A Man’s Take on Male Privilege
Posted by Pedal Powered Anthropology
This is an adaptation of something I wrote for a gender studies course at Rhode Island College. I left the citations in there, but not the citation page. Because who wants to see that crap? If you’re interested in something that I’ve referenced, comment and I’ll send it your way. I’m well aware that this is something that some people (mainly men) might have something to say about. Read it. Think about it. Then respond. This is a personal perspective on very real issues that have to do with a lot more than political persuasion.
As a male in American society, I am affected by established and implicit customs in ways that are unique to men as a whole as well as more specifically to myself. Patriarchal tendencies in this country leave women underprivileged, while men enjoy (consciously or not) privileges that are blatant and subtle, benign and insidious. This is a (brief) exploration of the ways in which patriarchal institutions in the United States have affected my own life and the ways in which I see and interact with the world around me. More generally speaking it’s a description at large of the state of male privilege from a male perspective.
In general, this is likely mostly positive. I consider myself fairly aware of and open to this reality; however, there are likely ways in which I am affected subtly and of which I am unaware. There are inevitable ways in which I am negatively affected—either in restricting my access to certain aspects of society or in governing my behaviors due to social norms.
Privilege is manifest in multiple ways, and admission of that is not an admission of guilt. In identifying the various ways in which privilege is manifest both personally and in society at large, I can then work to redirect and neutralize the negative effects. While I cannot individually create large-scale change, I can affect change in the world around me and become more consistent in my actions and views
In 1988, Peggy McIntosh wrote about the state of white and male privilege (McIntosh, 1988). In this paper she discussed the ways in which she struggled to identify privilege in her life as a way of illustrating and understanding the ways in which it is difficult for men to understand or even acknowledge the ways that they enjoy privilege. She generated a list of 46 ways in which she enjoys privilege in her life—from the subtle, such as finding postcards depicting her race to the more extreme, such as not being asked to speak on behalf of her race.
In this same spirit (and partly adapting her list), I have worked to generate a list of 30 ways in which my life benefits from or has benefited from privilege. Initially this was difficult to generate; however, not from denial of privilege. Rather, I have found it difficult to parse out the ways in which I enjoy white privilege from those in which I enjoy male. Beyond this is the difficulty in recognizing privilege in the first place, as privilege isn’t something we are taught to discern—it is simply taken for granted.
The list below is far from comprehensive—inevitably I am ignorant of likely most of the ways in which I have benefited from male privilege. Furthermore, I will continue to benefit from privilege in ways I cannot yet anticipate. However, the cumulative effect of such a list will serve to illustrate overall themes and, as such, allow more ready identification or privilege in everyday life. As far as I can see, my female family members, coworkers and friends with whom I come into daily contact cannot count on most of these conditions.
- I can seek out employment or career opportunities in any social strata or segment without being asked what I am “trying to prove.”
- If I wish to be involved in a religious establishment, the degree to which I am affiliated will not be hindered or dictated by my sex.
- I can turn on the television or go out to see a movie and likely be able to readily identify with the worldview of the protagonist.
- In online gaming communities, I do not need to fear exclusion or harassment based on my sex.
- If I should need to move, I can be fairly certain that real estate agents will be male and likely feel more at ease interacting with me or if they are female I will not feel (or be made to feel) intimidated by them because of my sex.
- In interacting with male friends or neighbors, I do not have to fear being excluded, ignored or taken less-seriously because of my sex.
- I can go out in public without taking into consideration the ways in which my attire will draw undesired sexual attention from strangers. This includes both casual scenarios such as shopping as well as exercise and the outfits associated.
- I can walk alone in public–day or night–without having to fear for my safety because of my sex.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being told that I did well “for a guy.”
- I can remain oblivious to the emotions and implicit intentions of my peers without fear of judgment. In fact, it is the norm for men.
- When shopping (especially for home repair, sporting or motor-vehicle goods), if I need to approach a specialist for help, I can be fairly certain the individual will be male.
- If I am stopped in traffic, I do not need to fear receiving higher penalties if I am not receptive to sexual harassment.
- If I declare that there is a sexist issue at hand, or that there is not a sexist issue at hand, I do not need to fear being thought motivated by my sex;or, if I am thought motivated by my sex, I do not need to fear repercussions for my actions. In other words, I can worry about sexism without being seen as self-interested.
- I am made aware that my mere physical condition and appearance will not prevent me from attaining my goals.
- My societal value, upward mobility and “marriageability” are affected little—if at all—by my age.
- My status gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of the opposite sex.
- I my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has sexist overtones.
- I can think over many options—social, political, imaginative or professional—without asking whether a person of my sex would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
- I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my judgment will not be called into question because of my sex.
- I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my sex.
- If I have low credibility as a leader, it will not reflect upon the entirety of my sex.
- I can easily find academic courses that are taught by and/or that focus on accomplishments of members of my sex.
- The lexicons of slang in relation to my anatomy are seen merely as humorous—not as humorous at my expense.
- When out with a female friend it is both likely that I will receive compliments about my partner (even when platonic) and that it will be assumed I am paying (even when my friend offers her own payment).
- My enculturation as a child valued asserting myself rather than being subservient and acquiescent.
- My enculturation as a child encouraged me to be involved with science, learning and the pursuit of lucrative careers rather than mostly supporting roles in a household.
- My enculturation as a child taught me to be comfortable with, and accepting of my sexuality.
- My enculturation as a child encouraged me to be mostly independent rather than to look for members of the opposite sex to help perform certain tasks such as car maintenance, and also that women will come to me for help with tasks they cannot perform or are not sufficiently confident enough to perform.
- If I am outspoken I am generally taken seriously and not dismissed because of my sex. If I am dismissed, I need not fear that it reflects poorly on my entire sex.
- I have never lost a friend of the opposite sex because I was not romantically interested.
Despite this list, I can also quickly identify ways in which I feel restricted due to my sex. In fact, in my life I have been more likely to readily identify ways in which I am restricted rather than privileged. And I consider myself conscious of my privilege.
It is also important to explore the ways in which I am restricted and the contexts of said restrictions. For example, for several years I gave guitar lessons to middle school aged children. I was cautioned about giving lessons to young girls, as it draws suspicions and invites accusations. While a woman giving guitar lessons would likely not have this issue, my issue in the situation could be remedied by offering lessons in a public place, rather than my own home—I was not exclusively prevented because of my sex. This was a liability issue, not a sexual discrimination issue.
More of an issue is the lack of resources that men have available in cases of legitimate false accusation and also the emotional resources available in cases of abuse against men. I have considerable personal experience with both scenarios; however, I cannot consider either of them cases of institutionalized sexism. In the case of false accusation, men are made victims by the same systemic sexism that has victimized women. This is a legitimate problem, but our system is also in a constant state of flux. As a society, we are working to solve institutionalized issues while simultaneously treating symptoms.
While I personally have experienced what I would consider sexism or sexist discrimination by women with authority, it has merely been unfortunate, not inhibiting. It has been in the form of jokes made by peers and professors and manifested in a general feeling of dismissal as a student for no other apparent reason than sex. It seems more like cultural norms that permit this behavior rather than systemic institutions rewarding it. Yes, it is sexist, but not to the same degree, and certainly not oppressive.
It’s also generally more accepted for women to bend gender norms than it is for men. Women who are mildly independent and who can, say, change their own oil (to refer to the list above) are more highly valued; or, at the very least, women who grow up as tomboys pride themselves on not being feminine as they perceived boys to be more highly valued (Stevens). Gloria Steinem wrote that it is time we start raising our sons as we raise our daughters (Steinem, 2014:2). Raising men to value a holistic point of view and that which is “feminine” is what she meant.
Anecdotally, as a male who does not align with many male gender expectations, I have met with and been aware of resistance to my tendencies. Whether in the form of being assumed to be “lazy” because I am a “guy,” or having my intentions in befriending a woman misunderstood, it’s a fairly common occurrence that my “less-than-male” tendencies are considered curious or even suspect. Again, this doesn’t inhibit me, my social life, my social mobility or even my day-to-day activities. In time, women understand my intentions as platonic and genuine—to refer to the list above: I have never lost a friend because I wasn’t romantically interested.
Generally speaking, privilege is not discussed. At no point in my life have my male friends and I had a talk about how easy we have it comparatively. We have, however, gone through the inevitable phase in which sexist jokes are funny. Despite having fairly open-minded and progressive friends, I would be willing to bet that many (if not all) of them would be hesitant to admit that they enjoy specific privilege because they are men—or that women don’t enjoy equivalent privilege.
Boys are not brought up to do anything but take advantage of a situation. They (we) are raised to be assertive and commanding. The value of mild blurring gender by women—of tomboys being more desirable than sissies—means that men are often more restricted in their expression (Nubian). Men without tools to express very real emotion, in a society that rewards men by default and values success and independence overall, can be left desperate and damaged by a reality that’s less than ideal.
Personally, I feel that this restriction can almost solely explain the male propensity for violence. In reducing violence to biology, we are left with a natural world rife with it. If male on male, male on female, female on female and female on male violence all exist within the animal kingdom—and we accept that we are part of it (we are)—than it must then be accepted that violence as an aberration is a cultural construct. This isn’t easy to admit, because it can just as easily be used as a justification for violence.
To me, ignoring the slippery slop is a cop-out. Ignoring that aggression is “natural” is also to ignore that it can only be cultural institutions serving to systemically and unconsciously promote violence in human societies, because it is human societies that have established violence as an aberration. This denial leads to a search for biological causes (and biological treatments), or perhaps more accurately, biological justification.
Rather than writing off violence as “natural” as an excuse to ignore it, I propose both accepting it as cultural and also accepting culture as being just as valid as biology. This will serve to help direct attention where it is needed. The male tendency for violence is less pronounced when taking into consideration that female-dominated animal societies and human subcultures are still violent.
While female dominated societies are essentially nonexistent in humans, nonhuman primates—such as bonobos—do have female domination. These societies are not exempt from violence. Some studies have illustrated the propensity for females to commit violence in societies in which female domination is common (Stockley and Campbell, 2013; Wheeler, 2013).
Furthermore, studies have found that within all-female gangs, violent crimes are a higher percentage of total criminal activity—comprising almost 50%, with drug related crimes being the next highest at almost 40% (Moore and Hagedorn, 2001). Both of the points I have made serve to illustrate my view that predisposition to violence is grounded in social rather than biological origins. It would seem to fit that males being enculturated to be dominating while females are enculturated to be subservient would explain these tendencies. Furthermore, it can be assumed that in a society (parallel universe?) in which roles were reversed, females would be just as likely to commit violent crimes as men.
There are multiple factors contributing to male privilege in American societies. There are also multiple factors tying into the male propensity for violence. I find it unlikely that there are direct or exclusive biological determinants that can wholly explain male aggression.
In admitting privilege, I am not admitting fault. This is a critical distinction and also one lost in many discussions and therefore a cause for contention in such discussions. Men have power and have historically subjugated women; I am not all men. Admitting that certain aspects of my life have been made easier by virtue of circumstance has engrained in me awareness that others may be inhibited by the same constructs.
This is a cause of guilt, which is then alleviated by working to dispel manifestations of the oppressive aspects of my privilege in my life. I cannot expect to see true gender equality in my lifetime, but I can work proactively to promote it. Perhaps more importantly, as a man, I can work proactively to point out how unintimidating it actually is.