When Women Fight for Equality, Says Warren Farrell, Fairness to Men May Be One of the Casualties

For years women have been encouraging men to get in touch with their feelings. Author and educator Warren Farrell is urging women to get in touch with men’s feelings, too. His book, Why Men Are the Way They Are (McGraw-Hill, $17.95), now in its seventh printing, examines the impact of the women’s movement and the sexual revolution on traditional male-female relationships, and finds that men are resentful and troubled. “Men feel that something is happening that’s unfair,” he says, “but they can’t quite put their finger on it.” Farrell, 43, teaches a course on the subject at the School of Medicine of the University of California at San Diego and has conducted more than 600 workshops in which men and women explore and exchange gender roles in order to understand each other better. A divorcé and the author of The Liberated Man, published in 1975, Farrell has served on the New York City board of the National Organization for Women as well as on the board of the National Organization for Changing Men. He spoke with reporter Lee Powell about sexual points of view in the ’80s.

How would you describe men today?

One way would be to look at the complaints women have: Men are afraid of commitment, they have fragile egos, they feel threatened by successful women. They don’t listen. They’re preoccupied with sports. They can’t allow friendships to develop and then just let sex happen—they’re involved in a railroad type of sex, moving from eye contact to intercourse as quickly as possible.

Are those fair assessments?

All of these complaints have a germ of truth to them. But most of the positive things about men haven’t been articulated recently. So men feel unappreciated, which is an important reason why they have withdrawn from commitment.

What aren’t men being given credit for?

Men are likely to be quite generous, especially financially. They rarely say, “I’m in love with this woman, but since she’s only a flight attendant and I’m a pilot, I don’t want to have to support her.” Men are fair, and they have learned not to personalize anger—they can disagree with you and argue to the bone, but afterward they still consider you a nice person with whom the underlying human relationship need not be altered.

If men are generous and fair, why have they backed away from commitment since the women’s movement began?

The initial reaction of a lot of men to what women were saying was interest. Equal pay for equal work made sense. They saw that women wanted respect as individuals, that they didn’t want to be servants or sex objects, that they wanted a partnership. But then men began to say, “Wait a minute. If you want to be equal, but you still want me to ask you out and pick you up and pay for your dinner and take all the sexual initiatives and call you in the morning, that doesn’t make sense to me.”

How did women react to that?

They called men who disagreed with them male chauvinist pigs. They withheld their affections, and men felt hated by the women they needed most. A lot of reasonably intelligent men who had looked forward to discussions about legitimate social change discovered that if they questioned or disagreed at all, they were condemned. Women complained about men not expressing their feelings, yet when men did, they quickly learned not to. So instead of a good solid debate about issues, it came down to this for a man: “How much am I going to come out the friend and hero, and how much the enemy?” Many men felt threatened and withdrew from that kind of interaction with women.

Was this withdrawal out of anger or out of bewilderment?

It would be helpful if men and women understood the dynamic of the withdrawal. Men move through a much different process before commitment than women do. Women receive very clear, unilateral messages from their families, their peers and the media about commitment, just as men do about success. Women, on the other hand, get mixed messages about success: “Congratulations. Are you married? Are you neglecting your children?” And men get mixed messages about commitment: “Congratulations. Do you really want to give up your freedom?” That’s because men and women have different primary fantasies.

What are they?

A man’s primary fantasy is access to a variety of attractive women without the fear of rejection. That’s why Playboy and Penthouse are the best-selling men’s magazines. A woman’s primary fantasy is marriage with the option of working, staying at home and raising a family, or a combination of the two. Their favorite women’s magazines are Better Homes & Gardens and Family Circle. There is a Bride’s magazine but not a Groom’s. When a woman commits to the right man, she fulfills her fantasy. When a man makes a commitment, he forfeits his.

So why does he do it?

At that point he’s saying, in essence, “I feel so much love for this woman, so much excitement and understanding from her, that it’s worth giving up the fantasy.” He’s decided it’s worth putting himself economically on the line to give her options he doesn’t have himself. But in the last 15 or 20 years men have felt less and less understood, and they’ve begun to wonder, “If I’m committing for love and understanding and I’m not understood, why should I put out more economically than I’m getting back?”

What do men think that women want today?

There’s a difference between what women have been saying they want—independence and a partnership—and what men see and hear. I did some research in women’s magazines, paying attention to the ads. In one, the first 27 full-page ads were devoted to women’s beauty products; in the first 70 pages, men were pictured three times. Two of those times they were buying things for women. Similarly, though we find varying amounts of sex in romance novels or on Dynasty or Dallas, what does not vary is the status of the leading men. Invariably they are hugely successful. Just as men, through biology and socialization, have traditionally viewed women as sex objects, women view men as success objects.

Doesn’t that make men feel used?

Men rarely worry about using or being used because all relationships work that way. A man perceives himself as owning and being owned by a woman. “Use” is a dirty word only when there’s an imbalance in the relationship.

Do men and women define intimacy in different ways?

Intimacy is quite similar for both sexes. It involves a feeling of mutual respect, of being understood and listened to, drawing each other out, spending time together. Where men and women go down slightly different paths is that for a man sexual passion creates a context for intimacy since the fear of rejection is over. For a woman the trust and reassurance of intimacy creates the context she needs for sexual passion. Men define intimacy and romance more by what they do, women by what is being done for them. Women like to talk about their feelings of intimacy, and that’s important for women to understand. They tend to discuss problems about their partners with their women friends, which many men consider as great an infidelity as being sexually unfaithful, and then they expect their mates to have heard them.

What else do men find unreasonable about women’s expectations concerning them?

Men have been asked by women to be more understanding, to share women’s feelings and burdens and to help them in expanding female roles. But women need to understand the obligations and drudgery of men’s roles, too. A man has no option not to work, no one who will offer him choices, who will allow him to explore talents that might not prove lucrative, or who will allow him to fail with no penalty.

You advocate that women learn to initiate contact, make the first date and even pay for it. Is a man turned off by an aggressive woman?

If he’s attracted to her, he’s usually delighted. Men find women today exciting and challenging. At this point, however, women only do the initiating if they think men won’t. If a woman believes a man will seek her out in two minutes or half an hour, she’ll wait. So women tend to initiate with men whose interest in them is marginal. Then the defense for rejection is, “Men can’t handle my taking the first step.” Whereas a man who is rejected 10 times says to himself, “Try 11. Maybe my approach is wrong.” He doesn’t blame women—he doesn’t blame anyone. Women who learn to initiate social contacts with men are likely to be happier eventually because they go from having veto power to possessing the power of choice.

How would you advise a young woman today to fulfill her own aspirations without ending up alone?

First, I’d tell her to be sure she is financially responsible for herself so she doesn’t need to depend on a man for a decent life. If she’s capable of sharing in the economics of a relationship, she’ll have a choice among the larger number of men—least competed for—who are not focused solely on a successful career but might be more nurturing and sensitive mates. If women are willing to fall in love within a framework of intimacy rather than of success, they will find that there is no great American male shortage.

Related Articles