DEBATE: Feminists should spend time advocating for men’s issues

Image Description: A sign at a demonstration reading ‘the future is female’
At its core, feminism is the belief that discrimination against women should be stamped out and replaced by equal rights and opportunities for people of all sexes, and a feminist is someone who holds such a belief. In practice, the benefits of feminists spending some time advocating for men’s issues seem likely to outweigh the costs.
Importantly, just because a person holds a feminist belief, it does not necessarily follow that they should spend even any time at all actively advocating for equality between the sexes. Let me explain why. The question of how people should act is the ultimate question of moral philosophy, discussed by the likes of Kant, Hume, and the well-known YouTuber and University of Oxford student, Cosmicskeptic. One problem to consider is that many of us feel strongly about multiple different areas of social injustice, and thus, fairly balancing our time between various causes seems incredibly challenging to get right. Elon Musk might be a feminist, yet in theory, it might be most effective for him to focus on building electric cars to combat climate change. As a feminist, egalitarian, anarchist, vegan, anti-racist, pacifist, climate activist, how should I spend my time?
You could argue that each individual should focus their time on issues that they feel passionate about. Feminists who feel particularly strongly about feminism should prioritise it at the expense of other causes, perhaps including men’s issues. However, this approach seems to fatally disconnect actions from the magnitude of their impact. After losing a family member to a shark attack, a person may become deeply passionate about preventing similar deaths. However, due to the rarity of such events, their activism will likely achieve very little, so therefore they shouldn’t spend time on shark attack activism. Similarly, feeling passionate about feminism does not seem on its own justify spending all of your time fighting for feminist issues, and none on other issues including those relating to men. When deciding how we should act, we need to consider the magnitude of the impact that will follow our actions.
Born in Oxford, Effective Altruism is an organisation and movement that works to answer the question of how we can best use our resources to help others. In theory, a person might in fact conclude that despite being a feminist, they should spend their time earning money to donate to the 9 million people who die every year of hunger- related diseases. Conversely, they may have the position and skills necessary to effectively create change in the way in which women are treated, and thus should focus primarily on feminism. Therefore, whether a feminist should spend time advocating solely for issues relating to women seems to depend on their skillset and how effective their actions would be in achieving equal rights and opportunities for the sexes, compared to how effective they could be in other areas of social action.
Ultimately, in reality, most people rarely deeply consider what the most effective actions are. It seems likely that there are often chances for those with feminist beliefs to advocate for women’s rights without much opportunity cost, examples being calling someone out for making a sexist joke or having conversations about feminism whilst socialising with mates. Likewise, despite women experiencing a great deal more discrimination and inequality compared to most men, dedicating at least a minimal amount of time to mentioning and highlighting issues relating to men in practice seems to have little associated opportunity cost and a high degree of potential benefit. Doing so could not only improve issues relating to men such as addressing unfair treatment during custody battles and increasing paternity leave, but would also act as a valuable example to many men of what it looks like for a person to show care and empathy towards all those suffering, regardless of whether they share the same sex or not.
OPPOSITION (Sharon Chau)
Men’s rights organisations have been around for a long time. Some within the feminist movement deride and dismiss such organisations, arguing their inflammatory anti-feminist rhetoric harms women and that their issues aren’t legitimate – but some argue that including men’s rights organisations within feminism could make the movement more inclusive and effective. Ultimately, this is misguided and not consistent with the aims of feminism. Women’s issues are so often sidelined, here, to the point where their relevance is challenged even in a movement that was meant to be about them.
It is true that men are also severely affected by the patriarchy. The traditional image of men as the breadwinner, masculine figure with a stiff upper lip creates numerous problems. Suicide rates among men are tragically three to four times higher than that among women because of the stigma surrounding mental health. Child custody rates notoriously low for men and campaigns such as Fathers4Justice have arisen to fight against this. Domestic violence and rape against men often go unreported because they symbolise a loss of masculinity. Even when they are reported, these cases are treated much less seriously. All of these are valid issues that have created real victims – and they are all products of the harmful stereotypes within the patriarchy. But just because men are harmed by the system, doesn’t mean that the solution to dismantling it lies in including men’s issues in feminism.
Many argue the overwhelming problems women face ought to take priority over men’s issues. A study published in the wake of the Sarah Everard tragedy showed that 97% of sexual assault is committed by men against women. In developed countries, many women still receive fewer wages for the same job when compared to men; maternity leave and pay is still patchy; and sexual assault and microaggressions still plague the workplace. Additionally, the rise in intersectional feminism points to many additional problems women of other marginalised groups face, such as increased microaggressions against black women. In many developing countries, women suffer from horrific abuse, such as female genital mutilation, sex trafficking, and persistent domestic violence without any form of recourse. A Nepali practice called Chhaupadi, where menstruating women are banished to mud huts during their period, is particularly harrowing. Even though men do face terrible and very real problems, it is argued that the sheer scale and severity of problems afflicting millions of women around the world ought to take priority.
Another argument concerns the aim of the feminist movement. Breaking down the patriarchy and creating legislative and perceptual change are definitely important aspects of feminism, but another crucial function is to allow a safe space for women to come together. Many women who feel unsafe in the presence of men seek refuge within the feminist movement, and the inclusion of men damages this important goal. Arguably, these women who might have gone through the trauma of rape or domestic violence are those the feminist movement ought to prioritise and protect.
Ultimately, the patriarchy affects both men and women, but to differing degrees. Even though including men’s issues within feminism targets very real problems that need to be addressed and could increase support for the movement, women face problems to a much larger degree and ought to be prioritised. This isn’t the Oppression Olympics – but in a world with limited resources and attention, women should be the focus.
Image credit: Lindsey LaMont via Unsplash