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 participation in it) are central to most feminist critiques of society. This page is a primer on male disposability: what it means (and doesn’t mean), the evidence for its existence, whether it should exist, etc.
- 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”
- Workplace Injury & Death
(Length: 3,700 words)
Male disposability (at least the conception of it presented here) 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.
This 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. This 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 published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, 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. Article title: “Moral Chivalry: Gender and Harm Sensitivity Predict Costly Altruism”.
In a 2015 study published in Evolutionary Psychological Science, 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.) Article title: “Intrasexual Competition Shapes Men’s Anti-Utilitarian Moral Decisions”.
1.2 Justice System
After controlling for legally relevant factors (including type of crime, criminal history, and seriousness of crime), a 2004 study published in Crime & Delinquency looked at assault, robbery, and homicide and found that people who commit crimes against women receive substantially longer sentences than people who commit crimes against men. Article title: “Does Victim Gender Increase Sentence Severity? Further Explorations of Gender Dynamics and Sentencing Outcomes”.
A 2000 study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research Working Papers looked at vehicular homicide, where victims are relatively random and the effect on the victim is pretty much constant (and thus “the optimal punishment model predicts that victim characteristics should be ignored”) and 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). Article title: “The Determinants of Punishment: Deterrence, Incapacitation and Vengeance”.
1.3 Attitudes to Homelessness
Although men are generally more likely to be homeless, the homelessness of women is commonly seen as especially concerning. The homeless population in Portland, Oregon is 64% male, and yet the mayor has expressed that one of his priorities is to house all homeless women, commenting “when I see a homeless woman on the street, or in a doorway, my heart is touched, and I know Portlanders’ hearts are touched”. Similarly, 70% of homeless people in Canada are male, but Dion Oxford of Toronto’s Salvation Army Gateway shelter for men says that 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” (homeless people 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” is another way of saying “3 in 4 homeless people are men”.
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 giving women 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 being affected by age and context, 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?
Whether male disposability is something we should accept/encourage, or whether it’s something we should challenge, depends a lot on one’s view of gender roles. With women being the bottleneck in reproduction, a society that needs to keep a high birth-rate might want to have male disposability (to ensure women’s safety so they can have children), but it would also want to place restrictions on women’s career and lifestyle options to make sure they actually have a lot of children. (And the special protection would not need to apply to women past child-bearing age.) I think the West has reached a point in terms of demographics, technology, economy, medicine, and peace where these injustices to individuals to help the greater good aren’t necessary, but you might disagree.
What about women being weaker on average? That hasn’t changed, but there are a lot of areas where we see attitudes of male disposability and they vary greatly as to how much physical strength actually matters for them. Strength is pretty important for a soldier in a combat role in the military, but not particularly important for punishing a robbery or a homicide, especially vehicular homicide. (Should we sentence those who rob or murder male athletes more leniently than those who rob or murder regular men?) In some circumstances the victim’s strength might affect the injuries they receive in an assault, but sentencing there is best dealt with by looking at the actual injuries received by the actual victim (it’s possible to be strong and receive injuries, or weak and receive none; it depends on the circumstances, intent, weapons, etc.).
Note too that treating men and women differently because women are weaker when this helps women also legitimizes doing so when it hurts women. If you happen to be uncomfortable with, for example, seeing sports as a “man thing” and discouraging women from playing all/some sports “because women are weaker” (lower performance levels, higher injury rates), you should probably also be uncomfortable with treating crimes against men and women differently “because women are weaker” (which is actually more scandalous than unfair attitudes to sports).
Finally, there’s some 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 affect how we sentence crimes, or how we care about the homeless? (Hopefully not!)
3.3 Is challenging it futile?
Seeing biological factors among the causes of male disposability makes it tempting to assume that the phenomenon is ingrained and inescapable. And 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 (a question I’ve set aside), that would show that we can eliminate it in our culture.
3.4 What does it mean for feminism?
It’s overeager to say it “disproves feminism”, but it does challenge ideas commonly held by feminists, like that women are much worse off and that gender equality is mostly about helping women. It also doesn’t fit well into the view of gender inequality as “men keeping women down” because it’s both genders having a value that clearly harms men.
Let’s look at an example of a feminist on male disposability. This article says that “textbook feminism is not incompatible with an opposition to [the phenomenon of] male disposability, in theory or practice”. Strictly speaking this is true, but the article itself (meant to show how feminists can recognize male disposability) unfairly downplays and minimizes male disposability! The author 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 “were lucky enough to be born in the right ethnic and socioeconomic class”. One example is that on the Titanic, “wealthy men waited for their wives to board the lifeboats, but women in steerage died at roughly the same rates as wealthy men”. That’s misleading. She’s comparing 3rd class women to 1st class men to downplay women’s advantage in survival, but look at the actual numbers. At every class, women do much better than their male counterparts. Actually, contrary to what she said, 3rd class women even do noticeably better than 1st 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%
My point is not to argue for male disposability in the early 1900s, although it wouldn’t be hard (her source mentions “the stigma of shame and cowardice” of adult men who survived the sinking”—see also World War I and conscription at the same time). My point is that her interpretation and portrayal of Titanic survival rates shows an example of feminism not being conducive to recognizing male disposability. It’s like trying to downplay the problem of black life expectancy being lower by saying “rich black people have roughly the same life expectancy as poor white people”.
3.5 Is there female disposability?
If male disposability refers to the overall trend of gender-based disposability in our society then female disposability does not exist in our society in the same sense, because that would be contradictory. But it’s possible that there are certain circumstances or contexts where we care less about women’s safety and well-being than men’s (despite the overall trend being in the other direction). I’m not aware of any such contexts, but if we found one we could call it specific rather than general female disposability. (Some might think of rape as an example, but that would mean we care less about female rape victims than male rape victims, which I don’t think is true at all.) It’s also possible that there is/was a society somewhere that has/had female disposability as the overall trend. Male disposability being the trend in present-day Western society does not stop that from being possible.
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 can be seen from the BBC and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The SOHR does just this in its reporting on a 17-month period of airstrikes that killed, in its words, “7902 civilians, including 1121 women, and 1679 children”. What’s worse, the title leaves out the men’s deaths completely: “More than 3500 children and women killed during 17 months of aerial bombardment”. This practice is not just about men more often being combatants; this example erased the deaths of civilian men, as if civilian men deal better with being on the receiving end of an airstrike.
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 (if anything, they’re a bit less likely—sources in the 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).
In response to massive outcry over the past few years, the Government of Canada is (as of August 2016) undertaking a $54 million inquiry into the issue of “missing and murdered Aboriginal women”. Patty Hajdu, minister for the status of women, says “the fact that so many Indigenous women and girls have been lost and continue to be lost is a tragedy and a disgrace and it touches all Canadians”. Despite the fact that Aboriginal men are almost two-and-a-half times more likely to be murdered in Canada, and (according to data from the Northwest Territories and Ontario) four to five times more likely to go missing, the women’s deaths and disappearances are the ones focused on as “a tragedy and a disgrace”.
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”).
There’s been controversy surrounding Sean Connery’s 1965 quote in Playboy where he reportedly 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 it was unearthed 40 years later, he was widely condemned for condoning hitting women, even though in the very same sentence he makes it clear that he also has no problem with hitting men.
The consequences of this attitude are illustrated in the testimony of reporter Liz Hayes, who was with her 60 Minutes (Australian version) team in Sweden covering the European immigration crisis when they were approached, asked what they were filming, and attacked. The cameraman and producer were the targets, and they received injuries. After the incident, she said that she felt that if she had been “one of the guys”, she would have been hit. She used this knowledge to stand in between her crew and their attackers to try to protect them: “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”.
4.4 Workplace Injury & Death
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.