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FAQ: What is male privilege?

Before discussing “male privilege” it is first important to define what privilege means in an anti-oppression setting. Privilege, at its core, is the advantages that people benefit from based solely on their social status. It is a status that is conferred by society to certain groups, not seized by individuals, which is why it can be difficult sometimes to see one’s own privilege.

In a nutshell:

Privilege is: About how society accommodates you. It’s about advantages you have that you think are normal. It’s about you being normal, and others being the deviation from normal. It’s about fate dealing from the bottom of the deck on your behalf.

[Betty, A primer on privilege.]

Since social status is conferred in many different ways — everything from race to geography to class — all people are both privileged and non-privileged in certain aspects of their life. Furthermore, since dynamics of social status are highly dependent on situation, a person can benefit from privilege in one situation while not benefiting from it in another. It is also possible to have a situation in which a person simultaneously is the beneficiary of privilege while also being the recipient of discrimination in an area which they do not benefit from privilege.

Male privilege is a set of privileges that are given to men as a class due to their institutional power in relation to women as a class. While every man experiences privilege differently due to his own individual position in the social hierarchy, every man, by virtue of being read as male by society, benefits from male privilege.

When first dealing with the concept it might be easier to approach it from a systematic, rather than personal, approach. Consider what Lucy says here:

[T]rue gender equality is actually perceived as inequality. A group that is made up of 50% women is perceived as being mostly women. A situation that is perfectly equal between men and women is perceived as being biased in favor of women.

And if you don’t believe me, you’ve never been a married woman who kept her family name. I have had students hold that up as proof of my “sexism.” My own brother told me that he could never marry a woman who kept her name because “everyone would know who ruled that relationship.” Perfect equality – my husband keeps his name and I keep mine – is held as a statement of superiority on my part.

[Lucy, When Worlds Collide: Fandom and Male Privilege.]

In this case the inequality is perceived, in part, because taking one’s husband’s name is considered “normal” for a woman, whereas choosing to keep one’s own name deviates from that. Popular culture often labels this behavior as “emasculating” to a man, but never bothers to question how a woman might feel being asked to give up something that has been part of her since her birth. This is an example of a culture of male privilege — where a man’s position and feelings are placed above that of the woman’s in a way that is seen as normal, natural, and traditional.

Going back to Lucy’s article, this is what she said in the paragraph directly preceding the one quoted above:

Male privilege may be more obvious in other cultures, but in so-called Western culture it’s still ubiquitous. In fact, it’s so ubiquitous that it’s invisible. It is so pervasive as to be normalized, and so normalized as to be visible only in its absence. The vast, vast, vast majority of institutions, spaces, and subcultures privilege male interests, but because male is the default in this culture, such interests are very often considered ungendered. As a result, we only really notice when something privileges female interests.

[Lucy, When Worlds Collide: Fandom and Male Privilege.]

Most people do not think twice about a woman who shares the same name as her husband; they simply assume that the shared name is his family name. This is an illustration about how male privilege operates in stealth. When a wife does not share the same name as the husband, however, it often leads to confusion and even anger — as Lucy’s example illustrated. This is because the male-oriented option (wife taking husband’s name) is seen as default, and the neutral option (both parties keeping their original names) is a deviation from that norm and therefore comes across as privileging the woman because it doesn’t privilege the man.

It is important to keep in mind that the above example is not an outside incident; male privilege is an institutional problem that has a long history associated with it. In addition to her anecdote above, Lucy discusses how male privilege interacts with fandom; in “Occasionally Conversations with my Man Are Instructive” Ilyka talks about the impact of it in terms of male commenters on feminist blogs; and in her “Privilege in Action” series tekanji takes instances of privilege that she’s witnessed in various aspects of her life (both online and off) and deconstructs them, looking specifically at why they are problematic. All of which points to one thing: it’s not about one person saying or doing one thing, it’s about a whole lot of people saying and doing things that, collectively, end up giving men an overall advantage.

Related Reading:

Introductory:

Clarifying Concepts:

  • More on the different types of privilege:

    Although different privileges bestow certain common characteristics (membership in the norm, the ability to choose whether to object to the power system, and the invisibility of its benefit), the form of a privilege may vary according to the power relationship that produces it. Male privilege and heterosexual privilege result from the gender hierarchy. Class privilege derives from an economic, wealth-based hierarchy.

    [Wildman, p. 17.]

  • An illustration of male privilege:

    After a while, we began organizing “chick nights,” gatherings of just the four of us and maybe some other women we knew from outside the group. For reasons that were often kind of bizarre, some of the men in the group took exception to this. They never organized nights at which we were excluded. When we pointed out that by the law of averages, a good half of the various social outings ended up being guy-only, they replied that it was not the same thing.

    “Look,” I finally said to one of them, “when we get together Saturday night, we’re going to paint our nails and put goop on our faces and play with each others’ hair and watch movies with really hot guys and talk about how hot the guys are and probably talk about sex and periods and all that fun stuff. Do you really have any interest in that?”

    “No,” he replied, “but we could do other stuff instead.”

    At which point I walked away, because otherwise things would have ended either with a rant on how it was not only more socially accepted but socially expected for women to be interested in stereotypically guy things than for guys to get into stereotypically female things (which I didn’t want to do, because really, we all did love gaming and horror movies and science fiction all that fun stuff), or else with me banging my head on the table.

    We live in a culture of male privilege.

    [Gillam, Lucy (The Fanfic Symposium): When Worlds Collide: Fandom and Male Privilege.]

  • On the powers granted by privilege:

    When a group of people has little or no power over you institutionally, they don’t get to define the terms of your existence, they can’t limit your opportunities, and you needn’t worry much about the use of a slur to describe you and yours, since, in all likelihood, the slur is as far as it’s going to go. What are they going to do next: deny you a bank loan? Yeah, right.

    [Tim Wise (ZNet): Honky Wanna Cracker?
    A Look at the Myth of Reverse Racism
    .]

  • On the gray areas of intersecting privileges:

    As a man who identifies as a feminist, I think a lot about the oppression olympics, in part because my place(s) within feminist discourse and activism always involve my understanding, to whatever degree I am able, my places of privilege. But also, I am always trying to better understand the oppression of others, trying to empathize with the feelings that oppression brings, by noting the places in my life where I am not the person with the *most* privilege. This is a dangerous business, because one has to avoid the temptation, which is sometimes really non-conscious, to equate one’s experience of not-being-privileged in a certain respect with being oppressed in another respect. That is, I have to also be constantly aware that my experience as a man who tends to cry in private and public from time to time (say), and who therefore doesn’t experience as much privilege that comes with traditional masculinity, may provide me some insight and empathy, it also will not compare in some important ways with most of the ways people experience oppression.

    [Jeff (Feminist Allies): Oppression Olympics: To Run or Not To Run?.]

  • tekanji (Official Shrub.com Blog): “Check my what?” On privilege and what we can do about it
  • Barry Deutsch (Amptoons): The Male Privilege Checklist: An Unabashed Imitation of an Article by Peggy McIntosh *
  • Peggy McIntosh (Independent School, Winter 1990): White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

* The Male Privilege Checklist link is to a third-party archive for a reason. Details.
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writer, singer, webwrangler, blogger, comedy tragic | about.me/vivsmythe

133 comments on “FAQ: What is male privilege?

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