Don't Call It a 'He-cession'

Just in time for Father's Day, Men's Health editor-in-chief David Zincenko penned a USA Today op-ed heralding the "Great He-cession" as one more example of how men are "an endangered species." Citing statistics about men's declining job security, shorter life span, and lack of government attention, he pits women against men in a delusional race for resources. He writes: "Let's think about men. It's about time we caught a break, and a he-covery would be just the thing." As if thinking about men would be a big societal shift.

Zincenko's ingratiating use of cutesy prefixes and total neglect of historical fact aside, this sort of polarized punditry is exactly what keeps both men and women from making true progress. The truth is our fates are inextricably tied together, not running on two parallel tracks. When men lose their jobs -- and, indeed, they have at a higher rate than women recently -- American families all suffer, just as they suffer when women are paid unequal wages or fired for missing work to take care of sick kids or an elderly parent. Newsflash: Men aren't from Mars and women aren't from Venus; we're all struggling to make healthy, meaningful lives on the same damn planet -- and it's time we started acting like it.

This is not just a lesson for tunnel-visioners like Zincenko but one we should all take to heart. The most intractable problems we face will not be solved by one sex alone. Take some of the unfinished business of feminism: Finally getting better work/life policies, closing the wage gap, ending misogynist media, and preventing sexual violence will not be achieved without men owning these issues. And crucially, men's involvement in activism in these areas must not be seen as community service -- empathic guys who just want to help out the women they love -- but serious work that will make men's lives better, too. Men have a real stake in feminism, and no, it's not just getting laid more often.

For example, until men advocate for and take paternity leave in America's workplaces, women will always be viewed as "special" -- and not in a good way -- for taking time off after giving birth. The more men who "come out" at work as dedicated fathers, the more comfortable the next generation will be in advocating for family-friendly work policy. As Jeremy Adam Smith argues in his new book, The Daddy Shift, we need a "gradual movement away from a definition of fatherhood as pure breadwinning to one that encompasses capacity for both breadwinning and caretaking. … It is time for twenty-first century dads to go on the offensive." This overdue "daddy shift" will normalize the notion that all caregivers -- women and men -- have to juggle work demands and family responsibilities.

Another area in which men must and generally haven't stepped up to the plate is in advocating for less sexism in the media. When Bill O'Reilly called veteran White House Press Corps journalist Helen Thomas "the wicked witch of the east," where were her male peers to defend her right to be judged based on the quality of her work rather than the wrinkles on her face? And when David Letterman recently made an inappropriate joke about Sarah Palin's 14-year-old daughter Willow, Sean Hannity and a few other conservative pundits took it seriously, in order to claim that "Obama's surrogates" on the left only care about sexism against liberals. It wasn't a genuine stand against sexist commentary in the media; it was an attempt to score political points.

Why should men invest in this fight? Because until women are judged based on the quality of their work, not their conformity to gender stereotypes, men have no hope of being judged based on the full range of their humanity. And after all, sexist comments in the media are not only directed at women. Ralph Alter recently wrote in The American Thinker, "I'm just grateful that Obama had the good sense to bow to the Saudi King at the G20 summit in London. At least he didn't curtsey." This attempt -- albeit ridiculous -- to portray Obama as one of the "weaker sex" is only possible because the media isn't held accountable for perpetuating gender stereotypes.

Finally, all of us are responsible for the rampant sexual violence in our society. It's almost inconceivable that one out of six women (and one out of 33 men) are the victims of sexual assault at some point in their life … that is until you consider how few men really take the issue on as their own. Women, and a few good men, have done tremendous work in breaking the silence in this country -- founding sexual-assault centers on college campuses, creating Take Back the Night marches, and promoting anti-violence curricula. But why are there still so few organizations like Men Can Stop Rape and Men Against Sexual Violence? Surely there are many more men who oppose the sexual objectification and exploitation of women, but they are hardly visible amid the louder voices of Rush Limbaugh and the like.

In part, it's because of guys like Zincenko, who have a platform and use it to pit women and men against each other. It's also because of the social pressure that Michael Kimmel describes in his 2008 book, Guyland: "As young men, we become relentless cowboys, riding the fences, checking the boundary line between masculinity and femininity, making sure that nothing slips over. The possibilities of being unmasked are everywhere."

Some men worry that decrying sexual assault is weak or vilifies their own kind, that taking a stand against gender-based violence means admitting that men are scum. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Working to end violence against women proves that men can do better than the "toxic masculinity" -- in the words of author Stephen Ducat -- that pervades so much of contemporary male culture. There's nothing inherently cruel or deviant about guys; when men stand up against violence, they reinforce that more evolved reality.

Some feminists fear that bringing men into the fold will lead to men's demands and desires crowding out anything women have to say. I understand that this is a real concern, but I also believe that it originates in the same fear-based place from which Zincenko operates. It assumes that women and men have distinctly different issues, rather than recognizing that we share the suffering that results from gender inequity and injustice.

Ultimately, so much of this comes down to framing. As long we use the language of "women's issues," we will be separate and unequal. But when we talk about worker's rights, health care, media integrity, and freedom from violence as quality-of-life issues, we will all become less endangered and more enlightened.

Jackson Katz sums it up in his book, The Macho Paradox: "When we ask men to reject sexism … we are not taking something away from them. In fact, we are giving them something very valuable -- a vision of manhood that does not depend on putting down others in order to lift itself up."