Response to Christina Hoff Sommers, Part 2: Do Feminists Hate Men?

Self-described “conservative feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers delivered a speech outlining her primary objects to contemporary feminism. Item one: “Today’s movement takes a very dim view of men.”

And here is the problem with the play and with the gender feminist* philosophy that informs it: Most men are not brutes. They are not oppressors. Yes, there are some contemptible Neanderthals among us, and I have no sympathy for them whatsoever. But to confuse them with the ethical majority of men is blatantly sexist.

In the video clip (but not in the transcript), Sommers is more over-the-top in defining feminists as male-haters, going so far as to express pity for boys whose mothers are feminists.

I’d like to see a serious discussion of male-bashing in feminism. Unfortunately, Sommers’ treatment of the subject isn’t serious. She cites one, and only one, source to show that “the gender feminist philosophy” considers “most men… brutes”: Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues.

But The Vagina Monologues isn’t a non-fiction essay. It’s a play about women’s experiences surviving rape and abuse. That’s not the sole subject of the play, but — just after the importance of women loving their bodies — it’s the primary theme. Complaining that a play about the abuse and rape of women has too many abusive men in it is unreasonable and unfair. She might as well complain that Romeo & Juliet has too much teen suicide, or Rent has too many poor characters.

There is a positive male character in The Vagina Monologues, a man who so loves vaginas that he teaches his girlfriend to love her own vagina. Sommers dismisses this character entirely, for the transparently ridiculous reason that the character is described as being bland on first meeting (although he later proves to be a fantastic lover). It’s hard to respond to Sommers’ argument, because it’s not even an argument; it’s just an irrelevant statement. He is a positive character; he doesn’t mysteriously cease being a positive character because he seems bland at first, or because he loves vaginas.

In this speech, that’s Sommers’ only evidence that contemporary feminism considers most men brutes — in one popular play about rape and abuse, many but not all of the male characters are negative. I find that evidence underwhelming.

Note what Sommers doesn’t include: A single recent quote from a feminist leader saying “most men are brutes.” If this is indeed the common viewpoint of contemporary feminism, I’d think that Sommers would be able to find a dozen such quotes easily; yet Sommers doesn’t provide even one.

* * *

Sommers’ case is ridiculous, overstated, and the “evidence” she introduces is embarrassingly weak. But I’d like to consider the question of feminist hatred of men a little bit more.

In the comments at Feminist Law Professors, David Cohen writes:

I strongly contest her theories about feminist hatred of men. For the past two decades, I’ve now been a very outspoken feminist man on three very different university campuses, within one prominent feminist legal advocacy group, and as a frequent blogger on this blog. With the advocacy group I worked for for 7 years, I worked with many other feminist legal advocacy groups. In none of these settings was I ever once treated in any way that made me feel that the (mostly all, but not exclusively so) women hated me or men generally. They (as do I) hate men who do bad things to women (and other men). But, there is no general hatred of men. Sommers’ claims to the contrary are just wrong. In fact, I often found (and still find) myself in a position I didn’t want to be in — being praised for my feminist work because of the work but also because I was a man. I appreciate the first part of that but feel like the second part is wrong-headed and unnecessary.

That seems right to me. I can’t claim to have worked as much with feminists as David Cohen; but I’ve been a women’s studies major, occasionally volunteered for feminist causes, and virtually all my friends for the past 20 years have been feminists. And, with one exception, my experiences have been similar to David’s. If man-hating is so pervasive in contemporary feminism, why don’t men in feminism encounter it more?

Furthermore, in my experience, feminists are more likely than non-feminists to be supportive if I say men are screwed over by sex role expectations; that the targeting and bullying of wimpy boys is a real and significant problem (non-feminists are more apt to respond “boys will be boys”); that being cut off from feeling free to express ourselves emotionally does real damage to men; that men who go into traditionally female fields like child care are unfairly looked at with suspicion; and so on. Again, with one exception.

That one exception is, the internet. Years ago, on Ms Magazine’s feminist bulletin board (this was in the dark ages, before blogs even) I met a handful of self-proclaimed radical feminists who’d say genuinely man-hating things: men are biologically inferior to women, all men consciously plot to keep all women in fear of rape, and so forth. These women were a minority of posters on the Ms boards (and a minority among the radical feminists there), and many other posters objected to these statements.

Nonetheless, these bigoted, anti-male views do exist among a small minority of feminists, and ever since the Ms Boards I can no longer say I’ve never encountered any genuinely man-hating feminists. But to claim that such views are the dominant philosophy of contemporary feminism is nonsense.

It’s also through the internet that I first encountered men’s rights activists, also known as MRAs. MRAs, of course, are extremely sympathetic to the idea that boys and men are being harmed by contemporary sex roles — but for many, their sympathy is exclusively for males. Their is a tone of bitterness and hatred in how many MRAs discuss women and harms to women, very similar to the way some feminists on the Ms Boards discuss men and harms to men. The difference is that those feminists are, in my experience, a small minority among all feminists; but a huge portion of MRAs exhibit rage towards towards women in general and feminists in particular.

* * *

There’s a more subtle form of sexism against men that I think is much more common than the “men are mostly brutes” mentality that Sommers criticizes (but provides no examples of). In the last 20 years — and due, in my opinion, to the growth of the MRA movement (which was itself strongly influenced by Sommers’ book Who Stole Feminism?)– too many feminists have developed a knee-jerk resistance to discussions of how sexism harms men.

This is understandable. After a hundred conversations with MRAs, feminists have learned that when someone begins talking about how men are harmed by sexism, they’re often leading up to the anti-feminist conclusions that women have nothing to complain about, and feminism is a morally terrible movement. Concerns about harms to men are sometimes use by MRAs to crowd out discussion of harms to women. Feminists, frankly, have become defensive, and in some cases have circled their rhetorical wagons.

But although this is understandable, I also think it’s unfortunate. Men are harmed by sexism, and although I wouldn’t want that point to crowd out discussions of harms to women, it should be part of the spectrum of issues feminists discuss.

(*Although Hoff Sommers uses the term “gender feminist,” which she coined, she never defines the term in the transcript of her speech. (In the video, she says she uses the term interchangably with “victim feminist.) For more about the term “gender feminist,” see this series of posts. Although she wouldn’t put it this way, in practice Sommers categorizes all feminists who aren’t libertarian conservatives as “gender feminists.”)

To allow intra-feminist discussion, comments on this post on “Alas, a Blog” are limited to feminist and feminist allies only. However, the cross-post at “Blog By Barry” is open to feminists and non-feminists.

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22 Responses to Response to Christina Hoff Sommers, Part 2: Do Feminists Hate Men?

  1. 1
    Jerad says:

    From my personal experience feminists are more likely to sympathize with me when I encounter some kind of Y chromosome discrimination.

    Recently I was hounded for showing some emotions by a few people I work with who are MRAs got home and my feminist friends helped me cope. I really wonder at times if “mens rights” folks are nothing more than john wayne wannabes.

  2. 2
    Individ-ewe-al says:

    I think some of the man-hating thing comes from a similar place to the defensive “white guilt” reaction. Any time a woman complains about any man, men have to jump in and say “but we’re not all like that!”, and if she gets impatient with that reaction, she’s seen as condemning all men.

    Recently I posted something to my LiveJournal about overhearing some work colleagues saying sexist things, and expressed exasperation that they really thought they were supportive of feminism, but still went around saying that the main problem with the feminist movement is that feminists are unwilling to listen to men, and therefore not objective. Several male friends were upset that I was being so prejudiced against men. I kept repeating, no, I’m complaining that these particular men were unconsciously sexist, I’m not saying that all men are always sexist, but I couldn’t get through to them.

  3. 3
    SusanYEngland says:

    I’ve read Sommers’ lecture and these articles with great interest. My overall impression of Sommers is that she is an imposter who only calls herself a feminist to place herself in a position to speak out against feminism.
    Extreme claims not backed by any reliable evidence are exactly that, extreme claims. If I were to attend her lecture expecting to hear about feminism, I would surely ask for a ticket refund.

    One specific quote from her lecture caught my attention:

    “It is a simple fact that American women are not oppressed. They are among the healthiest, freest, best educated women in the world and they score near the top on international surveys of happiness and life satisfaction.13”

    Here she is comparing American women to women around the world. The point of feminism, in my opinion, is comparing women to men. Of course we are healthier, freer, and better educated than women in most countries, but are American women on an even plane with their male counterparts? No. That’s the point.

    Apparently her stance is that we have the vote, the right to own property, and to divorce, so we should quit complaining and be satisfied. I contend as long as we don’t have equality in every aspect of life, there still is a cause. Until every goal has been met, there is still a quest for equity.

    Isn’t it true, after all, that women working full-time earn approximately 76 cents for every dollar a man earns? Isn’t it true that United States women hold only about 15% of seats in the House and Senate? Isn’t it true that women continue to be vastly underrepresented in higher echelons of business, science and technology? How can you deny the fact that women in the United States continue to a face serious sexist discrimination?”

    Well, I don’t actually deny this, but I see no reason to blindly accept it either

    How can she call herself a feminist if that’s her stance?

  4. 4
    SusanYEngland says:

    Attention moderator! I find I goofed on the block quote. Please fix it or let me know and I will resubmit. Thanks!!!

    [I don’t see anything wrong with the blockquote, Susan. Thanks! Amp.]

    [Susan – it looks like the content for your second two blockquotes didn’t make it into the comment, even in the HTML (which I went and looked at). Best, Mandolin.]

    [Oh, now I see what was wrong — it wasn’t visible on the admin screen. It’s fixed now. –Amp.]

  5. 5
    Sailorman says:

    In the video clip (but not in the transcript), Sommers is more over-the-top in defining feminists as male-haters, going so far as to express pity for boys whose mothers are feminists.

    I can’t remember. Wasn’t there some big brouhaha about some mother who posted here (it wasn’t heart, was it?) about her son? Single datapoint and not really probative for your conversation but I am wondering if I am remembering right.

  6. 6
    Lilian Nattel says:

    In WWII, it was found that many soldiers simply couldn’t fire their gun. Many others fired over the heads of the enemy. As a result, in subsequent wars (Viet Nam, Iraq), soldiers in the U.S. have been trained by first breaking down their resistance to killing another person. This is an extreme example of the way young men are inculculated into a culture of violence, but I think it serves to show the way that boys are harmed by rigid ideas of masculinity, which place a high value on suppressing empathy in favour of endurance, strength, and ultimately violence. I don’t think that there has to be any kind of woundedness prize or competition in order to say that women are harmed and men are harmed by gender roles that limit emotional range and empathy for other people. The roots of empathy program in kindergarten (where kids watch a young baby’s development) have so many positive effects for all the kids later on–in terms of behaviour, interactions between the kids, their ability to learn.

  7. 7
    Mandolin says:

    I think you’re thinking of Biting Beaver who was distressed about her son’s use of pornography.

    I didn’t agree with what I understood that she said, but the response was disproportionate and vicious: she was targeted by a group that attacked online so that her site was crashed — along with those of a number of other feminists many of whom had no relationship to BB. These people also called her neighbors, work, and local authorities with specious accusations to try to make her life as difficult as possible.

    It was these responses which ended up with her statements being widely circulated in the feminist blogosphere, and discussed.

  8. 8
    Jhianna says:

    feminists have learned that when someone begins talking about how men are harmed by sexism, they’re often leading up to the anti-feminist conclusions that women have nothing to complain about, and feminism is a morally terrible movement. Concerns about harms to men are sometimes use by MRAs to crowd out discussion of harms to women.

    This sums up almost every “disagreement” I had with a male friend. I could never understand why he triggered rage and denial for me, but you summed it up beautifully. It’s a real shame, because he had valid points. But since he could never validate any of mine, I felt compelled to circle the wagons. Spot on.

  9. 9
    Heart says:

    I didn’t agree with what I understood that she said, but the response was disproportionate and vicious: she was targeted by a group that attacked online so that her site was crashed — along with those of a number of other feminists many of whom had no relationship to BB. These people also called her neighbors, work, and local authorities with specious accusations to try to make her life as difficult as possible


    Actually, BB’s site wasn’t crashed, it was mine that was, via hacking (my boards) and DDOS’ing/”gigaraeping”, (all three of my websites and also the Free Soil website). BB was a moderator on my boards at the time. BB was, however, forced off the internet.

    The story is here.

  10. 10
    Silenced is Foo says:

    “Proportionate Response” isn’t exactly Anonymous’ watchword.

    Either way, I think the MRAs don’t actually mean “hate”, but rather refer to the presumption of guilt (with respect to violent and sexual crimes in particular) that is applied disproportionately towards men. However, that’s hardly a feature specific to feminism, as it’s every bit as present (if not more so) in patriarchal society.

  11. 11
    Sailorman says:

    oh yeah, I remember biting beaver now; thanks Mandolin for the clarification. I was just trying to think of what a “harm to boys from having feminist parents” would be like, and since I generally think feminist parents are GOOD for kids I had to stretch ;)

    I suppose that feminism like anything else could be summed up in the “having parents who are extremists is a pain in the behind.”

  12. 12
    Jeff Fecke says:

    CHS is far too busy building strawfeminists to attack to add anything meaningful to a discussion about feminism. The gender/equity feminism dynamic she created out of wholecloth is more properly seen as a feminism/anti-feminism argument — feminists who actually work for equality and justice are pilloried, while people who pay lip service to the idea of feminism while still working to maintain the status quo — those are the real feminists, in her book.

    Of course most feminists don’t actively hate men. And of course some do — you can always find some outliers in any group. I will say that my experience has been much the same as Barry’s — I’ve seen far more hatred and bile from the MRA set than I have from feminists.

  13. 13
    Denise says:

    Thank you for posting that link, Heart. BB’s blog helped me through a very difficult time in my life and I was very sad when she went off the internet. It’s nice to catch up with her a little bit through this interview.

  14. 14
    james says:

    Sommers’ case is ridiculous, overstated, and the “evidence” she introduces is embarrassingly weak.

    Are you sure you’re accurately representing her? She uses the word hate once, in a completely different context in the transcript. And she doesn’t present the anecdote as evidence, but as an example. It’s a speech, not a peer reviewed paper: you’re holding it to the wrong standards.

    Her actual point isn’t ‘feminists hate men’, it’s this:

    today’s movement takes a very dim view of men;… Many outspoken feminist activists and scholars are convinced that feminist research has uncovered and exposed a pervasive and tenacious system by which men persist in subordinating and oppressing women… Gender feminists tend to see conventional masculinity as a pathology and the source of much of what is wrong in the world…

    I think that’s pretty much true, and most feminists do believe it. For example: most women in a heterosexual relationship are oppressed in the sense that they do provide unpaid work and are financially dependent on their partners. Or how common rape culture is, and so on. There is something wrong with conventional masculinity that oppresses women. She’s absolutely right that feminists believe this, I’d only disagree with her in that she thinks they’re wrong about this whereas they’re not.

  15. 15
    Ampersand says:

    James, she used the “men as brutes” formulation several times, and that’s what I focused on in the first half of this post (which was the part focusing on CHS). So I don’t think I was attacking a strawman.

    It’s true that there’s more to her arguments than what I covered here; but there are more posts planned in this series.

  16. 16
    Thene says:

    I don’t think the Vagina Monologues are unproblematic as a feminist work, but it’s interesting that Sommers has invented things to criticise rather than picking at what’s actually there in the text.

  17. 17
    Mandolin says:

    Thanks for the correction, Heart.

  18. Pingback: Cathy Young responds to me regarding feminist hatred of men « Blog By Barry

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  20. Pingback: Feminist male-hatred and The Vagina Monologues « The Y Files

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  22. 18
    Carmen says:

    Oh, James, if I believed in marriage, I would ask you to marry me! *sigh* It has been my misfortune to be an unconventional and sexual woman in a society that judges/shames such women and in which men feel free to attack such women…I know I am not alone in my experience (and no, I am not talking about being “dressed all slutty”–well, maybe sometimes–but plenty of times not; it is just an aura, albeit one I have turned off now and will not turn on again until my cynicism has faded and I also feel more confident in my ability to stand up for myself and control sexual situations). Rape culture is a definite reality and a natural extension of the objectification of women in the media and pornography, as well as, I think, a backlash against the gains made in the women’s rights movements–many men losing their privilege and competing with women feel angry about it–as well as a gender-entitled perversion of the “free love” movement in which love has been sandblasted from the equation. Young women are taught by all the media to be sexually available–and naturally they want to explore their sexual freedom–yet that does not give young men a right to lie or be disrespectful or violent and violating; the end goal should be mutual sexual exploration, not “scoring” and male bragging rights (and of course the same goes for women)–there is also the fact that despite the media’s message to women that yes, you are a sex object, there is also the opposite message of, if you act on it you are whore; and this sexual message in the media is one of passivity and pleasing men, not encouraging an active role for women–women passively letting men fuck them are already whores, women actually going after sex? Unabashed slut monsters with vaginas full of razor-sharp teeth. Tell me, how do these attitudes help men either? Then there are the “traditional” notions of what it is to be a man–stoic, breadwinner, tough, aggressive, in control of his woman, cries only at funerals–which frankly suck. For men they suck, for women they suck. Fine, if a guy is like this naturally–but this should not be the only role dictated for men–men should be allowed to be vulnerable, loving, stay-at-home dads, nurturing, emotional, respectful of women as equals, without being called “wimps” or “fags” or “manginas.” Honestly, the reason most women love the (mythological) “alpha” male is simply because, especially when young, we have internalized misogyny and traditional patriarchal gender roles, and believe this is how a “real man” acts, and that we deserve to be treated that way–many of us may seek abuse, as so many women harbor a deep self-hatred after years of social messages that we are sex objects, only our looks matter, we are not as good as men, men are our natural overlords, etc. etc. It’s sad but in this state of mind we may feel that abuse=love. It’s not that women approaching 30 get done riding the “alpha cock carousel” and want to settle down with a beta because they’re past their prime (seriously, where the hell to MRAs come up with this shit?), but that many young women in hook-up culture are self-destructive and spend years (again, because of internalized misogyny) attracted to assholes before they wise up and grow out of it. Young women who either don’t engage in this–who either don’t date, or who date good men at a young age (generally these are more well-adjusted young women; early experience shapes a lot of it), or who are so confident in their sexuality at a young age that they control casual sexual encounters and are wise about game-players/rapists, who control their alcohol intake and stay sharp and choose well–they are the lucky ones! But for the many, many who go for assholes, it’s not because of some “natural attraction” but because of deeply entrenched self-destructive tendencies engendered by growing up in a sexist culture. And you know honestly, most things “traditional” suck, except Christmas. And some people even think Christmas sucks. So yeah, I agree that most modern men grow up also steeped in misogyny and in the cult of the traditional male, only they grow up to inhabit the roles of abusers and dominating males rather than the abused and dominated (roles women inhabit), and it is not maleness per se that is suspect here, but the imbalance that belittles anything seen as womanly (empathy, anyone? feelings?) and denies men their own humanity. It’s not so much that all men are naturally brutes as that yes–I am sorry to say it–but the messages sent by the media and by traditional notions of male/female gender roles in this still very patriarchal society train men to grow up to be sexist brutes. Fortunately, many men rise above that message–unfortunately, many more men don’t.