told their masculinity is toxic, women are hard-wired to prefer masculine men and bad boys, so men are finding these contradictions uncomfortable and confusing.
Laven concluded that it is only when we respect men and masculinity that we will see a reduction in men’s suicide. Near the end of his presentation, as he was starting his rant against feminism, another man dressed as the Grim Reaper appeared in the room and made his way to the front where he proceeded to pretend to kill Laven. This served no purpose other than shock, but received an applause from the Summit.
After a particularly noxious beneficiary-bashing speech, under the guise of an examination of shared parenting, from former ACT MP Muriel Newman, lunch was called. The summit was running about an hour behind schedule at this point and I wasn’t sure if I could handle another three hours of this. I began the day feeling quite empathetic for most of these men but the atmosphere had become angrier and more vitriolic as the day progressed. I was upset and felt more and more out of place, so I left.
There are damaged and hurt men across New Zealand who need help and at the moment the men at this conference are some of the only ones giving it to them. Unfortunately, that support appears to come with some serious drawbacks, including a lot of disgusting rhetoric and radicalisation that has the potential to cause great damage. I don’t know what the solution is to the issues men face in this country, but the Men’s Summit definitely isn’t it.
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