Below is a book review I wrote a few years ago, although I think the topic remains just as important now so decided to give it a share.
David Benatar; The Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men and Boys. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell 2012
For many, the idea that men and boys are (or even could be) the victims of sexism appears entirely wrong-headed, even preposterous. This is perhaps understandable. The vast majority of discourse on the subject of sex discrimination has been from the feminist perspective, which has served to bring to the public consciousness the unfair practices, policies and social norms that have obstructed women’s right to equality with their male counterparts, and where necessary to implement remedial action. From a position within this social discourse, it becomes natural to view males as the privileged sex and females as merely the ‘second sex’ or under-privileged gender. The fact that males are actually unfairly treated due to their sex, then, has become a sort of invisible discrimination, the “Second Sexism”.
What is excellent about this book is that David Benatar provides both the evidence for the existence of this hidden sexism and also an account of why it has been overlooked and largely unnoticed. Further, this is first and foremost a work of philosophy, liberating the topic of sex discrimination from the ideologies of social scientists and gender studies. As a work of philosophy, time is taken to clearly define the concepts utilized and to carefully and rigorously examine these concepts. For example, Benatar draws a very clear and important distinction between disadvantages as a result of one’s sex on the one hand and wrongful discrimination based on one’s sex on the other (discrimination lies somewhere between the two, as some discrimination may in fact not be wrong).
It is worth noting at this point that this book is not an attack on feminism, in fact Benatar believes himself to be an advocate of a feminism based on equality between the sexes. Benatar points out at various stages throughout the book that he would expect feminists (or at least those feminists whose primary concern is equality, ‘egalitarian feminists’ in Benatar’s vocabulary) to agree with the arguments he puts forward. If this is an attack on anyone, it is only towards ‘partisan feminists’ that it should be seen to be directed; towards those whose sole priority is advancing the interests and protecting the rights of females only.
It is also important to note that this text is only designed to be relevant within “the West”, i.e. the English speaking world and most of the European Union. This is important as acknowledging this early on will help to head off an obvious objection to the idea of a second sexism. This objection would point to cultures such as Saudi Arabia or India as apparent evidence that men are indeed the privileged sex and women merely subservient. By restricting the debate to an account of largely liberal and ‘enlightened’ societies, examples such as the ‘rape culture’ in India that has become headline news recently, while still an important issue that needs addressing, is not relevant in the context of the “Second Sexism”.
The book itself consists of seven chapters, and each chapter deals with its own issues related to the book’s central theme. The first chapter serves as an introduction, and Benatar uses it to clarify much of the terminology that he will use throughout the book. As well as distinguishing between disadvantages, discrimination and wrongful discrimination, Benatar also uses this chapter to define exactly what he means by sexism. For Benatar, sexism is simply wrongful discrimination on the basis of sex. He immediately considers and rejects an objection to this definition. The objection being that many will argue that sexism must be ‘systematic’; it must “involve the domination of one sex by another”. The force of this objection is felt when we note that any existing discrimination against males does not satisfy this stricter definition, and therefore males cannot be the victims of a second sexism at all. Benatar successfully dismisses such an objection. On such a definition, we would have to conclude that most Western democracies are ‘post-sexist’, and this is a position that no-one, let alone those raising the objection, would be prepared to endorse. Regardless, what is important for Benatar is to establish that males suffer from wrongful discrimination. Whether or not society is universally prepared to accept that this is ‘sexism’ is not of central importance to this endeavour. For Benatar, this discrimination is worthy of moral opposition whether it is labelled as ‘sexism’ or not.
Benatar uses chapter two to consider a (fairly extensive) variety of ways in which males are disadvantaged as a result of their sex. Importantly this chapter does not discuss discrimination, although many of the disadvantages of being male that Benatar identifies here will resurface again and again throughout the book as we move from disadvantages to discrimination and finally to wrongful discrimination. Some themes that continually re-emerge are combat and conscription (historically it has been almost exclusively males who have been forced to fight in wars due to conscription), and violence (males are much more likely to be the victims of violence). Obviously not every male suffers each of the disadvantages that Benatar lists, but as he points out, not every female suffers each of the well-known disadvantages associated with being female. What is important in this chapter is that Benatar establishes that there are substantial disadvantages in various important ways that males can suffer from in virtue of being male.
In the relatively short chapter three Benatar examines possible causes of male disadvantage as well as beliefs about males that have contributed to these disadvantages. Although short, there is a lot of interesting philosophy going on in this chapter. For example, Benatar distinguishes between descriptive beliefs (beliefs about the way males are) and normative beliefs (beliefs about the way males should be). Although there is undoubted overlap between the two (descriptive beliefs are often cited in support of normative ones) the distinction is often ignored and people simply slide between the two. Benatar uses the belief that female life is more valuable than male life as an example here. The apparent difference in value comes about because where a man may father thousands of children (provided an adequate supply of females) women can only produce roughly one child per year or so. In this sense, a society requires more women than men to ensure its survival into the next generation. Although this may explain why male life is believed to be less valuable than female life, it is far from an explanation of why we should believe this. After all, given the make-up of today’s societies, and the relatively small number of soldiers used in combat compared to the past, it is clear that our society could survive intact even if we were to increase the number of females used in combat.
In chapter four, Benatar hopes to show that differences between the sexes (including beliefs about the sexes) do not justify discrimination, and so any such discrimination must be seen as wrongful discrimination. This is perhaps the key chapter in the book, as Benatar uses it to revisit each of the cases of disadvantages he identified in chapter two and to show why and to what extent they should be understood as examples of wrongful discrimination. For each example, Benatar takes the time to respond to many possible views and replies, including positions held by many reputable scholars and positions found within western ‘pop-culture’.
In chapter five, Benatar responds to objections raised against his argument, and to this extent he groups the objections into three kinds. The first kind he calls the “inversion argument” which is a tactic used by some opponents whereby discrimination against males is ‘inverted’ to look like discrimination against females. He uses many of the examples first discussed in chapter two to show how the inversion argument works in relation to each, and provides convincing replies each time. The second kind of objection is the “cost of dominance argument”, which claims that the supposed disadvantages of being male are in fact just the costs of being the dominant sex. One strategy that Benatar successfully uses here is to show that given the concepts in play, even if men are the dominant sex it does not follow that they cannot also be discriminated against. Finally he considers what he calls the “distraction argument” which is held by those who while they accept that males can be the victim of wrongful discrimination are opposed to drawing attention to this fact as they believe it takes attention away from the supposedly more serious issue of discrimination against women. Amongst Benatar’s replies here is the convincing argument that wrongful sex discrimination is wrong irrespective of the victim’s sex and as such merits our attention.
Chapter six is devoted to a discussion of affirmative action and its justification. It is important to understand that what is being discussed here is the justification of sex-based affirmative action only, and not affirmative action in general. Benatar does not believe that affirmative action for either sex is justified, as what should be promoted is equality between the sexes rather than the advancement of one particular sex.
The final chapter serves as a conclusion which Benatar uses to summarise his position and to consider some questions about related issues. Such issues include the question of whether or not feminism causes wrongful discrimination against males (it doesn’t although may make matters worse according to Benatar), and whether males are worse off than females with regards sexual discrimination (it doesn’t matter, wrongful discrimination is wrong regardless of comparative claims).
Overall this is a piece of work that is hard to find genuine fault with. Certainly it will not be the final definitive word on the subject, but neither was it intended to be. Whereas there are thousands of articles and books regarding discrimination against women, Benatar’s book is one of a very few pieces of work that treat seriously the issue of discrimination against men. With this in mind it would asking too much for Benatar to have provided an exhaustive discussion of wrongful discrimination against men. Rather, Benatar has succeeded in the more modest goal of showing that the second sexism is real and that it deserves far more attention than it currently receives.
Bearing in mind the number of examples that he utilises, it is also worth noting that Benatar is not always successful in the transition from disadvantages to wrongful discrimination (chapter four). This is most pronounced when we consider his treatment of the fact that males are the most likely to be the victims of violence. While statistically this is correct, Benatar fails to show that this statistical difference is linked to wrongful discrimination of men. There is no evidence, for example, that upon examining non-gender related violent crime (such as murder) we will find the victim’s sex to be a factor in determining who will become a victim. In fact, in cases of violent crime that are gender related (such as rape) we find that it is women and not men who are more likely to be the victims. Although there are a number of strategies that Benatar might employ to explain away the statistical problem (such as claiming a link between non-gender related violence and indirect rather than direct discrimination) it is worth pointing out that Benatar does not need to be successful in establishing wrongful discrimination in every example that he uses. It is enough for his purposes to show only that some of the disadvantages that males suffer from are a result of wrongful discrimination, and he is successful on this more modest understanding of his project.
Throughout the book Benatar manages to build a well crafted philosophically sophisticated argument. The philosophical tasks of honestly and accurately understanding and representing the issues at hand, even if this is politically inconvenient, are undertaken in such a way that any reasonable reader couldn’t fail to see the importance of Benatar’s conclusions. Benatar’s argument therefore deserves to have as wide a readership as the Simone de Beauvoir work that the title echoes.