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The idea of female privilege isn’t just wrong—it’s dangerous

It is not a privilege to live in constant fear of rape and death.


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Posted on Apr 10, 2014   Updated on May 31, 2021, 12:17 pm CDT


Mark Saunders’ recent Thought Catalog piece, “18 Things Females Seem To Not Understand (Because, Female Privilege),” announces its ignorance right from the title. The only people who still call women “females” are scientists, sexists, and Ferengi. (I suppose these three groups may overlap somewhat.) But while it’s easy to poke fun at the ridiculous title, it’s a little harder (though not by much) to show how wrong Saunders is.

Consider the first item on the list:

“1. Female privilege is being able to walk down the street at night without people crossing the street because they’re automatically afraid of you.”

It takes such incredible chutzpah to turn yourself into the victim in that situation. Women are afraid of men because we’re taught to, because we’re blamed for anything that happens when we’re not afraid enough, and because of personal experience. Saunders’ male privilege means he’s never had to feel what that’s like, and he should be grateful. The most visceral fear of my life has been when I’ve been walking down a dark street alone and heard footsteps behind me, knowing that the first question I’d be asked if the worst thing imaginable happened would be, “Well, what the hell were you doing out there alone?”

It is not a privilege to live in constant fear of rape and death.

The rest of Saunders’ list is either like this, or just straight-up factually inaccurate. “4. Female privilege is being able to turn on the TV and see yourself represented in a positive way.” I struggle to think of a female character on mainstream television who isn’t presented as either vapid and stupid, or bitchy and unattractive. (I struggle, but it is possible.) In any case, Saunders ignores the fact that it’s not just about how “likeable” a character is. It’s also about how multi-dimensional, interesting, unique, and human the character is. And characters like that are easier to find among men than among women–not just on television, but in films, video games, and other types of media.

“6. Female privilege is being able to decide not to have a child.”

That’s often false. Just scan the front page of RH Reality Check on any given day. Women’s supposed “privilege” to decide not to have a child is constantly being eroded from all directions: assaults on abortion rights, which include both legal measures and abusive protesters outside clinics; restricted access to contraception, which religiously-motivated organizations are constantly pushing not to have to cover with insurance; and, of course, rapists who physically, violently take that choice away from their female victims.

Other items on the list are more legitimate and describe the ways in which patriarchy harms men by expecting them to be women’s opposites: for instance, socially penalizing them for being stay-at-home dads, pressuring them not to show emotion, and so on. However, these pressures exist for one reason only, and that is the fact that, in our society, the worst thing for a man to be is like a woman.

A few of the other items on Saunders’ list concern women’s responses to male sexism, which strikes me as especially self-centered. For example: “16. Female privilege being able to have an opinion without someone tell you you’re just ‘a butthurt fedora-wearing neckbeard who can’t get any.’” While I believe it’s wrong to insult people for their appearance or for how much sex they have (or don’t), it’s worth noting that the “butthurt fedora-wearing neckbeard” attack is most often leveled at men who have said something sexist.

Anyway, if Saunders thinks that female privilege means being able to express an opinion without being viciously harassed for it, he should see the email inbox, blog comments, or Twitter mentions of any female writer, especially one who writes about feminism. We’ve all had it graphically described to us exactly how we should be raped and murdered.

This, Saunders, is what we mean when we say “check your privilege.”

This post explains brilliantly why “female privilege” isn’t a thing, describing the work of social psychologists on a phenomenon called “benevolent sexism.” Benevolent sexism is the kind that puts women on a pedestal, and most of the “privileges” Saunders describes basically come down to that.

Unfortunately, benevolent sexism limits women’s accomplishment and freedom by providing them with a narrow platform onto which they can squeeze to receive the benefits that it confers. The minute a woman steps off of that pedestal, whether by having “too much” sex or not acting “feminine” enough or making a man feel threatened, all those nice platitudes about “the fairer sex” and “ladies first” disappear very quickly.

Privilege is ultimately about power: who has it, who doesn’t, how those who lack it can sort of get a little bit of it by behaving in a way that those with real power approve of. Benevolent sexism is not a privilege, but a reward for not challenging someone else’s.

Being put on a pedestal is nice until you realize that you have no room to move.

Miri Mogilevsky is a social work student who loves feminism, politics, New York City, and asking people about their feelings. She has a B.A. in psychology but will not let that stop her from getting a job someday. She writes a blog called Brute Reason, tweets @sondosia, and rants on Tumblr.

Photo via Bo47/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Apr 10, 2014, 11:00 am CDT