At the heart of Human Giver Syndrome lies the deeply buried, unspoken assumption that women should give everything, every moment of their lives, every drop of energy, to the care of others. “Self- care” is, indeed, selfish because it uses personal resources to promote a giver’s well- being, rather than someone else’s.
Human Giver Syndrome is the framework on which the “second shift” hangs— the shrinking but ongoing inequality in the time and effort spent on childcare and housekeeping between men and women— forty hours per week for women versus an hour and a half for men, globally. Even in the most balanced nations— which include the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada— women still spend 50 percent more time in this unpaid labor. For example, the difference was twenty- six hours per week for women, versus sixteen hours for men in the United Kingdom, in 2016.
Worse, Human Giver Syndrome is the framework on which sexual violence hangs— the basic belief that men have a right to women’s bodies, and if a woman looks attractive to a man or puts herself in a position where a man can take control of her body, well, that’s what happens; men have a right to take what they can get. This isn’t just an emotional and cultural dynamic. It has been and still is a literal, legally sanctioned reality. For millennia in the United Kingdom, a woman and everything she possessed became the legal property of the man who married her. Only recently did a woman gain the right to keep her own property when she married (1882), to keep her name (1924), and to not be raped by her husband (1991).
Human Giver Syndrome is so deeply ingrained, it takes being confronted with statistics and dates to reveal the imbalances and injustice to us. Without large- scale, objective measurement and historical perspective, it’s all too easy to feel comfortable with the familiar inequalities: Human givers don’t own or control anything, not even their bodies, so when we hear about a woman being sexually harassed, abused, or assaulted by a man, we lament the ways an accusation of sexual assault or harassment will hinder the man’s promising career, and suggest that the woman doing the accusing brought it on herself. Accusers get death threats, and the accused is put on the Supreme Court.
In short, it’s easy to be blind. So how do we keep our eyes open, and help others to see? When we teach college students about human beings and human givers, we ask, “What’s the solution?” What do you think? The first answer students give is nearly always, “Raise everyone to be human beings!” Let’s think about that for a second. What would a world look like in which everyone was a human being, competitive, acquisitive, and entitled? One philosophy major, faced with this image, blurted out, “Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” quoting Thomas Hobbes, who saw the “state of nature” as a “war of all against all,” because “man, whose joy consisteth in comparing himself
with other men,” is “continually in competition for honour and dignity.”
If we raise everyone to be “human beings,” the result is eternal war and/or, if we follow Hobbes, totalitarian government. Fun! And the fact that so many students automatically assume that the category “human beings”— that is, men— is the default and “human giver”— that is, women— is the alternative, is itself a symptom of Human Giver Syndrome. It is “patriarchy blindness.”
Now, what if . . . just what if . . . we raised everyone to be a version of a human giver? What if we assumed it was every person’s moral responsibility to be generous and attentive to the needs of others? What if we assumed no one was simply entitled to have what they wanted from another person, but everyone was supposed to try to help others whenever they could?
No one would sit watching television while the other cooked dinner and did the dishes, unless both had mutually agreed that what worked best for both of them was that one should rest while the other gave. No law would allow anyone to take control of another person’s body, because no one would expect that right. No one would feel the mess of doubt, betrayal, sadness, and rage that comes from being gaslit, because no one would gaslight. And when anyone dropped into the pit of despair, the givers who surround them would turn toward them with generous compassion, without judgment. The absence of the patriarchy (ugh) makes being a human giver safer.
Human Giver Syndrome is deeply entrenched and it takes time and practice to eradicate it. Even after spending decades working in sexual violence prevention and response, Emily still notices periodic twinges of Human Giver Syndrome, fleeting thoughts of “Why did she go into his room?” or “Why didn’t she leave?” The goal is not to eliminate these ideas entirely; it is to spot them earlier and earlier, because they’re easier to uproot when they’re small. To recognize when Human Giver Syndrome may be blinding her to the patriarchy, Emily uses a simple gut check. She asks herself, “How would I feel about this, if it were a man instead of a woman [or vice versa]?”
Or, “Am I assuming this woman has a moral obligation to be pretty, happy, calm, generous, or attentive to the needs of others?” and “Am I assuming this man has a moral right and obligation to be competitive and acquisitive, to take and have anything he can, regardless of the impact on others?”
Human Giver Syndrome blinds us to the patriarchy (ugh), because it constrains our ability to view gender- based inequalities, imbalances, and injustices as unfair. But it’s not the only reason a person might be blinded.