Women's Rights and Male Hedonism

I named the most recent edition of my newsletter “Women’s Rights and Male Hedonism,” after a string of lyrics from this song by the Front Bottoms.

I like the line because it illustrates one phenomenon pretty well. Today feminism is incredibly culturally ascendant and very, very open to male allyship and male feminism. Just consider all the plaudits you’ll get if you become known as the guy who’s down with gender equality in college, or all the praise that male celebrities get for showing a decent, tweet-able understanding of feminism.

So, feminism’s everywhere, and a lot of the world likes feminist men. So what do men do with it?

They support women’s rights and live male hedonism. Consider:

“Feminist” men who go around calling people the c-word. (Seen that one personally)

Sexual assault prevention educators who commit sexual assault. (Know that one secondhand)

“Feminist” guys who spend more time basking in praise than they do engaged in feminist work. (I’ve skirted, and surely crossed, that line a few times)

There’s all sorts of examples, but it’s all the same stuff: guys who take the title of feminist and do nothing with the philosophy of feminism. Guys who publicly support feminism but never stop to consider their own actions. Guys who talk all about gender equality but live their male privilege to its fullest.

Women’s rights and male hedonism.

The funny thing about this phenomenon is that the conservatives totally caught it. Here’s Ross Douthat in 2009, writing that, in the wake of the sexual revolution, “men have been liberated to embrace a piggish irresponsibility.” Here’s Douthat in 2013:

Viewed from one angle, the sexual revolution looks obviously egalitarian. It’s about extending to everyone the liberties — the freedom to be promiscuous, to pursue sexual fulfillment without guilt — that were once available only to privileged cisgendered heterosexual males. It’s about ushering in a society where everyone can freely love and take pleasure in anyone and anything they want.

But viewed from another angle, that same revolution looks more like a permission slip for the strong and privileged to prey upon the weak and easily exploited. This is the sexual revolution of Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt and Joe Francis and roughly 98 percent of the online pornography consumed by young men. It’s the revolution that’s been better for fraternity brothers than their female guests, better for the rich than the poor, better for the beautiful than the plain, better for liberated adults than fatherless children ... and so on down a long, depressing list.

By the way, here’s a response to a similar argument by Douthat from Ann Friedman.

But anyway, the conservatives saw it! Douthat isn’t alone on this – talk to enough smart social conservatives and you’ll see this opinion pop up all over the place.

I don’t agree with this argument entirely (especially because Douthat’s opinion relies on the contention that the pre-sexual-revolution-era benefitted women), but I do think the conservatives are on to something.

Women’s rights and male hedonism is emblematic of a culture in which we’ve unleashed (some of) the sexual revolution and (a few of) the promises of feminism, but we’ve done it without erecting a new standard of ethical living for men.

For a certain kind of guy who lives in a relatively liberal environment, it is pretty clear what men are supposed to not do. From mansplaining all the way down to sexual harassment, we know what men are not supposed to do, but it is much less clear what men are supposed to do in our increasingly feminist world.

So, what does ethical, feminist living look like for men?

I’ve got an idea of what that ought to look like, but I think it’s incumbent on people like me (and everyone) to do a better job of developing and articulating that standard, because women’s rights and male hedonism is totally unacceptable.