A couple days ago, a lovely little article popped up on Fox News entitled “The war on men.” Written by Suzanne Venker, it examines the question “Why do so few men want to get married?” According to Venker, the problem is quite simple: “Women aren’t women anymore.”
Venker writes that we “angry” women “pushed men off their pedestal” and stole man’s place and “now the men have nowhere to go.” Venker urges women to understand this: “Men want to love women, not compete with them. They want to provide for and protect their families – it’s in their DNA. But modern women won’t let them.”
But never fear, ladies—Venker has a solution!
“All [women] have to do is surrender to their nature—their femininity—and let men surrender to theirs. If they do, marriageable men will come out of the woodwork.”
There are not enough words to describe how horribly sexist this article is. Among other things, it quite disgustingly get-back-to-the-kitchen-esque. Not to mention, Ms. Venker, what are you doing writing this article and taking some poor man’s chance to write? Don’t you know? Women are supposed to be loved, not be competing with men for their jobs!
Yet, its blatant sexism against women aside, one of this article’s worst sins is its sexism towards men. There is a very real “war on men” in our society, though Venker hardly does it justice. It is a war that hurts men with harmful, demeaning stereotypes of them which rarely are discussed. And Venker’s article is a veritable train wreck of these stereotypes, notably ones dealing with male power, financial responsibility, and sexuality.
Let’s start with Venker’s claim that “[men] want to provide for and protect their families – it’s in their DNA.” In this there are two damaging expectations. The first is that a desire to protect harkens to a masculinity defined by strength, both physical and emotional. A culture of male physical strength is harmful as it glorifies and promotes violence as a show of one’s manhood and it also has repercussions for male body image. Physical strength is manifested in the flesh by muscles, and men often feel expected to attain this image of muscular manliness. I have met men who are healthy, but anxious—even depressed—over their lack of a properly masculine frame. Even built men I have spoken to have been frustrated—because they believe they still don’t have enough muscle! Furthermore, pressure on men to be emotionally strong often leads men to deny their emotions altogether. This can cause a lack of emotional connection with others and an unhealthy bottling up of emotions. In fact, in the United States,the suicide rate of men is nearly 4 times that of women. This is an image of masculinity that kills.
The second damaging expectation is that true men want to and are able to financially provide for their families. First of all, there are many men who do NOT want to fill the role of provider, but rather feel called to take on such important family positions as the primary care-giver for the children. And this attitude should be perfectly fine, yet it is ridiculed as “unmanly” and “women’s work.” Moreover, the idea that men should be able to financially support a family places undue stress and pressure on men to be responsible for money. Women regularly tend to be raised with the idea that it is wonderful to have a job, but it is also wonderful if they want to stay home and take care of the kids. Men rarely are brought up with this choice. Yet, particularly in this economy, it is often unrealistic to solely burden men with financially keeping a family afloat. Much of the time, two incomes are needed to support families. Also, there is a high likelihood that a man might get laid off or simply be unable to find a job, and his spouse has to be the breadwinner. Still, society expects men to be the ones to provide, leading to anxiety and depression when men can’t. This could very well also be a factor in the higher male suicide rates.
If you are a Christian, you might be saying, “But the Bible says men are supposed to protect and provide!” Let’s look at one of the key Bible verses used to tie men to these roles:
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body.” (Ephesians 5: 25-33)
Here we see that men are exhorted to “feed and care for” their wives. Yet in no way does this verse say that men are to be the sole providers and protectors. Instead, just a couple verses before this, wives are told, “Submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5: 22) and both husband and wife are told, “Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). What this tells me is that both are called to serve one another—thus, both are called to provide for and protect each other. A husband should be his wife’s strength and a wife should be her husband’s strength. Furthermore, both spouses can earn money to support their family. And if the best way for a man to provide for his wife is to use his superior nurturing skills to take care of their children while she goes off to the high-paying job at which she is skilled, then this should be good in God’s eyes too. This husband is feeding his wife with support and showing he cares by using his and his wife’s skills to best serve their family. Therefore there should be no room in Christianity for the perpetuation of this harmful burden on men to be the strong ones in a relationship and to bear sole financial responsibility, and there should be respect given to men who deem their skills more applicable for non-provider roles.
Finally, let us consider one last harmful stereotype that Venker is propagating through her words, one regarding male sexuality. It is a quick blow that Venker delivers, with words said in passing: “Feminism serves men very well, they can have sex at hello…”
We can stop right there. This supposed “benefit” of feminism plays into a common idea about men: that men just want to have sex. All the time. Sex consumes their thoughts. And, as Venker emphasizes, this stereotypical man often has few qualms about whom it is with; Venker’s hypothetical men were willing to jump a person who merely says “Hello!” According to the logic of the stereotype, men have such low standards because sex is a need. It is a necessity. It is a thing that utterly dominates them. They cannot control themselves. Just a bit of cleavage, a patch of leg, a touch too much ankle—and it might be too much.
It is a line of thinking sadly quite prevalent in Christian culture. “A woman must be clothed in modesty,” the often-repeated Christian phrase states. It is an adaptation of 1 Timothy 2:9 and is not an altogether bad sentiment; for example, wearing low-rise pants that expose one’s bum in the workplace is certainly not suggested attire. The issue comes when it is used as an excuse for male sexual impropriety towards women with little to no blame placed on the male offender himself. Instead, if a woman looks in any way attractive, she is seemingly entirely at fault for encouraging men’s lustful desires. In fact, the Bible is full of stories popularly seen as men succumbing to feminine wiles: Delilah seduced Samson into cutting his hair and thus losing God’s favor, Lot’s daughters got him drunk and slept with him so they could get pregnant, and even the Fall of Man itself was brought about by a woman, Eve. It is no surprise, then, when these stories are paired with 1 Timothy and other Biblical injunctions to women to behave chastely, that they are twisted into a false ideology that focuses on man’s natural sexual desires and vilifies women for arousing these desires. Women should take care to be chaste, but boys will be boys (with little attention given to 1 Timothy 5:2’s call for men to act purely).
How, though, is this harmful for men? People often focus on how this attitude is harmful for women. It is used to excuse sexual assault and rape, to sexually control women, and places unfair burden and guilt on women for sexual moderation, among other things. All of these things are true and important. But think about what this image says about men! It essentially makes men no more than animals who must respond to bestial instincts with little ability to use human reason to stop themselves. It makes men mere creatures possessed by sexual urges. How awfully demeaning!
Moreover, it is a stereotype that deeply hurts men in the eyes of their female peers. In “The war on men,” Venker says, “[Women have] been raised to think of men as the enemy.” And she is entirely right. Women have been taught to fear men and their sexuality. If you are told long enough that all men are but animals with only sex on their mind, you begin to believe it. A male stranger’s innocent smile of greeting becomes a sexual leer. Friendship with men becomes suspect. And if we do love a man who loves us in return, we are taught to always ask the quiet question in the back of our minds, “Does he love me for me? Or just to get sex?”
Of course, it is not an assumption that is entirely without basis. Nearly everyone has at least one story of sexual abuse at the hand of a man, either personal or that of a friend or family member. However this does not mean every man should be branded a sexual predator.Because this world is filled with awesome, genuinely friendly guys who don’t just see sex when they see a woman. Shockingly, men CAN control themselves and often do. Men should be treated as respectable human beings, not sex-crazed dogs. A man should be able to give a friendly hello to a woman without worrying that he is being threatening. If a man a woman loves has earned her trust, that trust should be given. But the double standard is a double-edged sword that often cuts men out of women’s circles of trust.
So, Ms. Venker, if you want to help men, stop spreading these destructive stereotypes of them! To stop the war, we must first stop the words. We must not only think about our sexist attitudes towards women, but also our sexist attitudes toward men and how these lines of thought affect them.
Nicole Fegeas graduated from Princeton University in 2010, majoring in Classics with certificates in Women and Gender Studies and Creative Writing. She was the Editor-in-Chief of the campus Christian magazine, Revisions, and is currently an Assistant Editor at Beliefnet.