Reflections on male privilege

Our biggest concern in ethics is unwanted arbitrariness. That is why I am against all kinds of discrimination (because the victims of discrimination cannot want their arbitrary exclusion). One form of discrimination is sexism. However, the discussion of sexism is often accompanied with the notion of ‘male privilege’. Here I want to reflect on this notion, and argue that it would be better to delete the word ‘male’ and simply speak about ‘privilege’.

Male privilege in the animal rights movement

The notion of male privilege is sometimes used in contexts where a lot of big questions can be raised. The best example is in the context of the animal rights movement. Some activists claim that the AR-movement is not women friendly, basically because of two reasons.

  1. Looking at the top positions in the major AR-organizations, we see mostly men. The same goes for spokespersons and public speakers. For example, most speakers at AR-conferences are men. It is as if men have a privilege to be leaders.
  2. Some male activists in the movement are responsible for sexually transgressive behavior towards women. It is as if men have a privilege to be sexually violent.

First of all, these two reasons should not be confused with each other. The sexually transgressive behavior is generally regarded (also by male activists) as illegal, immoral (a violation of basic rights such as the right to bodily autonomy) and counterproductive (it chases female activists away from the movement), whereas the fact that the CEO or director of an AR-organization is male is not considered as illegal or a basic rights violation. Feminist AR-activists want leadership positions for women, so they want women to have the first kind of privilege (being allowed to be a leader or public speaker). This means a leadership position is not problematic. But the second kind of privilege, the sexually transgressive behavior, is problematic: not even women are allowed to do that, according to feminists. So the two reasons (the two types of privilege) are very different. It is not self-evident that those two reasons are parts of the same ‘patriarchal’ system.

Second, strong claims require strong evidence. The vast majority of members in the AR-movement are female (some speak about 75% or higher). So the claim that a movement where more than 75% of the members are women is women unfriendly, is a pretty strong claim. Let us look at those two reasons in more detail.

The first reason is actually very strange. If 75% of the movement members are women, then why do we not see more women at the top of those organizations? Because they are excluded by the men? No, because those women could as well start their own organizations and become the leaders in those new organizations. They can organize their own conferences and speak at those conferences. Perhaps those women are not allowed to start organizations? No, we are living in a free society with freedom of organization (article 20 of the universal declaration of human rights says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”) Perhaps those new organizations directed by women would not gain much support? No, because most supporters in the movement are women (they can fund or volunteer at those new organizations). Perhaps those women would not be capable to lead organizations? Definitely not: women are as smart as men, and in our culture women perform better at schools and colleges (more women than men earn a college degree). Because those women doubt that they are capable to lead organizations, because through patriarchy they have internalized their subordinate position? Some people claim this is the answer, but it can be easily interpreted as being disrespectful towards women. Were men really capable to ‘hypnotize’ women into believing that they are not capable to lead organizations? Are we going to say to those women: “Look, even if you believe that you are not capable to lead, I know better than you, so you should go and lead an organization”? Did women really get a kind of Marxist ‘false consciousness’ about their possibilities and capabilities? Did a patriarchal system made women develop an ‘internalized oppression’ that distorts their perceptions? Some people argue that girls are tought in a patriarchal society not to take initiative, not to speak up, not to raise their hands, not to be assertive, and this explains why they become reluctant to become public speakers or leaders. The advice for male animal rights activists would then be to take a step back, to let the women speak, to let the women take initiatives. to wait 10 seconds before intervening in a conversation. However, one could say that men are already completely stepping back with 66% in the animal rights movement. Let us say that the movement has 150 members, 75 of them are female. Now we see that 50 men (66% of the 75 men) are backing off completely: they are absent. Hence we see only 25% men in the movement. But even when men are taking a step back with 66%, women still are reluctant to take initiative, speak up or raise their hands. Can the teachings for girls in a patriarchal society be so powerful?

One can easily think of a straightforward story that could explain what may be happening. 1) Feminists claim that more women should be leaders. 2) Many women say that they do not prefer to be leaders, that they have other ambitions and goals, or that they feel insecure. 3) This does not fit with the feminist story about patriarchal suppression. 4) Some feminists respond that those women have ‘internalized’ their oppression. I suggest, before we start believing that women have developed a kind of cognitive deficit that makes them poor assessors of their own capacities and situations, we first have to do much more scientific research to find very strong evidence for such claims. Otherwise it might be too disrespectful towards women.

My guess is that there is something else going on here, with the question why most leaders are men. Something else than ‘male privilege’ or ‘patriarchy’. That has to be researched further (Steven Pinker has some interesting things to say about this). In our society, we see mostly men in top positions (e.g. politics, businesses). This is often explained as a result of a patriarchal system. However, the fact that a movement dominated by female members also has this male presence at the top might indicate that we have to look for other explanations than patriarchy and other solutions than ‘fighting patriarchy’. Such solutions often remain hollow slogans (just like ‘fighting capitalism’), which means they are lacking concrete, effective actions.

As a reaction to the male leadership problem, some feminist animal rights activists claim that the movement should have at least 75% female leaders (“First, hire women. In a movement that is 75-80% women, no organization should be run by a man. If men are hired to serve as staff, they ought to be hired in proportion to the larger movement – no more than 25%.”) There are several worries with such high quota: can the movement become men unfriendly? Doesn’t it violate freedom (letting those who want to be leaders freely strive for leadership positions)? Isn’t this a kind of sexism where women are privileged? Imagine that 75% of AR-activists were men (or consider another movement containing 75% male members), and now there is someone claiming that those organizations should be led by men. Wouldn’t that be considered as highly problematic and sexist? If this becomes problematic, then why would it be unproblematic if we change the rule by writing ‘women’ instead of ‘men’? It is worrisome that some feminist activists propose sexist solutions. Hiring women as staff members, not because of their capabilities, motivation and interests but because they are women, introduces a rule that explicitly refers to gender in a context (leadership) that has nothing to do with gender. Having a vagina or having a female identity is irrelevant for being a good leader or CEO.

(Comment 1: one could argue that in organizations with male leaders, there is a stronger risk of employees or volunteers being sexually abused, for example by those leaders, compared to organizations with female leaders. One could then formulate a non-sexist rule that says we have to minimize sexual abuse. This rule is non-sexist because it does not refer to gender. At what percentage of female leaders in animal rights organizations would sexual abuse be minimized? It is possible that it is 100%, i.e. that all leaders should be female. If this policy is based on a non-sexist rule, it is also a non-sexist policy. The question is whether this conclusion is too drastic and whether there are better solutions to minimize sexual abuse, such as appointing independent third party female confidants.)

(Comment 2: some quota, positive discrimination or affirmative action can be useful, by way of experiment, in order to test whether it helps in countering gender biases, negative gender roles and negative stereotypes. But fighting discrimination with discrimination remains tricky and uncertain, and hence it should not be done excessively or too long.)

The above asymmetry indicates a sexism bias. There is an asymmetry when interchanging the words ‘men’ and ‘male’ with ‘women’ and ‘female’ would imply other conclusions and solutions. For example, if a movement would consist of 75% male members, the reaction would be to increase the number of female members, because otherwise the movement is too women unfriendly. But if a movement has 75% female members, who is going to argue that we should increase the number of male members to make the movement more male friendly?

The possibility that antisexist feminists can make sexist judgments or propose sexist solutions, is comparable to the possibility that antispeciesist animal rights activists can make speciesist judgments, for example when it comes to wild animal suffering. Those animal rights activists propose moral rules that explicitly refer to a species, such as the rule that human caused suffering is worse than non-human caused suffering. It is as if non-human animals have more rights to cause suffering. Similarly, those feminists propose rules that explicitly refer to a gender, such as the rule that X% of leaders should be female, or in other words, that male leadership is worse than female leadership. It is as if women have more rights to leadership positions. One thing they have in common, is that their speciesism and sexism are the reverse of the speciesism and sexism they are fighting against. Instead of privileging humans and males, they are privileging non-humans and females. Nevertheless, these kinds of speciesism and sexism remain discriminatory, because the morality of who can cause suffering has nothing to do with species and the morality of who can be a leader has nothing to do with gender.

The second reason – sexually transgressive behavior – is of course a serious concern, because it concerns an immoral violation of basic rights. Animal rights activists are against speciesism, so one would expect that they are against all kinds of discrimination. So it is extra troubling if they exhibit sexist behavior. It is as if they arbitrarily condone some kinds of unwanted arbitrariness.

Luckily, this second concern has a clear, tractable, specific, concrete solution: a prohibition of sexist behavior (with exclusion, punishment or psychological therapy of the perpetrators). It should be easy to do in a movement where 75% of the members are female.

If the culprit is sexual harassment, wouldn’t it be better to speak about sexual harassment instead of using the term male privilege? That would have three advantages: 1) it makes the problem clearer (more precise), 2) men who are not responsible for sexual harassment would not feel accused and 3) it will not be possible to accuse or silence men who do not commit sexual harassment. With the notion of male privilege, one could say to every men (even those who are not sexist): “You have a male privilege,” and conclude that every men has distorted perceptions or biased ideas.

Some people argue that from a tactical point of view, it is counterproductive to treat women as sex objects such that in the end they leave the movement, being afraid of the men. That is not going to help the animals. Even if this argument is true, it is of secondary concern, because if it were the primary concern, we could again interpret it in a women unfriendly (misogynistic) way: it is as if men would believe that they should not rape women, not primarily because that violates women’s rights, but primarily because those women are instrumentally valuable in achieving other goals (such as animal liberation). It is as if women are machines: of course we should not break machines, not because breaking them violates the rights of machines, but breaking them is ineffective or counterproductive.

Finally, speaking about the tactical point of view and counterproductivity: it not only applies to female victims. Also men are being excluded or leaving the AR-movement because they were emotionally or physically harmed. We can collect stories of victimized men, but I’ve seen this happening at a direct action organization I was involved in, where some male activists became disillusioned by how they were treated by other activists (ranging from conspiracies, false accusations, interpersonal conflicts, bullying…). Some men were even physically harmed by other activists in those stressful situations (in general, most victims of interpersonal violence are men). It is like what happens in nature: males competing against males, and the winner is going to rape females. Those outcompeted males do not have a male privilege. Speaking about male privilege might be disrespectful towards victimized men. It might even harm some men, like innocent people can be harmed by using inaccurate group stereotypes.

Male privilege and double counterexamples

The notion of male privilege becomes very complex, because it faces two counterexamples: one when we look at the perpetrators and one when we look at the victims.

First, we can look at the perpetrators of sexist discrimination: these are not always men. There are famous gender labeling studies: when hiring someone for a job (for example a leadership position), the name on a CV can influence the decision: if the name of the job applicant on the CV is male, the rating or hiring rate for that applicant is higher than when the name is female, even if both CVs are identical. Even female recruiters have a preference for the CV with the male name, so they have the same pro-male sexism bias as men. And when it comes to negative female gender roles (behaviors that discriminate women) and negative female stereotyping (about skills, body image, fashion,…), women are also often strengthening and sustaining them. Think about a woman who thinks that women should be more polite and considerate than men, that women should be judged on their appearance. Or think about a woman who prefers a man with high status, giving the signal to men that they should pursue status. This woman looks at a man as a status object, just like a man can look at a woman as a sex object. Or think about mothers who treat their sons and daughters differently in similar situations, based on sexist prejudgments and gender expectations. If upbringing (nurture) of children has an influence on their gender roles later in life, and if mothers do the upbringing, then women contribute to the gender roles.

Second, we can look at the victims of sexist discrimination: these are sometimes men. Men are often disprivileged when it comes to child custody, criminal sentencing, homelessness, dangerous jobs, military draft, parental leave, retirement age, physical violence, access to shelters for victims of domestic violence,… We can again look at the animal rights movement. Feminist activists always point at the men at the top of the power hierarchy (the male leaders in the movement), but never at the men who are at the bottom. Being dead or in jail counts as having the least power, and most animal rights activists who are killed or imprisoned, are men. It seems that there are many examples where men have a wider distribution than women. For example the distribution of IQ (men and women have the same average IQ, but there are more men than women with a very high and a very low IQ), material posessions (more men than women have big luxury villas but also more men than women are homeless), violance (more men than women commit violence but are also victim of violence), jobs (more men than women have highly paid jobs, but also very dangerous low paid jobs),… In short: more men than women have the highest privileges, but also more men than women have the lowest privileges.

Male privilege and conflicts of interest bias

When I wrote an article about a documentary about the men’s rights movement (The Red Pill), I was accused of being biased due to my male privilege. We can first note that the documentary was made by a woman and contains interviews with women who were involved in the feminist movement but changed their minds about men’s rights issues. So my male privilege bias seems to be a too easy an accusation. (By the way, the woman who made the documentary was also accused by feminists.)

If I criticize this notion of male privilege, one could say I have a conflict of interest, because I am a man. Some believe that this decreases my credibility, because my male privilege gives me a distorted perception. However, if male privilege leads to a bias amongst men because they are privileged, it also leads to a bias amongst women. One could say that female disprivilege gives women a distorted perception. If men want to protect their privilege and are therefore less reliable or credible in some matters, we can as well say that women want to achieve privilege and are therefore also less reliable in those matters. Everyone can be said to have a conflict of interest: those who have power want to keep it, those who do not have power want to achieve it. It is not obvious why the latter would have a weaker conflict of interest and would be more credible.

In general, we often have a conflict of interest bias, where we see the conflicts of interests of the opponent but not the conflicts of interest of those people holding our own views. This is a version of the disconfirmation bias, where we are more critical and distrustful towards those people or studies that disconfirm our prior beliefs.

A clear example of conflict of interest bias is organic food: proponents of organic food claim that a lot of scientific studies that indicate that organic food is not better for our health and the environment, were performed by scientists who had conflicts of interest with the non-organic agricultural industry (e.g. with companies like Monsanto). Those proponents overestimate the conflicts of interest of the counterparty and they underestimate the conflicts of interest of their own party. A lot of scientific studies that claim that organic food is better for our health and the environment, were performed by scientists who had conflicts of interest with the organic agricultural sector. Some names include: Charles Benbrook (had undisclosed conflicts of interest: worked at the Organic Center and research was funded by Whole Foods, Organic Valley, United Natural Foods, Organic Trade Association and others), Gilles-Eric Séralini (consultant of Sevene Pharma that sells homeopathic antidotes against pesticides), Judy Carman (her anti-GMO research was funded by Verity Farms and published in a journal sponsored by the Organic Federation of Australia) and the Rodale Institute (a research institute that has a commercial interest in organic farming).

Another example of the conflict of interest bias is the antivaccination movement. Opponents of vaccines often claim that studies demonstrating the safety and effectiveness of vaccines are invalid because they are supposedly influenced by the pharmaceutical industry that wants to make profits from selling vaccines. However, a lot of members of the antivaccination movement also have conflicts of interest: they want compensation fees from the pharmaceutical companies for the alleged damages they incured from vaccines. One influential person in the antivaccination movement is Andrew Wakefield, the author of an infamous study about an alleged link between measles vaccines and autism. Wakefield was paid by lawyers to undermine the MMR vaccine. The same goes for other supposedly harmful products from big industries, such as the herbicide glyphosate (farmers who developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma and who support the environmentalist cause against glyphosate, aiming for compensation fees from Monsanto) and the sweetener aspartame.

Male privilege as an ad hominem fallacy

The accusation of having a male privilege is often used as an ad hominem fallacy. Simply because someone is a man, that person loses credibility when accused of having a male privilege. It is an ad hominem, because the truth of the claims that one makes are not dependent on one’s gender, on having a penis or having a male identity. Instead of attacking the argument or idea, with an ad hominem one attacks the person associated with the argument.

Male privilege and the association fallacy

The notion of male privilege makes an ad hominem even worse, because it allows for a guilt by association (the association fallacy): all men can be accused, even the non-privileged. There are more than 10 examples that indicate that the non-privileged men are not better-off than the non-privileged women. But using a notion like male privilege risks associating all men (including the non-privileged) to the same group of males.

Male privilege and falsifiability

Another problem with the male privilege accusation is that it is often unfalsifiable, because one cannot simply change one’s gender. I did not choose my gender, I was not responsible for being born as a man, and we can never know what my beliefs could have been if I were female. Even if I become a transgender person, one could accuse me of being privileged and biased, having inherited this male privilege.

One often claims that male privilege works unconsciously, and that men who are skeptical about the notion of male privilege are (unconsciously) trying to protect their male privilege. According to this fallacious line of reasoning, denying male privilege would prove that one has something to protect, namely male privilege, and that proves that one there is a male privilege. This is the same kind of unfalsibiability as the Freudian unconsciousness (e.g. “If you deny that you have an Oedipus complex, it is because you unconsciously want to suppress those uncomfortoble feelings, and that proves that you do have an Oedipus complex”) or some conspiracy theories (e.g. “If the government denies that it is involved in the 9/11 attacks, it proves that the government has something to hide and hence that it was involved”).

There are however ways to test male privilege or sexism. For example, with job application letters: one group of letters had male names, the other group of letters had female names. If the content of the letters are the same (both groups of applicants had the same experience levels, capabilities, motivations) but the males where more often asked for a job interview, this indicates a gender bias of the recruiter.  If we see such gender biases, we can counteract them, for example by hiring more women at the rate revealed by these bias studies.

Male privilege, intersectionality and the true Scotsman fallacy

Intersectionality is the idea that different kinds of oppression intersect with each other. In the context of male privilege, this intersectionality idea can be misused to make the male privilege theory unfalsifiable. For example, if I claim that male privilege is a misleading concept because there are non-privileged men, such as poor, black men, the proponents add extra layers to the concept, by arguing that they meant rich, white men. If there are still such rich, white men in nonprivileged positions, for example homosexual rich white men, then the proponents add extra layers: heterosexual, cisgender, rich, highly-educated, upper class, not-disabled, white,… men are now the privileged people. In the end, their claim becomes trivial, by narrowing down their concept of privileged people until one could as well say that the privileged men are the privileged. This is a kind of true Scotsman fallacy or ad hoc reasoning.

The mirror image of the above line of reasoning (the true Scotsman fallacy) in intersectionality theory is an oppression Olympics, where we look for the most oppressed person, as if the most oppressed person is the one who is most correct about social justice issues. Look for the homosexual, transgender, poor, poorly-educated, disabled, black woman. Is she the most authentic, unbiased person who is the most credible because she has the least privileges and hence the least conflicts of interest? That is far from clear.


We have seen that speaking of male privilege can sometimes be interpreted as being disrespectful towards women, for example in explaining the high ratio of male leaders in the animal rights movement where most members are female: do women have developed a kind of cognitive deficit that makes them poor assessors of their own capacities and situations, so they start believing that they are not good leaders? Do some feminist animal rights activists know better than these unself-confident women what they can do and want to do? Are those women in our free society really not capable of founding their own organizations?

We have seen that speaking about male privilege might be disrespectful towards victimized men, for example men in the AR-movement who were emotionally or physically harmed.

We have seen that some feminist activists propose sexist solutions to the women unfriendliness of the AR-movement, by putting quota on the number of male leaders where putting quota on the number of female leaders in the reverse situation (e.g. if the AR-movement contained mostly male members) would clearly be considered sexist. These quotas reveal a sexism bias (an asymmetry where conclusions are different for situations where ‘male’ and ‘female’ were interchanged) and they also violate freedom to some degree (by not letting everyone freely decide to become leaders, spokespersons or people in power).

We have seen that the notion of male privilege can generate a conflict of interest bias, where someone sees the conflicts of interests of the opponent (e.g. men) but not the conflicts of interest of those people holding one’s own views (e.g. feminists).

We have seen that the notion of male privilege can often be abused, when used as ad hominem or accusation fallacies. This is disrespectful towards non-privileged men. With intersectionality theory, the notion of male privilege can result in a true Scotsman fallacy.

These problems will all be solved if we deleted the word ‘male’ in the notion of ‘male privilege’, i.e. if we became really gender neutral, focusing on all kinds of privileges and all kinds of discriminations (including those where men are discriminated or victimized and women are privileged). I would say: just don’t care whether someone is a man or a woman. Let everyone (men and women) freely decide whether to take up a leadership position, give a high stakes presentation or become a spokesperson.

If we delete the word ‘male’ in ‘male privilege’, we can still talk about and do something against the problems: the privileges, the domination, the sexually transgressive behaviors and all kinds of sexism. As this strategy still focuses on the problems, none of the disprivileged people, including disprivileged women, can complain.

PS: if people think that the above means that I deny my male privilege, or that I want to deny it in order to keep it, what privilege am I actually denying? What male privilege do I want to keep for me(n)?

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Een reactie op Reflections on male privilege

  1. Pingback: Discrimination biases | Stijn Bruers, the rational ethicist

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