How Men's Rights Groups Use the Rhetoric of 'Equality' to Punish Women

True justice is served by fixing institutions and policies—not by making policy equally harmful to all genders.
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Last month, a federal judge in Texas ruled that drafting only men for military service was unconstitutional. The National Coalition for Men (NCFM), the plaintiff in the case, considers the win a step toward gender equity, but not for the reasons you might think. In a press release announcing the legal victory, the NCFM says that it considers conscription for men "an aspect of socially institutionalized male disposability." The draft, according to the NCFM, is evidence of society-wide discrimination against men.

In addition to the draft, the NCFM lists, among other things, education and family court as other areas where men are commonly discriminated against. Statistical data does not support these claims. In fact, more than 90 percent of custody cases are agreed upon by parents without court intervention—and when the courts do become involved, it's commonly because abusers are using the family court as a method of terror when they sue for custodial rights.

And while men's rights activists hold up women's studies programs and affirmative action as evidence of discrimination against white men, to make that argument, you'd have to ignore that women have had more difficulty competing in academia and the workforce, especially in certain fields, like science, tech, engineering, and math.

The NCFM's efforts in the Texas draft case are in line with the group's other efforts that ignore statistical data about who is disproportionately affected by gender-based discrimination. Women and people who can get pregnant face stigma, harassment, and legal barriers in obtaining necessary reproductive health care, leaving many unable or afraid to seek the care they need. Women and transgender people are more likely than cis men to experience sexual and domestic violence in their lifetime, and they endure harassment and re-victimization when they report their assaults, which is why even in the era of #MeToo, sexual assault goes mostly unreported. The work of men's rights activists consistently undermines the experiences of marginalized communities and works to redefine sexism by framing men as its primary victims.

Men's rights activists could have chosen to take on the draft by challenging the constitutionality of the program in total. After all, forced military conscription is at least suspicious in a supposedly free and democratic society. While the Supreme Court established the constitutionality of the draft in 1918, more recently, lawmakers have challenged its necessity. In 2016, legislators proposed ending the Selective Service, with one of the bill's sponsors referring to it as a "mean-spirited and outdated system." This has hardly been a minority view: In 1981, newly elected President Ronald Reagan objected to the military draft, saying, "a draft registration destroys the very values that our society is committed to defending."

Considering all that, it's curious that the NCFM would choose not to take on the injustice of Selective Service as a whole, rather than using its lawsuit as what looks like a pure expression of spite. Instead of solidarity against illiberal conscription, the NCFM has chosen to center its efforts on ensuring that women will be unfairly affected by forced service too. It's a sort of "you want it all, feminists? Here, let us help you," move.

But the strategy makes a lot more sense once you take a look at the plaintiffs' history.

The NCFM's past efforts have included filing "discrimination" lawsuits against organizations that have hosted networking events marketed to women, and lawsuits against universities for offering scholarships and affirmative action programs to women. In keeping with the playbook of men's rights activists, the NCFM's cases routinely appear to be more about punishing women than about seeking actual justice or equality.

Legitimate civil rights organizations do not seek equality in the form of pulling other people down to a disenfranchised status. True justice efforts work to elevate the conditions of marginalized groups while dismantling the institutions and policies that are causing civic harm. (It's important to note that men's rights groups don't advocate for the benefit of marginalized genders; their entire focus is securing benefits for the most privileged gender—cis men.)

When women are known to make 54 to 87 cents for every dollar earned by a white man—depending on the woman's race—fighting against networking opportunities for women isn't a reasonable attempt to seek justice; it's a move to re-center male entitlement. Opposing affirmative action for women denies the barriers women have faced in attaining an education and ignores the fields in which women are underrepresented. For those two reasons alone, it can't be construed as a justice-seeking effort at all.

White men have long relied on using the language of liberation to entrench their privilege and power. It's similar to the way conservatives say that they fear for their daughters and wives if transgender people are allowed in women's restrooms, or how Hobby Lobby says it would be religious discrimination to require the company to provide insurance that offers birth control for their women employees. These techniques inevitably work to muddy the waters about who is actually facing discrimination in a given situation.

The use of the word "equality" in the efforts to include women in the military draft is a trollish way of obfuscating the NCFM's goal, which is to retaliate against women for their advances in society over the past century. Suggesting that women also be forced to register for the draft and calling it a victory for equality ignores all the other aspects of American life where women and marginalized genders aren't offered the same opportunities as men. At best, fighting to include women in the draft presumes that all genders currently stand on equal footing; at worst, it presumes that men actually suffer the most on the basis of sex.

Men's rights activists have also been lobbying to redefine sexism to include "misandry" as a way to codify their sense of victimhood, knock women down a peg or two, and further secure their elevated place in society (which they are very anxious about losing). While, historically, the idea that cis men are overwhelmingly marginalized has been laughed out of public discourse, the Trump administration's rhetoric affirming the plight of cis men has reinvigorated these efforts.

The NCFM is offering us a false choice: Women don't need to be forced into registering for the Selective Service before they'll be willing to denounce the conscription of men. It's possible and necessary to oppose the Selective Service for men and at the same time oppose it for other genders too. (It's also unlikely that there will be a draft anytime soon.) True justice is served by challenging the institution and policy, not by making a policy equally harmful to all genders. But justice isn't the business of the NCFM. Instead, men's rights groups are toiling to pull women further down by demanding they be drafted. It's a transparent ploy to make feminists regret ever having wanted equal treatment under the law—by forcing them to obey a law that hurts everyone.

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