Welcome to those of you new to what we do here. Although most in the Men’s Human Rights Movement believe that feminism alone is not responsible for all the problems men and boys face in our society, of you want a good starting point on understanding why feminism is frequently criticized, this classic essay will help explain it to you. It’s one of AVfM Contributing Editor Karen Straughan’s most famous works. –Eds.
This article is also available in Romanian.
Not too long ago I had it out with a feminist who had come into a male-safe space from a feminist blog just to scoff at the idea of male disposability. She basically said that the entire concept was a myth, that men’s lived experiences were completely wrong, and that they were just a bunch of whiners who were complaining over nothing.
That got me thinking about the concept of male disposability and how that interacts with the feminist movement. Male disposability has been around since the dawn of time, and it’s based on one very very straightforward dynamic: when it comes to the well-being of others, women come first, men come last. This is just the way it has always been. Seats in lifeboats, being rescued from burning buildings, who gets to eat: really, society places men dead last every time, and, society expects men to place themselves dead last every time.
Humans have always had a dynamic of “women and children first” and that has not changed at all. The 93% workplace death gap has to be evidence of this, if only because there’s nobody with any kind of importance or power who’s interested in changing it at all. In fact I remember reading an article in a British Columbia paper not long ago that described the increasing proportion of female injuries on the job as a huge problem, and the insane thing was the change reflected a decrease in male injuries rather than an increase in female ones. Men’s injuries on the job had gone down because the economic downturn had put so many men out of work in the resource sector that there just weren’t as many trees or pieces of heavy equipment falling on men as there had been before. And yet, this was framed as a huge problem for women that required immediate action to solve. It’s like if men aren’t dying at work that 20 times the rate that women are, we must be doing something wrong as a society.
Back when we were still living in caves that attitude was necessary for human survival. Nature is a really harsh mistress, especially when you think of all the animals that never get to die of old age. Things were a lot different for humans through most of our history on this planet than they are now. Life was dangerous, human settlements were small, isolated from each other, and one big disaster that took out a lot of women pretty much meant the end of the entire shebang for that group of people. So really, the level of importance that a human settlement placed on the well-being of women and children reflected almost always how successful that settlement was. And that can be expanded to encompass entire societies.
I keep hearing from the feminist camp that femaleness has always been undervalued by society and that maleness is preferred. But I’ve always contended that it’s the exact opposite: the feminine is intrinsically and individually valuable, simply because females are the limited factor in reproduction. When it comes to producing babies, every woman counts, whereas biologically one very happy man could probably do the work of hundreds in that regard. So the level of instinctive importance we humans place on the safety and provisioning of women and their children is one of the main reasons why we’ve been able to be so successful that we’ve come to dominate this planet.
While I will concede that this drive to keep women safe from all harm has often resulted in extreme limits being placed on women’s mobility, their agency, their power of decision to direct their own lives, all through history and many cultures, and in many cultures even today, I think it’s telling that those cultures tend to be the most backward. When you consider the restrictions placed on women in places like Afghanistan, and then you consider that if we “bombed them into the stone age” it might be progress, I think you could conclude that the most successful societies had a good balance between allowing women freedom and the ability to choose and direct their own paths in life, and the need to protect them and provide for them.
However, feminists will insist that these kinds of restrictions being placed on women in those kinds of societies are the ultimate form of objectification. You lock up your possessions to make sure they will never be lost or stolen or harmed. Honestly, if I were a guy on a battlefield I might appreciate being objectified in that way. I think if I was going to be an object, I’d rather be a sexual one or somebody’s prized possession than an object that can simply be thrown in the trash or smashed into pieces in the service of somebody else’s purpose.
Feminists also have a very simplistic idea that our willingness to absolve women of their crimes, slap them on the wrist, spare them punishment, comes from a deep disrespect society has for women’s person-hood—not seeing them as full human beings capable of looking after themselves, that we see them as children who don’t know any better. And while there are parallels there in our desire to protect both women and children from not only their own poor decisions but the full consequences of their shitty behavior, it’s really not as simple as they try to make it out to be.
Seriously, even today—even today in 2011!–we fully expect that if it comes down to a man and a woman in a burning building and you can only save one, the expectation is that you choose the woman every single time. So honestly, whose humanity are we placing above whose here? We’re not talking about going to work, we’re not talking about getting an education, we’re not talking about freedom to decide what you want to be in life. We’re not talking about getting to take Tae Kwon Do. We’re talking seats in lifeboats here. The person in the lifeboat is going to survive, no matter how capable or incapable they are of managing their own life, and the person going down with the ship is going to die, no mater how independent, self-sufficient and awesome he is. That’s the equation: one life, more valuable than another, and the woman wins every time.
So honestly, is there any argument, anywhere, that women’s humanity has always been held in higher regard by society than men’s? To be important to society, a woman merely has to be; a man has to do in order for his life to have any meaning to anyone other than himself. I think it was ManWomanMyth who said our society reduces men from human beings to human doings. I really think that’s an apt analogy. We measure a man’s worthiness to wear the title of “man” and therefore the title of “human,” through how useful he is, either to society or to women, and one of the most useful things a man can do even now in the eyes of society is to put women and children before himself.
While I think there is plenty of argument that this attitude is at least partly innate—the way most survival traits are, even collective ones—if it starts in the chromosomes we really do everything we can as a society to reinforce this dynamic. Studies have shown that even though baby boys tend to cry and fuss more than baby girls, parents are quicker to attend to or console a baby girl than they are a baby boy. Even just the level of acceptance of infant male circumcision in our culture, when female genital mutilation was banned pretty much the first afternoon we all heard it existed, really says a lot about the differing expectations we have for males and females. Speaking as a mother, the last thing I would ever have wanted was to hear my child cry, especially when they’re at an age when they’re completely helpless, completely at the mercy of outside forces, and utterly dependent on the adults in their lives for every last thing, and yet even knowing how painful that cut is, we expect baby boys only days old to just suck that up.
Just think about what these very first interactions and experiences, these differences in how we nurture our babies depending on what gender they are, what this teaches them: What do we teach baby girls when we attend to their crying so quickly? We teach them to ask for help because their needs are important. We teach them to let us know when they’re afraid or in pain because it’s important for us to know when they’re sick or in danger or hurt, so we can do something about it. We teach them that when they’re sad or lonely to summon comfort and comfort will be there. We teach them that they’re important. Their needs and well-being, both emotional and physical, are important just because.
And what are we teaching baby boys when we leave them to cry? We teach them that there’s not much point in seeking help because it will be grudgingly given if at all We teach them that they should become self-contained in their ability to deal with emotions like fear, helplessness, loneliness, sadness, pain, distress: we teach them stoicism. We teach them to suck it up. We teach them that their fear and their pain are things that are best ignored. We teach them that their emotional and physical well-being are just not as important as other things.
Given all that, is it any wonder it’s like pulling teeth to get a man to go to the doctor when he’s sick?
What we’re teaching that baby boy is all the things a man needs to know and feel and believe about himself if he’s going to stand in front of a cabin with a rifle while his wife and kids hide inside. We’re preparing him for the day he has to fix a bayonet to a rifle and charge a hill under enemy fire, and we’re preparing him to make a decision to resign himself to an icy fate while women and children escape in the lifeboats. We are teaching him to internalize his own disposability.
And baby girls? By attending to her crying so quickly, by letting her know that she’s inherently important to us, we’re preparing her for the day she has to think of her own safety first, even if it means the man she loves is left standing alone with a rifle in front of a cabin. We’re preparing her to take that seat in the lifeboat. We’re training her to not allow guilt or empathy or acknowledgment of a man’s humanity, or any sense that he might deserve it more, to convince her give her seat to him. Because for millenia, the human species absolutely depended on her feeling 100% entitled to that seat.
And that brings me to feminism. You know, the patriarchy smashers? Those righteous avengers of equality? Dogged dismantlers of every single gender role? What exactly is feminism doing to dismantle this traditional role of the disposable male?
Feminism’s greatest victories have only reinforced in everyone that society still owes women provision, protection, help and support just because they’re women. In its collective dismissal and abandonment of male victims of domestic violence, it only reinforces in men that it’s pointless to ask for help, because men’s needs are of no relevance, and their fear and pain don’t mean anything to anyone. Feminism teaches us to put women’s need at the forefront of every single issue, political or social. Whether that issue is domestic violence law, sexual assault law, institutional sexism, social safety net, education funding, homeless shelters, government funding for shovel-ready jobs—jobs that didn’t stay shovel-ready once women got wind of them.
Everywhere you look—everywhere you look!–there are feminists pushing their way to the front of the line demanding women’s “fair share” of all of the goodies, the good stuff, the loot, the booty, the cookies. Even if women don’t need it. Even if women don’t deserve it. And even if somebody else needs it and deserves it more.
And they get it, because we give it to them.
Feminism has done nothing but exploit this dynamic of the expectation on men to put everybody else before themselves. Especially women. Women’s safety and support, women’s well-being, and women’s emotional needs, always come first. This is the most stunning piece of society-wide manipulative psychology I think I have ever come across. Feminism has been down with old-school chivalry right from the start. They might seem like strange bedfellows, but they’re not. Because both concepts are built on a firm foundation of female self-interest.
We made our way as humans through a really harsh history and we became the dominant force on this planet. One of the reasons we were so successful is because we have consistently put women’s basic needs first. Their need for safety, support, and provision. It was in humanity’s best interest for women to be essentially self-interested, and for men to be essentially self-sacrificing. But we don’t need that dynamic anymore. Our species is in no danger of extinction. We’re 7 billion people clogging up the works here!
What’s the worst that could happen if we all just collectively decided that men were no more disposable than women, and women were no more valuable than men? In fact the greatest danger I see to us right now is that in our desperation to bend over and give women everything they want and everything they say they need, we’ve unbalanced society to the point where we’re in danger of seriously toppling over.
And really? The only difference I see between the traditional role and the new one for men with respect to disposability is that maleness, manhood: it used to be celebrated, it used to be admired, and it used to be rewarded, because it was really necessary, and because the personal cost of it to individual men was so incredibly high.
But now? Now, we still expect men to put women first, and we still expect society to put women first, and we still expect men to not complain about coming in dead last every damn time. But men don’t even get our admiration anymore. All they get in return is to hear about what assholes they are. Is there any wonder why they’re starting to get pissed off?
–Karen (AKA Girl Writes What)