This year's International Conference on Men's Issues was due to be held at St Andrew's Stadium, the home of Birmingham City Football Club. But at the eleventh hour the club pulled the plug on the event after it was decided that a conference on men's issues wasn’t something a football club should be aligning itself with.
This isn’t the first time the organisers have run into trouble. Two years ago, protesters fought for the conference to be cancelled, with some even reportedly threatening to burn down the venue if demands weren’t met. No wonder the organisers of this year's event decided to keep the venue details secret until the last minute. But one thing seems surprising as I enter the conference at the ExCel centre: the number of women in attendance. Yes, it's true: there are hardly any – but even the handful of women walking about is more than might be expected. Even more surprisingly, the keynote speaker is also a woman: Karen Straughan, who is speaking on 'why women must consign feminism to the dustbin of history.'
From the podium she begins with a rallying cry, declaring that it is up to women to do the consigning. Since equality of the sexes is now enshrined in law, Karen argues that it's time for men and women to stop bickering and start building bridges. She reminds the audience of the 19th century activist, Mother Jones, who, as well as campaigning for union rights, lectured men and women of their obligations towards each other. Hers was a message of harmony in which women were on the same team as men, rather than in competition. Men and women, she believed, should fight the good fight together 'for the benefit of their children and their communities.'
So why does Karen risk rubbing the sisterhood up the wrong way by aligning herself with the much maligned men's rights activist movement? It's a question she gets asked a lot. As a mother of two young sons, she tells me she is concerned about how they will cope in a world that increasingly views masculinity as toxic and 'unhelpful'. She prefers to instil values that 'acknowledge their inherent worth as men' and hopes that this will give them the confidence they need to make it in what she sees as an increasingly feminised world.
With over a dozen speakers covering a variety of issues from 'how feminists have destroyed the church of England' and 'genital autonomy' to 'the demonisation of young men' and 'surviving false allegations of rape', there's an atmosphere among the largely middle-aged crowd, most of whom have paid more than £200 to be here, of bewilderment and disbelief. I can sympathise with some of their grievances; skewed paternity rights, extortionate divorce settlements and disproportionate prison sentencing certainly need a thorough review. And Ian McNicholl's harrowing account of his experience of domestic abuse involving hammers to the head, broken collar bones and bleeding eye sockets was deeply disturbing.
But alongside legitimate concerns about the direction that radical feminism is heading, posters hanging around the hall featuring 'gormless feminist of the month', 'lying feminist of the month' and 'toxic feminist of the month' won't do anything to help men's causes. Which is a shame, because right now men are crying out to be heard. When one of the speakers asks how many of the audience have had experience of someone they know committing suicide, more than half the hands shoot up. With suicide now the biggest killer of young men there is genuine concern that so little is being done to stem the epidemic. The consensus among the men here seems to be that if you pathologise masculinity and blame the patriarchy for all of life's ills then you shouldn’t be surprised when men become resentful and start retreating into their metaphorical caves.
This sense of injustice crosses many boundaries but what really grates is why no one in authority takes their grievances seriously. 'As soon as anyone speaks up for men, they are immediately shut down and accused of being a rampant right wing misogynist' a campaigner in his late forties tells me. 'All we are asking for is equality for both sexes' argues another, younger man with a 'Honey Badgers' sticker on his lapel (the name given to female supporters of men's rights). His girlfriend agrees, 'society is going to have to address men's concerns sooner or later or things will turn ugly.' Another man in a Hawaiian shirt believes that the balance has shifted too far in women's favour 'it almost feels as though women are taking revenge on men for all the years of patriarchy'. Darren Deojee, a kilted Scot and father of four agrees. 'Blokes are really suffering' he tells me 'I've been mentoring young men for over twenty years and there's been a marked decline in men's mental wellbeing.' He worries about the future of gender relations: 'There are a lot of beleaguered guys out there. The men I try to help are filled with shame and embarrassment about being men. At the same time they are tired of being judged for the deeds of men long dead. And that's just the older blokes. Younger men are growing up terrified of their masculinity and terrified of even being perceived to be men. They are doing everything they can not to be identified with their own gender in numerous distorted ways.' During an impassioned speech entitled 'Positive Masculinity: standing on the shoulder of giants' Darren warns about the dangers of blaming the opposite sex for personal wounds 'feminists and men's activists are both guilty of playing the blame game for all their emotional baggage.' He says we should all be wary of tribalism and worries that men and women are in the midst of a gender crisis. 'Forget wars, forget politics, I believe the growing chasm between the sexes is the most significant issue humankind has ever faced. Unless men and women can have a positive, progressive, mutually powerful future together then you can forget everything else.'
Many of the men here fear they are up against a left-leaning ideology that sees masculinity as fundamentally flawed. During men's rights advocate Jordan Holbrook's speech about 'the prison sentencing gender gap' he can barely contain his anger as he quotes a recent Ministry of Justice statistic showing that for indictable offences 15 per cent of women received immediate custody compared with 28 per cent of men. A ripple of outrage spreads across the hall at what Jordan sees as clear evidence of judicial bias.
During an extended coffee break, opinion is divided as to the causes of the current war on masculinity. Neil Lyndon, author of controversial anti-feminist polemic No More Sex War, tells me that the current animosity grew out of the Black Power movement in America, which 'identified white people as the class enemy of black people'. Feminists appropriated that sense of injustice by labelling all men as oppressors and using the idea of patriarchy to justify their claims. Overhearing our conversation, a skinny young man in a Jordan Peterson T-shirt wonders why men like him are being asked to 'atone for what my ancestors may or may not have done'. 'It's all part of a neo Marxist plot to undermine western civilisation' adds another Peterson fan.
As the conference draws to a close, another men's rights activist and retired solicitor, Ian Tyes, makes an impassioned plea for attendees to carry on the fight by joining the 'Network for Men', an online forum that declares 'it's time for men to stop apologising for themselves'.
As we file out of the hall for the last time, there's a real sense of camaraderie and renewed optimism that the prevailing orthodoxy might one day take their cause seriously. And there's relief all round that the mob of fury protestors have stayed away.
Other than the occasional misguided slur and wrong-footed poster campaign, all the mostly mild-mannered attendees are really asking for is a more balanced approach to gender equality. Demanding that gatherings of this sort be banned on the grounds that they incite dangerous right wing misogyny and sexism only succeeds in polarising opinions. Moderate, fair-minded feminists have nothing to fear from men gathering in grim conference halls to discuss issues that matter to them.
The War on Masculinity by James Innes-Smith, Little Brown, April 2019