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Playing the man card is not about being a man

The need to prove manliness is now everywhere. It even has its own presidential campaign. Men have their own toothpaste which has “powerful” mint taste as opposed to — what? frilly? — mint taste. They have their own Bic pens to help them stay distinct from women. A proper “guy” car has “aggressive” tires. Just so you know, aggressive tires don’t actually reach out and bite people. They’re big, with big truck-type treads and designed to make a lot of road noise. I saw an ad a while back about how so long as you drank some kind of beer your man card was safe. (Miller Lite, I just looked it up. Irony is dead.)

So, what is all this? Are men honestly that confused about themselves that they fear the loss of important parts if they wear yoga pants? Are they worried they’ll get pregnant if their tires don’t make a lot of noise?

No. Not even the most ignorant politician on all the continents is worried about sprouting a womb.

The whole thing makes sense immediately, however, once you notice that none of it is about maleness.

It’s about status. It’s about a very specific kind of status, the kind you’re born into. I’m going to call that caste in this piece because we no longer really have a word in English for status-by-birth. It used to be class, but class is now something you can move out of. Status-by-birth is not supposed to exist. We’re all equal now. Theoretically. But, not theoretically, some are very much more equal than others.

A tangential point about status: it’s not just some superficial concern of shallow people. Everybody’s clear that status marks how accepted and important a person is in the group, but we tend to ignore what that means for social animals like human beings. We cannot survive without the support of our group. The rarity of exceptions just shows how universal the rule is. So feeling accepted by our group, even better, feeling important in it, hooks into a very deep part of our psyche going back to long before we were even human. The desire for status is so basic it overrides just about every other drive. Imminent death is almost the only thing that can make people no longer care about making themselves ridiculous or contemptible to their peers — which is what lower status feels like. The drive for status overrides sex by so much that sex is subsumed by it. Sexual relations become markers of status when, really, if they were about sex they’d be about attraction. They’d have nothing to do with the admiration of irrelevant third parties.

*Yes, I’m deliberately ignoring the whole non-binary argument. That body of work is so removed from the realities of sexual castes it is irrelevant. Show me one instance where a lower caste member, a biological female, is taken at her word when she says she’d really prefer to be believed and listened to and thought well of, and the response is, “Good heavens, yes. Of course. Our mistake.” followed by a complete change in attitude and actions. Then I’ll begin to believe we’ve started to reach a non-binary society. That isn’t to say theoretical work is not valuable, but theoretical work on gender is outside the scope of a discussion of the issues as they currently exist. Also, my point is about status, not sexuality.

So status is vitally important, and the two groups determined by sex are the only castes people still believe in. They’re the only ones where people really do assume that your birth says something about who you are, the only ones where one kind is automatically assumed to be better than the other. (If you’re thinking “binary!” please see side box*.) All the other castes have lost their legitimacy. The man card is about displaying the markers of your caste, the last one where you get to just be better without having to do anything for it, the last one where you get status for free.

And, of course, not displaying it means losing status, which is almost the worst thing that can happen to a social animal. Is it any wonder that men fall over themselves getting studly cars? Or that women cripple themselves to fit into the tiny spaces where they are admired?

It’s useful to remember some of the no longer recognized caste systems to see how similar they are to our last extant one.

Aristocrats were thought to be born better than peasants. That’s still reflected in the meaning of “noble” and “what a peasant!” The only difference is that we no longer believe in the existence of born “nobles.” It’s not accumulated evidence of centuries of goofy or sociopathic elites which accomplished that miracle. Those attitudes are impervious to evidence. It’s because those nobles, the hereditary titled aristocrats, lost power. The fact that they were certainly no better than anyone else became immediately obvious when they could no longer have “lesser” people tortured and jailed.

Our attitude to current wealthy elites is similar to what people used to feel toward aristocrats. If they do wrong, they usually aren’t punished. They’re above the law. If they say anything, even known drivel, it’s treated as newsworthy. If they push government to move money and power in their direction — “cut taxes” to use the modern terminology, with no discussion of who pays for the shortfall — that’s only to be expected. And so on, through the whole sorry and similar list of attitudes. We’re not free of class-based castes because we’re not free of the financial power underpinning them. So we think of them as “whatcha gonna do?” because such things are “inevitable.”

We’re in the process of moving away from caste-based thinking about race. Again, it’s the race that holds the economic and lethal power that gets the assumed superiority. The attitudes are still there in many people. What’s changed is that it’s no longer acceptable to say them out loud. Whites have to find other excuses for why they should hang on to higher status than simply “Well, obviously. We’re so much better.” Once they no longer have power over others’ lives, the absence of any real goodness in being white will become obvious to everyone, even whites.

India is also in that same process. Officially, it’s no longer respectable to assume someone’s birth tells you anything about how worthwhile they are. On the ground, it’s a very different story.

The important point to take on board is that attitudes to castes are automatic, unconscious, assumed, “natural,” “just the way things are.” It’s not something anyone does because they’re a stupid, bigoted person. Or because it gives them status and the benefits that accrue. A caste system, when it’s working, is assumed to be real.

Which brings us to the sex-based caste system. We’re still in the dark ages on that one. It’s still assumed to be real.

But it works the same way. Men control most economic resources. Only recently has it become less than 100%.

There is a school of thought that of course men control the resources. They’re bigger, faster, smarter, stronger, better. They’re just born that way. Caste-based thinking is nothing if not circular. But there are two obvious inconsistencies even within the tautological framework. If being smarter and stronger is the point, then why don’t the smartest and strongest men control everything? Why do weedy male aristocrats wind up perched permanently on top? And the second issue is if they controlled everything because they’re born better, their genetics haven’t changed in the last two hundred years. One is left standing there, as puzzled as a men’s rights activist, as to why they’re no longer at 100%.

The only thing that changed is the laws. The laws taking away women’s rights to own property were struck down in many countries, as well as some of the laws that enforced payment to male relatives for women’s work. Women still do a huge amount of unpaid work. To get a sense of the scale of the wealth transfer, consider that some 70% of the world’s work is done by women, but they get 44% of the wages. (Approximate calculation based on 2015 data in the World Economic Forum link.) Globally, women’s ownership of resources is near 1% (WSJ summary, full World Bank Development Report on Gender Equality 2012, latest year available). Marilyn Waring has done groundbreaking work on the topic. The expropriation of women’s resources is no longer complete, but it is ongoing. People always try to live in a just world, and the only way to make such obvious theft feel okay is to assume castes are real and thus justify it. So, as it used to be with other castes, people try quite hard to convince themselves they are real.

The other big reason is also the same as with previous types of castes. Control of brute force.

Here again, the automatic reaction is that’s natural because men are stronger. But the ruling classes are not noticeably bigger than other men. Men don’t fight each other one-on-one for dominance. Only for women are the rules of the game that they must deal with men alone and unaided, and when that doesn’t work it’s because of their personal weakness.

Any group of humans that wants power has to work together. Any group is stronger than any individual. Even a bunch of ten year-olds, if there are enough of them, can take down a full-grown man.

I know I’ve said this a couple of times already. We’re social animals. We understand the power of groups on a visceral level. So we also understand — without having to articulate it — that the first priority to retain power is to prevent others from acting together.

Sometimes this is formal and explicit. The power of the state rests on a monopoly of force. That is supposed to be for the good purpose of ensuring enough order to enable everyone to have a life, so we’re not ashamed to say it out loud.

Other attempts to monopolize force are more furtive, but sometimes more effective. It doesn’t take an explicit conscious agenda, only a gut level distaste for “them” visibly doing almost anything.

Of course, the most effective prevention of collective action happens when there’s no collective to begin with. The tactic is hard to apply against most groups because people gravitate to their own kind and before you know it some of them have realized they have a common cause. But it’s very effective against women because biology tends to mix the sexes together so the opportunities for finding commonality are more easily controlled once one group takes over.

And controlled they are. The first and most effective tool is by defining women as uncool, not admirable, not heroic, not interesting, definitely not the type of people to rally around and follow. Who would want to associate with low status not-quite-people like that? Presto, no group formation. Mission accomplished.

The Clinton campaign has given us hours of recent evidence of this dynamic at work. During the primary, the headlines were all about how unlikable she was, how unenthusiastic her voters are, how it’s like pulling teeth to acknowledge enthusiasm for Hillary. how her voters are all dowdy old women with nary a cool hip person to be seen for miles, how her followers weren’t visible on social media, and on and on and on and on. Of course women would rather not support some boring old grandmother. They’d much rather support a cool hip grandfather.

The only women who are widely admired are the ones who excel at attractiveness to men. Beyoncé is a household name. Sally Ride, Marie Curie, Shirin Ebadi, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Wangari Maathai, Zhou Qunfei, Aung San Suu Kyi, Rosalind Franklin, Ada Byron are not. (Not to take away from Beyoncé’s talent, but let’s face it, if she looked like Angela Merkel she could be just as talented and she would not be an icon.) Women are not admired for their ideas or their leadership. Women are generally admired for being admired by men. The reference point is men. Not women. Never women. Women are not cool enough for their activities to be important.

In Steve Biko’s famous words, “The first weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

Women are prevented from coordinating with each other at the most basic level. They’re told they don’t want to, and until they examine it, they believe it. We’re social animals. We believe our group above all.

There’s another recent phenomenon whose effect is to destroy collective action by women, although its stated intent is highminded. I’ve watched people take decades and still not understand that women are human enough to qualify for human rights (such as not being attacked by your relatives). So, to me, how fast the left, the progressives!, have accepted the validity of defining women out of existence has been mind boggling.

Gender identity studies have been bent from their roots in feminism, of all things, to suborn the very language the lower caste needs to understand what’s going on.

Studying gender identity should be about the value of diversity (because it is valuable! nature destroys monocultures). So it should be stressing the importance of respecting the right to self-definition of each and every person. That would be good.

But that’s not the big message coming out of gender identity studies now. Instead they’re trying to take away the very words, like “woman,” because men who identify as women feel excluded by the term. (If you haven’t heard about this before and are boggling, trust me, I am not making this up. Or even exaggerating.)

The giveaway is that there is no equivalent insistence on destroying the concept of “man.” Presumably that is just as painful to women who identify as men, but somehow that’s not even up for discussion. Meanwhile, everyone nods along about letting anyone and everyone, so long as they’re not members of the lower caste, define what it means to be a woman. The other giveaway is that any group containing men, such as blacks, American Indians, etc., is explicitly allowed to self-define. Anything less is considered bigoted. The only group to whom that doesn’t apply is our last remaining lower caste.

Preventing any consciousness of a collective is never enough. Enforcement is also necessary. In some parts of the world, women are stringently limited to staying at home which prevents meaningful exercise of the right to associate. In the countries trying to abide by rule of law, though, the laws and publicly accepted customs no longer support that.

Unfortunately for the project of keeping women always on the outside looking in, they have learned how to read. And write. It’s almost impossible to prevent even physically isolated people from understanding their common problems when they’re literate.

So another type of enforcement is applied. Women are belittled. “[A] woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” (Samuel Johnson, 1763) If you can convince the lower caste they’re worthless, they won’t fight for such tertiary creatures even if they can articulate the problem.

It works. Women are the only group always willing or required to put their less-important concerns at the back of the line. Racism needs attention first, or war in the Middle East, or poverty, or something, anything, completely disregarding the fact that more than half the suffering from any other problem is borne by women.

The project of belittling women is ongoing.. (Moss-Racusin 2012) However, it’s meeting with less and less success because truths, once seen, can’t be unseen. As more women describe the injustices they face, more and more people understand the actual problem. The effect is cumulative, unlike lies which have to be rebuilt every time they’re run over by reality.

So the enforcement against women getting out of “their place” becomes more and more obvious. But all of it has a hurdle to overcome. Officially, women are equal to men. Officially, they’re not supposed to be kept in any specific place. Enforcement these days in Western-style democracies takes place without much help from the law. Sometimes that behavior is even officially illegal.

But — and this is the hallmark of keeping women “in their place” — laws or customs against the required nastiness become curiously unenforced. All that’s needed is some people who are willing to do what it takes to shove women back down. Meanwhile, the finickier members of the higher caste and their hangers-on don’t notice or write it off as “fun” or an individual aberration or, at best, shrug regretfully and say, “Whatcha gonna do?” Meanwhile, the caste system remains and it’s nobody’s fault. Which is, of course, essential if it’s “real” and untouched by human hands.

Enforcement actions against women are widespread in private or there wouldn’t be a “domestic” abuse problem, but I wanted to go over the ones keeping women out of public life. Collective action is not possible from the confines of your living room, an understanding evident in, for instance, the old South African banning orders against activists.

The internet has become the modern public square and has some of the most widespread and vicious silencing seen since the far-off days of ducking stools for women who spoke loud enough to hear.

cartoon of two women being abused for expressing feminist ideas on social media

It’s particularly noticeable because publication on the internet can’t be prevented. When there are gatekeepers, women simply don’t get a hearing. Problem solved. But anybody can write anything on the internet, even women.

Now we have armies of trolls silencing women. The trolls are not simply disturbed lowlifes acting out their own neuroses, although they’re that, too. They are not silencing everyone equally. Women get hugely more harassment, and it’s much cruder and more violent. They’re told to ignore graphic threats of torture by men not self-evidently incapable of carrying them out, because it’s just a joke, it’s not for real (until it is). The cost in time, mental energy, and effort in trying to avoid attack is left entirely up to women. Nothing is done about the perpetrators.

Compare that shoulder shrugging to the reaction to an actual joke. A white female fourteen year-old fed up with US airport security sent out a sarcastic tweet about blowing up airline passengers. The FBI was called out.

Does the harassment work? Of course it does. Look at the current example of the so-called enthusiasm gap of Hillary voters. Supposedly, they don’t really like her (she’s not “likable,” y’know?) so they can’t be bothered to mention their support for her. In reality? They can’t express their political opinions without harassment, so they don’t. It’s a fundamental offense against the very freedom of speech that’s supposed to be so sacrosanct. Except when it silences women.

The decades-long dust-up about abortion is another tool to try to keep women in their place. It’s never been about life. The people most intent on denying women control over their own bodies are not generally anti-war or against the death penalty or for needle exchange programs to save drug addicts’ lives or for contraceptives to reduce the demand for abortions. They just want to deny women abortions so that their biology can be used to control their lives.

Furthermore, even if it was about human life, it’s a rule applied only to women. In other cases where someone will die without life support, they have no right to requisition a kidney or part of a liver from someone with a tissue match. The very concept is shocking, and yet taking over somebody else’s body is actually up for debate or, worse, taken for granted, when it comes to women.

Imagine if it was decided that people’s intestinal bacteria were such a finely tuned ecosystem that it would be irresponsible to kill it off just because you happened to need antibiotics for some disease. So first you’d be required to prove you’d been responsible in doing everything you could to avoid infection in the first place. The custom of handshaking would disappear overnight. People would wear face masks to the grocery store.

Withholding solutions to biological issues can be used to control anyone. But outside of torture, only female biology is turned into a problem since that can be targeted at women.

The real giveaway is that while other methods were working to keep women down, nobody was confused about the nature of the fetus. The irreplaceable Sady Doyle tweeted about this quote from a conservative evangelical seminary professor in 1968:

“God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed. The Law plainly exacts: “If a man kills any human life he will be put to death” (Lev. 24:17). But according to Exodus 21:22-24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense. …. Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.”

{Sady Doyle adds:]
This [life begins at conception] is a late-20th-century belief. Not only do sacred texts not support it, they CONTRADICT it. It’s politics, masquerading as faith.

It’s not unexpected or coincidental that “fetal personhood,” as ideology, arose at precisely the moment the Pill & second-wave feminism did.

This is not core belief. This is backlash to women’s autonomy. It arrived right on time. We only PRETEND it was always there.

Then there’s the last and technology-independent barrier: keeping women out of physical public space. It’s the ultimate line of defense to keep them boxed in, literally and figuratively. Unfortunately for the caste system, unless you have laws enforcing invisibility, like Saudi Arabia, it’s becoming increasingly impossible to get women to disappear. The only effective remaining tool is the worst: the threat of sexual torture, with enough actual torture to make it more than an empty threat.

I’m calling it torture not because that’s a colorful term, but because it’s the right one. The purpose of torture is to destroy the target’s ability to resist the torturer. It’s to make the target terrified to do anything that might run afoul of the torturer again. It channels the victim into behaving the way the torturer wants, or at the very least into hiding from him. Rape fits that pattern perfectly.

Unlike other crimes of severe violence, rape is met with all the usual caste-affirming excuses. Boys will be boys, so whatcha gonna do. The subtext is it’s somehow “natural,” an unfortunate side effect of basic nature, part of reality, something humans can do nothing about.

That attitude gets a big boost from the usual confusion about sex organs and sex. Just because sex organs are involved in torture doesn’t make it sex. Rape is torture that uses sex. Not unfortunate sex that felt bad. Also, imagine the excuse of “naturalness” being used against murder, a crime with a history older than humans.

Dependent on the naturalness of it all is the insistence that it’s all the victim’s fault. If she hadn’t done whatever it was that caused the predictable “natural” consequence, then it wouldn’t have happened. The crime is her fault. All she has to do to achieve that triggering effect is to exist while female. If being invisible were enough to prevent rape, the crime would be unknown in places like Saudi Arabia. But that’s not the case. Because its purpose is to box in women.

By the way, this is why whenever a rape is notable enough to make it into the news, there’s always an undercurrent, or even an explicit current, of questions about what the victim(s) ought to have done to avoid the situation. That drags the crime back into the frame of something natural, abhorrent but natural. Then nobody has to see it as an atrocious tool of caste enforcement that human beings could stop doing. There’s also the factor that potential victims are desperate to believe there’s something they can do to stay safe, but the two are not at all mutually exclusive.

When pretending it’s “normal” no longer works, then it’s an individual aberration, men with mental problems, definitely without wider implications for the structure of the whole society. If the pattern starts becoming too clear, then the crime is insignificant, something to joke about. (At least in the US, we’ve only recently reached this stage. Fifty years ago, there was no mainstream joking on the topic.)

Sylvia Walby’s research into the reality of violence against women in the UK demonstrates how the Crime Survey erases the experiences of people who experience domestic violence by capping the number of crimes that one person can report at 5. The Office for National Statistics insist the cap is necessary as “otherwise the sheer number of crimes committed by perpetrators against the same individual would skew the rest of the statistics.”

When it is acknowledged as a real crime, the laws against it are hardly enforced. As with lesser harassments so long as the targets are women, it’s always just too difficult. Imagine if we pursued every single case of street harassment, “domestic” violence, and rape! Why, the police would have no time to deal with any other crimes! That’s rarely explicitly said out loud, although sometimes (see side box) it is. But even unstated, it’s always there as a subtext in a backhanded acknowledgement of the fact that men make women live in a war zone.

I’ve been writing as if men don’t get raped because as a tool of social control — not on an individual level — they don’t. The main exception is prison rape, but that just proves my point. The contrast between men’s danger of rape inside and outside prison shows how much difference frequency of occurrence makes for social control. Outside of prison, it doesn’t even occur to men to worry about it. Women have to structure their entire schedules around avoiding attack, and even that doesn’t keep them from being victimized.

Now, there’s no reason except the caste system for why adult men aren’t raped often outside of prison. But the unspoken assumption is that it doesn’t happen because it’s not the natural order of things. Men lack the anatomy to be raped the same way as women. And anatomy is just the way things are.

But men can be raped. The point isn’t the method. The point is the sexual humiliation. Abu Ghraib showed everyone that sexual humiliation to break a man’s spirit worked very well. Sexual humiliation makes a person want to hide forever. It destroys many people, including men, as a force to be reckoned with.

So it’s interesting that it is the form of torture applied against women to keep them in their caste. Lower class men are kept in line with mere economic and police force, not torture. (Although that was used in medieval times.) But applying rape is making the victim “your bitch.”

Two asides about excellent articles posted recently. First, something the always outstanding Glosswitch said.

…I was convinced that this was because men just didn’t quite get it. They didn’t yet understand rape, what it was, what it did. Now I’m not so sure the opposite isn’t true. Men don’t rape because they don’t know the damage it does; perhaps they rape because they do. …

As a feminist blogger, I could have a template for all the posts about rape that I could have written, using contemporary examples, at any point in my lifetime: why women are not like laptops/mobile phones/unlocked houses; why the latest police safety campaign is victim-blaming nonsense; why that particular rapist’s sporting/acting/academic achievements do not make his crime less serious; why false accusations are far rarer than is widely assumed; why it is not “common sense” to constantly tell women to restrict their own freedom of movement, etc, etc. As a subject, it’s amazing that rape culture could be both so enraging and so mind-numbingly boring. If we’ve made these arguments once, we’ve made them a million times. It has become a purification ritual. Moreover, it has almost become part of rape culture itself. Just as masculinity reforms and consolidates itself via the repeat performance of being “in crisis,” rape culture has acquired its own cyclical narrative. Violation, exposure, outrage, repentance, repeat ad infinitum.

That is exactly the point I have been trying to make. It is a part of rape culture. It is a purification ritual. It’s all an attempt to keep it in the realm of “natural,” outside of human control, not, God forbid!, the brute force holding up the caste system. And yes, of course men know on some level. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t fear prison rape until it happened to them. But to keep the caste system going, it’s vital to pretend rape has something to do with sex and is “natural.” Otherwise, it’s obviously violence serving the caste system and the whole thing will become evident for the con job that it is. So there has to be a cycle of wash, rinse, and repeat. It’s all an elaborate shadow play to ignore the actual purpose of rape, to ignore the fact that it’s not pointless and crazy, to look away from its job of being the final blow to keep women down.

The second aside is about a phrase often heard now. “Toxic masculinity” describes the whole suite of behaviors whose purpose is to damage people. There’s a problem with the term. Yes, those behaviors are toxic. They’re meant to be. They’re the brutal face of the enforcement system. But the phrase buys into the idea that they have something to do with masculinity. It actually confirms the caste-affirming notion that any of this is natural, rather than just an attempt to maintain the castes. Men are flashing their man cards not because they want to be men, but because they want to be upper caste. And the brutality is just the same as that which underpinned other castes we no longer believe in.

Even though it’s a colorful term, I think “toxic masculinity” isn’t actually useful. Because it’s not about masculinity. None of this has anything to do with male and female. It’s about power, control, benefits. Not sex. Accepting the frame that masculinity plays into it somewhere is at least partly buying in to the system causing the problem.

Getting back to the caste system itself, I was talking about the final force holding it up.

Sexual torture is the worst tool not only in the damage it does to human beings. It’s also the worst in a different sense. A caste system can only be maintained if people believe it’s real. Once the violence shows, the castes lose their legitimacy. Real differences, such as the color of your hair, don’t change depending on violence. Sooner or later, everybody notices that caste differences can’t be real if they have to be propped up with torture.

Now that rape culture is beginning to be recognized, it’s the beginning of the end. But rape culture isn’t really the right term for the whole picture. It’s just the harshest end of the spectrum. It continues through the lower grades of harassment, the unwillingness to stop or prevent all kinds of harm to women, the belittling, the definition of women as uncool unadmirable nonentities, and all the way to the desperation of men to hang on to their man cards at all costs.

The problem with applying the descriptor “rape” to the culture of belittling women or buying your perfume after-shave in square stocky bottles is it doesn’t help people see the connections right up to the mildest and most effective imprints of the caste system. The unthinking reaction is to reject the label because, obviously, that’s not “rape.” And one reaction is often all you can hope for. Thinking is rare. So we’d be better served by terminology that’s easier to recognize, including rape culture for the worst end.

All the manifestations, from mild to horrible, are tentacles of the caste system. But once the foundation of the castes in money and violence beomes visible, they never regain legitimacy. To close with another of Sady Doyle’s pithy summaries. May 28, 2016:

But if we admit the game is giving some women conditional value to distract from violence against us all, it’s ruined.