Gender roles and the strains and benefits associated with each are a never ending subject of dispute. Nor does the crisis look to be set for resolution any time soon.
The essence of the problem, as near as I can tell, is a two-fold result of the industrial revolution which we still have not completely come to grips with. The first factor is that “work” and “home” have become increasingly isolated from each other. For soldiers, sailors and bureaucrats this has always been the case –– they’ve never really worked at home –– but for peasant farmers and artisans of most sorts work and home used to be entirely intertwined, with children diving in and helping out with the family business as soon as they had the strength and coordination to do so. But with the advent of mining conglomerates, factory work, office cubicles and industrial scale farming, work became something that the “bread winner” left home to do each morning, and came back from whenever the day’s work was finished. Thus fatherhood in general became a much more detached phenomenon.
The other factor that changed with the industrial revolution was that the difference between men’s and women’s working capacities became far less self-evident in practice. It wasn’t the man’s physical strength that mattered any more; it was his capacity to manipulate the controls of machines powered by waterpower or burning fossil fuels. It didn’t take too long to figure out that most of what men were doing for work could just as easily be done by women. This has led to women progressively becoming able to move further and further into areas that were previously controlled exclusively by men. Consequently there are no longer self-evident men-only areas of commerce, industry, logistics, military operations or government.
This last factor has left two questions broadly open, however: Are women really entirely as good as men in all of these areas, and could men as well do what has traditionally been considered “women’s work” as well as women themselves can? This in turn has led to a number of heated discussions about the fundamental nature of justice in society, and the essential nature of masculinity and femininity. There is a strong movement which remains powerful and popular to this day, stressing the basic idea that a feminine identity should not be considered in any way inferior to a masculine one: feminism. But from there the question remains open, is it also necessary to demonstrate that a masculine identity is not inferior to a feminine one? If so, what name should be given to a movement reinforcing such values? Masculism?
Here in Cape Town a professor of philosophy by the name of David Benatar has recently published a book attempting to establish himself as a leader within the field of masculism: The Second Sexism. I read a review of this book online and was interested enough to go and attend its official publication lecture. It was interesting in many respects, but overall I was less than impressed. Not that I consider the essence of his position to be wrong, but he didn’t really come across as the most articulate spokesperson for the cause.
Perhaps the least defensible position that Benatar espouses is that of putting “female genital cutting” entirely on par with male circumcision. His basic claim is that both operations are essentially matters of cultural aesthetics, and that the male version is far more widely practiced and it removes far more flesh. Thus this demonstrates that men are the ones in the disadvantaged position here. In attempting to orally defend this position, Benetar stated that there was a proposal in the US to have doctors perform a nominal form of female cutting for Somali families –– effectively “just putting a nick in the clitoral hood.” This would have provided a cultural compromise which would allow the Somalis to honor their ancestral traditions while not doing any serious medical damage to the girls, but to his chagrin feminists managed to shut down such a proposal.
The point he’s not recognizing at all here is that this is not in essence an aesthetic procedure. Yes, it makes a penis look different, but there are very few –– men or women –– for whom penis-gazing is a significant pastime. It is the tactile sensations of the penis rather than the sight of one that really matters, and so its re-shaping isn’t all that big a deal aesthetically. As to the difference in sexual sensation caused by circumcision, I honestly don’t believe receivers of penal penetration notice a significant difference between the cut ones and the uncut ones. The differences they might notice from prick to prick have relatively little to do with whether or not it has that extra skin on it. As to whether or not it makes any difference to the penetrater, I don’t know many who have had it both ways, and those that I do know have no serious complaints about the loss. Thus there isn’t really an argument to be made for male circumcision making a difference in terms of sexual satisfaction one way or the other.
There are two ostensible purposes to male circumcision. One, which is rather silly actually, was to reduce the boy’s temptation to masturbate by sliding the foreskin around on the penis head. Suffice to say, if anyone seriously believes it might be “helpful” in that regard they are very obviously wrong. The other purpose is to avoid problems with a build-up of bacteria and other impurities under the foreskin. Such problems can be taken care of by regular washing, but it would be fair to say that in terms of preventing infections and spreading disease foreskins in general do more harm than good. Overall this “primitive practice” is still subject to considerable debate for its practical pros and cons then.
Now if we compare this with the practice of female genital cutting there is only one similarity: it is intended to reduce the level of satisfaction gained through non-reproductive sexual activity. But there is a huge difference: in the female case this actually tends to work, and not only in terms of preventing masturbation. There isn’t any hygiene advantage in cutting girls down there; just a significant increase in risk of infection. Nor does it make the vagina aesthetically more pleasant to gaze at. What it does do is give a man a certain added sense of assurance about his future wife’s “purity”: If she’s cut in such a way that sex gives her no physical pleasure it’s far less likely that she would have tried it out before getting married.
I’m sorry, but continuing on with a cultural tradition based on that sort of motivation –– even in a modified “harmless” form –– is just plain repulsive to me. Thus I am rather disturbed by Benatar’s willingness to take this on as a gender equality issue.
Benatar’s fundamental weakness in this whole subject area seems to be a lack of “sociological imagination”. He is trained in an abstract theoretical branch of academic philosophy, and as such he seems to have little understanding of what might cause particular social phenomena to occur and what we might do to alter situations we find objectionable. In practice he wishes to complain about feminists, but not to set about changing the status quo in any other significant ways. He thus comes across as just one more white man, born to privilege, who needs to complain about being complained about. Not that I’m in a particularly good position to complain about that myself; I just can’t imagine looking to him as the leader of a movement.
But that does not mean that I dismiss the issue of masculinity being considered by some to be inherently inferior to femininity, or the need to stand up in defense of my dignity as a man. This issue as well involves two significant questions: 1) Are there valid grounds for considering masculinity practically, functionally and/or morally inferior to the femininity? And then 2) are there female forces in power which serve to limit men’s opportunities to thrive in their lives in our day and age? Feminists in general would say yes in answer to the first question and no in answer to the second. This would include some of the male feminists I have recently been debating with. I in turn would answer to the opposite on both accounts.
With regard to the former I would acknowledge that through much of human history, in virtually every society historically known to us, men have been the ones officially in positions of authority. The answer to why this would be is quite simple really: in a primitive state of affairs if a man and a woman get into a physical fight the man usually has the advantage in terms of size and muscle strength. It takes a much more complex organization of things for authority to be based on factors other than physical dominance, so that a woman to have the possibility of taking charge, and before they could get to that point societies would already have centuries’ of male-dominated tradition providing an assumed basis for what is assumed to be “normal” for each sex.
Feminists would argue from there that the de facto position of power that men enjoyed for most of history would then entail moral responsibility for everything that happened within those societies. On this point –– while I would acknowledge that power and responsibility should ideally go hand in hand –– in practice I have to disagree. First of all there is no reason, other than untested feminist theory, to assume that female dominated societies would have been more compassionate, less confrontational and yet more sustainable than the male dominated ones we have seen throughout history. Secondly there is no reason to assume that women were entirely without influence in even the most patriarchal of societies.
Boys and girls both go through a process of mutual socialization: sometimes kindly and sometimes cruelly making each other aware of what they find socially acceptable. Boys learn to inflict more physical pain on their enemies; girls, more emotional pain. After this process there comes a matter of mate selection, where boys look for the most fertile looking girls and girls look for the most powerful acting boys. So boys try to be dominant for the same reason girls try to act sexy: to impress those whom they might theoretically try to have children with. So rather than saying that things would have gone better in history if women were in charge it might be more reasonable to say that things would have gone better if men hadn’t been trying so hard to live up to female expectations.
By and large men, like women, have been struggling individually to find acceptance, to succeed in making their children like themselves, and to leave the world a little better for their children than what they found it. Their strategies might vary, but neither sex is entitled to any moral higher ground in the matter, and both have contributed to the other gender being what it is in cultural terms.
When it comes to the other question –– whether such a thing as “matriarchy” exists in our time, and how this female power might restrict the extent to which men are able to thrive –– we have to make some effort at being careful in our definitions. I’d be willing to make the dangerous generalization of saying that it is broadly acknowledged that the term “patriarchy” has suffered a fair amount of inflation in feminist discourse, to the point that it serves more as a marker of rhetorical resentment towards things masculine than a name for a social malaise to be remedied. In debating the “proper meaning” of this term with a feminist friend of mine, however, we agreed to the following functional definition:
Patriarchy: Any system that assumes that men and masculinity are rightfully superior to women and femininity, and actively operates to reinforce this assumption by subduing the latter.
Operational terms are italicized there. To count as patriarchy first of all we have to be talking about something systematic, not just a random bastard or two with nasty attitudes. Secondly there has to be an assumption of superiority as part of the natural order of things. Thirdly this needs to be something that the bad guys are somehow reinforcing, sort of like South African whites were doing with their theory of racial superiority under Apartheid. Reverse the genders then and we have a functional definition for matriarchy as well.
Are there any circumstances where all of those criteria are being met these days in terms of men’s domination of women? In Arab and Oriental countries for sure; in Western countries it’s a far harder claim to justify these days. To say that women get raped more often than men do demonstrates that there are men violently subduing women, but not that this is part of a socially accepted system, nor that it is based on an assumption of superiority. (Those who hijack cars do not assume that they are fundamentally superior to the cars’ owners.) To say that women are earning significantly less money than men on average does say that there is something about the social system that rewards women less than men financially, but not as a means of subduing them or asserting superiority over them. The fact that it is more important for men than for women to be economically successful in terms of mate selection criteria would actually pretty much explain the whole difference. The income gap then should be no more surprising than the observation that women put more effort into their physical appearances than men do. In terms of medical care it can be argued that more money is being spent on male complaints and health problems than female ones, and that is worth improving on in many regards, but that still does not negate the fact that men are dying an average of 10% younger than women, so any claim of gross systematic injustice there would seem to be rather exaggerated.
What of women operating in positions of power to their own advantage and to the detriment of men then? Are there areas in which women are able to systematically prevent men from being recognized as their equals, and where they are able to actively reinforce this state of affairs? Besides the feminist assaults on male character in general and assumptions of male guilt for all of the ails of mankind, the most obvious place in which men are discriminated against strictly for being men is in relation to any form of nurturing functions in society. It is broadly assumed that men are inherently inferior care-givers, parents, nurses and teachers for young children. The unjust and severe bias against men in disputed child custody cases following divorce in any Western country is hard to dispute statistically. The difficulty of being a man in a female-dominated field is the stuff comedy films are made of (e.g. the male nurse in Meet the Family), but for those of us who have actually struggled to fit in as kindergarten teachers –– or done time as cafeteria workers in places where the only work uniform available is a dress –– the humor of a man fighting for respect in a women’s world wears rather thin. Nor is this a matter of patriarchy backfiring on men, as feminists would like to believe. The abusive bosses in the particular social service agencies, service-provider companies, schools and NGOs where men are regularly belittled are quite consistently women who believe that their sex is one of their major qualifications for their position. So yes, women really do put men down quite significantly and systematically at times, based on an assumption that men are in significant ways their natural inferiors, and this is done in ways that serve to reinforce such assumptions as far as possible. Those who don’t believe that this is the case need to get out more.
Now while I disagree with many feminist assumptions, there is one thing I am willing to fully agree with their egalitarian branch on: the goal here isn’t to reverse the domination, but to enable partnership and mutual respect between the sexes. When men are fully respected for who they are –– not belittled because of our sex as parents, care-givers, lovers or spiritual beings –– we will have achieved our goal. Is that actually happening in our day and age? Of course not! Is there hope for this in the coming generation? For my sons’ sake I certainly hope so.
Of all the men who would try to lead such a movement there is really only one that I have come across thus far whom I would proudly declare myself a follower of: Rob Becker. Over 20 years ago Becker wrote and performed a one-man stage performance of a piece called “Defending the Caveman”. It has since been performed in front of millions of people, in 45 countries and over 30 languages. If you have a chance to see it you certainly should. In it Becker and those following his script make some rather humorous yet profound observations about the nature of the assumption many women have that “all men are a**holes,” and the show concludes with a statement of hope that some day he will be able to stand proudly and say, “I am a MAN, not an a**hole!”
Not the most philosophical statement of the cause, but probably the most eloquent.