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Everybody loves a Battle of the Sexes. Whether it's Cary Grant whipping words back and forth with Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, tennis star Bobby Riggs being outmatched by Billie Jean King, or Barack Obama defeating Hillary Clinton in 2008, the man vs. woman narrative has provided ready-made entertainment, excitement and outrage for centuries. Men and women. They are different. They are opposed. Only one can dominate.
That's certainly been the logic of Men's Rights Activists (or MRAs). Feminism has argued that laws and society have systematically disadvantaged women in favor of men. MRAs turn around and declare that it's men, not women, who are oppressed. “Legislation is routinely drafted to advantage women and disadvantage men,” British MRA activist Mike Buchanan has said. “Boys are being relentlessly disadvantaged by an ever more feminized education system.”
The truth is, women face institutional discrimination based on their gender—and men also face institutional discrimination based on their gender. The Battle of the Sexes is itself a means of harming both men and women, by creating strict gender roles, and violently stuffing people into them, without regard to their own preferences, or their own well-being. In presenting men's rights and women's rights as a zero sum game, in which only one can triumph, MRA's hurt the men they claim they want to help. And in blaming women for oppression of men, they obscure the real forces that threaten, and often kill, men.
On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig off the coast of Houston exploded in a terrifying fireball that could be seen for 40 miles. The rig sank, creating the worst oil spill in the history of the United States. The environmental catastrophe generated front page headlines for months. Less discussed were the deaths. Eleven people were killed by the explosion. All of them were men.
That's not a coincidence. Men experience the vast majority of workplace injuries and deaths, both in the United States and worldwide. A 2010 study found that 750,000 men died worldwide from occupational causes, as opposed to 102,000 women. Men suffer fully 95 percent of fatal accidents in Europe, and the figures are comparable in the U.S.
These numbers are hardly ever discussed in the political sphere. When they are, it's not to make a case for men, so much as to make a case against feminism. Mark J. Perry at the American Enterprise Institute likes to point to occupational injuries among men in response to arguments about unequal pay for women.
Men are disproportionately represented in dangerous jobs, Perry says. They are around 100 percent of coal miners, 95 percent of firefighters and 97.5 percent of construction workers. "Economic theory tells us that the ‘gender occupational fatality gap’ explains part of the ‘gender pay gap’ because a disproportionate number of men work in higher-risk but higher-paid occupations," he argues.
If women moved into those high-risk occupations they would likely die at higher rates. Men are paid more because they're getting killed, but Perry does not discuss ways to reduce those deaths. Male deaths do not prompt him to advocate for men; they prompt him to try to score points against feminists. Feminists surely don't want more women in high-risk jobs, and more female fatalities, he says smugly.
The problem here is that it's seen as natural or normal for men to risk their lives in dangerous jobs. Workplace deaths are rarely honored or highlighted; discussion of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, for example, centered almost exclusively on the environmental impact, rather than on the men killed. Adam Jones, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia told me."I often find myself pausing as I wander around the infrastructure of our world, the streets and lights and bridges and buildings, and thinking that if it weren't for working-class men creating and maintaining that infrastructure, at considerable physical risk, we would all be toast."
The default assumption that dangerous jobs are for men hurts people of every gender. Women face formal and informal hurdles when they seek high-paying blue-collar jobs. In New York, the fire department has been accused of deliberately adding unnecessary physical testing to academy training in an effort to discourage women from becoming firefighters. And then, the maleness of these blue collar occupations becomes a way to dismiss or shrug off occupational deaths, and to depoliticize the issue of workplace safety.
"From a policy perspective, surely the way we ignore and discard male vulnerabilities gets mapped onto working conditions and the attendant dangers," Jones said. "Are the care facilities and insurance payouts adequate for those injured rather than killed? What are the consequences of relying on undocumented, sometimes trafficked male-migrant labor for many of these jobs? Would we be less willing to tolerate such black-market industries, with their often abusive and dangerous work environments, if the migrants were mostly women?"
These questions are difficult to answer, because workplace safety of men, as a political issue, is almost invisible. A men's rights movement that actually cared about men's lives wouldn't crow about men's deaths as a talking point in the battle against women earning a living. Instead, it would draw attention to the fact that everyone, of every gender, deserves to be safe on the job.
There's a suicide in the U.S. every 13 minutes, which means that someone in the country will probably take their own life while you're reading this. More likely than not, that someone was a man.
According to the CDC men account for about 78 percent of all suicides; women for 22 percent. That means men kill themselves at nearly four times the rate that women do. Among males 20-34[Office1] , suicide is the second-leading cause of death.
Why are men more likely to commit suicide than women? There's no one firm scientific answer to that question. But ideas about manliness are one major probable cause, according to Amit Anand, MD, a professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic's Lerner College of Medicine and vice chair of research for its Center for Behavioral Health.
Men are supposed to be strong, self-sufficient and able to take care of themselves. "The macho image of men, most men have that, and as part of being a man, being depressed is thought of as a weakness," Anand said. "So you're being weak if you're asking for psychological help. Asking somebody for help is a difficult thing for men to do. They try to solve it themselves."
Studies often find that women suffer from more depression than men, but Anand is skeptical. Women, he says, are often more comfortable discussing their feelings and so are more likely to tell someone if they are in distress. " We say rates of depression are more in women than in men," he told me, "but that's mostly because men don't speak out."
Another reason male suicide rates are so high compared to women, Anand said, is because men are more likely to use guns to commit suicide. Why men are so much more prone to use guns is unclear, though Jesse Bering at Scientific American rounds up a number of plausible theories.
In part, he says, men's greater use of firearms could be because women, who are more likely to seek out help, are often prescribed antidepressants. So when they want to commit suicide, the easiest option is to overdose, which is less likely to lead to death. Women may also have closer connections with others and be more concerned about loved ones finding a mutilated corpse. Media may also be a factor; using guns is often portrayed as manly and cool, and that may influence boys and men even when they choose to kill themselves.
Whatever the impetus for men to choose guns as a means of death, though, the fact remains that the ease of access to guns in the U.S. makes suicide much more deadly than it would otherwise be. Given the death toll, you would think that suicide would be at the center of the gun control debate.
But of course, it is hardly ever mentioned. Even mental health interventions are framed in turns of preventing mass shootings, not in terms of combating depression and suicide.
British writer and journalist Ally Fogg, who often writes about men's issues, said that male suicide is ignored for the same reason as male occupational injuries. "Our military-industrial culture has always required a certain tolerance for male death--how else could we so easily justify sending men off to die in wars or down coalmines?" he asked. "In that sense the lack of discussion is a reflection of a lack of concern."
Suicide rates haven't always been so high, Fogg points out. "In recent decades suicide rates among women have declined sharply while men's have held still or increased slightly. That tells us that there is nothing inevitable or intractable about suicide rates, as society changes so, too, can suicide rates."
Men with depression know that they are supposed to be tough and strong, and so they are ashamed to seek help and prone to harm themselves in ways that are violent, dramatic and irreversible. Politicians, reporters and others know that men are supposed to be uncomplaining and invulnerable, and so they have trouble focusing on, or giving theoretical weight to, policy choices—such as weak gun control—that make men vulnerable. Just as feminists have long criticized gendered stereotypes that encourage male violence against women, advocates for men need to push back against a cult of masculinity that leads men to hurt themselves.
The biggest systemic human rights issue in the United States is mass imprisonment. And mass imprisonment overwhelmingly, disproportionately, targets men.
The U.S. imprisons about 2.2 million people—more than China, a non-democratic country with a population four times as large. The incarceration rate in the U.S. is about 500 prisoners per 100,000 residents, which is five times the rate for comparable countries.
Fully 90 percent of those prisoners are men. Male imprisonment rates are 14 times as high as those for women. That's in part because men are sentenced to longer prison terms for committing the same or similar crimes as women. A 2012 study found that men receive sentences that are 63 percent higher than women. Women are much more likely to avoid charges altogether if arrested and twice as likely to escape incarceration altogether if convicted.
For black men and men of color in particular, mass incarceration in the United States has been nothing short of disastrous. Black men are six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated. The 2010 census showed black people as being 40% of the incarcerated population, though they make up only 13% of the population as a whole.
Black men have long been stereotyped as dangerous criminals. After the Civil War, lynching was largely justified through paranoid myths about epidemics of black men raping white women, promoted most famously in D.W. Griffith's 1915 racist blockbuster The Birth of a Nation.
Rebecca Ginsburg, the director of the Education Justice Project at the University of Illinois-Champaign, said these stereotypes are still very much alive. "One of the things I hear over and over again, in off-the-cuff comments by jurors or by prosecutors, is that it doesn't matter whether this particular defendant is guilty or not, because the evidence wasn't conclusive, but it's important that he gets off the street," she said. "Even if he didn't do this act, he's going to do another act, and he deserves to be in prison anyway. I think one of the ways of understanding that statement, which is an extraordinary thing to say, is by virtue of this generalized fear of African-American men as criminals, as perpetrators of violence in one form or another, as vehicles of violence ready to happen.
"And I think that's the way that many black boys are seen by teachers and administrators in schools. I think when they grow up they're often viewed that way on the street. And the public safety argument goes that we need to manage African-American bodies before they hurt us. Before they do what we know they're going to do, which is perpetrate violence."
Black men are viewed as dangerous predators, which makes it difficult to see them as victims or as needing sympathy and help. "Most people who are incarcerated are victims of violence," Ginsburg said. Before being incarcerated they faced poverty, homelessness and other trauma. And prison itself is violent. "The act of taking someone from his home, from the people who love him, from the sky and the ground, and locking him up is a profoundly violent act," Ginsburg said.
Men in prison can't help their families. They can't be there in a crisis and can't fulfill their roles as fathers and husbands. Suicide rates, which, as discussed, are high for all men, are especially brutal in prison. Ginsburg said that at the Danville Correctional Center, where she does her outreach, there is approximately one suicide attempt a month. "I think that depression often kills people in prison," Ginsburg said. Prison officials are eager to prescribe medicine or drugs to keep prisoners pacified, but there's little in the way of therapy available.
The prison system is built on the fear of black men and on public belief that black men deserve no sympathy and cannot meaningfully suffer. But the huge prison system has effects far beyond black men alone. Mass incarceration may be ideologically justified through demonization of black men, but once you've built your prisons anyone can be thrown in them.
White men made up 39% percent of the prison population in 2008, as opposed to 35.4 percent black males. But the white rate of incarceration in the U.S., at 380 per 100,000, is still in the top 20 incarceration rates worldwide and is twice as high as rates in England and Wales. Women are the fastest growing prison population and have been so for decades. More than 200,000 women are in prison in the U.S.
The incarceration of men also has a huge impact on their families and communities. As researcher James Kilgore writes in his book Understanding Mass Incarceration, "incarceration of a loved one may mean a major upheaval in family life… Some families may even become homeless due to the loss of a loved one to the prison system." Kilgore adds that 2.7 million children in the United States have an incarcerated parent. The number of children in foster care has ballooned along with the growth of mass incarceration.
Mass incarceration is the iconic, central American example of a men's issue that is important to everyone, not just to men. The hatred and fear of African-American men has led the United States to create an enormous, bloated system of imprisonment and policing dedicated to authoritarian control, fear, repression and violence. Hatred of black men has made everyone less free.
One major MRA talking point is that divorce courts unfairly and disproportionately grant custody to women rather than men. "Men are subject to a family court system so corrupt and biased it represents the biggest rollback of civil right since Jim Crow," Paul Elam of A Voice for Men argued at a 2014 conference. Women are the upper class; men are a debased minority.
It's true that women receive custody of children more often than men do. Is this really because men are second-class citizens under the law? Former divorce court attorney Cathy Meyer points out that only 4 percent of custody cases even go to trial. Mothers usually gain custody because fathers are less involved in their children's lives and agree to a mother's having primary custody after divorce.
Elam himself abandoned his children and refused to pay child support, according to an exhaustive Buzzfeed profile. That doesn't invalidate his arguments in itself, but it does highlight the fact that it's not always the court system that separates men from their children.
Women certainly get custody more than men do, but that seems like it's a result of restrictive gendered roles and expectations, rather than of some sort of legal apartheid. With so few cases resolved by the court system, the vast majority of men would see little if any benefit from legal changes, even if the courts were in fact stacked against them, which it's far from clear that they are.
There's a similar dynamic at work in another major MRA issue: false rape accusations. Again, this is a controversy that dramatically pits the sexes against one another. Women accuse men of sexual violence; men accuse women of deliberately lying to damage men through the court system.
False accusations of rape loom large in myth, literature and film, from To Kill a Mockingbird to Gone Girl, which is perhaps why there are still some folks who think the dozens of women who say Bill Cosby raped them are lying. But in reality, false rape accusations are uncommon; a 2010 study found that only somewhere between 2 and 10% of accusations are false—which is to say, 2-8% of accusers who reported to police were determined to have made a deliberately false accusation.
This number has been heavily disputed, and it's very difficult to know exactly how many false accusations occur as a percentage of those reported. The problem is compounded by the fact that people who are sexually assaulted very often do not report the crime.
Many of those people failing to report rape are men. A 2014 National Crime Victimization Survey found that a full 38 percent of incidents of rape and sexual violence were committed against men. These statistics exclude sexual violence in prison, which is endemic—and involves abuse by guards (many of them female) much more than it involves abuse by fellow inmates. Altogether inmates reported 900,000 separate incidents of sexual abuse. Overall, one estimate suggests that 2.78 million men in the United States have been victims of sexual violence.
As far as I've been able to find, no one has ever estimated, or even attempted to estimate, the total number of people falsely accused of rape. But given that the FBI only lists around 84,000 total rape charges a year in total, there's every reason to believe that many more men and boys are victims of sexual assault than are falsely accused of rape.
If sexual violence against men is more prevalent than false accusations against men, why do false accusations get so much attention from men's rights activists, while fighting sexual violence is seen as a women's or feminist issue? The answer is clear enough. Sexual violence against men doesn't provide a battle of the sexes narrative. Instead, it suggests that the interests of men and women are similar, since both can be victims. False rape accusations, on the other hand, give MRA's a chance to demonize lying women trying to hurt men.
There are many more men who have experienced sexual violence than there are men falsely accused of rape. Yet men's rights groups talk incessantly about false accusations and only rarely about sexual violence against men.
Feminists have, on occasion, taken stances that have harmed or targeted men. During the late 19th and early 20th century, temperance advocate Frances Willard used fears of lynching by black men as a way to promote the vote for women. "Better whiskey and more of it' is the rallying cry of great, dark-faced mobs," she declared. "The safety of [white] women, of childhood, of the home, is menaced in a thousand localities." More recently, some feminists have been reluctant to acknowledge the fact that men can be victims of domestic violence.
Feminist analysis of gendered violence against women can also ignore or downplay male suffering. As Adam Jones told me, in humanitarian catastrophes, international organizations are aware of gendered dangers to women, such as rape, but often ignore those to men. Many genocides, such as those in Serbia, involve large scale murder of men and boys in particular; when humanitarian organizations agreed that men could not be evacuated, it contributed to their genocide. Similarly, in current refugee crises, Jones said, men are often seen as dangerous, and are denied aid. "If you leave male refugees out in the cold because you're rushing to help the "womenandchildren," who are much more politically advantageous and less vexatious, then you are marginalizing and further traumatizing probably the most vulnerable sector of the refugee population," Jones told me. "You are telling them that whatever they have suffered or are threatened with suffering, they are just dirt for you." A Canadian refugee policy admitting only Syrian women, children and families excludes single men—the very people who are often the most targeted for violence in Syria.
So feminism has certainly failed men in some instances. But it's simply not the case that feminism, or women, are the main cause of violence or discrimination against men. Men, after all, are the ones who traditionally have held political and economic power. And as a result, it is men, and male institutions, that have overwhelmingly directed violence at men.
It's men, not women, who for the most part create the policies that have forced other men to choose between starvation for their families and black lung, death, or injury in the coal mines. It's men, not women, who enforce expectations about manliness that lead to high male suicide rates. It was men like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton who put America on the path of mass incarceration, and men, for the most part, who staff the prisons themselves.
The battle of the sexes idea promoted by MRAs (and sometimes by feminists) doesn't describe reality. Our culture is not a system in which women oppress men, nor, really, a system in which men oppress women. Instead, it is a system in which gendered expectations are used to control, and harm, both men and women.
Oppression of women and oppression of men is not an either/or choice. It's both/and. One of the most powerful gender stereotypes is that men are strong, dangerous and impervious to harm. The default assumption of male power is the misogynist justification for male rule, against which feminists have been fighting for hundreds of years.
But the stereotype of male power can also make it hard for even feminists to acknowledge that men themselves can be vulnerable and discriminated against. Men, people think, are lucky to have the chance to work in coal mines. Men are in control; they have nothing to be depressed about. Men are violent and deserve to be policed. Why should we focus on the problems of men, people exclaim, when others are so much more weak and vulnerable?
Those are seductive arguments, because they confirm popular prejudices. But those prejudices need to be questioned. Because as long as we think that men are naturally powerful and invulnerable, men and women both will suffer.