I am genetically and socially male. I was raised almost exclusively by women. My biological father vanished from my life before I was old enough to remember him; the stepfather I acquired at age three had little to do with me, and was gone before I turned nine. Throughout my childhood, when I wasn’t with my mother, I was with my grandmother or aunt. My only male role models were a very few male teachers, and so I saw the world largely through the feminine perspective of my family caretakers. As a result, I was acutely conscious of many of the ways male-dominated society oppressed women in latter twentieth century America; although, like that of my caretakers, my awareness of the manifold forms female oppression continued to grow, at an ever-accelerating pace, as I grew older.
I remember being resentful of many male behaviors: how a man would often lead a woman about by holding her elbow, for example, or make disparaging remarks about female drivers, as well as innumerable other offenses. I was resentful, too, of the obvious male assumption that men were in charge of everything. When I got a little older, and began to realize that I was eventually going to turn into a man, I became embarrassed for my sex, and even more resentful of the rotten behavior of men.
So I was very receptive to concepts of women’s liberation and the need for a reform in gender relations when I became old enough to be aware of them. I watched my mother closely as her own consciousness of oppression and its remedies grew and matured, and mine did too in harmony with hers. I learned from her, a professional writer, techniques of non-sexist writing, and techniques of effective feminist social critique. I also learned critical thinking skills from her, and to despise phony revisionist theories of anything, that merely replace one set of errors with another.
Thus, as a teenager, I was all in favor of women’s liberation, as we called it then. About the time I went to university I began to hear the word “feminism”, used as a seemingly more mature, more scholarly, and more comprehensive term that covered both women’s liberation and some vaguely defined worldview from an enlightened female perspective. I felt a twinge of discomfort as soon as I heard the term. “Women’s liberation” seemed like a concept every reasonable, enlightened person could support; “feminism”, though, had overtones of women going their own way, without regard or connection to the society that nurtured them. However, for the most part I set my doubts aside, supposing that this feminism was a natural extension and elaboration of what had come before, and that if it chose to assert its independence it had good reason to do so.
As time went by, though, I began to see troubling aspects to feminism. First was female consciousness-building, which explicitly excluded men and their voices, fulfilling the promise inherent in the name. It was all about developing and refining a purely female understanding of female experience. As such, it was hard to find fault with; but it was evident that this feminism was no longer a shared exercise to improve society by eliminating obnoxious gender discrimination; it was strictly a women’s endeavor, as feminists clearly expressed.
Far more troubling was the tendency that feminists began to evince to appropriate the agendas of other movements opposed to various forms of oppression. In my college years I began to hear from my feminist friends statements like, “Feminism is opposed to racism too; if you’re opposed to racism, you’re a feminist too.” Or, “Oppression of women hurts men too; if you have problems with the way society treats men, you’re a feminist!” I paraphrase of course; but this is the gist of what I began to hear from feminists.
I found sentiments like these deeply problematic. First, in that they conflated sexual discrimination with other kinds of discrimination such as racism or economic class discrimination, despite the obvious and significant differences in the respective causative factors. Second, and even more important, they seemed designed to deny an independent voice to movements opposing these other forms of oppression, movements with a history and origin quite independent of feminism. It seemed that feminists wished to bring all liberation struggle narratives under the umbrella of feminism. (This early appropriative tendency has now matured into what we know as “intersectional feminism”, a more self-conscious line of thought that, while capable of making useful and valid discoveries about the social structure of oppression, seems principally to function as a way to systematize an ever-expanding sense of victimhood.).
Somewhere around 1980, I began to hear the slogan “pornography is violence against women.” At first I thought this was referring to pornography that depicts women as victims of abuse or in degrading roles. But I soon learned that any representation of sexual activity is to be regarded as degrading to women. This seemed repressive, and wrong, to me. I had never had common cause with people who try to leverage their own version of sexual morality to control the behavior of others, and I recognized this anti-sexual rhetoric as an example of the same kind of prudery espoused by fanatical religious zealots. There is of course a theoretical basis for these repressive attitudes to sexual expression (as there is for religious dogma), namely, objectification theory. While objectification theory does offer important insights into gender relations, it is surely a misapplication of the concept to use it as an instrument of sexual repression.
So, at this point, I found myself looking at feminism as a still progressive and needed movement for the empowerment of women, but with growing hegemonic, authoritarian, and sexually repressive tendencies, and notably lacking in the capacity for self-critique or acceptance of external criticism. But as time went on, I found feminists promoting ever more concepts that I regard as misguided, dangerous, false, or ethically reprehensible. So much so that now, when feminist concepts often dominate public policy discourse, and the stated goals of first-wave feminism have been largely achieved in western democracies, I see the present incarnation of the feminist movement as an agent more of harm than of good. Here, in an order roughly corresponding to the order in which they came to my attention, are some of the most important of the difficulties I have discovered in recent mainstream expressions of feminism.
Equality of outcome
In the matter of equality among individuals in respect to their activities and the results thereof, political philosophers have long recognized that equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are antithetical. Given equal opportunity for action, outcomes will necessarily differ among individuals, because people have different aptitudes, interests, and resources; while, if equality of outcome is observed on a wide scale, it necessarily implies restrictions on personal liberty. The loudest voices in the feminist movement speak clearly in favor of equality of outcome. To be fair, they speak mostly to equality of outcome for groups rather than individuals. I agree that, in the absence of some apparent other reason for a discrepancy of outcome between groups, one may suspect discrimination is at play, and this should be researched and corrected if appropriate. On this view, equality of outcome (or rather, its absence) is a tool for discovering discrimination. However, feminism by and large regards equality of outcome as desirable in its own right; a proposition which is both philosophically dubious and in practical terms, authoritarian.
Equality as identity
A related concept to equality of outcome is equality as identity: the proposition that equality must obtain in whatever scope one chooses to focus on. In this way of thinking, what we might call compensatory equality does not count as equality. By “compensatory equality” I mean a situation in which different groups are advantaged in different respects, but their respective advantages are seen as in balance overall (perhaps the simple term “equity” would serve better). This concept of compensatory equality does not receive a warm welcome among feminists. Rather, in whatever scope our examination falls, we must see parity: parity in numbers of corporate CEOs, for example, or parity of lifetime income. This requirement is deeply problematic, since men and women typically and necessarily have different life experiences, aspirations, and biological constraints that make such a rigid version of equality unachievable except through coercive social control.
In the past two or three decades, we have seen the rise of a sociopolitical dogma that defines personal identity primarily in terms of group membership. Mainstream feminism has embraced this dogma fully. The dogma has two problems: it undermines personal freedom and personal accountability; and it is socially divisive, and contributes to the perpetuation of the discriminatory practices and mindsets that it putatively opposes. Where it is applied to race, it is racist; where to gender, it is sexist. Identity politics is a vile perversion of the liberation movements from which it grew.
Victim blaming has become a favorite theme of mainstream feminism in the past decade or so; it is utterly perverse. According to this sad and sick doctrine, anything that empowers women to address the vicissitudes of life is a moral affront. Women should not need to be empowered, because fairness and equality demand that society be recast in such a way that women do not face challenges. Of course no apologist for the victim blaming concept would put it in these terms, but these are the implications of the doctrine as it is stated. When efforts to teach women to defend themselves, to speak out for themselves, to negotiate equitable salaries, etc., are derided and suppressed on the grounds that they are “blaming the victim”, the implications are clear.
Victim culture is a natural outgrowth of the preceding. When women are taught that they should not try to improve themselves and their situation because it validates their status as victims, how are they not to believe they are victims in every case where things don’t go just as they wish? And how easy is it to extend this culture from women to people of color and to society as a whole? It is very easy; indeed, it is inevitable, and is well underway now.
The concept of rape culture, which supposes that rape is not only insufficiently discouraged in modern developed societies, but is actually celebrated and promoted, is not entirely incorrect, in my view. What I do find objectionable about “rape culture” is its association with “blank slate” theories of human development. It seems to reject out of hand evolutionary influences in gendered behavior. If such influences exist, as they surely do, this rejection inhibits our ability to find practical corrective measures to reduce the incidence of rape. This is a notable case of political dogma rejecting and suppressing science, to the disadvantage of its own stated political goals.
Continuing the topic of rape, I have seen it become popular for feminists to deride anyone who does not enthusiastically support whatever is the currently most extreme feminist view on rape as a “rape apologist”, as if rape were not an issue about which people of good faith may have nuanced opinions. This zealotry is dishonest, in that it falsely ascribes abhorrent views to its targets, and is hurtful to efforts to reduce rape, in that it discourages open dialog on the topic. It would be easy to dismiss as extremist nonsense were it not such a mainstream tactic. I see no effort on the part of mainstream feminism to disassociate itself from bogus “rape apologist” accusations; rather, it seems to foster them.
Suppression of men’s voices
Feminism has become a powerful voice in conversations about policy; some say it is in fact the dominant voice. Feminists are to be congratulated on this achievement, so long a central goal of their movement. One might expect that, having achieved such a favored position, feminists might be open to a meaningful dialog with men aimed at promoting a society with true gender equality, moving beyond the one-sided notion of gender equality as “equality for women”. Nothing of the sort has occurred. Instead, feminists seem less inclined to listen to a male viewpoint than ever before. Everywhere, efforts by men to organize discussion groups to examine gender issues from a male point of view have been met with violent denunciation and protest by feminists. This, more than anything else, has convinced me that the vanguard of the feminist movement is not interested in gender equality at all, but rather in re-casting society in a feminist, that is to say, gynocentric, paradigm. This is, of course, the stated goal of many radical feminists; but it is clear it pervades the movement to such an extent that nearly every feminist who is willing to take a stand on this issue will stand in opposition to androcentric discourse about gender issues, dialog with male viewpoints about gender issues, and gender equality as assessed by any but exclusively feminist measures.
That leads us to Patriarchy, or The Way Things Are. Patriarchy theory asserts, not to put too fine a point on it, that society as a whole is of men, by men, and for men. Suffice it to say that I disagree, and that I note the only evidence brought forth in support of Patriarchy theory consists of anecdotal examples of instances in which some women feel put upon, against which any number of similar examples of the plight of men can be adduced. Patriarchy theory is also self-contradictory, in that it asserts society is structured for male benefit, while at the same time claiming, “Patriarchy hurts men too,” as if men were not competent to determine for themselves what is hurting them.
Linguistic appropriation to stifle individual experience and dissent
Here I diverge slightly from the plan I have followed to this point, addressing only my personal experience of feminism, to speak of some objective concepts that underlie my perceptions. I have recently begun to see promoted a new definition, or rather definitional component, of sexism: sexism is said to be “discrimination plus power”, or “prejudice plus power”. (The identical formula is advanced for racism.) It is explained that “power” in this formula refers not to individual power but rather the systemic power of a group. Thus sexism is redefined as a particular instance of institutional sexism. An individual belonging to a group that is seen as sexist by this definitional formula is automatically seen as sexist too, irrespective of his or her attitudes, actions, or degree of personal power.
There can be no question that sexism, racism, and other forms of social discrimination and oppression take on a special character and force when they manifest themselves in institutionalized social norms. However, to restrict the meaning of a general term (e.g., sexism) to a specific, narrow instance of the concept (in this case, institutionalized sexism) is obfuscatory, and is generally not done unless there is some clear advantage to be acquired by doing so. In the present case, no intellectual advantage is visible; but political advantages are apparent, and appear to provide a sufficient motive for the definitional change. Although under this new definition sexism is regarded as a matrix of social structures whose objects and subjects are groups, the term “sexist” is still applied to members of putatively sexist groups, with all the stigma that should attach to individuals whose attitudes or actions are sexist. Conversely, members of non-sexist groups, (i.e., all women) are by definition not sexist, and no stigma attaches to attitudes or actions of those individuals that are discriminatory toward members of a sexist group (broadly, men). The problems with this paradigm are obvious, but I will point out one or two, since they also constitute the political advantages that appear to have motivated the redefinition. The paradigm excuses and validates any sexist behavior or belief on the part of women. It absolves them of personal responsibility in their actions toward men. It tells men that the only way they can be free of the stigma of sexism is by a radical reorganization of society that has feminist dogma as its central principle and that prioritizes the interests of women over other considerations. This restriction of the meaning of a useful general word, to serve the narrow sociopolitical interests of a radical group, is a crass power play. It is dishonest at its core, and seems far removed from genuine efforts to promote gender equality and foster peace between the sexes.
From this catalog of obvious and fairly superficial problems with feminism, I now return briefly to my own experience, taking a step backward in time to the inception of a train of thought that reveals a problem in feminism that is more fundamental, more important, and more dangerous than any I have described so far, although I alluded to it in the preceding paragraph.
Somewhere in the mid 1970s I became acquainted with the writings of John Norman, the pen name of a philosophy professor who made a very successful secondary career of writing salacious sci-fi/fantasy novels. I was both appalled and enchanted by Norman’s women-as-chattel vision of an alternative society. While I don’t believe Norman’s vision is in any sense practical or desirable, I mention him here because he did introduce me to a new concept, namely, that our present society is in fact female-dominated, superficial appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. The more I thought about this concept, the more sense it made to me. I began to ask myself, how would men behave if they were freed from the constraints and responsibilities that the presence of women places on them? From consideration of this question it was an easy step to the realization that nearly everything men do in our present society is fundamentally guided or inspired by the need to care for, protect, and please women.
From an evolutionary standpoint it is no surprise at all that this should be so, nor that this need is manifested in the often controlling and oppressive ways that it normally is. Throughout the animal kingdom, females occupy a place reproductive preeminence, since it is they alone that may bear young. The fundamental purpose, indeed the defining purpose, of life is to reproduce itself; the effective contribution to this purpose of any fertile female far exceeds that of any particular male. The fundamental task of the male, in a biological sense, is to provide seed; the species invests far more reproductive capital, so to speak, in the female that must bear the eggs until they are ready for expulsion from her body. Even when eggs are expelled before fertilization, as in certain maritime species, the rule holds true, since the production of eggs requires far more energy than the creation of sperm.
Since, in the vast majority of cases, fertilization occurs inside the female’s body, and a great deal of reproductive energy is expended in providing for the development of the eggs, it is hardly surprising that females are also most often the primary nurturers of the young. The male has performed his primary function in providing sperm; he is only useful after that in a sort of evolutionary opportunism. The reproductive mechanism of mammals in particular makes primarily female nurturing of the young the overwhelming norm.
The evolutionary imperative of the male is to maximize the likelihood that his genes will be passed on to the next generation, as is also the case for the female. But especially in mammals, their situations differ. The female invests a tremendous amount of energy in the development of the young within her body; energy that is thus not available to her for other purposes, such as gathering sustenance, self-defense, staying warm, and so forth. It makes evolutionary sense for a male to supply this deficit of energy for females who carry his seed. And in those cases where this evolutionary path has been realized, females thus become a kind of commodity to males. What we must care for, to satisfy our own goals, we will surely also try to control, in an effort to protect our investment of effort. Through the operation of this principle, the human tendency of males to seek control of females necessarily arose.
Earlier I referred to the need to please women as a fundamental motivation for the actions of men. In the context I have just established, it can be seen that “pleasing women” is an adaptive technique for the control of women. Yet, at the same time, it can be seen that the focus of male activity is female; men try to control women because women are the most important factor in the propagation of their genes. Thus men become slaves to the control structures they have developed, and women become a commodity for men. Women, on the other hand, can and do use the male imperative to “please” as a method to mitigate the control men try to place on them. Through this interplay of control mechanisms and evolutionary purposes, women, always at the center of the motions of society, also exert influence that is seldom acknowledged by feminist theorists.
The “commodification” of women is thus an adaptive response to evolutionary pressures. Commodification implies objectification; feminist theorists do recognize this, and call attention to it. Thus it is not socialization alone that leads to the objectification of women, nor a biological propensity of either or both sexes to see women as the prey or property of men, but a complex of adaptive responses to differences in the biological energy budgets of the two sexes. To address this innate problem that leads inexorably to objectification of women, and thus a certain kind of inequality, feminists have attacked both the energy budget problem directly and also the adaptive responses to it.
The effort to expand women’s control over their reproductive processes is the primary method used to address the energy budget problem. However, this method is not completely successful in its strategic goals, even where it enjoys tactical success in the sense of providing women access to contraception and enhanced legal reproductive rights. The female human body is disposed by evolution to invest a lot of energy in attributes that will favor the goal of reproductive success, even if the occupant of that body chooses to avoid or restrict the use those attributes. As a result, even athletic, childless females can rarely achieve the capacity for physical work of men of similar age, even of similar size, and habits. Thus equality, at least in the sense of equality of objectification across the sexes, cannot be achieved only by giving women the capacity to control the timing and quantity of their own reproductive activities. While some feminists may cherish some hope of hormonal or other biological innovations that radically reshape the character of human reproduction, a more immediately satisfying recourse is to attack the aforementioned adaptive responses to biological circumstance.
In so doing, feminists are attacking something that, while not strictly speaking a biological imperative, is far more fundamental than cultural mores: it is a set of ecological, adaptive responses that are woven deep into human nature. They attempt to replace the product of millennia of evolutionary change with a system created from the human imagination. We have seen, more than once in recent history, the dangers that attend this sort of exercise. History shows too that it is all too possible that they will succeed, at least in part and for a time. Indeed, they are beginning to succeed now, as we see more and more men divesting themselves of masculinity in some partial fashion, with bad consequences all around. Those who overtly give up masculine virtue become a scourge on society to women and men alike. Those who pretend to give up only masculine vice become ill; they give up much of their virtue as well, and it is as if a bad smell begins to emanate from their thoughts, resulting from the irreconcilable contradictions brewing in their heads. It is not to be expected that a complete success of the feminist program in this domain will produce any happier result; quite the opposite is likely.
In the beginning of this essay I wrote about my experience with discrimination against women by men, and my sympathy with efforts to correct this. The reader who has struggled through my turgid prose to this point may well wonder if any of that sympathy is now left to me, after what may well seem a fairly scathing indictment of everything feminist. The answer is that it remains to me in full. My attitudes toward women and equality of the sexes have not been altered by my gradual enlightenment regarding the chief societal movement to address these two subjects of discord.
My understanding of the objects of my attitudes has however deepened and expanded somewhat in the process. But still, by the notorious dictionary definition of feminist, I must be called a feminist, because I favor equality between the sexes. But I do not call myself a feminist. The dictionary definition of feminist is as useful in understanding the theoretical bases and practical implications of feminism as the definition of Christian as “someone who believes in God” is to an understanding of real-world Christianity; that is, hardly at all. Such definitions serve merely as starting points for research and contemplation, or as handy, imprecise descriptors for use in casual conversation. Many, perhaps most, of the self-proclaimed “feminists” in the world (and almost certainly most of the men) are only feminists in this naïve, thoughtless sense. They may reasonably use the adjective “feminist” to describe their general attitude toward women; but they would be well advised to avoid the noun when referring to themselves.