The Question on Nobody’s Lips

Guest Post by Betty McLellan

I’ve been a feminist for a long time (since the 1970s) and I’m still waiting for politicians, community leaders and social commentators to ask the question: WHAT IS IT ABOUT MEN?

Even in the face of horrendous violence by men against women and children (Darcey Freeman; and Tania Simpson and daughter Kyla Rogers) along with allegations of high profile men raping and abusing women (Dominique Strauss-Kahn; Silvio Berlusconi); even with all the evidence we have that something’s not quite right with the male of the species, there is still impenetrable resistance to focusing on men’s behaviour and asking: what is it about men? It seems that the only people with the courage to ask that question are radical feminists.

The ability of mainstream, including mainstream feminists, to ignore the elephant in the room is mind-boggling.

The thing is that patriarchy depends for its very existence on the notion that men are our heroes, our protectors, our leaders and, because of that, it is imperative that men be portrayed in a positive light at all times. Any unacceptable behaviour didn’t actually happen, or is a false accusation, or wasn’t their fault, or is a cry for help, or should be seen as a mistake by ‘one bad apple’, or blah, blah, blah.

Freud was someone who couldn’t bring himself to admit the reality staring him in the face: that men rape children. He couldn’t help but know from all the stories he heard from his women clients that fathers sexually abuse their daughters. He knew it. The evidence was right there and very convincing. But he couldn’t bring himself to say it. “Men wouldn’t do that”.

More tragic than his ignorance was the fact that, in response, he developed his psychoanalytic theory of Oedipus, that is, children fall in love with and have sexual fantasies about the parent of the opposite sex. What amazing sleight of hand! Men don’t sexually abuse their daughters, daughters make it all up. The stories he was hearing from his women patients on a regular basis were just the result of sexual fantasies in their childhood. The girls are to blame. The women are to blame.

Freud has a lot to answer for because for more than a century his theory of Oedipus, built on a false premise, has allowed men to rape and abuse girls in their care with impunity. Men wouldn’t do that.

But men DO do that. Fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, priests and family ‘friends’. And still no one is asking the question: what is it about men?

Every thinking person knows that the first step in resolving a problem is asking the right question. If the right question is not asked, if it is avoided like the plague, then the problem will never be resolved. So we have to ask: When the common denominator in most of the hideous violence that occurs in families, in society and globally is MEN, how come the right question is never asked? How come no one ever asks: what is it about men?

The answer is clear. They simply don’t want to know.
Betty McLellan is a feminist ethicist, author, psychotherapist and activist of long standing. She successfully combines her work as a psychotherapist with a broader emphasis on feminist ethical analysis and activism.   She is the author of four books: Overcoming Anxiety (1992), Beyond Psychoppression: A Feminist Alternative Therapy (1995) and Help! I’m Living with a (Man) Boy (1999/2006) nowtranslated into 15 languages. 

Her latest book, Unspeakable: a feminist ethic of speech (2010), is published by OtherWise Publications.

Betty lives and works in Townsville, Australia.

  1. Mantis said:

    It’s also interesting to note that when women commit any type of crime, no matter how trivial, it’s blown completely out of proportion, in what appears to be a desperate attempt at distracting everyone from the countless atrocities committed by men.

    I think a lot of people (including some men) wonder what the hell is wrong with men. It’s just another Nature Vs. Nurture debate; the latter seems to offer a more satisfactory explanation. Biology may play a small role, but I think that the age-old tradition of masculinity is the main culprit of despicable male behavior. Whatever the case may be, one thing is for sure: they’re working mighty hard to keep themselves out of the hotseat. It’s certainly a very taboo topic on most internet discussion forums.

    People rarely ask “what is it about men”, not because they don’t want to know, but because they already know the answer. And the solution would bring an end to life as we know it, which would be bad news for the powers that be.

  2. Hecuba said:

    Exactly – what is wrong with men?? Why are they so obsessed with portraying themselves as ‘good’ whereas women – well need I state the obvious – yes I will – women are what? Well we are the ones being scapegoated and blamed for men’s crimes against women and girls. Men must never criticise their own group otherwise male domination over women would begin to crumble. So women have to be the scapegoats for men’s continuing violence and domination over all women and girls.

    That’s why terms such as gender violence; violence against women are used because putting the spotlight on men as a group must not happen. Remember the dominant group always gets to define ‘reality’ and the oppressed group are the ones seen as ‘at fault.’

    That is why whenever women commit a crime it is blown totally out of proportion and is used to ensure attention is always focused on policing women and subjecting them to male control. Male-centric propaganda ensures that women continue to constantly focused on the ‘male in their heads’ because this male authority figure supposedly is the one who defines what is and is not women’s reality and experiences.

    Radical feminists have never claimed women are perfect – unlike men of course, but we do demand to be accorded respect and dignity – something which continues to be male-only. Radical feminists will never be silenced – we will keep the focus firmly on men and their actions, despite men’s claims ‘you are victimising me’ or ‘you’ve hurt my feelings.’

    Well male hurt feelings pale in comparison to innumerable women and girls continuing to be subjected to male terrorism.

    Well said Betty – you’ve dared to say what so many women are terrified of saying ‘what is it about the men?’

  3. KatieS said:

    Yes, that’s the question! Thank you for the wonderful post!

  4. yttik said:

    It is pretty amazing that we don’t even ask the question. There’s almost universal acceptance that “boys will be boys,” as if that’s pretty much the end of the discussion.

    Rad/fems are often accused of being man haters, but what is so ironic is that most of us have a much higher opinion of men than the mainstream culture does. In the culture men are portrayed as either bungling idiots who can’t figure out how to boil an egg or else savage sexual predators with no self control. Rad/fems tend to reject these versions of men and expect them to be capable of taking responsibility for their actions, almost as if they were full human beings.

    I think one problem is that men have succeeded in living up to the culture’s expectations of them, which are quite low, and then women have been forced to accommodate this stupid image. After a few hundred years of that, the whole system starts to feel normal, ordinary, just the way things are.

  5. SheilaG said:

    If you marry and date men, you clearly have a vested interest in covering up for them. I think the fact that women don’t have huge communities of their own, and seem addicted to sexual relationships with men who set out to destroy and own women, is why the question is so threatening. Try to bring this subject up amongst conventional straight women, and watch them squirm in uncomfortable silence, watch them change the subject with lightning speed. Women can’t bear the truth, men threaten women with death and starvation for proclaiming this truth.

  6. KatieS said:

    In my own experience, this question is sometimes asked, but not seriously enough. I remember as a child in the 1950’s hearing women say things like this in exasperation. I grew up poor, so I don’t think this question could have been asked deeply and seriously amongst those women. They had children very young, often many children. Jobs for women that could support themselves, much less a family were not available, at least not for women without an education. The question was there. It was clear to me as a child that there was something wrong with men, with men as a class. I learned this from observation, but also was taught it by what women told me. I was taught to be afraid of men as a young girl. Although a particular woman might seem frightening, that was a very rare exception. Women as a class were not frightening, they were safe. Individual men might be safe, but as a class they were not. Some men who pretended to be safe at first were very unsafe.

    There is another reason, I think, that this question does not get posed. That is that most women think that men are like us, even if they have some “rough edges.” They think that if only the problem with the rough edges were solved, men would act like humans. Most women are ethical (and I don’t mean so-called male ethics which is based on patriarchy). Women care what happens to other human beings and to the planet. They aren’t physically violent. Women feel a responsibility to reciprocate friendship. If I do something for a friend, I can count on her to reciprocate. Even if women don’t like someone, they can behave toward that person in a decent manner. They have empathy. Again, there are women that don’t fit this description, but as a class I believe that they do. For example, that is why whistleblowers are most often women, they have some ethics and will risk a lot, far more than men, to do the right thing. I’m not trying to idealize women, here, but rather say that women are normal human beings. They have problems (many caused by oppression), but they are normal humans.

    Because most women assume that men are like women “underneath”, they don’t see what is actually there. Even if they have encountered a bunch of losers in their personal lives, they assume that these men are the exception. They have been told it must be that they aren’t good enough to attract good men. They continue looking for a good relationship, working to improve themselves in any number of ways. They try all kinds of ways to have a good relationship. But because women care about friendship, caring, decency, etc., they assume that everyone does, and they are told that is the case by the culture.

    I do agree that, if you are a woman who marries and dates men, it makes it much harder to face the truth about them. While it is true that there is a kind of a vested interest, for many women around the world, that vested interest is in survival. For a few of the world’s women, particularly those born in more privileged circumstances, especially more recent times with visible lesbians in their world, there is a more obvious choice.

    Also, if you have sons you have a vested interest in denial. I have known both heterosexual and lesbian women with sons who do not look at this question. I do know one lesbian couple who cut off all contact with their son unless he behaved differently, though. It was very difficult to do and took a long time. I think radical feminists, both lesbian and heterosexual, are more likely to begin to look at what is wrong, even if they have sons.

    When you say, “no one asks because they don’t want to know,” Betty, I wonder if you are also talking about groups and about other men. Of course, anyone in a patriarchal structure where there is privilege does not want to know. This relates to political and economic systems throughout the world, large and small. All patriarchal institutions like education, medicine, the criminal “justice” system, at all levels, micro and macro. It is true also of institutions that consist of mostly women, like social work.

    This post is getting too long. Time to stop.

  7. PW said:

    I was just talking about misogyny being the elephant in the room last night! Hooray for the rad fem consciousness! Sometimes people will stick their necks out and cry “sexism” but this is really only a digestible accusation. The real issue is misogyny.

  8. For me, the reason I don’t ask, “what is it about men?” is because the answer is obvious to me. The male human animal represents a level of control over his environment that exceeds anything else on earth currently or ever. The power that accrues to each and every one of them simply by being born male is obviously enough to keep them stuck in behaviors that gratify them and keep them in just enough control over their environment so they can get more gratifications. Through a confluence of genetic evolution and social forces, males have reached a place of complete stagnancy; they can’t let go, they can’t fix it, they can’t get out of their own mire. Even their own deaths on massive scales hasn’t convinced them that their violence works against them. Looks like a evolutionary dead end to me (but a type of self destruction that is definitely not unheard of in the rest of the biological world).

    What I’m much more interested in as a question is, “what is it about women?” Why do women keep trying to protect them, keep trying to excuse them, keep trying to live their lives as if men aren’t violent, selfish, and destructive? That is what I don’t get.

  9. julia said:

    KatieS., good point about vested interest and denial. Yes, I know so many women with sons who will never face the truth about men. They have been around much longer than me, and have suffered much more s*it from men. What a powerful story about the lesbian couple who cut off from their son. I’ve never heard of anything like that before.

    Noanodyne, I can tell you a lot just from the women I know. It costs too much to break the chains, and to look clearly at the problem without doing anything about it is too painful, so many hetero women will not/can not do it. Many of the lesbians I know are already living women-centered lives, so even if they have a grown son or son in law who is misogynist, they don’t seem to be bothered by it, as most of their time is spent with other women.

    My current experience is that if you are a straight woman over 40 (in the US) it is very hard to make loyal women friends.
    I can have a two hour conversation at a gathering with a woman, but it may take a year of running into each other before we’ll actually exchange phone numbers. Women seem to be much more guarded and wary. While I certainly understand why, it doesn’t make it any easier to try and create a woman-centered life. All of the straight women I know will drop EVERYTHING if a man they are attracted to calls or wants to see them. All straight partnered women I know put their boyfriend or husband first. Most of these women call themselves feminist!

  10. KatieS said:

    Julia, I agree about the difficulty making new straight women friends past age 40. Everyone is pretty well established in their lives. I wonder what this means about second-wave feminists and their influence on younger women. Given the state of affairs in the culture, I think straight women need to put women first. I believe that they once did this during the second wave. The men in their lives did not like it but they didn’t care. But somehow the men took up more and more of their time. Also, other efforts, like doing things for the environment (with men) took up energy. I’m not sure exactly what happened or even if I’m right, but I’ve noticed some of it. I’ve been thinking about this since I read your post and just wanted to comment.

  11. KatieS said:

    More thoughts right after I posted: In thinking again about this in the question Betty poses (what is it about men?), I believe that women do not get very far in their efforts in other areas (like being-war or concern about the environment, which is a great concern to all humanity) unless we also ask this question. Men have done these destructive things in all these other areas. So, if you are anti-war you are fighting patriarchy. You cannot solve this problem from within the patriarchal system. If you ask the question, “what is it about men?” while also being anti-war, you come up with a different result than if you only ask the usual questions that women in the anti-war movement ask. I know women who spend inordinate amounts of time being against the wars, having expended much energy getting out the vote for Obama, to that end, etc. But these women seem to have left feminism at the stage of “we have made progress toward equal pay, etc.” Being liberal feminists has diverted sucked up huge amounts of attention with little success. When these women want me to volunteer, I don’t feel comfortable doing so, and I now realize it has everything to do with their approach as liberal feminists. This has happened before when women in the civil rights movement, for instance were just good for making coffee. Instead they are advocating using fair-trade coffee as a solution to several problems at once. Of course, there are move women leaders in these movements, but the overall misogynist paradigm remains unaddressed, and the elephant in the room. I hope this does not seem too disorganized in my response, but it just occurred to me. Since I’m new to this, perhaps others have discussed it and I’m unaware of it. I still need to do some reading, obviously.

  12. kurukurushoujo said:

    Commenting on the things KatieS and julia: I think it’s dangerous to be that dependent on men for basically everything in your life.
    I know that most young or middle-aged young women are proud to have been able to choose a man of their liking, unlike the much more oppressed women before them, but because there’s this so-called free choice now they must invest even more heavily in their relationships with men precisely because it is considered to be freely chosen. I know that women were still blamed for ruining their own marriages and relationships in the past when oppression was much more visible (e.g. by obviously discriminatory legislation) but heteroexual relations were generally not considered to be genuine expressions of love or affection so that everyone could potentially understand why a wife hated her husband. Seeing marriage as a contract and not as a love relationship also meant that women were able to invest into it only to the extent that was needed to fulfill the contract- they could spend the rest of their time forming relationships with women. I am not saying that the married women of nowadays don’t have friendhips with women- they surely do. But if their husband is the most important thing in their lives, the factor they have most readily invested in… what will happen when he’s dead? The most important thing in their life is gone and it’s not certain their female friends will be an adequate replacement. This will be extremely difficult to bear. And single straight/asexual/whatever women are out of luck because as everyone knows straight partnered women bitch about their men all the time to bond with each other.

  13. Julia: “the straight women I know will drop EVERYTHING if a man they are attracted to calls or wants to see them”

    Sadly, lesbians are fully capable of doing the same thing — lots of lesbians abandon their friends and community to rush to be with that one woman whenever she snaps her fingers. I see it as the unhealthy way we’re all trained to crave that kind of experience and to see intimate partner relationships as the absolute pinnacle of human experience. There was a book in the 80’s called “Why Do I Think I’m Nothing Without a Man” and it perfectly described that deep need for a husband or partner and what we feel about ourselves when we do and don’t have one. And the author talked about ways to not focus our lives on that. It’s telling that it’s out of print. The culture just keeps wanting us to be paired off, something in us easily falls into that, and we’re all worse for following that course, lesbians as well as straight women.

  14. FCM said:

    Good point noan. 2 people does not a support system make; thinking that it does, is probably the worst, most dangerous, and most destructive mistake a woman can make, whether she’s straight or not. It’s a program designed to fail: everyone dies, for example. Hoping you aren’t going to be left alone and vulnerable doesn’t change the odds that you will be. It’s still 50/50.

  15. FCM said:

    For straight women the odds are actually worse, since men die first. It only increases to 50/50 for lesbian couples, which is still very bad.

  16. rainsinger said:

    Noanodyne: Sadly, lesbians are fully capable of doing the same thing — lots of lesbians abandon their friends and community to rush to be with that one woman whenever she snaps her fingers.

    I remember being called ‘mean’ for saying that in my observation, some lesbians appear to only come to feminist events to find potential partners LOL – which is fine as far as it goes, but often it also meant both disappeared to become primarily invested in “couple” stuff. Pair-bonding is unnatural for most mammals, and primates in particular. During the activism for lesbian/gay marriage in my local area, I shocked an activist door-knocking with a petition, when I said ” Sorry, I don’t believe in marriage for anybody” 🙂

  17. Hi, I was glad to see the comment and followups. Every night I watch the news, and here’s the announcer: “The people demonstrated in the square”. I look at the video and I see 100% men in the square. In fact, in Egypt, the women who tried to join the protests were attacked by the “people” in the square. I find myself talking back: “No, the MEN protested.” No, the “men prisoners rioted”; can’t you see the pictures? “Nope, the male politicians met and made the decision.” And of course “The men fought with each other and committed atrocities over this or that piece of desert”. Once it’s pointed out to people, they make a face and say, well, duh, but they get it, and I think it may be hard for them to look at the all-male shots after that and not notice that it is not women fighting, making bad decisions, or in general causing trouble; there are no women there. I start getting weirded out watching coverage of events in some Muslim countries; it’s a TV world without any women at all, frightening really.

    I happen to believe that what is wrong with men is almost purely biological. Men generally have about 14 times as much testosterone as women. Scientific studies as to the aggression and social dominance needs and territoriality this causes in men are very interesting to read. It seems obvious to me that this hormonal pathology (the gross excess of the aggression hormone) must be caused by an early mutation and needs treatment to bring it down to normal levels, i.e. the levels of average human females. This could be done easily in a single generation using a virus vector. Problem solved.


  18. rainsinger said:


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