Nature versus nurture. This is a debate that has been on people’s minds since at least as early as Victorian England. It has also been a cornerstone of the debate in the violence prevention field. I am not here to answer the debate, but I am here to critique the reliance upon the “nature of man” that has become a center piece of the counter-feminist movement.
Sometimes these authors act under the banner of being “pro-men” and is best represented by Suzanne Venker’s recent article “The War On Men”.
Venker concludes that “Women have the power to turn [the marriage wars] around. All they have to do is surrender to their nature – their femininity – and let men surrender to [their masculinity.]”
What are the marriage wars you ask? The marriage war, according to Venker, is the natural extension of the feminist movement which “changes the dance” between men and women because women are increasingly obtaining degrees in higher education and obtaining jobs while simultaneously wanting to get married.
Men, on the other hand, do not want to get married. This is leading to the “dearth of good men (also known as marriable men).”
There are two common elements of Venker’s argument that I would like to highlight in particular, the first is male entitlement and the second is the nature of gender. If left unchallenged, these arguments lead us back to an unhealthy gender binary that not only fundamentally reinforces exclusionary (or hegemonic) gender norms but also makes it impossible for both men AND women to inhabit gender spaces on their own terms. As a result, I will argue that if we accept these exclusionary spaces we will only perpetuate gendered and interpersonal violence.
1) Male Entitlement
Venker argues that feminism taught women to hate men, to push men off their “pedestal,” and as a result, men have no where to go. Though Venker does not discuss in depth in her article what the “male pedestal” is, one can surmise based on recent trends what that pedestal is.
Physicality is one such pedestal. The rise of Title IX has given rise to claims that men are losing their rightful place in college athletics. This is particularly present in varsity wrestling, lacrosse, boxing and football. All of these sports are traditionally thought of as “men’s sports” for reliance upon violence and physical strength.
Bread winning is another pedestal which men were traditionally perceived to hold. Think of the nuclear family of the 1950s and the TV show “Leave it to Beaver” where the Dad is at work all day and the Mom is home cooking and cleaning all day. Women are increasingly joining the workforce in higher numbers than ever before, especially in areas where they have been traditionally under represented including the law, medical practices, and the science technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Pay discrepancy has also decreased in the past several year. Although according to the Economist, women are still making, on average, about 80% of what men are making for comparable work. We see the practical affects of this argument play out daily in the political debates of this past presidential election cycle in the United States. It seemed like on one hand there was a war on women and the other there was a war on moms.
Leadership, or control in a broad sense, is a third major pillar traditionally associated with men and masculinity. In a study by the Harvard Business Review, women (in the abstact) are ranked by business leaders as having stronger skills in 9 out of 11 core competancies of leadership however, women only make up 16 percent of executive positions in fortune 500 companies. Women in the workplace make up a little less than half, but approximately 60% of women above the age of 16 are in the workplace compared to almost 70% of men above the age of 16.
Though the numbers are bad, there is still a significant problem with PERCEPTION of what men are entitled to. As Venker argues, men feel like they have “no where to go.” This a feeling echoed by other men in other studies, included by noted author and scholar Michael Kimmel in his book “Guy Land.” You see arguments of entitlement in so-called “reverse discrimination” cases regarding affirmative action and in tv shows and online articles (such as in AskMen.com) about someone taking “my” job.
2) Men’s Nature
The other area of focus on I wanted to look at is why this sense of entitlement exists. Part of it is the historical trends of jobs, gender roles, and societal expectations. The numbers may still show discrepancy, but even as short as forty years ago, legalized discrimination was still the law of the land in many localities in the United States and Abroad.
Venker admits as much when she says that “there was no revolution [demanding] men change.”
Venker also argues that is “in the DNA of men” to “provide for and protect” their families. Unfortunately, this argument is shallow at best. Yes, men did develop a proclivity for producing testosterone and women estrogen, they do not guarantee behavior. It would also be a harmful argument to make that just because men produce testosterone, they must engage in violent or dominant behavior.
The last time I checked, companies did not test for testosterone when it came to selecting qualified candidates nor was estrogen a requirement for stay at home care takers.
Moreover, the use of genetics (or the nature argument) fundamentally discriminates against people who adopt masculine or feminine behaviors that are not affiliated with their sex. It creates a reason to commit violence for no other purpose than to restore a supposedly natural order. Under the nature argument, gender violence (either physical, verbal, or emotional) becomes a natural response in restoring the gender boxes to their proper pedestal, thus re-affirming a hierarchical and hostile environment.
One of the most problematic statements of Venker’s argument is that it is women’s fault for upsetting the status quo. “Men,” Venker argues, “do not have to change.” Yet men have already changed. That’s why Venker’s article is so harmful to everyone.
First and foremost, there is no singular monolithic hegemony. Some people are strong, some are rich, some exist in positions of power and others hold leadership titles. Very few people, even people who identify as male, exist at the top of all of those pyramids. If a man is not all of those things. As a result, there is a tendency to engage in unhealthy or violent behavior to defend one’s place in the hegemonic masculine spectrum. Men in particular, argues Michael Kimmel, will go to great lengths to prove their masculinity to other guys even if that means putting down other guys, women, members of the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual community as well as the transgender community.
The second problem is that by casting anyone who is opposed to the hierarchy as “man hating” you create the necessity to have other, lesser pillars, and you ultimately engage in the very hate you condemn. You hate that men can step out of the box and be the person they want to be. You hate the men who do not see themselves as being on the same pedastal. Socio-economic status, race, sexual orientation, and religion all becomes way to discriminate against others because not all men are created equal. You also hate the people who want to change.
The third problem is that this model of gender binary does not give anyone the permission to be different from their supposed nature. There is a reason why men suffer higher rates of depression, alcohol / drug abuse, violence as perpetrators and as victims, lower grades, and heart disease than women. If you cannot be yourself, then the literature shows you are more likely to engage in violence either towards yourself or others.
It is no surprise that a vast majority of perpetrators of men, but it is also a well known fact that not all men are perpetrators of violence.
If men really cannot change, nor do they need to change, then there would be no need for men to comport to unrealistic gender norms not on their own terms.
Being masculine or feminine is not inherently bad, but by reinforcing these gender norms, we take away individuals rights to be the respectful healthy people they want to be.
Even masculine men pay a cost when they do not have the freedom to be ok with themselves.
Suzanne Venker, you may call these statements man-hating, I actually think it is more like love and respect. For men. For Women. For All.