Millions of Ukrainians have understandably fled from their country in the face of the invading Russian forces. Others have remained and are fighting valiantly in defence of Ukraine.

Who has left and who has stayed is not entirely a matter of choice. Men, age 18 to 60, have, with few exceptions, been barred from leaving the country. They are required to remain and defend the country. Those who have managed to dodge the draft by fleeing the country have been ostracised by others, including women who themselves have left the country.

In some ways, that is unremarkable. Men have been bearing the burden of military service for almost all of human history. On the other hand, this is 2022 and, in many countries, women have the same rights as men. They are enfranchised and hold public office, attend university (often in greater numbers than men), and are doctors, lawyers, and accountants.

This, many say, is not enough. They complain that there are disproportionately few women in privileged positions, such as in legislatures and the higher ranks of business and academia. By contrast, it is very rare to hear complaints that there are disproportionately many men in undesirable positions, including combat.

Whereas, in many countries, women have been permitted to join the military and even to enter combat, they are still rarely conscripted and almost never forced into combat. We hear surprisingly little criticism of this from those who purport to be interested in equality of the sexes. Why?

One possible answer is that there are average differences between the sexes, such as greater upper-body strength, which make men more suitable for combat. If that is so, then the discrimination against men may be said to be justified.

However, those who offer this argument would have to explain why sex differences would not justify some forms of discrimination against women. Why, for example, would it not justify excluding from combat those women who want to fight? By contrast, if we acknowledge that some women have the capacity to perform combat roles, why should we not conscript those people, whether they are male or female, who have the necessary capacities?

This is especially relevant in the Ukrainian case, where men in their 50s are being treated as more suitable for combat than women in their 20s. Even if young men, on average, are more suited to combat than women of the same age, many ageing men, with their failing eyesight, weakening backs, expanding bellies, and deteriorating cardiovascular systems, will be less suitable than younger women (1).

If using a person’s sex (and underweighting their age) as a proxy for those capacities, is not a justification for excluding willing and able women from combat, it is not a justification for including unwilling and unable men. Where two people are both able but unwilling, it is sex discrimination to compel only the man but not the woman.

One possible objection, at least in the Ukrainian case, is that somebody must accompany children to safety and that women are better suited to that. Why might women be better suited?

One possible explanation is social: women are socialized as child-carers and for this reason make better carers. Those who wish to advance this rationale must recognize that it could, as it often has been, also be used to justify discrimination against women in other contexts. If they are not willing to countenance that implication, they should resist it in the current case.

Another possible explanation is biological. Only women can breastfeed nursing infants. The problem with this explanation is that it would apply only to breastfeeding mothers. Many younger women are not mothers. Breastfeeding does not explain why those younger women should be allowed to leave while older men are not. A ban on departure could make exceptions for breastfeeding mothers and, in the case of older children, for one parent – of either sex. Which parent it is, could be determined by each family (even though that would likely result in many more men than women staying).

Another biological explanation that would apply to currently nulliparous women is that many more women than men are necessary to repopulate. Thus, male lives are more expendable. That argument, like earlier ones, is also dangerous for those opposing discrimination against women. This is because it cuts both ways. For example, it can be used to bar women from combat and other dangerous activities even when they wish to undertake them.

Perhaps the last refuge of those wishing to justify the practice of a blunt, sex-based bar on leaving Ukraine, is to appeal to some perceived practical problem with implementing a less discriminatory policy. While any such purported problem would have to be engaged on its merits (or demerits), it suffices here to say that sex discrimination is easy. If we must expend the effort, as we should, to avoid sex discrimination against women, we must do the same when the victims of sex discrimination are men (2).


(1) More recently, the issue of male-only conscription has become more acute than it previously was on the other side of this war. While Russia has long had a male-only draft, the scale of Russian conscription and its implications have become much greater. Now, many more Russian males, and only males, are being drafted into fighting an immoral war that many of them do not want to fight. They, but not Russian females, are faced with the choice of fleeing the country, being imprisoned for a lengthy period, and joining a war in which they will kill or be killed (or kill and then be killed). All of those options are significant burdens – ones which Russian females do not have to bear.

(2) I have argued at much greater length against sex discrimination in conscription in The Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men and Boys. Malden MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2012.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Journal of Controversial Ideas and has been republished with permission. Earlier in the year the author submitted it to a dozen periodicals; it was rejected by all of them. In an accompanying article in the Journal, he appeals for more openness for unorthodox ideas.   

David Benatar is professor of philosophy and director of the Bioethics Centre at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.