Hands up if you’ve heard of The Second Sexism?
For those, like me, whose spidey-senses may be tingling at a mention of the title, but draw a blank regarding its substance, The Second Sexism is a book released earlier this year by philosopher David Benatar concerning what he sees as the disadvantage and discrimination faced by boys and men as a result of their sex. Benatar’s contention is that there exists a second form of sexism affecting males which is not only under theorised but remains largely undiscussed. The importance of this conversation, he contends, is that only through an awareness of the operation of all forms of sexism can we, as a society, begin to overcome it.
Benatar notes areas ranging from conscription and violence to education, circumcision, and family relationships, as exemplifying male disadvantage and discrimination. Men are conscripted into the armed forces where women are generally not; with the notable exception of sexual violence men are more likely to be victims of violent crime; educationally fewer men progress through high school than women; men are also more likely to be on the sore end of custody battles. Although careful to ensure that not all disadvantages are immediately recognised as discrimination–medical predispositions to particular diseases, for instance, are perhaps disadvantageous but not discriminatory–he nonetheless finds that either much of this disadvantage is the result of sexism, or that this is a possibility requiring further investigation. None of these issues are black and white, and Benatar’s generally sophisticated argument recognises this, but they give you a taste of the kinds of resources he relies on; indicators which are largely social rather than economic.
If the book is still ringing some bells it may seem familiar because, as Australian commentator Clementine Ford has rightly pointed out, it has received a lot of attention due to its somewhat (for better or worse) controversial subject matter. While a quick Google search (the first port of call for any accomplished scholar) confirms that the book has generated much chatter, I seem to have arrived at this party a little late. Thankfully, the notion of a second sexism is incredibly interesting and while the book lays down some serious gender talk, it also offers some food for thought as to the unique skills inherent in the historical discipline.
The Second Sexism is not meant to be anti-feminist. Benatar’s book is not anti-women and one would be hard pressed to argue that it’s even pro-men. Benatar goes to great pains to show that his purpose is not the advancement of one group over another; male, female, or purple-spotted, androgynous aliens. He is not out to replace or efface the history of women’s suffering, nor is this a pissing competition (just to be clear these were my words not his) to see which collective has endured the greater burden. This may seem a little heavy-handed but it’s a point that Benatar makes repeatedly, and a point I am trying to make as well, because it is often misunderstood. Even despite his attempts to clarify his position Benatar has still been called out: in The Guardian and The New Stateman, for example. (In the interests of fairness, however, The New Statesman’s coverage was not one sided; they published an article in defence of Benatar as well).
To be absolutely clear then, nobody is suggesting that women have not been oppressed, that we should stop paying attention to this previous mistreatment, or that we should stop moving towards greater equality. Rather, Benatar is suggesting that there should be a place to discuss these issues critically in a bid to get as close to solving the problem of sexism, on both sides of the spectrum, as possible; we should be discussing sexism in all its guises and without censure. To do this, however, requires us to re-examine our assumptions about what sexism entails and, in small part, recognise that disavowing sexism against men entirely might in fact constitute a perpetration of act being decried.
One of The Second Sexism’s most interesting contributions, then, is highlighting the very specific criteria by which we normally judge the standards of success: economically and politically. We’ve all heard the arguments; for example, women earn less on average than men, women are in fewer senior management or executive positions, and fewer women sit on corporate boards. These are familiar tropes and all are valid concerns. What doesn’t come up as often in this context is that men have a shorter life expectancy, men drop out of high school in greater numbers, and more men commit suicide. What of these social and cultural indicators which might suggest areas in which women are no longer discriminated against and the possibility that men might be? If we’re going to look at statistics to express discrimination against women, surely these social stats are equally as important in assessing the situation?
Benatar’s explicit point is that there’s work to be done from a number of angles in order to advance equality; without addressing male sex discrimination one cannot address female sex discrimination. There is, however, also an unacknowledged historical assumption which underpins Benatar’s work, and it is here that we can begin to fathom the importance of history to his argument. It is only by understanding the history of sexism that we can contemplate and articulate the omissions the Benatar wants to make centre stage. Benatar’s argument, after all, is premised not on proving the historical oppression of men, for he’s not interested in past actions, but on the cultural and social legacies of scholars which have ensured that the study of sex discrimination against men is one not generally considered. The questions we ask indeed shape the conversations that are to follow, but without recognition of this it’s difficult to move beyond them. Does this mean we should blame feminism for sexism against men? Absolutely not. The rise of feminism, for instance, has allowed us to examine the ways in which men are potentially exploited. It does mean, however, that unless properly historicised, concepts like sexism can be haunted by social and cultural legacies which may blind us to aspects of the idea which are salient to our addressing the issue.
Unfortunately, although The Second Sexism mounts a compelling case for the need to historicise sexism there are moments where Benatar grapples less successfully with the historical implications of his task, forgetting the historical contingency of the other examples he utilises. The most poignant instance of this comes from his discussion of corporal punishment. Very early on Benatar notes that, ‘Males are more likely than females to be subject to corporal punishment.’ ‘Although corporal punishment has been inflicted on both males and females,’ he again asserts at a later point, ‘it has been imposed, especially but not only in recent times, on males much more readily and severely than on females.’ In support of this claim Benatar, in part, calls upon history, indicating that between 1846 and 1847 alone ‘6000 floggings were inflicted’ upon American men serving in the navy.
If you too are a little sceptical about the disparity between violence against men and violence against women I think you might be onto something. I don’t doubt the veracity of Benatar’s sources, but rather question what they might be leaving out and what the definitional issues might be. My first thought was of what we now refer to as domestic violence; were women being beaten, or punished, outside of the legal system and thus not leaving the same types of records? While it is important to note that violence committed against women by family members, husbands or otherwise, doesn’t necessarily leave quite as comprehensive a paper trail as a flogging, for instance, the issue is actually more of classification. What was bothering me was that in this instance Benatar failed to account for context; for the necessary historical change that has occurred between the mid-nineteenth century and today.
Corporal punishment, in the sense Benatar uses it, is state-regulated violence rather than that inflicted upon someone unsanctioned by government or process, and carried out at an individual level. To Benatar these are different categories. While he might be right in the twenty-first century there’s some confusion introduced when he jumps back in time. How might we distinguish between these types of punishment in a world where women are not citizens in their own right? And what does this do to the claim that men, moreso than women, were subject to corporal punishment? In the mid-nineteenth century women were not the property of their husbands as such, but they were legally subsumed into their husband’s identity; women were incorporated into the body politic through their male counterpart.
It’s not that Benatar is technically wrong, six thousand men were seemingly flogged, but rather that his use of history can confuse the issues he seeks to discuss. It may be that men were the victims of corporal punishment in greater numbers but the issue bears closer scrutiny, particularly when dealing with the past, in terms of source material and categories that they may, or may not, in fact represent. Benatar deals beautifully with the concept of sexism; bringing forth, even if unintentionally, an understanding of it as historically constituted and laden with the baggage of our cultural past. There are, however, inconsistencies in his approach to history where he forgets to contextualise those same disparities between the time periods he’s discussing and our own. In this he risks committing the same error that he’s trying to correct by projecting the problem of sexism onto the past.
I have no doubt that those in different disciplines would pick errors according to their own methodological codes of conduct, so this is not an attempt to tarnish what is a well-written and engaging text which raises a number of provocative questions about power and oppression. But, this is a history blog and I think it is worth identifying some of the traits which make the historian’s trade unique and valuable. Benatar’s is not a work of history and yet there is something valuable to be gained from understanding the ways in which history is utilised and the problems that can be encountered if one is not careful in one’s analysis.
Thinking about time, about chronology, and about the mechanisms of change are something which we are trained to do not merely to facilitate working with the past, but to prevent the misinterpretation of the past. Without acknowledging the unique context in which an event occurs, a record is created, or a person lived, one is liable to erroneously attribute contemporary beliefs or understandings to whoever these past actors may be. History, in this sense, is a safeguard. We need to grapple with the past in order to avoid repeating it by constantly reproducing our present.
In case you want to check it out …
David Benatar, The Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Boys and Men (Malden: John Wiley and Sons, 2012).
In case you were wondering …
The title of Benatar’s book is a play on Simone de Beauvoir’s famous work, The Second Sex, published for the first time in 1949. There are a multitude of editions out there and it shouldn’t be hard to find in most bookshops if you want to pick up a copy. I don’t endorse any edition over another but the reference below might be a starting point for those looking to track something down; it was chosen for no other reason than convenience. A quick internet search will no doubt yield your other options.
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (London: Vintage, 2007).