Patriarchy means systemic male domination. We live in a patriarchal society that dehumanizes not just women and girls, but also men and boys.
It is often argued, especially by those with privilege, that the desire to control and dominate others is clearly natural, human, and biological.
Yet, when it comes to men and women, science still has more questions than answers about the origins of observed gender differences.
Even with so many open questions, we continue to be socially conditioned to accept that inequality between men and women is a result of innate biological differences.
But is sexism biologically determined, or is it socially constructed? Is racism biologically determined, or is it socially constructed?
It seems reasonable to assume that social factors play a major role in determining the degree of both racism and sexism in the attitudes and actions of any individual. And, almost by definition, social and cultural factors will largely determine the degree of racism or sexism of social institutions.
In other words, individuals and societies can learn and make conscious decisions about how sexist they want to be.
Despite the social progress coming out of collective activism of the 1960s and 1970s, we remain surrounded by gross inequality:
•Women today are regularly violated, beaten, and killed by men in the most “developed” societies in the world. Gender-based violence is little talked about in the news media, but epidemic. Contributing to the problem, our male-dominated business/consumer culture systematically objectifies, fragments, and otherwise dehumanizes images of women; such an ambient climate of female dehumanization arguably normalizes violence towards women.
•Women remain goods to be bought and sold, with men doing the buying and selling. “The world’s oldest profession” is also maybe the world’s oldest rationalization; the phrase makes excuses for an industry whose pimps are responsible for mass human trafficking, widespread physical abuse, rape, and murder. In contrast to the myth of the happy, wealthy, independent prostitute, 92% of prostitutes in five countries told researchers that they would prefer a different life if they had a choice.
•Pornography, most of which targets and then colonizes the mind of the male consumer, is largely the product of prostitution. Male sexuality and fantasy are constructed by shady businesses with an interest in maximizing profit at the cost of human dignity. According to two critical exposés (Chris Hedges' The Empire of Illusion and Robert Jensen's Getting Off, violence towards women in pornography has become more prominent and extreme in recent years. (Today, more Americans use the internet to find sexual imagery than any other general category of online content; according to Mathew Hindman’s 2008 book The Myth of Digital Democracy, in March 2007 the ratio of online visits to pornographic sites as compared to political sites was 100:1.)
•Physical appearance in our society matters more for women than it does for men. Women’s appearances are scrutinized by mainstream culture in a way men's appearances are not, and this is true even for elite women in society. Men can afford to look unattractive and still find success if they are brilliant and resourceful, but if a brilliant and resourceful woman doesn’t have the right looks, style, hair or clothes, she remains at a huge disadvantage.
•Despite higher rates of formal education, women are given less powerful jobs and paid less than their male counterparts. In addition, since going on double duty by becoming responsible for both jobs and babies in recent decades, women suffer a tighter time squeeze than men.
Ethics and domination over time
Over the course of human evolution, societies have outlawed one form of unjustified human domination after another. Over the last 200 years or so since the Enlightenment, social norms have been shifting particularly rapidly. Certain forms of domination that only a short time ago were seen as normal are today considered by most people to be categorically immoral.
Not very long ago, for example, rape was considered an understandable extension of the natural virility and aggressiveness of men and the natural passivity of women. According to one leading social historian, French law recognized violent acts as increasingly intolerable throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but in practice only began treating sexual assault seriously at the end of the 20th century; this occurred around 1980, when “rape” was legally redefined in modern terms, and for the first time included rape by a husband.
Norms of racial domination have also seen dramatic shifts. Until relatively recently, white supremacy was considered normal in mainstream European and American culture, with the ownership of non-white humans a “natural” outcome of this ideology. In the first half of the 20th century, it was considered ethical for European countries to colonize and physically dominate other societies, forcibly determining how “uncivilized” people live their lives. Only in the second half of the 20th century did colonialism become untenable when people resisted en masse. In the early 21st century, political and cultural domination still exists of course, but times are changing: For example, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, people across the world viewed the invasion as immoral and protested on a scale never seen before; by the standard of modern international law it was considered to be an illegal form of aggression.
Relative to these other forms of domination, the ideology that justifies male domination over women is still considered normal and acceptable.
Patriarchy dehumanizes men as well as women
So now to the question, Why would a post-sexist society deliver social justice not just to women and girls, but also to men and boys?
Boys and young men are under intense pressure to adopt a certain kind of masculine heterosexual identity. “Being a man” translates into a narrow spectrum of behavior and means showing to the outside world only a certain part of oneself. American warrior culture dictates that showing too much emotion, or the wrong kind, or not pretending to be tough and emotionally invulnerable, is considered unmanly and weak, or even “gay” (i.e., a girl). Insults, emotional and physical abuse, even beatings, often result. When the ideology of male dominance and violence reigns, anybody who doesn’t fit the superficial macho personality profile suffers. For gay boys and young men, the social difficulties are obvious. For heterosexual boys and young men, the pressures are often less obvious but can be just as dehumanizing. Needing to fit into society, young men struggle to squeeze their social identities and emotions into the small box we call “masculinity.”
In a patriarchal society, certain gender dynamics in intimate relationships are valued over others. Norms have changed in recent years, but boys are still generally rewarded for being socially dominant over and “appropriately” objectifying of girls, while girls are generally rewarded for being appropriately submissive in romance and for objectifying themselves. I'm generalizing, but the rules still apply. With such social norms, I would argue, everybody loses, because both boys and girls are pressured to conform to a certain kind of gender role, a certain kind of identity, and certain kinds of relationships.
Consumer society continues to bombard both men and women with images of unrealistic beauty and clichéd romance, and advertisers sell products by targeting our insecurities. But because of the relative importance of female appearance in our society, the images and narratives of consumer culture target girls and women in a more personal and insidious way.
In part because of this sexist media environment, men and women continue to internalize and propagate patriarchal norms. Sexism is still largely “normal,” and because of its ambient nature it becomes invisible and can even feel inevitable. So, just as many slaves in colonial America saw no other choice but to embrace their subordination and submit to their masters' will—and internalized racism continued long after slavery was dismantled—many modern women still see themselves as objects and submit themselves to male power. And, though outdated, many modern men still internalize the advertised ideal of the macho, tough guy, even if that’s not who they feel they are. Identities and relationships are severely constricted by unethical social norms.
Like both slavery and colonialism before it, patriarchy will eventually come to be seen by most men and women as unjust and inhumane, an ideological relic of a less wise, less empathic society.