Three Pillars of Male Privilege in America

I believe that many women would agree with the assertion that male privilege is a significant problem, not only to women but to our society as a whole. As a male of more than sixty years, I am embarrassed to admit that it took the #MeToo movement of October 2017 to get me to even begin to understand what women have been shouting about for well more than forty of those years. Perhaps it took me so long because I suffer from the not-as-rare-as-it-should-be syndrome myself.

Let me also be clear that what I have to say reflects only the society and culture that I know. I am an American, born and raised mostly in the South. As a result, I can claim no actual knowledge about other cultures, societies, ethnicities, or any other group. However, I believe that what I have discovered will resonate across all of those divisions in some form and to some degree. My hope is that this examination of what I have come to envision as three keys to understand and call out male privilege will begin a much-needed dialog, both internal to every man and external to our society and its relationships to women.

It’s important to know that I have been working with women who have experienced a broad array of trauma for well more than a decade. For reasons that humble me, and rather confused me until very recently, my work with them has been mostly successful. I have my own theories about the necessity for these women to work with a safe male in order to heal wounds caused by men that are out of the scope of this article. Yet, I want it to be noticed that after all of this work with some quite wounded women, I still did not recognize my own deafness to what women have been telling us all for years.

The problem with American male privilege is that it is insidious. This article is a beginning to what I hope will be an on-going excavation into why that might be true and what the cost of it is and will be in the future. There are at least three pillars supporting American male privilege. One way of thinking about how to get to these issues is as though they are archeological digs: in order to find the pillars, you have to dig through a series of compartmentalized and sealed chambers of the male psyche, each accessible only if you dig through the one above.

One core difficulty of addressing American male privilege is that the trap door to the very first subterranean chamber has not only been bolted and locked, but also has been hidden deep within the male consciousness since the very first breath baby boys take. It is as though the first portal to the top three chambers has been covered over with years of dirt and is difficult to find, even if one is looking for it.

I now believe that women have been pointing at the door under all of that dirt for decades, at least. However, because of the blindness that male privilege engenders, men simply have not been paying attention. Most men have not understood the frustration their blindness leads to for women. On the whole, men have dismissed that frustration as a kind of fundamental feminine flaw, an emotional upheaval that they could “just deal with” if they wanted to.

Embarrassingly, it took the #MeToo movement pounding on the trap door to get my attention. And I bet that many of the male readers of this article are scratching their heads, wondering what the hell I am on about. Well, let me share some of my recent insights, and perhaps they will finally pay attention.

And let me add that if you are a male and thinking to yourself “I already know about this,” consider that you may be part of the problem and not as “evolved” as you think you are.

Pillar One: Men Do Not Understand Women

The very first insight I had at the beginning of this exploration was that men do not understand women, not at all. I thought I did, but clearly, I did not. I can no longer even tell myself that I do in any meaningful way; that, I know, would be lying. It took a lot for me to dig into that fundamental understanding. Yet, it became clear at one point that, if I did not admit that I don’t understand women, I had to admit something worse: that I was a closet sexist. That hit me like a brick.

Some of my earliest memories around sexuality come from my experiences in middle and high schools. I was a sensitive boy, especially sensitive around girls. I clearly remember sitting at lunch at a table, the only boy at a table of girls. They talked openly in front of me about “girl things” as though I was not there. I was virtually invisible and quite uncomfortable. I believe, though, that I was possibly one of the very few non-threatening boys in the school or that would never have happened.

What our current president referred to in the Access Hollywood scandal and dismissed as “locker room talk” is real. I remember becoming physically ill when I heard what other boys said about my female friends, yet I was unable to do anything to stand up for them. Not only was it a dangerous thing to do, but there were also no guidelines or support for doing so.

I remember seeing what I thought of then as gangs of male students moving through the hall literally yelling obscenities about women as a whole. I was embarrassed, intimidated, and angry. But I said nothing for the same reasons that I did not speak up in the locker room.

With these experiences (and more) and my daily current work with women, surely I understand them, right? I mean, they tell me just about everything about their lives and challenges. Yet, as I now see it, almost all of those discussions carefully skirted around the deeper memories and emotions stirred up in them by the #MeToo movement. I work diligently to engender and prove my trustworthiness to my clients from day one. Yet, even so, either they did not trust me to receive what they really wanted to say, or much worse, they were telling me and I completely could not hear them.

It was only when I had the insight that maybe I didn’t understand women as much as I thought I did that I realized the best course of action was to: “Sit down. Shut up. And listen.” Does that mean that men have no part in the dialog? They absolutely do! I suggest, however, that the dialog can only be had in a meaningful way when men understand that 98% of what we believe about women is not true.

Guys, let me tell you that women are telling you exactly what you need to know about them. You are just not listening. As long as you think that you already know about them, you are wrong and you are adding to the problem, no matter how sensitive you think you are.

“You’re not talking about me, right?”
“I’ve always loved and protected women!”
“How can you not see what all I am doing for women?”
“How can you say that I don’t understand you? Haven’t I proven myself?”

If these are your words, you are part of the problem. That is an expression of a masculine language intended—subtly for certain—to deflect and shut down further dialog, not open it. Try this instead: Sit down. Shut up. And listen.

Put your ego and sense of bruised self-importance aside and really listen to what women say. Don’t take it personally and don’t try to defend yourself. Know that is a dead giveaway as to your own lack of understanding and your own male privilege.

Once you do that and prove that you are really interested in hearing them, you will find that women will begin to talk to you about what is important. Once you do that and let them know you are giving up on the idea that you know anything and are willing (at last) to listen, you will likely hear the words, “Thank you.”

Only then can a real dialog and understanding begin.

Here is one more thing to know: Women don’t understand men, either. However, I have come to believe that 1) they know that, and 2) they understand men better than men understand women. Why? For safety. It is axiomatic in the animal world that weaker animals need to be smarter than the stronger ones—the prey needs to know more about the predator than the reverse. There is more about this later, but it is certainly relevant to know at this point, as well.

Pillar Two: Boys And Girls Are Socialized Differently

Among the first things that you will come to realize when you begin to listen to women is that girls and boys are socialized completely differently. The effects of that difference in socialization are profound. Both men and women grow up within two separate silos of socialization. Though we think they are the same, they are not.

Babies are color-coded at birth: boys are blue; girls are pink. This actually does not seem as true about babies born in the 2000s as it was for most of my childhood and adult life, including having two sons of my own. But this color-coding has absolutely contributed to the confusion around socialization of children and the effects on us as adults.

Color-coding has helped generations know how to deal with babies. The question, “Is it a boy or a girl?” is easily answered by what color clothing they wear. I instantly know whether I’m dealing with a “little man” or a “little girl.” (Notice the subtlety of the difference.)

The fundamental question, though, is why does it matter whether the baby is a boy or girl? The answer is so that we will know which socialization program we need to switch to in order to properly interact with the child. It would not do to treat a “little man” the same as a “little girl.”

My partner and I were walking back from the local store recently when we passed a young man sitting on the step of their front porch, watching his child play on the sidewalk. As we passed by, the child fell forward on the concrete and began to cry. The father did not move but instead said, “You’re OK. Come on. Get up and come over here. Let me take a look.” Until that point, I really could not tell whether the child was a boy or girl. Once he said that though, the gender of the child was clear. It was a boy.

Imagine the same scenario, but instead, the father rushed over to the crying child, helped her up, gave her a big hug. The differences in socialization are not even subtle when you begin to look for them.

These differences in socialization continue into every single aspect of the rearing of a child: schools, neighborhoods, churches, playgrounds, family constellations… on and on. Within the silo, it is almost impossible for the child to tell what is going on for the most part. Occasionally, one child will say of her sibling (usually the girl):

“Why does he get to go hunting, and I don’t?”
“Why do I have to wear a dress, and he doesn’t?”
“Why can’t I play dodgeball, and he can?”
“Why can’t I go out with my friends, and he can?”

Universal answer: “Because he is a boy, and you are a girl.” This is clearly the most frustrating response possible, often leading to fights, slammed doors, screaming, running away, and other “aberrant” behaviors.

Dad says, “What’s that all about?” Mom answers with a shrug, “She’s a girl. That’s just how girls are.”

Granted that these are very broad generalities. I would argue, however, that the boy tends to win in these situations; and the girl loses. Here lie some of the very deep roots of male privilege, nurtured by the male recipient of male privilege from his own father, and supported by the mother who, in this case, appears to have surrendered the field. Most likely, her mother did, as well.

Extending this imaginary case further, you might find the mother talking with her daughter later. What might she say? It is probably best to leave that answer to the women because I have no way of knowing. I don’t have any experience within that silo. I can only make assumptions, which by the way, is another deep root of male privilege. If we do not know, we tend to create stories, and those stories reinforce what we already believe.

But go ahead and try it. What do you believe they talked about? Whatever it is you think, it is a story you made up from your own beliefs. That is actually pretty important. You need to know the stories you tell yourself about life in the other silo.

Gender and Gender Identity

Certainly, some children fall outside of the established gender silos. One of the hard truths about the binary view of gender, in addition to the toll it takes on the socialization of children, is the toll that it takes on people who do not identify with their assigned gender roles. When a Tomboy looks in the mirror as puberty overtakes her and sees her body change, she can feel, and often does feel, betrayed by it—betrayed by her own body.

(Remember that my experience is primarily with women. I can assume that this experience is the same for boys, yet I do not know for certain. I leave that for them to express, or those who have more experience with boys. However, the work I have done with a few young men strongly suggests this is true for them also.)

The sense of confusion, rejection, and isolation of children who fall outside of the established social gender norms appears earlier than most people realize. The deep-seated feeling that the child does not belong anywhere often persists well into teenage and adulthood years, especially if the child does not find adequate support and assistance.

In the current American social system, being outside of established norms is never a good situation. These established institutions, including the silos of socialization, are long-standing and will be very slow to change. Yet, knowing about them is highly valuable to creating change in the American male privilege system.

Pillar Three: It’s In The Language

In December 2018, I posted on my Facebook wall a video regarding a study sponsored by two advertising agencies of men touching women in a Brazilian nightclub where 86% of women in the country reported being touched without consent. I was not as interested in the study (which was basically not at all scientific, intended only to raise awareness), rather in the responses the article might bring up and the discussion around them. I was not disappointed, and there were a few surprises.

The study involved a dress to be worn by women that had sensors embedded in the cloth. The study was designed to measure where the women were touched and how many times in a bar setting. The dress recorded up to 40 gropes per hour. Perhaps predictably, the majority of the touches were on the back, arms, wrist, neck, waist, and hips. When they showed the study results to the men, they expressed surprise.

The comments on my feed were enlightening in regard to how one might determine whether touching was appropriate or acceptable. My favorite guideline was:

“Imagine you’re in a maximum-security correctional facility, in a room of big beefy inmates with no guards around. What kind of touching would you be uncomfortable receiving from any of them?

“Let that guide you. If you wouldn’t want to be behind bars with a guy touching you that way, then don’t do it to her unless you know her and know that you have explicit permission to do it.”

There was a predictable discussion with comments from men indicating that women should be aware of how they are dressing and where they are going. After all, some asked what women should expect when they go to a bar? Other women indicated that they didn’t go to bars for just that reason. These are both expressions of and a cost of male privilege, which the study reflected also exists in Brazil, as well as America.

Of course, women should be able to dress however they want and go wherever they wish without being treated inappropriately or made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Apparently, though, many men who responded did not agree, and some women had simply given up.

Still, that is not what got my attention.

There were a couple of discussions between men that expressed some form of the defensive comments referenced in Pillar One that are sure signs they are not listening to women. Another was, to my eye, a somewhat benign exchange about how NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming) might consider the issue. But then there was this from a woman:

“You got some dudes on here that don’t know how to not sound like a predator.

“That’s all I’m going to say here, but, seriously, some of them need to check their level of defensiveness as an indicator of possible predatory tendencies in thinking and speaking (likely behaving, too)—even if, or should I say, ESPECIALLY if, they are currently unaware (ostensibly) of these tendencies.”

Here is the key observation again: “…that don’t know how to not sound like a predator.”

Suddenly, I realized that underneath the social silos supporting the separation of girls and boys is language. Boys and girls are taught two different languages: boys, a predatory language; girls, a submissive one. Take a look at these statements that I regularly hear female clients speak about hearing as they grew up:

Don’t make waves.
Don’t be too much.
Be nice.
You’re so sweet! or Be sweet!
What would “They” think?
Give ____ a hug.

Then imagine saying those same things to a boy, instead of what men generally heard growing up:

Be strong.
Stand up for yourself!
You can do it! You’re a winner!
Get up and get it done!
You can do anything you want.

The situation is that these kinds of messages, these fundamental differences in language, are constantly and consistently reinforced throughout the children’s rearing. They simply do not know any better, other than when girls begin to notice the differences. Yet, girls, as well as women, are mostly not heard, which is another reason that such privilege is so pervasive and insidious in the male culture of America.

Healing Begins With Men

The only way to address American male privilege, and to begin to heal the wounding it has caused, is for men to wake up and make some internal changes. I heard over and over again that the only effective force for change is men who recognize and stand up against privilege. “No one listens to women,” has been a constant and true statement throughout this entire excavation.

That men actually do begin the work is the only way male privilege can be addressed in America—the only way to stop the constant demeaning, diminution, and outright threats that women face on a daily basis. Period. That’s it. If men do not come to the defense and aid of the women that we say we love, we are all closeted sexist liars.

If you are in, here is what you do:

Stop talking. Stop defending. Really listen.

Understand that you fundamentally do not understand. Make that your baseline. When you are talking with women about anything that they think is important, do not assume that you know what they are talking about. Pay attention to them exclusively and practice active listening: ask questions, reflect back what you think you heard and make sure you got it right.

Pay attention to your own language.

Pillar Three postulates that the languages taught to boys and girls is different. I hope that you are properly impressed with how subtle that is. This is not only about what society teaches children. You need to recognize the effects of the programming on your own psyches and worldview. Your thoughts, reactions, and behaviors are fundamentally based on the language you have been taught. And the way to catch and change that programming is to pay attention to your own words.

One strategy for catching yourself is by listening to other men and doing your best to disambiguate what they are saying and the stories they are telling themselves. You can bet that you are doing the same.

Be brave. Take action.

I was outside working on the lawn not too long ago when I heard a young man walking down the street and talking loudly on the phone to his male friend. I mean very loudly. The words his friend was apparently using about his girlfriend—and women in general—was disgustingly sexist. I was shocked and surprised, and he was gone before I could get my wits together. Once out of sight, it was too late; and frankly, I was afraid to speak up, even if I had the chance. I still regret that.

Make space for women to be heard.

In general, women are not heard. They are talked-over, their opinions are negated or minimized, or they are simply ignored. On more than one occasion I have been told that a woman made suggestions several times that were simply not regarded as valuable. That is until a man made the same suggestion and got credit for the idea.

When you really start to listen, you will find that women bring a lot to any discussion. They think differently and they see things differently. That kind of out-of-the-box thinking is extremely valuable in understanding how to be more creative. And they should get credit for that!

From now on, do not let other men demean or denigrate women. Stand up for them at every opportunity. This is what it takes to be an ally, and women want (and need) allies in their cause to be treated, if not equally, at least decently.

Learn about institutionalized sexual harassment and abuse.

Take courses and workshops if you need to in order to better inform yourself about the topic. These courses are not only about sexual abuse, but also the structures that make it possible to exist. You will learn a great deal that you don’t know, including what you do not know about how male privilege shows up in your own psyche. You will see that it does.

Suggest (or insist) that your employers and other organizations in which you participate sponsor such training for its staff and members, as well.

Spread the word.

Guys, we are all in this together. Talk to your male friends about this issue. Recruit them as allies or at least deal with their misogyny when you see it. Call them out, too. If they don’t like it, then you might consider changing friends.

Here is a simple thing to do. Men tend to talk over or interrupt women when they are speaking. When you see that happen, set an example. Let everyone know that you want to hear what she says, to let her finish. It is really difficult for people in a group to ignore you, as a man, indicating your interest in hearing the woman out. That is a very clear statement and example for other men in the group.

This is important. By paying attention and taking on this challenge, men working with women can begin to chip away at the current dysfunction of our social systems. It is going to be a longer-term struggle and not quick or easy at all. Yet the cost of doing nothing needs to be ranked as completely unacceptable, which it is.

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7 Responses to Three Pillars of Male Privilege in America

  1. No. We wouldn’t. Quit stealing our voices. Quit telling us what we think.

    The only privilege that is seriously problematic is urban white liberal female privilege. Those [bad word] can get away with anything.

  2. Michael Noble says:

    Hi Gerry, I have no doubt that you’ve put a lot of time and consideration in when right this article. I was really curious to get another perspective on the topic, yet I only got to the end of the first section; And let me add that, if you are a male and thinking to yourself “I already know about this,” you are part of the problem and not as “evolved” as you think you are.

  3. gerrystarnes says:

    I would like to hear more of your thinking about this. It may be that you are a lot like me, in that I was sure I was a strong supporter of women. However, some of my women friends pointed out that these kinds of statements are defensive and tend to shut down discussion rather than invite it… kind of like what your statement does. Nonetheless, I have edited the paragraph to be less strident. I hope that you will finish the article. There is a lot of good information that I have learned from women.

  4. Linda clifton says:

    Great article ! I agree with you. We are programmed early on. I wanted so badly to help my Dad on the farm. Was told I was a girl and I had to stay with Mom & learn from her. I’ve resented it all of my life. I was told by a male guidance counselor I wasn’t college material. I would maybe be an ok secretary.
    Now at seventy I feel my life has passed me by. I could have been so much more but I was put into a box and taped up tight !
    Thanks for writing this!
    Linda Clifton

  5. gerrystarnes says:

    Thank you, Linda. I appreciate your comment. And from the other side, there is much that I missed from the programming, as well. The more research I did, the more I found how the programming affected me. Some of that wounding is in the article, but still unpacking… and might be for years. – Gerry

  6. Mk says:

    I’m appreciative of this piece & don’t feel that it’s taking away my voice on the matter, even though I don’t agree with every line you’ve written. Honestly, how are we to truly reach men without allowing them into the conversation? I think I’m a generation younger than you & I’d like to add that even though I don’t have the perceived experience of being socialized to be submissive, & am generally NOT at all submissive – I have the LIFE experience of being socialized to be defensive. My body has “known” I am in danger around men since before kindergarten, no matter how familiar the surroundings or empowered or physically strong I become, I generally live on high alert OR in spaces that are SO WELL KNOWN that they can stifle growth. I guess my point is, while the issue of pink & blue feels so, so trivial TO ME, because the way we dress a baby really has nothing to do with how they treat people when they grow up – there are plenty of rapists in pink polo shirts, for example. However, excluding a male, of any age, from this conversation does nothing to further protect anyone. The sooner we accept (or demand) the involvement of our sons & fathers & brothers in this, the sooner this gets better.

  7. gerrystarnes says:

    Thank you for your note, MK. I actually WANT men in the conversation because that is the only way things will change. The whole last part of the article is addressed directly to men. I want to shake men up, to challenge them to rethink what they (we) believe because we are wrong.

    One of the points that I wanted to make is that, as you say, it is the LIFE experience of being socialized as submissive, or as you say, defensive… a pervasive sense of being unsafe that derives from the more predatory programming of boyhood. However, the programming begins early and continues through life. Your body knows because it has been trained since birth to react in the way that it does. Boys’/Men’s bodies are trained differently.

    So, to your main point, I am not excluding males in any way from the conversation. I WANT them to get engaged! I WANT them to get involved and the last part of the article expresses how they can.

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