Patriarchy: A Primer for Men

Patriarchy: A Primer for Men

What it is, and what to do about it.

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July 11, 2007

In response to “Hip Hop Dogmatism and Potential Problems for Political Organizing,” I have received two consistent criticisms: “You haven’t defined patriarchy,” and “You haven’t given us any solutions.” I respond to these very important criticisms below.

What is Patriarchy?

According to cultural critic bell hooks, “Patriarchy is political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.”

In other words, patriarchy is a social and political system that gives men privileges, which result from a socialization process that teaches people heterosexual men are superior to women and all non-heterosexual men. Sexism is a consequence and symptom of a society that practices patriarchy.

Politically, wage differences between men and women are symptomatic of patriarchy. In the US, women make 80 cents to every male dollar. The struggle over women’s reproductive rights is symptomatic of patriarchy as well. While men are given the ability to control their reproductive organs without state interference, the state constantly interferes with women’s ability to do the same. The right of the state to determine what women can and cannot do with their bodies is a symptom of patriarchy.

Socially, sexual assault is symptomatic of patriarchy. In the US, 1 in 4 college age women report being sexually assaulted. Because reporting sexual assault is often humiliating-another symptom of patriarchy-experts estimate 1 in 3 women are actually victims of sexual assault. The denigration of women is another obvious social symptom of patriarchy that includes the widespread reference to women as “bitches” and “hoes.”

More subtle social symptoms of patriarchy include descriptions of sex. Common ways of referring to sex include, “hit it,” kill it,” “smash,” and/or “beat it up.” All these popular terms for sex involve men inflicting physical injury on women in the name sexual pleasure. Patriarchy teaches men and women to think that the metaphoric destruction of the female body is the goal of good sex.

What Men Can Do About Patriarchy

Men must first admit patriarchy exists and then understand how patriarchy works. We must understand the combination of daily sexual harassment, such as “Hey Ma, can I holla?” or “Damn, you got a fat ass,” with the constant threat of being sexually assaulted, creates a way of knowing the world that is fundamentally different from that of men. Men must acknowledge, empathize with, and learn from the experiences of women. Once men begin this process, street harassment must be confronted where and when it happens. I’m not suggesting that men go out and bluntly confront harassing groups of men in the street, but I am suggesting that men have conversations about patriarchy and sexism among friends and male acquaintances when they see patriarchy at work.

Men must do this for two reasons. The elimination of patriarchy will allow men to be free. Without patriarchy, men will be free to experience a whole range of human emotions that patriarchy teaches us to deny. Because men have no reason to complain about being the victims of sexism, when men hear about patriarchy from other men, it is harder to dismiss sexism. Men’s conversations about sexism appear more rational than women’s.

While combating patriarchy at the personal level, men can also support women led struggles against patriarchy at the political level such as abortion and reproductive rights and the Brooklyn based Girls for Gender Equality campaign to end street harassment.

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