“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 per cent of those imprisoned for violent crimes in this country belong to a group comprising just 3 per cent of the total population. To some, this is evidence of institutionalised discrimination, a claim that may have some grounding in fact. The primary factor here, however, is a much crueller and more pervasive 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. As a rule, crime figures are so often cited as evidence of disadvantage because 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; it is difficult, for instance, to identify any way in which Indigenous Australians privileged over their Anglo-European counterparts.
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.
A feminist-friendly men’s rights movement need not be a contradiction in terms.
Gender relations provide perhaps 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. Far more women than men are victims of crimes such as sexual assault and domestic violence. 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. 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. They are often expected to financially support female partners, and face open discrimination in custody cases. The reasons for these (and other) problems are complex; whatever the case, it should be clear that not all is well for Western men. Their disadvantages may be less numerous than those faced by women, but these struggles are far from trivial. This is no zero-sum game.
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 stereotypes). 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. Equality should be a serious concern for all of us.
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”.
By David Heslin