Guest post: Boys, men, patriarchy, and privilege

This is a guest post from Cara Hoffman. Hoffman is the author of the critically acclaimed novel So Much Pretty, about violence and retribution, a New Yorker Books Pick, So Much Pretty is now out in paperback from Simon and Schuster.

Women’s issues have dominated the news these past few months with reproductive health becoming the cornerstone of an argument many of us thought had been put to bed decades ago. We’ve seen Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem calling for Rush Limbaugh to be booted off the airwaves for his sexist hate speech against Sandra Fluke and sat in front of our televisions while the Republican candidates debate the use of birth control as if it is solely a women’s issue. And throughout all of this we’ve been hearing one very obvious statement. Sexism is bad for women.

But there is a crucial factor in this conversation about gender and women’s rights that continues to be ignored; how boys and men are negatively impacted by aberrant anti-social masculinity, how it ties them to violence and helps enforce institutional exploitation of all people, not just women.

Boys and men are constantly inundated with portrayals of members of their gender as violent and irrational; as sick, crazed people who engineered attempted genocides. For women there is the everyday threat of violence, the objectification, the sheer numbers of us who are murdered. But we don’t have the burden of being associated constantly with criminality. There are no images in the media of women setting Vietnamese villages on fire with zippo lighters. One in fifty of us is not a rapist. Images of men as heroes dominate fiction and entertainment, but images of men as slightly better than animals dominate the news and historical documents. That can’t be easy. Especially given the biological risk factors associated with testosterone that predisposes a person to violence and to particular kinds of cognitive difficulties.

We know the burden of living in the same kind of body as people who are the victims of honor killings, genital mutilation, staggering rates of spousal and sexual abuse and denial of basic human rights is a heavy one. But we rarely think about the burden of living in the same kind of body as people who kill, rape, exploit, crash economies and start wars.

Boys do not have it easy growing up seeing the shameful brutality that is associated with their sex. We’ve seen toll it takes on our children, friends, partners, and husbands. It’s hard and embarrassing and infuriating. Young men are terribly exploited and indoctrinated when it comes to committing and accepting violence. Men suffer at the hands of hyper-masculine men just as women do. Men are raped by men just as women are. And worst of all is how the most violent impulses driven by testosterone are cultivated and instrumentalized for political purposes like wars and state repression, without regard to men’s lives.

We need to understand that we are in this together; to get over the idea that we are on some kind of sex-based teams and understand that we have a common enemy and that aberrant anti-social masculinity has a clear physiological basis. We need to be able to discuss the reality of violence against women from a broader social biological perspective instead of some manufactured war between the sexes which makes the average man feel he needs to take sides.

That’s not what I call freedom or privilege or an easy time. That sounds like a lot of weight and fear and confusion and shame to be carrying through the world.

This is not what we want for our sons, our brothers, our fathers, ourselves. It’s time to look at the full scope of the damage and see the incredible victimization of men by misogynists, only then will we be able to work together to fully address the social biological causes of hyper-masculinity and begin to work toward a solution.

 

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19 Comments

  1. Posted March 28, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think you can really draw parallels between the genders so starkly. 1 in 50 women don’t rape because women don’t tend to sexually assault – men do. I am not referring to good men, just the rapists. If there is to be any progress it is the good men who have to stand up for all women and children – then we may have a chance of abolishing the bullsh1t page 3 cr@p, the video games that applaud rape and murder etc and so on. Men don’t ask for this image as violent war mungerers (although, you don’t see many women at the front line, or making the decisions when it comes to shelling civilians) but they do nothing (much) to put an end to it – because they continue to be privileged under this regime of misogyny. Why change something that works for you on SO many levels!

    • Posted March 29, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      According the CDC report that was analyzed on this very site, men and women sexually assault each other in equal numbers. Some of talked about how wrong it is that this isn’t talked about more – and this is why – because lots of people don’t realize it. But it’s important that we do.

  2. Posted March 28, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Jumping in mostly because this actually concerns men, and it left me a little confused. About 90% of it makes a great deal of sense, but then suddenly near the end we get:

    We need to understand that we are in this together; to get over the idea that we are on some kind of sex-based teams and understand that we have a common enemy and that aberrant anti-social masculinity has a clear physiological basis.

    We need to understand that we are in this together; to get over the idea that we are on some kind of sex-based teams and understand that we have a common enemy and that aberrant anti-social masculinity has a clear physiological basis.

    There’s not much of a build-up to that claim, at least the latter part. I’m not sure how we get from talking about how the fact that men commit the majority of heinous atrocities damages men as well as women (true, though of course we must beware false equivalencies) to “aberrant anti-social masculinity has a clear physiological basis.” That sentence doesn’t even make sense. How can it be aberrant if it’s got a physiological basis? Yes, yes, diseases etc.. are aberrant and have a physiological basis, but this piece seems to be claiming that having average xy-chromosome, male-identifying levels of testosterone is aberrant. My point is, that could use a bit more explanation if it’s going to be a part of the conclusion.

    I understand that there are lines you can draw there, but if your goal is to avoid “[making]the average man feel he needs to take sides,” making a statement that seems to imply there’s something biologically wrong with men (or at least a lot of us) is not really a good way the way to go about it. Moreover, neither is the “testosterone that predisposes a person to … particular kinds of cognitive difficulties” line. It may be true, but it’s not exactly conducive to changing minds. Bringing up biological differences in general seems to me like a bad strategy because there’s a much longer history, and much greater social acceptance, of biological myths designed to denigrate women. The second you bring up the opposite MRAs and the like will see it as carte-blanche to put up walls and trot out the same tired arguments.

  3. Posted March 28, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    I totally get and agree with the gist of what you’re saying here, but I think it’s problematic to characterize violence and violent impulses as being “driven by testosterone.” This sort of biological determinism actually perpetuates the very cultural constructions of maleness as violent that you decry (i.e., men can’t help it… the testosterone makes them violent).

    • Posted March 29, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      Agreed. Harkening to biological essentialism supports the very cultural representations that this post is trying to subvert. However this contradiction within the post brings up an important point: the need to be diligent in not creating feminist theory based on a reductionist ‘blame it on the patriarch’ model. As we seek to bring new representations of women into mainstream discourse, it is imperative that these don’t ride on the back of a representation of men that is detrimental, that reinforces and produces men that are violent, dominant etc. It’s a difficult line to walk, and it requires one to make nuanced arguments when bringing injustices against women to light, but it’s necessary for gender equality.

  4. Posted March 28, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, wow, being associated with criminality must be a terrible burden compared to getting raped or living constantly in fear of violence.
    I’m assuming this article has to do with Trayvon Martin’s death. That had nothing to do with sexism/patriarchy, it was racism. A hate crime.
    There are SO many things wrong with this piece I don’t even know where to begin with. I hope someone more eloquent than me does.
    This gem is my personal favorite: ”But we rarely think about the BURDEN of living in the same kind of body as people who kill, rape, exploit, crash economies and start wars.” You hear that? Being a rapist/killer/warlord is a BURDEN.

    • Posted March 28, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      “Being a rapist etc… is a burden” isn’t the point. Being of the same gender as them is (or so goes the argument), albeit a far more minor one than being on the revieving end.

      • Posted March 29, 2012 at 1:49 am | Permalink

        I think the problem is this article fails to acknowledge male privilige. I much rather be feared than be afraid, honestly. Secondly, if men are tired of women treating them like rapists/ murderers, they should get mad at the men that rape and kill, not blame women. It just bugs me that the article makes men look like the real victims.

        • Posted March 29, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

          “I’d rather be feared than afraid.”

          I don’t think this is a very helpful approach. I don’t like the idea of wishing to be high up in a hierarchy. The hierarchy is the problem. Fear is both the result of AND the motivator of violence. Violent men develop misogynistic views of women because they see them as the other and they feel threatened. Patriarchs claim to be victims of the sinful sex orgy feminism and gay rights is supposedly threatening them with. Equality is not achieved by merely deciding who’s really a victim and who’s an oppressor. It functions on the concept, in the words of Sady Doyle, that everybody matters.

      • Posted March 29, 2012 at 6:41 am | Permalink

        “Yeah, wow, being associated with criminality must be a terrible burden compared to getting raped or living constantly in fear of violence.”

        And yet, men are more likely to be murdered than women. IIRC, rape was pretty much the only violent crime in which women were more often targeted than men. So that constantly living in fear of violence? Is very much the male experience. Not in precisely the same way as for women – men are not, for instance, socialized to believe themselves helpless in such a confrontation – but then statistically they are more likely to be attacked.

        I think it is very dangerous to ignore this. That someone with the same kind of body that you have is a criminal doesn’t make you a criminal. That one man attacks another doesn’t mean that the man attacked had it coming, or that it’s okay for us to shrug our shoulders and say “Men. You know. They’re like that.”

    • Posted March 29, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Why would anyone feel bad for being the same gender or race or whatever else as someone who committed atrocities?

      I mean, it’s not like women or black people or gay people or any other group have never done anything wrong. By this logic everyone should feel horrible all the time.

      I don’t get it.

  5. Posted March 28, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Its interesting that the author locates the problem, at least to some degree, in (presumably cis) male physiology. I’m not sure what I think about that.

    • Posted March 28, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

      Whoops, I see that someone else has already made the point that I did, and better than me, too!

  6. Posted March 29, 2012 at 5:07 am | Permalink

    I think I understand what Cara’s trying to say – that the solution is not to condemn a gender but an attitude. And this absolutely bears repeating. She also seems to be trying to say that part of female privilege is rarely being considered a suspect for a violence. This also bears repeating because, as she later points out, not only do non-violent men have to deal with this suspicion but they also have to deal with the threat of being attacked themselves. My husband has been beaten up twice, one of my guyfriends was regularly beaten up in high school. I’ve never been beaten up like they have, just as they’ve never been sexually harassed like I have. There’s value to discussing the ways in which our public appearance makes us more vulnerable to certain forms of violence in our society.

    Casually mentioning biological tendencies, however, is not very helpful. Any time we refer to scientific findings, there needs to be lots of cited evidence, and the claim also needs to make room for those to whom the results do not apply. Just as the assertion that women have a biological urge to make babies ignores the millions of women who do not have this urge, the assertion that men have a biological urge towards violence offers no explanation for the millions who do not. Studies in biology can be very useful, but we shouldn’t use them unscientifically. Most scientists will say that discussions among laypeople too often simplify the findings and in doing so misconstrue them.

  7. Posted March 29, 2012 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    Oh my gosh. This post is the most offensive thing I have ever seen on feministing. I sympathize with the overall point that the author was trying to make, which read as something like: men are also hurt by anti-social masculinity – whether they are victims of other men, or whether these cultural norms make them the perpetrator.

    However, biological determinism or implying that men are naturally or physiologically more violent is NOT the way to go.

    The author writes:
    “We need to understand that we are in this together; to get over the idea that we are on some kind of sex-based teams and understand that we have a common enemy and that aberrant anti-social masculinity has a clear physiological basis.”

    There is such a strong history in feminism and anti-racism of contesting differences assumed to be “natural” when they are actually the expression of social/cultural/political/historical forces. It’s very unfortunate that this author seems to be ignorant of this deep contribution of feminism, and determined to perpetuate biological gender essentialism. How exactly can we get over the idea “that we are on sex-based teams” if we buy into this narrative about how the problems with men are natural and physiological?

    I expect much more from this blog and I was sorely disappointed by this post.

  8. Posted March 29, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    I don’t get the sense that this article is attempting to excuse male-perpetrated violence by saying it’s a ‘burden’. I think the author is raising a valid point, that men are trapped in damaging, stereotypical and cyclical social constructs just as women are. I’m not sure I agree with pointing at testosterone and social biology is the best way to go about making that point. However, I strogy agree that just as women are cultivated via societal rules to act a certain way, so are men – and it typically results in this hyper-masculinity that can lead to all kinds of problems, violent or not.

    It’s also true that men are often forgotten when discussing the damage done by sexism. It shouldn’t be this way. Just as different kinds of women must be considered, so must men, who can be our greatest supporters or our fiercest opponents. Which would you choose?

  9. Posted March 29, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I agree with you 100%. I first learned of this as a gender and women’s studies undergrad and took a course in men and masculinity. The course was amazing and really provided a reality check on the lives mean live and the many challenges they face. Currently reading Guyland, its a great read.

  10. Posted March 29, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    >That’s not what I call freedom or privilege or an easy time. That sounds like a lot of weight and fear and confusion and shame to be carrying through the world.

    They still have male privilege, even if they’re occasionally mistaken for schrodinger’s rapist, or if they have to take the bus to work.

  11. Posted March 30, 2012 at 1:18 am | Permalink

    tl;dr: Everything bad ever happens to women, but men have to deal with being associated with the only people who ever do anything bad.

    Liked the premise of the article, because it does suck to be thought of as a rapist and a violent animal because of your gender. But it quickly turns misandrist.

    >We know the burden of living in the same kind of body as people who are the victims of honor killings, genital mutilation, staggering rates of spousal and sexual abuse and denial of basic human rights is a heavy one.

    Though of course many forms of FGM are worse than male circumcision, it’s still true that men face infant genital mutilation in higher numbers. Men are also victims of spousal and sexual abuse, at comparable rates, though presumably less.

    >But we rarely think about the burden of living in the same kind of body as people who kill, rape, exploit, crash economies and start wars.

    The last two are almost exclusively men (though many people are complicit), but women also share bodies with people that kill, rape and exploit.

    >For women there is the everyday threat of violence, the objectification, the sheer numbers of us who are murdered.

    Men have a much greater risk of being victims of violence, and a much greater number of us are murdered. I would argue that women are objectified quite a bit more, but men certainly are as well.

    I also have a problem with the “have testosterone = you’re violent”. That isn’t how it works.

    The article seems to me like an appeal to the common man to help reduce crimes against women, and justifying why it would benefit them personally. A good effort, but it falls apart when you can’t even manage to get halfway through the article because you start typecasting men as the sole perpetrators and women as the sole victims.

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