LOS ANGELES — The T-shirts say things like "Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them" or "Boys are goobers... drop anvils on their heads" and feature cartoon-figure boys on the run. There are accessories to go with them, too: "Boys are smelly" lip balm or "Boys lie - make them cry" bubble gum.
Cute? Funny? Or rather, as radio talk show host and self-proclaimed men's rights activist Glenn Sacks sees it, a blatant example of misandry.
Misandry? What's that?
Well, ignorance is part of the problem Mr. Sacks says he is out to redress. Over the past two months, he has been using his increasingly popular weekly radio show here, "His Side," to rail against what he sees as the anti-male, or misandry, merchandise line.
"When males insult females we call it 'woman-hating' and 'misogyny.' When females insult males, apparently it's OK. No more!" is his battle cry.
The campaign he has instigated against stores that carry the merchandise has had results. Three retail chains - Seattle-based Bon-Macy's and California-based Tilly's and Claire's Stores, an international chain that runs more than 2,800 stores in North America, Europe, and Japan - have yanked the products, which are manufactured or licensed by David & Goliath, a T-shirt company based in Clearwater, Fla.
Universal Studios in Hollywood said that it, too, would soon take the offending T-shirts off its company store shelves.
"Everyone always says girls in school suffer; they have low self-esteem; teachers make them feel second best, blah blah blah," says Sacks, sipping a soda on a recent overcast afternoon in Los Angeles. "But it's obvious that, in general, girls are doing better in school, and boys are falling behind."
What is also "obvious," continues this former grade-school teacher, is that most of the "behavioral problem kids" are boys, too. Most of those who "get bullied" and "don't fit in" - not to mention the ones who later get into problems with drugs and gangs - are, pretty much, all boys, he says.
"So, do you really think with all that [that] we need a T-shirt saying: 'Throw rocks at boys'? " he asks, exasperated, his arms flung wide.
"Puh-leeze," moan the feminists, noting that they are busy trying to raise awareness of real-life problems, such as recent sharia rulings in Nigeria calling for unfaithful wives to be stoned to death. "No, I don't think the shirts are cute," says Helen Grieco, executive director of the National Organization for Women (NOW), California chapter. "But I spend every day on life-and-death issues and don't have time for T-shirt campaigns."
Other critics, citing everything from First Amendment free-speech rights to a sense of humor to a sense of perspective in defense of the T-shirts have also ridiculed Sacks's mission. ("You would think a male version of Hooters just opened up," writes columnist Jane Ganahl in the San Francisco Chronicle. "Oh, sorry - bad analogy. Hooters is just good, clean, inoffensive fun.")
Shrugging off the criticism, Sacks is working to transform his 15 minutes of fame into a soap box to discuss other men's and fathers' issues. Judging from the attention his campaign gathered, the near-celebrity status he has maintained since, and the hundreds of fan letters he receives weekly, his strategy seems to be succeeding.
"I don't believe that men are oppressed and women are privileged or the other way around. I think both genders have advantages and disadvantages," explains Sacks. "But, what I have come to believe is that the disadvantages women face are in the public domain. Everyone knows about them. But few understand men's needs and dreams. That is what I want to shine light upon."
He agrees there are more important issues than the impact of a T-shirt on boys' self-esteem, but why should that stop him? "I can't solve Middle East peace and I can't solve the budget deficit and I can't eliminate ... rap music that trashes women," he argues. "So I choose the battles I can win, and go from there."
On his weekly radio talk show (aired Sunday nights in California and Seattle) as well as in his writings, Sacks spends time debunking what he calls "myths" about men's behavior and countering with his own statistics. No, it's not true that 1 out of 4 female college students is a victim of attempted or real rape, he argues. It's not true that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to adult women. "Preposterous.... Absurd," he charges.
"If, in the first week of college orientation, 'they' hand out pamphlets about rape on college campuses and it says 1 out of 4 will be raped, blah blah blah," he argues, "bang! Eighteen-year-old guys, right from the beginning, are stigmatized, vilified, lied about."
(A March 2002 US Department of Justice report, however, estimates that 25 percent of college women have been victims of rape since the age of 14.)
Those who benefit from the "mythical" statistics, Sacks says, are the "antimale radical feminists who want to push their agenda." If they can "stigmatize men as being wife-beaters and people who abandon their children, then you don't have to give them fairness in family court, and you don't have to listen to their issues."
And what are these issues? Well, men often get the short end of the stick on child custody, for example. They can easily be falsely accused of rape or domestic violence, they can be slapped with false paternity suits, and they have little recourse to law when ex-spouses interfere with their child visitation rights, reels off Sacks.
Ms. Grieco of NOW says there is no doubt that a men's rights movement is needed in the US, but when men like Sacks broadcast misinformation, skew statistics, and attack women's rights in order to advance their own cause, they are only harming everyone's agenda.
"Men certainly suffer their own oppressions and should fight for their rights," she says. "I would offer nothing but applause for a legitimate voice fighting for men, while respecting women." But Sacks, in her view, is a "women-bashing, backlash shock-jock radio host."
At the National Coalition for Free Men (NCFM), the largest men's rights group in the country, they beg to differ and stand up to defend Sacks. "We have found that any outspoken men's rights advocate standing up for true gender equity in our society gets criticized and labeled marginal and not representative," says Matt Campbell, president of NCFM's Washington, D.C., chapter.
"These feminists want to keep our issues on the back burner." It's disingenuous, he says, for groups like NOW to call for men's rights advocates to work in concert with them. "It's like winning the war and then demanding that those you have conquered act peacefully."
Meanwhile, down in Florida, Lauren Siktberg, the marketing and public relations manager of David & Goliath - disinterested in the whole debate over men's rights - spends a great deal of her days picking up the phone. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands of callers have rung up since Sacks began his campaign against their T-shirts.
Some say things like: "Why don't you make cartoon T-shirts that read 'Tie girls up and rape them'?" she recounts. Others register their disapproval. Still others, many others in fact, call to place an order. More than 3,000 small boutique stores now carry these "novelty" items, and Internet sales are soaring. "Controversy has not been all bad for us," admits Ms. Siktberg. "That is probably the one thing we and Sacks have in common."