A piece I recently wrote touching on some problematic responses to female oppression and feminism on the political Left, the recent discussions about an alleged ‘crisis of masculinity’ and the importance of a solid materialist analysis of female oppression.
Previously published at The Left Side of Feminism, The North Star, Information Clearing House and ZNet.
What do women hit by the latest austerity and misogynist attacks need? Not another reminder by men that feminists are white with middle-class politics, as John Pilger’s recent piece seemed to imply. Nor do women need being set up as aloof, proletariat-dividing essentialists who think men are inherently violent.
We don’t need a chip-on-the-shoulderish, misplaced complaint that ‘there is a war on ordinary people and feminists are needed at the front’, as Pilger’s response went to the recent media commentary – ranging from misogynist violence, to greater male suicidality and criminality, to derision of TV dads – about a ‘crisis of masculinity‘. Any generals worth their salt see the entire terrain of war and don’t dismiss half of it as either privileged or nonexistent. Nor do they reduce specific attacks – waged on half ‘their own side’ and participated in by others ‘on their side’ – to the general conditions experienced by all soldiers.
Women worldwide lack sexual and reproductive autonomy and perform most unpaid care tasks, despite neoliberal rhetoric about ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’.
The current social and political attacks we face are not simply the attacks borne by male workers, but attacks that exacerbate this female-specific pattern of oppression – centered on the family unit – so vital to capitalism.
This is not helped by a leftist man stepping in to write off global rape culture as ‘a rash of dreadful murder and kidnap cases’, even with the dismissive addendum that ‘simultaneous war and “austerity” policies have exacerbated all kinds of abuse, including domestic violence’ and the racial impoverishment of women. It is not good enough to mention that women have it bad, while failing to say why these attacks target and impact women the most, as if women were simply unlucky.
As Indian marxist feminist Kavita Krishnan recently wrote:
Sexual violence cannot be attributed simply to some men behaving in ‘anti-social’ or ‘inhuman’ ways: it has everything to do with the way society is structured: i.e., the way in which our society organizes production and accordingly structures social relationships.
While Pilger protests at class analysis being suppressed in ‘media-run “conversations” on gender’, the reality is that his economic reductionism feeds into men’s blinkers about their privilege. Privilege that tends to make them more supportive of female oppression, and more inclined to ignore its inter-relations with class.
Capitalism inherited and expanded the system of male dominance that’s achieved at female expense, in which females are considered at least partly men’s property. If you think this is inaccurate, consider the endurance of rape jokes and of sexual harassment – and who has the power in these scenarios. Consider the infrequency of rapists ever being punished, even by their social circles. (Typically, the man accused of rape is considered the victim who has had his life ruined, and the real victim receives social punishment in addition to trauma.) More than four out of five victims of sexual assault are women and girls, and 93% of their attackers are male, mostly known to the victims. 98% of sexual trafficking victims are female. The social pressure on women to birth and rear is added to by direct reproductive coercion by male partners and the state. The World Health Organization reported in 2002 that up to 70% of ‘female murder victims were killed by their husbands or boyfriends‘, whereas studies show killings by female current or former spouses to be less than 10% of all male murders. In Australia, a 2008 report explained, ‘intimate partner violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and illness in Victorian women aged 15 to 44 …. Four out of five [intimate partner homicides] involve a man killing his female partner’.
This massive tally doesn’t need to implicate all men in order for it to play an important role in giving males power and privilege over us, especially via hetero relations, making them more satisfied with the status quo.
While Pilger sneeringly disparages any mention of the very different efforts that men and women put into opposing female oppression as being about who sounds most outraged on Twitter, one wishes he would pay attention to what most feminists are saying and doing before offering us advice.
As Krishnan further explained, the recent attacks on women are reducible to neither gender-neutral austerity measures nor happenstance:
… we are witnessing a global cutback in  social spending. Any State that pursues such policies, needs to persuade women to accept the burden of housework as ‘women’s work’, and to dissuade women from rejecting traditional roles. It is notable that some of the worst rape culture remarks by US Republican Senators (who could compete with India’s patriarchal lawmakers in misogyny) have been made recently to promote arguments against the right to abortion.
The enormous resistance to,and organized reaction against conceding the right to abortion or same-sex marriage in the US is an instance of how much the capitalist class still invests in the family institution and the control of women’s sexuality and reproduction within it ….
… primitive accumulation by multi-national corporations that grab land, minerals and other resources in India, is not only, as Prabhat Patnaik correctly notes, a source of corruption, it also unleashes state repression and sexual violence against women who are the forefronts of movements against corporate land grab.
The global upswing in gender violence (including sexual violence and domestic violence) and misogynistic rape culture, ought then to be traced at least in part to the imperatives of global capitalism and imperialism and their local agents, to justify an increased burden of social reproduction for women, the availability of women from the former colonies as pliant labour, and rape as a weapon against people’s movements resisting primitive accumulation.
The fear of violence contributes to disciplining women into suitable labourers, both for global production as well as reproduction. That is why the abusive husband and the rapist cannot be understood as isolated perpetrators who are ‘anti-social’ aberrations that pose a threat to the system. It is no coincidence that perpetrators of gender violence find powerful advocates (not just in India but across the world) in the misogynistic and rape culture statements by the custodians of the political, religious, and law-and-order institutions.
It is also no mark of support for women that Pilger’s article wrongly blames three individual women for attributing sexual violence to all men. The contexts of the quotations chosen by Pilger make his claims seem inexcusable. Suzanne Moore specified that she doesn’t think all men are rapists, and Cynthia Cockburn and Ann Oakley’s May 12 Guardian Letters formulation of ‘male sexual violence’ was immediately followed by their comment ‘gendered behaviour is culturally shaped. It could be addressed by many social measures, if only policy-makers willed it’.
So although Pilger presumably doesn’t think ‘trade union bureaucracy’(another phrase from his article) means all unionists are bureaucrats, he nonetheless thinks ‘male sexual violence’ is intended to describe all males, even where feminists explicitly say otherwise.
Importantly, Pilger is not displaying eccentricity here, but is echoing a growing habit amongst left sexists for deploying different criteria for political assessments of feminism than other radical struggles. Feminist women constantly find ourselves held to a different standard – by men who appear not to understand female oppression – than other activists. This includes ‘mishearing’ our analyses, as Jennie Ruby describes in her Off Our Backs article ‘Male Pattern Violence’:
There seems to be a kind of statistical dyslexia that people get when feminists start talking about male violence. The statement ‘Most violent crimes are committed by men’ is often misheard as ‘most men are violent,’ or even with a kind of gender dyslexia, as ‘women are never violent.’
It is also too common for anti-feminists (in or out of the closet) to characterize all feminism – but not other anti-oppression struggles – by its sections which are most beholden to the interests of the capitalist class. And to invisibilize feminist critics of capitalist-serving female politicians, as Pilger does. (Many of us have not just criticized but also organized against such ‘leaders’, who do indeed falsely portray capitalist interests as beneficial to women.) His apparent pitting of workers’ rights against feminism is in ignorance of the best radical class struggle traditions of opposing such false divisions. And his selective highlighting of a small segment of feminism echoes the longstanding invisibilization of the majority of feminists – who are working class and women of color.
While Pilger’s hurt at feminists daring to discuss male-pattern sexual violence somehow reminds him – because it helps denigrate all feminists, I assume – ‘of the elevation of Australian prime minister Julia Gillard to feminist hero following a speech she gave last October attacking Tony Abbott, the opposition leader, for his misogyny’, his criticism of the politics of prominent female Labour MPs is not off-base. They, like their party’s men, are acting for the capitalist class, and women’s liberation requires that we combat illusions in them.
However, persuading women to discard misplaced hopes in pro-capitalist politicians is not a task best undertaken by a rape myth promoter, a role for which Pilger has received increasing feminist criticism. The sexism of left men in fact has a history of exacerbating a tragic antagonism between gender and class analyses, and I have not seen Pilger’s latest article alter this.
how can left men solidarize with women?
You want to help women? Signal-boost grassroots struggle and anti-capitalist leadership by us. Serious attempts to boost struggles of the most oppressed women don’t ignore some of the most inspiring recent struggles led by women – the Indian movement against rape culture and the Canadian Indigenous-led Idle No More. Actively support feminist campaigns. Don’t act as though we’re waiting for a man to direct us. Ignoring genuine leadership in order to pose as the general is unfitting for a leftist man.
Don’t employ sexist myths about us. The main myth used to undermine feminism is that women who consciously struggle for the rights of girls and women as a sex (sometimes known as ‘feminists’) are motivated either by the view that male-pattern violence is biologically determined, or by a simple antipathy to men which preceded our own experiences and analysis.
This seems to be a habit of Pilger’s. In addition to his repetition of rape myths, he has not only just begun portraying feminists as simply opposed to men. Cynthia Cockburn and Ann Oakley have now been unfortunate enough to be twice misrepresented by Pilger. In December 2011, Pilger claimed that a Guardian article by them on the costs of masculinity (a little too pro-capitalist for me, but deserving of being discussed accurately) argued that ‘testosterone was the problem’. Compare this charge with what they wrote:
As the British Medical Journal recently pointed out, this life-damaging gender difference must be challenged by addressing the culture of masculinity that sustains them. How men and women behave is socially shaped. Popular understandings of masculine characteristics play up biology. Testosterone, the male hormone, the “metaphor of manhood”, is portrayed as driving men inexorably towards aggressive behaviour. Yet studies show that testosterone is related to status-seeking but not directly to aggression. Many other factors are influential. Testosterone levels are increased or diminished in both males and females by diet, activity and circumstance. The opportunity to interact with guns, for instance, appears to increase testosterone, while men’s testosterone levels fall when they are involved with the care of children.
The case we are making is that certain widespread masculine traits and behaviours are dangerous and costly both to individuals and society. They are amenable to purposeful change. The culture of masculinity can be, and should be, addressed as a policy issue.
This does not read as a genuine misinterpretation. In addition to its sexism, it is terrible journalism.
Another tactic used by some left sexists is colloquially known amongst feminists as ‘whataboutery’. Deriding activism and even discussion about issues particularly affecting females, whatabouterists chest-beat about the matters that feminists should instead concern ourselves with. (Pilger, for instance, trivializes the long silence about the sexual abuse of children – often girls – by UK men in powerful positions, including in popular entertainment, by implying that any feminist commentary on this and recent rape and murder cases is indicative of a failure to care about class or imperialism.)
This ‘whataboutery’ usually displays an embarrassing ignorance about which issues are already feminist concerns, and fails as an argument against feminist involvement in the issues targeted by the ‘whataboutery’. The impossibility of achieving female liberation under capitalism does not alter the urgency of addressing sex-specific female needs, like reproductive justice. Organizing around female oppression frequently makes for more effective anti-capitalist struggle, and lack of said organizing maintains the shackles and hierarchical divisions that support capitalism. As the Cuban experience shows, feminist organizing remains necessary post-capitalism. Feminist history includes both support for capitalist misleaders and support for workers’ revolution. Targeting only those oppressive dynamics which affect both men and women is not only undermining to the working class, it is trivializing the oppression experienced by over half of this class.
These common problems on the left partly explain Pilger’s dismissal of male-pattern sexual violence and his portrayal of austerity policies as the problem. (‘Austerity’ is a policy of big capital to adjust to the post-60s decline in the average rate of profit, and to make the working class pay for the latest capitalist-created crises.) Even where Pilger has to acknowledge that war and austerity policies have made ‘domestic violence’ worse, he fails to explain why this problem is worst for women. If he listened to the women who began the women’s crisis services now being increasingly defunded, and to women experiencing the sharper end of the imperialist sword, he would know that it is not about gender-neutral ‘domestic violence’ which is exacerbated by very current conditions, but male-pattern violent reinforcement of the sex hierarchy. A pattern in which working women may be especially impacted, as Krishnan comments:
For the men, insecure education and jobs do lead to cracks in the secure foundations of masculinity. One response to this crisis of masculinity is of course in the display of masculine protectionism, aggression, the ‘Save Family’ type of patriarchal backlash, and outright sexual violence.
But also a pattern which, she reminds us, exists across economic classes.
Given the longstanding problems on the left of (mostly) male workers failing to see female oppression as important, suggesting that feminists are not ‘ordinary people’ is regrettable. As is any suggestion that feminists need to be told that many common capitalist conditions affect women more – whether that be minimum-wage work (with nearly two-thirds of US workers on this being women) or scantily paid parental and sick leave.
Crude assumptions that colluding in oppression requires consciousness of this also helps explain a difficulty in recognizing sexism even on the left, where analysis can stop too soon after blaming the capitalists. Australian political writer Tad Tietze recently wrote that:
there is no clear indication that huge numbers of voters think that sexism in society is acceptable. Essential Research, for example, found earlier this month that 52 percent of voters polled thought that sexism was a large or moderate problem, up from 45 percent last September (before Gillard’s misogyny speech); only 11 percent said it was ‘not a problem at all’.
That a slight majority of voters are troubled by the sexism they are aware of does not mean that there is not yet more sexism of which they are unaware, and do not oppose. Additional poll questions to distinguish concern for women from the growing concern about sexism against men by women (the increasingly believed-in ‘misandry‘) might also have been illuminating.
As a socialist I also dislike the mainstream media’s suppression of worker-based political analysis. But Pilger’s swift shift from blaming ‘media feminists’ to pro-capitalist MPs, in a way that makes them seem of equal politics and power, does not help.
We should not wholly write off ‘media feminism’, as Pilger does, as divisive conservatism. Those feminists who have managed to get a column or so in popular news media, often in the tokenistic women’s section, are writing for publications where news is male-centric in content and political alignment, as this 2013 ‘Status of Women in the U.S. Media’ report shows. Its standard practice is to divide men and women in a far realer sense.
It is dismaying that it’s in the context of growing feminist campaigns against the sexist objectification of women in media (for instance, against Page 3 ads), and against other aspects of rape culture, that Pilger has decided to cast ‘media feminism’ as the perp. And that he asserts men have been left out of these debates about gender, when the recent discussions have been quite notable for male commentary on how men are doing, including by Male Privilege Agitators (MPAs – sometimes known as ‘men’s rights’ advocates).
fightback terrain of capitalist individualism
We cannot fully understand the context of this discussion – about masculinity, feminism and the absent class fightback which Pilger bemoans – without looking at how the ideology of the capitalist class continues to impact on any radical opposition. Individualized responses prevail. Liberation marketed as a commodity, as accessed via identity, and as lifestylism, impedes even the more organized responses from the left.
Pilger jumped into a debate where both male-privilege and feminist spokespeople were using ‘masculinity’ in ways that minimized the centrality of the sex hierarchy to social organization. ‘Gender’, formerly describing the ideology that reinforces this hierarchy and its impact on women, has become essentialized and privatized into sex-based characteristics that are now said to be either inherent to individuals, or a matter of apolitical performance, identification or ‘gender expression’.
The social enforcement of the sex roles is trivialized. Gender’s reality of assigned dominance and subordination (‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’) is now viewed in a curiously gender-neutral and apolitical way. A far cry from the ‘second wave’ approaches which dealt with women’s oppression being assigned at birth, on the basis of our perceived sex, and continuing regardless of our subjective identification or ‘gender performance’ (compliance with stereotypes about one of the sexes).
US materialist radical feminist Kathy Miriam tells me that:
The limitations of “masculinity” are seen in too much discussion relevant to female oppression, including commentary by both mainstream and some radical feminists. The problem of “masculinity” has displaced a systemic, structural analysis of male power. And has displaced what I follow Dworkin in describing as the problem of men possessing women, which any battered or prostituted woman would understand.
There are sex/class antagonisms where men derive a range of benefits from their usages of women – via women’s extended domestic labor under neoliberalism, and sexually and reproductively. These benefits shift between race and class status groups, but are always relative to women’s subordination.
“Masculinity” is a term that papers over the problem by treating it as an issue of subjectivity. It implicitly or explicitly psychologizes and re-presents the main issue as how to re-educate boys, and casts violence as a health issue rather than one of power.
The less structuralist ‘third wave’ approaches to gender, which treat ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ as commodities that should either receive medical treatment and/or be made more widely accessible, have smoothed the path for the increased acceptance, not just amongst conservatives, of ‘men’s rights’ (Male Privilege Agitator) arguments.
An apolitical focus on ‘masculinity’, even if from an intentionally feminist angle, still gives rise to recent MPA claims such as this by Glen Poole:
The best way to tackle the problems that men face is to follow the example of the women’s sector and build a men’s sector filled with independent organisations that are positive advocates for men and boys. Tackling men’s issues in this way requires the women’s sector to share the gender equality pie.
‘Gender equality’ pie, huh? Let’s share the apartheid around to all ethnicities, too.
Where these ‘men’s rights’ rhetoric agitators go wrong is not merely in ignoring the reality that many of their accusations against feminism should be attributed instead to class oppression. (It is ironic that Pilger’s response to this debate is apparently to attribute this distortion to feminism.) These Male Privilege Agitators (MPAs) also err in assuming that because maintaining male privilege involves a level of risk (although not nearly as much as it does to girls and women), men are just differently oppressed than women. (If not, indeed, oppressed because of women, as the MPA discourse increasingly holds.) Higher rates of male criminality and suicidality, and disinclination to consult the doctor, as this media discussion has lately agitated about, do not alter the fact that men retain more power than women in politics, media, government, home ownership, business, the workforce, workers’ organizations, medicine, academic tenure, the sexual and reproductive spheres and, especially, in who performs domestic labor.
Anyone wanting to unite the oppressed in struggle against the rich needs to prioritize understanding these issues. Misrepresenting feminism reinforces male power over women and acts very much in the interests of capitalist elites.
Leftist men who denigrate feminism need to ask themselves whose side they are on.
With thanks to Kim Doss-Cortes, Kathy Miriam and Claire Sambell.