A privilege of sex or gender

I sorted through some old browser bookmarks today and found this exchange, in which a user on tumblr challenged others to to name and prove male privileges. Another user responded with the following list of 47 items (slightly edited for easier reading) :

Oh boy. Well, as a man, I’ll tell you my male privilege.

  1. My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favor. The more prestigious the job, the larger the odds are skewed.
  2. I can be confident in the fact that my co-workers won’t think that I was hired/promoted because of my sex – despite the fact that it’s probably true.
  3. If I ever am promoted when a woman of my peers is better suited for the job, it is because of my sex.
  4. If I ever fail at my job or career, it won’t be seen as a blacklist against my sex’s capabilities.
  5. I am far less likely to face sexual harassment than my female peers.
  6. If I do the same task as a woman, and if the measurement is at all subjective, chances are people will think I did a better job.
  7. If I am a teen or an adult, and I stay out of prison, my odds of getting raped are relatively low.
  8. On average, I’m taught that walking alone after dark by myself is less than dangerous than it is for my female peers.
  9. If I choose not to have children, my masculinity will not be questioned.
  10. If I do have children but I do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity will not be questioned.
  11. If I have children and I do care for them, I’ll be praised even if my care is only marginally competent.
  12. If I have children and a career, no one will think I’m selfish for not staying at home.
  13. If I seek political office, my relationship with my children or who I deem to take care of them will more often not be scrutinized by the press.
  14. My elected representatives are mostly people of my own sex. The more prestigious the position, the more this is true.
  15. When I seek out “the person in charge”, it is likely that they will be someone of my own sex. The higher the position, the more often this is true.
  16. As a child, chances are I am encouraged to be more active and outgoing than my sisters.
  17. As a child, I could choose from an almost infinite variety of children’s media featuring positive, active, non-stereotyped heroes of my own sex. I never had to look for it; male protagonists were (and are) the default.
  18. As a child, chances are I got more teacher attention than girls who raised their hands just as often.
  19. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether or not it has sexist overtones. (Nobody’s going to ask if I’m upset because I’m menstruating.)
  20. I can turn on the television or glance at the front page of the newspaper and see people of my own sex widely represented.
  21. If I’m careless with my financial affairs it won’t be attributed to my sex.
  22. If I’m careless with my driving it won’t be attributed to my sex.
  23. I can speak in public to a large group without putting my sex on trial.
  24. Even if I sleep with a lot of women, there is little to no chance that I will be seriously labeled a “slut,” nor is there any male counterpart to “slut-bashing.”
  25. I do not have to worry about the message my wardrobe sends about my sexual availability.
  26. My clothing is typically less expensive and better-constructed than women’s clothing for the same social status. While I have fewer options, my clothes will probably fit better than a woman’s without tailoring.
  27. The grooming regimen expected of me is relatively cheap and consumes little time.
  28. If I buy a new car, chances are I’ll be offered a better price than a woman buying the same car. The same goes for other expensive merchandise.
  29. If I’m not conventionally attractive, the disadvantages are relatively small and easy to ignore.
  30. I can be loud with no fear of being called a shrew. I can be aggressive with no fear of being called a bitch.
  31. I can ask for legal protection from violence that happens mostly to men without being seen as a selfish special interest, since that kind of violence is called “crime” and is a general social concern. (Violence that happens mostly to women is usually called “domestic violence” or “acquaintance rape,” and is seen as a special interest issue.)
  32. I can be confident that the ordinary language of day-to-day existence will always include my sex. “All men are created equal,” mailman, chairman, freshman, he.
  33. My ability to make important decisions and my capability in general will never be questioned depending on what time of the month it is.
  34. I will never be expected to change my name upon marriage or questioned if I don’t change my name.
  35. The decision to hire me will not be based on assumptions about whether or not I might choose to have a family sometime soon.
  36. Every major religion in the world is led primarily by people of my own sex. Even God, in most major religions, is pictured as male.
  37. Most major religions argue that I should be the head of my household, while my wife and children should be subservient to me.
  38. If I have a wife or live-in girlfriend, chances are we’ll divide up household chores so that she does most of the labor, and in particular the most repetitive and unrewarding tasks.
  39. If I have children with my girlfriend or wife, I can expect her to do most of the basic childcare such as changing diapers and feeding.
  40. If I have children with my wife or girlfriend, and it turns out that one of us needs to make career sacrifices to raise the kids, chances are we’ll both assume the career sacrificed should be hers.
  41. Assuming I am heterosexual, magazines, billboards, television, movies, pornography, and virtually all of media is filled with images of scantily-clad women intended to appeal to me sexually. Such images of men exist, but are rarer.
  42. In general, I am under much less pressure to be thin than my female counterparts are. If I am over-weight, I probably suffer fewer social and economic consequences for being fat than over-weight women do.
  43. If I am heterosexual, it’s incredibly unlikely that I’ll ever be beaten up by a spouse or lover.
  44. Complete strangers generally do not walk up to me on the street and tell me to “smile.”
  45. Sexual harassment on the street virtually never happens to me. I do not need to plot my movements through public space in order to avoid being sexually harassed, or to mitigate sexual harassment.
  46. On average, I am not interrupted by women as often as women are interrupted by men. [Probably meant to say that he, an individual, is not interrupted by women as often as women are interrupted by men on average.]
  47. On average, I will have the privilege of not knowing about my male privilege.

And lastly, I am taken as a more credible feminist than my female peers, despite the fact that the feminist movement is not liberating to my sex.

This is male privilege.

There are some issues with the list (here given in form of another list, because lists are pretty):

  • None of the claims he makes are sourced, making them no more proof than mere assertions. (For a much better sourced post on the discrimination of women especially related to employment and wages, go here.)

  • There is quite a bit of overlap between some of the items, and some of the phenomena described might even be entirely due to others, or part of the same mechanism: for example, #6 (If I do the same task as a woman, and if the measurement is at all subjective, chances are people will think I did a better job) might explain a lot of the career advantages (#1, #2, and #3). It overlaps similarly with #35 (The decision to hire me will not be based on assumptions about whether or not I might choose to have a family sometime soon) and #40 (If I have children with my wife or girlfriend, and it turns out that one of us needs to make career sacrifices to raise the kids, chances are we’ll both assume the career sacrificed should be hers).

  • While he sometimes notes heterosexuality as a relevant factor (making a point about heterosexual male privilege rather than male privilege overall), other intersectionality factors are missing. No, disabled men do not have higher chances of being hired or promoted than non-disabled women.

  • Some of his items are culture-specific. I particularly noticed this about #44 (Complete strangers generally do not walk up to me on the street and tell me to “smile”): to the best of my knowledge, this is not a thing here, and I’ve never seen it happening or even heard of it.

  • For a lot of items, it’s not exactly clear how it benefits him. What exactly does he gain from his driving skills not being attributed to his maleness? Having a ready, culturally-sanctioned “excuse” for a lack of skill is arguably convenient rather than negative in some way. What does he gain from seeing sexualized women in ads, even adding the constraint of heterosexuality? Does he view potential sexual arousal (potential because I doubt most men even feel anything sexual about many “sexy” ads anymore due to a lifetime of habituation) as an unqualified net positive? This is puzzling to me: I find unexpected sexual arousal mildly to highly annoying, and I don’t think that’s so unusual. It’s certainly a net negative, and possibly even highly so, for people within sex-negative religious subcultures for whom sexual arousal is sinful.

(Some further points of contention omitted because they delve deeper into single points, and that wasn’t what I wanted to do.)

Another thing I noticed, however, is that he keeps using the word “sex” to refer to his categorization as male rather than female.

Which is weird, because literally all of his items refer to cultural mechanisms, squarely within the realm of what anybody accepts as gender. In #19, he writes “Nobody’s going to ask if I’m upset because I’m menstruating”, which does refer to a biological phenomenon, but only in terms of cultural expectations: what matters here is not whether one does menstruate, but whether one is expected to do so. (Sometimes in rather hilariously ignorant ways: people joked about Hilary Clinton having her time of the month, and she’s pretty certainly outside of the fertile age bracket.) Job applications and promotions are skewed in my favor just as much as his. I don’t get asked about whether I’m menstruating any more than he does. I’ll never be called a shrew or a bitch, and never have been.

I tried clicking through to his blog, hoping to find some additional info to understand his choice of terms, but it’s dead (all posts deleted except for a picture of the Earth from 2013).

So I’m left wondering. Does distinguishing between sex and gender have any value at all? If done consistently and conscientiously, it could serve as a valuable starting point to examine which phenomena related to maleness, femaleness, and non-binary categorizations are biological and which are not, to make people question their every assertion about the workings of sexism, analyze every mechanism in-depth and find the weak points to dismantle it, but does that actually ever happen? It seems to confound more often than it clarifies, to promote nonsensical word choices as the list above, to serve as an instrument of exclusion where no exclusion is warranted, to sneakily introduce biological essentialism (the notion that traits, preferences, and even societal status are due to biology rather than cultural mechanisms) rather than attacking it.

German doesn’t really have separate words for gender and sex: both are simply Geschlecht. Sometimes gender is used as a loanword (gender studies are often called gender studies), but there doesn’t seem to be much of a separate meaning to it: studying how much biological factors influence personalities, preferences etc. can be a part of gender studies just as much as studying specific sociological factors, and that’s a good thing: working from the assumption that everything gendered is cultural is likely to miss important aspects, as is working from the assumption that everything gendered is biological. Summarizing the whole male-female distinction under a single word and then analyzing the factors separately for each question seems like a much more promising approach.


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