On Gender and Privilege

I haven’t mentioned this much here, but I talk all the time about misconceptions people hold concerning privilege.  Privilege isn’t a binary.  A group that suffers a disadvantage in one arena may enjoy an advantage somewhere else.  The problem with the assumption that it’s a binary is that it’s used to make assumptions about people and dismiss their experiences.  This is one of the reasons I (and other egalitarians and MRAs) face so much pushback and friction when we discuss men’s issues.  Men are assumed to be the ones at the top of the hierarchy, always benefiting and always doing better than women, often at the expense of women, so when men and their supporters try to address issues that affect them, it’s often dismissed or even derided.  I’ve talked at length about the disadvantages men face when they are victims of violence, largely due to the fact that they are perceived as the perpetrators of violence.  But let’s consider some of the other consequences of this perception.

An interesting tactic I’ve seen occasionally in anti-feminism and men’s rights is to illustrate the bias and bigotry in certain parts of feminist ideology and its adherents by replacing any use of the word “men” with “black people” in tweets and arguments.

Some examples:

“Men are the greatest threats to women and children. Saying #NotAllMen is just a way to deflect the blame.”

“I hate #NotAllMen. All men have seen other men harass women. Stop saying #NotAllMen and do something about it! #YesAllWomen”

“If men get upset by #KillAllMen, then maybe they could start by stopping raping, abusing, and murdering us?”

Just make a few simple changes…

“Black people are the greatest threats to women and children. Saying #NotAllBlacks is just a way to deflect the blame.”

“I hate #NotAllBlacks. All blacks have seen other blacks harass whites. Stop saying #NotAllBlacks and do something about it! #YesAllWhites”

“If black people get upset by #KillAllBlacks, then maybe they could start by stopping raping, abusing, and murdering us?”

And Presto! We have easily recognizable hate speech. This is a handy little litmus test for sexism. Is it a bigoted thing to say about black people? Then it’s a bigoted thing to say about anyone. This is useful because most reasonable people experience an immediate, visceral discomfort at the sight of blatant racism. Even re-writing those tweets with the racial edits made me compulsively look over my shoulder, and I’m sitting at my kitchen table. This reaction is so instinctive and immediate (for anyone who isn’t an asshole) that it’s hard to disagree when it’s used to point out the bigotry in a statement.

These all come from actual tweets, by the way, which are justified, presumably, by the belief that men as a group are, in fact, violent or oppressive. Sure, these are extreme examples, and you could easily write off the women responsible for these statements as hateful idiots (and they surely are) who don’t necessarily represent anyone or anything, but the perception of men as violent is as pervasive as it is damaging, and blatantly evident in women’s distrust of men (which I flesh out a lot more in my piece on sexuality and my piece on violence). At first, this little litmus test was merely amusing to me, and I applauded it for its efficacy, but then I started thinking about what parallels actually exist between our perception and demonization of racial minorities as violent or criminal, its effect on real people’s lives and livelihoods, and the similar stereotypes and assumptions we hold about men. After all, a great deal of women’s behaviours and perceptions are influenced by the assumption that men are violent or potentially dangerous, and as I’ve addressed many times, this perception does inform both policy and culture.

Let’s start by considering a couple scenarios. This first one comes straight out of Karen Straughan’s blog (sorry, Karen, if you ever read this, but it was such a fantastic example that I couldn’t pass it up): Imagine I’m a woman walking down the street at night. I’m headed home, I’m alone, it’s late, and suddenly I notice a man walking behind me.  Now I’m a little uncomfortable.  Maybe I feel a bit more wary, or even unsafe.

This is common experience. Women are often uncomfortable in the presence of strange men, especially when they are otherwise alone, because they are aware of a potential for danger. Many men are so aware of this fear that they will cross the street or change their route out of respect for the woman, not wanting her to feel afraid that he is following her or planning to rob or hurt her.

Here’s another scenario: This time, imagine I’m a woman at a bar.  I’m sitting at a table drinking when a man I don’t know approaches me and starts to talk to me.  I find myself maintaining an arm’s length between me and the guy and keeping a much closer watch on my drink.

In the first example, you may have nodded along, having remembered times when you’ve been that woman, uncomfortable at night on a sidewalk. Maybe you weren’t having the conscious thought “he’s a man, and men are bad, so he might hurt me,” but you were aware that sometimes men hurt women, and that sounds like a pretty reasonable cause to be uncomfortable. And in the second example, many reasonable women would be wary of their safety and their drinks around strangers, and some women would tell you that this is due to the fact that sometimes men are sexually aggressive or violent toward women. Again, at face value, this sounds rational, not hateful or biased. It is true that sometimes men hurt women. That’s a fact. But let’s go back to that litmus test for a moment.

What if I were to tell you that I was walking home alone last night, and felt uncomfortable because I noticed a black person walking behind me? Say I was walking for a while, hoping that black person would cross the street so that I could feel more safe, but they didn’t, so I eventually just took my turn a couple streets early. What? I’m not being racist. Sometimes black people rob white people. It’s a fact, that’s all.

And maybe I was walking home from the bar. Maybe at that bar someone came up to me while I was drinking. I felt the need to keep physical distance from them and careful watch on my drink because that black person was a total stranger, and sometimes black people are sexually aggressive or violent toward white people. Just look at Bill Cosby.

Yikes.  I felt uncomfortable writing that just now. Did you feel kind of gross reading it? When we make statements like these about someone based on race, they are apparent in their bigotry and fallacy. Nobody would doubt my flagrant racism if I actually said those things to people, and I’d probably be corrected or criticized.  If I said them in public I’d probably also be the sort of person who flies confederate flags and asserts that everyone should speak American.  But when we make them about men, suddenly we are just women looking out for ourselves, and that inherent judgment is not even questioned. Making the judgment that someone is violent or means to harm you based on their sex is no better than making such a judgment based on their skin colour, and those assumptions can lead to real-world consequences.

For the record, I’m not advocating against watching your drink in a bar or paying attention to your surroundings on the street. I’m merely pointing out the bias when we do so based on gender, when we assume we are less safe because we have cast a certain group of people as the default predators. Just as most black people aren’t robbers, most men aren’t rapists, and assuming otherwise is playing into harmful and discriminatory stereotypes. Go ahead and keep an eye on your drink – that’s practical – but do it around everyone, not just one race or gender.

Maybe you’re not convinced that this comparison is fair. Maybe you see it as somehow different.  Maybe you’re asking yourself, “Well what’s the harm? Racial minorities are disadvantaged and mistreated by the system. There are institutionalized systemic biases that affect them. It isn’t the same to say these things about a specific race, because they aren’t in a position of privilege, like men, that we are attempting to dismantle with this type of language.”

It’s funny you mention that, because I did a bit of research.  Remember what I said about privilege and binaries?

What are some of the things we point to as evidence that some races suffer systemic discrimination? What are some trends that are cited as disadvantages people suffer on the basis of race?

For the purposes of the following barrage of statistics, consider these demographics: Men make up about 49% of the U.S. population, women 51%, white people 62%, and black people 13%. I focus specifically on these four demographics because some of the studies I found are not more specific in their delineation of race, and also because no reasonable person will argue with the assertion that black people suffer systemic discrimination and other well documented disadvantages compared to caucasians.

So let’s start with poverty, since that’s usually the first thing we point to when we’re talking about social disadvantage. According to a 2010 fact sheet published by SAMHSA, men make up about 62% of the sheltered homeless. A prior study cited within the publication placed that number between 67-80%. For comparison, the percent of homeless people who are black is listed as 37%, just slightly lower than the percent who are white (40.1%). Both men and black people suffer gross over representation in the homeless population, with men constituting as much as 4/5.

And when you talk about poverty, you’ve got to look at education. The most recent relevant Common Core data on high school graduation rates (2008-9) demonstrates a gender disparity of about 7% (73.4% for males, 80.6% females), and a racial disparity of about 18% (63.6% for black students, 81.8% for whites). And those disparities hold true, and more extreme, in post-secondary education. About 41% of college graduates from associate to doctorate level (in 2009-10) were male, 11% of graduates were black, and 71% white. Obviously the gender disparity here is less pronounced than the racial one, but it exists at every level, within every permutation. An interesting relevant fact is that the dreaded wage gap is beginning to reverse. Young, unmarried women are starting to out-earn their male counterparts (particularly in cities) by a national average of 8%. In some cities, that number climbs to as much as 21%. Could this be influenced by men’s dropping graduation rates? Perhaps many of these young men and women are the recent graduates (or non-graduates) of that post-secondary trend entering the work force.

Or how about violence victimization? I had to do some digging at the Bureau of Justice Statistics to make these comparisons (hence the inconsistency in the types of statistics), but men suffer violent crime at a rate of about 1.2%, versus women’s 1.1%, whites’ 1.1%, and blacks’ 1.3% (as of 2013). This is a slight over representation in terms of both gender and race, but let’s focus on a few more specific types of crime. If you examine violent victimization by a stranger (2010), men are nearly twice as likely as women to be victimized, at a rate of about 9.5 per thousand. Black people suffer these types of crimes at a rate of 13.3 per thousand, white people at 9.2. But homicide is the kicker (this time from the census). As of 2008, 48% of victims were black, 49% white, and all of 78% were male. Now that’s a disparity.

But wait, there’s more! Why don’t we take a look at the criminal justice system. Most conscientious people agree that black Americans suffer unfair treatment at the hands of law enforcement and the courts. After all, they are given on average 23% higher sentences than white people for the same crimes, were 28% of arrests in 2011, constitute 37.5% of the prison population, and are generally treated more harshly by law enforcement. This is such a widespread and serious problem that it has led to protests, extensive discussion about policy and corruption, and violent riots.

So you may be interested to know that men are given, on average, 63% higher sentences than women, are 74% of arrests, and make up 93% of the prison population. Men suffer a sentencing disparity that is nearly three times as much as the racial disparity, and are the overwhelming majority of American prisoners. In addition to receiving 63% harsher sentences for the same crime, men suffer a further bias: that same study, conducted by law professor Sonja Starr of the University of Michigan in 2012, found that women are significantly more likely than men to avoid charges and avoid conviction, as well as being twice as likely to avoid incarceration when they are convicted. When comparing equivalent crimes, criminal histories, and other relevant factors, men are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged when arrested, more likely to be convicted when charged, more likely to be incarcerated when convicted, and more likely to face a harsher sentence when incarcerated. For exactly the same crimes. And we wonder why almost all prisoners are male.

But it doesn’t stop there. In 2008, the BJS conducted a study of police-public contact. Police interactions with the public were analyzed from that year. This analysis more than hints at what we already know about police tendency to single out or be harsher toward people of certain races. While they found that black people had been stopped while driving only at a slightly higher rate than white people (8.8% vs. 8.4%), they were arrested at a traffic stop at a rate of 4.7% (compared with 2.4% of whites), had their vehicles searched at a rate of 12.3% (compared with 3.9%), and experienced a threat or use of force at a rate of 3.4% (versus 1.2%).

Now, according to that same analysis, men were stopped at a rate of 10% (versus women’s 7%), arrested at a stop at a rate of 3.5% (versus 1.4%), had their vehicles searched at a rate of 7.4% (versus 1.6%), and experienced threat or use of force at a rate of 1.8% (versus 1%). For those of you keeping count at home, some of these numbers show a significantly greater disparity than the racial one above. And remember that most of the instances of racial police brutality have targeted males, not females. In fact, according to BJS data, cited in an article about race and police shootings, less than 5% of arrest related deaths between 2003 and 2009 were female. For comparison, about a third were black (while the article doesn’t consider this a dramatic number, remember that this is nearly three times the percent of black representation in the population as a whole).

Bear in mind that most of these links come from organizations that rely on the Duluth model (indeed, the BJS states outright in some of the studies linked above that its statistics on sexual violence apply only to victimization of women and girls), so if there is bias between the lines, it is not likely to be in my favour. And yet, all these studies have demonstrated pretty conclusively that disparities in violent crime victimization, education, homelessness, arrest, incarceration, and treatment by law enforcement, all arenas capable of ruining lives or worse, follow similar patterns for gender as they do for race. Men suffer very much the same types of biases and discrepancies that we point to as evidence of a need to level the playing field for the races.

“But Jackalope!” you may be saying, “aren’t most of these gender disparities the result of male aggression and other cultural male behaviours? Can we really say they reflect an institutional discrimination against men?” To that, I’ll just go ahead and refer you back to my litmus test from earlier. You wouldn’t be saying “they bring it on themselves” or “they’re really just that violent” or “they don’t work as hard” if you knew I was about to replace every instance of your usage of “men” with “black people”.

It may be that men are, to an extent, more prone to crime than women due to some social or even biological factors, but our assumptions about men and violence, aided by the Duluth model which is entrenched in just about every institution we have to deal with violence, have led to a widespread bias in the very institutions we employ to identify, examine, and correct violence. Pervasive characterization of men as default perpetrators and criminals has led to men being treated as such, from basic police contact to arrest, to conviction, to sentencing, and I see no good reason to differentiate this from the way the cycle of bias against black Americans affects their treatment by the law. If the system treated men fairly, we wouldn’t see that 63% difference in sentencing for the same crimes (or the gaps in all the other steps of the process).  And the chasm between our innate compassion for women and cavalier attitude about the suffering of men has certainly exacerbated this problem.

Most people are vaguely aware of some of these trends, but write them off as the result of male behaviours and culture. Isn’t most violence male-on-male? If men want to be better educated, more financially stable, less involved with criminal justice, less likely to be the victim of violence, and viewed in a more positive light on the whole, if men don’t want to suffer stigma and bias, they should be less violent, work harder, and dedicate their energies more toward educating and bettering themselves. But male culture doesn’t lend toward those things. If they behaved differently, if they had different priorities, they wouldn’t have these problems.  If men want to be treated better, they should stop acting so darn masculine. But doesn’t that sound just a little familiar? I’ll let you apply that litmus test on your own if you need to.

So am I saying that being a man in the U.S. is exactly the same as being a racial minority? No, not exactly. Every group (indeed, every individual) has its own circumstances, advantages, and disadvantages. But most of the disparities we point to in order to illustrate institutionalized racial discrimination affect men, too, sometimes significantly moreso, as you read above. And yet nobody seems to be all that concerned with the institutionalized sexism in these arenas (I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that it benefits women).  Not only does nobody seem concerned, most still assume that men are in a position of unambiguous privilege

But even though women have a staggering advantage in these areas that would make Jezebel shit its collective pants if it were reversed, a quick google of “women and criminal justice” has turned up this total garbage, this propaganda-riddled study, and a slew of other articles and editorials that use statements directly contradicted by the statistics above, decrying the small rate of incarceration women do experience, casting women as the victims (what else is new?) of criminal justice bias and mistreatment, and urging for even greater leniency on behalf of women.  These articles vie for leniency by arguing that many women are driven to crime by desperate circumstances, have a history of trauma, addiction, or mental illness, or are mothers who shouldn’t be separated from their children.  But they don’t seem to consider the fact that many male criminals are also driven to crime by desperate circumstances, have a history of trauma, addiction, or mental illness, or are fathers.  Why are these arguments only being made about women?  Since the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and the highest prison population, why aren’t these arguments being made as an effort to limit the millions of citizens funneled into our prison system as a whole, instead of focusing just on the extreme minority of women incarcerated?

In fact, this directory of assistance programs has the nerve to exist, and appear on the first page of results, in order to aid women (yes, specifically women) who have been incarcerated to reenter the civilian world. By all means, let’s focus on the 7% of prisoners who aren’t male with hundreds of maddeningly specialized programs nationwide (California alone has 23, and Wisconsin has 10, to give you an idea) which funnel money, time, and effort into helping the proportion of the incarcerated population that may even need it the least. It’s pretty clear where the public priority lies.  Can you imagine if these articles and programs existed specifically for the aid and defense of white people?

Finding the comparisons I listed above took me more than a day of poring over reams of data and digging through many organizations’ publications, none of which were particularly easy to find, and most of which didn’t even have the information I was looking for. This wasn’t a simple Google search of “systemic biases against men”. (In fact, when I did search that, Google provided me with links about racial discrimination instead.) So why isn’t this forward in the gender equality discussion? Why does everyone still think men are privileged and women are disadvantaged, period? Not only are there no riots or protests about this, no #MaleLivesMatter, and no public outcry. It’s barely discussed at all, while similar trends for a different group are practically provoking a sociopolitical revolution. And rightly so, since people are having their lives ruined and lost as a result. Those are some very real, tangible, tragic social consequences that can be traced pretty neatly back to stereotypes and unfair perception of a group as violent and criminal. But when the same information applies to men, it’s suddenly on the back burner. This could be one of the most pressing gender equality issues of our time, so why is nobody talking about this? I guess catcalling and manspreading are just that much more important.



Filed under criminal justice, discrimination, men's rights, privilege, racism, sexism

5 responses to “On Gender and Privilege

  1. Pingback: Feminists Chronically Underestimate Feminism | egalitarian jackalope

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  3. Pingback: On Gender and History | egalitarian jackalope

  4. Will Davis

    I found that I agreed with you on nearly everything.
    My only real issue is with your claim of racial disproportion at the tertiary level.
    71% of college grads are white, 11% are black. That does not show a racial disproportion when one looks at the racial populations nationwide; 72.4% White and 12.6% Black.
    Looks like the representations at the collegiate level match up pretty damned close when one looks at national proportions of race within the population


    • I agree with you that it’s a small disparity, even a questionable one. That’s a worthy conversation to have. But the purpose of this article is, more or less, to appeal to the sensibilities of progressives who find that disparity troubling: if you believe the small racial gap in postsecondary education is worth addressing, than you must be concerned when you learn of a much larger gap, one which we as a society have made no effort to mitigate with educational initiatives, programs, or scholarships.

      Any progressive who claims to be concerned about the racial gap, but rejects arguments which call attention to the gender gap, is espousing flagrant hypocrisy.


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