Are Men Exploited?

by Benjamin Studebaker

It is often argued by feminists that women are exploited in traditional relationships. Economically dependent and doing many hours of unpaid childcare, it’s argued that women do not, in the traditional structure, receive the full value of their labour in exchange for their services, and that the traditional marriage in which the woman does not work strips her of her freedom and independence and raises the cost to any move on her part toward autonomy. However, is it possible to also perceive the traditional relationship as exploitative of the male role? I propose it is. Here’s how.

The first area in which human beings discussed the notion of exploitation was exploitation of labour. Much of our modern conception of the subject comes from Marxism. Marx argued that the “profit” that comes out of the capitalist relationship represents value that goes unearned by the labourer but which was nonetheless created by said labourer. If I hire you to make tables, I pay $100 for raw materials, $200 for tools, and $100 to you, and I sell the table for $500, the resultant $100 of profit is, under Marxism, something I have stolen from you.

There are many variants on this form within Marxist literature. Some argue that exploitation resides in the power relationship between the employer and the employed. If you are unemployed and I offer to hire you to make tables, I have an unfair advantage in the negotiation over your wage, because you are in a position of desperation and I can hire anyone I want (with the necessary skills) to do the job in question. This is often referred to as “wage slavery”. Others argue that it is just unnecessary that I even come into the equation as the hirer–I have no intention of actually making tables myself. I will not use the raw materials I buy or the tools I purchase, so why bother with me anyway? I am just a middle man, an inefficient, rent-seeking parasite. You, the table-maker, should simply own the raw materials and tools collectively with other table-makers and keep the money I would have drawn in rent for yourself and your own purposes.

All of this ties in with the theory of male exploitation. In a given relationship of the traditional nature, one partner works and the other does not. For our purposes here, the man is the worker and the woman is not, though the roles could be reversed or the relationship could be homosexual, it makes no difference. What’s important is that one person is working and the other is not. In the scenario in which one works and one doesn’t, the worker must accumulate resources above and beyond his own needs in order to provide for the non-working spouse. For the purposes of simplicity, let’s assume that the spouse’s required consumption is roughly equivalent to that of the worker, and that the working partner is paid an hourly wage.

The worker, in order to support a non-working spouse, must then, as a consequence, either devote twice the time to employment as he otherwise would or give over wealth that he would use for personal gratification above and beyond his needs over to the non-working spouse. Say we have two people, Bill and Barb. Bill works; Barb does not. Bill and Barb each require $500 a week to live with a minimum level of comfort. Bob’s job pays $20 per hour. In order to cover Bob’s own costs, Bob works five hours a day, five days a week, for a total of 25 hours per week. However, once Bob marries Barb, Bob’s hours must increase in order to cover Barb’s additional expenditures. So now Bob must work twice the time–10 hours a day, five days a week, for a total of 50 hours per week. Barb is consuming 25 hours of Bob’s life per week in maintenance. Perhaps Bob is a glutton and was already working 50 hours per week to begin with. In that scenario, Bob must give over 50% of his income to Barb. In either case, Bob is making a significant sacrifice here:

  1. Time: Bob loses 25 hours per week, for a total of 1300 hours per year. If Bob’s marriage lasts 50 years, he will lose 65,000 hours to Barb. That’s 2,708 days or 7.4 years of Bob’s life.
  2. Money: Bob loses $500 per week, for a total of $26,000 per year. If Bob’s marriage lasts 50 years, he will lose $1.3 million to Barb.

Now, what does Bob get back in return from Barb? This is quite subjective, but the argument could certainly be made that Barb’s companionship may not be worth 7.4 years or $1.3 million. In any case, because Barb is not working, Bob’s love for Barb is effectively exploited by Barb for Barb’s gain. Bob may not mind this; he may even be pleased with the arrangement (as I’m sure many men in traditional marriages were and are), but it is nonetheless the case that just because Bob is a willing thrall does not make him free. It merely makes him content in his servitude. Barb may not be aiming to exploit Bob–more likely than not she cares for Bob deeply, but nonetheless it remains the case that she exploits his labour. She is not nearly so bad as the rent-seeking capitalist in the Marxist model, as she does provide Bob with benefits, although they are not financial in nature, but nonetheless, she does take advantage of him, even if unintentionally so.

None of this is to say that Barb’s exploitation is any less valid. Barb is still economically dependent on Bob. If Bob and Barb have children, Barb is being made to do a disproportionate amount of the parenting without compensation from the state. What I find interesting about the argument is that, simultaneously, in different ways, the traditional relationship exploits and abuses both partners, not merely the one or the other. What I find even more interesting is the reluctance on the part of the feminist movement to use this argument to bring men on side. Feminist reforms to the relationship do not merely liberate the woman (or the person in the relationship performing the traditional “woman” role) from economic dependence or from disproportionate, uncompensated parenting duties, they also liberate the man (or the person in the relationship performing the traditional “male” role) from having to surrender a large number of hours or money to the woman. If this argument were put to the population, I think the number of people supportive of the feminist goal of breaking the traditionalist gender roles down and replacing them with greater freedom of selection in behaviour and lifestyle choice would be considerably more appealing.

What is not helpful, at least in so far as implementation of gender equality is concerned, is the notion that gender issues are female issues or serve only the feminine interest. It is manifestly not the case that only women are exploited or only women suffer on account of traditional gender roles. Even if many feminists think that women are getting it worse than men (and it may well be the case that they are), it is not helpful to de-emphasise the ways in which men suffer for having to serve the traditional “male” role, or to prioritise the suffering of the female in rhetoric and policy if the goal of feminism is to actually achieve gender equality through political action in the here and now.