Book Review: The Second Sexism

University of Cape Town philosophy professor David Benatar has written a thoughtful, eminently fair-minded overview of what he calls “the second sexism.” While this will not necessarily be news for many readers of this review, still the fact that men suffer various forms of discrimination may come as a surprise to many members of the public who pick up this book.

Benatar does a bang-up job thoroughly exploring sexism against males in its multifarious forms. With one prominent exception relating to male circumcision that I discuss below, the author is so unstintingly fair-minded that one cannot help but admire his determination to be utterly impartial to all parties, male, female, feminists, masculists, and everybody in between.

The Second Sexism focuses primarily on a few of the most salient, and yet still somehow mostly unnoticed, examples of discrimination against males: vulnerability to military conscription, both a greater likelihood of being victimized by violence and lesser sympathy for such victimization relative to females, a deck that is stacked against men in divorce court, the far greater propensity to dish out more and harsher corporal punishment to boys, the lack of concern with sexual assault against males, male educational disadvantage, the favoring of females in weighing prisoner privacy against employment rights, and greater female life expectancy and societal failure to research extending male life span.

Benatar notes, reasonably enough that there are probably other examples of which we are not yet even aware. “There has been so little attention to male disadvantage that it is very likely that we do not even know all the ways in which males are disadvantaged.”

The Second Sexism builds a convincing case that—at least in the developed world and quite possibly in some other places as well–women are no longer the victims of discrimination. “The claim that women remain oppressed in Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States, for example, sounds ludicrous.” The author calls over and over, in different factual contexts, for equal treatment of males and females.

Benatar’s one blind spot is male circumcision. He manages to find circumcision “not morally wrong” and contrary to the tenor of the rest of his book, tells us that it “is possible, without inconsistency, to disapprove of female genital cutting… while also approving, or at least tolerating, circumcision of males.” He begs the question by claiming without justification that the former is “the more severe procedure.” He even tries to defend male circumcision by analogizing it with “the removal of an entire breast on account of a malignant lump within it.” The blatant problem with this inexcusably weak analogy is that foreskins are not removed due to malignancy.

On the other hand, the author is at his most lucid in laying out how the employment interests of female prison guards receive greater weight in court decisions relative to the privacy rights of male prisoners, while on the other hand the privacy rights of female prisoners are given great deference relative to employment interests of male guards. Basically, if you are male, you get the short end of the stick both times.

Although I have heard a portion of this information before, the disparity in gender treatment of prisoners really is disturbing. 97.2% of those executed in the US have been male and the rate at which women are being put to death is actually going down. As Benatar wryly puts it, “execution is a major disadvantage for those subjected to it… Not only does it cut short the condemned person’s life (as death always does) but the prisoner endures the extreme anxiety and fear of knowing he will face death at an appointed time.”

Benatar’s three pages earlier in the book summarizing the horrors of war is truly chilling, and the chapter on the military is quite interesting. Unfortunately, the author makes some fatuous arguments, suggesting for example that if women are worse at war this could be a good effect of including female soldiers because some wars should not have been fought. On the other hand, Benatar correctly notes that “conscripting and sending into battle only males is unfair discrimination.” As a possible solution, he points out that a volunteer army that includes women could well be more effective to an army comprising only conscripted men. The author also makes an interesting proposal to “admit women to combat roles but segregate male and female soldiers into different units.”

Benatar is at his best addressing violence, sensibly asking “Why then is the phrase ‘gender violence’ typically used in a way that excludes the gender that is most affected by violence?” Even more to the point, “Why do we hear frequent public calls for an end to ‘violence against women’… but not for an end to ‘violence against men’?… why are the calls not instead for an end to violence against anybody?” By way of a pointed analogy with his land of residence, Benatar notes, “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.” The author has a knack for thinking things through, even to novel conclusions, as when he writes, “Given that there is already a norm discouraging violence against women, it is actually men who, all things considered, are more vulnerable to violence.”

Regarding the life expectancy differential, Benatar comes right out and states, “Determining the precise proportion [of reduced male life expectancy attributable to discrimination] is not necessary in order to show that males’ shorter life span is partly the consequence of discriminatory treatment.” For example, the author notes, choices about areas of medical research often do not further males’ interests. He continues to brilliantly show why both suicide and greater male fatality at the same jobs may be partly due to discrimination. Later he points out that research into breast cancer, which almost exclusively affects women, is better funded than research into lung cancer, which tends to afflict men, putting the lie to the feminist claim that conditions affecting men are more intensively researched.

Over and over, the author calls on us to apply the basic maxim that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. “It cannot be the case that women are the victims of discrimination when they are under-represented in desirable positions, but that men are not discriminated against when they are over-represented in undesirable or dangerous ones.” A similar principle applies regarding discrimination also being at least part of the reason why males receive harsher criminal sentences.

Benatar is not a fan of most forms of affirmative action, which he finds to sometimes discriminate unfairly against males. He trenchantly writes, “An injustice done to a person is rectified by compensating that individual, rather than by compensating other individuals, even if those other individuals share some characteristic with the victim of injustice…. That does not rectify injustice. Instead it recreates it.” Benatar queries why affirmative action has not been proposed to atone for the failure to conscript women in the past. He finds “something deeply troubling about giving the same preferential treatment to females from privileged racial groups as to members of disadvantaged racial groups.”

The author contributes a fabulously detailed, magisterial reconsideration of the talk by former Harvard President Lawrence Summers that unjustly led to him losing his job despite the fact that Summers’ view “is one that enjoys support from a vast number of very respectable scholars.” Benatar queries when affirmative action programs will start giving preferences to underrepresented groups such as religious fundamentalists and political conservatives. In the end, one cannot help but share the author’s conclusion that “many defenders of sex-based affirmative action are not as interested in equality as they are in advancing the position of women.”

This book simply must be read. It is, despite its flawed view of male and female genital cutting, superb. I will close with a question because David Benatar is excellent at encouraging the reader to think and to pose his or her own queries: “What would a society devoid of sexism (of both the first and the second kinds) look like? The short answer is that I do not know—and neither does anybody else, even if they think they do.” He thus also shows himself unafraid to say what he does not know, even as throughout the book he dares to call a spade a spade while confronting feminist and societal ideology. Highly, highly recommended.

–Review by J. Steven Svoboda

The Second Sexism. By David Benatar. Chichester, West Sussex, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. No price listed on book but website gives price as $29.95. 288 pages.