The problem with feminism’s focus on women
- I don’t label myself a feminist. This is because I do not think, read or write extensively about gender, nor do I engage in any gender-oriented activism. On the other hand, I have a lot of smart feminist friends and don’t disagree with them (or with feminism, insofar that there exists anything approaching a homogeneous ideology) on very much – women clearly have problems that men do not have to face, and that’s really not something that I can add to. This post is a summary of the few original thoughts I do have about gender and feminists (insofar there exist anything approaching a representative feminist). I’m splitting the ideas into paragraphs and numbering them to make it easier to follow my argument, and raise objections if you have any.
- Note that this is an evolving essay; paragraphs will mysteriously appear, mutate, and disappear, based on what I think will express the idea best.
- Disclaimer: It ought to go without saying that not all feminists behave or think in the following manner. Flavia Agnes comes to mind. Indeed, given it’s incredible diversity, one cannot say anything concrete about “feminism” any more than “sports”. This essay is a generalization, as all such essays must be. This essay, at best, talks about the behavior and attitudes of some feminists while unfairly and unavoidably leaving out the contributions of others. Any perceived vehemence is a consequence of terseness, nothing more.
- Men are disproportionately represented at the top – politicians, CEOs, generals etc tend to be men.
- They are also disproportionately represented at the bottom – criminals, immigrant workers, conscripts etc.
- Thus it is not at all obvious that men are “advantaged” by the current system.
- The best way to introduce this no-advantage idea is to play the analogy game: you give me an example of female disadvantage, and I give you an analogous male disadvantage. Note that there are some forms of advantage/disadvantage that aren’t comparable. Women are under far more risk of sexual violence than men are. Men are under far more risk of being sent to prison. However, for most “female disadvantages” there is some parallel “male disadvantage”.
- Just as women are expected to stay at home and be mothers, men are expected to go out, even migrate, and be breadwinners. Just as women are oppressed by social ideas of beauty, men are oppressed by social ideas of success. Just as women are oppressed by the idea of chastity, men are judged by how many women they’ve bedded. The male equivalent of sluts is not, as some people think, studs who have lots of sex, but losers who do not have any – both “sluts” and “losers” are considered failures on the mating market. (Incidentally, womaniser is not a nice word.) Words like bitch and cunt gendered, but so are creep, dick, bastard and asshole. Assertive women are considered overbearing, and unassertive men are considered weak. I’m more than happy to continue playing this game in the comments section.
- I’m not claiming that women have it better than men or vice-versa. Asking “who has it worse – men or women?” is like asking “what is more painful – being kicked in the balls or giving birth?” – we’ll never know, and no-one cares. The advantages and disadvantages of men and women cannot be compared – it’s apples to oranges. The analogy game is pedagogy, not proof – people sometimes find it hard to understand weird new ideas, and it helps to make connections between these ideas and an existing framework. I’m using the existing frame of female disadvantages to illustrate male disadvantages. Here is an in-depth example, where the author argues that “confidence” is for men what “thin” is for women.
- Turning to more serious matters, violence against women has been highlighted in the media lately. This is a good thing. I’ve noticed a lot of people insisting that women have it particularly bad because they face violence on a daily basis. Yet, the vast majority of homicide and assault victims are men. Society allocates men to careers in the police force, the military and crime, where the violence is the point. The riskiest occupations, like fishing, logging or diving, are largely male – 1 in 30 fishers will die working (and that’s the figure for the US). Men are the majority of suicide victims. Rape is rampant in prison, and a non-issue for the public. Men are goaded to fight and considered “less of a man” if they back down. Most of the lives laid down in wars and political struggles are male. Men are also victims of domestic violence, and yet the law doesn’t even recognize this as a possibility in most countries. Almost universally, they live shorter lives. Men are, and always have been, the disposable sex. Clearly men face violence, and it’s clearly a gendered institution. None of this is to deny that women face gendered violence – it is to insist that men do as well.
- If you’re still not convinced, or simply curious about why matters should be so, I highly recommend the essay “What are men good for?” by Roy Baumeister, in which he discusses “how culture exploits men”. It’s as close to a grand theory of gender as is possible. Excerpt: “Whom does society use for bad or dangerous jobs? US Department of Labor statistics report that 93% of the people killed on the job are men. Likewise, who gets killed in battle? Even in today’s American army, which has made much of integrating the sexes and putting women into combat, the risks aren’t equal. This year we passed the milestone of 3,000 deaths in Iraq, and of those, 2,938 were men, 62 were women. […] I think most men know that in an emergency, if there are women and children present, he will be expected to lay down his life without argument or complaint so that the others can survive. On the Titanic, the richest men had a lower survival rate (34%) than the poorest women (46%) (though that’s not how it looked in the movie). That in itself is remarkable. The rich, powerful, and successful men, the movers and shakers, supposedly the ones that the culture is all set up to favor — in a pinch, their lives were valued less than those of women with hardly any money or power or status. The too-few seats in the lifeboats went to the women who weren’t even ladies, instead of to those patriarchs.
- Another way to illustrate this would be list “female privileges” i.e. advantages that women enjoy (by the virtue of being women), but men do not. I’ve been spending time reading gender blogs recently and found this meta-list. The lists will tend to have a Western cultural bent, but some elements are universal. Just to be clear: I find the term “privilege” obnoxious and un-usable in conversation (the aim of words is to facilitate the communication of ideas – “privilege” undermines this process by putting people on the defensive). So you won’t find it again on this blog.
- Many feminists would agree that men get a bad deal – that’s why they should be feminists! Any mildly theory-aware feminist worth his/her salt will be happy to tell you that they’re against gender essentialism – the idea that what a person should or should not do ought be defined by their gender. The ideal way to think of patriarchy is a system where a person’s options are determined by their gender, so there exist male privileges and female privileges, there exists disadvantages to being a man and disadvantages to being a woman. All of these are discriminatory and, for most people, unfair.
- Yet, the randomly chosen, self-described feminist has at least the vague idea that men are “at the top” under patriarchy while women are “at the bottom”.
- Why is this? My theory is that beliefs are formed due to repeated exposure to ideas and examples. Feminists are exposed, via their networks, to many examples of women suffering for being women while relatively fewer examples of men suffering for being men. The men on top are highly visible. The men at the bottom are not.
- But this merely replaces one question with another: why are they exposed to one-sided examples? Despite being against all gender essentialism in theory, nine times out of ten, the activities of self-identified feminists – protests, op-eds, speeches, blog posts, organisation, tweets, essays, legal activism etc. – center around women’s problems. The fact that beauty, a social construct, can drive young girls to unhealthy eating habits gets highlighted – the fact that success, a social construct, can drive young men to withdrawal and depression does not. I’m not denying that the first is a gender issue – I’m insisting that the second is as well. They’re both consequences of individuals failing to live up to some ideal that is partially determined by their gender.
- Phrasing the claim in a somewhat stylized manner – there tends to be a lot of focus on barriers that prevent women from reaching the top, but very little on the nets that prevent them from falling to the bottom. Rephrased, there tends to be a lot of focus on forces that disproportionately propel men to the top, but very little on what drives them to the bottom.
- Thus a false vision of patriarchy gets created – one where men are the oppressors, the advantaged, the privileged and where women are the oppressed, the disadvantaged, the underprivileged. Reality is far more complex.
- This belief is self-perpetuating. The reason that women’s issues get attention is because of the idea that women are disadvantaged. Yet this attention is what creates the idea that women are uniquely disadvantaged. Stylizing: X focuses on women’s issues because he/she thinks that women are hurt more than men; X thinks that women are hurt more than men because he/she sees more examples of women suffering than men suffering; X sees more examples of women suffering because he/she focuses on women’s issues. The importance of this loop cannot be overstated.
- The fact that (some) feminists focus on women’s issues, or have internalized a lopsided view of patriarchy, isn’t itself problematic. It is important to dismantle the barriers that stifle women, and I certainly do not think I’m qualified to tell people what they should or should not focus their energy on. The problem is that way they behave as a consequence of this belief. I’m going to restrict myself to one case study, but once you’re aware of this (sometimes unstated) belief, it manifests itself everywhere.
- This post was prompted by this article: Wanted: Gender-just rape laws […] All-India Progressive Women’s Association secretary Kavita Krishnan says: “One pernicious provision of the Ordinance 2013 upheld by the Standing Committee report is blanket gender neutrality of the perpetrator of sexual harassment, assault and rape. Put simply: unlike in existing law where the accused is male, the Standing Committee recommendations if enacted into a proposed new Bill will make it possible for women to be charged with these offences. This is wholly unacceptable.” Stating that apart from situations where women hold positions of statutory authority (like police officers), in all other situations making the accused gender-neutral means that complaints by women can be met with counter-complaints to get them to withdraw, she added. “Given the current odds against women securing justice, the gender neutrality of accused in sexual violence laws will have a deep chilling effect on women’s ability to even file complaints.”
- The Hindustan Times dismisses gender-neutrality as an attempt to “appease men”, and claims that “women raping men is mostly a frivolous diversion.”
- The idea that women cannot rape men is wrong. The male erectile response is involuntary (I was surprised too). Lesbian rape is also a reality. Check out this post, and don’t forget the comment thread. Some of the stories are awful. Here is a duplicate of the same post, with a different comment thread. If you’re in a cultural mood, check out this TVTropes page on the subject of double standards.
- Does Kavita Krishnan have a point when she says that the law can be abused? Sure – any law can be abused, against women as well as men. Yet, fake cases against men are apparently a non-concern, despite that fact that most people, including judges, are far more receptive to the idea of a male rapist than a female rapist. So why focus on the chance that women might be falsely charged?
- The reluctance to give male complaints legal standing comes, I think, from the idea that women are the oppressed and men are the oppressors – so (a) how could a woman possibly do anything to a man, and (b) how can we give the class of men another tool of domination over women? It’s like giving the whites a weapon against the blacks. Of course, a simpler answer might be that while feminists work towards dismantling gender stereotypes that hurt women, they’ve not yet dismantled stereotypes that hurt men, even within the movement/philosophy.
- This is also the attitude that causes India’s domestic violence law to decree that only wives can be victims, even though a woman with a stick can inflict quite a lot of damage, and even though “emotional cruelty” is more a matter of skill than physical strength . Sexual harassment can be a problem for men as well. Yet women, in much of feminist thought and practice, are always victims, and never perpetrators.
- Another consequence of this mindset, funnier than it is problematic, is that all gender issues get framed as women issues. If someone were to point out that blacks – or the erstwhile “criminal castes and tribes” – are over-represented in prison, people immediately start looking for social, historical or cultural reasons that cause such a tragic outcome and look for ways to get them out of it. Meanwhile, when I bring up the men in prison thing, people think I’m talking about liberating women so that they can be criminals if they want. The problem isn’t limited to my social circle – in a recent Freakonomics Radio podcast, the entire cast was at a loss about what to make of the gender gap in prisons … do they want women to commit more crime? When feminists fought to end gender discriminating in conscription, it wasn’t because women too should be sent, against their will, to die violently in strange lands like low-status slave-soldiers – it was because women should be allowed to fight for their country, too!
- None of this is to insist that feminists should start fighting for “men’s rights”. I’m not even trying to bring attention to men’s issues. The only policy changes that this essay identifies are to make rape laws, domestic violence laws etc. gender-neutral. The major philosophical demand is that people be aware, regardless of what they do, that the system doesn’t uniquely advantage men. Because if you’re not aware you end up doing something stupid, like demanding gender-just laws. Neither of these are, I think, heavy demands.
- I do not expect feminists to be interested in men’s issues anymore than I expect them to be interested in cleaning the Ganga. However, the beliefs and activism of feminists have an impact on men in a way that they don’t have on rivers, and with power comes responsibility. People who have adopted that label have done wonderful work advancing the state of half of humanity (and helped the other half as well, indirectly), and nothing can eclipse that. However, no-one’s perfect, and it’s possible to fall into philosophical errors without knowing it. This post is a critique of a facet of feminism, nothing more.
- PS. If you’re wondering why I’ve spent so much time on male disadvantages and so little on female disadvantages (given that they’re both important, if not equally) the explanation is simple: I assume anyone who’s reading my blog is aware of female disadvantages, given the media coverage lately, and given the attention these get, even in normal times, in the academic circles I move in.
- UPDATE: The Indian Government has amended the law to exclude the possibility of female rapists.
- How many female rickshawalas do you see?
- If you’re a woman, gentle reader, might I ask if your parents looked deeply disappointed when you didn’t clear the IIT entrance exam? Did you give it?
- Although in India, I’d argue that the parents of boys are as protective as the parents of girls about their young one’s hearts.
- Not dissing it. I myself have full faith in rationality, atleast in aggregate.
- Renuka Choudary, former Minister for Women and Child Development, commenting on the potential for abuse in the Domestic Violence Act claimed ” “Innocent in-laws” have nothing to worry about. Innocent in-laws live in harmony with their daughters-in-law. There should not be problem.”