Why Do Men Oppress Women?

A friend from Egypt recently asked me, “Why do men oppress women?”  She thought the answer might be that men like to dominate people.  But her answer is quite possibly a circular argument.  Especially, if by “dominate”, she means “oppress”.

I offered a somewhat different perspective.  While I think there might be several reasons why men oppress women, the main reason, to my thinking, is that much of it is rooted in sex.

That is, many of the restrictions imposed on females by males seem intended to guard against females having access to any sexual partners other than their spouse.   I suppose such restrictions on a female’s sexual choice might even have an evolutionary advantage: The males who are most successful in guarding their females from mating with males other than themselves are the most likely to pass on their own genes to the next generation.

A woman picks and chooses her sexual partner(s) from among the men she is able to attract.  Some hundred or so years ago, in some parts of the world, it was popular to assume that women were a bit like cattle in that neither women nor cattle were thought to exercise much choice in who they mated with.  But it is now known to science (at least) that women are by no means passive in choosing partners — if their society allows them to choose in the first place.

Exactly how do women choose sexual partners?  Studies done in campus bars, cafeterias, and study areas show that women have a variety of “come hither” behaviors they display to the men they want to approach them.  For instance, they might gaze at a man they like for a bit longer than necessary and then drop their eyes.  That is a signal to the man that he is welcome to approach.  And men who approach when they are signaled to do so are several times more likely to make off with the woman than men who approach without regard to whether the woman has invited their approach.

Put a bit differently, a woman exercises choice in courtship by first making herself attractive to men, and by second choosing among the men who are thus attracted to her.

Once you understand all of that, you can easily see how women’s sexual choices are sometimes restricted or even abolished.  Consider, for example, the endless issue of how women are “supposed to dress for the sake of modesty”.

The other day, I saw a rather plain and chubby young woman dressed in a way that flaunted her sexuality.  Her dress wasn’t attractive to me, but then I wasn’t her intended audience either.  Her intended audience was most likely boys her age.  And she appeared to me to have adopted a strategy of flaunting her sexuality in order to compete for boys  with her more naturally attractive sisters.  In other words, she was trying to increase her choice of mates.

Of course, girls who dress the way she did are the eternal targets of society’s censors.  James Dobson, for instance, might be appalled to see a girl flaunting her sexuality in that manner.  But I am not — I understand (or think I understand) a little bit of the girl’s feelings.  So, my tendency is not to condemn her but to be concerned for her.   I applaud her trying to attract as large a pool of boys to choose from as she can, but I worry that her method reduces her to only a sex object.

In sum, women who dress provocatively increase the number of men attracted to them and hence the number of choices they have when it comes to mating.  Societies that limit or restrict how provocatively a woman can dress thus limit or restrict a woman’s choice in mates.

Moreover, it does not seem to be an accident that those societies which most limit a woman’s choice in dress (and, hence, mates) are also those societies which most limit other rights and freedoms for women.  The oppression of women therefore seems to have a strong sexual component.

Before I was about 40 years old, I was of the opinion that sexual fidelity was extremely important to me.   But around that time my feelings changed.  I increasingly felt that having a partner who was free to be true to herself, free to develop her talents and skills, and free to love whomever she loved was more emotionally important to me than sexual fidelity.

Now, I’m not trying to say here that my former opinion was wrong and that my current opinion is right.  Nothing as simple as that.  It’s just that I’ve noticed at different times in our lives, we might have different emotional needs.  When I was younger, I needed sexual fidelity from a partner.  But as I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered I much more need a free spirit.  Sexual fidelity is fine with me if it’s freely chosen.  But it’s not at my stage in life something I would attempt to impose on anyone.

I bring all that up because I think it might illustrate an important point.  You can teach men that the oppression of women is morally wrong — but if that’s all you do, you will have lost the battle.  For people, both men and women, too seldom refrain from doing something they believe it is in their interests to do simply because someone tells them it’s wrong to do it.

To willingly refrain from doing something, you must feel it’s not in your interests to do it.  I don’t refrain from oppressing people simply because someone has told me it’s wrong to oppress people.  I refrain because I know very well how oppressing people defeats me — how it screws with what I most want from others.  So, if you really want to get men to quit oppressing women, you must somehow show men how it is not in their best interests to oppress women.

As for myself, I believe a caged bird is never so beautiful as a bird in flight.

26 thoughts on “Why Do Men Oppress Women?

  1. Very well put as always Paul.

    Something that has always struck me has been how many people will be quick to jump and say that a girl that has had sex, or even had sex with maybe two or three partners is a slut. But yet it’s okay for men to have sex with as many partners as possible. I realize not everyone does this, but it seems a fair amount still do. I even got into a heated discussion with a girl that was essentially making this argument and it was quite perplexing.

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  2. The thing about most/many men is that, as far as women are concerned, they tend to think only in purely sexual terms, whether overtly or covertly (even beneath their conscious levels). It all adds up….
    BTW: why do women oppress men? Is it because they are not serviced properly?

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  3. Okie, don’t really have the time but couldn’t let this go. As a former pshychology stud. I might have something relevant to say for once.

    There is a tribe somewhere in Oceania, with a name I forget except for the C it begins with, where the women basically have, as what we perceive, male behaviour. The women are agressive, fight a lot and are very dominant whereas the men wear make-up, express their emotions a lot and take a submissive role in society.

    For the most part men and women do think alike but the way both sexes behave is conditioned by society not by having a penis or a vagina or the lack of one.

    Also, some perceive peadhophealia (dear lord, let that be the way you write it in English) as a form of dominant behaviour where the sexual act is used as a tool to opress. Such you can also see during times of war where the women (men) of ‘the enemy’ become victim of rape. When raping those women the raper claims a pshychological victory over the supposed enemy, who wasn’t able to defend the weaker in his society and therefore has to admit his defeat.

    Sex in those cases is not sexually motiviated but used as a tool also and I always thought this to be interessting but most political leaders or other people in modern society who ambition a profession in which they have to ‘oppress people’ are in most cases people with inferiority complexes and other anxiety disorders of the sort.

    Paul, perhaps your ex did not try to oppress you. Perhaps she was ill. Ever thought about why she started a relationship with you? Why she was attracted to you? Am curious because oppressing you might have made her feel better about herself.

    There is this book called ‘I’m dsyfunctional you’re dysfunctional’ we all want either someone to heal us or somebody that makes us feel better, we’re all messed-up.

    If you want somebody to stop oppressing you I think that’s going to be a real struggle. Admitting you’re wrong is hard but loving yourself is even harder.

    I think one way to stop the hurt is by expressing that both of you are sick, that the relation is sick and that it’s time to heal yourselves first.

    Paul, quitting the relation might be the biggest gift you could have givven your ex and yourself.

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  4. I agree with much of what you said but it can get rather complicated in that 1. people who oppress other people often do it because they not only derive pleasure out of domination but also because they think it is the natural order of things (and unfortunately this is another reason I have little patience with tradition and traditional societies) and 2. unrelated somewhat but I find I cannot relate to “oppressed women” just as they may not be able to relate to me which just might perpetuate this sorry state a bit. Though glancing back just a little, we are doing very well these days in the Western world.

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  5. One of your best posts Paul. You will be surprised to know that these thoughts have been going through my mind and I was trying to put it down in a post, although my post was beginning with the way yours ended.
    //So, if you really want to get men to quit oppressing women, you must somehow show men how it is not in their best interests to oppress women.//
    I strongly believe that human beings need emotional support and in male-dominated societies they get it from other men, like brothers, fathers, friends. But the truth is that no one can be as loyal to you as your partner, no one. And the emotional support that she provides will always be greater than any brother or friend can provide. However if she is suppressed (many men don’t even realise that they are suppressing their women because women often do things of their own volition due to fear of society) she will reveal her frustration to her man in other ways. In male dominated societies, a woman needs extra support, to enable her to express herself freely and if a man can provide her that, she is his forever, in her mind.
    (I have not read comments as btw, this is my usual practice as I tend to get influenced by comments. Usually I read comments after I have sent my comment as my main aim is to be as fair to the author of a post as I can).

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  6. Rdoc, now that I have read your comment, I want to say that many women in male dominated societies suffer silently throughout their childhood as their freedom of expression is curtailed and once they are married they come across a male who is theirs to abuse! 🙂 Well, this is just one aspect of it as I am no psychologist. There is no doubt that people both men and women come with baggage to a marriage. Any person who abuses another certainly has baggage. Women have a baggage of a different kind than men.

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  7. @Webs: Thanks, Webs! I agree with you the double standard sucks. In fact, I would not call a woman a “slut” even if she’d had 100 partners. It’s just wrong to label people that way.

    @Doc: So far as I know, abuse is contagious. If we abuse someone, they might turn around to become an abuser later on.

    @Purnima: I agree with you that people who abuse others often have various disorders or suffer from low self-esteem.

    I’ve known for sometime that my second wife suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder and had been sexually, emotionally, and physically abused as a child. She was a brilliant person, but she couldn’t relate to people in a non-abusive manner. Although I would never go back to her, I really don’t hold her abuse of me against her. But the understanding of abuse that I first gained from living with her has left me dead set against the abuse of people — which is why I often talk about that issue on this blog.

    I must strongly disagree with you that you’re a pompous ass! That’s absurd! You’re a sweet, lovely person, and I like you a lot. So, you are hereby forbidden to call yourself a pompous ass on my blog or anywhere near it! 🙂

    @AOS: Both good points! I believe I can understand abused people because I’ve been there. But I’ve also noticed that — at the same time — my refusal to abuse anyone or allow myself to be abused creates a barrier between me and some people who’ve been abused and expect to be abused.

    @Nita: Thank you, Nita! Is it just me or have you also noticed that you and I sometimes think remarkably alike? Maybe it’s just similar values and concerns, but often when I read your blog I think, “That’s it exactly!” 🙂

    //But the truth is that no one can be as loyal to you as your partner, no one. And the emotional support that she provides will always be greater than any brother or friend can provide.//

    Well put! Although I don’t have a partner, I can see the point. And I very much agree that people who abuse their partners are foolishly depriving themselves of that loyalty, connection, and support.

    //In male dominated societies, a woman needs extra support, to enable her to express herself freely…//

    I believe I’ve noticed that “extra” need among my female friends.

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  8. “Why do men oppress women?”

    I believe that a decent (as in able to make our life better) answer to this question might begin to be created through this side:

    Men do not oppress women, both men and women are oppressed by (as in made to conform to) their culture.

    This culture has the downside of allowing the male ample space to direct violence (both physical and psychological) against women, but by no means this is the only form of violence or the most gruesome in our society.

    This is not to say that gender-issues are not important. I believe just the opposite, that they are probably the most important issues at hand right now, as a culture. A post about this is in order, but i still had not had the time…

    I think the same basic set of principles and ideas that has led our culture to the point it is now has been in the past capable of providing men and women with a relatively decent basis for conducting a healty and fulfilling life (as in one where abusing someone else was not part of it), but that is becoming fastly not the case. The root of that, in my opinion, is that a deep, fearless, sincere rethink of the way we relate to each other is needed.

    So, for now, i do not have any direct answer to that, but i completelly subscribe to your intent of making things clearer…

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  9. Pearls of wisdom and the like huh I presume! 🙂 Wonder why you haven’t joined the club… 😀 I would think you would be around my age… but then looks can deceive. 😉

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  10. Paul said: I suppose such restrictions on a female’s sexual choice might
    Fortunately, I did not grow up in oppression…. let me let you in on a female secret Paul. Women’s attraction to men is as varied as migrating warblers.
    There is no rhyme or reason to it. While single, and even during relationships, I could just look at someone and think, holey smokes, I could soooo get together with that dude.
    Two boyfriends I had during divorce were as different as night and day. One my age, who was gorgeous but ultimately annoyed the crap out of me for other reasons, but he was beautiful.
    Another, an older dude, nothing in common, crankish, not classically good looking….but man, the sparks went off when we were together. He once picked me up from the airport and we fell to the floor in a fitful rage of hugging and kissing.
    Go figure!
    I don’t overthink it anymore. It’s a nonquantifiable fact: you are attracted to someone or you ain’t.

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  11. I think that you started with an assumption and went in an irrelevant circle of arguements.

    I don’t think you really proved that men oppress women by describing courtship displays.

    A more accurate (though longer and less provocative) title would be “Why do men and women engage in mutual courtship displays in order to attract potential mates and gauge the partner’s suitability prior to mating and continuing their lineage?”

    I think it answers itself!

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  12. The last sentence in this article: “As for myself, I believe a caged bird is never so beautiful as a bird in flight” is beautiful and truly sums up the message well in a metaphorical sense.

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  13. This is a very rational and cognitive post, although the post just addressed why do men oppress women from a phsysiological standpoint. Men can oppress women in different ways: for example, in the workplace and non sexual relationships (another place to look at male/female relational imbalance might be when gay men take up female friends). But I think that when it comes to men they are socialized to be more self serving than women are. Women are encouraged to care and nurture, even in small ways, whereas men are encouraged to be more assertive. This leads to a lot of communication differences, and why men may dominate women in different spaces. It is useful to note that, sexual repression is a common strategy to keep women oppressed, and rape is used a war tactic, but it’s often not seen that way. This post is thoughtful, and I enjoy reading your blog.

    PS- You may not remember me, from philosophyandletters.blogspot.com, but I moved to wordpress as well. Say hello.

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