Letter to the Editor: Assessing Male Privilege

Last week, The Lawrence Board published a consensus view regarding privilege. Noting that we’re more prone to seeing the Privileges we lack, the board reminded lawrentians to first examine our own privileges before considering others’.

Last week, The Lawrence Board published a consensus view regarding privilege. Noting that we’re more prone to seeing the Privileges we lack, the board reminded lawrentians to first examine our own privileges before considering others’. However, I’d like to extend this concept and ask that we, in evaluating and discussing privilege, not limit our understanding to the Straight/White/Male/etc., privilege labels we are increasingly accustomed to. Different privileges certainly exist based on identity—straight people have the privilege of acceptance in religious communities, white people have the privilege of access to media that represents their race, men have the privilege of not having their career suffer due to motherhood, etc. However, when we start categorizing these privileges into _X_ privilege, we create this “Oppressor-Oppressed” template in which the group in the role of oppressor has all the privilege, and the Oppressed has all the disadvantages. But sometimes, narratives are far more complex than those to which a binary notion of privilege reduces them, and I think this is particularly evident in the “Man-Woman” dichotomy.

When we consider outdated gender roles, we make plain our disgust at the notion that women ought to be no more than homemakers or that they’re temperamentally unsuited for demanding professions—and rightly so. But on the flip side, the converse assumption is not so readily challenged; we still assume, to an extent, that men are meant to be unemotional and hide weakness, that they’re aggressive and not fit to nurture children. For a girl, crying or a show of weakness is met with sympathy, whereas guys are far more likely to be admonished and told to toughen up. It’s more socially acceptable for girls to share their feelings and rely on friends for comfort, whereas guys are encouraged to bottle them up for fear of being perceived as weak, perhaps feeding into the problem of “toxic masculinity.” Thus, emotional vulnerability is, dare I say it, a privilege reserved for women.

We also see the assumption that men are naturally aggressive which serves them poorly by several metrics: cases of paternity fraud or false accusations of sexual misconduct almost uniquely affect men, and on the flip side, should a man be the victim of domestic abuse, there are few to no resources at his disposal. In fact, men in such situations are often looked down upon for being “weak,” and male domestic abuse is played for humor appallingly often in today’s media. This is especially concerning, as one in seven men (as opposed to one in four women) report having been severely physically injured by an intimate partner. Given the associations of the #MeToo movement and the way abuse is often portrayed, we tend to assume domestic violence is an issue that seldom affects men when, in reality, it’s far more prevalent and far more unaddressed than many are led to believe. Another consequence of this overrepresented narrative of “aggressive, entitled man is destructive to voiceless woman” is that dads almost never gain custody of children in the case of a legal battle, and on a smaller scale, men are rarely encouraged to fill the role of primary caretaker, with stay-at-home-dads and men entering traditional nursing/nurturing professions often subject to mockery; outdated gender roles work both ways and can be just as damaging to men.

Did you know that, while both women and men can elect to join the military, the U.S. military draft still uniquely affects men? In the event that the U.S. goes to war and requires such measures, men are the group that will be legally forced to train and enter warzones. Is this a women’s issue because women are unfairly seen as too docile to fight? Ah yes, we women are so disadvantaged because we’re not being unwillingly carted off to die en masse. No—in this situation, gender roles that portray women as precious and men as disposable put men at a disadvantage; as does the maxim of “women and children first” that is so common in times of tragedy. Men are also disproportionately affected by veterans' issues and are the victims in 76 percent of suicides. They are hugely overrepresented in “lethal professions,” accounting for over 90 percent of workplace deaths. While women are more likely to experience sexual assault, men are twice as likely to be victims of violent crime and far more likely to be victims of murder. Men are disproportionately affected by sentencing disparity and criminal court bais and regularly receives longer and harsher sentences for the same crimes as female inmates. They are also more likely to experience homelessness and have an overall lower average life expectancy. The statistics are overwhelming and yet almost entirely unheard of; why do the stories of issues that uniquely or disproportionately affect men never get attention?

I think it’s because we as a society love having a narrative, and right now, the narrative is pro-women’s rights—which is fortunate in how it’s helping women, but unfortunate in how it’s suppressing what it sees as a contradictory narrative. Popular media and news outlets don’t portray men’s issues because they don’t fit into this narrative, which is never a good thing—don’t we caution against the dangers of a single story here at Lawrenceville?

The concept of “Male Privilege” inherently reinforces the notion that the “Male Privileged—Female Disadvantaged” story is the only one because it establishes women as the group facing all the barriers and discounts the story of the issues men face. This, in turn, suppresses the stories of men who would otherwise be able to weigh in on sexism, gender-related issues, the solutions. When we tell men that they have “Male Privilege,” we are often telling them to stop complaining because their problems could never compare to those of the people their groups have historically repressed—and this mindset is dangerous. In employing the term like this, we alienate people and their stories, the exact opposite of what Lawrenceville, an institution that prides itself on fostering open discussion, should be trying to do.

One might be tempted to respond to all of the above with an emphatic reminder that while men have some problems, sure, women have it a lot worse—to which I respond: this isn’t a competition for “most disadvantaged!” Women don’t have to be empowered at the expense of men being suppressed. If we recognize and listen to the stories of all members of the community, we can work to address both women's and men’s issues. Male members of society—and male Lawrenceville students—should be able to contribute to the dialogue surrounding sexism without being unfairly labeled “bigoted” or told to check their privilege, and I don’t think we’re there yet. Case-in-point, if I had been a guy, I certainly wouldn’t have risked putting my name on this article.