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The Second Sexism

Discrimination against Men and Boys

David Benatar

(London Times Review)

A controversial new book says that women aren't the only victims of discrimination.

What if sexism is just as bad for men? And what if that situation is making things even worse for women by perpetuating more sexism? Hmm. As some feminists might say, 'Aw. Bless. Diddums'. But a controversial new book, The Second Sexism: Discrimination against Men and Boys), argues that gender equality will never be achieved as long as we find the idea of sexual discrimination against men laughable.

The Second Sexism is about the serious stuff, mostly, such as why we make men go to war. But it's also about 'implicit discrimination'. This just means stereotyping or double standards. You know the sort of thing: men can't multitask; men can't iron properly; men don't get ill, they get 'man flu'(my husband's once turned out to be bronchial pneumonia so I won't make that mistake again). We all do it and it is basically sexism against men.

I consider myself a feminist but I have some sympathy for this view. I have two boys, aged 1 and 8. I worry about how they will be judged by society and what will be expected of them just as much as I worry for my five-year-old daughter. My ultimate nightmare is that my daughter will get anorexia and/or want to become a pole dancer. My worry for the boys is that they'll face bullying and/or get mugged as teenagers. Statistically, the latter is more likely.

Bad things happen to boys and we shrug, argues the author of The Second Sexism, David Benatar, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town. He says we are 'denying the obvious' by ignoring the fact that sexism affects men and boys just as negatively as it affects women and girls. He calls it 'second sexism' or 'the neglected sexism'.

His argument is simple. We will never have equality until we acknowledge the ways in which we discriminate against men. We know we have a problem with fathers being less likely to gain custody of their children after divorce. We know that men get a rubbish deal with paternity leave. We know that boys underachieve at school compared with girls. In the US, women now earn 60 per cent of the university degrees awarded.

The biggest danger to men is physical, argues Professor Benatar. 'Men are disproportionately the victims of violence in most contexts.' As a society, globally we are much more likely to tolerate violence against men than against women. Most victims of violent crime are male. The sexual assault of males is taken less seriously and is significantly under-reported.

From the point of view of a philosopher considering morality, you can see his point. But although it's hard to argue with a lot of what Professor Benatar puts forward because he is simply setting out academic research, a lot of the research in this field is very new and gives us only suggestions of things that might be true. And this is where our cosy chat comes unstuck.

Take this research, for example. 'Many studies have shown that wives use violence against their husbands at least as much as husbands use violence against their wives. On almost every score, women were as violent as men. Wives have been shown to initiate violence as often as husbands do.' He even cites studies that suggest there is a higher rate of wives assaulting husbands 'and most studies of dating violence show higher rates of female-inflicted violence'. Like Professor Benatar, I sympathise with any person who is a victim of violence and I don't like gender labels but I struggle to take this research entirely seriously. I'd like to see him present it in a women's refuge.

Professor Benatar is not surprised I am feeling queasy. 'I'm not saying the crimes inflicted on women are not deserving of our attention. But we regularly get campaigns to end violence against women. Why not just end violence?'

Then he starts talking about 'distribution of attributes'. I shudder. Professor Benatar: 'It's not un-PC to say that men are on average taller or that they might have greater upper body strength.' Agreed. But it is un-PC, he adds, to say what some studies have uncovered: that a lot of stereotypes stand up - men really are more violent and aggressive, women really are less likely to be geniuses.

He cites research from Harvard University on 'distribution of talent' - another shudder - which suggested 'not that men are cleverer than women' - phew - 'but that you would find more men at the top end [of intelligence] than women'. He quickly adds: 'You would also find more autism among men.'

Uncomfortable though all this is, it is fascinating. If there is academic evidence that we are raising girls to believe they can't be geniuses, and boys to believe they're likely to be violent, we need to know about these things. As Professor Benatar put it: 'When we raise little boys and little girls, we create gender expectations.'

He's hopeful that by recognising the ways in which we discriminate against men, we'll improve things for everyone. 'There has been remarkable progress in the position of women in the past 100 years. But if there are differences between the sexes, there's no point in denying those, it will just make people more resistant to change. But the differences only exist as an average and they don't provide us with a justification for treating people differently on the basis of their sex.” That we can agree upon. And the fact that he wouldn't want my daughter to become a pole dancer either. I was having a conversation about Homer and Marge Simpson and what they tell us about the state of modern sexism. Let's see: Homer is fat, he's a slob, he's greedy and dumb. With Homer, when we laugh, we laugh at him. And maybe, if we're guys, in some dark, secret place deep inside our brains, we might, at a pinch, sometimes laugh with him. I'll get to this later.

On the other hand, think of Marge. She's smart, she's witty, she's in control, she's responsible. Marge is the reason the family stays together - she's the glue. She works hard to undo all the bad things perpetrated by Homer. Without Marge, everything would fall apart. We rarely laugh at Marge. But when she's funny we laugh with her. On a good day, when we're on top form, we all like to think we could be like Marge.

The point I was making was that, if this situation were reversed, we'd find it intolerable. Imagine Homer as the smart, responsible one. And now try to imagine Marge as a fat, drunken slob, stuffing her face with doughnuts and chugging beer. It would be tempting for me, as a man, to jump to an easy conclusion - that the portrayals of Homer and Marge represent a deep, underlying sexism towards men. It would be easy to look at Homer and align him with a lot of male characters we see in our culture: all the bozos in ads, cartoons, sitcoms and even children's books. An American sociological survey in 1989 revealed that 100 per cent of the idiots in TV ads were male. In sitcoms, from Alf Garnett to the Robert Lindsay character in My Family, almost all the fools and clowns are men. And you could hardly imagine The Gruffalo with a female gruffalo, could you?

But does this really tell us our society harbours a deep, underlying sexism towards men; that there is, in the words of Professor David Benatar, who has written a book on the subject, a 'second sexism'? Professor Benatar argues there's a hidden iceberg of anti-male sexism in our society. Sometimes, as a man, I can see what he means - there's plenty of anti-male sentiment out there. But as soon as I have this thought, I have a powerful urge to take it back. Don't whine. It's just not on. Or, worse: don't whine - you're a man, for God's sake. Men don't whine. But isn't it sexist, that men can't whine? Well, yes, but that's because you are perceived, and have come to perceive yourself, as a potential oppressor. It's just plain wrong for oppressors to whine.

Maybe, as part of a dominant, patriarchal group, it's tasteless to vent your feelings. But is it good to live in a world in which you must hide your vulnerabilities and anxieties, be strong or pretend to be strong all the time, and in which everybody judges you on your brute ability to be successful? Surely that can't be healthy. My God, I hope we've sorted all this stuff out by the time my son grows up.

If this is the case, we should expect a lot more male commentators highlighting sexism. In the new, equal world, men will drop the facade of strength they've been projecting for millennia, and they'll start to talk about their pain. As male power slips away, men might feel less and less need to appear stoical. They'll tell us what's been troubling them. They'll tell us that sexism affects men too; and, what's more, they'll say, it's gone unrecognised and unreported for ages. They'll talk about female domestic violence, about not being able to get custody of their kids, about how guys are so conflicted and downtrodden that it's beginning to show up in all sorts of ways - unemployment, suicide, poor educational outcomes.

Prepare yourself for a slew of this stuff, as the dam of male silence and stoicism finally bursts. We'll hear about how sexual abuse against men is taken less seriously than its female counterpart, about how parents hit their boys more than they hit their girls. Men will go back in history and tell us the gory details of the press gangs, of teenage boys being shot for having panic attacks in the First World War, of flogging and keelhauling on ships. Think of the Titanic, they'll say, with its policy of putting women and children into the lifeboats first.

The most articulate of these commentators, the groundbreaker, is the American writer Warren Farrell. His books, such as Why Men Are the Way They Are and The Myth of Male Power, both published in the 1990s, tell us pretty much all we need to know about the pent-up feelings that have, he says, been simmering inside men for centuries. History, he tells us, is about men. But it's about men performing heroic deeds. When a boy studies history, 'each lesson tells him, 'If you perform, you will get love and respect; if you fail, you will be a nothing'. If women are sex objects, Farrell says, men are 'success objects'. Sure, he says, men earn more money than women. But who gets to spend it? Not just men, right? 'The key to wealth,' he writes, 'is not in what someone earns: it is in what is spent on ourselves.'

Men, one can now see, will believe they have a lot of catching up to do. Why, they will say, have they always been expected to pay for dinner? Don't you realise, they will say, how awkward it is to be expected to make the first move in a sexual situation, as men were for centuries? And what about all that pressure to be successful? That takes its toll. We suffered in silence, they'll say. Prepare for that silence to be broken.

So maybe Marge and Homer will come to seem a tad old-fashioned. Before that moment arrives we might have to wait for a while, as we enter a painful phase of male unburdening.

Until then, we can watch The Simpsons, and laugh at Homer - and maybe with him, too, if only for the sake of nostalgia. More books on Men

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