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What About the Men? Why Our Gender System Sucks for Men, Too

The tools of feminism can also be applied to the damage and deformation that men suffer in our sexist society.

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Traditional assigned gender roles are unfair and awful for everyone. It might be possible to create a list of all the disadvantages men face and all the disadvantages women face and add them up to figure out which one is currently worst off, but that’s not really necessary, and really, who wants to win that fight?

As a corollary of that, gender liberation is a positive-sum game. All the patriarchal ugliness is connected: when you tug on one string in the knot—no matter where that string is—you end up loosening the entire knot. When you say women can work outside the home, you give men more freedom from having to support their wives; when you encourage men to have closer platonic friendships, you take the burden of caretaking and providing emotional support off women; when you allow people who identify as neither men nor women to live in peace, you give more freedom to everyone.

Our other major premise is the concept of “privilege.” Everyone has some privilege. If you’re white, that’s privilege. If you’re middle-class or even upper-class, that’s privilege. If you’re American, that’s privilege. If you’re able-bodied, that’s privilege. If you’re neurotypical, that’s privilege. If you’re straight, that’s privilege. If you’re cis (not transgender), that’s privilege. If you’re college-educated, that’s privilege. If you’re conventionally attractive, that’s privilege. And so on and so forth down the list.

Many people, on hearing that they are privileged, perceive it as an attack on them. This is understandable, but not really helpful. Being told you’re privileged feels a lot like being told that you’re bad, that you’ve had it easy, that you don’t deserve what you’ve got. None of these are true, of course. Everyone’s luckier than some folks, less lucky than others. Just because you got a slightly easier path to run doesn’t mean you haven’t run as fast and hard as you can. It just means your path lacked a couple hurdles some other people had to deal with.

The nature of privilege is that it’s invisible to those who have it. Most people generalize their experiences, holding a vague, unexamined idea that everyone else is basically like them. This is a known bias in all human cognition, known as the Typical Mind Fallacy. This means that an able-bodied person may, with the best intentions in the world, plan a meeting in a third-floor walk-up, because they’ve never had to think about mobility problems.

Similarly, a person may generalize about the experiences of women when they actually mean the experiences of women who are white, middle-class, American, abled ... well, you can fill in the rest. They might even write The Feminine Mystique. Thus, a common practice in social justice circles is to ask people to “check their privilege,” or stop and think about how other people’s experience of the world might differ from their own. Unfortunately, in practice “check your privilege” often sounds like “shut up, rich boy” and leads to further misunderstanding.

In general, people who are marginalized multiple ways, such as by being both trans and gay, tend to experience their marginalizations differently than a person who is only marginalized one way: this is called intersectionality. For instance, a trans gay man may be told he’s not “really” trans, because clearly there are no men who are attracted to men in the world; although this relates to both the marginalization of gay people and trans people, it’s qualitatively different from either. Nevertheless, it is a gay and trans experience, and as such subject to its own set of intersecting issues. Within this book, whenever we discuss the disadvantages that men face, we will do our best not to erase marginalized men and to acknowledge the ways that other identities—sexuality, class, race, ability—can intersect with masculinity.

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