8 January, 2007

Are Men Oppressed? Part 2 – Systematic Mistreatment

Posted in Feminist Criticism, Feminist Issues, Gender Issues, Male Disposability, War at 3:36 am by HughRistik

In Part 1 of this series, I observed the tendency of feminists to throw around the term “oppression” without defining it, or explaining why only women are “oppressed,” but never men. Yet I have encountered a few feminists who do believe that men can suffer gender oppression. In this post, I will discuss a differing feminist view.

One of the best discussions of the concept of oppression I have seen is by feminist sociologist of gender Caroline New, who argues that “both women and men are oppressed, but not symmetrically.” New agrees with me that the view that men can be oppressed is rare: “sociologists of gender hardly ever discuss the possibility that men are oppressed on the same dimension as women, i.e. in respect of gender relations.”

What makes New’s essay so different from other feminist discussion of oppression, even ones that admit the existence of male suffering is that:

(a) New constructs a clear and concise definition of “oppression” and applies it evenly, instead of employing the kinds of double standards I discussed in Part 1.
(b) New acknowledges psychological suffering of men, but doesn’t reduce male suffering to just subjective experience; she recognizes material disadvantages men face, and the cultural attitude of male disposability.
(c) New recognizes the systematic and institutional character of the mistreatment of men, and recognizes that this mistreatment should be called “oppression.”

Conceptualization of “oppression”

How does New conceptualize “oppression?”

A group X is oppressed if, in certain respects, its members are systematically mistreated in comparison to non-Xs in a given social context, and if this mistreatment is justified or excused in terms of some alleged or real characteristic of the group.

I like this formulation a lot. It’s clear, it’s concise, and it’s fair. What happens when we apply this criterion to the situations of men and women in society? New concludes that we will find both men and women to be oppressed. New writes:

I shall argue that both women and men are oppressed, but not symmetrically. While men are positioned to act as systematic agents of the oppression of women, women are not in such a relation to men. Yet unsurprisingly, given the inescapably relational character of gender, the two oppressions are complementary in their functioning—the practices of each contribute to the reproduction of the other. In particular, the very practices which construct men’s capacity to oppress women and interest in doing so, work by systematically harming men.

I agree with New that men and women are not oppressed “symmetrically.” I also like the inclusiveness of this framing: it encompasses the views of feminists who believe that both women and men are oppressed (but that women are just more oppressed), and also the views of critics of feminism who believe that the oppression of men and women is incomparable because those oppression are qualitatively different. As a feminist, New’s view is unsurprisingly the former: she believes that women “benefit less” than men from the current system, and that men are “in general tremendously advantaged.” Yet one can disagree with her version of the odious comparison, and still accept the rest of her excellent analysis.

Another important point the she makes is that the oppressions of men and women are “complementary” and mutually reinforcing. This is a subject I will return to in future posts.

No double standards

What is special about New’s analysis is that she evenly applies her criterion for oppression to both women and men, without a double standard (emphases mine):

While feminists have stressed the material dimensions of women’s oppression, they have also seen ‘femininities’ as misrepresentations constricting women’s development and limiting their options, and therefore as oppressive. By the same token, masculinities may be oppressive.

It is hurtful to reduce women to their reproductive organs, or to interact with them while ignoring their subjectivity–girls’ development, women’s capacity to flourish, are arguably damaged by such practices (Miller 1978). Similarly, to treat males as ‘hands’ or ‘guns’ (or even ‘officers’), as disposable bodies, or as naturally violent, is a form of mistreatment likely to damage their development and relationships.

Not all in men’s heads

New avoids the error that many feminists make of reducing male disadvantages in society to psychological suffering. As I discussed in Part 1, both bell hooks and Marilyn Frye focus on men being dehumanized or damaged as a product of being made into oppressors, as if this was the only harm that came to men. Daran discusses another example of the same mentality in this post.

In contrast, New argues that:

The oppression of men is not only disciplinary or psychological. It also involves material effects of men’s positioning which we only fail to see as oppressive because of the lack of an obvious agent or beneficiary.

We may argue about the constriction of the self, but death and injury clearly constitute harm. Their imposition is therefore mistreatment, although seen as a normal risk for men in war (and even in civil life deaths of women and children in accidents are considered more shocking than those of men).

She acknowledges that men suffer death and injury that the current gender order is implicated in, rather than denying, dismissing, minimizing, or ignoring it. She also insists that the mistreatment of men should be seen “as genuinely oppressive to men rather than as the minor costs of privilege.”

Not just individual harm or suffering

New recognizes how the mistreatment of men is systematic and institutionalized in Western societies. In the quote above, she notes the cultural attitude that males are more disposable than females. Of masculinities, she says:

when institutionalised such misrepresentations constitute a form of oppression. Further, masculinities are used to justify material practices which injure men, and to deny or pathologise the resulting injuries (such as ‘shellshock’).

New lists war, objectification in the sphere of work, military draft and conscription, objectification and double standards for punishment in the criminal justice system, and mental health as areas where men experience systematic mistreatment (she acknowledges that these examples are hardly complete, and that some don’t apply exclusively to men).

Calling a spade a spade

Despite viewing men as more advantaged than women in the current gender system, New articulates a clear and fair definition of “oppression.” She also acknowledges certain empirical data, like men experiencing death and injury en masse, and biases towards viewing men as more disposable than women, that other feminist analyses tend to obscure or deny. Interestingly, when New’s definition is combined with recognizing the full range of the systematic mistreatment of men, she concludes that men are oppressed. I think this is no coincidence, and that other feminists fail to come to this conclusion because they conceptualize “oppression” in self-serving manner, or they take a self-serving view of what counts as oppression. I find New’s notion of oppression to be coherent, and if you see me using the term, I am using it the way she conceptualizes it.

In Part 3 of this series, I will begin to discuss some of the many counter-arguments to the idea of the oppression of men.

P.S. Caroline New’s essay is called Oppressed and Oppressors? The Systematic Mistreatment of Men, from 2001 in Sociology Vol.35, No.3, pp.729–748. I highly recommend reading the whole thing.



  1. Daran said,

    Another superb essay, Hugh.

    I think the definition of privilege Ampersand gave in his Male Privilege Checklist is sound: “invisible systems conferring dominance on [a] group”. His list, however, fails to show any such systems, perhaps because there aren’t any for women in the West. All he has done is identified a few random “acts of meanness”. On the other hand the five interlocking systems I describe here do meet his definition. They’re invisible, and they confer dominance on women in the sense the women can demand services and men can’t. Services for sexual abuse survivors is just one example.

  2. NYMOM said,

    “New recognizes how the mistreatment of men is systematic and institutionalized in Western societies.”

    This is clearly a symptom of the anti-western civilization tone all discussions about oppression eventually fall into and it’s one reason why none will ever be taken seriously. Western civilization is obviouly not the worse place in the world for a person to live in but probably the best, so any discusssions about opprssion that assume we, the west, oppress individuals more then other symtems clearly has another political agenda.

    By inserting this one line, you just invalidated all the rest of the essay. Meaning I can’t take anything seriously that you just wrote.

  3. HughRistik said,

    Then don’t. Yet I actually do take your comment seriously, because knee-jerk anti-Western bias bothers me also. I think the point of discussing Western societies is because we live in Western societies and understand their workings best. At the same time, maybe it should be made more clear that these types of oppression aren’t limited to Western societies and can be much worse outside them.

  4. NYMOM said,

    ‘maybe it should be made more clear that these types of oppression aren’t limited to Western societies and can be much worse outside them.’

    Then that should have been made clear, otherwise your point about oppression of men is entirely lost in standard anti-western society bashing: like we’re the worse to everybody in everything…There are some things uniquely oppresssive within our civilizarion incluidng this very phony overreliance on small points of law to justify what would be considered outrageous breeches of behavior to people in other societies but this implication that we are far worse in oppressing poeple then every other places is just iridiculous…It’s exactly the trap feminism has fallen into…exaggeration and makes every claim from them going forward subject to suspicion.

  5. NYMOM said,

    “invisible systems conferring dominance on [a] group”.

    Some people would say those invisible systems sound almost like what people used to call instinctual behavior.

  6. Jenny said,

    Although I enjoyed this piece very much, I was a little taken-aback that it should be necessary (not to say that it isn’t necessary, just that its necessity surprised me!), since I’ve been mixing in feminist circles for a few years now and have never once come across a feminist who did not believe that oppression, especially patriarchal oppression, applied to men also.

    I think the problem lies in the unfortunately unavoidable way we use man and woman as two isolated closed and binarically all-inclusive groups, when actually what we all mean almost all of the time in any given situation is SOME women and SOME men…

    Of course some (!) men suffer oppression, just as a notable amount of the oppression some (!) women suffer is at the hands of some (!) other women! I don’t think it unimportant that much of the oppressions listed in your piece that affect some men (such as military conscription and, although I take issue with this as something affecting more men than women, but for the sake of the argument, war) are oppressions largely delivered by other men. That’s not to say that women don’t oppress men, just that I think who is doing the oppressing is something which surely must be considered whenever an example of oppression is being discussed.

    Even though I’ve never been in a debate where men have been personally attacked for oppressing women, except perhaps in discussions about rape, (since the term most used is patriarchy, and patriarchy can, depending on the debate, be making reference to both male and female combined systems of power. In other words patriarchy doesn’t automatically = men!), I think the assumption that this generalisation is being made (an assumption that is made by both men and women!) occurs because of who we know to possess the most power.

    The nature of oppression being that it’s something coming from above: there are predominantly men in the positions of power – the ones with the most power to oppress – and so men perhaps feel that they are being equated with these power positions, when most feminists know that most men are also subject to these other men in power.

    Feminists also know that the bar set by these men in power is often what oppresses men below the bar who are not able to attain the same level of power. Some men feel this puts their masculinity into question, since it’s usually (in the case of women too) the few in positions of power and privilige who set the ‘norm’ for such terms as ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. And the same oppressive ideals ‘from above’ can be set for women by women in the same way.

    I’m going to have to go and search out these feminists who only think women are oppressed by men… Perhaps you can point me in the right direction…?

  7. Tom Nolan said,


    You said

    since I’ve been mixing in feminist circles for a few years now and have never once come across a feminist who did not believe that oppression, especially patriarchal oppression, applied to men also

    which points up something that I have noticed myself: that internet feminism and “real life” feminism are sharply distinct. Electronic communication attracts ideological advocates (and not just of feminism, either) who cannot bear to have their presuppositions tested by real people with real histories. They are much happier berating a name or pseudonym on the screen, a name or pseudonym onto which they can project the motives and character they would like their opponents to have. My suspicion is that some of the most vociferous ideologues on the net are rather quiet and unassuming people away from the keyboard; it really is no surprise that you have managed to be unaware of their existence. As to the “right directiion”, you could start by perusing “Women’s Space” (Daran has it linked), in which you will learn just how laughable the notion of “male oppression” seems to certian feminists.

    You also said

    In other words patriarchy doesn’t automatically = men

    Well, the name clearly implies that, doesn’t it? – the dominance of men old enough to be considered “fathers” of their community, is (etymologically) what it refers to. We know, of course, that women can successfully participate in what feminists call “patriarchy”: just think of all the women prime ministers, presidents etc. who played important roles in twentieth century politics (some of them very right-wing, by the way). But here’s where the term can be useful to feminist debaters: when women participate in the “patriarchy” – with its implication of maleness – the only explanation must be that they have been “co-opted”, inveigled and compromised into a position of dominance alien to their nature. If you do read Heart at The Margins (g’wan, you know you want to) you will see that she never blames women for blameworthy behaviour, whether they be journalists, politicians, jurists or whatever: such women have, according to her, been deluded by the patriarchy into thinking that they can further their own interests within it; they are dupes, not villainesses. Men, on the other hand, no matter how apparently blameless, no matter how apparently victimized, must, somehow, be beneficiaries of the patriarchy and cannot sincerely oppose it. Heart treats Anne Coulter with a mixture of disappointment and compassion. She treats male feminists like Ampersand as though they were Hannibal Lecters and Larry Flints in transparent disguise.

    I think this bit of your comment is quite wrong

    The nature of oppression being that it’s something coming from above: there are predominantly men in the positions of power – the ones with the most power to oppress – and so men perhaps feel that they are being equated with these power positions, when most feminists know that most men are also subject to these other men in power

    Just think of how little of what you are, of what you are obliged to be, has to do with the obviously powerful, and how much it has to do with the expectations of your friends, your familiy members, your real and potential sexual partners. They require, all of them (unless you are very lucky indeed) that you behave in a certain way which they consider consonant with your gender, and it is they, not the Prime Minister or the editor of the Daily Mail, who will bring pressure to bear on you if you ignore or transgress the gender guidelines.

  8. Jenny said,

    Hi Tom,

    Thank you for replying so thoroughly. You’ve given me a lot to think about. I’m naughtily over-running my lunch-break to answer this, so I apologise if I’m not quite as thorough.

    When I said that I’ve been mixing in feminist circles for the last 3 years, I meant both on and off-line. And have so far found that, though views on all number of things differ wildly, I have not so far encountered such (reactionary?) radicalism. HOWEVER, I didn’t give due credit to the fact that, when on-line, we mostly find what we’re looking for. In other words, as I haven’t been looking for male-blaming feminist manifesto, this might explain why I haven’t found any! So I will have a look at the link you suggested.

    I did rather expect that you might query (justifiably) my reference to patriarchy as being an often male-female combined system of oppression. Firstly, according to my copy of the oxford english dictionary, Patriarchy is ‘a society in which men hold most or all of the power’. So, even the “official” definition does allow for the possibility that this system is not entirely male dominated.

    Secondly, I wanted to suggest that it’s often society’s obsession with holding tightly to rigid (and often misinformed) definitions of terms that causes misunderstandings in the first place: such as all men oppress all women, for example. Like the word ‘feminist’, which will almost always automatically be made in reference to (some) women, when men can also be feminists (I fiercely disagree with the blog that lead me to this one – sorry for the vagueness – I can’t remember exactly who it was… – who suggested that “feminists” only concede that men might be ‘pro-feminist’, and not actually feminist, because of their sex). Of course men can be feminists!

    The point is, as agency and speaking positions expand and diversify, so the terms we use in which to communicate and debate must expand and diversify with them. I don’t know how to do those indented quotations thingys (sorry!), but when you write:

    “when women participate in the “patriarchy” – with its implication of maleness – the only explanation must be that they have been “co-opted”, inveigled and compromised into a position of dominance alien to their nature”

    …this is to suggest that women have a universal ‘nature’ which patriarchy innately goes against. There are too many kinds of women to universalise, just as there are too many kinds of men. And I do know the ‘duped’ theory of women succeeding in patriarchal systems, but it is no way true for ALL women in positions of power, though it is possibly true for some.

    Your final point is very complex – too complex to be debated in a comments section – because no-one is really able to succinctly dissect from where any individual is most influenced. All I can do here is comment on a personal level – and yes, perhaps I have been unusually lucky (although I know I’m not alone in my perspectives) – but I have certainly felt much more oppressed by institutions (national, educational, media, corporate, and commercial, among many many others) than I have by the people closest to me.

    In fact, I only developed attitudes associated with feminism quite late compared with my contemporaries because the progressive nature of my family-upbringing, social circles and sexual partners never gave me any cause to believe that gender equality did not go across the board. It was on having to enter the wider world, no longer ‘protected’, that I began to see the unequal restrictions and privileges placed on the different genders. Don’t underestimate the powers and systems that structure our society: they also infiltrate the behaviour, and determine the lives, of the family members and friends who you say have the most influence. Of course I’m not saying that friends and family don’t have expectations that affect you, or don’t influence you, but to suggest that ‘higher’ systems somehow float around doing the things they do with no consequence on the shaping and influencing of individuals doesn’t make sense.

    Oh, and in my own little bit of oppressive ‘local’ influencing of family members, I’m forever trying to find ways of preventing my mum getting hold of copies of the Daily Mail and then spouting utter tripe for a week! Don’t underestimate the subliminal mind-control powers of the Almighty Daily Mail!!

  9. […] is a repost of an article originally posted at DaRain Man. Comments older than Wednesdau 10 January 2007 were originally posted there. See this post for […]

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