How male privilege produces such hapless men

The internet abounds with tales of male incompetence. What’s up with all these morons?

How male privilege produces such hapless men

The internet abounds with tales of male incompetence. What’s up with all these morons?

Men, as we know, are disgusting, and they are idiots. This has been apparent for most of human history — but the advent of the internet has helped us uncover new depths of just how gross and stupid we are. Every now and then, a new report will surface. There are men, it turns out, who don’t know how to wipe their ass properly, refusing to “spread their cheeks” open for anything lest they compromise their masculinity, or believing two wipes suffice regardless of how dirty they are. There are men, some of whom have been accepted into grad school, who can’t figure out that you need to let a shower warm up before you step into it, or think that all men’s bathroom activities require keeping the seat up (let me clarify, for the record, that most of the men I am referring to here are straight).

The appeal of these stories is on at least one level fairly obvious. They give us a circus thrill: Come look at the man, they proclaim, who always has shit around his ass crack! Come see the boy, who burns his hands every time he takes something out of an oven, because he doesn’t realize oven mitts exist! But when I read them, I also find them strangely comforting. Learning about this aberrant behavior kind of heartening, in a way. In Minima Moralia, Theodor Adorno says that “it is the sufferings of men that should be shared” — and that’s something like what I feel is going on here.

I’ve always known how to wipe my ass (you're reading an article here by a man who was, by my mum's testimony at least, fully toilet trained at 18 months, and yes, that is still one of my proudest achievements. I’m of a generation that has very little to be proud of, let me have it). But when I was growing up, I did so much weird and/or disgusting stuff that I’m honestly shocked that not a single person intervened to either help or stop me.

This behavior has only been eliminated through a number of relationships, as an adult, with women

When I was six, I started to get very worried about germs. I overheard someone say that spit was an antiseptic, so I used to spit on my hands all the time and rub them together. I did this regularly throughout the day, every day, at school. Every school photo of me between the ages of seven and ten betrays this habit through the visible spit streaks on my jumper (luckily, I stopped doing it once I reached puberty). When I was a teenager, I didn't use shampoo, because I believed, based on what must be one of those weird playground urban myths, that if you didn’t shampoo for long enough your hair would eventually start naturally cleaning itself.

I didn’t use deodorant, for the more idiosyncratic reason that I believed it functioned by trapping the sweat inside you, and that trapped sweat contributed to the growth of breast tissue — something that, as a chubby late developer, I was very worried about (I can’t remember where I got this idea from, possibly it was an extrapolation from something I’d misheard). During the summers, I was very concerned with the temperature of my room (in part because of the sweat thing), and experimented with a number of bizarre strategies for cooling it down, including spraying all the outside walls with the garden hose. Eventually, I decided that the problem might not be that it was too hot, just that it was too humid; so the solution, of course, was to dry the air out using fan heaters. This eventually almost led to my burning the house down (the one time my rather odd concerns did attract my parents’ attention, although their only real response was to ban me from having fan heaters in my room).

This behavior has only been addressed (and, ultimately, eliminated) through a number of relationships, as an adult, with women, all of whom have been far more patient with me than anyone could ever reasonably be expected.

This fits the pattern established by the men in the internet stories — their behavior is often only ever discovered through the eyes of their girlfriends. The one exception I can think of is the man who doesn’t know you’re meant to sit on the toilet seat, who is enlightened by a toilet salesman. As a social solution, this is of course a remarkably poor one: men, it seems (or at least some noticeable percentage of men), are being left to their own aberrant devices until they somehow randomly stumble into a relationship with a woman, who may — may — be generous enough to help them sort themselves out. For this the women are only vaguely compensated by perhaps having a relationship with someone who will eventually come to resemble a functioning human being. The unfairness of this arrangement hardly needs pointing out.

In the chapter of The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir basically identifies being left to one’s own devices as the earliest marker of masculinity. “During the first three or four years of life,” she writes, “there is no difference between girls’ and boys’ attitudes; they all try to perpetuate the happy state preceding weaning; both boys and girls show the same behaviour of seduction and display. Boys are just as desirous as their sisters to please, to be smiled at, to be admired.” But then, for boys, “A second weaning, slower and less brutal than the first one, withdraws the mother’s body from the child’s embraces.”

“Little by little,” says de Beauvoir, “boys are the ones who are denied kisses and caresses. The little girl continues to be doted upon, she is allowed to hide behind her mother’s skirts, her father takes her on his knees and pats her hair; she is dressed in dresses as lovely as kisses, her tears and whims are treated indulgently, her hair is done carefully, her expressions and affectations amuse: physical contact and complaisant looks protect her against the anxiety of solitude.” For the little boy, on the other hand, “even affectations are forbidden.” “‘A man doesn't ask for kisses... A man doesn't look at himself in the mirror... A man doesn't cry,’ he is told. He has to be a ‘little man’; he obtains adults’ approbation by freeing himself from them. He will please by not seeming to seek to please.”

It might sound bizarre, but the fact that some men don't know how to wipe their own ass is a function of their privilege.

For de Beauvoir, boys are formed in solitude, and girls in the additional affection and attention they are given (which comes with the obvious perils). But if in this “the boy at first seems less favored than his sisters,” she writes, this is only because “there are greater designs for him.” Through being starved of affection, little boys are shown, somehow, that they are of a superior class to those who still receive it: “The requirements he is subjected to immediately imply a higher estimation.” This is typically around the time that little boys will be shown the advantages of their penis — that in contrast to the girls and women around them, they can urinate standing up. This, de Beauvoir claims, is just the first of the marks of the strange, solitary superiority that boys will learn to identify. They are allowed to do more things, and to feel like they are in control of things, because they receive less attention and affection than their sisters.

If de Beauvoir is right about this (and obviously she’s talking in very general terms — there will certainly be exceptions to the rule; her account is also very much indexed to the French bourgeois world in which she was raised), then it must make sense that we exist in a world in which, on the one hand, women's behavior is radically over-policed, whereas on the other, men’s behavior is so under-policed that they can end up living what looks to everyone else like perfectly normal and successful lives, well into adulthood, without knowing how to do basic things like feed or clean themselves. It’s true, of course, that men's pain is taken more seriously by doctors, for example. But a lot of men just don’t know when or how to seek help when they experience pain themselves. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that a certain Canadian professor has recently become very rich and famous simply by telling young men to stand up straight and tidy their room.

It might sound bizarre, but the fact that some men don’t know how to wipe their own ass, or use a shower, or whatever, is a function of their privilege. Male privilege, of course, isn’t supposed to allow men to live like this — it's supposed to produce a world in which men, by and large, hold political, cultural, and economic power, a task at which it has been wildly successful. But the possibility emerges as a side effect. For every swaggering patriarch who is allowed to live his life feeling like he never needs to listen to his underlings, for every Don Draper he-man whose crippling (alleged) genius becomes the absolute focus of the lives of everyone around him, there is some forgotten loser who at some point has been allowed to go completely off-piste, and is now idling his life away in soiled underwear.

Male privilege, in short, is something men need saving from as well. It produces, both literally and figuratively, shitty men.

Tom Whyman, a writer and philosopher from the UK, is a contributing writer at The Outline.