ONTD Political

Lagging at school, the butt of cruel jokes: are males the new Second Sex?
They work longer hours, face economic insecurity and suffer worse health. Now their feckless ways are lampooned in the media. A controversial new book argues that men increasingly face a prejudice that dare not speak its name
by Elizabeth Day

You might not have realised it, but men are being oppressed. In many walks of life, they are routinely discriminated against in ways women are not. So unrecognised is this phenomenon that the mere mention of it will appear laughable to some.

That, at least, is the premise of a book by a South African philosophy professor which claims that sexism against men is a widespread yet unspoken malaise. In The Second Sexism, shortly to be published in the UK, David Benatar, head of the philosophy department at Cape Town University, argues that "more boys drop out of school, fewer men earn degrees, more men die younger, more are incarcerated" and that the issue is so under-researched it has become the prejudice that dare not speak its name.

"It's a neglected form of sexism," Benatar says in a telephone interview. "It's true that in the developed world the majority of economic and political roles are occupied by males. But if you look at the bottom – for example, the prison population, the homeless population, or the number of people dropping out of school – that is overwhelmingly male. You tend to find more men at the very top but also at the very bottom."

The American men's rights author Warren Farrell calls it "the glass cellar". There might be a glass ceiling for women, Farrell once told theObserver, but "of the 25 professions ranked lowest [in the US], 24 of them are 85-100% male. That's things like roofer, welder, garbage collector, sewer maintenance – jobs with very little security, little pay and few people want them."

Do Benatar and Farrell have a point? A handful of statistics seems to bear out their thesis. Not only are men more likely to be conscripted into military service, to be the victims of violence, and to lose custody of their children in the event of a divorce, but tests conducted in 2009 by the programme for international student assessment, carried out by the OECD thinktank, showed that boys lag a year behind girls at reading in every industrialised country. They work longer hours, too: in 2010 the Office for National Statistics found that men in the UK work an average of 39 hours a week, compared with 34 for women. Healthwise, men develop heart disease 10 years earlier than women, on average, and young men are three times more likely to commit suicide.

"The biggest challenge is … tackling the male tendency to suffer in silence," says Tim Samuels, presenter of Radio 5's Men's Hour. "We're getting better at admitting to our weaknesses or seeking help, but there's still such a long way to go."

Men are also increasingly the butt of jokes. In a recent article for Graziamagazine, one male writer took exception to comedian Jo Brand claiming that her favourite man was "a dead one" and an advertisement for oven cleaner with the tagline: "So easy, even a man can do it." In aGuardian article on Friday, it was pointed out that the stereotyped image of a man incapable of growing up has become a staple of US film comedies – the most recent example being Jeff, Who Lives at Home, starring Jason Segel as a man still living with his long-suffering mother who lets him smoke weed in her basement.

Would the same humour be levelled at women? Benatar thinks not. "It's very hard to quantify the level of disadvantage," he says. "But one form of discrimination that is universal is the greater tolerance of violence against males. The victims of murder and severe assault are disproportionately male. There have been lab experiments with both men and women where it has been shown that we have fewer inhibitions inflicting violence against men than women."

He laughs when asked how the women in his life have responded to The Second Sexism. "They seem to be positive," he says. "Perhaps I just mix with people who are more reasonable."

In her 2008 book The Sexual Paradox, the psychologist and journalist Susan Pinker covered some of the same territory, also highlighting the anti-male bias in education and preventative medicine. "The majority of children with developmental delays, behavioural and learning problems are male," she says. "For the most part, our school system fails them. Many end up dropping out. Our mental health system, too, is focused on helping those who seek out assistance. That's not the forte of most men.

"I think the five-to-six-year gap between women's and men's lifespans could be shortened if more work was done to address male risk-taking and stress-related disease – which kill so many more men than women in their prime. The recent spate of male suicides during the financial crisis is a good example of the way male suffering is often invisible."

Another area of concern, according to Duncan Fisher, co-founder of the UK's Fatherhood Institute, is the "gratuitous exclusion" of men from child-rearing: midwifery services are described as "one-to-one care" and whereas employers frequently allow women flexible working hours if they are mothers, the same option is rarely offered to men in similar situations. "It can be so alienating," says Fisher. "Segregation, in a way, has got worse even though, under the radar, the role of fathers is actually increasing all the time. With the recession, there's much more sharing of childcare, but there's a growing gap between the reality and the rhetoric. A lot of early years services are still just 'mothers' groups', which is worrying because it leaves vulnerable men to sort out their own narrative. They don't believe they exist. They stay silent."

There are those, however, who take exception to the notion that men are a downtrodden minority, unable to speak out for fear of ridicule or repression. "It's an idea that's made more comebacks than Madonna," says Julie Bindel, the feminist writer and political activist. "It's total and utter bullshit. There are areas where men are paying the price that male supremacy gives them – there's absolutely no doubt about that.

"My dad, a working-class man from the north-east, had an absolutely horrendous job in a steel mill and he came home bad-tempered, knackered and underpaid. What he could do was come home and dominate – not in a physical way – but he could be the boss over his wife and children, he could go and sink 10 pints in the pub.

"The reality is that the public domain belongs entirely to men and the disadvantages they face are just the price they pay. It's tough cheese. Masculinity is just learned behaviour in the same way that femininity is. Ultimately, if we dismantle the patriarchy, that would end up being better for men, too."

"You can see the ways that patriarchy can be hard on men who don't fit the mould," concedes Natasha Walter, the author of Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism and The New Feminism. "There is more debate to be had about the sacrifices that men make, but obviously I wouldn't go so far as to say that shows women hold all the cards. You have to look at the structural inequality. Sexism against men doesn't exist in the same way because of the way the system is balanced."

Benatar believes this is a false distinction – and that our ignorance of the "second sexism" stems from what he terms "partisan feminists", who are interested only in the advancement of women's rights, rather than true equality and co-operation between the sexes. "It is true that women occupy fewer of the highest and most powerful positions," he writes, "but this also does not show that women are in general worse off. To make the claim that women are worse off, one must compare all women with all men, rather than only the most successful women with the most successful men. Otherwise, one could as easily compare the least successful men with the least successful women and one would then find that men are worse off."

If we measured "success" differently, taking into account a sense of broader wellbeing, gained from family relationships and a flexible work-life balance, would men be losing out? Pinker believes so. "'Global power' as measured by bean-counting the number of male chief executive officers in industry, for example, is not the only value in a just society," she says. "Health, happiness, the richness of one's human relationships, job satisfaction and how long one lives are also important values. Men are lagging behind women in all those areas."

Still, there are some men who remain relatively untroubled by this state of affairs. Tim Samuels, for one, readily concedes that we tolerate jokes about men that wouldn't be made about women or ethnic minorities "because men haven't faced hundreds of years of persecution".

"We shouldn't lose our sense of humour over this," says Samuels. "A few gags on Loose Women aren't going to signal the demise of mankind."


Iron John: A Book About Men, 1990

The American poet Robert Bly offered a new vision of what it is to be a man. He addressed the effects of remote fathers and mourned the disappearance of male initiation rites in western culture. Finding meaning in ancient stories and legends, Bly used the Grimm fairytaleIron John, in which the narrator guides a young man through eight stages of male growth.

The War Against Boys, 2001

Christina Hoff Sommers claimed that boys were ignored by conventional wisdom that focused on solving girls' problems and warned that boys risked becoming the "second sex" if this wasn't addressed.

Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man, 2006

Sam Keen argued that men must define their identities by severing themselves from women as approval-giving mother figures and as the ancient goddess who continues to exert power within the male psyche's hidden recesses. Going beyond the modern rites of manhood – alienating work, war, performance-oriented sex – the new male "psychonaut" brings forth meaning by undertaking "a spiritual journey into the self".


iolarah 14th-May-2012 03:10 pm (UTC)
I was 16 and naive--I really didn't think it was going to be like that. Thankfully, I was a pretty tough cookie and it generally didn't get to me too much. I got angry and defensive about it, and most of the guys were respectful and helpful, but the crap from the teacher and that one creeper was enough to leave a bad taste. Hell, the teacher, first day of class, walks in, looks at me and says, "The home ec room is down the hall." I looked him in the eye and said, "That's nice. Is this the shop class?" He said yes, and I put my feet up on the desk and said, "Good. Then I'm in the right place." Go younger me :P I still can't believe I had the stones to pull that off.

But at least that was high school and I could leave it behind after a semester. I can't imagine what an awful boys' club a base would be. It must take a really thick skin to put up with crap like that on a regular basis. I think I would have been tempted to give up.
per_simmon 14th-May-2012 03:21 pm (UTC)
Go younger you indeed! Total badass.

I did develop a thick skin, but it took a long, long time of being angry and depressed. The base I was sent to after training was actually worse, because it was more isolated and my commanding officer there took an active part in the bullshit i.e. sleeping with conscripted female soldiers. A fellow soldier actually pulled a knife on me once and it was swept under the rug by him because boys will be boys etc.

I'm Israeli and we have required draft here, so quitting isn't a simple option- you have to be physically or psychologically unfit to serve, and that carries a stigma. I did try to get out eventually, but that was an entirely different mountain of bureaucracy to wade through, and I ended up serving my full term.

Buuuuh. Not going to go into horror stories about the army now. We'll be here till Christmas. Patriarchy is a pile of poo, is how I sum it up.
iolarah 14th-May-2012 03:28 pm (UTC)
Yes it is. I hope you've got some other women to lean on in the meantime. "Boys will be boys" is the cheapest cop-out ever--you just know that if you kicked the offender in the balls, saying "girls will be girls" would not fly in the least.

May I ask, do people generally resent that it's mandatory to serve, or consider it just part of being Israeli, or think of it as an honour?
per_simmon 14th-May-2012 07:12 pm (UTC)
Wall of text ahoy! Disclaimer: I'm sorta kinda politically active and have lived in Israel for the past 16 years. That is the entirety of my qualifications to discuss what is a very complicated situation. Anyone interested in Israeli politics would be best served seeking out many different sources.

The short answer is yes to all of those, with qualifiers. Army service has always been a very big part of Israeli identity. The military was and is meant to serve as a melting pot for all sectors of Israeli society. The military also has a huge influence on politics and business, which is very much an Old Boy's Club made up to a large extent of ex-officers. Making the move from high-ranking officer to politician is very accepted, and a high percentage of Knesset members began their careers in the military. While technically illegal, there is job discrimination against people who haven't served. For the most part, it's viewed on a scale ranging from "something you just have to do" to "proud to serve my country".

However, in recent years a growing minority has begun to resent and avoid mandatory service. Some of that is financial- there has been a big push over the last decade towards privatization of various social services, and slashing welfare has been a big part of that. The ensuing erosion of the middle class and lack of opportunities to improve one's financial status is exacerbated by army service- it's basically a 2 (for women) to 3 (for men) year period in which you earn very little and accumulate a limited set of employable skills, unless you happen to serve in a programming unit or similar. I'm not even talking about starting university or a career at an older age, although that's part of it- not a small number of 18-year-olds contribute significantly to their family's finances and you can make a lot more just working a shitty fast food job than you can by enlisting.

Another part of the resentment has to do with the fact that the Ultra-Orthodox population largely doesn't do army service (there are a few units specifically for Ulrta-Orthodox men, but for the most part they're exempt). There is a lot of anger surrounding this. I don't think anyone tries to get an exemption just for this reason, but it might inform someone's decision to dispense with service.

I would say that the third major element of resentment is the growing disgust with the government's corruption and incompetence. The last few years have seen some terribly mismanaged wars and extended military actions, the Second Lebanon War in particular. Even if someone were to believe that they were justified (and just to make it clear, I don't), people increasingly feel that they're not enlisting to serve some unfortunate but necessary greater good, but rather as cannon fodder for wars borne of politician's ego. Again, wouldn't be a primary reason, but would inform the decision.

Although public discourse surrounding exemptions from service largely focuses on them, conscientious objectors make up a very small group among those who don't enlist. Many serve jail time. They're largely framed by popular media as politically beyond the pale- and that's putting it very mildly. "Traitor" is one of the more polite terms used.

I think that this clip sums up the frustrations surrounding service really well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=GB&hl=en-GB&v=GwTebMJtJPI
per_simmon 14th-May-2012 07:12 pm (UTC)
Cutting this into two because of LJ character limitations:

For me, personally, the draft came just a few years after I immigrated and service was absolutely something I viewed as a way of being Israeli. My political views hadn't coalesced at the time, and I really didn't see the broader implications of enlisting. I also enlisted during the height of the Intifada, and was living then in Jerusalem. Jerusalem took a third of all bombings in the country during that period- we had bombings two and three times a week and army presence was everywhere. Not enlisting would have been seen as an act of treachery towards soldiers who were out there daily trying to keep suicide bombers from killing our loved ones. Today, I am politically in a very different place. Back then, I was mostly ignorant about what was going on in a broader sense, which is pretty usual for most kids who enlist. There's a reason we enlist as teenagers.

If I had to make the decision today, I wouldn't have enlisted, both because it was a horrible experience and also because I don't stand behind the country's military policies in any way. Hindsight 20/20 etc.
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