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Men’s Rights Activists Are Making the Ukraine Crisis All About Themselves

Sorry, feminism is not to blame for men being conscripted into war

Few topics galvanize so-called Men’s Rights Activists like imminent or ongoing war. The movement believes that women have all the perks in society, meaning they put a lot of effort into dismissing or explaining away rape culture, the gender wage gap and many more structural disadvantages that come with being a woman. But when the news turns to military combat, these guys can finally go on the offensive, complaining that while they may be expected to fight in geopolitical conflicts halfway around the globe, “female privilege” allows women to stay safe at home.

Without defending the draft, it’s worth saying that none of these men have ever been conscripted into the armed services. For anyone born since the Vietnam War, it’s all theoretical. And while some MRAs loudly advocate for making women register, they also tend to view women as too physically and mentally weak to serve as effective soldiers. Only men have what it takes, apparently — yet it’s still unfair that men make up a disproportionate share of the army.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has added to their list of grievances. They’re incensed by stories of Ukrainian women and children escaping the country as refugees while husbands, fathers, brothers and sons stay behind to mount a resistance. Men aged 18 to 60, in fact, are not permitted to cross the border. To MRAs, this is an outrage on par with the rescue of “women and children first” in maritime disasters. Again, this is where they conveniently forget their essentialist rhetoric about men’s strength, reasoning, capacity for survival and duty to protect. Now it’s unthinkable that a man should risk his life to uphold the principle of “gynocentrism.” 

Since overhauling its military in 2014, Ukraine has increased the number of women in uniform to some 32,000, or 15 percent of their armed forces. Civilian women are staying in Ukraine to assemble Molotov cocktails and defend cities; some have already been killed. A woman, 39 weeks pregnant, may give birth in the bomb shelter where she’s been hiding — and in Kyiv, two sisters organize a shelter that protects hundreds of people every night. This suffering is no different than men’s, nor is the courage. There is no monopoly on either. And women who wish to flee must have the tenacity, resources and luck to do so. They aren’t magically whisked to Poland or Romania by virtue of their gender, as MRAs imply. “We don’t have transport to move anywhere,” one young woman in Kyiv with her mother recently posted on Telegram.        

It’s natural to be horrified at the sight of a father separated from his children. War is cruel by definition, and capricious. What you cannot do is seize on these extreme local conditions — a nation forcibly retaining men to ensure its very survival — to argue that you, thousands of miles away, are oppressed by a female ruling class. You cannot pick the handful of narratives from a vast and complex tragedy that appeal to your embittered worldview and ignore everything else. 

It’s also profoundly cynical to act as though women don’t sympathize with men on both sides who have entered this battle against their will, through circumstances outside their control. And has it occurred to any MRA that the order to halt Ukrainian men at the border came from… Ukrainian men? The Australian sociologist Michael Flood, who researches and writes on masculinity, pointed out that the male pain identified here has distinctly male causes. This doesn’t lessen the agony but does blow apart the idea that you can blame it on feminism.  

On the r/mensrights subreddit, even a man living in closer proximity to the violence, “in a nearby country,” regards it as a zero-sum competition between genders. He writes that he is thinking of how to smuggle himself out of the region “if Russia decides to keep going,” asking for tips on how to plot his escape. It’s a scary position to be in, and an option that anyone might consider. But he reveals his true colors when he says it “makes no sense that for example a [45-year-old] childless woman who has lived life already can leave,” while he, an 18-year-old man, is kept behind. For some reason, it’s not bad enough that he should be trapped in a warzone; the real indignity is that a middle-aged woman should have the chance to survive. His proposed plan, by the way, is to cross the border in the trunk of a car, with his mother driving. Does she know that her son believes she’s only earned freedom by giving birth to him? It’s an ugly thought.

A humane philosophy seeks to maximize the preservation of life and liberty in a merciless reality, but all the MRAs can focus on is the notion that women are somehow “winning” amid this crisis — as if there are any winners here. Worse, they appropriate harrowing atrocities to further a petty, juvenile cause. If they want to help the besieged men of Ukraine, they have various means to show support. Right now, however, they’re just inflating their own sense of victimhood.