Let's start with matters of life and death. Men die significantly earlier than women in just about every society and historical period known to us. The causes are manifold and interact in complex ways. They include physiological factors (notably the harmful effects of testosterone on the immune system) that make human males frailer than females at every stage of development, including before birth. Covid-19 appears much more deadly to men than women, for example. Gender norms about the value of men’s lives aren’t directly responsible for this, but they nonetheless play an indirect role in deflecting away public concern and action.
Other factors reducing men’s life-expectancy are more directly related to social context and upbringing, such as men’s higher propensity for risky behaviour (such as smoking) and violence (which also makes for a much higher suicide success rate). It might seem to some people that these are factors under men's control and hence our own responsibility. However, a little consideration reveals that these factors are heavily shaped by gender roles and norms, which easy talk of responsibility serves to shield from scrutiny. Men are in a double bind, since we are supposed to be aggressive risk-takers, but we are also blamed for being so.
This theme continues. It is by now well known that women are punished for non-gender normative ‘unfeminine’ behaviour, such as appearing more concerned with their career than with being a good mother. The result is that women who try to make such moves find that their contributions are not taken seriously and they are punished for even attempting them. Then, when women follow the gender scripts to the more limited, domestic kinds of achievements available to them this is interpreted as evidence of their true interests and desires. Fortunately, this phenomenon has received a lot of attention and action in recent decades (recently, prominently, by Kate Manne). However there has been much less recognition of and concern about the same phenomenon of men being punished for not acting in the authorised manly way. For example, in rather too many cultures, men are not allowed to be emotionally vulnerable. If they attempt to identify and meet their emotional needs they are ridiculed (see Peggy Orenstein on The Miseducation of the American Boy).
Intellectually, feminism has the right focus on the injustices caused by organising society around essentialist ideas of gender. But as a political movement for change it has neglected to advance that analysis to its logical conclusion. The demand for equality for women is a demand that women’s needs, interests, and rights be taken seriously because women are people too. The demand is addressed to men, but it is not against men. Indeed, it is a demand for dignity that should be extended to men too.
The issue of violence is especially illustrative. The first problem is that men as a group are seen as perpetrators of violence while women are seen as a victim class. (An entire movement has even recently arisen seeking to deny trans-women access to women’s bathrooms, on the grounds that natural-born women need places of safety from the depredations of violent males.) Obviously this is unfair. While it is true that most (though not all!) violence is perpetrated by men, it is also true that most victims of violence are men. The fact that they are victims of other men is – or should be – irrelevant to their right to protection and support.
But I would go further. Men’s propensity to violence itself seems to be an unfair moral burden related to ‘toxic’ masculinity. Firstly, if men follow the traditional gender norms for aggressive masculinity they are raised with then they are likely to become more familiar with violence than women and also be more likely to (feel forced to) resort to it. Secondly, while men and women probably fuck up their lives in roughly equal proportions, men’s personal problems seem more likely to result in them harming others.
I am not attempting to excuse the misdeeds of men. Individuals can and should be blamed for the wrongs that they do. My point is that in the society we are all co-responsible for producing, men have the bad luck to be especially likely to encounter moral challenges that lots of them will fail. An analogy may help. We can certainly blame people in occupied countries like the Netherlands for collaborating with the Nazis, but we should not consider ourselves their moral superiors. The fact that we have no such moral stain on our conscience does not demonstrate our moral superiority but rather our good fortune in never having encountered a situation that placed such demands on our integrity.
I think a conceptual shift is called for. Child soldiers are understood to be perpetrators of violence but also as further victims of it. We should think of men’s propensity to violence in the same way, as a kind of moral hazard imposed on them by circumstances outside their control. Once reconceived, it is easier to see the injustice of subjecting half the population to such moral hazard. It also seems foolish to focus only on the moral responsibility of each individual to overcome their adverse circumstances rather than acting together to change the defective norms of manliness and providing troubled men with the help they need not to pass their moral challenges.
Victimhood is not a competition. The fact that men also suffer under patriarchal social conventions does not mean that women don’t suffer too (or don’t suffer more). It means that feminists should support men’s rights for the same reasons they support women’s rights. Our society’s reliance on narrow, arbitrary, and dysfunctional gender roles and rules reduces the freedom and flourishing of both women and men. We all deserve better.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution: Thomas R. Wells is a philosopher