In the new sexism, men sense love (and life) is a battlefield

August 25, 2012


Men face their own form of discrimination, which one author has labelled the ‘second sexism’. Photo: istock photos

DAVID Benatar knew what was coming. In the preface to his new book The Second Sexism, the South African professor attempted to get in first. ”It is worth pre-empting the joke that a book about discrimination against males must be a very short book,” he wrote.

At almost 300 pages, the book, published earlier this year, is no pamphlet, but for the University of Cape Town head of philosophy, it remains ”relatively short”, although not, he stresses, because of the limited nature or the seriousness of the issue it raises.

”Instead it is [partly] because a longer book is not required to show that there is an extensive and dangerous second sexism,” says Benatar.

Really? Sexism against men? And dangerous at that? Cue derisive laughter. Which is exactly the flavour of much of the reaction the book received when it came out.

”Are men the new women?” railed Suzanne Moore in Britain’s The Guardian. ”Are they having a harder time than silly moaning ladies? Has feminism gone too far? Has political correctness been put away for its own good? These are such familiar cultural tropes that we may dismiss the word trope altogether. Instead I would use another word: tripe.”

And this from Arifa Akbar in The Independent: ”โ€ฆ it all sounds slightly churlish, given the structural inequalities that women deal with. If Professor Benatar can point out just one country on the planet in which men and women are paid equally and have the same opportunities available to them, then I’m very prepared to take the concept of second sexism seriously.”

For his part, Benatar obviously was aware that what he was proposing was incendiary, hence his anticipation of the certain derision. He had aired his views before the book was published, and been duly rounded upon.

”It’s disappointing,” he says from his Cape Town office, ”because a lot of people I think just don’t read the book. They don’t read what the argument says. And I think a lot of people who do read what one says have such preconceived ideas, and such firmly preconceived ideas, that they just dismiss this as outrageous. There is a certain group of people who want an exclusive focus on women, and who think that women are the only victims. The suggestion that men might also be victims is threatening to them in some way.”

The key to Benatar’s argument is the title of the book. The first sexism is against women, the second against men – and recognition of the latter is not a denial of the former. In countries where discrimination has been recognised, he says, the focus has been on women and girls. ”The second sexism is the neglected sexism, the sexism that is not taken seriously even by most of those who oppose (or at least claim they oppose) sex discrimination,” he writes.

He identifies several areas where he believes men have been discriminated against, including the view that only men should be conscripted into military service, and only men sent into combat. While some women are excluded from combat, he writes, many more are exempt.

Benatar says men are also more often victims of violence, are subjected to more corporal punishment, have poorer education outcomes, and higher imprisonment rates.

It is a debate that has found expression in Australia recently with the controversy over two cases in which airlines moved men away from unaccompanied children because, as males, they were considered potential threats.

In their professional lives, the two men are carers and protectors – a fireman and a nurse. They were affronted and humiliated by the airlines’ policy, and their experiences fired a lively and at times revealing debate. A poll on the airlines’ actions on Fairfax’s news sites produced 44,000 votes, with 87 per cent of people agreeing the rule was ”sexist and suggests all men are potential paedophiles”. Social media also buzzed, reflecting a view that the airlines’ actions were discriminatory.

Yet there were also voices of dissent, including a mother posting on Facebook she appreciated the airlines’ policy. She told of her own experience of a male passenger being discreetly moved away from her children. ”And, you know what, as a mum I was comfortable with the decision.”

And the attitude behind the airlines’ policy is also evidenced in other parts of society. The scarcity of male early childhood teachers reflects the level of suspicion about men and young children.

The Australia Education Union’s Martel Menz says the profession is 98 per cent female. In part, that reflects a perceived lack of career path and structure. ”It’s historically a profession of low pay, low status,” says Menz, who is a union deputy vice-president. ”It’s not terribly attractive to a lot of guys, unfortunately.”

But gender is also a deterrent, she says. ”Sadly, the way that parts of society view men going into those professions is with some suspicion and some disdain. ‘Why would you want to do that for a career or a profession?’ Which is awful, I think. I’ve worked with some terrific male early childhood teachers and they’re brilliant. The way they can connect with young children is just fantastic.

”I think it’s a real shame because obviously young children can benefit from role models of both genders and we just don’t have enough blokes in our system at the moment.”

One of those blokes to make a career in early childhood teaching is Max Grarock, who has taken a year away from teaching to work for a training organisation. Grarock found his gender was, in fact, an advantage when he was applying for jobs. ”You really stand out in a positive way,” he says. ”People respond to that really well.”

The issue arose, however, when his appointment to a new centre was announced. At least one or two parents would then withdraw their children.

Male teachers are not an issue in the primary years, and are often sought after by parents. But, as Grarock explains, ”There’s something about the whole preschool thing really puts people’s nerves on edge.

”I don’t know what it is. I talk about it in a fairly blase way now because I really genuinely am over it, but I think it really did offend me quite deeply to begin with.” There was a sense, he says, of ”everybody watching you”.

Grarock, now a parent himself, understands that parents with young children may react the way they do: sleep-deprived and under pressure, they may not be thinking rationally. ”I understand why that is now,” he says. There was also a flip side to his gender, finding he was given greater respect in other areas.

”I know a lot of female teachers who had different issues to me with other things,” he says. ”I feel like I got an easier ride if I talked about the research behind the work we were doing or the curriculum.”

Max Grarock’s account of the impact of his gender is reflective, calm and measured. But not all discussion about discrimination against men is conducted the same way. The emergence of the so-called ”angry man” – extreme men’s movement activists who can lose the argument even before it begins because of their demeanour.

Paul Whyte, from the Sydney Men’s Network, talks about a sense of ”inflamed victimhood” among some men. ”If a woman declares that she’s been victimised, decent culture accepts that as the case, and proceeds to try to assist: take care of your mother, don’t harm your sisters, kind of thing.

”The problem is then that there’s no public voice for men. What’s happened is that there’s whole parts of men’s movements that have almost criminalised themselves by proceeding to talk about their victimisation.”

In effect, the men’s sense of outrage has become self-fulfilling, confirming the sense that they cannot control themselves. ”People who have been subjected to men’s mistreatment when they are upset cannot tell the difference between these men and the people who perpetrated against them. They just cannot tell the difference.”

Benatar says that while anger can be justified, he is worried when it clouds judgment. ”So when a man who’s angry now starts thinking that it’s all against men, and that women are all evil or all getting the benefit, then I think they’ve got an oversimplified picture,” he says, adding that the same applies to angry women whose judgment has been similarly blunted.

The academic argues there is a need to ”cool it down a bit”.

”In other words, I’m trying to minimise the emotional reactions and get people to think a bit more clearly about these issues,” he says, ”because, I think, when one thinks about them, one does recognise the many forms of discrimination against males, and also recognises that looking at those isn’t going to detract from our concern about discrimination against women.”

The big difficulty Benatar faces in arguing his case is that, while there have been successes in combating discrimination against women, there is still a long way to go.

Novelist and ethicist Dr Leslie Cannold believes that progress towards ending discrimination against women has stalled. Having established that sexism was wrong, she argues, there was an assumption that things would continue to move forward. ”It’s not actually happened.”

But Cannold offers an interesting insight: she speculates men are holding on to power in the public world because they feel that women are the dominant power in their personal lives.

”Men either don’t believe that women are experiencing discrimination in the public world because they experience women as so powerful in their private lives, or perhaps they recognise that women are disempowered in the public world, but they don’t want to relinquish their public power until they have wrestled more power back in the home.”

As for the debate about discrimination against men, Cannold says: ”I don’t think the conversation is damaging if it’s handled maturely.”

Benatar argues that everyone should be concerned about discrimination on the basis of sex, whatever that sex might be. Not only because it is the right thing to do, but because we should care about people of the opposite sex.

”Women are going to have sons, they’re going to have husbands, they are going to have fathers who are the victims of this discrimination,” he says.

”From a purely egoistic point of view they should be concerned about those forms of discrimination.”

Shane Green is a senior writer.

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