Contrary to the common perception that only women and girls are discriminated based on sex, discrimination against men and boys can also happen, and in some cases, it can be even more evident. This is the main argument of David Benatar in his book, The Second Sexism. By the term ‘second sexism’ Benatar means the wrongful discrimination against men and boys because of sex, which he claims is ‘So unrecognized […] that the mere mention of it will appear laughable to some’. The primary purpose of his book was to make this type of sexism visible and to present second sexism as a new addition to the concerns of policy makers, human rights activists and feminists, which this essay aims to add upon. Benatar acknowledges, like this paper, that the sexism against women and girls (which he calls first sexism) is still a more severe problem.
However, he argues that, contrary to popular belief, men and boys can also be subject to discrimination. For example, he highlights state policies and/or social norms that primarily encourage men, but rarely women, into military conscription and combat, causing millions of men to die or suffer physically and psychologically. In those few countries where women are conscripted, such as Israel, women are treated much more leniently, often being allowed longer leaves for trauma and injury. He states that men are also victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, but state institutions and society in general take such violence less seriously because of the prevailing attitudes towards men, such as the belief that men are fearless, can sustain greater pain, and are more capable of self-defense. He cites a study which showed that ‘clinical psychologists were more likely to hypothesize sexual assault in females than males’. He also quotes some studies which show that females are likely to be treated more leniently than males when being sentenced by the court system, and when the victim is female, the offender is more likely to be arrested. However, one may argue that reducing the causes for these differences only to sex of the victim/offender is misleading, because many other variables such as age, colour, ethnicity, history of prior offenses, and the severity of the crime also influence arrest and sentence system. But Benatar’s argument that sexual assault is underreported in case of both sexes, is surely a correct statement, and should be changed whether other variables exist or not, as these studies’ finding still remain valid.
Benatar also states that the reporting rate is, on average, lower when the victim is male, and if reported, people are less sympathetic to male victims. This, I would argue, is because of the view of men as stronger and more able beings than women, and in many cultures, it is deemed a disgrace for a man to accept his vulnerability. It seems to a lot of the male population that this is a loophole in the system as women are often respected for coming out as being victims of such devastating trauma, while men feel less able to, for fear of being viewed as weak. For a society built on democracy and equality this is surely a form of discrimination just as unacceptable as the ‘first sexism’, and even if one does not agree with this explanation for a less sympathetic justice system, the fact still remains that any gender stereotypes or discrimination disabling anybody from speaking the truth to the public is something that cannot be tolerated, but is.
One may object that often men themselves are perpetrators of sexual assault on males, not females. However, Benatar notes that in developed countries of the west, boys also face increasing educational disadvantages: they drop out of schools at higher rates than girls and are less likely to be educated to degree level. This leads Benatar to argue that ‘If the sexes in these statistics were reversed, feminists would take this to be evidence of overall female disadvantage’. Other ‘examples’ of second sexism the author discusses include male disadvantage in terms of child custody in divorce cases, paternity leave, and the shorter life expectancy of men as compared to women. But do these various ‘disadvantages’ amount to sexism against men and boys? Though the author should be credited for bringing into the limelight some disadvantages of being a male, to call these disadvantages second sexism would imply that women are responsible for discrimination against men, which is often not the case. It is an accepted academic stand that sexism is systematic and structural, and that it involves the subordination of one group by another group which enjoys power and advantage in the system. This second sexism occurs in the context of a specific set of institutional arrangements and a specific ideology which creates and maintains a system in which political, economic and social power is concentrated in the hands of males. Similarly, the well-known feminist theorist Marilyn Frye believes that ‘the locus of sexism is primarily in the system and framework, not in the particular act’. This amounts to the belief that perhaps men themselves seem to be responsible for discrimination against males, at least in most of the examples cited by Benatar. Take, for example, the fact that today’s armed forces in the UK is 91% male – the laws stating men were the only gender allowed in the in any armed forces job until 2015 was ruled mostly by men. Benatar has pre-emptively tried to answer these objections by saying that (1) discrimination need not reach the systematic level in order for it to constitute sexism, and (2) neither all men are in power nor does it really matter who the perpetrators are. This second point, in particular, strikes a not in me – the common counter-argument to ‘men-sympathisers’ that men themselves caused this is irrelevant, the fact remains that the sexism exists, and as feminism exists, there should be a non-stigmatised version backing men’s rights, or an activist joining the two to create a sheet organisation, that can promote equality on all bases, not just for women’s rights.
It is true that one may ask Benatar: who is responsible for second sexism – the system or individuals? Benatar seems to have no clear answer. He also never fully answers the charge that it is the patriarchal system itself which places extra responsibilities on the male, and it may be the price that some men are paying for their overall advantageous position in society. Owing to the controversial nature of the topic, the author has yet to answer several counterarguments. However, one must agree with him that the overall greater severity of the first sexism does not imply that the second sexism should be denied, ignored or tolerated. The main strength of the book lies in being the first systematic attempt to point out the so far neglected aspects of discrimination against men and boys in its different forms. From its title the book may look to be part of a backlash against feminism, but it could function as both a compliment and a supplement to feminist objectives. There is certainly much in the book that feminists would find to their benefit. For example, the author rejects biological determinism and social conservatism which has been the target of feminist writings since its beginning of its foundation. In fact, Benatar calls for an alliance between feminists and men’s rights activists to work together to combat all forms of sexism (first and second) against all types of victims. Like Beauvoir’s book The Second Sex, Benatar’s Second Sexism has the potential of becoming a classic in gender studies, however, I wish to take Benatar’s point to the next level by level by identifying the small acts of the judgement that I believe points to the system and mindset of each new generation as being the main perpetrator in this phenomenon. Take chivalry as an example: from a young age many boys are learnt the so called ‘chivalrous’ techniques of holding doors open for women specifically, and giving seats up for women specifically, to the point where there is social pressure on young boys and men to seek areas of society where one might be chivalrous. This is surely a notion of the past – an equal society cannot by definition be one where we pick and choose when sexual discrimination is acceptable and when it is not, but this is the situation of the present, and it runs deep in our mirific society.
Social Irrationality to Feed Counter-sexism
Feminism, any Oxford dictionary will tell you, is the ‘advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of sexes’, and bravo to that. Feminism, we must agree, is the driving force behind many of the major advancements of the current day, as surely, without a confident female population, we are/would be missing out on the ideas, production, and creativity, of over 50% of the world’s population. However, as the tide is turning from male supremacy to a growing sureness in the female population, many men are feeling overlooked. One could argue rightly so, given millennia of domination, but nevertheless, it was not these boys fighting suffragettes in the Twenties, that are now being left behind. The prevailing stereotype of men is becoming that of old, sexual assaulters, lacking restraint, or decency, but this view is being spearheaded by the same radicals sponsoring women’s rights on the ground of the equality of sexes. So much of the media portrays the female #MeToo activists as heroes and men like Harvey Weinstein as the villains, when there is so much more depth in a population of 3,931,166,710 people. It is this attitude of selective discrimination that fuels the most anger in the male camp.
Selective discrimination is an act of prejudice against a group, for your gain, inconsistent with your other beliefs or ideals for society. One example of this would be the ‘chivalrous’ act of carrying the shopping bags home from the supermarket, or the saying never let a lady struggle. As while it is a very kind act, if the role were to be reversed and the saying was never let a man struggle with the cooking, or if someone told a woman to help a man to do a job that was classed as ‘women’s work’, it would cause outrage. Therefore, I would argue this is selective discrimination as the people saying these things are discriminating (allowing men to be discriminated against, albeit on a small scale), for their own gain (an easier life and perhaps a sense of “justice”) while expected to be treated “equally with the other sex”.
Therefore, if selective discrimination occurs on a such a small scale then why does this threaten our ideals?
Selective discrimination is embedded so deep into our culture that now it has almost become impossible to refuse. For example, if a man were to ask a woman to give up her seat she would, I am sure, be confused, after all women deserve this seat more than said man, however if the situation was reversed, with the man being confused as he deserves the seat more than she, it would be seen as the height of rudeness, and his actions would seemingly be impossible to defend. When observed, our society contains just as many irritating and hurtful sexisms towards men as women, however, this is not to say that The First Sexism is less or even equally as important, it is surely the most grave of the two, with the difference being that The First Sexism occurs in more important areas of life such as sexual health, and pay, while I believe the second sexism occurs just as frequently as the first, just not as powerfully.
This said, selective discrimination’s worst trait, in my opinion, is that it is causing millions of men and boys globally to redefine the term man. Be a man, boys are told from an early age, but, I would argue, those are the three of the most destructive words that any child can be told in their infancy or teenage years. The phrase itself is at first not particularly detrimental to man’s self-esteem and confidence. Instead, it is the connotations of hyper-masculinity that unavoidably accompany it. Say ‘man’ and the first thoughts you might conjure up will be of muscly, tall, handsome heroes characters with a fondness for fighting and a way with women.
This stereotypical ‘box’ flashes into so many men’s minds when they are instructed to ‘man up’. And even if we are just slightly outside of this box, insecurities begin to manifest themselves.
Such a feeling of insecurity and shame causes men to curl in on ourselves, contorting our personalities until we can squeeze ourselves into The Box, this self-destructive stereotype. In our vain pursuit of this hyper-masculine ideal, we effectively disconnect from who we really are. This relates to counter-sexism in the sense that society is embracing more “manly” women, as a more liberal approach to the sexes, and sadly as this is viewed by many people, unacceptable, as ‘more productive’, however, the idea of embracing more “womanly” men has not yet been grasped by the population. Recently, with the rise of the popular man-bun there has been a rise in reported motorbike crime taking scissors and chopping off this hairstyle from unsuspecting men. So, it is okay for a woman to be powerful but not for men to be vulnerable?
Selective Discrimination in Practice
Male-only conscription, is a raw example of selective discrimination on a wider scale. In The Myth of Male Power, Warren Farrell writes that if any other single group, (the examples he lists are Jews, African-Americans, and women), were selected based on their birth characteristics to be the only group required to register for potential death, we would call it Anti-Semitism, racism or genocidal sexism. Men, he says, have been socialised to call it ‘glory’ and ‘power,’ and as a result do not view this as a negative. Farrell contends that this viewpoint creates psychological problems for both sexes: that ‘men’s weakness is their facade of strength; women’s strength is their facade of weakness.’ He adds that societies have generally socialised boys and men to define power as, in essence, ‘feeling obligated to earn money someone else spends while we die sooner.’ Feeling obligated, he contends, is not power. This may be an extreme example, but it illustrates the point.
Furthermore, he believes that historically, neither sex was disposable: men tended to die in war, women in childbirth, however in the female case their ability to survive such trauma was biological advancement and specialisation, whereas men required socialisation. This is where counter-sexism becomes relevant – the idea that in countries such as America and Australia women are not allowed to serve in front line combat, presumably for the incorrect assumption that the female gender is “weaker” than men, is appalling, not just as denies women basic rights to any profession, but also as in a society where supposedly women and men are equal, how come when it suits the “victims of sexism” it is suddenly acceptable to play the card that women are now suddenly ‘less able than men’. Currently, only nine countries have laws allowing for the conscription of women into their armed forces: China, Eritrea, Israel, Libya, Malaysia, North Korea, Norway, Peru and Taiwan. In 2014, Norway became the first NATO country to introduce obligatory military service for women as an act of gender equality.
Our sit-coms portray men as bumbling fools and idiots and usually overweight, with the women as sensible, together and attractive. Everybody might love Raymond, but he’s an idiot. The same idiots are replayed every night: Beavis and Butthead, Trailer Park Boys, The Simpsons, Home Improvement. We may laugh at such sexism, not recognizing it as such, but we do not laugh at racism nor sexist misogyny. To appropriate Jean Kilbourne’s film on advertisements that objectified women, they are ‘killing us softly.’ We are all constantly being bombarded with messages that men are stupid, and it would be surprising if we were not internalizing them.
Sit-coms may be comedies but watching them is like going to school: we learn the values and attitudes being taught.
Misandry is also based in history, (or herstory), or a misreading of history. Most of the major villains of the last century have been male: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Charles Taylor, Ceausescu, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. But the misreading of history is three-fold. First, their villainy was a matter of power not gender. Second, women with absolute power have sometimes been absolute villains too. Third, we cannot ignore the male heroes, including those who fought against the tyrants and eventually deposed them, or died trying. It is poor scholarship and short-term politics to portray men as solely villains and to ignore the evil women and the good men.
Today: About 90% of all murders in North America are committed by men. The Top 10 on the FBI Most Wanted List are all male. Most of the corporate CEOs and CFOs arrested recently from Enron to Bernie Madoff have been men; Martha Stewart was a only exception. So there seem to be real grounds for misandry. But this is the Cyclops syndrome: to see with only one eye, in only one dimension and only half of reality (as with #2 above).