This afternoon I made the mistake of entering a discussion on male privilege. Male privilege has been described as greater-than-normal exposure to a set of unearned social, economic, and political advantages on the basis of being male.
I believe the real requirement for receiving these privileges is not maleness but one’s relationship to and positioning with or within maleness. Gay men and transgendered women are not necessarily safe from victimization and exploitation by those who possess male privilege. They pay a price for being different; they may pay that price throughout their lives and with their lives.
(Straight) women can be commoditized by that patriarchy. To the degree that women can or would resist being subjugated, they are victims of patriarchy; to the degree that they freely welcome it and the rewards that come with partaking in the oppression of their own sex, to that degree the oppressed is also the oppressor. In other words, the universal victimhood of women is a truth that needs to escape its own gravity if it is to be grasped clearly. When they emasculate a men on misogynistic grounds or tolerate homophobia, women support heteropatriarchy. Erica Jong described women as “the only exploited group in history to have been idealized into powerlessness.” I digress.
When I was young, I realized that there is a language to society (colloquially referred to as “social cues”) that escaped my awareness though it was expected that I would “get” its claims on me as a male. It was the tacit rhythms of boyhood that just didn’t stick in my mind. Everyone assumes that maleness is the all-access ticket and backstage pass to male privilege. They do not realize that you first have to “get” its “language” and adhere to it. Being male is not enough.
For that, and not necessarily a penis, is the locus of male privilege. That’s what counts when you network and play golf and make small talk and nod at other men in the corridor. It’s an unspoken “Yes” to partaking in dominant masculinity; it’s a “Yes” to treating women like objects and trophies to crown men’s achievements in life; it’s a “Yes” to that strange blend of endless one-upmanship and solidarity among men. It is a “Yes” to not showing women that they are actually prey and targets and trophies and tokens in a game understandable only to the men playing it; it is a “Yes” to using chivalry and generosity and being a player or charmer or pick-up artist (or whatever they call it these days) as a respectable disguise for this game. Acting and passing straight is not enough: you have to “get” this. And I did not. This is an unspoken, body-language promise to remain invincible and stoic and impassive and close ranks; it is a promise to never cry, never show any emotion other than fear or anger, never flinch, never back down from a challenge and never question patriarchy. It’s a body-language commitment to never articulate these issues or make other men vulnerable by speaking about them. It is to never cast the shadow of doubt on the idols of patriarchy, tribalism and feudalism (if you are Zulu and Zwelithini and Zuma are your kings and fathers). I never got this, and other guys knew, instinctively, that I never got this. So, I was not, and could not ever be, “one of the boys.”
In other words, there is an agreement among penis-bearers to never expose the burdens and dynamics of being a penis-bearer, or expose other penis bearers to criticism and scrutiny on the basis of their being penis-bearers. Male privilege is a pact among men who “get” this language, this secret handshake. I think it is biological and instinctive. And I never got it.
And if you do not get this, and others can sense that you do not, you get ostracized, “othered,” excluded, bullied and so on. You are free to do yourself and other men a favour by committing suicide because your existence makes them uncomfortable and threatens to expose the whole deal. Of course, nobody talks out loud about why you’ve been left out because nobody talks about Fight Club, so those who don’t “get it” (such as women, who are not supposed to get it, who never have to get it, whose only role in this is to look pretty and stay in the kitchen) will never know why you have been othered. Wait, I lie. Some women do get it. My mother hired someone to help around the house. After seeing me for a split second, she privately said to my mother, “You know that your son will never bring home a makoti, right?” My mother fired her, of course, but that does not change what she saw, or that others will see it until the day I die.
And on some level everyone else in straight society “gets it”. Whenever someone sympathetically says of gay people, “Who would choose so much victimization and suffering?” what they are admitting, whether they realize it or not, is that there is a bro code among men that goes beyond its commitment to limiting all sexual affection to women and the control and possession of women; they are admitting that this unspoken bro code is the essence of male privilege, and they are admitting that gay men have been left out on the side-lines, some gay men more so than others. When gay people say, “I did not choose to be gay,” they may be stating a simple truth about themselves and their sexuality. But they may also be admitting that simple biological maleness was not sufficient for the acquisition of male privilege, and they now suffer. It takes biological maleness, plus heterosexuality, plus, plus, plus a lot of other tacit agreements with the hegemony, to actually benefit from male privilege.
Of course male privilege exists. I would know. I spent my whole sixth grade avoiding being further victimized by it by point-blank not going to school. Puberty was setting in, the differences were getting pronounced and magnified, I felt more vulnerable and exposed, the bullying was intensifying, and I just could not cope. I went through a slew of psycho-somatic illnesses and studied from home for years, literally only showing up for major tests and examns, before mustering up the courage to eventually get back into the fray and navigate it. My greatest achievement in school, I believe, was that I went to school. I pulled through because I learned to tolerate and navigate and block out abuse I cannot talk about. And I know that I am not the only person who has been through stuff like this. I do not normally talk about it, but the Facebook conversation compels me.
Whether you accept male privilege or not, it becomes an albatross, a cross, that you carry around for being male unless you are built to benefit form it. “You cannot be the victim of ____ (name a form of sexual or any other kind of violence coming from men or women,) because you’re a man.” When a woman violates my personal space in ways that would be frowned upon if roles were reversed, I am told, “You’re a guy, so you must feel very lucky that ____ is happening to you.” You are a guy, so you have three emotions, three modes of being: horny, angry and aggressive. You do not have the right to be more human than that. Suffering from an emotional trauma as debilitating or dehumanizing as can be? Pull yourself together. You are privileged, so your suffering is not real.
That’s why, when I stumbled across a Facebook thread touching on First For Women’s ads, I ranted off about their adverts. Most of their ads seem premised on a very simplistic (but not simple) idea: men enjoy risky and stupid behaviour; therefore, we will cater solely to women’s insurance needs. I see women lauded as the only other, and superior, way of being in the world. By exaggerating the dichotomy, the brand exacerbates it. Instead of questioning the idea of superiority on the basis of gender and fighting the status quo, the brand’s adverts simply take the status quo and flips it, giving women power (which is good) on an inversion, not an elimination, of the bases that patriarchy has given it to men all along. The status quo is not abolished; it is turned the other way which simply means the knife cuts me (and many like me) the other way. It still cuts, though this time the hand wielding it has nail polish, and the person, the common decency not to have a penis. It is a different language and a different hegemony, but it is still a language that upholds one hegemony over another. I do not apologize for abhorring the brand. Do not get me started on the women who actually buy into this because of this man-shaming or the reinforcement of gender stereotypes. That would be too small a thing to be angry about, and I am not that petty.
I have yet to see an ad by the gay-niched insurance companies sells its insurance products comparing them to straight people to the detriment of straight people. First For Women, on the other hand, has, with one exception, consistently made ads that have taken the worst fauxs men are known for, and projected them onto all maleness. No nuances and no exeptions: pure gender binary reinforcement and misandry, packaged as harmless advertising and therefore much more difficult to call out. You become the chronically angry screaming queer if you say anything. “Male privilege is the very capacity to be angry about this,” I was told. “We have a lot of room to be angry about so little.” I beg to differ. I replied, “Your critique overlooks those of us who are male and don’t want male privilege” – because it hurts and terrifies us, viscerally, every day. “That aversion to male privilege is not something we can opt in and out of: it’s the essence of who we are and the uphill struggle we’ve been involved in to be ourselves. The ‘lot of room’ is as much an effect of patriarchy as the trivializing of the ‘so little’ that you and many others do so glibly – knowing not what you do.”
This lots of room is actually a big stage with a massive audience, and you are called on to perform your masculinity. You have a penis; therefore, you have no excuse: you are supposed to tick all the boxes that the boys you are not one of have ticked by your age. If you say you are against the system that has privileged them, you are told you are lying because you have also benefited from the system. If you say you have been hurt by it, you are told that you have a lot of room to be angry about so little. If you use your voice to call out male privilege, you are reminded that you at least have a voice as a man to call out male privilege. Your critics forget that to speak about the system is to be marked for death by it, and that you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Fact is, you were damned from birth. I know I was.
In the thread, someone commented, “Without changing the status quo, the only other way to ‘lose’ your male privilege is by dying. You don’t want it, but you have it.”
To which I responded, “Is that why gay kids are at a four times greater risk of committing suicide than their straight counterparts?”
It was an honest question. I would hope for an honest answer.
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to comment and share.
Siya Khumalo writes about religion, politics and sex.