Female artist. Woman priest. Career girl. Male nurse. The last phrase was tweeted to me after I suggested online the other day that it’s significant that no-one calls me a “male academic” or “career boy”. The fact that they don’t demonstrates that the powerful and respected roles in our society are often assumed to be filled by men unless specified otherwise. The man who tweeted me argued that “male nurse” proves that feminism is ignoring men’s issues, and went on to advance as further evidence the fact that some young woman (or “chick” in his terms) made fun of a man at his university for wanting to work with small children. Another man he knows was called a pervert for following that same career.
In fact those examples simply go to underline how men are not oppressed in our society. The “male” in “male nurse” is necessary because it is noteworthy that a man has joined a profession traditionally filled by women. That’s not because women have been jealously guarding the lucrative sinecures of nursing against the chance that men might profit from them. It’s because nursing is underpaid, underappreciated, and associated with stereotypically “feminine” traits like caring for others. In fact, nursing has traditionally been carried out by women because of the remarkable overlap between women’s supposedly more nurturing instincts and the demands of the job.
Stereotyping women as more emotionally available and more able to cope with the needs of children, elderly people and sick people has effectively obscured the professional skills and immense labour involved in those jobs. It has rendered difficult and complex work as just what comes naturally to a certain group, whilst men are freed from this sort of work and able to focus on more remunerative, or more socially valorised, activities. “Male nurse” is a way of noting that a man is displaying traits belonging to people whom our society has decided to pay low wages and demand long hours from. That’s why the modifier is necessary.
In the same way, the suspicion and mockery of men who want to work with children is an effect of traditional assumptions that this is women’s work. This is not neutral gender stereotyping, in which some things are denied to men and others are denied to women. It is – as so often with gender roles – a question of power. The time-consuming affective labour of looking after and educating children falls to women, whilst men are over-represented in jobs with much higher prestige, like heading FTSE-100 companies and passing legislation. Whatever the inherent merits and values of either kind of work, men and women are not placed at an equal disadvantage when men aren’t “allowed” to be earn the wage of a childminder, and women aren’t “allowed” to earn the salary of a CEO.
It may be hurtful and frustrating for a man to be treated unkindly because he wants to work with children. But it doesn’t mean that the class of people he belongs to are being disadvantaged. On the contrary, it means that society regards it as unnatural for him to accept a lower remuneration in order to have an emotionally fulfilling job which involves caring for others. Men who work in primary schools and nursing homes do splendid work, and help to challenge stereotypes about gender. But they aren’t being oppressed when someone calls their choice of career into question.
The jibe about being a “pervert” is a deeply unpleasant part of the same issue. It’s easy to see why an individual man might see this as a curtailing of his liberty, and even a form of social coercion. There are plenty of conservatives who will argue that male sexuality is “demonised” in today’s culture. But here again, it is a question of male power and domination. The images of male sexuality which our society perpetuates are often linked to violence. Men are imagined as sexually voracious, dominant and aggressive. Men talk about “banging”, “having” or even “ruining” women, when they mean having sex. The language of sex in movies, music and advertising is often indistinguishable from the language of harm, possession and violence.
When sexuality is imagined as a power imbalance between men and women, an assumption creeps in that imbalances of power are somehow inherent to sex. The mainstreaming of BDSM imagery over the last decade or so has been curiously one-sided, in ways which reveal this assumption. Rough sex and domination are frequently read as naturally sexy if they involve a man as active and a woman as passive, but kinky if that is reversed. Young women report young men demanding sexual acts which they find degrading or painful not as edgy experimentation, but as a sexier version of mutually pleasurable sex. Female weakness and male control are coded as the conditions for good sex to take place.
In this situation, men can hardly be surprised when they are viewed as threatening to vulnerable people in society, and if that threat even becomes coded as sexual. When “teen” is one of the most frequently searched categories of porn, when no-one asks why a woman in her twenties dressing up as a schoolgirl is assumed to have put on a sexy costume, when male sexuality is framed as the exertion of power over a vulnerable partner, can we really be so shocked? It is an insult to the good intentions and the professionalism of men who work with children, but the grammar of that insult was developed by men, not by women. Suspicion directed against these men is a horrible outworking of male power and male violence, not evidence that women are sexist against men.