The Second Sexism: don't judge a book by its press

David Benatar's book has valid comments to make about the position of men.

Anyone who has ever debated male-specific gender issues will probably have experienced an encounter like this:

Bloke: “Yeah, but men can also be victims of violence and injustice, why aren’t we talking about that too?”

Feminist: “Of course they can, and if you guys want to campaign on those issues, I’ll applaud you.”

In practice, it doesn’t always work out like that. This month, moral philosopher David Benatar published his book The Second Sexism to an excitable flurry of comment. Before discussing what Benatar says, let’s be quite clear about what he does not.

Despite what you’ve probably read in the Observer, the Guardian, the Independent or even here in the New Statesman, Benatar is not a Backlash merchant. He does not argue that men have a worse time than women; that feminism has gone too far; that men are now the oppressed sex; or that sexism against women does not exist. On the contrary, he repeatedly details the many forms of injustice faced by women across the world, and applauds efforts to address them. Indeed the clue is in the title: not “The New Sexism” or “The True Sexism” but “The Second Sexism.” Second, meaning in addition or secondary to the first sexism which is, of course, against women. Benatar does not blame feminism for anti-male discrimination, rightly noting that most such injustices long predate the women’s movement.

He certainly doesn’t suggest positive discrimination, instead devoting an entire chapter to arguing that such policies are unethical and ineffective as a response to any form of sexism. Perhaps the chapter title “Affirmative Action” may have confused any critics who only read as far as the contents page.  

Nor, BBC Online readers, is Benatar a champion of the Men’s Rights Movement. In the book he notes astutely that men’s groups can become “fora for self-pity and for ventilating hyperbolic views that are not checked or moderated by alternative opinions.”  

Benatar’s actual argument is that, in most societies, men and boys face several specific and serious forms of wrongful discrimination, and that these are not only injustices in their own right, but also contribute to discrimination against women. The issues he highlights include military conscription and combat exclusions; male circumcision; corporal punishment, victimisation in violence and sexual assault, and discrimination in family and relationship disputes.

I do not intend to list the various ways in which I think Benatar’s analysis is correct, incorrect or inadequate, although there are plenty of each. Instead I want to focus on how the feminist consensus has reacted to the release of his book. While it would be a stretch to describe it as a feminist work, there is much in The Second Sexism that should be music to the ears of the sisterhood. He largely rejects biological gender determinism; argues strongly against social conservatism, and makes clear that the value of challenging the second sexism includes the benefits to women. Here I might go further than Benatar, and make arguments from which he rather shies away.

Benatar details numerous ways in which society betrays relative indifference to and indulgence of violence towards men and boys. It begins in childhood, where both institutional and domestic corporal punishment and physical abuse are deployed much more commonly against boys. It continues into adulthood, through the traditional male role as wartime cannon fodder, through our greater willingness to imprison men than women – an expensive way of making bad people worse, and through social norms which decree that all forms of violence against men are more acceptable, less harmful, more worthy of laughter than equivalent forms of violence against women. If violence is thus normalised in men’s lives, could some knowledge of basic psychology not partly explain why men seem more likely to commit most forms of violence, including assaults on women?

Similarly, wouldn’t those who campaign against ritual FGM find their argument easier to make if society expressed unequivocal condemnation of ritual genital mutilation of any infant? Wouldn’t the battle for equality in domestic and professional fields be enhanced by challenging courts which decree that women are more natural carers, or that it is less harmful for a child to lose a father than a mother to custodial punishment?  Reciting that patriarchy hurts men too and these problems will be solved by more feminism won’t cut it. How can feminism address these problems if it barely acknowledges their existence?

Benatar’s book is mostly complimentary and complementary to feminist objectives. It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that it met a hostile response from the likes of Suzanne Moore and Julie “It’s bollocks” Bindel. There is often resistance from some feminists to the suggestion that male-specific gender issues even exist. I’ve written elsewhere about the overt hostility of some feminists to International Men’s Day. Male victims of domestic violence, and academics who research that issue, have faced angry and violent feminist attempts to silence them. 

This kneejerk defensiveness is not one of modern feminism’s more constructive traits. Perhaps it is understandable, given the constant drone of anti-feminism and misogyny that hums beneath much men’s activism, but that doesn’t make it right. Feminists are not obliged to agree with Benatar’s arguments, but it might help their cause to seriously engage with them. If, in de Beauvoir’s phrase, men and women are to “unequivocally affirm their brotherhood” then empathy and compassion must travel in two directions, not one.

Photograph: LLUIS GENE/AFP/GettyImages
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When the world seems dark and terrifying, we shouldn’t feel ashamed to dream of Utopia

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there.

There are many cruel and routine lies we tell to children but perhaps the most indicative is this: if you tell anyone your wish, it won’t come true. This parable was probably invented by parents trying to avoid the trauma of not being able to give their children what they want but we carry it with us to adulthood, when it is repeated to us by our leaders. Don’t tell anyone the sort of world you would like to see – at best you’ll be disappointed and at worst you’ll be arrested.

“We want more.” This week, exhausted by the news, I dragged myself out of the house to a book fair, where I came across a new collection of utopian fiction by radical women. That was the first line and it stopped my breath in my throat. When basic survival seems like a stretch goal, caught as we are between the rich and the rising seas, hope feels like an unaffordable luxury. The precise words I used to the bookseller were, “Shut up and take my money.”

There has never been a more urgent time for utopian ideas, precisely because the concept of a better world has never felt further away. Right now, world leaders are deciding how many cities are going to sink before something is done to reduce carbon emissions. They are meeting in Paris, which very recently saw the opening scene of a new act in everyone’s least favourite dramatic franchise, “War in the Middle East”. We seem to be living in a dystopian trilogy scripted by a sadistic young-adult author and I very much hope that our plucky young heroes show up to save the day soon, even if there’s a clunky love triangle involved.

Dystopias are easy to construct: to paraphrase the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, you might as well pick five news headlines at random, make a collage and there’s your plot. Utopias are harder. Utopias require that we do the difficult, necessary work of envisioning a better world. This is why imagination is the first, best weapon of radicals and progressives.

Utopian stories existed long before the word was coined by Thomas More in the 16th century to mean an ideal society, or “no-place”. Plato’s Republic has some claim to being the first but there are as many Utopias as there are communities that dreamed of a better life. The greatest age of utopian fiction was the turn of the last century and it is no accident that the early 21st century is a great age of dystopian fiction. The ideology of late-capitalist patriarchy has become so all-encompassing that it no longer looks like ideology. Fredric Jameson observed, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – and the reason for that is not that capitalism is the inevitable destiny of humankind but that we have spent our lives being told that even thinking about any other future makes us ridiculous.

Most leftists do have an idea of the sort of world they would prefer to see. We don’t say what we want for the same reason that we were told as children not to tell anyone else what we wished for – because it’ll be awkward and painful if we don’t get it.

When I think about Utopia, I think about my grandmother. My mother’s mother left school at 13, lived through the Maltese blockade and was obliged by religion and circumstance to marry young, suffocate all her dreams of education and adventure and spend her life taking care of a husband and six kids. Half a century later, I can choose when and whether to have children. I can choose to live independently from men. I regularly travel alone and there are no legal restrictions on getting any job I’m suited for.

The kind of independence many women my age can enjoy would have been almost unimaginable half a century ago – but somebody did imagine it and that is why we got here. A great many somebodies, over centuries of struggle and technological advancement, asked how the world could be different for women and set about making it happen.

Exactly a century ago, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland envisioned a society of women in which production was communal, motherhood was valued, relationships were equal and rape and violence were unknown. Reading Herland today, it is striking that for every proposition that came true – women are now allowed to divorce their husbands and participate fully in political life – there are two more that seem as far-fetched now as they did in 1915. Motherhood is still not valued as work. Women are still expected to organise our lives around the threat of sexual violence. But all that can change as long as we continue to ask for more.

For as long as I have been a feminist, I have been asked – usually by grumbling men – when, exactly, we will be satisfied; when women and girls will decide we have enough. The answer is contained in the question: because the instant that we do decide that we are satisfied, that there can never be a better world than this, is the instant that the future shuts down and change becomes impossible.

Utopia is the search for Utopia. It is the no-place by whose light you plot a course through a harsh and unnavigable present. By the time you reach the horizon, it is no longer the horizon but that doesn’t mean you stop going forwards.

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there. In the midst of multiple global crises, the only truly ridiculous proposition is that things are going to stay exactly the same.

Human societies are going to change beyond recognition and from the conference table to the streets, our best shot at surviving that change starts when we have the courage to make impossible demands – to face down ridicule and say, “We want more.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State