There is a widespread tendency within feminism to address men’s issues by framing them as really being about women (i.e. merely a side-effect of negative attitudes towards women, problems with how we see women, or disadvantages for women). This could be called the “trickle-down equality” approach to men’s issues, because it means that we can focus on women and their issues and equality will “trickle down” to men and their issues. This reluctance to acknowledge men’s issues as real issues in their own right is one of the clearest deal-breakers to feminism being the answer to men’s issues.
I think this comes from a general bias towards seeing women as victims, and a tendency for people (here, feminists) to situate new topics in terms of what they already know (a doctor might have a tendency to assume that a new patient’s unexplained problem will turn out to be related to the area of medicine they specialize in, for example).
- Introductory examples and problems
- More examples and rebuttals
- What if we flip the genders?
(Length: 1,500 words.)
1. Introductory examples and problems
We’ll use two introductory examples to show the problems with this phenomenon. First, an explanation for men receiving longer jail sentences (from /r/AskFeminists):
Because women are considered weak, in need of protection, and incapable of being criminals to the same level men are- they end up getting smaller sentences. Feminism is very much against that.
Second, an explanation for male-only conscription (also from /r/AskFeminists):
People claim that women not being subjected to the draft is an example of female privilege, but the reason they’re not subjected to it is because the men making those rules don’t think women are fit for combat.
Problem #1: These explanations zero in on negative attitudes towards women, ignoring negative attitudes towards men.
Negative attitudes towards men and negative attitudes towards women usually accompany each other. See Ozy’s Law:
It is impossible to form a stereotype about either of the two primary genders without simultaneously forming a concurrent and complementary stereotype about the other. Or, more simply: Misandry mirrors misogyny.
As a result, the above explanations aren’t completely wrong (you can look at men’s issues and see some negative stereotypes, assumptions, or messages about women) but they are a very selective reading of the situation, because they ignore the negative stereotypes, assumptions, and messages about men that are also present (and are just as important, if not more important, given that these are men’s issues).
Regarding men receiving more jail time: do we see women as having less agency? Sure. What about the effect of seeing men as less moral, or less deserving of compassion?
Regarding male-only conscription: Obviously women’s weaknesses (real and perceived) are one reason, but they’re not “the” reason. A devaluation of men’s lives is clearly a factor too (“I think women are too valuable to be in combat” — Caspar Weinberger, U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1981 to 1987), and that hardly seems less important.
Problem #2: These explanations seem more concerned with the messages sent than with the people actually hurt.
The primary victims of the U.S. draft in the 1960s/70s were the 2.2 million men forced into the military, not the women at home who felt insulted by the message it sent about them being incapable. Their concern is valid but not the primary gender injustice here.
This might seem obvious, but any hint of a negative attitude towards women and to some people that’s the main concern regardless of how dire the material consequences are for men (even if it involves men’s deaths).
Problem #3: These explanations effectively dismiss men’s issues, and make it less likely that they will be solved.
If you were interested in men’s issues and you read a comprehensive list of someone “addressing” men’s issues like this, assuming you took it seriously, you’d probably set aside men’s issues and go focus on women instead. If men’s issues are just a side-effect of women’s issues, why put much (if any) effort into addressing men’s issues?
2. More examples and rebuttals
2.1 Male disposability
The reason for the “women and children first” mentality, which more broadly I’ll call male disposability (Luna Luna Magazine):
The root of this lies in the belief that women are incapable and need to be saved; that we’re too emotional, too hysterical to handle ourselves in a high-stress emergency situation. How much more misogynistic can you get?
A similar position is argued in this Al Jazeera article by Zillah Eisenstein, Distinguished Scholar of Anti-Racist Feminist Political Theory at Ithaca College.
Our protective attitude towards women is not just about seeing them as more in need of protection. Many examples of male disposability make it clear that we simply tend to care more about women’s suffering and death (e.g. greater sentences for drivers who kill women than drivers who kill men through vehicular homicide, even though the women are clearly in no more “need” of protection since all the victims are dead anyway).
2.2 Male victims of rape
From one user on /r/FeMRADebates, male victims of rape aren’t taken seriously because:
Women are extremely objectified in our society. They are so overly sexualized in fact that even when they are rapists and sexual predators they are still being objectified.
She says that objectification of women has an “unintended blacklash effect” on men: when raped they’re the victims of a sexual fantasy, not a crime.
The difficulty being taken seriously of male victims of rape probably does in part stem from differences in sexualization, but this explanation wrongly frames it as an issue of how we see or treat women (“objectification”) that happens to harm men as a side-effect (an “unintended” one, making women the real “targets”). The “objectification” narrative might make sense when differences in sexualization negatively affect women (like a female performer receiving more comments on her looks than her abilities) but here it probably makes more sense to look at it as an issue of seeing men’s sexuality as valueless (relevant for rape because they “should be happy for anything they get”, or they “don’t have any sexual value to be taken away by rape”).
Another user on /r/AskReddit explains the double standard of female teachers “having sex” with students vs. male teachers “raping” students:
It’s because in both situations it’s being assumed that it’s the male in control of the situation. That a woman isn’t capable of being the one that is in control.
Similarly this zeroes in on any possible negative attitudes towards women that we can interpret in the issue and ignores the negative attitudes towards men: male sexuality is predatory and damaging to women (so it’s worse when they rape), male sexuality lacks value (and so there’s nothing lost if they’re raped), etc.
One blogger’s explanation for men’s difficulties getting custody:
First, allow me to point out that yes, women are typically favored in custody agreements. Again, this is coded misogyny working against males. Women are seen as the nurturers, the natural caregivers of children, which is why the courts tend to favor them in custody agreements.
Why would we look at men being restricted and attribute that to gender roles for women, instead of gender roles for men? Gender roles involve expectations of both genders, not just expectations on women that affect men as a side-effect.
3. Gender-flipped examples
The problems with this practice might be more clear if we flip the genders and see what it looks like to make women’s issues really about men.
For example, slut-shaming:
Slut-shaming happens to women because men’s sexuality is seen as dirty and demeaning to them. Men’s rights activists are very much against that.
The reason we expect women to care for children is that we don’t trust men doing it. It’s really just misandry working against women.
The earnings gap:
Women make less money than men because we don’t see men as having worth outside of providing money to others, and so we encourage men to work longer hours, take longer commutes, set aside their passions, etc.
Women are only treated as sex objects because their sexuality is seen as so valuable and desirable. It’s an advantage for women (disadvantage for men) that sometimes backfires against them. It’s like a rockstar who’s so famous and loved for their music that they have a hard time getting people to pay attention to their other endeavours, like visual art.
Covering-up in very religious societies:
Women are expected to cover up in places of Saudi Arabia because of the idea that men don’t have any self-control. Fix the misandry and it’ll help women.
As with the real examples above, these made-up explanations aren’t actually completely wrong. You can look at women’s issues and see some negative stereotypes, assumptions, and messages about men. And yet a women’s advocate would be justified in seeing these explanations as unhelpful at best and insulting at worst, because they frame women’s issues as being not real issues on their own, just side-effects of men’s issues.