Champions of the downtrodden male

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AMERICA, January 1994. The Bobbitt trial, the most vivid expression of the sex war in living memory, sees Lorena Bobbitt successfully pleading 'temporary insanity' when she cut off her husband's penis. She will walk free after 45 days of psychiatric observation. Her husband, John, was acquitted of rape last November. The year's first movie blockbuster is Mrs Doubtfire, in which a divorced father resorts to impersonating a nanny so that he can be with his children every day. Timothy J Horgan appears on primetime television to talk about his new book, Winning Your Divorce: A Man's Survival Guide. Woody Allen resumes his child custody fight with Mia Farrow. Michael Crichton's novel Disclosure, the story of a man sexually harassed by a woman, goes to the top of the New York Times best- seller list.

Across the US, men are clamouring to talk about sexual violence and harassment, marriage and divorce, parenting and child custody. Are men the new victims in the sex war? Are we witnessing a renewed backlash against feminism? Or is it a plea for a new sexual egalitarianism?

Ruth Picardie went to find some answers from Michael Crichton and Warren Farrell, who has also written a new book, The Myth of Male Power.

WARREN FARRELL

No one wanted to listen to his findings that women without children earned just as much money as men

Warren Farrell claims that Germaine Greer once said to him: 'Some day you're going to be killed. You're the most subversive person I've ever met.' Camille Paglia has called his new book about male powerlessness 'a bombshell . . . original, abrasive, heretical . . . filled with stunning insights'. Nancy Friday described it as 'impressive and important . . . a long-overdue rejoinder to women's cries of 'victim' and 'backlash' '. Susan Faludi dismissed him as a member of the 'backlash brain trust'. But Faludi, according to Warren Farrell, is a 'sociopath' and a 'liar'.

He looks like a New Man. Now 50, he has a beard, takes off his shoes and sits on the floor to be interviewed, is gentle and solicitous, and tells me he would rather give up intercourse than cuddling. He has just split up with his girlfriend of one year, a therapist and artist called Lisa, because 'I am definitely not interested in taking care of a woman economically. . . . The person who's doing the taking care of gets more distant from being able to get in touch with his feelings and his soul and his warmth.'

On the other hand, he drives a sports car, wears a leather jacket, plays a lot of tennis and, when we met at his home-cum-office in Encinitas, southern California, was on call as an expert witness on behalf of John Bobbitt who, he says, was battered and psychologically abused by his wife. Over dinner, he tells me: 'If I had to be born a man or a woman 20 years ago, in retrospect, I would definitely, definitely choose a woman. I feel comfortable with my sexuality and myself being a male and know nothing else, but in terms of advantages it's not even a contest.' His new book is titled The Myth of Male Power: Why Men are the Disposable Sex.

Given the title (Americans sure know how to package an argument), I must confess I started reading in a mood of dismissive cynicism and went on to find some of his arguments jumbled and/or untenable, particularly the hazy, pop-anthropological premise that the 'traditional' division of labour (men at work, women at home) was egalitarian, harmonious and functional. Or, for example, that housewives have a higher net worth than male breadwinners because they do the shopping. And I almost choked on my pasta when he told me that 'almost all Aids is transmitted either via drug usage, sex with a drug-user, or anal intercourse'.

But his central premise, that men are not all-powerful, is compelling. Men die seven years before women (compared with a one-

year gap in 1920); men are slaughtered in vast numbers in the name of war; men commit suicide in far greater numbers than women, at every age; men are almost twice as likely as women to be victims of violent crime. This, he argues, is an index of male powerlessness, not patriarchy.

Farrell made his name in the Seventies as a superstar of the men's liberation movement. He was elected three times to the New York City board of the National Organisation for Women (NOW), helped found more than 600 consciousness-raising groups and wrote a best-selling book called The Liberated Man (1974). Esquire called him 'a feminist dupe', but the Chicago Tribune hailed him as 'the Gloria Steinem of men's liberation'. He was happily married and became 'quite well to do' as a consultant, writer and speaker. 'I was like a god to many women,' Farrell says today. 'And men tolerated me.'

By the early Eighties, however, he began to have reservations about the women's movement. A state chapter of NOW opposed men having a say in a child's custody unless the woman specified otherwise, which he felt was 'blatant hypocrisy'.

'For me, part of the women's movement was understanding that men should be more deeply involved in caring for children,' he says. He became concerned that no money was being allocated to lobbying for a mixed draft. No one wanted to listen to his findings that women without children earned just as much money as men.

'I'm in favour of battered women's shelters, but I'm also in favour of battered men's shelters,' he says. 'I'm in favour of having more government money for prostate cancer research, but I'm not in favour of cutting back in breast cancer research.' As he writes in the introduction: 'I will be saddened if this book is misused to attack the legitimate issues of the women's movement - issues for which I spent a decade of my life fighting. The challenge is to both go beyond feminism and to cherish its contributions.'

Many of his ideas, statistics and aphorisms are compelling. Feminism, for example, 'neglected the shadow side of women and the light side of men'; 'men don't get women's fears of sexual harassment . . . women don't get men's fears of sexual rejection'; we should 'care as much about a man who joins the army for money as about a woman who has sex for money'; and 'it would be hard to find a single example in history in which a group that cast more than 50 per cent of the vote got away with calling itself the victim'.

His theory that boxing and football are child abuse won't go down well in Britain, I tell him over a shared chocolate pudding (I've been that won over). 'If you told eight-year-old girls that they could win male approval and their parents' approval by banging their heads against 11 other girls,' Farrell says, 'and getting concussions, spinal cord injuries, shoulders dislocated, broken noses and broken fingers, we would recognise that as being encouragement for girls to abuse each other. We would call it violence against women.'

But men enjoy it, I protest. 'That's a different issue. If you asked girls in the Fifties, 'Do you want to be a homemaker?' 95 per cent would have said yes. . . . The need for approval is always so great that people will do anything for it. Liberation is about freeing people to get approval in different ways.'

On the other hand, his line on circumcision may not be such a problem for British men. 'I'm not anti-circumcision,' Farrell says. 'I'm anti our not having studies on its impact and our making it into a reflexive decision without really thinking about it. It would be nice to have some sense of the amount of trauma a baby experiences.'

I had more trouble accepting the parallel he draws between involuntary unemployment and rape. 'When I listen to women talk about their experiences of rape,' he says, 'they talk about feeling humiliated, lowering their self-concept, feeling violated, a loss of identity, fearful. . . . When a man has unemployment forced upon him, he is humiliated, he lowers his self-concept, he feels violated, he feels imposed upon. The thing that is at the core of his ability to be attractive to a woman is taken away from him, just like the thing that's at the core of a woman being attractive to a male, her sexuality and her beauty, is violated.

'The heterosexual man grows up not learning to complain. For men, the motto is when the going gets tough, the tough get going. There's been no rewards in male socialisation for complaining about anything. You can't say you don't know how to dance, you can't ask for help at math, you can't ask for directions.'

Meanwhile, the Bobbitt trial over, Farrell is off to hold a 'male beauty contest' and 'female success object' role reversal workshop for college students in Oregon. Then it's back to work on his new book, Seven Great Myths About Men (they're afraid of commitment? obsessed with sex? Farrell isn't telling).

'I would describe myself as an egalitarianist and as a temporary masculinist only for as long as it takes to help men get up off their lazy duffs,' Farrell explains as he drops me off at my motel. 'Sure I feel lonely. On a less sad level, I also feel pioneering.'

'The Myth of Male Power: Why Men are the Disposable Sex' ( pounds 6.99) is due to be published by Fourth Estate in March.

MICHAEL CRICHTON

You've seen the movie (Fatal Attraction), and watched the play (Oleanna). Now the latest import from America's gender war is Michael Crichton's Disclosure, published this week.

Instead of a vengeful, oversexed, spurned lover (Fatal Attraction) or vengeful, undersexed, failing student (Oleanna), we meet vengeful, oversexed, spurned boss, Meredith 'Manmuncher' Johnson, who accuses her subordinate and former lover Tom Sanders of sexual harassment when he is manipulated into and then pulls out of sex with her. Instead of knifing her in the bath, or throttling her under the desk, Sanders counter-sues.

Is this just another backlash book by a paranoid misogynist? A genuine attempt to look at the controversial subject of sexual harassment? A poke in the eye for PC? Or even a cynical attempt by the multimillionaire author of Jurassic Park and Rising Sun to grab a few more Porsche-fulls of the stuff (and he's set to direct the movie)?

One thing is certain: it was a canny publishing decision. Unusually, the book was published in the UK and the US simultaneously, and Knopf, the US publisher, printed 900,000 hardback copies, its biggest print run. Thanks to the accompanying storm of attention, the book went straight to the top of this week's New York Times bestseller list.

Crichton himself sends out contradictory signals. In some interviews he has raged as if he were leading male victims against the twin horrors of feminism and PC. 'There's absolutely a chill in the workplace these days,' he told the LA Times. 'You can't make any kind of joke at work. You can't make any kind of personal comment, and it has a little neo-Nazi flavour. It's the thought police and people are unhappy. They're not going to put up with it.'

But when I asked him why he wrote the book, he changed his tune: hey, I'm just the piano player. 'It was a story that I heard,' he says. 'I was at a brunch one Sunday in 1988 and someone was talking to me about corporate problems.' So he wasn't trying to make a point about sexual politics? 'I don't think that novels are advertisements which have a slogan.'

'Some working women,' he adds, 'have simply said: 'Good book, I enjoyed it.' They don't see the book as a political statement but as a description of the workplace and they see characters that they know.'

His next incarnation is as the sensitive explorer of a complex debate: 'If the accusation is of a man harassing a woman, this is all so familiar that one hardly thinks of it. By reversing it, then it all seems like something new that we haven't thought of. And it's valuable to see things freshly.'

Finally, he segues into 'I'm an egalitarian feminist, which means that men and women ought to have equal opportunity and equal responsibilities. I believe that men and women are more similar than different. I believe there are not important differences in moral reasoning, in nurturing, in aggressiveness or passiveness between men and women. I think there are differences between people, not between genders.'

If his answers are full of contradictory information, so is his life. At 51, he's been married four times, latterly to a Canadian actress nearly 20 years his junior, whom he describes as 'very attractive, very athletic, very smart, very tough' (in that order). She hasn't worked since the birth of their daughter five years ago. On the other hand, he does most of the cooking, took seven months' paternity leave, turning down a directing job when his daughter was six weeks old because he wanted to 'see her crawl' (some baby).

'I was in my forties. I don't care about my career. It was not as important.' He ascribes his failed marriages to bad timing - she wanted kids, he didn't; he wanted kids, she didn't - and 'wrong entirely, just a mistake'.

The American and British media have responded more coherently than Crichton to the hype: the New York Times critic Janet Maslin speculated on male fear of female power; Ros Coward, a feminist writer, described the big gap between Crichton's new monster and the reality of workplace sexual politics; David Thomas, author of Not Guilty; In Defence of the Modern Man, pronounced on feminist double standards. In the UK, the response has been mainly negative. Austen Donnellan, falsely accused of date rape, felt the book to be 'simply not most people's experience'.

I started the book as Saturday morning homework, highlighting with furious red scribbles the fact that the hero is both non- sexist verging on nerdy and yet gripped, periodically, by 'a kind of male fury', and that his wife is a high-flying attorney but, damn her, 'was not good at managing the routine at home. As a result, there was often a crisis on Monday mornings'.

I quickly realised, however, that Disclosure is a bit like Question Time: everyone gets a say. For every cold, anorexic female exec there is a jock in product design and a (male) PC prig in legal affairs. Happily, despite this political didacticism, Crichton's plotting is so skilful it is impossible not to be gripped, especially as it moves from sex wars to a larger story about corporate power struggles. I stayed in bed all day to finish it.

I found myself agreeing with Michael Crichton the cynic: why get so uptight about a novel? So it's not realistic: do novels always have to be lifelike? Do women characters always have to be saints? If we're talking realism, isn't suing the enemy better than knifing her, as in Fatal Attraction? And is it sensible or fair to compare, as one critic has, an airport novelist with Shakespeare's evocation of female evil in Lady Macbeth? (Crichton lost.)

Michael Crichton bade me goodbye to return from New York to LA, where two days later a real, rather than media, earthquake would occur. 'The battle of the sexes is eternal,' he said. 'Men are angry at women, women are angry at men. What else is new?'

'Disclosure' is published by Century, pounds 14.99.

(Photograph omitted)

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