The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Today is International Men’s Day. It can be a great feminist cause.

An all-male protest in Jerusalem in March. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
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Today is International Men’s Day (IMD), an occasion that sounds like a rearguard action by besieged misogynists. Founded in 1999, IMD promotes men’s health and well-being, better gender relations and positive male role models. But it is also an excellent opportunity for men to do their part against gender inequality.

Across the world, women are the more oppressed sex — from lacking basic human rights like the right to education to suffering as the most common victims of domestic violence and rape. It’s easy to understand why people fighting these injustices would hear a “woe is me” theme from something called International Men’s Day. As Michael Kaufman and Gary Barker put it in the Huffington Post, IMD is redundant, as every day of the year is a man’s day.

But the occasion needn’t confirm their impressions. IMD can be used to expose elements of a patriarchy that also negatively affect men, not just women. Certain male tropes that we continually reinforce — hyper-masculinity, the emphasis on physical strength, aggression and the lack of emotional expression — lead to callous sexual attitudes toward women, violence and crime. Men are 10 times more likely to end up in prison, three times more likely to end up homeless and three times more likely to be murdered.

A culture of silence surrounds men. In most places, it is still deemed inappropriate and not masculine to cry. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 79 percent of all suicides in the United States are committed by men. Research has consistently shown that men are less likely to tell anyone when they are the victims of rape or domestic violence. Men are also significantly less likely to seek help with depression and other mental health problems, and 24 percent less likely to visit a doctor.

According to Time, “experiments have shown that while people are quick to intervene when a man in a staged public quarrel becomes physically abusive to his girlfriend, reactions to a similar situation with the genders reversed mostly range from indifference to amusement or even sympathy for the woman.” Domestic violence overwhelmingly hurts women, but turning a blind eye to violence against men, at the hands of both men and women, serves only as reinforcement of the stereotypes that feminists have been working so hard and for so long to break down.

Yes, it’s true that many of these men are surely blind to their own privilege and status in the world and within their own cultures. Nevertheless, they too deserve justice and protection. And they are certainly unlikely to become more self-aware, compassionate, and thoughtful people if they, too, are trapped by gender-normative stereotypes.

Sometimes the motivation for a victim of sexual assault to come forward and share his or her story is the hope that it will encourage other victims to do the same. More often than not, those brave enough to share their stories are women. Yet, at least in the United States, we now know that 38 percent of reported victims of rape and sexual violence are men. We have to tell them, too, that it’s okay for them to break the silence, share their stories, and have their own day of awareness.