How Male Privilege Damages Women – and Men
Originally published over at efeminist.com on the 10th of May 2012.
You quite often hear the refrain “She sleeps around – she must be a real slut”. Jokes about the town bike (everyone has ridden her) is often the focus of male banter, and the target of Feminist ire – and in the latter case, rightfully so. Women face opprobrium for being independently sexually active and sainthood for being virginal (unless of course, a man wants sex and is not getting it, then she becomes ‘frigid’). Conversely men are praised for being studs, for sowing their wild oats before settling down with that special someone (who happens to be a virgin, right?). This is general sexual politics in a nutshell. The men have the privilege of being as sexually active as they like while the women face opprobrium for exactly the same thing.
Well, it is not quite as simple as that. It never really is. Male sexual prowess is not a privilege, believe it or not. It is an expectation. It is putting us in our place within the hierarchy a little way above the women. Any man who refuses as a youth to do what is expected of him in the sexual sphere has doubts case about his sexuality in the most cruel and crude of ways. “You’re not interested? What’s up with you? Are you a faggot?” Similarly, if a man does not fit into the stereotype of being a beer swilling, fighting, puking, football fan, the same accusations are levelled at him. “He must be a queer or something…” I got a lot of that in my youth as I did not fulfil the expectations of my sex. And why the hell should I?
Pornography merely re-enforces the sexual expectations of both men and woman. It did not create them. The portrayal of certain women as sexually easy and of all men as studs is as old as human society. Pornography just makes a commodity to be sold from the ingrained societal expectations that were already there. Is it exploitative? Yes, and not just of the people on the screen, but of those watching it and getting the false expectations of a predominantly western society re-enforced through a consumer product sold with the guarantee of a money shot.
And then when a man does not perform as a stud it damages his confidence as an unrealistic expectation of his sexual prowess is shattered by cold, hard reality. Sometimes the little man stays little no matter what he or his partner does. And this damages the male psyche because he fails to live up to the false expectations that both society and pornography puts upon him. In that instant, within the realms of sexuality, male privilege becomes male failure.
Another area of male privilege is that of bread winner. Since the end of the Industrial Revolution men were expected to go out to work and earn enough money for the whole household. During the Industrial Revolution, men, women and children all went out to work in the mills and the factories. They were dusty, dangerous places where one false move could see your arm ripped off in a weaving loom. The mortality rate amongst workers during the Industrial Revolution was grievous. So much so that legislation was passed so that the man could earn a living wage for his whole family while the woman stayed at home and raised the next generation of workers relatively safe from industrial accident.
It was not an act of charity or social progression as the history books might tell you. It was to protect the creation of capital for the rich industrialists in as inexpensive a way as possible. The workers still lived in slums and had a very short life expectancy, but at least the biological replication of future labour was reasonably protected. Apart from one or two true philanthropists like the Bournville Brothers, who built a workers village named after them outside their Cadbury’s factory in Birmingham, most of the industrialists did the bare minimum expected of them. If that.
Women still worked once their kids were at school (which only ever taught them enough to be good little workers – a real, classical, education was only for the moneyed classes), but the majority of the wage was still earned by the man. Their jobs were seen as pin money, and their wages were abysmal.
Then during the First World War the men went off to fight and many of the jobs they usually did fell to the women (who still had to raise the children as well). Male privilege said that only men could fight wars and that women should be no where near the front lines – and what a privilege that was! To be blown to smithereens or hang there on the barbed wire, all shot to pieces is hardly what I would call a privilege. But we were expendable cannon fodder, and nothing more.
At the same time the Suffragette Movement came alive in the United Kingdom, and women threw themselves under horses for the right to vote. Mostly middle and upper class women, mind you. Most working class women were too busy raising families and doing the jobs left behind by the working class men at war to devote much time to the Suffragettes, although many of them tried to help as much as they could.
Then the working class men came back from hell on earth and they were fucking furious.
And they wanted the same voting rights as the rest of the men. The government had a fight on its hands. Finally, in 1918 women over the age of thirty got the vote, along with the majority of working class men who didn’t yet have the vote with the Representation of the People Act 1918. But it did not end there – the Suffragettes wanted equalisation of the voting age, and now the working class were on board. The government of the day was afraid that if the working classes and women did not get their demands met, that they were in danger of civil strife. So in 1928 the government finally capitulated to their demands, and the voting age for women was equalised with men at 21.
One world war later and the sixties came, and society had still not shaken off male privilege. Women burnt bras and demanded sexual equality in the workplace and the bedroom. Laws got changed and then the feminist movement petered off in the 1970s. They rested on their laurels. Things kind of returned to normal for a time. Male privilege still reigned supreme and women in the workplace still got shit wages even when doing the same job as the men. The wage gap was worse for the working classes because wage disparity effects the poor far worse than anyone else. Recessions came and went as regularly as government throughout the seventies, and then the supposed Coup D’etat came for women in 1979 in the form of Margaret Thatcher. Yes, I surely jest.
Margaret Thatcher did nothing for the rights of women and the working class. In fact, her policies put back the gains we had both won decades. The miners strike of 1984 was an abject failure on two fronts: the coal mines still closed and the political and industrial power of the unions were broken for many years to come. The women suffered even more than the striking miners because now they had to make ends meet with whatever money they could get while their menfolk were out on strike.
Meanwhile the middle and upper classes were as treasonous towards us as ever. We working classes were always supposed to keep out of sight and out of mind, and we did not have a world war to come back from full of piss and fury – something we could have channelled against the government of the day if we had.
Still, the middles and upper class bourgeois feminists were doing OK under Thatcher while the working class women continued to suffer. Yes they had glass ceilings to overcome, but at least their glass ceilings were higher. The working class woman’s glass ceiling was far lower, and anyway, she did not have half as much time to think about emancipation in the workplace because she still had to put food on the table.
The 1970s saw the beginning of the end of industrial Britain, while the 1980s called its death knell. And the 1990s brought the start of globalisation with it, and the end of the working class man’s role as breadwinner – something working class men took very seriously indeed. We fought hard to keep our industries intact despite the actions of successive governments and industrialist ‘elites’, because we knew that a living wage was the difference between being able to provide for our families and a life on the dole queue. The working man’s living wage was a male privilege that was surplus to requirements and the industrialists took that away from us all.
New Labour gave us a minimum wage when they got into power, but it was not worth the paper it was written on. And as for providing pre-school places for working mums, there was no way most of them could afford to send their children to the better ones – they had to make do with whatever the government doled out to the working classes. Even the traditional party of the Working Class, Labour, had forgotten all about us. The unions got marginalised within the party, and Labour switched from a core of working class voters to that of middle class voters.
Now the Tories are in again it is getting really bad for us working class, both male and female. We even get called ‘feral underclass’ now. Can you imagine how insulting it is to be called that? As if we were something other than human just because we were not middle or upper class? Yes, we have problems, but that is partially due to the fact that both Labour and the Feminist movement have conveniently forgotten about us, while the Tories and the Lib Dems never cared for us in the first place. We were swept under the carpet. Not their problem. Just a few crumbs from the table here and there to placate us and assuage consciences. Thanks a fucking bunch.
Meanwhile we have to remind our fellow feminists that both their struggle and our struggle are intimately linked. Without the working class men coming back from the war and demanding their rights, the Suffragettes just might not have succeeded in gaining the vote for women. Either that, or it would have taken them ten or more years longer.
Now the Unions are on the march again because the moneyed elites are trying to take away what little wealth we have left, and what little liberties we still possess. And this time, we had better remember our women folk in our struggle and make sure that their rights are defended just as militantly as ours. We are no longer the bread winners, but we will be damned if we’re going to be dumped on the scrap heap, and we’ll be damned if the women we love don’t get the same rights as we expect for ourselves. Male privilege be damned – this is about equality for all.
So what are we men to do now?
Acknowledging the roots of Male Privilege does not absolve us of the responsibility in playing our part in its disestablishment. In fact, it re-enforces this responsibility in us by the very act of acknowledgement, in as much as now that we are no longer blind to how and why Male Privilege works we have the responsibility to stand up against it. Elitist, class-based patriarchy can only ever been disestablished with the active agency of both men and women working together to dismantle it. Remember that Male Privilege has been used to enslave all of humanity, both male and female, to the agendas of ‘elite’ interests.
Male Privilege does not emancipate men – it enslaves them.
It prevents us from becoming all that we can be, and it prevents us from supporting the women who choose to share their lives with us from being all that they can be as well. It sets societal limits upon our children and what they can achieve for themselves in life. It stifles dreams. It kills dissent just as readily as the Klu Klux Klan or English Defence League does, and far more subtly so. It keeps the same ‘elite’ interests in power in all societies, to the detriment of us all. And worst of all, it allows both states and religions to oppress us all in the name of some false ideal simply because we have never thought to challenge it at its root: Power.
One might argue that in nature there are always pecking orders within all social animal groups. This is partially true, in as much as these pecking orders are there to benefit the whole collective and not just an ‘elite’ few. Bees are a perfect example of this: most people believe that the queen of the hive is beyond reproach, and yet, if she does not serve the interests of the hive the worker bees will turn against her, kill her, and put a new queen in her place.
By rejecting Male Privilege we are rebelling against the queen bees in our own society and putting them on notice that we will not be enslaved any longer to their whims. We want equality, and we want it on our own terms, not theirs. We oppose both sexism and class division together because they stem from the same systemic patriarchy that the elites use to all our detriment. And yes, we also have to oppose both Racism and all the other prejudices which are used to re-enforce the status quo with the ‘elites’ on top. Our society is systemically sexist, class-biased, racist, xenophobic, homophobic and transphobic for a reason – because it keeps us all divided and defending our own patches from the ‘other’.
We are taught to compartmentalise everything for a reason. Our whole education system is based around specialisations of knowledge and skills because those who are trained in various disciplines do not compartmentalise as much as those who are effectively mono-disciplined. And compartmentalisation was designed to keep people from ever linking separate issues together and getting the larger picture.
We want, as both men and women, to be everything that we can be in life, without prohibitions or privileges getting in the way. And the first stage is the disestablishment of Male Privilege so that we can no longer be used as either slaves or political footballs in this post-industrial era, because it is the keystone of every other privilege and prejudice going.