Do Men Benefit From Sexism?

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This article is part of Canvas’s International Women’s Week mini-issue

I recently attended a talk given by Judith Orr, on “Marxism and feminism — the fight for women’s liberation today”. Orr, a Marxist herself and editor of the Socialist Worker newspaper, argued that men neither perpetuate, nor benefit from sexism. She asserted that gender is not the ultimate dividing line in society, and sexism is molded and perpetuated by capitalism, for the benefit of capital.[1] This article is largely a response to Orr’s perspective.
That is not to say that I disagree with all of Orr’s argument — I do not believe that men benefit from most sexism. This is clear when we examine instances such as sexual harassment and assault, or rape and rape culture. Though men are commonly perpetuators, and it being clear that women are most likely victims, neither men nor women as a group benefit. To say as much would equate the interests of sexual harassers, rapists and other sexist aggressors with men as a whole, which grossly mischaracterises what a “benefit” is. For something to benefit a specific group, it must have an objective, material value to the group as a whole. Men, as a whole, do not gain from the subjective benefit of sexist aggressors or the alienation between genders this creates.

So who does benefit? To answer this we should examine the place where the domination of man over woman in capitalist society was cemented — the nuclear family.

Friedrich Engels argues that the nuclear family (NF) was imposed upon the working classes as a method of reproducing and maintaining a consistent workforce. By organising workers into atomised family units, and encouraging women to engage in unpaid housework and childcare, the nuclear family operates as a unit of (re)production — raising future workers and caring for adult workers.[2] This ensures that the workforce is maintained with no cost to the capitalists. Therefore it can be said that it is capital, not men, that ultimately benefits from the nuclear family.

However, in analysing the NF as a unit of production, and examining the divisions of labour within it, we can also see that there are some ways in which the institution benefits men.

Neoliberalism has shifted feminine gender roles towards “the double burden”. Women make up half the workforce, and are expected to work, even if only out of economic necessity. Yet, they are still commonly encouraged in the media and other such systems to be “housewives”.[3] Increasingly, the modern NF is one where both parents work, but the woman engages in most of the home maintenance. I believe it is clear that, as women engage in the main bulk of this work, an immediate benefit is produced for men.

Let us take food as an example. A woman needs to cook roughly 3 meals a day for herself to maintain her own existence. However, she will also cook enough to care for her partner and the child in the NF.  The man may have supplied the funding for this (though this is increasingly not the case), but that is irrelevant. If the process of “meal production” is engaged in solely or mostly by the woman, the man gains food that he has not had to produce himself. Similarly, if the woman cooks for their mutual child, presumably to benefit both the child and parents who wish to see it stay alive, the man again receives a benefit from labour that he has not engaged in.

This has clear parallels with Marx’s theory of the expropriation of surplus value; workers also produce much more value than they would need to sustain themselves — and the majority of the value produced is expropriated by capitalists to be turned into profit.[4] However, there are differences between expropriation of the workers and the oppression of women within the home. The food the woman produces is not taken by the man and sold as a commodity: it is consumed directly by the man. Nonetheless, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to argue that the relationship between men and women in the NF is one where women are disadvantaged, even oppressed, and that men benefit from this.

This is further compounded when we consider leisure. One benefit of wage-labour is it regiments time: workers are expected to exert themselves when at work, but the rest of their time may be used to engage in leisure activities. This is not the case for housework and childcare, which together require frequent maintenance. What leisure time women do have in the NF is thus fragmented, and they are likely less able to engage in extended, structured leisure activities commonly favoured by men.  This is yet another situation promoted by the NF where it is clear that men benefit. Men’s leisure is autonomous and malleable, precisely because the woman’s is not.

Finally, there is a key difference between the types of sexism mentioned at the beginning of this article, and the sexism of the NF. With the former, men act in ways that alienate and harm women, and nothing is produced. There is no benefit because the only effects are negative; women become more wary of men, women are harmed. Men as a group gain nothing.

Unequal housework is different in two respects.  Firstly, there is something material that is produced. The benefits are not abstract; the simple fact is the woman is producing, the man is not, yet both rely on the products. Secondly, unequal housework is generally (though not always) determined by gender roles encouraging women to do housework and men not to, rather than by men acting aggressively towards women. This means that women face more pressure to take up the majority of the housework. So men as a group, through the likelihood of women feeling pressured to do more childcare and housework, stand to generally benefit.

The ultimate beneficiary of this process is still capital. As stated above, Sexism as a system is intended to ensure new workers can be produced and the current workforce maintained without infringing upon profit. But to say that is where the benefits end is rather cynical. Yes, capital is the ultimate beneficiary, but that is also true for state education, for the NHS and a whole host of other phenomenon. Capital benefits from keeping workers healthy. It benefits from educating them up to a point. Does this mean that those who use the NHS and education system do not benefit? Of course not.

The bottom line is this: if women are encouraged to engage in the majority of housework and childcare, this alleviates men of the pressure of such requirements. Men therefore gain materially. They have more time, they have more energy and if women are suffering from the “double burden”, they may also have less work.  To ignore these effects of the NF, and to say that men do not benefit in any way from this inequality, is to limit our ability to fight sexism and to properly create unity between genders, both within and outside the home.
Written by Tom Maguire-Wright

Reading List/References:

[1] Orr, J., ‘Marxism, Feminism and the fight for women’s liberation’

[2] Engels, F., ‘Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State’
[3] Horgan, G., ‘How does Globalisation Affect women?’

[4] Callinicos, A., ‘The revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx’ pp. 111-118

Molyneux, J., ‘Do Working Class Men Benefit From Women’s Oppression?’

Cliff, T., ‘Class Struggle and women’s liberation’ Ch. 14