Karen Straughan: Gender Politics on the Offensive: Part 2
Interview by GREG SCORZO –
Karen Straughan is famous for being a controversial gender politics Vlogger and Men’s Rights Advocate. Because of the nature of the stances she takes, many people are keen to dismiss her without even considering her arguments long enough to refute them. Because so much of her work induces both feminist and mainstream outrage, it’s often unnoticed that Karen is also an incredibly interesting gender theorist and historian.
This fact is partly what seperates Karen from many other gender activists, be they be feminist or anti-feminist. If Gender Studies departments were open to diverse and provocative views across the ideological spectrum, Karen would perhaps be a celebrity academic on par with Slavoj Zizek. Like Zizek, Karen is one of the more fascinating intellectuals of the 2010s. She is fascinating, in part, because you can gain incredible insights from both agreeing and disagreeing with her. But unlike officially institutionalised intellectuals, Karen does not come from academia. She does not work from an ivory tower. She’s a working waitress who does Vlogs from her kitchen. In this way, Karen’s Vlogs are to conventional academia what punk was to stadium rock. Love her or loath her, she says what many academics are afraid to say.
This interview was initially scheduled to be between 1 and 2 hours. We wound up talking for 7. Here are some of the highlights of what we said.
The Vlogs: Me a Feminist? No Way.
Greg Scorzo: I want to talk about your Vlog, “Me a Feminist? No Way.” Do you remember that Vlog?
Karen Straughan: (smiling) I remember them all.
Greg Scorzo: This was the first Vlog of yours that I saw. It was the one that I immediately showed to several of my colleages who were self-identified feminists. Much to my surprise, most of them loved it.
Karen Straughan: Did they? Wow.
Greg Scorzo: The reasons why they loved it are some of the things I wanted to talk to you about. Throughout this VLOG, you challenge the idea that the gender role expectation on men to be bread winners throughout history was a privilege. You describe it as a social expectation of men to engage in dangerous and exploitative labour, after which they are expected to give their earnings to their wives and children. On this social arrangement, the women get to stay home in physically safer, easier, less stressful conditions.
Karen Straughan: Yep.
Greg Scorzo: When I showed this Vlog to a socialist-feminist friend of mine and she saw that you were giving speeches at libertarian conferences, she said, “Why is Karen Straughan speaking to libertarians? Libertarians must hate her! She’s saying that what’s traditionally described as patriarchal privilege for men is actually a form of class exploitation. For libertarians, the breadwinner role for men is a freedom that should be celebrated. Not an oppressive obligation.” So in light of that point I wanted to ask you, do you see your analysis of the bread winner role as a socialist critique of gender roles?
Karen Straughan: No, not at all. I don’t see these roles as forms of class exploitation. It’s more a case of when environmental conditions are much more difficult, the expectations on individuals are going to be much more strict. I guess if you wanted to define marriage as an exploitative contract, it was exploitative in both directions. But I would much prefer to look at it as a form of co-operation. It’s a contract of reciprocal altruism.
Not all individuals necessarily entered into it because it was really the most important thing that they wanted to do in their lives. It was just expected of them. Yet when you look at how those husband and wife roles evolved, how in that environment could you have done things any differently? Feminists have asserted that the domestic labour women contributed to their households that they didn’t get paid for was exploiting them. I don’t see it that way.
Greg Scorzo: You don’t think men were exploited by the bread winner role?
Karen Straughan: I don’t think one gender was exploited over the other. Feminists tend to focus on the Biblical verse that says women need to obey their husbands and be submissive and subservient. They don’t pay attention to the passage in the Bible that says a man must love his wife the way Christ loved the church. That means: Be willing to Die for her. They don’t pay attention to the fact that a man was financially responsible for all of the money needs that any of his unmarried family members had as long as they were female. That includes his widowed mother, his unmarried sisters, and his daughers.
Feminists tend to see one half of the picture.
If you only look at one side of the picture and you see the oppurtunity to earn income as the sole descriptor of power, then you’ll think being a wife who didn’t have any control over the family purse is a case of exploitation. You’ll see it as an exploitation of her labour. But what feminists forget is that this was an arrangement that was the best that most people could manage for most of history.
If you had kids, you needed somebody to stay home and raise them. It made sense that the person who did that was the person whose boobs were serving the drinks. If somebody had to go out and generate economic productivity, it made sense that this was probably going to be the person with more upper body strength. This was happening in a world where manual labour was the norm. Gender roles, I don’t see as exploitation, when they were a response to the demands of a society that wasn’t yet a consumer economy. It probably offered the best cost/benefit analysis for both sexes.
Greg Scorzo: What would you say to the man who complains about his bread winner role when the industrial revolution happens? You know, the man who goes, “Hey, wait a minute! This division of labour is actually quite an oppressive construct. It’s not necessary anymore. I feel exploited because I have an obligation to be a bread winner when that has nothing to do with how I’d like to live. I want a society where neither me or my wife is expected to take on any gender roles. I want us both to be able to choose whether we want to be bread winners, stay at home parents, or some combination of the two.” Do you see this guy as having a legitimate grievance?
Karen Straughan: I think it’s a legitimate grievance. I just don’t think that most men, up until fairly recently, saw their breadwinner role as oppression. I know there were some men who did, like the mythopoetic men’s movement. This was the branch of the men’s movement that was pro-feminist. They may have seen the breadwinner role as a form of oppression but I don’t think most men did.
I’m not sure most men do now. I’ve seen boys as young as three policing each other, sayings things like, “you throw like a girl.” They’re not doing this because they hate girls. They’re not doing this because they have parents who put gender role expectations on them to the degree that you would expect. Most young boys just have a natural tendency to want to differentiate themselves from what is feminine.
Feminists have long held that this means that the feminine and women are devalued by men. I don’t think that’s what’s going on. If a girl doesn’t throw like a girl, then what’s she need a boy for?
Greg Scorzo: Are you saying that the breadwinner role is actually an expression of male biology that, in practice, mostly makes men feel useful and content?
Karen Straughan: I feel like it gives them a sense of purpose. Masculine purpose. I think there is an instinct on the part of men and boys, all the way down to the very young ages, to differentiate from women. They want to find something, some way to perform, that girls and women either can’t do or don’t want to do. They see that as a defining quality of masculinity. I think that the subconscious need of men to do this is something we have evidence for. You can see evidence for it in articles and books with titles like, “The End of Men” and “Are Men Obsolete?” You can see it in the Munk debate in Canada where four feminist women debated whether men are obsolete. They were basically saying, “We don’t need to keep you around guys! Justify your existence!”
Men and women have biological differences. A man, in one ejaculation, might have a billion sperm and a woman once a month has one egg. After a baby is born, there’s nine months of gestation and a year or two of breast feeding and all of this nurturing and investment. In our society, every single woman is given an intrinsic value because of these things. It may not be the value she wants. But at least she’s valued. It’s something for women that says, “You deserve to be here on the planet.” With men, it’s always been much more difficult to justify their existence to society.
When you look at a history where globally, genocides overwhelmingly target males, all sorts of violence overwhelmingly targets males, and where four feminist women can be on a national stage debating whether men should be sent to the trash heap and where society does not rise up and say, “These are Human Beings!,” it’s understandeable that men want to be protective of their gender role. That’s how they justify their existence.
Greg Scorzo: Do you worry that this attempt of men to differentiate themselves from women is actually being manifested in the tendency of men to let themselves be shit on by women? Do you worry that perhaps this is the reason why many men like Feminism? It seems to make many men feel useful.
Karen Straughan: Yes, very much so.
Feminists have said that “Women are constantly defined in relation to men.” It works the other way around and it always has. Excluding all the outliers in the world, there are two basic groups of people in any community. One is male and the other is female. We will necessarily define each other in comparison to the generalisations about the other. This is just what we do. This is why women shave their arm pits.
Greg Scorzo: Do you worry that objecting to Feminism is just objecting to what men are biologically predisposed to do? Perhaps men are biologically predisposed to throw themselves under the bus for women. Maybe this is what makes men feel good about themselves. Maybe men actually like misandry.
Karen Straughan: There’s lots of men who like it. That’s why you get the concept of “the one good man.” The guy who thinks, “I’m not like those guys over there who hate women. I’m the good guy.” This attitude in feminist men isn’t just motivated by the idea of serving a purpose. They also get female approval from the feminist women that they are supporting. I know a lot of men will say that “Men are feminists because they want to get laid,” but I don’t think it’s that simple either. There’s certainly an element of it which could be a subconscious mating strategy.
Greg Scorzo: Do you worry that you’re fighting a losing battle though? Do you worry that in opposing Feminism, you’re actually going against male instincts?
Karen Staughan: I think I am going against male instincts in a way. It’s just that nowadays, a lot of men are fortunately complaining about Feminism too. In our evolutionary history, there were many men who were subordinant to women but who didn’t get very many reproductive oppurtunities. Those men might be the ancestral antecedents of the men who are now complaining about Feminism.
Ok Cupid recently did a poll and found that among the women on their website, they found about 80% of the men on the website to be sub-average on a scale of attractiveness. These women want someone who is above average in attractiveness. So men in that 80% are just saying, “Fuck it! I’m gonna sit in my basement and play video games, work a part time job, not be a tax generator, not be economically productive, and not support the system. I’m not gonna support the system because I’m not getting anything out of it.”
Greg Scorzo: Well, it’s easy for those men to go, “Feminism isn’t fair because it doesn’t respect what men really want!” But on the other hand, in attacking Feminism, they are also attacking norms and values that make many men feel both useful and comfortable. So in thinking about Feminism, you’re kind of pulled in two directions. You want to cater to people’s well being and comfort on the one hand, but you also want to cater to justice on the other hand.
Karen Straughan: I wouldn’t think of it as a battle between comfort and justice. I would call it a battle between the delusion and the truth. The reason why we focus so much on violence against women is because we see it. We see it, it feels horrible to us, and it feels repulsive to watch. We want to jump on it when it happens and we think it’s a major problem in society because it happens at all.
That’s not necessarily reflective of reality. It’s not necessarily reflective of what’s ever gone on in history. When you look at artistic freezes of women attacking their husbands with skillet and rolling pins and then you read Robbie Burns poetry, you can see there has never been a time when domestic violence was not predominantly two people going at each other.
I know, in saying all of that, I’m working against our biological instincts. But at the same time, I think you can get to a point where the idea of feeling good while the world burns down around you starts to feel unsatisfying. Being comfortable doesn’t always serve humanity in the long run. Neither does always catering to our instincts. What serves humanity is being aware of the truth. All of the structures in the front of our brains which give us the capacity for reason and logic are the newest parts of the brain. They are the least practiced and the least skilled. They take a back seat to all the earlier neurological structures. But at the same time, we have them!
So it would be nice to use them more without worrying so much about comfort. At the end of the day, men are finally getting to a point where they are starting to get pissed off, feel ill used, and feel like they aren’t being respected. They see it as their role to sacrifce themselves for women and they are saying, “It would be really nice if I didn’t get dog shit rubbed in my face for this.”
The biggest problem right now is that women still expect men to care about what women think and make behavioural changes to make women feel more comfortable, happier, and have an easier life. These expectations are no longer an equal exchange between men and women. It’s women who are giving men an edict: “You owe me this! And on top of what you owe me, you’re a FUCKING ASSHOLE!”
Greg Scorzo: So is this male outrage you describe outrage over not being appreciated for being the bread winner? Or is it outrage over being expected to be the bread winner?
Karen Straughan: I think it’s a combination of both. If we removed all of the artificial supports and social engineering we’ve done and had a free market, I think 80% of people would fall into traditional gender roles. They’re just the best option for most people when you don’t have financial assistance from the government. Most single mothers would try and find a man to marry them and financially support the child. That single mother would offer the man something in return for that. Something of value.
Greg Scorzo: It sounds like the 80% of people you are describing are going towards traditional gender roles because it’s comfortable for them.
Karen Straughan: It’s not just comfort. Most women, in a free market without any state assistance, would obviously want to partner up with a man. They’d want to partner up with a man who is capable of looking after more people than himself.
Greg Scorzo: But isn’t that just because the traditional roles would make the woman feel more comfortable than the alternatives?
Karen Straughan: Of course it is. But it’s also for another good reason. After the woman has had a baby and the baby is small, she needs a helper. The woman isn’t capable of working at full capacity. She’s not even capable of looking after herself financially. She needs someone to do the male role. What Feminism has done is told us that, “There’s a Team Man and a Team Woman where one team dominates the other.”
I think the reality is men and women have conflicting interests in some areas. However, for the most part, they have the same goals and objectives. They want to protect their offspring and enable them to grow into adults who have good lives. So it’s not as if there’s a Team Man and a Team Woman where one team dominates the other. Feminism taught us to see gender relations as exploitative of the woman. They completely neglect the equitable trade offs of traditional gender role relatioships. In those relationships, the male and female are exchanging stuff with each other and the exchanges are fair.
Feminists have described the family as the most base unit of capitalism, but the family is the most communistic structure out there. I don’t say to my newborn baby, “I’m only going to give you as much breast milk as you’ve earned through your economic productivity.” I don’t say that. I give according to my child’s need. He will grow to give according to his abilities. The family unit is the most communist unit in society because all members give and take, according to their needs. They do so in the service of the benefit and success of all the members.
Greg Scorzo: Yes, the family unit seems very well being oriented rather than justice oriented.
Karen Straughan: Yes, and yet feminists say that it’s the base unit of capitalism. They say it’s based on the idea of class exploitation. They say they want a more Marxist way of doing things but you can’t get more Marxist than the family.
Greg Scorzo: That’s interesting. In some ways, the nuclear family is also kind of anarchistic.
Karen Straughan: Yeah, you can’t get more left-wing than the nuclear family. These days, most families are female dominated. The women make the majority of the decisions or have more of an influence on them. These decisions are about everything from what car the family is going to buy to what the drapes are going to look like. The woman will normally make the decision about whether the family will move to some far-away location because the man got a promotion and his boss wants him to head an office in some other part of the country.
The man used to be in charge of these decisions but there seems to be this idea among feminists that men were necessarily irresponsible, insensitive, and unassailable in their power. They assume the man would never put aside his own wishes in favour of his wife or the children. That’s never been the case. Men generally never had an attitude of, “My way or the highway.” This is why a big aspect of feminist ideology is the idea that there has never been a just patriarchy. They make no distinction between just or unjust forms of patriarchy. The mere fact that men were largely in charge makes it unjust for them.
Greg Scorzo: Ok, and on that note, I want to go into a more specific description you give of feminist theory in “Me, a Feminist? No Way.” In this Vlog, you say: Feminist theory tells us that “Men had all the power throughout all of history. Men arranged society so as to benefit men at the expense of women. Men purposefully kept women from positions of public sphere power for men’s own benefit. Male authority in families was just a ‘cookie’ they got just for having a penis. Feminist theory tells us that because men were given this authority, the ones who exercised it equitably and fairly were probably the exception and the wife battering bruits were probably the rule. It tells us that marriage was female oppression and slavery. It tells us that because men had all the power in the public sphere and all of the legal authority in the private sphere that every single injustice, great or small, all through history, can be laid solely at the door of men.“
When I showed that to a male feminist friend of mine, he said, “That’s a straw man argument!” I said “What do you mean?”, and he said, “Well, I can disagree with all of those claims and still be a feminist. She hasn’t showed that Feminism is bad. She’s only shown that a crappy and implausible version of Feminism is bad.” How would you respond to that objection?
Karen Straughan: I’d say that objection is like saying, “Not all cockroaches live under my cupboard so therefore I can’t talk about the problem of cockroaches under my cuboard.” I mean, it’s true that not every piece of dogshit smells as bad as every other piece of dogshit, but we should still be able to talk about dogshit as though it generally stinks.
Greg Scorzo: Maybe he’s trying to say something like this: You’re critiquing Feminism in a way that’s analogous to someone critiquing Christianity by only critiquing Christian fundamentalism.
Karen Straughan: I think the better analogy would be to say that I’m critiquing Christianity by critiquing the Bible. When you critique Christianity, you should necessarily critique both what’s in the Bible and the behaviour of Christians. For instance, I think the Westborough Baptist Church are a bunch of douche bags. But they’re the ones who are actually doing Christianity right. They are the ones who are doing stuff that’s consistent with all the sick shit that’s actually in the Bible. The liberal and moderate Christians who oppose them are actually the Christians who pick and choose what they like from Christianity and leave out the rest.
Greg Scorzo: So would you say that there is an inherent connection between Feminism and the worst kinds of Feminism?
Karen Straughan: The worst kind of Feminism is the kind of Feminism that’s taught in Women’s Studies and Gender Studies classes. It’s the Feminism which is politicised in all the feminist activist campaigns. It’s scholarly Feminism. It’s the Feminism that cooked up the Duluth model of domestic violence. It’s the Feminism that talks about Rape Culture. It’s the Feminism that gets a weekly column in The Guardian. That’s the Feminism I’m against. I’m against the Feminism that believes in “The Patriarchy” and all of it’s sub-theories. If you don’t believe in “The Patriarchy,” you may consider yourself a feminist. But I don’t consider you one.
Greg Scorzo: So do you reject the idea that being a feminist means only that you are committed to gender equality?
Karen Straughan: Oh god, yes.
The dictionary definition of Feminism says it’s the movement for the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. At the height of Nazi Germany, I’m pretty sure that the dictionary definition of Nazi-ism would have been: A political party and a social movement promoting a strong, united, and prosperous Germany.
Greg Scorzo: So it sounds like you think that a political movement should be conceptualised according to what it predominantly does in practice.
Karen Straughan: Yes, what it does in practice and what it believes. Not how it describes itself. You can determine what movements believe, often by what they actually say. Sometimes you have to converse with proponents of a movement for a while to really understand what they are about. Sometimes, some of the more reasonable proponents of a movement will show up and start saying things like, “Why can’t we all just get a long?” Then within an hour of the conversation, it will become apparent why you don’t get along. This happens with feminists.
So many feminists insist that they’re moderates who aren’t sexist and simply want equality. Then after talking to them for some time, it becomes apparent that they are assuming that men are uniformly priviliged, women are uniformly oppressed, and that the system was structured in that way by men and for men’s benefit.
Greg Scorzo: Throughout the “Me a Feminist? No Way” Vlog, you critique female entitlement without obligation. You seem to be critical of the idea that women should be able to demand a right that men have without also being forced to have the expected obligations of men who exercise that right.
Could it be the case that women simply have different obligations to men? In other words, a woman might gain a right that was previously accessible only to men. She might gain it without having the obligations men are saddled with in virtue of exercising that same right. But she might still have her own distinct obligations that come with exercising that right and being female. For instance, a woman might gain the right to participate in the market economy just like men do. Yet in gaining that right, she has a different, distinctly female social obligation.
She’s the one who it’s assumed will be the caretaker of the children if her and her husband decide to have a family. That, in turn, will make her have worse oppurtunities to get stable jobs and be paid decent salaries. Employers will just assume they’re hiring someone who is going to either quit the job or be far less dependeable once pregnancy occurs.
Karen Straughan: I don’t think it’s fair to say women had unique burdens on them just because they got to participate in the workplace. Men were still entirely responsible for financially supporting women. At the time of sufferage, men had a legally enforced responsibility to support all the female members of their family. Not just their wives. The income and property of women wasn’t considered the property of the family. It was their own. No husband could claim it, even though he was responsible for the tax burden on it.
You literally had a situation where men were still entirely financially responsible for supporting women, where female children were expected to be supported by their fathers for the duration of their lives until they got married, and often in times of extreme economic strife. When children were booted out of the house because a family couldn’t afford them, it was the male children that were booted out.
At the time of sufferage, women had emancipated themselves from plenty of obligations and expectations. Meanwhile, they maintained the obligations that men had to both women and society. Now, if they did want all the same rights and obligations of men, they wouldn’t have wanted woman’s property to be emancipated from marriage. They would have wanted women to have an equal say over the combined marital properties of the man and the woman. But instead of that, the sufferagettes wanted, “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is still ours.” When you look at all of that, I think it’s obvious that the sufferagettes were never equality minded.
Greg Scorzo: Do you agree that women had their own unique obligations that came with being female?
Karen Straughan: I don’t disagree with that. But here’s the thing. Even if a woman has a job and gets married and is expected to stay home, the man is expected to work more to make up the loss of income. He’s expected to give up the oppurtunity to watch his kids grow up. Both the man and the woman are both trading something with each other. They’re both sacrificing something for the benefit of the family. Usually, both parties are giving up what’s less important to them. Women are much more likely to prioritise spending time with their families. They’re much more likely to prioritise work-life balance and family and flexible time and parental leave, compared to men.
If you look at never married men and never married women, never married women earn 17 percent more than married men. It’s been like that since the late 80s. The reason for this phenomenon is that when a man doesn’t have a family to look after, he doesn’t feel the need to work as much. But for whatever reason, whether’s it’s socially constructed or instinctive, the woman is more likely to want to be the one to spend more time at home once the family starts. The man is more likely to be the one who is going to feel an urge to increase his economic producivity.
Greg Scorzo: Do you think it’s wrong for that probability to become a social expectation? What about people who feel constrained because they don’t fit that pattern but it’s still what society expects of them?
Karen Straughan: Of course there are outliers and society should definitely make allowances for them. Unfortunately, you can’t base public policy on those outliers. You can’t make sure that men and women have equal freedoms, oppurtunities, and duties if you treat most men and women as if they are the outliers. If you know most men and women are probably going to behave a certain way, you need to design public policy around that expectation. I don’t think you’re ever going to see an equal amount of men and women in Western politics without artificial coercion. One place where they have managed to get more than 50% representation of women in politics is Rwanda.
Greg Scorzo: Yes, I’ve heard about that.
Karen Straughan: Do you know why? It’s because most of the men are dead.
Greg Scorzo: I didn’t hear about that.
Karen Straughan: The genocide there overwhemingly targeted men and their population has far more women in it. You see this too in the Ukraine, Poland, and other places that suffered huge male casualties in World War 2. In those places where men are a valuable commodity, women are willing to put up with all kinds of bullshit from their man. They’re willing to put up with him being lazy. They’re willing to put up with abuse. If that’s what it takes to generate an environment where women have equal representation in politics and are willing to take on the bread winner role in large numbers, that means it has to be a society with few men in it. But I don’t think most women in Poland or Rwanda are happy with that.
Greg Scorzo: You talk a lot about unfair social expectations on men and how feminist organisations and movements have done nothing to undermine those expectations.
Imagine someone who says, “I agree with everything you say regarding men being disadvantaged by expectations placed on them to financially support women. I agree with you that the expectation on men to work is not a privilege. However, the econonomic dependence of women on men is also a kind of oppression. This is because, among other things, it requires women to stay in abusive relationships because they can’t afford to leave. It’s much harder for women to get the kind of jobs and salaries that would allow them to generate enough income to leave an abusive relationship.”
Don’t you think this illustrates that in the past, women actually didn’t have much autonomy as housewives?
Karen Straughan: Feminists thought they came along in the 60s and convinced all of us plebs that hitting your wife as a bad thing. In 1906 in his state of the union address, Theodore Roosevelt advocated bringing back the whipping post. It had been banned in most states at that time. He advocated the whipping post specifically as a punishment for men who beat their wives. The reason why he suggested that this was the best punishment for such men is it would not result in economic hardship for the wife.
If you jailed the man, the wife would be deprived of his money. Before that, men used to be subjected to public flogging for beating their wives. It’s true that the definitions feminists use for defining domestic violence are different to what the definitions were in 1906 and before. There was still a will on the wider part of society to not approve of wife beating. Generally, women relied on male family members to get them out of abusive relationships. You know, brothers, fathers, cousins, and even sons. That’s where they got their financial support.
Today, women don’t need that. They have shelters, legal aid, free lawyers, ex-parte protection orders. They have all kinds of things that faciliate them leaving an abusive relationship, all kinds of things that men don’t have. Most men without children who are abused by their female partners eventually decide to leave the relationship. They often leave with nothing.
Being an abused male is even more difficult if you are a guy with kids. It’s not as if you can go to a battered woman’s shelter. If you take your kids to a hotel, you can be charged with kidnapping. That means you have a criminal record, and then its highly unlikely you’ll ever get custody. If you file for divorce and try and sue for custody, the custody battle can cost up to 200,000 dollars in the states by the time you even get joint custody.
When you look at the options for men who are being abused by their wives they have kids with, its understandeable that most men opt to stay in the relationship. Those men are dependent on the woman who abuses them. It’s not normally financial dependence. But it’s dependency in the sense that the only reason the guy lives in the house with his kids is because his abusive female partner allows him to.
I am absolutely in favour of helping people leave abusive relationships. I also am very much in favour of instances of common couple violence. That’s violence from both parties where you get something like a push, a shove, with yelling and name calling. That’s 50% of all domestic violence, roughly. Common couple violence tends to de-escalate over time when people figure out how to get along with each other. These incidences don’t tend to result in any kind of severe injury. Couples who do this normally benefit from counselling, rather than breaking up the family.
So I’m very much in favour of preferring the counselling option for people in those situations. However, the idea that women are dependent on men in relationships isn’t entirely false. It might not seem so because that dependence comes in the form of child tax credits and tax breaks and medicaid and daycare subsidies and welfare. So a single mother might have a job and she might actually feel like she’s not dependent on the father of her child. She’s independent of any given man, but she’s not independent of men. Men are still paying to subsidise her independence. It’s a one sided view of things to say that a woman’s economic dependence on a man is some kind of horrible ball and chain.
Greg Scorzo: But wouldn’t you say that the expected financial dependence of women on men is an oppressive social norm? We’re talking about an expectation on the woman to be financially dependent on someone who may be abusing her.
Karen Straughan: But I don’t think that expectation is a social norm. Women in abusive relationships have nothing but encouragement to leave those relationships in our culture. There’s posters, tv commercials, and campaigns telling women all the time that if they are in a relationship like this, there is an abundance of help available to them so that they can leave. Do you know of Erin Pizzey?
Greg Scorzo: Yeah, she’s the woman who opened the first shelter for domestic violence victims in 1971. She was harrrassed and threatened by feminists because her shelter originally included beds for men.
Karen Straughan: Yes, and she’s determined through her research that it’s not a cultural expectation on women to stay in abusive relationships. There is a certain discomfort in our culture when you hear two people who are supposed to love each other going at it. You just don’t want to intervene. My boyfriend actually did intervene once when a man was smacking his girlfriend around on a street. He confronted the guy because he was trained to be a boxer and studied martial arts. He put the guy in a headlock. The girlfriend started then attacking my boyfriend, shouting, “Leave him alone! Get your hands off him!”, and then she violently attacked my boyfriend. So my boyfriend dropped the guy, walked off, and said, “I’m never going to do that again.”
Greg Scorzo: That’s very common actually.
Karen Straughan: Yes, so many times these relationships are a matter of personal disfunction. Although they make the rest of us feel uncomfortable, I think part of the reason why we are uncomfortable confronting the people involved is because we recognise the disfunctionality. We think, “Guys. How do you not know that this is completely fucked up?” The reason why neither the abuser or the abused realise that they have a completely fucked up relationship is because they both have problems.
Greg Scorzo: They’re both in some ways complicit in the abuse.
Karen Straughan: Yes, they are. The problems in the relationship don’t derive from our culture normalising abuse. They derive from problems with the childhoods of the couple, how their parents treated each other, what they witnessed, and whether they were severely traumatised by it. This is one of the things that Paul Elam has stressed over and over again since he took ownership of whiteribbon.org on behalf of A Voice for Men.
Paul was an addiction counselor. He saw a lot of family violence in his work. He would see abusive couples and they would be sitting there discussing incidences of violence. The guy would be like, “Oh she’s a bitch!”, and the woman would be “Oh, he’s an asshole!” They would each describe how they saw things and neither would be particularly bothered about the violence. It wasn’t until Paul would talk to their kids that he would see trauma. In some cases, the kids couldn’t even talk about what was going on. The kids would be lying under the bed or hiding in the closet, terrified of what’s going on between mom and dad. That’s what begets these situations. It’s not society. It’s not patriarchal norms. It’s none of that.
When you’re a kid and you’re in a closet listening to your parents fight, wishing they would stop fighting but hoping they won’t break up and you’re worried about one of them hurting the other and wondering if you won’t have a mom or dad tomorrow, that’s fucking horrible. It’s a horrible thing to put children through. That experience has to have lasting consequences for them. You see those consequences played out in subsequent abusive relationships that the children get involved in when they become adults. They can wind up being either the abuser or the abused.
Greg Scorzo: Let’s talk about a claim that’s often repeated by many feminists: Throughout most of history, society saw women as the property of men. Men were supposedly in total control of a woman as soon as he became her husband. The man could fundamentally do whatever he wanted with his wife, regardless of her consent. One of the supposed pieces of evidence for this claim is the fact that it wasn’t until the the late 20th century that it became formally illegal in Britain and the US for a man to rape his wife. What do you think of this claim about women being thought of as the property of men?
Karen Straughan: As far as I know, it’s still legal for a woman to rape her husband in Britain and the US. Here is what’s fundamentally changed in the West that hasn’t changed in places like Iran. If you look into what we would consider backward, patriarchal societies and their family law, both men and women have an expectation of sex within marriage. If the woman is incapable or unwilling to have sex, that’s grounds for divorce for the man. If the man is incapable or unwilling to have sex, that’s grounds for divorce for the woman.
There is an implicit entitlement on the part of both and an obligation on the part of both to provide the other with sex. That’s what marriage is there for. It’s there to produce children and produce an environment in which to raise them. That’s what the marriage contract is. I’m not convinced this is actually as backwards as we Westerners think it is. I mean, nobody gets married and thinks, “I’m so happy with my partner that I don’t care whether I’m ever going to have sex again!”
Greg Scorzo: Does that mean you think husbands and wives have moral obligations to have sex with each other?
Karen Straughan: Absolutely. I don’t think it’s an obligation on a moment to moment basis. But I take Dan Savage’s view on this. His view is, “Ok, so you’re partner has no sex drive and never wants to have sex. Did you sign up for a lifelong commitment to never have sex again? Is that what you’re partner wants of you? Can you even remotely claim that your partner loves you if they know you want to have a sex life and they are prepared to deny that to you? The options then are your partner needs to be willing to compromise some of the time and give you some sex. Not every time you want it. But they should at least provide you with something that would be reasonably considered a sex life. Either they compromise or they give you permission to go outside the marriage for sex. Anything else is abuse.”
Greg Scorzo: Would you say that an abusive relationship could be one in which one partner only has sex with the other when they feel desire and that happens once a year?
Karen Straughan: I suppose it would depend on how much the other partner wants sex. I don’t have sex with my boyfriend as often as he would like because he would like to have sex fourteen times a day. He’s capable of that because he’s a fucking freak. I don’t have the energy for that and I have other things to do. So we find a reasonable compromise. Our compromises don’t always involve having intercourse every time. We do other things to make sure that his freakishly high sex drive is reasonably accomodated and I still have time to go to the bathroom a few times a day.
Greg Scorzo: The idea that a marriage without sex is abusive is an extremely controversial view. Especially today when the most important factor in a sexual relationship is supposed to be the consent of both parties. The absence of total consent is what’s considered abusive today. Not the absence of sex.
Karen Straughan: I don’t see why my view should be controversial. Giving a man a hand job because it would make him happy isn’t such a huge thing to ask of his wife.
Greg Scorzo: But doesn’t this view imply that if I only have sex with my wife when I feel desire, I could be abusing her if there are long stretches of time inbetween the moments I feel desire?
Karen Straughan: If she had a very high sex drive and you said, “We’re not having sex in the forseable future until you do something that really turns me on,” I would see that as abusive. I would see that as an abuse of power. I wouldn’t see it as abuse on par with domestic violence. But I would say that it’s an instance of a husband taking advantage of a power disparity. That power disparity is in the supply and demand of sex.
If you’re the supply and she’s the demand and she wants sex on a regular basis while you want it once a year and you refuse to accommodate her in any way, you’re not treating her well. I’m not saying you have to have intercourse three times a day, but if you don’t even make the effort to cuddle her or talk dirty while she masterbates, that’s very selfish. Doing something sexual with her to make her happy isn’t an unreasonable expectation on you if you’re her husband.
Analogously, this isn’t an unreasonable expectation to place on her if you’re the one who wants sex more than she does. I don’t always want to have sex when my boyfriend does but I make sure that I do something sexual with him in a way where his preferences are reasonably accomodated.
Greg Scorzo: It’s tricky. Some people might describe that as a kind of non-consensual act. It’s a sexual act that’s not motivated by erotic desire on your part. It’s a favour you’re doing because you feel you owe him sex.
Karen Straughan: I’m motivated by the desire to make him happy, to please him. I don’t understand where this became a bad thing. Everybody understands that if a man isn’t willing to go down on a woman, she should dump him because he’s not willing to please her. That’s all over the culture right now. Why are men the only ones who should have to be a little bit selfless? I would rather be reading a blog post than giving a blowjob sometimes but I’m willing to do the blowjob because it would make my man happy.
We share a physical intimacy in that moment, even if I’m not turned on. We share an intimacy in that moment which I don’t think is valued highly enough. We’re together, we’re naked, it’s skin on skin, and that’s valuable. We devalue that experience when it comes to men being the recipients of sexual generosity from women. We fully accept that women should be the recipients of that kind of generosity from men. We think a man is selfish if he’s not willing to give a woman pleasure in a selfless way. We need to extend that expectation to women.
Greg Scorzo: Yeah, that view is very controversial. I’m not saying it’s wrong. Just controversial because the view today seems to be that you need erotic desire for consent. If you don’t have erotic desire and you’re doing a sexual favour for someone, you’re doing it because of an external pressure.
Karen Straughan: Why does consent have to be grounded in erotic desire? Why can’t it be a platonic desire? Why can’t it be a loving desire, a desire on the part of me to please the person I love?
Greg Scorzo: Maybe the answer your opponent would give is that a sexual act is too much like prostitution that way.
Karen Straughan: I don’t agree with that. It’s not like I’m being paid in any way for the sex act.
Greg Scorzo: It’s like prostitution in the sense that a prostitute performs a sex act regardless of their feelings of erotic desire. They perform the sex act because they feel obligated to, having agreed to a contractual exchange where they are expected to provide sex. Regardless of what your opponent thinks of prostitution, they might say that consent in a romantic relationship shouldn’t be like that.
Karen Straughan: I’m not sure I’m describing a situation in which women are expected to have sex without any erotic desire. It’s not that I don’t feel erotic desire, whenever I perform a sex act. It’s just that I don’t depend on erotic desire to be in the mood to make my partner happy with a sex act.
Greg Scorzo: So in a sense, you’re capable and willing to sexually perform for him?
Karen Straughan: Sure. Once we get going, I’ll probably get turned on too and then it won’t be a performance. What it comes down to is I have a willingness to say, “My needs and my desires and my whims are not the ultimate, paramount arbiter of what’s going to happen with our sex life. I want to consider my man’s needs as well. I want to make him happy.”
Here’s the thing. Even if I don’t get erotic pleasure out of a blow job I’m giving, I still get enjoyment out of it. I enjoy it vicariously through his enjoyment of it. I know that I’m responsible for him being able to enjoy that experience. I know I’m the one who made his experience happen.
I can think of plenty of domestic violence websites that mention that witholding sex and affection is abuse. It’s just that they’re talking about men withholding sex because everything is reflected through the Duluth model of domestic violence. That model only accomodates complaints about men witholding sex from women. I don’t think most people would think that a man saying to his wife, “I’m not really in the mood but I’m willing to do this sex act for you anyway” is a big deal. They only think it’s a big deal when it’s a woman saying that to a man.
Greg Scorzo: Well, there’s definitely a double standard. But still, a lot of your opponents would want both men and women to say the expectation to sexually perform without desire is abusive.
Karen Straughan: I think those people are taking a very very bad attitude towards sex and intimacy and relationships. It’s an extremely self-centered view. It’s not partnership centered. It assumes that I only have to do the things that I want to do and therefore my partner has to do the things that I want him to do. He either has to give me oral sex or I should kick him out like that article at Jezebel told me to. Or I can force him to choose between being in a sexless marriage or losing his marriage.
Divorcing the expectation of sex from the idea of marriage or romantic relationships is foolish. I think we should advocate a common sense and pragmatic approach to sex. All of our instincts are a product of who had sex and who didn’t in our ancestral past. It’s one of the primary drives that we have. It may not be as immediate as hunger or thirst but that doesn’t mean that it’s not as important.
Greg Scorzo: Is the absence of sex a form of sexual repression?
Karen Straughan: The absence of sex is an extreme disadvantage. It’s a hardship.
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