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What do we mean by male entitlement and male privilege?

Men who use violence and control feel entitled to exercise these behaviours in relationships because they are men – an entitlement which is reinforced by communities inside and outside the Church.

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Content warning This page involves descriptions and discussion of the experiences and impacts of domestic and family violence. Some survivors might find its content troubling.

We have used the phrases ‘male entitlement’ or ‘male privilege’ in SAFER. What do we mean by these terms?

The underlying driver of male violence is not biological sex differences (male hormones or 'brain wiring'), but the need to find and keep power. In the Western world, many men are taught from birth they have an inherent right to power – that boys are tough and strong and aggressive and have a right to anger, that girls are gentle and pretty and compliant; that emotional and domestic labour are women's roles, and men are violent, protective, providers and dominant. Even in the most balanced families, little boys see these lessons play out in the books they read and the movies they watch and the media constantly feeding into their subconscious. Sadly, this entitlement is even reinforced through church culture.

The role of male entitlement in abuse

Male entitlement plays a significant role in abuse. Abusers consider abusive behaviour not only acceptable but justified — both a right and a privilege.

When they treat a person they claim to love as less than equal, and deserving punishment and harm, it’s because they feel entitled to do so. And this entitlement is often specific to the intimate relationship. They might believe that power at home is a man’s entitlement, whereas power in public has to be negotiated. Domestic abusers do not abuse their bosses, their colleagues, or their friends, which makes the victim doubt what is happening to them. The abuser presents their behaviour in the relationship as harmless, and frames their abusive actions as 'normal reactions' to things their partner is 'doing to them'.

The need to grasp for and display power sees perpetrators of abuse constantly proving to themselves and the world that they have it. Controlling and hurting a less powerful person can be one way to test and prove that power.

Examples of male entitlement

The need to attain power can manifest in the following ways:

  • Acting like ‘master of the castle’
  • Treating women like servants who should meet demands to serve and pamper
  • Having an attitude of superiority, of being better and smarter than one’s partner and other women in general
  • Insisting on respect or treatment entitled to as a man
  • Wanting women to adhere to rigid behavioural codes, believing that the way women dress ‘causes men to stumble’ 1
  • Making big decisions without consulting others
  • Believing men are better decision makers
  • Stating opinions as irrefutable truisms
  • Dismissing the opinions, ideas, and feedback of others
  • Acting above criticism
  • Possessing a strong need to be right and to win
  • Claiming ownership and exclusive control of communal or joint items – e.g. “my kids, my house, my bank account, my TV and/or the remote control”
  • Taking from others but never giving back
  • Demanding absolute compliance without complaint
  • Expecting sex from their spouse as a duty or a demand.

Many of these values are considered socially legitimate forms of masculinity, even within church cultures.

Male entitlement in churches

Male entitlement shows up in specific ways in faith communities. The Junia Project looks at this issue in their article Ten ways male privilege shows up in the church.  Here is a summary:

Women are very much aware of male privilege but men usually take it for granted and don't see it. Men who don’t think that they are privileged in your faith communities, should consider the following as these dynamics are just a few examples of the privilege that men in churches experience:

  • A person’s male privilege is reflected the second he wonders why people are still talking about gender
  • Male privilege means never having your intelligence or qualifications questioned because of your gender
  • If you apply for a pastoral role, you can be sure your gender won’t be an issue
  • If you perform the same task as a woman, chances are people will think you did a better job even if the outcomes were the same
  • The governing entities of your church and denomination will be composed mostly of people of your same gender
  • As a man, you are more likely to be trusted with responsibilities, even if you are new to the church
  • When you attend church meetings you can be emotional or assertive without being thought of in a negative light
  • Male biblical characters will be featured as primary subjects and positive examples  90% of the time in any teaching program
  • You can be confident that the language used in all aspects of corporate worship will clearly include you
  • God will be pictured as male and described in masculine terms 90% of the time.

Tackling male entitlement

If you are a man, reflect on how you benefit from male privilege and how this informs your behaviours – such as use of power, physical presence, needing to ‘explain’.

If you are a woman, reflect on your own reactions and responses to male privilege, such as anger, resentment, withdrawal, silence, needing to rescue.

Both women and men can challenge male entitlement and the ways it infiltrates interpersonal relationships in ways that are non-violent and grace-filled.

The Good Men Project offers the following guide to the use of entitlement in relationships: 2

Our relationship does not entitle you to have sex with me

A relationship creates the opportunity for sex but does not guarantee it. Your needs are important, but they don’t ever determine the outcome. Sex is requested, negotiated, and agreed on.

Our relationship does not entitle you to treat me with disrespect

There is nothing I can do to you that merits contempt or scorn. You may be upset with me, disappointed, even angry. And you have every right to express your feelings in a healthy, constructive way. But you have no right to insult, mock, demean, or dismiss me, or to treat me as anything but an equal.

Our relationship does not entitle you to use physical force against me, except in self-defence

If I start beating you up, you have every right to defend yourself and subdue me. Otherwise, you must never strike me, push me, restrain me, or interfere with my physical freedom. You must respect my body and my physical space at all times.

Our relationship does not entitle you to emotional manipulation

It does not entitle you to use my fears and vulnerabilities to hurt me or to get your needs met. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t want to do it, and I get to choose not to do it. If you want to convince me, give me a good reason.

Our relationship does not entitle you to assume you’re fine and leave your own issues, illnesses, and disorders untreated

Just because I’m dating you, or married to you, I don’t have to accept your hurtful behaviour and destructive patterns as givens.

What men can do to change male entitlement

We need people with power and privilege to stop reinforcing the foundations of a culture that privileges male power and gender inequality. Men who say they care about women need to be conscious of actively doing a number of things.

First, they need to be quiet. They need to listen to and believe women when they talk about their experiences.

Second, they need to acknowledge how much space they take up in the world - this means physical space, verbal space and economic space.

Third, they need to ask themselves, “in what ways have I been complicit as a man to my own or other men's abusive or disrespectful behaviour towards women?”

The Men’s Safety Project suggests some specific ways men, particularly those who find themselves using power and control in their relationships, can use to relate to others more respectfully. 3 

Limit the amount of space you take

Especially when talking to others and physically being near others.

Avoid interrupting people who are speaking

When people pause, it does not necessarily mean they have finished, but are catching their breath and getting their thoughts together. Allow people to finish what they are saying. Use the Are Men Talking Too Much tool to check who’s dominating the conversation .

Be a good listener

Active listening (staying with what the person is saying) requires being open to hearing others and resisting the urge to censor out what you may not like about what they are saying. 4

Get and give support

Mutuality makes people feel valued.

Don’t rush to give answers and solutions

No one enjoys having solutions forced upon them. A more respectful way is to give everyone their say and to come to a joint agreement.

Don’t speak on every topic

It gets very boring when someone acts as an expert on every topic. Hearing a broad range of ideas (not just yours) is crucial for proper learning and decision-making. You don’t have to have an opinion on everything.

Avoid put-downs

These only make the situation worse and build resentment. Remember to apply the Respect Test as a guide to whether you are doing this or not.

Challenge oppressive behaviour when you see it

We all need to take responsibility for behaviour that we know is harmful to others. If you see others acting in destructive ways, point this out. Never collude with disrespectful behaviour.

Explore this further

  1. https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/mutuality/modesty-and-male-privilege?platform=hootsuite
  2. https://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/lets-end-relationship-entitlement-fiff/
  3. http://www.menssafetyproject.com/uploads/1/0/5/4/10547270/respectful_communication_guidelines.pdf
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/nov/25/how-to-be-a-good-listener-the-experts-guide