Men are not second class citizens, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take men’s issues seriously. Addressing both women’s and men’s issues is not a zero sum game.
An Australian news show called Weekend Sunrise recently asked if men are now second class citizens. And then the guests proceeded to yell at each other, resolving nothing.
This is the wrong question, however. A group doesn’t need to be oppressed for us to take their concerns seriously. But another problem is zero sum thinking, which implies that addressing men’s issues takes the focus away from women’s issues.
Take domestic violence as an example. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control found that a third of women and a fourth of men will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. As the severity increases, however, the gender ratio becomes even more skewed with a fourth of women and one-seventh of men experiencing severe intimate partner violence. In other words, two-thirds of the victims of severe domestic violence are women. And the Department of Justice says there are four times as many female victims of spousal murder.
While it’s clear that most victims of domestic violence are women, it’s also clear that the number of male victims is far higher than the general public realizes. Yet, the discussion around men and domestic violence is almost entirely focused on men taking responsibility for not harming women. Efforts to raise awareness about male victims of domestic violence are sometimes met with opposition.
None of this means that men are second class citizens. Yet, we only seem to have two options. There’s the identity politics and rightwing talking points of the men’s rights movement. And there’s silence or even opposition to addressing men’s issues among progressives.
A victim ideology which claims that men are second class citizens won’t help men and boys. If men aren’t victims, then it’s up to men to stop adhering to the traditional standards of masculinity. British blogger Ally Fogg call this “the last great masculine delusion.” He reverses the gender roles to illustrate the problem: what if we said that to achieve full gender equality women just need “to learn to let go of their gender roles, learn to change”?
It’s a simplistic notion because social roles exist in a social and political context. Fogg concludes that “for men to change, first of all society has to change, not the other way around and that is not a personal project but a political one.” This doesn’t mean that personal responsibility goes out the window, but it does mean that the larger context cannot be ignored.
How did we get here in the first place? My unexpert opinion is that two physical differences between women and men were magnified by most human cultures to maximize survival. But modern democracy, technology, and capitalism enable us to take a different approach.
First, warfare shaped traditional gender roles far more than we appreciate. War has always been a male endeavor due to many men’s greater upper body strength while frequent pregnancy in centuries past meant that most women were often not battle ready.
The agricultural revolution escalated warfare because of fierce competition for the best land. The most successful military leaders became the first kings and emperors, putting power entirely in the hands of a small group of elite men. The common man didn’t benefit, however. He was cannon fodder. The ancient male elite often practiced polygamy, which left the lowest ranking men without wives at all.
Peace was no respite because the most dangerous jobs were relegated to men. Even today men are nine out of ten workplace deaths. To a large degree, traditional masculinity is about preparing men for the harsh realities of war and dangerous jobs. Status is achieved though toughness, risk taking, pain tolerance, and coping through emotional detachment.
Another difference is that only women can get pregnant, and reliable birth control didn’t come along until the twentieth century. Men don’t face the physical investment of pregnancy (and resulting risks such as possible death in childbirth), and male dominated cultures were quick to control women’s reproductive choices to keep the population rising in competition with other groups.
The slow evolution of despotism to democracy created rights for the previously disenfranchised common man, but women did not initially benefit from this. Modern capitalism was a boon for women’s rights because it created safe, good paying jobs which made it easier for women to become financially independent from men. Further, scientific advancements have given women greater control over pregnancy.
Today, men feel anxious and uncertain because the significant shift in women’s roles and status over the past several decades has changed the male role by proxy. Women need men to accommodate the more flexible (and ideally equal) female gender role of the twenty-first century. But at the same, men and women alike still expect men to measure up (in varying degrees) to the ideals of traditional masculinity. Often these are unconscious expectations.
Further, men’s issues that don’t directly contribute to greater equality for women, such as shared parenting (treating fathers as equal to mothers), the suicide rate being almost four times higher for men compared to women, boys falling behind girls in school, most homeless being men, and domestic violence against men (to name a few) have been ignored.
Men who bring these issues up often meet resistance. However, it’s disingenuous to say that men are second class citizens. Nor should we return to the past and Ignore men’s issues and expect men to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, this reflects patriarchal values that won’t work in today’s world.
Instead, men and women need to advocate for a shift in societal attitudes, namely that we can address both women’s and men’s issues without detracting from either. The right question is, “How concerned are we about men’s and boys’ issues?”
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