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Most people with whom I have talked about the argument of this original and intellectually daring book thought it ludicrous at first. After some discussion, however, many have come to accept it. Thanks to feminist scholarship, we have all come to notice the formerly invisible sexism against women and girls. With this book, David Benatar wants to make sexism against men and boys similarly visible. Playing on the name of Simone de Beauvoir's famous book The Second Sex, he calls the insufficiently noticed sexism against males The Second Sexism. Benatar does not deny that the first sexism exists or that it should be condemned. Moreover, he acknowledges that, all in all, the first sexism is severer than the second one. But that does not mean that the second sexism should be denied, ignored or tolerated. The two types of sexism do not exclude each other, since the same law or cultural aspect may discriminate simultaneously against women in one way and against men in another, and of course different aspects of culture or the law may discriminate against different groups. This is not a zero-sum game.
The argument proceeds through seven chapters. The first, introductory chapter presents the topic, distinguishes between various senses of "discrimination," and forestalls some fallacies. Chapter 2 presents various ways in which men and boys have been disadvantaged. Chapter 3 discusses beliefs and attitudes that play a role in explaining the disadvantages discussed in chapter 2, as well as presents a framework for discussing sex differences. Since not all disadvantages from which men (or women) suffer are due to discrimination or sexism, chapter 4 considers which disadvantages do result, at least in part, from discrimination. Chapter 5 raises and replies to many possible objections to Benatar's analysis and chapter 6 considers affirmative action: although men and boys are discriminated against in various important ways, Benatar explains why he does not support affirmative action policies for them (or for women). Chapter 7, the conclusion, discusses the effects of feminism on the second sexism and considers the implications of acknowledging the existence of the second sexism.
But in what ways are men and boys discriminated against? Benatar discusses, among many other issues, legislation that forces (and social norms that pressure) men rather than women to sign up for the military and participate in war, many forms of aggression and violence that affect men and boys more than women and girls, corporal punishments imposed on men and boys more readily than on women and girls, issues of custody and paternal leave, bodily privacy, imprisonment and capital punishment, and the belief that men's lives are of lower value than women's lives. He elaborates meticulously on these issues, presenting many distinctions and confronting counterarguments. Thus, for example, after pointing out that men are victims of violent crime much more often than are women, Benatar raises (among other counterarguments) the objection that men are also largely the perpetrators of violent crime. He responds that the sex of the perpetrators is hardly relevant here. Among other points, he brings the example of the violence suffered by blacks in American inner cities or South-African townships. Trying to minimize this violence by claiming that it is perpetrated by other blacks would strike us as odd, and "indeed, if there were frequent and exclusive calls for the end of violence against whites in such places where blacks are disproportionately the victims of violence, the prejudicial character of this thinking would be abundantly clear" (p. 123). Similarly, Benatar argues that the "women and children first" norm—according to which, in cases of disaster, the preservation of women's lives is given priority over the preservation of men's lives—shows that men's lives are considered to be of lesser value than women's lives. He is quick to raise the objection that many men, too, subscribe to this norm, but goes on to reply "[t]hat members of a group could hold beliefs that cause themselves disadvantage should not be news. Feminists have long argued, quite correctly, that females can hold beliefs about themselves that cause them disadvantage" (pp. 77-78). Likewise, after discussing the conscription of men rather than women, Benatar replies to Kingsley Browne's counterarguments about military effectiveness and the physical and mental differences between women and men and, while discussing corporal punishments inflicted on men and boys more than on women and girls, he discusses justifications for this practice such as "males are more badly behaved" and "corporal punishment is not as damaging to males" (pp. 128-32).
Some of the facts Benatar discusses, such as those having to do with conscription, corporal punishment, and "women and children first," are well-known but curiously invisible to most of us, and Benatar's contribution is in his analysis of the significance of these phenomena. But some other facts he presents are not that well-known. These include, for example, details on United States court rulings that require minor boys to pay child support for children born of pregnancies resulting from statutory rape or sexual assault by older women; cases of sperm theft; the lesser respect for men's bodily privacy in prisons and other institutions; the similarity in women's and men's resort to domestic violence (contrary to accepted wisdom, wives are as violent towards husbands as husbands are towards wives); and the differential treatment of women and men for the same crimes: when they are discovered in the crime, women have been found to be 28% less likely than men to be arrested for kidnapping, 48% less likely than men to be arrested for forcible fondling, 9% less for simple assault, and 27% less for intimidation (p. 156).
Is feminism to be blamed for the second sexism? Benatar does not think so: many of the phenomena mentioned above existed long before feminism arose. He also believes that women have been more severely discriminated against than men in many (but not all) ways. But he argues that the greater severity of the first sexism does not imply that the second sexism should be ignored, since we can (and should) oppose the first and second kinds of sexism simultaneously. Moreover, many of the stereotypes and social mechanisms that feed one of these kinds of sexism also feed the other. Benatar suggests that in order to cope with the hitherto ignored second sexism we should not only acknowledge it but also dedicate much more empirical and philosophical research to this under-explored topic and, of course, try to change many attitudes, social norms, and laws.
This is a very well-argued book that presents an unorthodox thesis and defends it ably. It would be a useful text in both undergraduate and graduate courses in philosophy and gender studies, where it is certain to arouse a lot of discussion, much of it excited. Since it is very clearly written, and would be interesting and accessible also to the educated layperson. Most importantly, however, it is likely to change our understanding of gender relations.
© 2012 Iddo Landau
Iddo Landau, Department of Philosophy, Haifa University, Israel.