Male disposability is our society’s tendency to have less concern for the safety and well-being of men than of women. The concept is central to many men’s advocates’ critiques of society similarly to how women’s traditional lack of access to power (and their current lower levels of direct participation in it) is central to most feminist critiques of society.
It is visible in MIT’s Moral Machine, a site that tests people’s moral preferences. In the event that a self-driving car must make a decision, people generally prefer that women be saved over men. This effect is about 3/4 as large as the preference to save younger people over older people, and 1/3 as the preference for human lives over animals.
- Demonstrating (Part I)
- Psychological Experiments
- Justice System
- Attitudes to Homelessness
- Women in Combat
- What are the causes?
- Is male disposability justified?
- Is challenging it futile?
- What does it mean for feminism?
- Is there female disposability?
- Demonstrating (Part II)
- Media Double Standards
- Victims of War
- “Violence Against Women”
(Length: 3,200 words)
Male disposability refers to our society’s tendency to have less concern for the safety and well-being of men than of women. When women experience harm or suffering, it tends to inspire more outrage, desire for action, and desire for prevention than when men experience those things. It has parallels in race, class, age, etc.: “when a young white girl goes missing in America, it immediately becomes a national story” (Huffington Post). Male disposability is institutional, being present not just in the attitudes of regular people but also in the policies and practices of media, government, etc.
Male disposability doesn’t mean we never adequately care about men’s safety and well-being, or that we always care adequately for women. But gender is one factor influencing how much we care, and being a man is usually a negative. It also isn’t about how much hardship or mistreatment each gender experiences—it’s about how much we care when each gender experiences those things (although that influences prevention efforts and taboos). Also, the evidence I look at is from the present-day Western world. It is probably more widespread, but I don’t claim it to be a universal of human cultures.
An influential book on the concept (and possibly the originator of the term) is Warren Farrell’s The Myth of Male Power: Why Men are the Disposable Sex (1993). More recently, Karen Straughan made a very popular video on the topic: “Feminism and the Disposable Male” (16 minutes, transcript here).
2. Demonstrating (Part I)
1.1 Psychological Experiments
In a 2016 study researchers performed three experiments and found that both men and women are more willing to sacrifice the lives of male strangers to save others, more willing to subject male strangers to pain for their (the participants’) monetary gain, and likely to indicate that social norms consider it less morally acceptable to harm women.
- “Moral Chivalry: Gender and Harm Sensitivity Predict Costly Altruism” (Social Psychological and Personality Science)
In a 2015 study, researchers performed four experiments and found that men were more likely than women to sacrifice the lives of three people of the same sex to save one person of the opposite sex. This difference between men and women was observed in a variety of contexts, although it lessened to the point of not being statistically significant in the context of an older (50-year old) person being saved. (Sacrificing three people to save one person is fairly extreme. This doesn’t mean that male disposability doesn’t apply at older ages, only that it doesn’t seem to apply to the same extent.)
- “Intrasexual Competition Shapes Men’s Anti-Utilitarian Moral Decisions” (Evolutionary Psychological Science)
A 2017 study (replicating the famous Milgram experiment) tested people’s willingness to administer an electric shock to another person when encouraged by an authority figure, finding that participants were more likely to refuse to shock a woman.
- “Would you deliver an electric shock in 2015?” (Social Psychological and Personality Science)
1.2 Justice System
A 2004 study looked at assault, robbery, and homicide and (after controlling for legally relevant factors, including type of crime, criminal history, and seriousness of crime) found that people who commit crimes against women receive substantially longer sentences than people who commit crimes against men.
- “Does Victim Gender Increase Sentence Severity? Further Explorations of Gender Dynamics and Sentencing Outcomes” (Crime & Delinquency)
A 2000 study looked at vehicular homicide, where victims are basically random and the effect on the victim is pretty much constant (and thus “the optimal punishment model predicts that victim characteristics should be ignored”). It found that drivers who kill women receive 56% longer sentences than drivers who kill men (and that drivers who kill blacks receive 53% shorter sentences than those who kill whites).
- “The Determinants of Punishment: Deterrence, Incapacitation and Vengeance” (National Bureau of Economic Research Working Papers)
1.3 Attitudes to Homelessness
Men are more likely to be homeless, but the homelessness of women is commonly seen as especially concerning. Two-thirds of homeless people in Portland, Oregon are men, but the mayor has made it a priority to house all homeless women: “when I see a homeless woman on the street, or in a doorway, my heart is touched, and I know Portlanders’ hearts are touched”. 70% of homeless people in Canada are male, but Dion Oxford of Toronto’s Salvation Army Gateway shelter for men says it’s harder to raise money for men’s shelters: “[s]ingle, middle-aged homeless men are simply not sexy for the funder”.
A 2013 article in The Independent talks about the “distressing” growing problem of homelessness among women in the United Kingdom, because they make up 1/4 of the homeless population and 1/10 of the “rough sleepers” (living on the streets instead of the shelter). In 2016 the London mayor announced extra funding specifically for female rough sleepers. From another article: “1 in 4 homeless people are women” (a strange way of saying “3 in 4 homeless people are men”).
Officially the Massachusetts Port Authority doesn’t allow anyone to live at the airport, which is open 24 hours a day. […] The state troopers who enforce the policy, however, use their discretion. They kick out the vast majority who hang around the airport, especially young men. But in spite of a memo this month warning that the homeless are “harassing employees and travelers,” troopers let the older women stay.
1.4 Women in Combat
Keeping women out of combat isn’t just about physical strength. A desire to keep women from being harmed is apparent as well. Caspar Weinberger, U.S. Secretary of Defense (1981-1987), said “to be perfectly frank about it and spread all of my old-fashioned views before you, I think women are too valuable to be in combat” (cited in Women in the Military: Flirting With Disaster, page 126). David Benatar (in The Second Sexism, chapter 3) cites a politician in the U.S. House of Representatives: “we do not want our women killed”. And according to Major Thomas H. Cecil of the U.S. Air Force, “[p]olitical tolerance for casualties might be a lot lower if losses included women” (1988 paper “Women In Combat: Pros and Cons”).
A 1988 New York Times article says that “the reasons for seeking to keep women out of direct combat are deeply rooted in Western culture”. Maj. Gail R. Duke of the U.S. Air Force explains: “[w]e raise our men to protect us”. And from Master Chief Petty Officer Larry K. Kenavan of the U.S. Navy: “If there’s a fire at sea and you have to slam down a hatch to save the ship, you might do it on a man. But on a woman…”.
Policies on women in combat have been changing (and continue to change), but efforts to allow women in combat generally seem to be about expanding women’s career options rather than recognizing or challenging male disposability.
3.1 What are the causes?
Feminists generally respond that male disposability is a result of women being seen as (and actually being) physically weaker. This is probably one factor, but not the only one. Remember that drivers who kill women receive longer sentences than drivers who kill men, but any gender-based strength (real or assumed) is irrelevant when dying at the hands of a 3,000+ pound piece of metal.
The 2015 study on sacrificing same-sex people to save members of the opposite sex suggested that men are (for reasons of evolution and reproductive strategy) “more prepared than women to eliminate sexual rivals” through physical harm. This is supported by their results, but remember that the other psychological study (from 2016) found behaviours/attitudes of male disposability from both genders.
Third, scientist David Brin argues that the “external juvenilization of women” (neoteny: the fact that in many ways women resemble children physically more than men do) evolved because it helps women to inspire protective or nurturing impulses in men, particularly their partners (though again keep in mind that an attitude of male disposability isn’t just seen from men).
Finally, the most common explanation I see from men’s rights activists (like Karen Straughan) is that it comes from women being the bottleneck in reproduction. A man can impregnate many women but a woman can only have one baby at a time, so a group that needs a high birth-rate will want to keep its women safe so they can have children. This is probably another factor, illustrated by sentiments like women being “too valuable to be in combat”.
So we have (at least) four plausible factors behind male disposability.
3.2 Is male disposability justified?
Let’s assume that we want to ensure a high birth-rate, and that special protection for women is justified due to the fact that women are the bottleneck in reproduction. Note first that this would only apply to women of child-bearing age, and second that this would also justify special restrictions on women’s career and lifestyle options, to ensure that they actually give birth to many children. If you’re a traditionalist then maybe this sounds fine, but if you’re a feminist or women’s advocate then it probably doesn’t.
And it’s true that women are physically weaker on average. This matters a lot for combat roles in the military, but it shouldn’t matter for punishing a robbery or a homicide (especially vehicular homicide). No one would argue for reduced jail sentences for killing or robbing a male athlete than for killing or robbing a regular man. The strength of the victim might affect injuries, but we should just look at the injuries, not the strength. Strong victims can receive injuries, and weak victims can receive none—it depends on the circumstances, intent, weapons, etc.
Two more points on physical strength. First, if it’s acceptable to use physical strength to treat men worse, it’s acceptable to use physical strength to treat women worse—such as seeing sports as a “man thing” and discouraging women (lower performance levels, higher injury rates), which is actually far less scandalous than different sentencing. Second, there’s evidence that black people are on average stronger than white people (“their data suggest that muscle mass may be higher in blacks”, “A widely held theory is that blacks have genetically greater skeletal muscle mass than whites”). The difference wouldn’t be as big as for gender, but should this justify racial disparities in crime sentencing, or how we care about the homeless?
3.3 Is challenging it futile?
It’s certainly plausible that male disposability is partly instinctual, and that it can’t be completely eliminated. But plenty of things are partly instinctual, including violence and greed. A culture that discourages these things won’t eliminate them, but it’ll probably do better than a culture that glorifies or encourages them.
Also, if male disposability isn’t a universal of human culture, that would show that we can eliminate it in our culture.
3.4 What does it mean for feminism?
It’s overeager to say that this “disproves feminism”, but I do think that most feminists don’t fully recognize, acknowledge, or account for the reality of male disposability. For example, this author says that “textbook feminism is not incompatible with an opposition to [the phenomenon of] male disposability, in theory or practice”.
But her article, meant to show how feminists can recognize male disposability, unfairly downplays and minimizes male disposability. She says that the view of women as a protected class “betrays a narrow view of race and class” because it applied only to women who “were lucky enough to be born in the right ethnic and socioeconomic class”. For evidence, she says that on the Titanic “women in steerage died at roughly the same rates as wealthy men”. She’s using class to obfuscate the effect of gender. It’s like trying to downplay the problem of low black life expectancy by saying “there’s no difference in life expectancy if you compare rich blacks with poor whites”. Even worse, she’s wrong. Third class women had a better survival rate than first class men. From her source:
- 1st class women: 97%, 1st class men: 32%
- 2nd class women: 86%, 2nd class men: 8%
- 3rd class women: 49%, 3rd class men: 13%
Her interpretation and portrayal of Titanic survival rates is an example of feminism not being conducive to recognizing male disposability.
“Women and children first” is a principle that you can still find being used in disasters.
3.5 Is there female disposability?
If male disposability refers to the overall trend of society caring less about the safety and well-being of men than women then female disposability doesn’t exist in our society in the same sense, because that would be contradictory. It’s possible that there are certain contexts where we care less about women’s safety/well-being than men’s (despite the overall trend being in the other direction), but I’m not aware of any such examples. Some might suggest rape victims, but we don’t treat male rape victims better than female ones.
4. Demonstrating (Part II)
4.1 Media Double Standards
TVTropes identifies male disposability in the media with a trope called “Men Are the Expendable Gender”. It notes that “viewers are more uncomfortable watching women get tortured, maimed, and/or killed”, and that if a plot requires a tragic death to show how evil the villains are, the victim will usually be female. Male characters are expected to put themselves in harm’s way to protect female characters, or else they lose our sympathy and are seen as cowards.
4.2 Victims of War
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that “[w]omen have always been the primary victims of war” because they “lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat” and because they are “are often left with the responsibility, alone, of raising the children”. Men not being considered the “primary victims” of their own deaths is an example of male disposability. Similarly, Warren Farrell (in The Myth of Male Power, page 100) cites a 1990 article in Parade magazine on the fact that 40 million Russian/Soviet men were killed between 1914 and 1945, with the headline “Short End of the Stick” referring not to the men dying but to the women being stuck with the factory and street-cleaner positions with so many men gone.
Another example from Clinton comes from the third presidential debate on October 19th, 2016, where she responds to Trump’s skepticism of Syrian refugees by saying “I’m not going to slam the door on women and children”—as if female refugees deserve more compassion than male ones. Do women have more to fear from ISIS? The International Business Times reports a period of ISIS executions (with methods including stoning, beheading, and shooting) that killed 1,362 civilians, and of those only 9 (0.6%) were women.
On a related note, news-media and human rights groups often single out the number of women involved in a tragedy in a war-zone, even if they were a small minority and not the primary victims, as if their deaths are somehow special. Examples here.
Another example is Western coverage of Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist group. It received widespread attention for its kidnapping of 200+ schoolgirls. The gender of the victims was a major focus of the coverage. The numerous other incidents where the group kidnapped boys or spared the women/girls and targeted the men/boys for murder (often brutally, including burning alive) received less attention in general, and much less focus on the gender of the victims. See the articles “Why Did Kidnapping Girls, but Not Burning Boys Alive, Wake Media Up to Boko Haram?” and “The 10,000 Kidnapped Boys of Boko Haram”.
And Adam Jones, genocide researcher and political science professor at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, studied Western coverage of the Kosovo War, finding that male victims are seen as “unworthy” and marginalized as victims in comparison to “worthy” victims like women, children, and the elderly. He noticed a similar trend in coverage of a violent era in Mexico.
4.3 “Violence Against Women”
Crime surveys from the United States, England & Wales, Canada, and Australia all indicate that women are no more likely to face violence than men are (Non-Feminist FAQ). Despite this, “violence against women” is frequently treated as something separate from, and worse than, “regular violence” (i.e. against men).
Consider the stated goals of this 2013 report from Statistics Canada: “to support policy and program development and decision making” for different institutions and groups “working to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls”. This call to “end violence against women” is a common one. It doesn’t explicitly say that we shouldn’t end violence against men, but it does imply that violence against men isn’t as concerning. (Think of how the statement “women are emotional” technically doesn’t say that men aren’t emotional or are less emotional, but it does imply that; see here for more discussion.) A similar point applies to the slogan “all women have a fundamental right to live in safety and security without fear of violence” (from the group Act to End Violence Against Women).
Australian Primer Minister Malcolm Turnbull called for a “cultural shift” in attitudes towards women, declaring the following: “[l]et me say this to you: disrespecting women does not always result in violence against women. But all violence against women begins with disrespecting women”. This is elevating violence against women to a special status. If you hit a man, that’s just hitting someone. If you hit a woman, that’s having a lack of respect for an entire gender and it warrants a “cultural shift”.
Spain has a separate court system for violence against women (the “Courts for Violence Against Women” or “Juzgados de Violencia Sobre la Mujer”).
In a 1965 issue of Playboy, Sean Connery said “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong in hitting a woman, though I don’t recommend you do it in the same way you hit a man”. After this was later unearthed, he was widely condemned for condoning violence against women, even though in the same sentence he condoned hitting men.
Reporter Liz Hayes was with her team in Sweden covering the migration crisis when they were attacked. The cameraman and producer were the targets, and they received injuries. Hayes later said: “I was glad, right then, that I was a woman … I felt they wouldn’t hit me because of that, and that might mean I could slow things down a bit”.
The fact that women are more common in lower paying jobs and as a result make less money on average is considered a major gender issue and societal problem. However, the fact that men are more common in dangerous jobs and as a result are much more likely to be injured or killed on the job is not seen as nearly as big of a problem.
The article “Concern over number of girls admitted to hospital for stress” in The Guardian mentions that teenage girls have the second highest rate of stress-induced hospital visits, after middle-aged men, but focuses on the girls.
The Sea Scouts (a program of the Boy Scouts of America), in its Sea Promise (dating back to 1920), names the motto of the sea as “Women and children first”.