“Indigenous Australians are very much over-represented in Australian prison populations”: so goes the depressingly familiar refrain on the Australian Institute of Criminology website. Staggeringly, 40% of those imprisoned for violent crimes in this country belong to a group comprising just 3% of the total population. To some, this is evidence of institutionalised discrimination, a claim that may have some grounding in fact. Even the most ardent conspiracy theorist, however, would have to concede that the primary factor here is a much crueller phenomenon: socio-economic disadvantage.
To anyone who knows a thing about sociology, this will hardly come as a surprise. The correlation between crime rates and poverty is well established, and ethnic minorities tend to present its most visible demonstration. It is entirely justifiable that crime figures are so often cited as evidence of disadvantage, for there are few more potent symbols of dysfunction.
Given that, what can we make of the fact that more than 9 out of 10 Australian prisoners are male? This is a disorienting comparison, for claims regarding specific male disadvantage are rare in progressive circles—they are usually the domain of conservative ideologues and paranoid ‘Men’s Rights Advocates’. How do we reconcile this seeming inconsistency? Is it possible that the near-fundamental feminist concept of male privilege has caused us to overlook something important?
In order to answer these questions, we need an understanding of what the terms ‘privilege’ and ‘disadvantage’ refer to. The first of these is relatively easy to explain: it is a state in which one social group is (usually unfairly) advantaged over another. Hence, when the slave trade was still active in the United States, being born into a white family as opposed to a black family was a significant privilege: it entitled the child to a life of freedom, human dignity and ability to pursue wealth and comfort, all rights denied African-Americans of the day. In modern Australia, a simpler example might be the fact that heterosexuals are permitted to marry their lovers while homosexuals are not. It is a privilege denied them; an example of institutionalised disadvantage.
If there’s a serious weakness with the contemporary discourse surrounding these terms, it’s the presumption that they are somehow monolithic. It’s certainly, in many cases, an understandable conclusion: in what way are Indigenous Australians privileged over their Anglo-European counterparts? Certainly, nothing obvious comes to mind (however much reactionaries might complain about Indigenous welfare and educational assistance, these are clearly equalising measures aimed at reducing the substantial gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal standard of living; to label them ‘privileges’ would be cruel and absurdly narrow-minded).
Privilege does not, however, always necessarily function this way. It is possible for one group to generally dominate over another without necessarily dominating in all facets; furthermore, such complexity can consist of far more than a few minor concessions going the way of the oppressed.
Perhaps it would help at this point to return to defining what I mean by ‘privilege’ and ‘disadvantage’. In the Marxist tradition, the key metric seems to be wealth. This certainly gives us part of the story, but not all of it: those living in absolute poverty aside, does anybody but the most brazen capitalist believe that earning power is the chief measurement of quality of life? Is money really the end to which all else is merely a means?
Clearly, something fundamental is being overlooked here. Wealth is certainly an important measurement, but it is really little more than a medium for something else. There may be philosophical disagreement on what that greater goal is, but simple ‘utilitarian happiness’ is a near-enough approximation.
How is this so? Let us consider the case of Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest individual. In terms of wealth, she clearly suffers little in the way of disadvantage. Yet, both publicly and privately, she has been the victim of a constant onslaught of bigoted and dehumanising rhetoric regarding her size and appearance. Is that not a significant form of oppression? As any Western victim of racism or homophobia will tell you, it is not economic disadvantage that hurts so much as the denial of human dignity. What is most centrally being undermined here is, as the American constitution puts it, “the pursuit of happiness”. When we speak of group privilege and disadvantage, this is worth keeping in mind: disadvantage is institutionally-derived unhappiness.
So, is it possible to be both institutionally privileged and disadvantaged? One particular third-wave feminist discourse that seeks to resolve this problem is the theory of ‘intersectionality’. This is a concept that attempts to improve on the radical second-wave ‘all men oppressing all women’ notion of patriarchy by adding the complicating variables of ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity and so on. The problem with intersectionality is that it still insists upon categorical privilege: thus, straight white cis-men are privileged over straight white cis-women, but straight white cis-women are privileged over straight black cis-women, and gay black cis-men and straight white transwomen encounter differing forms of privilege and disadvantage relative to each other, etc. Privilege is reduced to a sort of card game, without any regard for the fact that the categories themselves might be complicated.
Where instersectionality argues that one can be disadvantaged despite belonging to a ‘privileged’ group, what seems clear is that one can experience forms of disadvantage because of belonging to such a group. One may be rich and famous, and consequently lose all right to privacy. One may live in a modern industrialised country, and therefore grow up with a much poorer sense of community, identity and kinship than that experienced by hunter-gatherer societies. One may be male, and therefore have a much greater chance of spending time behind bars.
Gender relations provide what may be the clearest example of this phenomenon, and there’s a reason for this. Something most traditionally oppressed groups—First Australians, the LGBTI community and the disabled—have in common is sheer lack of numbers. A significant part of their disadvantage is derived from their minority status. Their interests are often neglected because the majority choose to—and can afford to—overlook them.
The same can’t be said for women. Not only do women make up roughly half of the population, they actually outnumber men. Some point out that women still comprise a minority group of sorts due to their relative lack of representation in positions of power, but this is somewhat of a misrepresentation of what a minority group is. An equal voice at the ballot box is no small entitlement: it ensures that women’s issues cannot easily be dismissed. This alone indicates that gender inequality is not a typical oppression dynamic.
Women do, however, still encounter significant disadvantages. The average wage gap between the genders suggests that subtle (and not-so-subtle) forms of gender discrimination persist in the workplace. Popular media, cosmetics and the fashion industry relentlessly reinforce subordinate gender roles and attack female body image. Certain crimes such as sexual assault and domestic violence are experienced much more frequently by women than by men. Lesser exposure to these incursions is, indeed, a male privilege.
Are there also specifically male disadvantages (and, therefore, female privileges)? Imprisonment figures certainly suggest this might be the case, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. It is well-known that men on average are more likely to commit suicide; have much greater difficulty coping with depression; and tend to have poorer access to emotional support networks in difficult times. Some inequalities may be more obviously structural, such as the fact that men are still often expected to financially support female partners; that they are far more likely to be expected to take on dangerous and physically demanding work; or, that, in case of divorce, they are less likely to be granted custody of their children. Cultural prejudice, too, may be experienced: men are viewed in some contexts as inherently sexually predatory, while gendered media representation can tend to demean everyone. However one quantifies such challenges, it is clear that all is not well with Western males. While it is probable that male disadvantages are still outweighed by those faced by women, these struggles are far from trivial. They are not zero-sum games.
Feminists generally acknowledge at least some male disadvantages, but tend to claim that they are all part of the same problem. To some extent, this is correct: some male problems (e.g. misogyny itself) can be directly attributed to historical oppression of women, whereas many more are by-products of the same social norms that feminists fight against (e.g. gender roles). Therefore, those who claim that “the answer is feminism” are partially right.
They are also partially wrong. While all men who are serious about social progress would do well to embrace feminism, it should be remembered that it is—by its very definition—a women’s movement. We should never be afraid to assist other people’s fights, but to some extent one has to take care of one’s own backyard. As feminists are wont to point out, privilege can have a blinding effect—a consequence, perhaps, of the ubiquitous phenomenon of human self-interest. A female-dominated movement primarily concerned with women’s rights cannot realistically be expected to be the last word on issues of male disadvantage.
So, what’s the alternative? Contemporary men’s movements exist, but these are generally little more than fringe reactionary groups. Their misogyny, virulent opposition to feminism and general paranoia do their cause far more harm than good. To be fair, some strands of feminism are equally unhelpful. If there is one thing such groups share in common, it is the erroneous presumption that men’s and women’s movements are somehow incompatible. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sincere, non-partisan commitment to gender equality can only help everybody.
A feminist-friendly men’s rights movement need not be a contradiction in terms. As with any argument, the test should always be this: will it make society a better place? When it comes to combating disadvantage—male or female—the answer would, without exception, seem to be ‘yes’.