Consider the life cycle of the penguin versus that of the sea turtle:
Penguins only lay one or two eggs per year. They take very good care of their young, devoting much effort to making sure that the eggs hatch and that the little penguins remain safe and warm. The idea is to have few offspring, but make sure that they grow into adults.
Sea turtles handle things rather differently. A female sea turtle, depending on the species, may lay from 50 to 350 eggs, and may do this between 1 and 8 times per year. The mother sea turtle buries her eggs in the sand to give them some protection; but other than that, she devotes no effort to ensuring that the young turtles survive. It is estimated that out of every 1000 sea turtle eggs laid, only two sea turtles eventually grow to maturity and begin the process over again.
These two different types of animals exemplify two reproductive strategies used in nature: focus on a few offspring and devote much energy to those, or allow the sheer numbers to perpetuate the species.
People can adopt one of these two strategies as well. Specifically, a man can devote himself to one woman and focus on her and their children. Or, he can spread himself around and hope that sheer numbers work in his favor. (Although an objection may be raised that most men who spread themselves around are not specifically attempting to father children. As a matter of evolutionary biology, males of most species are interested only in reproductive acts and not in the offspring produced.)
Looked at in that sense, men calling themselves “male feminists” is a fairly transparent evolutionary adaptation to maximize reproductive activity.
It’s not an unreasonable strategy. A large part of feminism in the last half-century has been focused not only on equal rights for women, but also on overthrowing traditional norms of sexual morality. Traditional morality taught that marriage was a prerequisite to reproductive acts. A man had to commit himself to his wife as long as they both lived. And not only to her, but also to the care and support of any children that came from their union. That’s driving a pretty hard bargain.
Feminism says that none of that is necessary. Under the principles of feminism, such as they are, a man does not have to commit his whole life to a woman in order to have reproductive access to her. He doesn’t even have to stay the whole night. All a man has to do is convince the woman to give him access. And if feminist women are the ones giving the most access, then it only makes sense for a man to proclaim himself a feminist as well.
That strategy seems to have worked well over scores of years for Eric Schneiderman, who until the evening of Tuesday, May 8, was the attorney general of the state of New York. Schneiderman is one of the latest men to be felled by accusations of sexual misconduct—in this case not so much unwanted propositions to business acquaintances but rather shocking violence directed toward women he was dating.
Schneiderman made a reputation by being about as feminist as a male can be. If he saw a feminist bandwagon trundle by, he jumped on it, such as supporting the #MeToo movement. He made a point of denouncing and investigating Harvey Weinstein, saying “We have never seen anything as despicable as what we’ve seen right here.” Of course, his abortion credentials are impeccable. Earlier this year, the National Institute for Reproductive Health lauded him as a “Champion of Choice” for his work in favor of legalized abortion.
Schneiderman is accused of being anything but a supporter of women in his private life. Some people ask how it is possible to reconcile the persona of “male feminist” in public with female abuser in private. Writing in the New York Times, Jill Filipovic asks,
How do we reconcile these two versions of a single man? It wasn’t just that Mr. Schneiderman appears to have been a feminist in the brightness of day but a violent misogynist when the lights went down. The reality may be darker: that the power he derived from his role in progressive politics was intertwined with his abuse. He seems to have used his feminist-minded political work to advance his own career, to ingratiate himself with the women he would go on to harm, and to cover up his cruelties….
Looked at in this way, these two aspects of Schneiderman are not opposed to each other—they are actually complementary, with each part reinforcing the other. It’s not surprising that two women who came forward publicly to denounce Schneiderman are, according to the New Yorker, “articulate, progressive Democratic feminists in their forties who live in Manhattan.” Schneiderman’s male feminist street cred not only gave him access to progressive women but also insulated him from criticism. As Jill Filipovic puts it, Schneiderman “seems to have used his feminist reputation as a tool to access the exact kind of women he apparently enjoyed breaking down, while his liberal bona fides made the women who say he mistreated them second-guess themselves, and stay quiet.”
It’s also possible that Schneiderman’s male feminism made him feel good about himself despite his alleged abuse of women. Studies have confirmed the existence of a tendency in people called “moral licensing.” This means that if people feel they have done something good, then they feel justified in doing something bad. If Schneiderman saw his support for abortion rights as a great boon for women, it may have contributed toward a feeling that he had a right to treat women badly.
Schneiderman isn’t an isolated case. Another such case is that of Don Hazen, a man who ran a “progressive” online news site for many years. The stories of several women who worked for Mr. Hazen were recently reported on the PBS podcast This American Life. One incident in particular gives insight into how some men can treat women as little more than objects of sexual desire and yet still feel that they are progressive, enlightened chaps.
Mr. Hazen apparently had sexual relationships of one sort or another with many of the younger staffers who worked for him, one of whom was named Deanna. Mr. Hazen at one point asked Deanna to join him at a cabin near Big Sur in California for a getaway. During their time at the cabin, Deanna says that Mr. Hazen mentioned to her for the first time that he had a sexually transmitted infection, but that it was no big deal. Oddly enough, it was a big deal to Deanna, and they fought about it. Despite the fight (and the infection) Mr. Hazen still wanted to have sexual relations with Deanna. As she told the story to This American Life:
And I was like, you’re starting to pressure me, and it’s starting to make me really uncomfortable. This is messed up. And he flipped out. He stood up, and he just started screaming at me. He was like, how can you say that? How can you say that I’m pressuring you? I am the most feminist man you know, and you know it. … So he starts screaming at me, like, the eyes bulging….
If the accusations are correct, Mr. Hazen used his position at a progressive magazine to identify and “mentor” young women to whom he portrayed himself as a feminist male benefactor. Only he wasn’t just interested in mentoring. Maybe he believed in his persona or maybe he didn’t, but either way, as a strategy for enticing women it worked quite well.
None of which is to say that all “male feminists” abuse women. Any man with the least modicum of honor knows that physical or emotional abuse of women is always shameful and often criminal. But for a man with abusive tendencies, identification as a male feminist brings many advantages.
In the animal world, males develop and enhance the characteristics which females desire. Peacocks have such elaborate feathering not because they love it, but because it’s what the ladies like. Just as in the animal world, men will appear to be what women want.
And unlike peacock feathers, it’s not always pretty.