Blog By Barry

January 14, 2009

Response to Christina Hoff Sommers, Part 2: Do Feminists Hate Men?

Filed under: Anti-feminists and their pals — Tags: — Ampersand @ 12:53 am

Self-described “conservative feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers delivered a speech outlining her primary objects to contemporary feminism. Item one: “Today’s movement takes a very dim view of men.”

And here is the problem with the play and with the gender feminist* philosophy that informs it: Most men are not brutes. They are not oppressors. Yes, there are some contemptible Neanderthals among us, and I have no sympathy for them whatsoever. But to confuse them with the ethical majority of men is blatantly sexist.

In the video clip (but not in the transcript), Sommers is more over-the-top in defining feminists as male-haters, going so far as to express pity for boys whose mothers are feminists.

I’d like to see a serious discussion of male-bashing in feminism. Unfortunately, Sommers’ treatment of the subject isn’t serious. She cites one, and only one, source to show that “the gender feminist philosophy” considers “most men… brutes”: Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues.

But The Vagina Monologues isn’t a non-fiction essay. It’s a play about women’s experiences surviving rape and abuse. That’s not the sole subject of the play, but — just after the importance of women loving their bodies — it’s the primary theme. Complaining that a play about the abuse and rape of women has too many abusive men in it is unreasonable and unfair.

There is a positive male character in The Vagina Monologues, a man who so loves vaginas that he teaches his girlfriend to love her own vagina. Sommers dismisses this character entirely, for the transparently ridiculous reason that the character is describes as being bland on first meeting (although he later proves to be an unusually great lover, because he loves women’s sex parts so much). It’s hard to respond to Sommers’ argument, because it’s not even an argument; it’s just an irrelevant statement. He is a positive character; he doesn’t mysteriously cease being a positive character because he seems bland at first, or because he loves vaginas.

In this speech, that’s Sommers’ only evidence that contemporary feminism considers most men brutes — in one popular play about rape and abuse, many but not all of the male characters are negative. I find that evidence underwhelming.

Note what Sommers doesn’t include: A single recent quote from a feminist leader saying “most men are brutes.” If this is indeed the common viewpoint of contemporary feminism, I’d think that Sommers would be able to find a dozen such quotes easily; yet Sommers doesn’t provide even one.

* * *

Sommers’ case is ridiculous, overstated, and the “evidence” she introduces is embarrassingly weak. But I’d like to consider the question of feminist hatred of men a little bit more.

In the comments at Feminist Law Professors, David Cohen writes:

I strongly contest her theories about feminist hatred of men. For the past two decades, I’ve now been a very outspoken feminist man on three very different university campuses, within one prominent feminist legal advocacy group, and as a frequent blogger on this blog. With the advocacy group I worked for for 7 years, I worked with many other feminist legal advocacy groups. In none of these settings was I ever once treated in any way that made me feel that the (mostly all, but not exclusively so) women hated me or men generally. They (as do I) hate men who do bad things to women (and other men). But, there is no general hatred of men. Sommers’ claims to the contrary are just wrong. In fact, I often found (and still find) myself in a position I didn’t want to be in — being praised for my feminist work because of the work but also because I was a man. I appreciate the first part of that but feel like the second part is wrong-headed and unnecessary.

That seems right to me. I can’t claim to have worked as much with feminists as David Cohen; but I’ve been a women’s studies major, occasionally volunteered for feminist causes, and virtually all my friends for the past 20 years have been feminists. And, with one exception, my experiences have been similar to David’s. If man-hating is so pervasive in contemporary feminism, why don’t men in feminism encounter it more?

Furthermore, in my experience, feminists are more likely than non-feminists to be supportive if I say men are screwed over by sex role expectations; that the targeting and bullying of wimpy boys is a real and significant problem (non-feminists are more apt to respond “boys will be boys”); that being cut off from feeling free to express ourselves emotionally does real damage to men; that men who go into traditionally female fields like child care are unfairly looked at with suspicion; and so on. Again, with one exception.

That one exception is, the internet. Years ago, on Ms Magazine’s feminist bulletin board (this was in the dark ages, before blogs even) I met a handful of self-proclaimed radical feminists who’d say genuinely man-hating things: men are biologically inferior to women, all men consciously plot to keep all women in fear of rape, and so forth. These women were a minority of posters on the Ms boards (and a minority among the radical feminists there), and many other posters objected to these statements.

Nonetheless, these bigoted, anti-male views do exist among a small minority of feminists, and ever since the Ms Boards I can no longer say I’ve never encountered any genuinely man-hating feminists. But to claim that such views are the dominant philosophy of contemporary feminism is nonsense.

It’s also through the internet that I first encountered men’s rights activists, also known as MRAs. MRAs, of course, are extremely sympathetic to the idea that boys and men are being harmed by contemporary sex roles — but for many, their sympathy is exclusively for males. Their is a tone of bitterness and hatred in how many MRAs discuss women and harms to women, very similar to the way some feminists on the Ms Boards discuss men and harms to men. The difference is that those feminists are, in my experience, a small minority among all feminists; but a huge portion of MRAs exhibit rage towards towards women in general and feminists in particular.

* * *

There’s a more subtle form of sexism against men that I think is much more common than the “men are mostly brutes” mentality that Sommers criticizes (but provides no examples of). In the last 20 years — and due, in my opinion, to the growth of the MRA movement (which was itself strongly influenced by Sommers’ book Who Stole Feminism?)– too many feminists have developed a knee-jerk resistance to discussions of how sexism harms men.

This is understandable. After a hundred conversations with MRAs, feminists have learned that when someone begins talking about how men are harmed by sexism, they’re often leading up to the anti-feminist conclusions that women have nothing to complain about, and feminism is a morally terrible movement. Concerns about harms to men are sometimes use by MRAs to crowd out discussion of harms to women. Feminists, frankly, have become defensive, and in some cases have circled their rhetorical wagons.

But although this is understandable, I also think it’s unfortunate. Men are harmed by sexism, and although I wouldn’t want that point to crowd out discussions of harms to women, it should be part of the spectrum of issues feminists discuss.

(*Although Hoff Sommers uses the term “gender feminist,” which she coined, she never defines the term in the transcript of her speech. (In the video, she says she uses the term interchangably with “victim feminist.) For more about the term “gender feminist,” see this series of posts. Although she wouldn’t put it this way, in practice Sommers categorizes all feminists who aren’t libertarian conservatives as “gender feminists.”)

To allow intra-feminist discussion, comments on this post on “Alas, a Blog” are limited to feminist and feminist allies only. However, the cross-post at “Blog By Barry” is open to feminists and non-feminists.

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11 Comments »

  1. I think the term “hate”, in so far as it indicates an emotion felt by such and such a person is a hard thing to prove. On the other hand, that certain prominent online feminists – Heart and Twisty, for instance – indulge in hate propaganda against men, seems to me beyond doubt.

    Of course, I’m not suggesting that either of these two bloggers admits to misandrist propaganda, just as I’m sure that Byrdeye doesn’t admit to being an antisemite. Hate propaganda rarely involves a confession of hatred on the part of the propagandist – in fact such a confession would give the game away.

    The usual procedure is to present the people to be pilloried in the worst possible light, producing a plethora of examples of their bad behaviour, always associating that bad behaviour with their group membership, and generally equating a whole category: a race, a nationality, a sex, with the worst individuals belonging to it. Counter-examples are disallowed and ignored, and if by chance some member of the to-be-pilloried group (it might be a relative of the propagandist, for example) is found to be praiseworthy for whatever reason, then his/her good actions are never to be associated with group membership.

    Does anybody want to take me up on this?

    p.s. Ampersand, do you have any ambitions for this blog, or is it just a “bin” for comments considered too inflammatory for “Alas”?

    Comment by Tom Nolan — January 14, 2009 @ 11:25 am

  2. I’m gonna decline the chance to comment on Heart or Twisty; it’s not my purpose to start a blogwar.

    I don’t know what the goals for this blog are. Being a place for comments that don’t fit in at “Alas” is one purpose of it, but I’m open to seeing what else develops.

    I don’t intend for the comments here to be a free-for-all, however; I’ll be deleting comments that seem to me to lack interest (due to incivility or stupidity) whenever it seems appropriate.

    Comment by Ampersand — January 14, 2009 @ 11:54 am

  3. That’s fine, Amp, but any other takers?

    Does anyone want to deny my assertion that there are important, well-recognized feminists in blogland who hate men – and that they have lost little or no credibility amongst online feminists in consequence?

    Comment by Tom Nolan — January 14, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

  4. The usual procedure is to present the people to be pilloried in the worst possible light, producing a plethora of examples of their bad behaviour, always associating that bad behaviour with their group membership, and generally equating a whole category: a race, a nationality, a sex, with the worst individuals belonging to it. Counter-examples are disallowed and ignored, and if by chance some member of the to-be-pilloried group (it might be a relative of the propagandist, for example) is found to be praiseworthy for whatever reason, then his/her good actions are never to be associated with group membership.

    Does anybody want to take me up on this?

    So I’m not the only one that has noticed this?

    Comment by Danny — January 14, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

  5. Tom, I’m not familiar with enough of blog feminism to take you up on it. My general thought would be that blog feminists man haters are a minority.

    Comment by thebigmanfred — January 14, 2009 @ 10:01 pm

  6. “Hate propaganda” seems like a prejudicial term; it implies conscious conspiracies, a long-range, organized campaign, etc.. I think it would be more accurate to say that Heart doesn’t like or trust men as a class, and sometimes says so in her writing. Heart has said she’s been seriously abused by multiple ex-husbands; if I went through that, maybe I wouldn’t like or trust men, either.

    I just glanced at her blog. The vast majority of the posts on her front page aren’t about men. They’re about women. And they’re often about important subjects, that people should be blogging about.

    I don’t understand your hunger to condemn her, or to see other feminists condemn her. What’s it to you, Tom?

    Comment by Ampersand — January 15, 2009 @ 12:45 am

  7. How on earth can a blog be important, unless you’re talking about Paul Krugman’s blog or something? They’re blogs. They practically define unimportance.

    The feminist blogosphere is divided into a bunch of sometimes overlapping spheres that often ignore each other. The radical feminist blogosphere isn’t the same as the mainstream feminist blogosphere isn’t the same as the sex-positive feminist blogosphere. Heart’s blog is very important within her own sphere, but how many Feministing readers read it?

    I really dislike the line of attack your set-up is suggesting, which is that the feminist blogosphere in general should be condemned for failing to condemn Heart/Twisty along the lines you prefer. It just seems like a sort of guilt by association.

    Comment by Ampersand — January 15, 2009 @ 12:50 am

  8. Hate propaganda” seems like a prejudicial term; it implies conscious conspiracies, a long-range, organized campaign, etc

    “Propaganda” is merely what is presented for public consumption with the intention of affecting the public’s opinion in a particular way – without regard to objectivity or fairness. I contend that what Heart writes about men (and others groups she dislikes) falls into that category.

    The reason that I brought in the “propaganda” element was that whereas it is difficult to prove what somebody or other is feeling it is relatively easy to discover what somebody is actually doing. And I did not suggest that Heart’s blog is exclusively given over to anti-male propaganda – merely that anti-male propaganda is one of its purposes. As you know, she has a series of posts, featuring awful things that men have done to women, entitled “Male Terrorism”, the obvious implication of which is that heterosexual rape, wife battery and so on are part of an organized campaign to subjugate women as a class. That is far too explicit and consistent a phenomenon to be the effect of a subconscious impulse. It’s the result of a policy: “men are to be presented in their worst light and by their worst examples”.

    Heart has said she’s been seriously abused by multiple ex-husbands; if I went through that, maybe I wouldn’t like or trust men, either

    Well, I’ve been beaten up several times in my life: each time, as it happens, by Arabs (it happened when I was living in a poor quarter of Montpellier). Which, naturally, would be no excuse for anti-Arab prejudice on my part – and no excuse for you to let such prejudice go unchallenged if you came across it.

    It’s also untrue that Heart’s anti-male propaganda (I don’t think, by the way, that she hates men in real life) stems immediately from her bad experiences at the hands of violent males. Its immediate origin lies in her conversion to feminism, and the conviction that one way for a novice to achieve prominence amongst online feminists was to take as anti-male a stance as her stance had been anti-secular when she was a preacher.

    I don’t understand your hunger to condemn her

    I haven’t condemned her, merely pointed out, in response to your question “Do Feminists Hate Women?”, that – leaving their experienced emotions aside, because we have no access to them – that there are feminists important in that corner of the internet where we both, Ampersand, spend quite a bit of our time, who quite definitely promote the hatred of men. If I hadn’t named names, I’m quite sure you would have asked me to stop generalizing and produce some examples of feminists involved in hate prop. I merely pre-empted the request.

    Comment by Tom Nolan — January 15, 2009 @ 2:12 am

  9. What’s it to you, Tom?

    I think that’s a very, very odd question to ask, Ampersand. When transwomen protest against the way the group they belong to is traduced on “Women’s Space” do you ask them the same question: “What’s it to you?” I’d give the same answer that they’d give.

    Comment by Tom Nolan — January 15, 2009 @ 3:45 am

  10. Ampersand, when I first learnt about men’s rights, I had to find out for myself if feminists hated men.

    So I phoned a friend from the past. She is the head of certain areas in the field of women.

    I couldn’t believe how much she had changed. She told me straight, “All men are rapists”.

    She worked hard for her place and she studied 20 years. She was previously, prior to head of DV, a well respected counsellor helping families cope with death through the women’s hospital. She was also a counsellor for women and addiction.

    It took me some time to snap her out of her way and she now visits the men who are the perpetrators in prison and tells of their horrid pasts. She even asks if women can complain about other high up feminists.

    The thing is this: These women are surrounded by female victims all day and night long. They have barriers around them that keep them from the balanced world. They only know what they deal with.

    They are isolated to only feminist thinking, only feminist study, only feminist research and only feminist work with women who are victims.

    The brain and heart can only take so much. It makes a lot of sense to expect these women to hate men.

    Comment by mareika — January 22, 2009 @ 7:31 am

  11. Just look at I. M. Young’s ‘Justice and the Politics of Difference’ (1990). It is full of one vehemently sexist, utterly discriminatory, anti-male stereotype after another, yet the fact that a society that is now super-sensitive about discrimination never objects to this sort of writing shows that men are now the truly disadvantaged group. Just consider Ms. Young’s statement, “Often several persons inflict violence together, especially in all-male groupings.” Just imagine the universal public condemnation if any other group had been mentioned in this statement in place of males, on whom there is now an open season for abuse. I believe in critical legal studies the fact that discrimination like this is no longer noticed or objected to is called the ‘invisibility of the marginalized.’

    Comment by somerville — May 9, 2011 @ 2:15 pm


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