If Milton is to be believed, the war between the sexes started immediately after the Fall, with Adam berating Eve for first eating the apple, and Eve petulantly replying that Adam would have done the same had he met the persuasive serpent, and in any case, why didn't he stop her from wandering off on her own? But perhaps God started the trouble by creating Adam for contemplation and strength, and Eve for "softness and sweet attractive grace", not to mention a nice line in submissive charm. In the West we should have got beyond all that, but there is still plenty to fight about. Who wins the fight depends on the terms of the contest: men win if it is fought over the control of wealth and access to prestigious positions in banks and boardrooms, whereas for 50 years or so women have been able to claim victory in the war of words. Oppression, prejudice, discrimination, sexism, violence and institutional injustice are supposed to be perpetrated by men against women, who thereby gain the status of martyrs and victims, deserving redress and restitution. Women are the complainants, men the not very successful defendants. More succinctly, women whinge and men cringe.
David Benatar's book is a brave or even foolhardy attempt to redress the balance a little. Men, too, have plenty to complain about. Men are conscripted to fight in wars more than women. With the exception of sexual assault, and with spousal violence a surprising draw, men are more often victims of violence than women, whether through casual crime or politically inspired purges and genocides. More and more severe corporal punishment is inflicted on boys than on girls. In marital break-ups, women are more likely to gain custody of children than men. In many contexts it is harder for men to maintain bodily privacy than women. Men have to wait their turn to jump in the lifeboats, too.
Benatar knows that such examples are likely to meet snorts of disbelief or derision, but he is careful to back up his claims with empirical data, and as a philosopher he is especially careful both about the interpretation of evidence and the use of terms such as "discrimination". He also recognises that there is a difference between a widely shared presumption that, for instance, war should be left to men, and a widely shared belief that women are simply not fitted for independent positions of privilege and wealth. The one has a certain natural basis in that if a population is threatened, male lives are more expendable than female lives, since as Dr Strangelove eagerly anticipated, a small proportion of surviving males can proceed to father a great many more children than if the ratios are reversed. The other has no basis at all outside cultural prejudice.
Benatar is certainly right that each sex has something to complain about. Each is pressurised by norms: girls are supposed to be girly and boys to be boyish, and those who will not or cannot conform may suffer as a result. A girl may be miserable at not looking like Angelina Jolie, but then a boy may mope at not looking or behaving like David Beckham. But arguing about which oppression is worse looks like a zero-sum game, and for stretches Benatar's discussion may remind the reader of Monty Python's "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch, with escalating exaggerations about who 'ad it 'ardest. "We 'av to queue hours for ladies' loo - and I cleaned 'ouse and microwaved dinner!" "Luxury! I 'ad four hours' commute and six listening t' boss talk about 'is piles, then 67 emails to answer, and any'ow, childbirth's a doddle."
In making this comparison, I do not at all doubt that there is a case to be made for the recognition of a second sexism, nor that Benatar makes it well. And it is not as if he himself is taking sides in these invidious comparisons. He is not a participant in the sex wars but a peacemaker who wants them to wind down. All that he aims to show is that if it is all too often tough being a woman, it is also sometimes tough being a man, and that any failure to recognise this risks distorting what should be everyone's goal, namely universal sympathy as well as social justice for all, regardless of gender.
The Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men and Boys
By David Benatar
John Wiley & Sons
304pp, £55.00 and £17.99
ISBN 9780470674468 and 674512 Published 13 April 2012