When Men Experience Sexism

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Posters encouraging men to fight in World War I and World War II (Library of Congress)

Can men be victims of sexism?

An NPR Morning Edition report this week suggests strongly that the answer is "yes." As Jennifer Ludden reports, after divorce men can face burdensome alimony payments even in situations where their ex-wives are capable of working and earning a substantial income. Even in cases where temporary alimony makes sense—as when a spouse has quit a job to raise the children—it's hard to understand the need for lifetime alimony payments, given women's current levels of workforce participation. As one alimony-paying ex-husband says, "The theory behind this was fine back in the '50s, when everybody was a housewife and stayed home." But today, it looks like an antiquated perpetuation of retrograde gender roles—a perpetuation which, disproportionately, harms men.

This isn't the only case in which men can suffer from gender discrimination. David Benatar, in his 2012 monograph The Second Sexism discusses a whole range of other ways in which men as men are disadvantaged. Men, for example, receive custody of children in only about 10 percent of divorce cases in the United States. Men also, as Benatar writes, are subject to "a long history of social and legal pressure...to fight in war" —pressures which women do not generally experience in the same way. Along the same lines, physical violence against men is often minimized or seen as normal. Benatar refers to the history of corporal punishment, which has much more often been inflicted on boys than girls. Society's scandalous tolerance of rape in prison seems like it is also related to a general indifference to, or even amusement at, sexual violence committed against men.

Perhaps most hideously, men through history have been subject to genocidal, or gendercidal, violence targeted at them specifically because they are men. Writers like Susan Brownmiller have over the last decades helped to show how mass rape and sexual violence against women are often a deliberate part of genocide; similarly, there has been increasing awareness in recent years of the gendercidal results of sex-selective abortion and infanticide in places like India and China. But the way gendercide can be directed against men is much less discussed. One of the worst recent examples of this was in the Balkans war, where, according to genocide researcher Adam Jones, " All of the largest atrocities... target[ed] males almost exclusively, and for the most part "battle-age" males. " Similarly, in Rwanda according to Judy El-Bushra (as quoted by Jones):

it was principally the men of the targeted populations who lost their lives or fled to other countries in fear. ... This targeting of men for slaughter was not confined to adults: boys were similarly decimated, raising the possibility that the demographic imbalance will continue for generations. Large numbers of women also lost their lives; however, mutilation and rape were the principal strategies used against women, and these did not necessarily result in death.

Many of these examples—particularly the points about custody inequities and conscription—are popular with men's rights activists. MRAs tend to deploy the arguments as evidence that men are oppressed by women and, especially, by feminists. Yet, what's striking about instances of sexism against men is how often the perpetrators are not women but other men. The gendercides in Serbia and Rwanda were committed against men, not by feminists, but by other men. Prison rape is, again, overwhelmingly committed by men against other men—with (often male) prison officials sitting by and shrugging. Conscription in the U.S. was implemented overwhelmingly by male civilian politicians and military authorities, not by women.

Even in cases where women clearly benefit from sexism, it's generally not the case that women, as a class, are the ones doing the discriminating. Neither alimony nor custody discussions are central to current feminist theory or current feminist pop cultural discussions. Thereis no ideological feminist commitment to either of these discussions in the way there is to, say, abortion rights, or workplace equity. On the contrary, the alimony and custody inequities we have at the moment seem mostly based, not on progressive feminism, but rather on the reactionary image of female domesticity that feminism has spent most of the last 60-odd years fighting against.

When men suffer from sexism, then, they do so in much the same way women do. That is, they suffer not because women rule the world and are targeting men, nor because feminism has somehow triumphed and brainwashed all of our elected officials (most of them still men) into ideological misandry. Rather, men suffer because of the same gender role stereotypes that hurt and restrict women—though men, being of a different gender, fall afoul of those stereotypes in different ways. Women are supposed to be passive and domestic and sexual—so their employment options and autonomy are restricted and they are fetishized and targeted for sexual assault and exploitation. Men are supposed to be active and violent—so their claims to domestic rights are denigrated and violence directed against them is shrugged off as natural or non-notable.

"For me," Heather McRobie wrote in an excellent 2008 article about genercide, "feminism has always been about how rigid gender roles harm everyone, albeit primarily women." Talking about sexism against men is often seen—by MRAs and feminists alike—as an attack on feminism. But it shouldn't be. Rather, recognizing how, say, stereotypical ideas about domesticity hurt men in custody disputes as well as women in the job market should be a spur to creating alliances, not fissures. Women have been fighting against sexism for a long time. If men can learn from them, it will be to everyone's benefit.

Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.


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