What’s Biology Got to Do With It?

Lionel Tiger is the best name ever.  Too bad the man is championing “Male Studies.”

On Tuesday, CBC Radio programme “Q” hosted a debate, of sorts, about the idea of introducing a university program focussed on “Male Studies.”

Now this isn’t to be confused with “Gender Studies” or even “Men’s Studies” – both of which already exist in some Canadian universities.  Male Studies, at least according to advocate Lionel Tiger, would be different than existing programs because it would focus on “natural maleness” rather that socially constructed gender (which is the main focus of most women’s/gender studies programs).

Unfortunately, it’s not being envisioned in conjunction with pre-existing programs (which could be a great benefit because of research from the last forty years), it’s being conceptualized in contrast to the “stifling” Women’s Studies discipline.

His hostile approach and gross misunderstanding of the topics covered are unsurprising and similar to many other critics of Women’s Studies.  But in my experience, the discipline is actually incredibly open — not just about men, but all the different kinds of women who were ignored in second wave feminist study.  They are also heavily focussed on the many different parts of women’s lives (race, class, sexual orientation) that intersect with their gender and therefore affect the way women experience gender.

It is true that Women’s Studies programmes aren’t focussed on biology.  Instead, their goal is to change societal expectations of women through social change.  And since the treatment of women in our society has changed drastically in a short period of time, it is clear that socialization has a lot to do with what was once perceived as innate “maleness” or “femaleness.”

The cornerstone of Mr. Tiger’s argument seems to be his concept of “male original sin” which suggests that men are socialized  to believe that they are all potential abusers (and that women are all potential victims) and that they must spend their lives proving otherwise.

While I don’t believe that it is true that men are assumed to be potential abusers, there are times when I can understand why people might feel that way.  Our culture’s need to protect and prevent bad things from happening can lead to both victim blaming and witch hunting.  Obviously there is room for improvement.

But the very real truth is that women continue to be raped or sexually assaulted all over the world. I could name at least five women I know who have been sexually assaulted (and surely there are more that I don’t know of).  That’s a scary thought and a big, fucking deal.

I often think of how I will teach my (future) daughter to be safe in the world without making her think that a rapist could be lurking behind every corner. It’s is a very real issue and it is something that Women’s Studies programs do address. But it is not something that can be resolved by making Women’s Studies the enemy.  And if the current methods of teaching young men and women about assault are flawed, we should do everything in our power to fix them.

But there is absolutely nothing in a study of male biology that is going to help prevent rape.  Rape is a social phenomenon, not a biological one. We know that rape is about power and control, not sexuality.  Rape is not something that is engrained in male DNA and it can be stopped.

Mr. Tiger is also concerned about the performance of men and boys in school.  As far as I can tell it is not because he thinks that the way boys learn is not understood, or because boys aren’t getting the attention they need, it is because feminism has made boys into wimps who can’t stand up to the women in the class.  Mr. Tiger gives this example from his own teaching experience: “after about 3 sessions the women have completely intimidated the men. . . and they [the men] leave.”

The idea that the Women’s Studies has somehow made bullies out of women and wimps out of men is both insulting to women and men.

The whole idea of Male Studies doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.  Not because I disagree with studying male biology, but because studying male biology independently of female biology and socialization isn’t going to answer any questions about men and women.  Not to mention, biologists already have that covered so we hardly need a new discipline.

But more importantly, I can’t understand why studying biology is going to make any bit of difference in the social problems Mr. Tiger describes.  The only conclusion I can come to is that Male Studies advocates are looking for some sort proof to say that natural “maleness” is being suppressed by women and Women’s Studies.  If that were true, there would be no reason to strive for equality.

It’s hard to take someone seriously when he positions his argument in stark contrast to a discipline that many (including me) feel has no where near the power it needs to make important changes in society.  His arguments are focussed exclusively on the needs of men, but without much evidence that men are really in trouble.

Understanding men – their motivations, thoughts and identities – sounds like a great idea.  I hope Men’s Studies and Gender Studies continue to be developed, and even criticised.  But Male Studies is not the way to go.


2 thoughts on “What’s Biology Got to Do With It?

  1. Greetings.

    First, since the Foundation for Male Studies guest academicians made it clear that they are breaking ideologically with other already existing programs, why would they want to use their research? And besides, the research is available any way.

    And there are no enemies to be made here. Feminists simply do not have a voice in how this discipline develops, which it as it should be if we want these people to maintain autonomy.

    And I understand there is a lot of fear about this rogue group darning to say they will guide themselves outside feminist control.

    Any attempt to control, influence or coerce the acceptance of any ideology or political agenda before pursuing a science is unconscionable. Feminism is s set of beliefs, not the Gestapo.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      The problem I have with creating a discipline in contrast to existing disciplines is that a) seems to discount the importance of previous work and b) does not make a lot of sense if the goal is to understand men. Men do not live in a vacuum in this world and as such cannot be studied as if they do. Many social science researchers are interested in interdisciplinary research that allows them to get a much bigger, clearer, more multi-faceted picture of any given subject.

      I added the following paragraph after you read the blog, and I think it fits in to me response to you here:
      But more importantly, I can’t understand why studying biology is going to make any bit of difference in the social problems Mr. Tiger describes. The only conclusion I can come to is that Male Studies advocates are looking for some sort proof to say that natural “maleness” is being suppressed by women and Women’s Studies. If that were true, there would be no reason to strive for equality.

      You can tell me that there are no enemies (just like Mr. Tiger did), but it’s just not true. There is a very clear dislike of Women’s Studies, and any “power” they might have. WS is the straw man in this argument, which is created out of false assumptions of the program. It is is easy to say we need a program that is different if we assume WS is closed, angry and disinterested in men. But that idea does not reflect my experience with, or the reality of, WS.

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