06/18/2013 05:11 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2013

The Global Frat Party

You know what patriarchy is? It's a global frat party, in the worst sense.

Recently, I asked a group of more than 50 college students if they thought we lived in a patriarchal society.  There was some rumbling about Charleton Heston.  I asked if anyone could define patriarchy.  Someone asked, "Like in the Bible?" So, I provided Oxford's definitions:

"A system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is traced through the male line and a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it."**

That we live on a patriarchal planet is as self-evident as the wetness of water. Here are some thousand-word pictures: the United States. Great Britain. Iraq. Jordan. Egypt. Panama. China. Japan. Zimbabwe. MexicoRussia. Italy. Turkey. The U.S. againSaudi Arabia. Have you seen pictures of any of the major economic summits in the world? The G8? Even prominent leadership exchange programs appear to fail to recognize the most basic element of the problem.  We won't even go into what a cavalcade of bishops looks like. Speaking of which, hell, just for good measure, here's a tumblr appropriately called 100% Men. The world over, the men who rule and lead in unequal numbers, are, even in 2013, technically speaking, patriarchs, as in "the most venerable in a group." Just like in ye olden dayse. I mean, "venerable women" is an practically an oxymoron. For God's sake, when you search the term, Google suggests that you actually want "vulnerable women." That's so rich I'm having a hard time concentrating.

Lacking photos that day, however, I rattled off some simple realities: globally women still make up on average 20 percent of our legislatures (the U.S. ranks 79th); that women make up fewer than 15 percent of corporate board membership; that our religious hierarchies virtually all exclude women; or that poverty is "feminized," which is another way of saying wealth and resource control is masculinized.

It is obvious that women disappear the higher up the food chain you go. When women manage to gain marginal access, they walk a high tight-rope and are roundly expected to be grateful and not complain about threats, sexism and misogyny.

This is as true in the United States as anywhere else, especially evident during the past week when the U.S. Congress, thanks to Senator Carl Levin et al, yet again failed to protect soldiers, 26,000 of whom were sexually assaulted last year, from a patriarchal military chain of command that, by normative default, protects predators and rapists.  (Only 8 percent of rape complaints in the military get prosecuted, 2 percent result in conviction.  Eighty percent of perpetrators and the accused are discharged with honor, while 90 percent of victims are eventually "involuntarily" discharged.)  Anyone who thinks this that the integrity of our military isn't already corrupted and weakened is drinking some funky, patriarchal Kool-Aid.  Making solutions more "palatable" to a group of leaders that continues to perpetrate these injustices is ridiculous. This chain of command is not alone, of course. We regularly hear about "all-male panels," which could read "patriarchal convening groups."  Unperturbed by reality, and empirical evidence thoroughly patriarchal conservatives are well on their way to making 2013 the worst year for women's rights in the U.S. in decades.

Aside from the exclusion of women in leadership, patriarchy is marked by systemic violence, usually expressed in the brutality of war for men and daily acts of terror for children and women. Rape and domestic violence are epidemic. Recently publicized rapes in our armed forces are a distillation of this wider reality.  In some countries, men openly boast about raping being a hobby.  In ours, this takes place in colleges and in social media.  Like rape in the military, sexual assault on college campuses exceeds the rate in the civilian population.  Men are entitled and rape children and women with impunity.

The use of violence against women is used to enforce diverse caste systems. That may lead you to think about India, where people ask how Dalit women, three of whom are raped every day, can even be raped, they are considered so sub human by some. But, in the U.S., all you have to do is consider the evolving uses of patriarchal rape from the colonial era, through slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights movement and in today's prison complex.  Patriarchy, a sex and gender based caste system most elementally evidenced at the family level, metastasizes socially in complex ways involving class, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, and race.  But, it's hard to get people to think about intersecting oppressions or about evitable systems of domination, if they haven't even been taught how this basic concept works.   As with sexual assault, neither class, race, ethnicity or national boundaries protects women from domestic violence either. These are undeniably gendered crimes that enjoy institutional tolerance globally.

As a result of patriarchy, millions of women experience their sex as trauma and millions of men experience theirs as a kind of stripped, base humanity.  While women's lot in life has exponentially improved in some parts of the world during the past century, it remains true that globally, the scope, complexity, and pervasiveness of systemic, sex-based discrimination is staggering. What we encounter on this planet, as women, are institutions where entitled men with power control government, laws, access to god, medical technology, media, weapons, and resources -- everything from water  to safety.  I mean, really, just take Texas. Yesterday, a state legislator explained that male fetuses polish the bishop (picked that one especially) as the rationale for why abortion should be banned after 15 or 16 weeks. This was said out loud in a public debate, among mainly men, on women's rights to bodily integrity, privacy, life, and due process. This took place on the same day that jailers in that state were charged with creating a rape camp in which women prisoners were repeatedly humiliated and sexually assaulted for three years.

And yet, my suggestion to these students that patriarchal organization and norms affect everyone, was greeted with wary skepticism at best.  It was evident that well-worn copies of Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood and Privilege on Campus weren't sitting on bookshelves along side the canonical works of Tucker Max.

But, really, why should anyone think that patriarchy is real and a problem we can do something about?

First, we teach children almost nothing about patriarchy and misogyny, so it's as though they don't exist. We certainly don't teach them to think critically about violence and power. And this is despite the fact that we live with micro-aggressive sexism, racism and homophobia, and in some places, macro-aggressive hatred and oppression, every day. It's a painful truth that men are the primary aggressors when it comes to violence experienced by women. This violence is part of performing patriarchal masculinity.

Second, in terms of the students I was talking to, their life experiences make the idea of patriarchy seem obsolete.  Many grew up with working mothers and many with no fathers in evidence. Everywhere these students look women are competing and excelling. Their lives suggest the opposite of what I was saying, except occasional uncomfortable realities, maybe about drinking and sex and rape.  Or safety double standards, like who gets to run by a river at night. Maybe they grapple briefly with why there are no "real" "important" women's professional sports, why pay inequities exist, or how violent, female-objectifying porn negatively pervades their intimate lives. Then the moment passes and everyone laughs at how uproariously entertaining the latest rape joke is.

Third, too many people think that this way of life is "natural" and inevitable.  It is neither. Not all societies are rape-prone like ours.  Despite what many believe, there are humans that create societies where rape doesn't happen and where women are valued for wise contributions to their society's governance.

Obviously, the vast majority of men are not powerful, rich and exploitative sexists. Nor are they abusers and rapists or do they even condone this behavior.  Most men don't enjoy access to the power and resources that "fathers" and "first borns" -- leaders and their heirs -- do. The violence and domination that are integral to patriarchy also subjugate men. They bear the brunt of violence, emotional anorexia, and of having to be "producers."  So, what's the deal?  Sexism"s puzzling stamina isn't that puzzling at all, it seems to me. No one likes to give up benefits and power. In the same vein, people who aren't male or powerful, find ways to access both. So, patriarchy co-opts women, who learn to internalize sexist norms.This too is misogyny. However, most men, whether they like it or not, chose to or not, benefit from patriarchy, which protects their sex-based interests. In the end, this means they are always better and better off than some women, somewhere. This "power over others" is the heart of patriarchy.  It requires will and conscious acts of choice to confront this.  NOMAS (National Organizaton For Men Against Sexism) explains this well.

For patriarchy to survive it must persistently refuse of our joint humanity. We are all subjugated, not just with violence, but through culture, legislation, religious dogma and political disenfranchisement.  The problem is that most people -- journalists included -- if they've even thought about patriarchy at all, feel it implies a value judgment that indicts loved and loving boys and men, hardworking fathers and sons, and benevolent, avuncular leaders.  The word itself is only descriptive, no judgment implied. In our case, although our laws appear to preclude rule that excludes half of the human population, our norms make it seem like a natural inevitability. Which leads me to the other word people have problems with: feminism.  Despite its diversities, feminism's uniform goal is to create a more just world by freeing all people from systems of oppression based on difference and maintained through brute violent domination.  Feminism scares patriarchs for good reason. Which explains the great and absurd lengths, my apologies, that they go to demonize it (ICYMI, see Penis Scientist Rush Limbaugh.)

Again, I digress.

To circle back, as far as children are concerned, how can you contest something that hurts you, when you are never taught that it exists to begin with? Patriarchy is of our own making and we can unmake it. But first, we have to acknowledge the word itself.  Maybe just calling it a Global Frat Party is the way to go.

**Defining Patriarchy: The definitions above are a fine start, but there are better and more in-depth explanations of "the most misunderstood critical-theory concept ever."