“A problem with men?” A response to the men on my social psychology course.

The note below I wrote in response to the men on a facebook group for students of the Open University social psychology module i’m doing. I wrote this as someone who identifies as, and is identified as, a man, myself. In particular, this is in response to those men who are ‘offended’ or ‘hurt’ by the notion that “there’s a problem with men”, in the recent public discourses around the naming of men in power as harrassers and abusers in the news.

It would be wrong to say that all individuals that are men are by their nature abusers. This would be to act like the experimental psychologists; to assume gender identity is fixed, and then to assume that because ‘abuse’ and ‘men’ are highly correlated, that abuse is some fixed trait of men.

In fact i wouldn’t be surprised to find articles in ‘Sex Roles’ or ‘Women and Psychology Quarterly’ that try to identify innate traits of males which are then implied as the cause of their abusing. Obviously, such studies abstract hugely from context, and the structural relation that reproduces gender, and gendered violence.

In contrast, articles in the critical psychology tradition, exemplified by journals such as Feminism and Psychology, would argue against such naturalising, ‘monad’-like, theorisations of the causes of abuse.

If you agree with critical psychology’s arguments against the universalism of experimental psychology (like I do), this might seem like a reason to disagree that ‘all men’ are ‘potential abusers’. Surely we shouldn’t make such generalisations? Doesn’t it all depend on specifics? However, i would argue that this conclusion is too quick, and at the end of the day wrong.

My argument comes down to the fact that, in every case, what being a “man” means in this society, is to be socially granted power over women. “Man” wouldn’t make sense outside this meaning, and thus people wouldn’t call themselves “man”, or be called “man”.

One of the main arguments of critical psychology is that people are not monads; that is, people are not isolated individuals, but rather they can only be understood within their context.

And the fact is that the context today is (still) one where society, and it’s structures of work, institutions, and norms, massively reproduces a very stark gender binary: man/woman.

The fact this very stark gender binary exists is empirically observable in that probably 99% of people still identify as man or woman. Being a ‘man’ is not the fact that you have a penis – ( a penis is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for being a ‘man’) – no, being a ‘man’ means something else in this society; it means you have access, and are continuously granted access, to power over women – in work, institutionally, through social norms, in private life etc. Insofar as you identify, and are recognised, as a man, and insofar as this binary is socially reproduced and enforced (which might differ in degree locally but nowhere disappears absolutely), you have access to this privelege/power/horrendous opportunity to dominate. And this is true for all men – yes every single one.

There is one caveat here – the man/woman binary is only one among many. Thus many men are at the disempowered end of another one of these binaries, e.g. white/non-white, mentally well/mentally ill, abled/disabled, citizen/non-citizen, heterosexual/LGBTQ+. You might be a man and be at the disempowered end of all these other binaries. Thus your experience might be more one of ‘disempowerment’ than ‘empowerment’. Still as far as you count as a man, in this society, everything else being equal, you have more power over a woman.

At the end of the day, i’m arguing that the reason ‘man’ makes sense as a word is because it names one general thing – and that is one end of a gender binary (man/woman) which functions remarkably uniformly in society. It names one of only two gender identities in society (though this is now being challenged by non-binary identities), you can’t get much more general than that. Thus as far as you identify as, or are recognised as a ‘man’ – then you have the access to power that comes with it. And up till now, (and probably for a while longer yet) this power has been the power to harass, assault, and coerce women without rebuke.