For years, I hung out on this online feminist discussion board, although lately I don’t hang out there much. On those boards, someone made up an expression: PHMT. It stands for “Patriarchy Hurts Men Too,” and it’s a way of quickly summing up – and dismissing – a common anti-feminist argument. Here’s a typical example:
Feminist: Rape is a horrible problem.
Anti-Feminist: It’s not just women suffering, you know. Look at how many men are killed while working dangerous jobs.
Feminist: Yeah, yeah, PHMT. Returning to what I was saying….
“PHMT” has become kinda a cliche on this particular feminist discussion board (and is spreading to other boards; I wonder if it will be a widespread term ten years from now). I think using PHMT as a dismissal is often justified – based on the correct perception that some anti-feminists bring up male problems not because they’re willing to change society to fix those problems, but because they’re trying to divert the conversation from discussing women’s problems.
But PHMT also points to a very real split in feminism: are men’s problems feminist problems? Should feminists care about the ways PHMT? Some feminists – in particular, some (not all) radical feminists – understandably argue that feminism is about women and women’s issues. In this view, including “men’s issues” – or agreeing that men can be feminists – will weaken feminism.
But I’m not convinced that a bright line between “women’s issues” and “men’s issues” exists, and pretending it does will prevent us from understanding how sexism in our culture works.
For instance, all feminists agree that violence against women is a feminist issue, but some say violence against men is not. But violence against men – both the threat of it and the reality of it – is how sexist cultural standards of “masculinity” are created and enforced (as any ten-year-old boy beaten up by his peers for being too girly could tell you). And those sexist ideas of “masculinity” are one essential element motivating a lot of violence against women, such as rape. Anyone who’s serious about fighting “the rape culture” must want to change (or eliminate) the sexist conception of “masculinity,” because it’s just two different words for the same damn thing.
This is the case with virtually all feminist issues (the only exception that occurs to me offhand is abortion). Sexist male norms and sexist female norms aren’t separate things in our culture, which can be fought separately and one-at-a-time; they are one and the same thing, codependent norms from hell, flip sides of the same poisonous coin.
Take the woman’s-place-is-in-the-home myth. It’s the flip side of the men-can’t-raise-children myth; you can’t have homemakers without breadwinners, and vice versa. To speak about eliminating one as if it’s a separate issue is not only mistaken, it’s counterproductive. It so totally fails to grasp the realities of sexism it’s guaranteed to fail. What we’ll end up with if we try to change only half a culture – what we have, in fact, ended up with – is a situation where women are now expected to be both breadwinners and homemakers, but men’s role hasn’t changed at all, so women are working twice as much overall and still not getting equal pay. Did that solve the problem? Is there any potential that looking only at women’s role in this codependent mess will solve the problem in the future?
(And note that any real solution to this problem would also solve the problem my made-up antifeminist brought up – the very real fact that men are a thousand times more likely to be killed on the job as women.)
Some feminists I know (not the majority) deride all this as “PHMT” – as an attempt to deflect attention from women’s very real problems and issues. Making feminism about men only would, I agree, totally warp feminism and limit its effectiveness. But as long as it’s true that sexist expectations and norms hurt men as well as women, making feminism about women only does the same thing.
You can’t unwarp only one side of a dented coin. Feminism can’t solve patriarchy by refusing to look at huge portions of the problem.
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So am I saying feminism needs to be focused on men’s problems? No, of course not. I think feminism needs to be a movement fighting for the social, political, and material equality of the sexes – both sexes.
Although sexism affects (and hurts) both women and men, in the end it’s almost always women who end up with the short end of the stick, politically, socially and materially (compared to men of the same race, class, etc.). So most of the time, when we fight for equality and justice, that means improving the status of women.
But not always. When NOW argued, in a brief to the Supreme Court, that a male-only military draft discriminates against men and violates men’s equal protection rights, that was a feminist action too.
Most of feminism’s fights are, and should be, about women – about improving women’s status, about helping women get by in patriarchy. But that doesn’t make what NOW did unfeminist; and it doesn’t make being concerned about the ways men are hurt by sexism unfeminist.
Update 2: Tish at Fatshadow has posted some thoughts on the same topic, which are well worth reading. (I’m having trouble figuring out the permalinks, so you may have to scroll down a little.)