Stephanie Vermeulen argues that men too are the victims of cultural forces that distort their lives.

South African feminist writer Stephanie Vermeulen argues that men too are the victims of cultural forces that distort their lives. Her book Stitched-Up: Who Fashions Women’s Lives? will be published in the US this year, making her one of the first South African non-fiction feminist authors to be published there, writes Andrea Vinassa.

Raise the topic of “feminism” in a group and many of the women will ignore the conversation, believing that the job is done. Men on the other hand actively engage in debate about how males have become society’s real victims.

Betty Friedan – an outspoken leading feminist of the Sixties – said “men are not the enemy, but the fellow victim”. And Warren Farrell, initially an outspoken supporter of feminism, switched position in his book The Myth of Male Power. He claims men are disposable in a society that has become too sensitised to women’s “whims”. Among other things, he claims that while some females are in the military, it is males who are the real cannon fodder of war; men also perform the most dangerous jobs, commit suicide more frequently, are violently attacked more often and it is husbands (or boyfriends) who are constantly on the alert to protect their women 24/7.

Prominent feminist Susan Faludi also examines the male question in her book Stiffed. She claims that the unrealistic expectation placed upon men to control everything (including themselves) is the cause of the current male crisis. She says: “Just as much as women are at the mercy of cultural forces that distort their lives, so are men.”

Stephanie Vermeulen – author of Stitched-Up: Who Fashions Women’s Lives? – claims that for about 3 000 years those who are in control have gained and maintained the upper hand by employing the archaic principle of domination, in other words dominate others before being dominated.

“Although some men use this tactic to maintain control at home, the bigger picture shows that within the command-and-control model only the few holding the cards of power score. Domination is about winner-takes-all and, by definition, the majority of men and women are excluded, making them both vulnerable to being victimised by those in power.”

Domination uses the tactics of force to win and according to David Hawkins—author of Power vs Force—it is the ammunition of the powerless. Through kinesiology, Hawkins calibrated human emotions, and those that correspond with the tactics of force—such as anger, pride and vengeance—fall into the category of “victim”. So, while the so-called powerful may grandstand to appear in command, the reality is this powerless minority couldn’t dominate without an arsenal of weapons, rules, threats and sufficient control over resources to breed fear, all of which harm both men and women.

For Hawkins, harnessing courage is the emotional resource that makes the transition from force to real forms of personal power. Vermeulen strengthens Hawkins’s point by comparing Nelson Mandela with George W Bush. “If one examines the strategies of Madiba and Dubya it becomes clear which man drew upon his courage to be victorious and who would be lost without his arsenal.”

In examining the question of why any one life is more valuable than the next, she also tackles royalty. “Today sovereignty has taken on mythical proportions. But the truth is any current monarch is the spawn of ancestors whose only claim to fame is that they were more violent than those they deposed. Without the protection of armies, castles and rules to enforce class privilege, any royal would be little more than an average Joe.”

Vermeulen avers that gender stereo­types demanding that men believe the illusion of their own superiority are equally absurd. “They only exist because patriarchal males originally created this specious rule. But by moulding men and women into inauthentic roles, personal power is limited by unwritten cultural conventions that prevent both genders from exploring their unique potential.”

There are, of course, those who claim that gender stereotypes stem from “the natural order of things” where men protect and women nurture. Some even use gender differences in the brain to support their argument, and – although Vermeulen agrees that there are variations – the brain is an adaptive structure. “Many males develop their compassionate nature and more and more females are trashing the stereotype through successful careers or by opting to be childfree.”

Nonetheless, the “battle of the sexes” rages on, although it is no longer about who washes the dishes or takes out the rubbish. Now it’s about far bigger issues like the wellbeing of humankind and even world peace.

Oliver James, in his book Affluenza, identified a social virus infecting moneyed people. “Affluenza” causes depression, anxiety, addiction and ennui and, in the English-speaking world, it is reaching pandemic proportions. This “disease” is caused by striving to appear successful to the outside world and is fuelled by the misery of consumerism. It doesn’t discriminate; both men and women are equally inflicted.

In his study, James compared Denmark with other developed nations and found Danes to be relatively virus free. The male editor of a large-circulation Danish newspaper attributes this to the fact that Danes have “very strong, real-life gender equality”.

Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and the Blade, also shows that during times where male domination declined, creativity increased and there was less warfare, fundamentalism, and violence.

For Vermeulen it makes sense that men who put their family first are unlikely to support warfare. “Why would any dedicated father desert his children for months on end to fight someone else’s political agenda in another country?”

The idea of harmony at home being the catalyst for world peace is supported by the 2007 Global Peace Index. Compiled by the Economist magazine’s intelligence unit, the index shows all four of the more gender-equal Scandinavian countries fall within the top seven of the 121 nations researched.

Vermeulen concludes: “Now that there aren’t many jobs left requiring either a penis or breasts, both men and women can get past these mind-numbingly dreary stereotypes and find the true nature of our personal power. Then we can join forces and tackle the real issues that victimise both men and women and harm the world.”

Stephanie Vermeulen’s Stitched-Up: Who Fashions Women’s Lives? will be published in the United States in October. The earlier, South African edition of her book, Stitched (Jacana), is available from local bookshops