Jim Pollard is wrong to say feminism has brought men more benefits than women. So far it's been a raw deal for bothby Laurie Penny / March 9, 2010 / Leave a comment
…to revise your gender identity
In his provocatively-titled Prospect article, Why Feminism Favours Men, Jim Pollard argues that feminism has left men on top: delivering better sex and doing away with the obligation to pick up the bill on dates, while women still get lower salaries and do the majority of the housework. The failure of the movement to deliver equal pay for women means men must have triumphed, he suggests—as if the economics of gender were no more than a giant set of scales. This not only misrepresents feminism’s aims, but does a sad disservice to men.
Feminism was never simply about rushing in and pinching a swag-bag of treasured male privileges. It was supposed to be a total rewrite of society’s rules, for both genders. This week marked the 100th International Women’s Day, and the theme chosen for the occasion was “progress.” Speakers at the Million Women Rise event in London on the 6th March reflected that although feminism has made astonishing gains, we still have far to go. And indeed we do. What’s less remarked upon, however, is how much a truly equal society would improve the lives of men, as well as women.
As Marx might have put it, the partial success of women’s liberation has left men alienated from the means both of “production and reproduction.” Pollard points out that men may still do better out of divorce proceedings—but surely the majority want more from family life than a slightly fatter wallet and the option to split the bill on dates? Activist cadres such as Fathers 4 Justice undermine Pollard’s assertion that British family law wholly benefits men. And unfortunately for men who really do want to take an active role in childrearing, plans to formalise and extend paternity leave were quietly postponed by the government in the wake of the 2008 crash. Men clearly don’t have it all.
If anything, Henry David Thoreau’s century-old aphorism rings true: many men still lead lives of “quiet desperation.” A 2009 report into men’s mental health by the charity Mind identified an epidemic of anxiety, depression and other mental health problems amongst men, with 37 per cent admitting to feeling low or anxious much of the time. The men who responded to the survey felt that they had no outlets for their distress, and were unlikely to seek help for their problems because of social stereotypes about acceptable male behaviour. “Men are taught to be the strong man, a provider, and to be desensitised to emotions,” said Steven Jhakra, Services Provider at Bradford Mind. In many ways, then, it seems that men feel more restricted by their gender than women do.
Pollard also claims that men have benefited from modern women’s anxiety not to appear sexually “unliberated.” He may well be living in the sort of utopia where dozens of insecure women are desperate to offer him “frequent and varied” sex, but—surprise surprise—this newfound sexual licence has also been a welcome development for women. Newsflash: women enjoy sex too.
That said, a deep current of shame and misinformation still runs through our understanding of sexual intimacy. The porn industry, which promotes sex as grinding, monotonous, and relentless, does a roaring trade; it’s worth some $14bn in America alone. The potential harm this does to women is obvious, but it’s just as damaging to men. Alongside lads’ mags and bland, macho entertainment programming, it exploits men’s sexual anxieties and offers a violent, degrading vision of intimacy. I know of at least one young lad who, during his first sexual experience with a woman, was horrified to discover that he had not been expected to pull out and ejaculate on his partner’s face. He had understood from watching pornography that the experience was what all women wanted.
In 1993, the feminist writer John Stollenberg observed that “at no time in history have so many humans felt such a gaping discrepancy between the gender system that is given us and the selves we long to be.” Almost two decades later, this still seems to be the case. Which is why, the rest of his argument aside, Pollard is indeed right that we need to look again at the economic basis of harmful sex roles.
Take housework, for example: Pollard might be cheerful that a century of feminism hasn’t persuaded men to get on their knees and scrub the loo when it needs doing. But the fact that cleaning, cooking and childcare are still unpaid, mostly female tasks means that men are unable to participate fully in domestic life, women are exhausted and overworked, and everyone gets paid less. In a speech for International Women’s Day, feminist author Nina Power explained that “women’s entry into the workforce has corresponded with the depressing of men’s wages—thus the couple must both work all the time, even if there are children to look after. The idea of a job for life, or of state provided childcare, has now been so enervated it seems absurd to think that it was ever the norm.” In short, both women and men are increasingly alienated from family life, and are working longer hours for less combined pay than they would be had feminism managed to tackle the roots of women’s economic exploitation.
It’s true that too many feminists point the finger at “men” in general—as if “men” were no more than a homogenous mass of beer-swilling, crotch-scratching sexists. Books like Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls read rather like long lists of unanswerable complaints, punctuated by moralising tales about prostitution. If feminism is to remain useful, a more coherent and courageous approach is needed. Only through a radical reorganisation of men and women’s economic participation at home, at work, in life and in love will we begin to address the damage that regressive gender roles continue to inflict on both sexes. If feminism has failed in its objectives, it has failed men too. If it is not to fail again, it must achieve them in collaboration with men—not in spite of them.
See Jim Pollard’s reponse to this article here