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The Paradox of Male Power
A few days ago, I discussed the concept of “hegemony” as the means by which the dominant class perpetuates its rule by making the current order seem natural and “simple common sense.” Accordant to political philosopher Nancy Fraser, we are seeing the breakdown of the old hegemonic order — the “progressive neoliberalism" of Clinton, Obama, and Biden.
Progressive neoliberalism combines stated commitment to diversity, multiculturalism, anti-racism, anti-sexism — to identity politics in its various forms — while it perpetuates an economic system of “financialized” Capitalism that increases wealth inequality, minimizes social services, keeps the minimum wage low, and does nothing to protect manufacturing jobs. Because progressive neoliberalism has failed the working classes, its support base continues to shrink. There is a lot of animosity against it from those who feel betrayed by the Democrats. This anger fuels bizarre, paranoid projections like QANON and increasingly virulent white ethno-nationalism.
The excesses documented by Laura Kipnis — the cultural shift from the sex-positive Feminism of the 1980s - 90s that attributed adult agency to women to a new neo-Victorian Feminism that sees sex as often and almost inherently dangerous, predatory, and harmful — can be linked to progressive neoliberalism’s efforts to maintain political power by focusing on female grievances. As Kipnis writes in Unwanted Advances, our cultural narratives provide the context for our sense-making:
“Whether or not college students are actually having sex any differently from generations past, clearly the emphasis has changed. Shifting the stress from pleasure to danger and vulnerability not only changes the prevailing narrative, it changes the way sex is experienced. We’re social creatures, after all, and narrative is how we make sense of the world. If the prevailing story is that sex is dangerous, sex is going to feel threatening more of the time, and anything associated with sex, no matter how innocuous (a risqué remark, a dumb joke) will feel threatening. Teaching under these conditions can feel like a tightrope walk.”
There is no doubt that many men in positions of power acted poorly and, in some cases, terribly. The #metoo movement was, in part, a necessary corrective, but it led to a climate of Puritanical zeal that continues today and is unhealthy. In France, the actress Catherine DeNeuve and 100 prominent women in entertainment and the arts wrote a 2018 editorial for Le Monde (translation here), where they make many of the same points as Kipnis:
Just like in the good old witch-hunt days, what we are once again witnessing here is puritanism in the name of a so-called greater good, claiming to promote the liberation and protection of women, only to enslave them to a status of eternal victim and reduce them to defenseless preys of male chauvinist demons. In fact, #MeToo has led to a campaign, in the press and on social media, of public accusations and indictments against individuals who, without being given a chance to respond or defend themselves, are put in the exact same category as sex offenders. This summary justice has already had its victims: men who've been disciplined in the workplace, forced to resign, and so on, when their only crime was to touch a woman's knee, try to steal a kiss, talk about "intimate" things during a work meal, or send sexually-charged messages to women who did not return their interest.
This frenzy for sending the “pigs” to the slaughterhouse, far from helping women empower themselves, actually serves the interests of the enemies of sexual freedom, the religious extremists, the reactionaries and those who believe — in their righteousness and the Victorian moral outlook that goes with it — that women are a species "apart," children with adult faces who demand to be protected. Men, for their part, are called on to embrace their guilt and rack their brains for "inappropriate behavior" that they engaged in 10, 20 or 30 years earlier, and for which they must now repent. These public confessions, and the foray into the private sphere or self-proclaimed prosecutors, have led to a climate of totalitarian society. The purging wave seems to know no bounds. … Philosopher Ruwen Ogien defended the freedom to offend as essential to artistic creation. In the same way, we defend a freedom to bother as indispensable to sexual freedom.
The excesses of the liberal establishment, which has built an institutional bulwark around harassment claims, mirror the reactionary Right’s efforts to take away rights to abortion and contraception — to control women’s bodies and restrict human freedom. I feel that both of these enterprises need to be analyzed sociologically. They are the product of deeper socioeconomic forces, just as the 1960s movements toward sexual liberation (however imperfect) and civil rights reflected underlying economic shifts. We can’t explore other paths forward without understanding why things have reached this state.
The Myth of Male Power
Let’s delve into Warren Farrell’s The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex (1993). As I mentioned last time, Farrell was a political scientist and the only male spokesperson for the National Organization of Women in the late 60s. He began to investigate the ways that men were also oppressed in our society. Many of his examples and lingo seem a bit dated and somewhat simplistic. Yet he is one of the only thinkers to expose many core truths that we still don’t generally understand or speak about.
To summarize Farrell’s argument: For various historical and even biological reasons, our society has tended to prioritize women’s oppression over that of men’s. We believe that, historically and until today, men hold most of the power in society. Yet Farrell argues that this power is illusory or at least paradoxical. Generally, men have to follow a very conscripted pattern of behavior in order to attain success. They mutilate their humanity and deny their emotions (becoming “man-machines”), in the process.
In many visible and invisible ways, modern civilization is organized to protect and support the rights of women. We see this, for instance, in child custody laws, which tend to disproportionally benefit mothers. “In contested custody battles,” Farrell notes. “moms start out with the right to children; dads have to fight for the children—leaving the children whose dads cannot afford lawyers to also be “dad poor.””
Farrell believes that men’s oppression is equal to that of women’s — although it takes different, even opposite forms — and that “patriarchy” is an incorrect description of our society, which was mutually shaped (or contorted) into its current form over the course of centuries, by both genders. He notes, for instance, that, until today, men, on average, tend to die a number of years earlier than women.
There are a number of reasons for this. Men are supposed to be the protectors and providers. Archetypally, “the woman is life, and the man is the servant of life,” Joseph Campbell wrote. In corporate jobs, men tend to work excessively long hours to support their families (and, in many cases, legal dependents from previous marriages), often reducing their life expectancy due to heart attacks. As the “disposable sex,” men are also the ones forced to fight wars and to take the most physically demanding jobs, from coal mining to fire fighting. We see this, now, in Ukraine, where men were ordered to stay in the country and become territorial defenders, while women had the option to leave. Not to mention the tens of thousands of young Russian men turned into cannon fodder.
Farrell talks about the socialization process for men, starting in childhood. Traditionally, men are compelled to suppress their emotions and creative impulses, to pursue careers — engineering, medicine, corporate law — that will allow them to support a high-status woman and family. (In The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden, an excellent little book, Robert Fisher explores “the wounded feeling function” in modern men). Men are supposed to be emotionally constricted, tight-lipped, to “suck it up,” and, also, to be risk-takers, physically and in other ways. High school celebrates the football player/athlete, his prowess rewarded with access to the most attractive females, the cheerleaders (sports contest are a kind of tribal display). Many young football players will suffer from life-long injuries, but that doesn’t matter. Men are supposed to be physical risk-takers and considered disposable, compared to women.
Post-World War Two, Farrell describes a collective evolution from what he calls traditional “Stage I” marriages (pre-1960s), focused on mutual survival and childrearing, to contemporary “Stage II” marriages (post-1960s), focused on self-fulfillment. In traditional marriages, “A woman called it “love” if she found a man who was a good provider and protector; he called it “love” if she was beautiful and could take care of a home and children. Love meant a division of labor which led to a division of female and male interests.”
Marriage as a tool for self-development was a new idea — a product of the material and technological progress (from washing machines to food delivery to birth control pills) made in post-industrial civilization. The modern Stage II marriage only became common in the 1970s. It posed many new challenges:
“It is tempting to think of Stage II love as unconditional love. In practice, it is more conditional. Couples now expect communication skills, joint parenting, shared housework, sexual fulfillment, joint decision-making, a spiritual connection, mutual attraction, and mutual respect. They want both stability and change; both interdependence and a partner who is independent.”
The transition to Stage II marriages led to a huge upsurge in divorce rates. The stereotype has been to blame men, overall, for leaving their partners, generally in pursuit of younger women. Farrell notes that, at least among the higher classes, Stage II marriages tend to offer more freedom of choice to women than men: While men almost universally must work full-time to support their family, women have the choice of working full-time, working part-time, or having children and not working.
Farrell notes that, in Stage I culture, it was common and tacitly accepted for successful men to have mistresses:
“The Marital Triangle was the husband, wife, and mistress (or, depending on the culture, the geisha, prostitute, second wife, or a harem). The deal was this: “Husband, your first obligation is to take care of your wife’s and children’s needs economically. If you’re still doing this but you’re not getting the sex, youth, beauty, attention, and passion that made you agree to do this for a lifetime to begin with, then you can take care of some of your needs, too, but under two conditions: you must continue to provide for your family (no divorce is allowed even if your needs aren’t met); and you must also provide for some of the economic needs of this younger, attractive woman (geisha, mistress, prostitute) whose need for money otherwise might not be met.”
Such liaisons started to threaten women in the Stage II society. They could lead to divorce, which would curtail the first wife’s access to resources and limit her choices. Female grievance against men amplified as a result of the high divorce rates, post-Sexual Revolution. Through the institutionalizing of sexual harassment as an arena for legal claims, along with public shaming and cancellation, women, in a sense, can take revenge against men. Culturally, men are often seen as morally “bad,” while women are “good."
Old patterns of thought and behavior continue to shape society, even when taking new forms. The rise of Trump-style reactionary populism is driven by male anger against changing social and economic conditions, including the collapse of traditional relationship structures (although many women also support a reactionary regression to previous conditions). In an opposite yet complementary movement, the liberal establishment integrated female grievance as part of its strategy. Men’s experience — male suffering and trauma — remains largely unaddressed.
Farrel notes, “the historic “battle of the sexes” is now a war in which only one side shows up—men put their heads in the sand and hope the bullets will miss.”
As Farrell notes, from an early age, men are tacitly encouraged to be “bad boys,” to be sexual initiators, and to transgress the boundaries set by women. While these social imprints are being challenged by “affirmative consent” rules and other societal upgrades, they still continue in reality. I don’t know to what extent things have changed today. But certainly when I was in my twenties, the traditional patterns still held, overall.
Farrell looks at films and romance novels, voraciously consumed by women, that depict the “age-old formula… he: pursue, persist; she: attract, resist.” But now persistence and pursuit can qualify as sexual harassment. Farrell thinks the barrier between “courtship” and “sexual harassment” is ambiguous. He writes:
“In a sense, sexual harassment lawsuits are just the latest version of the female selection process—allowing her to select for men who care enough for her to put their career at risk; who have enough finesse to initiate without becoming a jerk and enough guts to initiate despite a potential lawsuit. During this process, she gets a sense of his trustworthiness, his commitment, his ability to overcome barriers, the way he handles rejection. It allows her to select for men who will perform, who will assume total responsibility.”
Just as university professors often marry former students, a large proportion of people meet their partners through the office or workplace. Traditionally, women tend to seek romantic attachments with men who are above them, professionally. In fact, a whole sub-genre of articles in women’s magazines and books instruct women on how they can find love at work, using what Farrell calls “indirect initiative” (seductive lures) to attract potential mates. Today, if the courtship attempt or the relationship goes wrong, it can lead to abuse allegations that can be career-ending, even if never prosecuted and unproved (as we see in the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial).
I can’t cover everything in Farrell’s book, but here are a few other salient points he makes:
“The only university courses on male-female relations—women’s and “gender” studies — do not teach us how to love, but to view men as women’s oppressors;”
“New laws are being passed about sexual assault on college campuses, but only with women’s experience in mind”
“The hundreds of domestic violence studies that find women and men to be about equal perpetrators of domestic violence have not replaced the assumption of male-as-perpetrator/female-as-victim. The result? Few programs that empower both sexes with communication skills to avoid domestic violence.”
Generally, you risk “social ostracism,” according to Farrell, if you question any of the “women-as-victim assumptions… for example women as victim of domestic violence; sexual harassment; date rape; the glass ceiling; the pay gap; an unfaithful husband.” Farrell bravely questions all of these assumptions in his book, backing up his arguments with data and statistics.
The point I want to make, without denying the reality of sexual harassment and assault, is that the mainstream narrative (or “hegemonic discourse”) that has developed around male abuse and female victimhood over the last decades is polarizing and limited. It ignores many historical and social factors, doesn’t incorporate men’s experience of the dynamic, and repudiates Feminism’s hard-won gains in claiming female agency. As Kipnis chronicles, the growth of federal bureaucracy around sexual misconduct charges in universities has a chilling effect on free speech (as an example of the current intellectual climate, read this resignation letter from a philosophy professor in Portland) The threat of sexual harassment lawsuits hanging over workplace environments is a real problem because it contorts human nature, seeking to neuter or de-sexualize the place where adults spend a large part of their waking lives.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the new liberal orthodoxy — the hyper-policing of sexual ethics — is that it makes the country’s slide into Neo-authoritarianism or Fascism much more likely. Because the liberal narrative is so polarizing and extreme, rejecting the lived experience of many people, it increases the lure of the Right Wing. The Right starts to appear as a saner alternative in some ways. (Although the Supreme Court’s revoking of ‘Roe Vs. Wade’ is an over-reach that will galvanize progressives).
Fraser argues that the legitimate counter to Progressive Neoliberalism is not going to be some version of Trump’s “Reactionary Populism.” She also notes that Trump pulled a “bait and switch,” as his economic policies did not make any significant changes from past administrations (she calls this, “Reactionary Neoliberalism”). What we need, she argues, is “Progressive Populism” that addresses the economic system on a structural level. “Progressive populism could end up being transitional — a way station en route to some new postcapitalist form of society,” Fraser proposes.
To succeed, the next wave of progressive populism will need to define different, more unifying approaches to the conflict between the genders, along with other forms of identity politics. Instead of alienating men, these polices need to address and integrate men’s lived experience of the gender dynamic, while addressing misconduct and abuse. One proposal could be to establish something like the "Truth and Reconciliation Commissions” formed in South Africa after apartheid. I intend to explore this in future essays — I don’t pretend to know the answers, and I am interested in your thoughts and ideas on the subject.