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Men's Group at Occidental : Bonding for the Enlightened

April 27, 1989|ESTHER SCHRADER | Times Staff Writer

When a group of college men reserve a room on campus to meet, start talking about women and give themselves a three-letter name, that usually means that they are starting a new fraternity.

Not this time.

They call themselves Men for Egalitarian Philosophy, or MEP. And they are about as far from the fraternity boys of old as it is possible to be.

Men for Egalitarian Philosophy is a group of college seniors trying to do something new at Occidental College, a liberal arts school with a conservative history: They have formed a group that attempts to understand the new role of men against the background of the women's movement.

They speak about such things as "empowerment" and "gender roles" with an earnestness usually employed by campus feminists. And among the 1,650 students at Occidental, their philosophy is catching on. This week, the group is holding a series of evening seminars, dedicated to such issues as men's sexuality, stereotyping and father-son relationships, that are drawing crowds of 60 or more.

New Focus

"It's a new type of male bonding," said Scott Figenshow, a senior who is one of the group's founding members. "Why does the only kind of male bonding recognized in our society have to be one that involves heavy partying and putting down women? We want the focus to be on heterosexual men who want to talk about something else."

The discussion Monday night was titled "Stale Roles and Tight Buns: Images of Men in Advertising." A video of advertisements featuring images such as the "Marlboro Man," cologne bottles shaped like phalluses and construction workers eyeing women--or presumably their pantyhose--drew guffaws and groans. It also drew a heated discussion about the stereotypical behavior that MEP says men are conditioned to adopt.

"The problem is, society keeps staring back into the mirror and it's a self-perpetuating thing," Robert Mansour, 20, said. "The question is, how do we get away from it?"

Male responses to the women's movement are nothing new, academics say. Since the suffragettes marched for the vote and the women activists of the 1960s marched for sexual equality, there have been men who marched with them.

But during the late 1970s, feminist activism on college campuses went into something of a hibernation, academics say. In recent years, there has been a new focus on women's issues at colleges such as Occidental, spawning an often-defensive response among men of a younger generation, they say. Today, groups organized to discuss men's lives with the introspection normally reserved for women are once again new, they say.

'Positive Sign'

"It's a very positive sign that these men have decided to take responsibility for these changes rather than just letting them happen to them," said Karen King, a professor of religious studies at Occidental and an adviser to women's groups on campus.

The group is not without its detractors. Some feminists at Occidental see MEP as an attempt by men to co-opt the language of the women's movement. The group's founders angered feminists on campus by suggesting that the women's studies program at the college be renamed "Gender Studies." And some women say men are being disingenuous when they say they understand women's problems.

"Sometimes the women students get sort of mad," said Mary Weismantel, a professor of anthropology who heads the women's studies program at Occidental. "They feel that this has stolen the limelight from them."

But the largest organization of feminists at Occidental, the Feminist Consciousness Coalition, supports MEP. The two groups have met together several times, and women who have participated in the discussions say the men in MEP have learned a great deal about themselves.

"They started out thinking it just takes a couple of men who present themselves in a way that says it's OK to be men who care," Sarah Charnes, 22, said. "The truth is, they're realizing that it's a lot more then deciding these 'sensitive' men need a voice. They're realizing they aren't as sensitive as they thought."

Committed to Equality

At the start of what a brochure advertises as "Men's Issues Week" Monday night, the 15 or so Occidental students who call themselves MEP clustered around a podium on stage while one of them recited their manifesto. The document says they are committed to equality between the sexes, "and at the same time pledged to the consideration of these attitudes as they concern men."

The week of discussion continues tonight with a lecture by Bernie Zilbergeld, the author of a book called "Male Sexuality." The lecture will be held in Alumni Auditorium at 8 p.m. On Friday in Pipal Lounge, a lunch and discussion at noon is devoted to "Father-Son Relationships."

The founders of MEP say they are not out to steal the symbols of the women's movement but to broaden its meaning.

"Instead of swinging the scope of power from men to women, we're trying to swing it back to center," Figenshow said.

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