People who “do the right thing” are praised for being selfless. People who “do their own thing” are often seen as selfish.
Many choices we face, especially in the worlds of business and pleasure, seem to set these two aspects of our common human nature in competition—selflessness and selfishness, both of which are part of everyone’s nature. Do we help others or help ourselves?
When we evaluate choices strictly in terms of our immediate material self-interest—what’s going to get us what we think we want, “the bottom line” in the short term—it often feels like we have to choose between self and others. But if we expand our horizons and consider the long-term effects of our actions, not only on others but on ourselves, then there are also many times when the two motivations lead to the same decision. The collective good and self-interest can, and often do, come together.
That’s the principle at the heart of my argument to men about patriarchy and feminism: It’s easy to do the right thing when we realize that doing our own thing—in the way we’ve been trained as men in a male-dominant society, often robotically—is not only harmful to girls and women but also not particularly good for us.
That’s why for the past two decades I have been saying, as often as I can to as many men as possible, “Feminism is not a threat to men but a gift to us.”
To get started, I’ll offer some quick definitions of patriarchy and feminism.
Patriarchy is a system of institutionalized male dominance. Virtually every society today is, to varying degrees, patriarchal. That doesn’t mean that every man wields power over every woman in every situation, but rather that men exert disproportionate control in societies that have long been designed to serve men’s interests and desires. Even when women have forced changes in the law to achieve some measure of equality, everyday cultural practices that disadvantage women often continue, especially involving men’s attempts to control women’s reproductive power and sexuality.
Patriarchy is a relatively recent phenomenon, emerging only several thousand years ago and creating a domination/subordination dynamic between men and women that continues today. From this foundational social hierarchy, other similar power dynamics emerged around other differences, the most relevant today being European/white domination of the world in the past five centuries and the unequal distribution of wealth in capitalism in about the same period. In complex societies that are affected by all these systems of power, some women will hold more wealth and have greater status than some men, but the pattern of male dominance endures.
Feminism offers a critical analysis of the sex/gender system in patriarchy and also offers insights into these other hierarchical systems. In addition to helping us understand society (an intellectual project), feminism mobilizes people to change those dynamics (a political project). As a movement, feminism seeks to change both public policy and cultural norms. For example, feminists have sought to eliminate the legal rules that have long made it difficult to successfully prosecute men for rape, while at the same time challenging ways men often expect female partners to be sexually subservient in consensual relationships.
During the 1970s, the phrase “the personal is political” was popular in feminism in the United States and beyond. That wasn’t a self-indulgent slogan to declare that politics was all about me. Instead, women were recognizing that what they might have assumed were merely personal problems— a husband who won’t contribute to housework, a boss who demanded sex, or a boyfriend who is violent—were actually political problems, the result of the power dynamics in patriarchy. Women often came to this realization through “consciousness-raising groups,” forums for discussions that created a framework for understanding their daily lives.
Men need conscious raising, too.
Feminism and men: Two arguments
Most people—men and women—can articulate the principles on which we claim to base our actions. Common among the values we cite are dignity (all people come into the world with the same moral claim to a fulfilling life), solidarity (humans are social beings who thrive when living in meaningful relationships within a community), and equality (a rough parity of resources is necessary to honor the dignity claim and make real solidarity possible).
If we take seriously these values we claim to hold, men should embrace feminism. That’s the argument from justice—politically and personally, we should do the right thing. Perhaps that should be enough to persuade men to reject patriarchy, but we know it is difficult to challenge a system that may be morally unacceptable but also benefits us.
That leads to an argument from self-interest. Yes, patriarchy places men in many dominant positions over women, which come with many benefits. In patriarchy, men may be able to earn more money than women; have more opportunities to climb the career ladder; and get away with doing less housework than a female partner who also is working. Those are real advantages, but they come at a cost. We should ask: How do men suffer as a result of patriarchy?
First, to be clear: Women and girls suffer dramatic physical, psychological, and spiritual injuries as the targets of men’s assertion of power in patriarchy. There is no equivalency between the conditions and experiences of male and female in patriarchal societies. But men do have a personal stake in embracing feminism, if we can expand our idea of what it means to live a good life. The short-term material benefits that come with being male in patriarchy come at the cost of our full humanity.
Rather than lecture, I will tell my story of coming to embrace radical feminism, around the age of thirty. Part of that process involved intellectual work. Studying feminist theory and reading about feminist politics led me to embrace a compelling argument for a feminist politics rooted in our shared moral commitment to human dignity, solidarity, and equality.
But the more complete story is that I also embraced feminism out of self-interest, out of a desire for something more in life than what patriarchy offers men. I wanted out of the endless competition to “be a man” as defined by patriarchy and was looking for a way simply to be the human being I imagined I could be. Through feminism, I came to understand that the fear and isolation I felt, and many other men have told me they feel, was the result of a conception of masculinity in patriarchy that traps us in an endless struggle for control, domination, and conquest. The problem was not my failure to live up to the standards of masculinity but the destructive nature of masculinity in patriarchy. And through feminism, I came to understand that the way I was used as a child by other boys and adults wasn’t the result of my weakness or failure but was the product of patriarchy’s brutal sex/gender system, which sexualizes domination and subordination in many relationships defined by unequal power.
I also came to understand that patriarchy had not only constrained my life and left me vulnerable when I was young, but trained me to embrace that domination/subordination dynamic as I got older. I may never have felt “man enough,” but eventually I learned enough to act out some of those destructive masculinity norms in ways I was not proud of. We want to understand how we have been hurt, but unless we are sociopaths we also have a yearning to understand how and why we have hurt others. Feminism provided a framework to understand the injuries I had endured and the injuries I had inflicted, by explaining how patriarchy’s imposition of a sex/gender hierarchy was one of the key forces that structured the world in which I lived.
The gift of feminism
Growing up, I had been socialized to believe that whatever feminists wanted, it was likely going to be bad for me. I had been trained to see feminists as a threat, which I accepted because I knew so little about feminism. But once I read feminist writing and met feminist women, I realized that they posed a threat only to my unearned advantages, which I knew were unjust. The more I learned, the more I realized that rather than a threat, feminists were offering us men a gift. Feminism gives men a chance to be fully human, to strive for richer and more meaningful lives than patriarchy could ever offer.
The clearest place to see this is sexuality. When heterosexual men treat sexuality as primarily the acquisition of physical pleasure—when the goal is to “get some [fill in the blank with any number of terms that sexualize and objectify women],” then using women to get as much sexual pleasure as possible seems like a good deal. (Gay men also sometimes make the same calculation to use other men.) If that pleasure sometimes comes from using women in pornography and prostitution, no problem. As long as men get what we want, it’s easy for many of us to ignore the negative effects on girls and women. Doing our own thing can deliver such intense sexual experiences that we often don’t worry about doing the right thing.
But if we recognize that our sexual lives can be about more than just pleasure—that intimacy and emotional connection are crucial parts of sexuality—then buying and selling women’s bodies is not only wrong but also is not in our self-interest. We will never be able to be fully human if we accept patriarchal norms about sexuality, especially men’s exploitation of women in the “sex industry.” Doing the right thing by refusing to participate in the sexual-exploitation industries turns out to be in our own self-interest, if we want to live the richest and most meaningful lives possible.