men, masculinities and gender politics

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Essential Concepts: How Patriarchy and Rape Culture Hurt Men

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I’ve often found myself trying to explain to people that rape culture and patriarchy aren’t just bad for women. If you draw attention to a form of violence that is primarily aimed at women by men, and a form of social oppression that is intended to provide men with dominance over women, a lot of people will think you must be hostile to men, or want to take something away from men. Nothing could be further from the truth. Patriarchy and rape culture are clearly more harmful to women, but they also cause men great harm, and I engage in anti-violence work to help men as much as I do to help women or anyone else. Here’s why:

The patriarchal “ideal” of male toughness and invulnerability creates the following problems for men:

  1. Men are often expected to endure hazardous conditions, with the attitude that any expression of fear is a sign of weakness. This means that men are likely to find themselves in dangerous jobs, or in risky physical conflicts ranging from fist fights to actual combat.
  2. Men are often afraid to admit emotional weakness, making them less likely to seek help for depression and other mental health issues, or to be accurately diagnosed, which increases their suffering with these conditions. Perhaps as a result, men are more likely to commit suicide than women.
  3. Men are less likely to seek medical help when they have a physical problem, leading to unnecessary suffering and, at times, death.
  4. Men are more likely to attempt to “prove” their toughness with risky acts that sometimes lead to injury and death.
  5. Instead of emotionally engaging the pain they feel due to racism, poverty, and colonization, many men feel compelled to show “toughness.” This prevents effective resistance movements.
  6. Violence aimed at boys is likely to be minimized or dismissed by adults, leading to increased acceptance of bullying.
  7. The belief that it is more masculine and therefore better to be entirely independent and invulnerable (never disabled, never sick, never vulnerable) leads to a collective failure to provide social services such as health care, unemployment insurance, welfare benefits, and other benefits that help everyone, including men and boys.
  8. Social services believed to serve only women (as if women somehow exist in a vacuum) are often targeted most vigorously by those adhering to a belief in the ideal of atomized, independent men as the core of a healthy society. The cultural belief that men are independent, and that their lives are not linked to women’s, allows many men to remain apathetic in the face of these policies, which harm them immensely.

The patriarchal “ideal” of male dominance over others creates the following problems for men:

  1. Many men feel compelled to prove their dominance over others by using violence. This affects other men disproportionately, since dominance over women is already assumed in many situations. Men are more likely to face a serious physical assault or murder than women, and this violence is almost always at the hands of another man.
  2. Due to the fact that it is men who commit most violence, men also constitute most of the prison population.
  3. Many men spend their lives deeply lonely, as they find themselves unable to relate to others emotionally, and feel constant pressure to exert dominance over each person they encounter.
  4. A culture that idealizes dominance rather than cooperation and partnership cannot imagine other models for living. This means that any elements of difference between two groups will be used to determine “superiority” and “inferiority,” dominance and submission. Racism, homophobia, trans phobia, fat phobia, and ableism feel quite natural to those reared in such a culture, and the harm to men in oppressed groups due to these forces is immeasurable.
  5. Similarly, a culture based on domination relates to the natural world aggressively rather than cooperatively, leading to environmental devastation that ultimately hurts everyone.
  6. Men’s socialized tendency to relate to others by bossing them around creates animosity toward those men, and means that alternative, potentially better solutions to various personal, business, and social problems go unspoken and untried.
  7. Many men will never allow themselves to have meaningful friendships with any of the millions of women or non-gender conforming men in the world—people who could have made them laugh, nurtured their growth as human beings, or just been lots of fun.  This shrinks men’s lives drastically.
  8. Heterosexual men’s sexual lives suffer in a variety of ways.

The patriarchal “ideal” of male emotionlessness and the expectation that men should not show affection creates the following problems for men:

  1. Many men never feel loved or fully appreciated by their fathers. This can cause a wide variety of negative ripple effects in their lives.
  2. Many men never develop strong bonds with their children, as their children feel unloved by them.
  3. Many men find their romantic partners unsatisfied with their inability to relate emotionally or show affection, leading to relationship strain and decreased intimacy.
  4. Many men never experience the depth of intimate friendship that is accessible to most women.
  5. Many men find themselves emotionally destroyed by even relatively manageable traumas, such as the loss of a job or a romantic relationship, due to the fact that they have never developed effective coping skills for dealing with negative emotions and have been taught to expect a level of entitlement that is unrealistic.

The belief that men and women appear in “ideal” forms creates the following problems for men:

  1. In a racist, homophobic, capitalist, imperialist, ableist, fat phobic, trans phobic culture, the implicit identity of any “ideal” or “normal” man or woman will be white, straight, wealthy, colonizing, able-bodied, thin, and cis. All other identities will be used in the service of this “ideal.” In other words, men who don’t fit into this identity won’t be considered men. They will be considered threats to women and children, or to the stability of masculinity. This plays out today as a feeling that colonizing white men must “protect” white women and children from the “threat” of men of color and men in colonized nations with violence and police/military/prison force, and use violence and humiliation to assert dominance over men who do not fit into the proper identity (gay men, trans men, fat men, etc.).
  2. Since they never fit the supposed “ideal” perfectly, men must defend their status constantly, often by harming other men (especially oppressed men) in one way or another.
  3. Some women inevitably absorb societal ideas about appropriate male behavior and appearance, leading them to romantically reject men who do not meet these arbitrary standards.
  4. Most men do not fit neatly into the image of manhood laid out for them. This leads to insecurity, anxiety, self-loathing, and other psychological stresses.
  5. Fear of being perceived as gay or non gender-conforming leads many men to avoid affection and closeness with other men, stifling potential for non-sexual intimacy.
  6. Fear of being perceived as “unmasculine” leads many men to abandon or hide interests and hobbies that could be deeply fulfilling for them.
  7. Many men never allow themselves to experience the positive feelings associated with adorning themselves in beautiful clothing, jewelry, and makeup.
  8. Most men will never receive flowers, even though they’d like to.
  9. Men will encounter many women who are similarly limited, underdeveloped, and lacking in self-esteem due to social pressures to conform, and to their own inability to meet the unattainable standards of “ideal” femininity.  This emotional damage will make relationships of all sorts more difficult with these women.

The powerlessness of women in various elements of life creates the following problems for men:

  1. Because women do not have equal earning potential and face various barriers to successful careers (the hostility of most workplaces to active parents, prejudice that makes people view women’s work as inferior, unequal pay for work that is often done by women), many men can never know if their partners genuinely want to be with them, or if those women have chosen to remain with them for financial reasons.
  2. Many men face far more financial and family-related stress than they would in a culture that made room for pregnancy and recovery from childbirth, breastfeeding, and active parenting.
  3. Men in patriarchal cultures are more likely to have partners who suffer from postpartum depression and other psychiatric problems that interfere with daily life.
  4. The resentment some women inevitably feel at being treated unfairly leads to a wider sense of resentment by many women toward men. This hostility strains relationships of all kinds.
  5. Discrimination against women in education and employment means that everyone, men included, is negatively affected by less qualified individuals dominating certain careers. This could mean everything from a diminished dining experience due to male domination of restaurant kitchens to the reduced likelihood of a cure for cancer due to male domination of the sciences.
  6. Women’s lack of access to adequate education and control over their fertility leads to increased poverty and decreased opportunity for their male children and partners.
  7. The fact that most media is made by and for men decreases the likelihood that profitable ventures that appeal to women (see sucesses like The Sims games and the Sex and the City franchise) are less likely to get off the ground.  The men who could have profited tremendously instead sink their efforts into unsuccessful attempts to reach a saturated male market.  Further, the unique emotional experiences men can access by genuinely engaging with female characters is lost to the male audience (this guy has a thing or two to say about that).
  8. The tendency to ignore the female market extends into a variety of business ventures—everything from the design of cars to the marketing of soda—and into sexist advertising that drives female consumers away.  The cumulative effect of this is a weakened economy, which impacts men negatively.
  9. The flip side of the the expectation that “boys will be boys” which allows men to engage in narcissistic, violent, crude or inconsiderate behavior with fewer consequences, is the propagation of a variety of stereotypes that are deeply degrading to men. Images of men as animals, uncontrollable brutes, and selfish clods abound, and they do men no favors.

The gendering of the work required to maintain family and home (emotional work, nurturing, parenthood, housework, etc.) as “feminine” creates the following problems for men:

  1. Most men never enjoy the type of intense family connections they are capable of, and will never have a chance to enjoy some of the most fulfilling aspects of life (small moments connecting with children, the satisfaction of creating a beautiful living space, etc.).
  2. Many men face relationship stresses and the painful end of relationships due to their own inability to nurture their partners and communicate effectively.
  3. Many men face relationship stress and reduced intimacy due to the fact that their female partners are tired and resentful from doing more than their fair share of housework.
  4. Since work designated as “women’s work” is devalued in a patriarchal society, high-status women (usually white, wealthy, cis, straight, thin, able-bodied women) will often find ways to escape this work by exploiting low-status men and women. These poorly paid (or unpaid) workers experience great economic, relational, and other stresses due to their low status and lack of access to resources.
  5. Most men do not have adequate paternity/family leave or parental benefits at work, and the working world often demands excessive hours while offering inadequate vacation time with the assumption that “good workers” (i.e. good men) will not be invested in their families.

Men’s violence against women creates the following problems for men:

  1. One in three of the women a given man cares about will experience a sexual assault in their lifetime, and one in four will experience intimate partner violence. This includes daughters, partners, mothers, sisters, friends, and any of the many women a man loves deeply.
  2. The trauma to women caused by men’s violence against women (post traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, etc.) negatively affects heterosexual men’s sexual lives and romantic partnerships.
  3. The trauma of witnessing their mothers’ violent victimization at the hands of an intimate partner harms millions of boys.
  4. Boys whose mothers are abused by a partner are often targeted themselves as a means of controlling their mothers.
  5. If these same mothers choose to leave their violent partners, they often risk poverty, which affects their male children negatively.
  6. Men are often viewed with suspicion by women who don’t know them well, reducing their chances of meeting new romantic partners if they are heterosexual and causing them discomfort in various situations (e.g. fathers on the playground with their children may feel unwelcome, men walking down the street at night might find themselves criss-crossing to ensure that oncoming women don’t feel afraid, etc.)
  7. Men are often inconvenienced (having to go out in the cold late at night to walk a girlfriend home, being designated the “drink watcher” at a party, etc.) due to the need to provide security for female loved ones.

The minimization of so-called “women’s issues” creates the following problems for men:

  1. Truly amazing women activists often abandon social justice movements that would help men because of sexism within those movements.
  2. Movements with laudable goals often alienate potential female supporters (Hi PETA!), making it less likely that the men in those movements will attain their goals.
  3. Even if women do not actually leave movements due to the sexism within them, unnecessary conflicts and fragmentation will result, weakening the impact of these movements.
  4. So long as those in power can frame an issue as a “women’s issue,” most men will ignore that issue, even if in reality it affects their lives just as deeply as it affects the lives of women.
  5. Due to the blindness created by male privilege, many men will never accurately understand basic truths about how the world works, or what those around them (especially women) are thinking and feeling.  This makes it far more likely that these men will be unsuccessful in various endeavors, or that they will be blindsided by problems they would have foreseen if they understood the workings of patriarchy in their lives (or that would not exist if there was no patriarchy).

The fact that so many people are afraid of changing gender roles creates the following problems for men:

  1. Progressive coalitions that would improve life for oppressed men (LGBTQ men, men of color, poor men, etc.) are easily broken apart by politicians and others who exploit people’s desire to control women’s sexuality and social role. Just as the “Southern Strategy” was used to manipulate poor white people into supporting politicians who ultimately harmed them economically and otherwise, the “Hyde Strategy” can be used to manipulate men who adhere to a patriarchal worldview, causing them to work against their own liberation.
  2. Men who don’t allow themselves to expand beyond patriarchal gender roles will find themselves only a shadow of the person they could be. They will never fully embody all of their potential positive qualities, or feel the full range of human emotions.
  3. Many men who do wish to experience more freedom in their gender expression often find themselves facing resistance and ridicule from romantic partners, friends, and family. These men may find themselves ostracized and lonely.
  4. Exaggerated fears of increasing women’s social power often lead to the defeat of proposed social services that could help boys and men (universal childcare and preschool programs, for example).
  5. Anxiety over changing gender roles often leads to backlash efforts aimed at policing men’s masculinity ever more stringently, increasing all of the negative effects listed above.

There is so much more. I could spend my life expanding this list forever. In essence, patriarchy (and the rape culture that supports it) provides a man with a relative overall increase in access to resources and social power compared to a woman, all other things being equal. But all other things are often not equal. Most men are oppressed in one way or another, and patriarchy reinforces and increases every other form of oppression. Further, despite the fact that overall, men have a relative advantage to women, patriarchy does not give them an advantage in every situation. Because of patriarchy, many men will find themselves in situations where being a man causes them real problems and disadvantages. And all the trauma women face because of patriarchy doesn’t happen in isolation.  Women are part of men’s lives, and what happens to us matters to men too.  Patriarchal structures pretend to help men in order to gain their compliance, but these structures are actually designed to control women, collateral damage be damned.  In the end, the small relative advantages men gain (an extra quarter on the dollar, the likelihood that their work will be unfairly judged superior to a woman’s, the tendency of others to listen to them more intently, etc.) are dwarfed by much larger disadvantages and reduced quality of life that they face due to patriarchy.

In other words, feminists are on men’s side. The people talking about how terrible feminism is? They aren’t.

But don’t take my word for it.  Ask a man.

Also see: Patriarchy Hurts Men Too, The Patriarchy is Bad for Everyone, Gender Stereotypes Hurt Men Too, In Which Another Dunderhead Dodobrain Fails to Realize That Feminism is His Friend, Not His Enemy, This Post Really Is About The Menz, Why I Am a Male Feminist, Black. Male. Feminist?

Reprinted with permission from SAFER: Students Active For Ending Rape.