Questions I Want to Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 2: Men’s Rights

[Reprinted with the kind permission of Clarisse Thorn. All three installments of this series (once they've all been posted) may be read here.]

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?

  1. Vandello et al. “Precarious Manhood.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 95, No. 6, 1325 – 1339. 2008. []
  2. Kuster, Elizabeth. Exorcising Your Ex. Fireside, 1996. (I know, it’s hardly the most official of references — but isn’t it a great quotation?) []
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20 Responses to Questions I Want to Ask Entitled Cis Het Men, Part 2: Men’s Rights

  1. 1
    attack_laurel says:

    I don’t know if I’m going to express this right, but I’ll try: Recently, I’ve been thinking hard about the way that cis men really seem to fear being seen as anything other than strictly masculine, to the point where many of them cannot accept another man choosing to be anything other than cis (homosexual, bisexual, genderqueer, trans, etc.), seeing it as a direct threat to their own masculinity to even acknowledge non-cis-ness in other men.

    It seems to me that this is a result of the precariously built ranking system of patriarchy – the acceptance of the “oppressor class” treating lower ranking members in abusive and violent ways. This is patriarchy (and kyriarchy) talking, not the natural masculinity of men, but it becomes the fear that if they present as anything other than hyper-cis masculine, they risk losing rank, and becoming vulnerable to the abuse of the “lesser” that the patriarchy permits and encourages.

    To be seen as accepting of all sexuality and all gender presentation is to deny patriarchy, and patriarchy, when denied, becomes violent, as all power structures that rely on subjugation for dominance do when threatened.

    It’s a bad position for a cis man who does not want to buy into the patriarchy right now; those who cling to the power the patriarchy provides will ruthlessly ostracise even cis men who speak out against it, and those men risk joining the rest of us as being acceptable objects of abuse and violence. I don’t know very many men who are willing to take that on if they don’t have to. I wish they would, because there is power in numbers, but it’s hard being the first wave.

  2. 2
    Nicole says:

    Attack_laurel: “anything other than cis (homosexual, bisexual, genderqueer, trans, etc.)”

    I don’t think I have ever seen anyone use cis to mean het as well. Is a bit of a misuse of the word.

  3. 3
    A.W. says:

    Yeah, trans people can also be het. And bi, lesbian, gay, poly people are more often than not cissexual.

    -edited to add, further, quite a few trans people also identify as cisgender (if that’s the word you meant), as do quite a few gay people. Really, cis is just not a good word to use in that context.

  4. 4
    Puffalo says:

    I saw this quote from a study, “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,” and I’m curious what’s meant by “real men” here. I’m wondering if it’s a defined term in the study, or contrasted to hypothetical men, or if it’s a true Scotsman sort of thing.

  5. 5
    Nathan says:

    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?

    The problem with answering these questions is the fact that “masculinity”, as society defines it, encompasses a certain amount of being the oppressor. Examining your privileged implies a willingness to give up power that you have, and since part of the definition we have of masculinity involves taking advantage of and striving for dominance and power, acknowledging male privilege (or at least acknowledging that its a problem) doesn’t fit in with that definition, and therefore men who do it are “unmanly”.
    Liberated masculinity needs to contain the notion that promoting gender equality is not in itself a sign of weakness, and that self-examination requires a different kind of strength. But men will still be afraid of it, because it will seem like they’re making excuses for being unmanly.

  6. 6
    Silenced is Foo says:

    But men will still be afraid of it, because it will seem like they’re making excuses they will face very real consequences for being unmanly.

    Fixed that for you.

  7. 7
    Danny says:

    How can awareness of oppressive dynamics make it difficult for men to own their masculinity?
    Perhaps because it seems there is a belief that to be masculine is to be oppressive.

    Does male privilege ever make life harder for men?
    Yes and I wonder if you can really call it privilege given how destructive it can be. A lot of so called male privileges are double edged swords and they can cut quite deeply yet a lot of the dialogue (at least what I see) seems to sweep the damages under the rug to highlight the good parts.

    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?
    As I say above I think this happens when people talking about male privilege only concentrate on the good and (perhaps intentionally?) ignore the costs and penalties of being male.

    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”?
    That’s a line I’ve been walking for the last few years and I’ll say from my own experience it is difficult. When discussing masculinity (or just about anything dealing with gender) people from those respective sides are quick to label you as a part of whichever side they see as their opponents in order dismiss you and what you’re talking about. But I walk that line because I see truth and good things from all the sides you mention above.

    I know of what I say sounds like low level discussion but I saw what looks like a decent conversation and had to join in.

  8. 8
    Clarisse Thorn says:

    @Puffalo: It’s speaking semi-ironically about the idea of “real men”. Maybe a fuller quotation will make it clearer: “In conclusion, these studies highlight a contrast between iconic images of what a real man is and the actual experiences of real men. 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.”

    @Nathan:

    Examining your privileged implies a willingness to give up power that you have, and since part of the definition we have of masculinity involves taking advantage of and striving for dominance and power, acknowledging male privilege (or at least acknowledging that its a problem) doesn’t fit in with that definition, and therefore men who do it are “unmanly”.

    Maybe part of the solution, then, is separating “manly” dominance and power from gendered or sexual dominance and power.

    I wrote a post earlier this year titled “Switching: Have I Always Been A Domme?”; there was a lot to that piece, but part of it was an attempt to start unpacking my assumptions around masculinity and submissive roles. I never wrote a follow-up, though I meant to; ideally, I’d want to go into the fact that men can be submissive and highly masculine, and in fact that’s sexy. I’m really attracted to the idea of a muscular CEO in a thousand-dollar suit (to name three stereotypical masculine ideals) calling me into his office so he can kneel at my feet and go down on me.

    I understand, though, that lots of men are also very interested in uncoupling all ideas of dominance/physical fitness/wealth from masculinity, too … not just gender/sex-related ones. Which brings me to:

    Liberated masculinity needs to contain the notion that promoting gender equality is not in itself a sign of weakness, and that self-examination requires a different kind of strength.

    I think that is often the key to such identity issues: take admirable qualities of the stereotype, and reslant them. For instance, maybe a “real man” expresses his protectiveness not by claiming women can’t do difficult things for themselves, but by defending them against sexist assertions. I think a lot of this might be expressed by techniques for working within old tropes and representations without buying into the actual baggage around those tropes and representations.

    Looking back over this comment, I’m afraid that it’s doing all the things I don’t want to do … buying into toxic masculine expectations, etc. I don’t mean to do that, but I’m not sure how to be more eloquent about these ideas … I guess what I’m trying to suggest is a kind of role-playing: express “masculine ideals” with a sense of irony and an understanding that they’re ritual, not reality. Try to create a framework for expressing them that preserves their power without preserving their content. The same way a BDSMer might role-play slavery without actually supporting slavery?

    Grr, so slippery, and I feel so scared about saying anything directly because I’m not a cis het man! Argh, this is why I framed the original series of articles around questions rather than assertions! Maybe I better come back to this later.

  9. 9
    Doug S. says:

    It’s a little silly, but I tend to think of Steve Urkel as my model of masculinity. It’s a very different kind of masculinity than the athletic, dominant, James Bond masculinity, but it’s definitely a very male character type; it’s hard to imagine a female character acting like he does.

  10. 10
    Ben Lehman says:

    Oops. This article talks about a lot of stuff I was commenting about in the previous one. Scooped?

    I’m not sure I have answers to these questions. I spent a lot of time reading this going “yes! yes!” but what else I’m not sure. I’ll think. I’ll probably come up with something to write tomorrow, when I will have no time to write it.

  11. 11
    Mandolin says:

    If everyone weren’t busy, I’d like to see a new blog be started, with the mission of beginnign to kick around ideas toward a feminist-positive men’s rights movement. Among its beginning bloggers, I’d like to see Myca, Ampersand, Richard Jeffrey Newman, and Hugo Schwyzer (and perhaps also people like Jeff Fecke, Auguste, Nezua, etc).

    At times, I have thought that it would be best for this blog to transform into that imagined blog space. If this were to happen, though, I think it would be best for me (and possibly some of the other female bloggers) to leave. While I support the idea of a feminist-positive men’s right movement, I do not envision myself as one of its founders. I think a woman could participate in that role, but I don’t want to be that woman.

  12. 12
    Rich B. says:

    I would just like to add that my view of masculinity has been changed forever and irrevocably, having just learned that Barbie will be issuing a “Palm Beach Sugar Daddy Ken Doll” — complete with man-purse sized yip dog.

    Really.

    I bet Sugar Daddy Ken will have no troubles discussing his masculinity. Not with that matching pink shirt and leash.

    That is all.

  13. 13
    Mandolin says:

    Oh my God. I haven’t bought a barbie since i was a kid, but WANT.

    As a child with a liberal family, I ended up receiving two copies of the first accidentally gay ken, Earring Magic Ken.

  14. Mandolin:

    If everyone weren’t busy, I’d like to see a new blog be started, with the mission of beginnign to kick around ideas toward a feminist-positive men’s rights movement.

    This is a very cool idea, but, yeah, if only there were 36 hours in a day…..

    I continue to wonder, though–I think I said something about this in another thread somewhere–about the language of “men’s rights,” which just feels really problematic to me. Ah well, speaking of not having time, to work….

  15. 15
    attack_laurel says:

    Apologies to everyone for the mis-use of cis; I was trying to get my thoughts out, and didn’t write that out properly.

    …which is to say, I meant hetero, and typed cis because it was in my head. I really am sorry. :(

  16. 16
    Nick Kiddle says:

    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.

    This reminds me of something that happened to, I think, Eli Clare. Some newspaper did a piece about him, and one of his friends was horrified at the way it misgendered him. Except it had male pronouns throughout, so he asked his friend why they thought it was misgendering. The friend pointed to a bit where it said he had a degree in Women’s Studies.

  17. 17
    Rich B. says:

    If everyone weren’t busy, I’d like to see a new blog be started, with the mission of beginnign to kick around ideas toward a feminist-positive men’s rights movement.

    It might be enough just to add a Comments section to the Onion News Network.

    Here or here.

  18. 18
    Silenced is Foo says:

    The Onion has always liked to play with that subject.

    http://www.theonion.com/content/node/38827

  19. 19
    Clarisse Thorn says:

    In Part 1 I linked to a post by Audacia Ray, who links to this new blog Critical Masculinities. Full of potential!

  20. If everyone weren’t busy, I’d like to see a new blog be started, with the mission of beginnign to kick around ideas toward a feminist-positive men’s rights movement.

    Mandolin – I’m a bit late to the party here, and I noticed Clarisse has already linked to me but what you’re talking about is very much what I’m trying to do. Also maybe look at XYonline