Why I Wrote the Book: Michael A. Messner


When I started college in 1970 there was little sign of women’s studies in the curriculum, but feminism was already exploding to life all around me, from the radical personal transformations taking place with the women in my life, to an increasingly visible national women’s movement. By the time I started a Ph.D. program in 1978 at U.C. Berkeley, women’s studies was growing rapidly as a field and feminist scholarship was creatively disrupting my discipline of sociology. I found all of this exciting, and I got in on the ground floor in contributing to the development of a feminist analysis of men and masculinities. Simultaneously, I was drawn to East Bay activists like Chris Norton, pro-feminist men in grassroots groups like MASV, who were trying to bring feminist ideas and politics to life in the community, particularly with boys and men.

In the terms we have deployed in this book, my moment of engagement with feminism is fully congruent with the men and women of the “Movement Cohort.” I shared a vision of radical social transformation with feminist women I was meeting and reading in the 1970s and 1980s, with Berkeley men like Chris Norton, Tim Beneke, and Allan Creighton, and with men I was connecting with in organizations I was joining, like the National Organization for Changing Men, and the California Anti-Sexist Men’s Political Caucus (CAMP). I admired these feminist activists, and imagined myself to be on their team. But even in grad school, I was never much of an activist. I hated meetings, for one thing; I preferred reading, research, and the classroom. So when I met Chris Norton and learned about MASV in the late 1970s, I was drawn to them, wanted to contribute something to the cause, but I never joined up. Instead, I studied them, and that’s pretty much what I still do today.

A few years ago, I attended a public lecture by a well-known feminist scholar. In reflecting on her career, she stated that everything she had done, whether in the classroom or in her published writings, had been motivated by her commitment to social justice. This of course drew nods of approval and hearty applause. I joined in. But I also thought, “Honestly? Aren’t our motivations way more multi-layered, and a bit more contradictory than that?” After all, this scholar’s important progressive work has been well rewarded: with a secure position as a tenured professor, with a salary that presumably puts her in the top 5% of earners in the world, and of course, with our public applause and adulation. Might it be that some of these substantial rewards served as additional motivating factors for the years of hard work through which she had built and sustained such a successful career?

As I worked on this project, I have tried to remain cognizant of this tension between doing research that I hope contributes to progressive social change, with the reality of my own privileged position as a salaried tenured professor, how this book might further enhance my professional status (if not my pay), and of course how I hope it will help to launch long and successful careers for my co-authors, Tal and Max. That this is a contradiction built-in to my work should come as no surprise. Some of our interviewees even alluded to this. When I interviewed Allan Creighton, a man who labored many years working for social justice for very little pay, he recounted a poignant memory of a sociology graduate student who in the mid-1980s joined Creighton’s MOVE (Men Overcoming Violence) collective to study it. The student eventually published an article, Creighton said, that argued that the men of MOVE were “all kind of lost about what they’re doing in their lives, they’re all white guys of a certain class background. And their actual decisions about how to continue are actually class based. That they’re all beginning careers and are gonna’ get paid for their careers and this is a way to move on up. This article, Creighton said, made him “so mad…I want to tear it up.” Well, Creighton and many other men in MOVE did in fact build careers in anti-violence work. But, I hasten to add, the sociology grad student who conducted the critical class analysis of the MOVE men’s professional aspirations and motivations likely also gained professional status by publishing this article. I’d guess he eventually earned a higher salary too, than did many of the MOVE men.

As we did the research for this book we tried to keep in mind that doing this sort of work is inherently contradictory, yes, but that does not mean that it should not be done. It is crucial, I think, to keep in mind how one might err: on the one hand, if we simply and uncritically applaud the courageous work of our interviewees—and let’s be clear, I do admire the work these women and men are doing; I often left an interview feeing so upbeat and so hopeful just knowing that this person is in the world—we would not only contribute to putting them on a pedestal, we also would not be doing our jobs as critical sociologists. On the other hand, if we lambasted our interviewees for their professional careerism, for not being radical or “political” enough, we would not only be ignoring the good that some of them are doing in the world, we would also be engaging in the worst sort of holier-than-thou political correctness—after which we would then go on to collect our own professional kudos for doing a great piece of critical research, and then of course collect our salaries too.

Rather than seeing this as an either-or choice—critique vs. celebration of one’s research subjects—I see it as a task of critical sociology to analyze how our interview subjects themselves make sense of and creatively navigate the tensions and contradictions in their field. For me this is also a self-reflexive task, a self-navigation of tensions that are grounded in my own privileged position as a white, heterosexually-identified man with a secure professional class career that largely insulates me from many of the problems I study. One way to navigate this tension, for me, is to try to listen and learn from my interviewees. Here’s an example from this study, and it’s a bit embarrassing to admit that this is something I had not already known. When we asked the men in our interviews how they navigated the “pedestal effect”—the tendency for men doing feminist work to be elevated, listened to and rewarded more readily than women doing the same work—several of them said that when they are invited to another community to speak or to lead a workshop, they always try in advance of the visit to connect with women’s shelters or rape crisis centers in that community. Instead of simply parachuting in, soaking up applause and cash for being an “expert” on sexual assault or DV, these men ask how they can use their visit to support or make visible the local work that’s being done on the ground, most likely by women activists. I have taken this advice to heart, and I now do this when I am invited to talk about this research.

This project has been a great deal of fun for me. I loved doing the interviews, and must acknowledge that part of the ease of this process lies in my being twice-removed from the actual topic—gender-based violence. I am fortunate never to have experienced violence in my own families, and I have been relatively insulated from male-on-male violence throughout my life. And interviews with prevention activists and professionals, for the most part, will not usually have the sort of devastating emotional impact as, say, interviewing those who have been directly traumatized by sexual assault or domestic violence. The interviews were also pleasurable due to the identification I felt with the interviewees. Many of the older individuals in the study are people whom I have known, or at least knew of, for a very long time. I have long admired these older men’s and women’s commitment to social change, and it was an inspiration to meet a younger generation of men who have taken up the work in recent years. Tal Peretz and Max Greenberg have also inspired me. In fact, I got the idea for doing this project from Tal and Max, who a few years ago, as new Ph.D. students, started to educate me on the new and growing proliferation of anti-violence work on campuses and in communities, to which they were both committed as scholar-activists. I have learned a great deal from each of these young men, and look forward to seeing their careers develop.

At the end of each interview, we asked individuals if there was anything they would like to add, anything that we have failed to ask them that they feel is important. When Tal asked Tony Porter this question, he paused and then said, “I just want you do the right thing, with the information you got from me and the information you got from everybody else, and to know that we're all trusting you to do the right thing. That's the nature of the work, there's a lot of weight on your shoulders; there's a lot on mine too.”

The men and women we interviewed are out in the trenches every day, many of them for years, decades, working with individuals, families, schools, sports teams, workplaces, the military, trying to make a difference. They are not perfect in their work, nor are we perfect sociologists. But I know that in conducting the research, in analyzing and making sense of our interviews, we have tried our best to do the right thing.