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It's a man's world: discuss

Paul Gosling looks at the growing popularity of men's groups that focus more on personal growth than gender oppression
''So what do you talk about? Football?'' It was the typical question from a woman about what many see as an oddity - men's groups. In reality, the usual topics of male conversation are left at the front door. The chat is more likely to be about nappy changing, relationships, or how men should behave.

The men's movement has been around since the mid-Seventies, enabling men to debate the demands of feminism. Traditional anti-sexist men's groups still exist, although they are being challenged by other groups that focus on therapy, or which argue that men need to be liberated by finding their true, ``natural'' selves.

Harry Christian, a long-standing men's group member and sociology lecturer, is the author of The Making of Anti-sexist Men, which examines how men become involved in men's groups. He is worried at the way the movement has been diverted. ``The impression I have gained,'' he says, ``is that there is now an emphasis on therapeutic personal growth and New Age activism to the extent of losing the opposition to gender oppression.'' Therapy and liberation ideas may help individual men, but do little to change men in general, he argues.

``They may help some men get in touch with their feelings, which is part of the process of liberation for men. But I am suspicious really. I suspect it is part of a backlash against feminism,'' he says.

Men's groups are most effective, believes Mr Christian, if they focus on the dominant role of men in society, while also supporting men making changes on a personal level.

``Many men had a feeling for a long while they did not fit the conventional macho image. Groups give them moral support for being a bit different, rather than force them to apologise.

``I don't think the groups totally change the men involved. I don't think men would have joined unless they had already started to change. But it does help them not to make compromises, to tell them it is OK to have a softer side.''

Surprisingly, Mr Christian's research into men's groups suggests that those involved often come from manual work backgrounds. Indeed, there are increasing numbers of men's groups on council estates and even in mining villages.

More significant than class is that family backgrounds of members are often non-traditional, with fathers bringing up the children or at least doing their fair share of domestic chores.

There is a growing tension between the groups who share Mr Christian's outlook and those who follow Robert Bly, an American who has inspired some to run off into the woods, hug trees, grow rugged beards and rediscover the manhood they feel stripped of by modern society. Or, as Nigel Larcombe of the anti-sexist magazine Achilles Heel puts it, ``look for their lost willy''. He believes their prime motivation is self-pity because women have fought back. ``They border on being misogynists,'' he says.

Some cynicism is directed towards pressure groups such as Families Need Fathers, whose support for men is perceived as being at the cost of women. ``Of course families need fathers, but not in the way they suggest,'' argues Mr Larcombe. ``The connection between what happens and why is missing.''

``There is a personal victim culture,'' adds David Jackson of the Nottingham Agenda, a men's group which provides counselling sessions and a telephone line for violent men. ``Families Need Fathers are saying `men are oppressed too', and are forming political rights groups against the Child Support Agency. Some men are very keen on revenge, angry at losing their children and partners, and are just sticking up for themselves.''

Whether men's groups are a force for good or bad depends on what happens inside them, and whether men can give the support to other men that more usually comes from women.

Over 10 years ago I was invited to become a founding member of a men's group, and it changed my life. When I joined I was emotionally confused, sexually inexperienced and unable to talk about personal problems. Other men in the group gave me reassurance, which eventually led to much greater self-confidence, as well as helping me to be sure what I believed in.

I am still emotionally confused, of course. My men's group has just helped me to realise that this is perfectly normal.

- The Making of Anti-sexist Men, by Harry Christian, is published by Routledge, as part of its ``Male Orders'' series.