Why 'men's officers' are sexist



HOBART — The student representative body at the University of Tasmania has applied to the Anti-Discrimination Commission for an exemption to anti-discrimination laws in order to create a woman-only women's officer position, an Aboriginal-only Aboriginal officer, a non-heterosexual queer officer, an access officer with a disability, and a male-only men's officer.

The decision follows the election of a man to the position of women's officer in the Student Representative Council at the University of Tasmania's Launceston campus.

The decision to apply for a male-only men's officer is the result of a referendum held in September 1999 in which 937 students voted in favour of creating a men's officer, and only 349 students voted against.

By law the Tasmania University Union is bound by the referendum decision and must bring the matter to the Anti-Discrimination Commission.

On July 4, anti-discrimination commissioner Jocelyn Scutt told the Hobart Mercury that the TUU would need to demonstrate that the exemptions would provide equal opportunity for disadvantaged groups or groups with special needs.

If it can do so, the issue will go to another student referendum to formally change the constitution to create the new positions.

Since the application, there has been an intense debate about whether to create the position of "men's officer".

The July 6 Mercury carried a letter from Mark Evenhuis, TUU president, stating that whilst he was bound by law to apply for an exemption, he personally did not agree with the creation of a men's officer, as men did not face oppression or discrimination as a generic group.

However, Ted Alexander, the TUU vice-president, disagreed, arguing that the media focus on the creation of a men's officer position was not warranted and that controversy had been created where none in fact existed, especially since the creation of such a position "may or may not even happen".

But, despite Alexander's assertions, the question of whether or not student unions should have men's officers continues to generate controversy amongst students.

Supporters of men's officer positions claim that since men face certain specific health issues, suffer from increased rates of suicide and are faced with restrictive notions of masculinity that they are "oppressed" and need a men's officer in order to redress this oppression.

Some supporters, often explicit anti-feminists, go further, arguing that feminism has "gone too far" — women have not only achieved equality but supremacy, men are now oppressed by women, and therefore men need a men's officer in order to regain equality.

If men, as a gender, were faced with systematic oppression as women are in all spheres of life — less access to jobs, a high probability of being victims of sexual violence, the burden of carrying out most unpaid work in the home — then a men's officer would be a positive development.

But this is far from the case. Evenhuis is quite correct in his assertion that men are not oppressed — in fact men derive an immediate benefit from women's oppression.

In a sexist society, men are more likely to get access to a greater amount of their teachers' attention, get better marks than women, be promoted over women, and earn higher wages for the same work. Even more importantly, in the home many men get free cooking, cleaning and childcare.

Of course, it is true that a sexist society distorts all relations between the sexes, and in this sense limits men's behaviour. But this does not constitute gender oppression, nor does it cancel out the material benefits available to all men in a sexist society.

Sexism will only be defeated through the liberation of those it oppresses — women. This is why Resistance supports women's officer positions on campuses — not as mere passive defenders of individual women, but as organisers of feminist campaigns designed to defeat sexism.

In recent years the role of many campus women's officers has ceased to involve campaigning, and most women's rooms are no longer places for women to meet and collectively organise campaigns to fight against their oppression as a sex. Instead, they have become a place for women to get together and chat or access microwaves, free tea or coffee.

Without a political basis for these positions or rooms, it is not surprising that some men are beginning to argue that they should have access to a similar room and a men's officer to facilitate it — after all, tea and coffee are not exactly furthering the struggle against women's oppression.

But men's rooms, and officers, are worse than passive women's rooms. Because they exist to specifically further the interests of men as men, they lay the basis for an organised opposition to women fighting against entrenched male privilege.

Women's officer positions need to be used to fight against sexism, including campaigns against the creation of men's officer positions which undermine the fight against women's liberation.

All campus feminists, men and women, need be out in force to campaign against the creation of men's officers and against the notion that men are oppressed as a sex.

[Sarah Cleary is a member of Resistance at the University of Tasmania.]