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…
Update, May 30 2017: 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.
Originally published May 2017
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.
Hans Laven writes:
This is a formal complaint about an article dated May 3 2017 published on your web site. The article had the title ‘Among the Masculinists’ and was attributed to Eamonn Marra, described as a guest writer.
A. The publication breached Principle 1 of the NZ Press Council Principles by inaccurately and unfairly portraying and misrepresenting parts of my speech at the Men’s Summit in Wellington on 06/04/17.
A(i) My presentation was a written speech that I clearly read aloud. Neither Marra nor anyone else contacted me to ask for the speech to ensure the article would be accurate, fair and balanced. Instead, Marra’s article misquoted, misrepresented and made up things claiming I said. Neither Marra nor anyone else contacted me to check that the article would be accurate, fair and balanced before it was published.
A(ii) Marra’s article stated:
“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”. “
I did not say anything similar to or even suggestive of “And this doesn’t warrant the same response as men’s suicides”. I did not talk about management of suicidal or self-harming people. My speech was about the gender politics of male suicide and its prevention. The context of this part of my speech was with reference to the Ministry of Health’s Suicide Prevention Strategy and related reports which throw together actual suicide with intentional self-harm, then provide for programs to reduce intentional self-harm but nothing specifically to reduce men’s suicide.
I said nothing that minimized the ‘very real mental health issues’ involved in Borderline Personality Disorder, or indeed in the other groups of people to which I referred who self-harm. My reference to Borderline Personality Disorder actually referred to overwhelmed feelings, which Marra’s article conveniently left out. The main point of my discussion here was that this relatively small group of people show repeated suicidal gestures, attempts and self-harm behaviour which then make up a large proportion of the statistics on intentional self-harm. The article’s misrepresentation of this section of my speech and Marra’s implied impugnment of my expertise as a clinical psychologist were mischievous.
The relevant parts of my speech, which I read aloud in my presentation, were as follows:
“…Our Ministry of Health had the audacity, in that Suicide Prevention Strategy, to claim (and I quote) “..it would be misleading to represent suicide as a ‘gender issue’. Rather, policies need to recognise that suicidal behaviour is an important issue for both genders and is expressed in gender-specific ways, with women making more suicide attempts and males more often dying by suicide.” Oh right, so whether someone dies or not isn’t very important, well certainly not if it’s a male……The Ministry of Health follows the feminist argument that high male suicide rates aren’t worth worrying about because it’s just that men are simply more successful when they attempt suicide. So the Ministry’s Suicide Prevention Strategy includes special programmes to address suicide ATTEMPTS and suicidal BEHAVIOURS which are more common for women, but no male-appropriate programme targeting male suicide. The Ministry calls its reports “Suicide Facts: Deaths and intentional self-harm hospitalisations”, implying that intentional self-harm is somehow in the same league as completed suicide. Well, some may be but much of it isn’t. A lot of ‘intentional self-harm’ is not even attempted suicide but can be manipulative gestures, or youth following a fashion of self-cutting, or calls for help that were never intended to achieve real suicide. A large proportion of the ‘intentional self-harm’ statistics will arise from repeated incidents by a relatively small group of women and a smaller group of men with Borderline Personality Disorder who frequently become very distressed and make suicide gestures to express their overwhelmed feelings, almost always ensuring they will be rescued. To throw in all these behaviours as though they are the same as real suicide is just another way to avoid facing up to the fact that such an appallingly high number of men feel so worthless and unvalued that they actually kill themselves.”
A(iii) Marra’s article stated:
“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.”
These quotes were dishonest and inaccurate. My speech did not include the comments quoted. The quotes were placed in quotation marks leading a reader to believe they were spoken by me when they were not. Even the meaning of the relevant part of my speech was misrepresented. This was not accurate or fair.
The relevant section of my speech was as follows:
“Men’s suicide is often blamed on allegedly flawed masculine traits such as their reluctance to seek help, to talk about their feelings or to go to the doctor so their distress can be given a psychiatric diagnosis and medicated. Men’s suicide is even described as just another form of ‘patriarchal power and control’, the feminist invention that ignores the fact that everyone tries to exert control over their circumstances and environment. Yes, men’s suicide is all their own fault so we needn’t bother ourselves too much! There’s no need to look any further, to consider the many ways in which our society may be contributing to men’s sense of worthlessness and hopelessness, or what changes our society might make to reduce male suicide.”
A(iv) Marra’s article stated:
“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.”
That was not accurate, fair or balanced. The sentence is inherently contradictory because it referred to me talking about two causal factors after claiming that I had ‘squarely blamed’ only one factor. In fact, my speech referred to men’s need to feel useful and valued, and to the suggestion from research that when this is absent it is one of the main causal factors for male suicide. I also considered numerous other causal factors unrelated to feminism. Therefore, I did not ‘squarely blame feminism’. I did suggest that feminism is one contributing factor.
A(v) Marra’s article stated:
“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.”
These claims were inaccurate and unfair. I did not at any point say there was ‘no recognition of men’s successes’; I used the term “little recognition” and did not use the term ‘successes’. I did not say that ‘men only hear they’re bad because the wage gap’. The poor grammar here was perhaps a reflection of the lack of care taken in ensuring fairness and accuracy. The article’s misrepresentation of this part of my speech appeared to be designed to ridicule me, my presentation and my intelligence.
The relevant section of my speech was as follows:
“Nowadays in New Zealand and other western countries we see little recognition of the amazing contribution men have made in developing our civilization, technology and political systems, for men’s readiness to put their lives on the line to protect others, or for the sacrifices men continue to make in their work roles that maintain the infrastructure of our privileged lifestyle. Men contribute almost 100% of workplace and military deaths year after year and the vast majority of serious workplace injuries. But instead of feeling valued or hearing any gratitude, men only hear resentment that they might be paid slightly more than women on average across all the dangerous, uncomfortable jobs men undertake.”
A(vi) Marra’s article stated:
“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.”
None of this was accurate or fair. My reference to losing rights to free speech was in the context of ‘protection orders’ that do deprive men of free speech and many other normal rights. I made no reference to the term or concept of ‘tormented’ but simply made the point that men have to pay ongoing towards the lifestyles of women even when those women have caused separation through dishonesty or infidelity and even when those women actively prevent contact and relationship between those men and their children. It’s unacceptable, unfair and inaccurate to make up words I didn’t use and meanings I didn’t imply.
A(vii) Marra’s article stated:
“Women are actively encouraged to abandon relationships for financial gain, he said. Men are in constant fear of being accused of rape…”
This was not accurate or fair. I stated that women are encouraged to abandon relationships “on all manner of inadequate grounds”. I made the point that there is not the same financial incentive from the state to encourage families (I did not single out women here) to stay together or to encourage women to establish any committed relationship before having children as there is for sole parenthood. I stated “Men feel at constant risk of being accused of harassment, sexual assault or rape…” but Marra’s article referred only to rape, a trite misrepresentation of what I said. The article’s use of the term ‘constant fear’ was also a misrepresentation; I did not refer to fear.
A(viii) Marra’s article stated:
“Near the end of his presentation, as he was starting his rant against feminism…”
I did not start any ‘rant against feminism’. I referred to the word ‘feminism’ only once, early in the speech, alleging that our media has been captured by feminism. I did make various references throughout my speech to harm from feminist behaviour and ideology. However, to imply that there was a section of my speech that could be described as ‘a rant against feminism’ was misleading and inaccurate.
The publication breached Principle 9 of the NZ Press Council Principles. Marra’s article admitted, and made humour of, the fact that the author attended the event under subterfuge and at no point identified himself/herself, his/her activity or intentions.