In the 2006 documentary “Boy I Am“, a trans man talks about how one of his mental barriers to transitioning was the fact that after transition, he would be a “white male”. And, he laughs, the “last thing in the world” he wanted to be was a white male!
A year or two ago, I attended a lecture by Jackson Katz, a rather overtly masculine, cis male anti-abuse educator who lectures in colleges around the country. Bullet-headed and aggressive in stance, he said a lot of valuable things — particularly about how men ought to take ownership of problems we traditionally consider “women’s issues”. It’s certainly true that if we want to end male abuse of women, men must participate in the movement. But although Katz discussed some issues of masculinity, I heard little about how we can make things better for men. His proposition of a men’s movement was centered around correcting the things some men are doing wrong. (I attended in the company of my friends Danny, who blogs at Sex, Art & Politics, and Sammael, who started his own BDSM blog this year. Hey guys, got any good memories of Katz?)
Although they’re often watered down, many feminist concepts have gone mainstream. For instance, Americans have some consciousness of traditional feminist critiques about how women’s bodies are represented in the media. Indeed, that consciousness has become so endemic that, in a grandly ironic twist, marketers now capitalize on it to sell beauty products: the nationwide Dove Campaign for Real Beauty attempts to use deconstruction of the media’s representation of women to sell Dove soap. Americans are also quite aware of men as the privileged class — sometimes regarded outright as the oppressors.
But this shift in awareness about gender issues faced by women has not been accompanied by a widespread understanding of gender issues faced by men. And that creates situations like an activist working towards a masculinity movement that talks mainly about how men are hurting women, or a trans man who has trouble with the idea of transitioning partly because he doesn’t want to be a white man — one of the oppressors.
How can awareness of oppressive dynamics make it difficult for men to own their masculinity? Does male privilege ever make life harder for men? When does male privilege blind us to oppression of masculinity? There’s some mainstream awareness of gender issues faced by women; is there any similar awareness of the problems of masculinity?
A good friend of mine first caught my attention by talking about gender. We encountered each other at a BDSM meetup, and when I mentioned that I’d been thinking about the boxes around masculine sexuality, he launched into a rant about oppressive sexual dynamics. He gave me references to complex sexuality blogs and intelligently used words like “heteronormative” and “patriarchy”. But a month or so after we started talking, I mentioned his interest in gender issues … and he gave me a puzzled look. “I’m not really into gender studies,” he said.
He talks about sex, gender and culture all the time — but he also specifically identifies as highly masculine, and felt that to be at odds with identifying as someone who questions masculinity. As Thomas Millar writes: “There’s a huge unstated assumption that to even address the question [of male sexuality], for men, is to mark one’s self as ‘other.’ … cis het men are brought up to fear that their masculinity could ever be called into question. By even opening up a dialog, I think some folks fear that they are conceding that their sexuality is not uncontroversial.”
Men currently experience this problem in a way that women do not. In other words, women don’t risk being seen as unfeminine as easily as men risk being seen as unmasculine; nor do we have quite the same fears about it. In 2008, a group of researchers published a paper called “Precarious Manhood”. Their concluding statement: “Our findings suggest that real men experience their gender as a tenuous status that they may at any time lose and about which they readily experience anxiety and threat.” Earlier in the paper, they wrote that — although “our focus on manhood does not deny the importance of women’s gender-related struggles” — “Women who do not live up to cultural standards of femininity may be punished, rejected, or viewed as ‘unladylike,’ but rarely will their very status as women be questioned in the same way as men’s status often is.”1
When is it to a man’s disadvantage to publicly examine and question masculinity? Surely the mere act of questioning and examining gender does not make a man less masculine; how can we work against the perception that it does?
At the same time, though, this isn’t a “with us or against us” situation: men who don’t choose to identify as non-normative also don’t tend to join the “opposition”. By “opposition” I mean folks like “Men’s Rights Activists” (on the Internet we call them MRAs). MRAs — at least according to my stereotype of them — are conscious of social and legal disadvantages suffered by men, such as the fact that men are at a severe disadvantage in child custody cases; at the same time, they’re blind to male privilege. It’s a deadly combination. My personal favorite MRA quotation ever is, “White men are the most discriminated-against group in the country.”2 Mercifully, MRAs are a fringe group, but they make a big impression.
My “not into gender studies” friend once told me that although he frequently deconstructs problems of masculinity in the privacy of his own mind, he doesn’t like to publicly have those conversations because he doesn’t want to sound like an MRA. He said, “A lot of the time, men who want to think seriously about masculinity won’t talk about it aloud because we really don’t want to be that,” emphasizing “that” with loathing. He later added, “It’s very tricky to discuss masculinity yet avoid simply devolving into male entitlement. That’s the crux of the problem with the ‘Men’s Movement’ assholes — none of them are addressing the underlying problems of masculinity. They’re just whining about not receiving the privileges their cultural conditioning tells them to expect.”
How do the current “men’s rights movements” discourage men who might, in a different climate, be very interested in discussing masculinity? Assuming men can reclaim the “pro-masculinity movement” from MRAs, do any men feel motivated to do so? Can men occupy the middle ground between MRAs and LGBTQ, feminist, or other leftist discussions of gender — that is, can men find space to discuss masculinity without being aligned with “one side or the other”?
All too frequently in radical sex/gender circles, the theme has been blame. Men in particular are excoriated for failing to adequately support feminism — or criticized for failing to join the fight against oppressive sex and gender norms — but few ideas are offered for how men can be supportive and non-oppressive while remaining overtly masculine, especially if their sexuality is normative (e.g., straight/dominant/big-dicked).
There are fragments: some insight might be drawn from the ways in which many BDSM communities create non-oppressive frameworks within which we have our deliciously oppressive sex. With practice, one can get shockingly good at preserving a heavy dominant/submissive dynamic that still allows both partners to talk about their other needs. Surely that understanding of sexual roles vs. other needs could be adapted to the service of gender identity. Yet so many BDSMers still fall prey to the same old gendered preconceptions.
Don’t get me wrong: of course anyone would deserve plenty of blame if they refused to let go of their entitlement, or chose not to examine the ways their behavior might support an oppressive system. But I think men exist who are willing to do those things, yet feel blocked from relevant discussions because participating creates anxiety about their sexual or gender identity. It strikes me as unreasonable to attack them for that. Choosing to present one’s sexuality and/or gender identity in a normative way is not in itself a sin. It’s not fair to expect people to fit themselves into a box that doesn’t suit them — not even for The All-Important Cause of better understanding sex and gender.
Where can we find ideas for how men can be both supportive and non-oppressive, and overtly masculine? How can we make it to normative men’s advantage to analyze masculine norms? What does it look like to be masculine, but liberated from the strictures of stereotypical masculinity? How can we contribute to a Men’s Movement that encompasses all three bases — being perceived as masculine, acknowledging male privilege, and deconstructing the problems of masculinity?