By David Michael Newstead.
Paul Elam is a controversial figure often cited for his work as a men’s rights activist and for his outspoken opposition to feminism. And because that opposition is fairly widespread around the world, I wanted to try to understand that sentiment and determine what, if any, common ground exists. Late last year, I reached out to Mr. Elam to discuss these issues. Highlights from our conversation are below. Questions from readers are included. Our discussion is wide ranging and Mr. Elam’s views are his own.
David Newstead: As far your website and your work, what would you say is your central theory?
Paul Elam: I really think when all is said is done, the men’s rights movement is the first actual push for an end to gender roles by considering gynocentrism. If you look at the feminist equation on the other side of the fence from us, you see patriarchy theory. You see things like the Duluth model and all this sort of analysis of sexual politics about men having power and women not having power. On the other side of the fence, there’s a concept called gynocentrism. Our theory is that power is a very, very difficult thing to pinpoint, especially in human relationships. There was an incident just the other day in India where a man was allegedly attacking a woman, was allegedly raping her. And the villagers drug him out into the street and hacked off his genitals and threw him in a river. Now, I would argue that it wasn’t him that had the power in that situation. And I think there’s a lot of other anecdotal stuff that points to women having great power: the power of accusation, the power of men working for them and producing and taking care of them. Which has been a part of the traditional gender roles for ages and ages. Feminists tend to interpret that more as men controlling women and holding them as chattel. But as we evaluate history on this side of the fence, it looks more like the first seat in a lifeboat and a lot of other protections that were never afforded men. So, if men truly have all the power, why are we the ones doing all the dying?
Question from a Reader: What’s the biggest misconception that you encounter? What’s being misunderstood about your message?
Paul Elam: Oh my god, everything. I’m going to put on my tinfoil hat for you for a moment. I think a lot of that has to do with feminist influence in the mainstream media. For instance, I’ll give you an example. At the first International Conference on Men’s Issues, which we had in St. Clair Shores, Michigan – the first three speakers were female. The first speaker was the first black female senator in North America. The second woman that spoke at our conference was the woman who founded the women’s shelter movement in Chiswick, England in 1971. And the third speaker was Dr. Tara Palmatier, medical psychologist that works with men that have been in abusive relationships. We’re a very, very diverse group. Probably, we feed into that misconception. I know that I’m a reluctant figurehead in this thing and here I am – I’m a white, middle-aged guy. And I think people sort of read into that that the whole movement is that way. But the whole movement is not that way. We’re very diverse. I think we are more diverse in essence than feminism is.
The second most common misconception is that we hate women, which is just bullshit. Honest critique of how we socialize men and women in this culture isn’t hate. Criticizing feminists is not the same thing as criticizing women and that is often conflated. Not all feminists are women and we criticize male feminists too. But turning this into a sort of gender war is not something that I think is on our shoulders, I think it’s on society’s. Going back to gynocentrism. The moment I say that “wait a minute, you know, it can’t be possible that men have all the power if they’re doing all the dying.” Somebody will interpret that as a threat to women. And that’s human instant. That’s human nature. That’s not a problem in women any more than it is in men. It’s just human nature to protect women. And when we point to that fact that as a species we would not have survived if we had not put women’s lives first ahead of men, people get hostile about it. So, there is a lot of denial, a lot of socialization, and a lot of socio-biology to sort of dig through before we get to the core of the truth. And I think there’s a lot of social resistance to doing that.
David Newstead: When you were growing up, what was your first encounter with or introduction to feminists or feminism?
Paul Elam: Oh, wow. You’re going to make me give away my age. It was probably watching All in the Family. And you know, I was from a family that enjoyed intellectual stimulation, so we discussed politics and world issues from the time I was a very young guy. And back then, we called it women’s liberation. It came up, but it wasn’t much of an intense subject at the time. I think feminist activism was centered more in larger cities and I was in rural areas. So, I didn’t pick up on it that much. My first experience noticing gender discrimination, I remember. It was when I was thirteen. I was reading a newspaper and just investigating what was in there and went into the classified section for the employment section. And they actually had them divided by sex. And I noticed, even at thirteen years old, that all the crappy paying jobs were for women. And I remember thinking at that moment, that’s wrong. So, that was my first personal exposure to any kind of sexual bias in the world.
But of course, at that time, I also hadn’t noticed that my father had already been in two wars at that point and had his body destroyed. He caught white phosphorous in Korea. He caught a mortar round in Korea, was shot in Vietnam as an adviser there. But I think because of the gynocentric nature of human beings, I didn’t notice all those penalties he paid and all those things that happened to him. I didn’t look at that as unfair. But the moment I saw at thirteen years old that they were obviously discriminating in employment against women, my first instinct was protection. I just find that, for me, is an interesting story – that I could overlook my own father having his body destroyed. He was a gunnery sergeant, lost most of his hearing from it. And I looked at that as sort of normal and I became upset because a woman couldn’t get a job.
David Newstead: I mean, do you feel like feminism and gynocentricism and men’s rights are necessarily opposed? Because they all involve gender discussions and issues of fairness based on what you’re saying, so it seems like there would be some overlap and common ground in some area for people to get along. But it doesn’t work out that way.
Paul Elam: I know there are people, lots of them, that identify as feminists and truly believe in equality. And truly only want equality. I know that’s out there. But when I look at the forms of feminism that matter – the governance. When we have laws that are horrifically biased like VAWA. When we’re running on the Duluth model of domestic violence that really only recognizes female victims and male perpetrators. When our campus rules now consist of these honor courts where young men on college campuses are sitting ducks, taken through what amount to star chambers when they’re accused of sexual misconduct. That’s the feminism in action. Christina Hoff Sommers identifies as a feminist and she’s a great individual that I believe is a real equity feminist. But where we practice our governance, where we develop policy, and what we do in media and in everywhere I can see feminism’s fingerprints what I see is seeking privilege and power for women at the expense of men. And I think that’s our sort of bottleneck or our stopping point. When feminists hear that they say “ok, I’m not listening to this guy, he’s crazy.” And on my side of the fence, when I hear somebody say that I’m crazy for saying that I have to believe that they’re just not willing to look at reality.
David Newstead: Is it necessarily a zero-sum game though?
Paul Elam: I think it is for now. It’s not that I would want it to be. I would love something other than what we have at the moment. The fact of the matter is that we’re a polarized society about a lot of things. Does it have to be a zero-sum game? No. But I think in order for us to make progress toward it not being a zero-sum game, we’re going to have to recognize that we have explored and looked at the mistreatment, the discrimination against women openly and very assertively for fifty years in this culture. And we have shut down nearly every discussion on looking at disadvantages faced by men. So, from my side of the fence, I say yeah it shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. So, why don’t you guys pick up a little bit more intellectual integrity and come to the table with some real discussion about men’s issues too. If that will happen anywhere, I’ll talk to any feminist in the world on that level and try to share experience with them and try to work with them.
But if I come to the table and the precondition is that I have to accept that women are the one and only oppressed class of human beings that men have systemically for all of human history disadvantaged women for their own benefit when I look at the face of statistics on suicide, depression, alcoholism, and what happens in family courts. And I have to accept what I think is an extremely bizarre version of reality just to sit down and talk to these people, my morality won’t let me do that. Nor will my common sense.
David Newstead: In America, it seems like we’re used to thinking in very binary terms. So, there’s black and white. There’s women and men, Republicans and Democrats, etc. And you know with transgender issues and with increased diversity on all fronts, it gets a little more complicated than just binary thinking.
Paul Elam: It does. I have a recent example of that. I’ve been speaking to a clinical social worker who’s a transgender male. I’ll be interviewing him and I’ve had a couple really good discussions with him. There’s a great area that you brought up. This man now tours around a bit and lectures and talks about his experience transitioning from being a women to being a man. And one of the things that he shared with me that was fascinating was that he said the most common question that he got at the end of his lectures was “how does it feel now to have white male privilege?” And his answer is “how on Earth could I know?” And he has told the audiences that he has lost more than he has gained. He pointed out that as a woman that it was routine in his life as a woman that someone would regularly be asking him how he was doing and talking to him about the emotional aspect of his life. And when he went through the process and presented to the world as a man, that stopped completely and totally. He said he felt like he stepped into an alien world where nobody ever cared about how he was doing. We’ve had a transgender male write for my site before about being treated like a potential threat and about the experience of becoming male being so radically different than what they had ever imagined. And I think that’s a great discussion to have.
David Newstead: One thing I wanted to ask about is the women featured on your site or just the seemingly large number of women who are hostile to feminism. And I know it’s hard to generalize so many viewpoints, but can you describe that phenomenon a little?
Paul Elam: In terms of our female writers, most of them are there, because they have sons. I can tell you that much. I also need to say that Karen Straughan is one of the popular men’s rights activists out there. And she is not in any official capacity affiliated with my site. She does her own thing and she does it quite brilliantly. But she has said repeatedly that she has sons and she is worried about what’s in their future. And she does not think that the current paradigm pretends well for her children. The same thing with Janet Bloomfield who writes at judgybitch.com. She’s also very involved in our work. Suzanne McCarley. Most all these women have male children and they’re concerned about them. And they don’t believe that the social engineering of their sons’ masculinity into something less than manhood is the answer and they’re concerned that that’s exactly what feminists want.
David Newstead: How about this as a question, do you have any feminist friends?
Paul Elam: Huh! That’s a good question. The answer is no.
David Newstead: Alright. Well, I tried.
Paul Elam: To be honest, I don’t. I would be open to that. But my circles again are about men’s activism. There’s not a lot of feminists in there. My partner of fourteen years is female and she’s not a feminist. So, I have limited exposure. But I’m sure out there at some point like if I ever got to meet people like Christina Hoff Sommers or Camille Paglia, we’d become friends. Or at least be friendly with each other. But it’s only because that they’re doing the same critique of feminist ideology that I am. We could share that in common. I would find it very hard to be friends with somebody who thinks that I’m a member of an oppressor class.
Question from a Reader: Are you familiar with Michael Kimmel and his theory of American masculinity’s sense of Aggrieved Entitlement?
Paul Elam: Yes, I am. Michael Kimmel, I think, is a brilliant guy. I really do. I mean, I give him credit. He’s very, very smart. I also happen to think he’s very, very disingenuous, which is not a good combination.
David Newstead: That’s an interesting collection of compliments and not compliments. Unpack that for me, please.
Paul Elam: What I’m saying is, he’s a brilliant guy. He’s a great communicator. He is very, very refined in his skills with rhetoric. And at the same time, he has what I perceive to be a very twisted and distorted agenda that he’s using those skills to further, which is basically misandry and more gynocentrism. The problem is, Kimmel is considered a real authority and he just recently got $300,000 of grant money to start a men’s studies department at Stony Brook where he teaches. And for his masculinity department, he piles his board with Jane Fonda and Carol Gilligan and a ton of other radical feminist ideologists. It isn’t men’s studies, it’s feminism disguised as men’s studies. Then, let’s look at that phrase ‘aggrieved entitlement’ and the loss of status. I work with men all the time. I mean, one of the biggest heartbreaks of my work is the people I have to tell all the time that there’s nothing I can do for you. And they’re in the worst of situations. And they aren’t people that have aggrieved entitlement. They’re people who are being ripped apart and destroyed and bordering on suicidal. And to me, Michael Kimmel reshaping that narrative to become something like aggrieved entitlement is absolutely sociopathic. It is immoral. And it is just disgusting, just disgusting as a human being. That you can look at a four-to-one rate of suicide and say that “there must be a lot of guys out there that have aggrieved entitlement then, because they’re killing themselves over it.” I mean, what kind of person thinks this way?
David Newstead: A kind of a closing question. So, independent of disagreements with feminism, can you say to me what the men’s rights movement is?
Paul Elam: It is finally a reaction to gynocentrism. And again, we have to explain a little bit more. Gynocentrism was necessary for the human species to survive. But once something is not necessary, it can become a liability. It’s sort of like when we look at the abuse and trauma that children survive in abusive families and the defense mechanisms that they develop in order to survive in those families, which they absolutely need. The same thing with gynocentrism, we needed to protect women at all costs at one point. And we’re still protecting women at all costs, even when it doesn’t make sense. Even when it isn’t fair. Even when it destroys children. Even when it destroys families. We have systems setup in our family courts, in our schools. Everywhere you go in our system of governance is gynocentric and it is all designed to protect women, which is at least ostensibly a noble idea. But when you start looking at the reality of it, what we’re seeing is a human instinct run amuck in a time that it’s lost its value. And that is what the men’s movement is. We’re going to insist on a discussion about that.
Paul Elam: Let me ask you this just in general terms. I went to your site and I read through some of it. You obviously do have an interest in gender politics. What got you motivated you in that direction?
David Newstead: You know, it took a while. I remember when I was younger and being aware that some men hurt women and that that was bad. And when I was very young, I understood that hurting other people is bad. And you know, I still think that, obviously. But sort of the idea of trying to figure out what does positive masculinity and positive manhood mean? And that’s a thing that I deal with. And part of it is for personal reasons, because my father passed away when I was a kid. So anything about being a guy, I kind of had to figure out on my own. So, a lot of the writing is just an outgrowth of that – of me figuring something out.
Paul Elam: Man, what a long journey that one is. As someone who’s walked that road for a while and tried to figure out those questions, my conclusion at this point is that there’s no such thing. And I’m not saying that a lot of men don’t share characteristics. The thing that got me is somebody asked me about ten years ago, they said “take a look at any positive characteristic and tell me that’s something you think should be in women and not men or in men and not women.” So, the challenge for me is how am I a decent human being? Not what sort of ideal of manhood do I need to pursue in order to feel adequate as a man, but what are my standards? How do I allow myself to be treated? How do I treat others? Do I steal? Do I not steal? All the basic moral questions of life. And I don’t find for men or women that they’re very different. I don’t trust a man who lies to me and I don’t trust a woman who lies to me. I’m not trying to impart psycho-babble wisdom to you here, I just identified a lot with that journey that you’re talking about.
David Newstead: No, I’m glad to hear that. And I appreciate outside perspective. And sometimes in life, you know as much as I don’t like to hear this depending on the question, sometimes there is no answer.