Women won the battle of the sexes – but who will win the war?

First published in 2018 with The Ethics Centre

It was only two years ago that I said with confidence that the question of feminism was over. Oh sure, there was still plenty of mopping up to do – ingrained practices and subconscious beliefs that needed to be rooted out – but the war was won; feminism was now the socially and institutionally accepted norm in the developed world. Everything else was just details.

As you can imagine, I’m no longer so sure of that stance.

The era of Trump demonstrates that for many, the war is far from over. Whether we’re talking about standard social conservativism, the Men’s Rights Movement, hyper-masculine pick-up artists, or the extremist fringe Incel movement, we are seeing a resurgence of anti-feminist sentiment in recent years that raises some serious concerns for the future of the gender debate.

Much commentary has been conducted on all this, with sociologists analysing sources of these movements such as 4chan, elements of Reddit, and the resurgent White Nationalist movement. Feminist scholars have also approached the issue, attempting to demonstrate that (despite the name), feminist goals of dismantling gender roles and toxic masculinity are beneficial to both genders, not just women.

But both of the commentaries miss a key factor that underlines this masculinity revival – specifically that when women won the battle of the sexes, men also lost.

For women, the development of feminism was an experience of expanding freedom, options and the right to both. The idea that a woman should keep to ‘feminine’ careers and pursuits was slowly dismantled, career options and control over those industries was gradually wrested from the Patriarchy, and not only political freedom, but the recognised right to that political freedom has become enshrined both in law and company policy.

And while it cannot be reasonably denied that this hard-earned progress towards equal rights was the ethical imperative, it must also be recognised that this new-won power came from somewhere. Specifically, it came from men.

If we understand power as the ability for an individual (or group) to control their circumstances, then if follows that power within a given context cannot be shared – it must instead be competed for by the parties involved. And while women have had every justification in seeking their fair share of power in order to control their circumstances, and seen their role in the world burgeon as a result, by this same process men have seen theirs shrink. In the space of one generation they have gone from the undisputed leaders of society and the family unit, to adrift in a sea of uncertainty as the new world order of equal rights has asserted itself.

All of this is nicely illustrated by the emergence of the Incel subculture. ‘Incel’ is an abbreviation for ‘involuntarily celebate’, and it is comprised by young men who feel that sex – or even the opportunity for sex – has been denied to them by women, both individually and collectively. The layers of psychology surrounding this are many and complex, as captured in excellent detail by Amia Srinivasan in this detailed article on the Incel subculture. But while it is both easy and accurate to describe a perceived entitlement to sex as severely problematic, doing so ignores one very important reality: in many regards men used to have that power.

Even as recently as the 1990’s the masculine role was still quite well established; men were responsible for providing for and protecting their families. They were told that they should be upright, decent, considerate and strong. And in return for all of this, they would attract female partners who would recognise these qualities, and those female partners would reward them with sex.

Needless to say, this is an incredibly simplistic and largely inaccurate perception of traditional gender roles, ignoring as it does the vast number of people that did not experience this simple equation and/or who were victimised by it. But the fact remains that it was also somewhat true –  where strict gender roles are enforced by society, a man has a very simple formula to follow to get female companionship and/or sex. Fulfil the traditional role of a ‘man’ and women would inevitably seek out your company – usually because their traditional role as ‘women’ meant they had few other options.

The rise of feminism has seen increased freedom and opportunity for both genders, but while it saw the role of women grow, it also saw the role for men shrink. And while some men have seen this as an opportunity to grow beyond the old restraints of masculinity, others have found themselves adrift, lacking even the old traditional guidelines to tell them what their purpose is and how they should conduct themselves.

Stuck in this perceived no-mans-land, many men have become resentful. Movements such as the Incels have risen up based on their shared resentment and focussed it on the cause of their perceived woes – feminism. And in part they are correct; the rise of feminism has seen their traditional masculine role taken from them, forcing them to either wrestle a new guide for life from an increasingly complex and confusing society, or else fight against that new society for their old throne – a far simpler and more comforting option.

None of this is to imply that men alienated by this new paradigm have a legitimate claim against feminism or the hard-won, righteous pursuit of women for equal rights. But it does go a long way to helping us understand what motivates the furious, and often violently hateful, resurgence of anti-feminism that has emerged in recent years. And more importantly, it gives us a means to address the underlying causes.

Masculinity today is in crisis, as old ways for men to understand themselves, their role and their purpose, fall apart. Faced with the colossal existential crisis this offers them, many men are turning to traditionalism in pure psychological self-defence. The question before us is what we can offer those seeking an identity in this new, dynamic age that can provide that precious sense of self, which doesn’t also depend on unrighteous dominance over others.

This question is neither the fault, nor the responsibility of women. But faced with the reality of the era of Trump, it is a problem feminists and their allies will need to deal with whether we like it or not.