Repost: Notes Towards a Discussion of Male Self-Hatred

(I originally posted this in 2012, but a conversation I had recently with some of my students made me think of it. I still think it raises some interesting questions, and so I am reposting it now.)

In Kayak Morning, Roger Rosenblatt writes:

The literature involving fathers and daughters runs to nearly one thousand titles. I Googled. The Tempest. King Lear. Emma. The Mayor of Casterbridge. Washington Square. Daughters have a power over fathers, who are usually portrayed as aloof or mad. The father depends on his daughter and he is often isolated with her—the two of them partnered against the world. It is a good choice for writers, this pairing. It may be the ideal male-female relationship in that, with romance out of the picture, the idea of father and daughter has only to do with feelings and thoughts…. A girl may speak the truth to her father, who may speak the truth to her. He anchors her. She anchors him.

Rosenblatt’s book explores his grief at the untimely death of his own daughter, Amy, and this passage, in the form of a short-hand literary analysis, mourns the relationship he had with her—one that, for him, was clearly about a kind of truth-telling that only happens between men and women when the possibility of romance does not exist. Rosenblatt’s grief is his own, and I would not presume to suggest that his relationship with his daughter was anything other than what he says it was. His assertion, however, that the father-daughter pairing is a “good choice for writers” because it allows us to deal with issues between the sexes solely in terms of feelings and thoughts, without the messiness of romance, gave me serious pause. It’s not that I think he has mischaracterized the father-daughter relationships in the works that he cites—it’s been long enough since I read any of them that I simply do not remember—but rather that, in a male dominant culture, and we still live in such a culture whether we like it or not, the father-daughter relationship is never only about feelings and thoughts. The daughter’s body and how she uses it—in sex, in marriage—and how that reflects on the father as a man, on his reputation and the reputation of his family, is always already contested ground.

♦◊♦

I doubt most people in the United States see the father-daughter relationship explicitly in these terms any more, though the custom of giving a bride away on her wedding day is an echo of it. Still, it’s important to remember that there are immigrant subcultures in this country—and think, also, of the Christian institution of purity balls—where it is still a father’s duty to manage his daughter’s sexuality, at least until she is appropriately married. In my own life, where fathers have been conspicuously absent, these attitudes have manifested themselves most obviously in the assumptions people make about my relationship with my sisters. Or, more specifically, what they imagine my relationship with my sisters should have been like when we were younger. I am thinking specifically of how most people react to my story about the time I walked in on one of my sisters, who was sixteen at the time and should have been in school when this happened in flagrante delicto with her boyfriend.

I did not care that she was having sex, but the circumstances in my family at the time—she is six years younger than I am—meant that I did need to confront her about playing hooky. So I closed the door to her room and asked her and her boyfriend to get dressed and come out into the living room. I waited for a couple of minutes, but nothing happened. I knocked again, receiving this time a muffled reply from my sister, as if she were sick in bed and my knocking had roused her from sleep. I opened the door and there she was, alone, with the blanket pulled up around her neck. “Where is he?” I asked.

“Where is who?”

“Michael. I saw him.”

“Michael? No. No one else is here.” Her voice cracked as if she had a horrible sore throat.

“Come on. Don’t bullshit me. I know what I saw.” I started to look around the room and eventually opened her closet, where I found Michael trying desperately to disappear behind the clothes that were hanging there. It was hard not to laugh at him, but I didn’t. I just asked again for them to come out into the living room. When they did, I told Michael to go home, that my sister and I had to talk, and I will never forget the look of surprised relief and gratitude on his face when he realized that I was not going to beat him up. He even asked me, “You mean you’re not going to beat me up?” That made me laugh out loud. I told him no, why would I. He said thank you and he left.

More often than not, the people to whom I tell this story, and it doesn’t seem to matter how old or young they are, are as surprised as Michael was that I simply let him leave. When I ask them why—since the idea of beating him up never even occurred to me—they always give the same answer: She was your little sister. It was your job to protect her. And if I ask them what they think she needed protection from, they tell me, From guys “like that,” by which they mean, of course, exploitive, sexual opportunists who tally the women they have sex with by making notches in their bedposts and bragging about it to all their friends. But why should I have assumed that Michael—a decent guy, a guy I liked, a guy my sister clearly trusted—was “like that?” Okay, so maybe you didn’t have to beat him up, but you should at least have put the fear of God into him, just to keep him honest.

Honest about what? I ask.

Well, they say, you wouldn’t want your sister to get a reputation, would you? You wouldn’t want him, or anyone he told, to think your sister was just giving it away, right? And most, but not all, leave the next question unasked: You wouldn’t want your sister to think it was okay to give it away, would you? Clearly, it was not her boyfriend from whom my sister and her reputation really needed protection.

But there you have it: Because I was her older brother, these people seem to think, my sister’s emerging sexuality was my problem, not out of concern for her health and safety—and even then it really wouldn’t have been my problem—but because if I did not keep a watchful eye on her she might have undeservedly acquired the reputation of or, worse, actually become, a “slut.”

The people with whom I have these conversations usually try to avoid using that word, because they are afraid it will offend me. Or, to be more precise, because they are afraid I will suddenly feel the need to defend my sister’s “honor,” even after all these years. Yet it’s not really, or at least not only, my sister’s “honor” that they think I should be worried about. Inevitably, when we get to the point in the conversation where they realize that they’re not going to change my mind, that I truly do not think there was anything wrong with my sister having sex, they get down to where the brass tacks really are. What kind of a brother were you, anyway? What they mean, of course, is What kind of a man are you?, and their logic is not so different, really, from the fathers and brothers who murder their daughters and sisters in so-called “honor killings”—and, just to be clear, there is nothing honorable about them—because even the hint of female sexual impropriety is a stain on her and her family’s reputation that only her death will remove. Granted, no one has ever suggested that I should have killed my sister, but they clearly think I should have seen the fact that she didn’t “keep her legs closed” as a threat not just to her, but to myself as well.

Unlike the logic that seems to hold in so-called “honor killings,” however, where the existential threat to family (read: male) honor is embodied by the woman, the threat in this case—at least as perceived by the people I have these conversations with—was embodied by my sister’s boyfriend. His “success” in having sex with my sister, in getting around the protection they tell me I should have been providing for her, is clearly something they see as a stain on my honor that only some form of violence against him would have removed. The fact that I chose not to commit that violence, or even to threaten it, is bewildering to them. How could I have let Michael get away with something so serious?

♦◊♦

I realize I am being reductive here. In fact, the threat to male honor in cases like this comes from both the man and the woman, which is why the male partners of women murdered by their families in so-called “honor killings” are also often killed or beaten; and I have completely left out of this essay the ways in which women—mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins—are expected to preserve this male honor by policing other women’s sex lives. It’s not that the layers of complexity here are not worth writing about. Rather, it’s that these layers of complexity tend to obscure the relationship between the men whose job it is to demonstrate their manhood by protecting their family’s honor (in this case, me) and those whose job it is to prove themselves as men by doing whatever they can to get around that protection (my sister’s boyfriend).

Leave aside, for example, the fact that there really are guys “like that” and that it is possible for an older brother to sniff this out about his younger sister’s boyfriend before she does, and consider the conversation I might have had with my sister in order to get her to stay away from Michael. You don’t understand what guys are like, my part in this discussion would go—and it’s a part we have seen played in movies and TV shows over and over again by countless brothers or fathers, cousins or friends—but I do understand, and I am telling you that when it comes to sex you shouldn’t be so trusting. Sometimes the man who speaks these lines will explain what he means in more detail and sometimes he will not. In each case, however, he is asking the woman to whom he is speaking to recognize that, because he is a man, he is more of an authority on men and male sexuality than she is. Moreover, in doing so, whether he realizes it or not, he is admitting that this authority comes from the fact that, even if he himself is not “like that,” he nonetheless has first-hand knowledge of the truth behind the assumption that most men are. After all, in this way of seeing the world, being “like that” is part of what being a man is all about, and so it is inescapably part of every man, even if he consciously lives his life in opposition to it.

There is, in other words, a kind of self-hatred operating here. Had I tried to protect my sister in the way I have just described, or even if I’d resorted to the violence so many people seem to think I should have used, I would also have been trying to protect her from a version of myself, or at least from the kind of man I knew I was supposed to be if I’d followed the traditional, stereotypical manhood script. To put it another way, whatever beating Michael up would have meant to him and my sister, it would also have been a denial of my own complicity in that script’s definition of getting sex from women as proof of manhood. So, if you understand this story not from the perspective of my relationship with my sister, but rather of my relationship with Michael, it becomes a narrative that is less about the sexual double standard—though it is of course also about that—than it is about men’s internal experience of manhood and masculinity as an identity divided against itself. On one side is the man we are (traditionally, stereotypically) given permission to be with women who are not our mothers, sisters or daughters; on the other, the man whose manhood depends on protecting our mothers, sisters and daughters from what that permission means to all the other men who are not us. To be both those men at the same time, in an integrated way, seems to me impossible—which raises the question of what forms masculinity might take if it were truly unmoored from a notion of manhood that requires us to hate a part of who we are.

 

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13 Responses to Repost: Notes Towards a Discussion of Male Self-Hatred

  1. 1
    lurker23 says:

    There is, in other words, a kind of self-hatred operating here. Had I tried to protect my sister in the way I have just described, or even if I’d resorted to the violence so many people seem to think I should have used, I would also have been trying to protect her from a version of myself, or at least from the kind of man I knew I was supposed to be if I’d followed the traditional, stereotypical manhood script.

    i know it seems simplistic but i find it pretty easy to argue that the “all men must want to screw as many women as possible all the time without regard for their feelings or interests” is NOT traditional or stereotypical, at least in my relatively white rich educated culture. therefore i have no problem saying it is bad without feeling like there is some sort of self-hatred involved.

    to make that work you have to be part of a tribe in which that ISN’T really the culture, which only works for some folks. then you can point out the superiority of your tribe and you can talk about the things other tribes do which are bad. and if you do a good job you will make more people want to join your tribe.

    also to make that work you have to be relatively uninterested in trying hard to find a lot of ways to feel horrible about yourself due to the actions of other people beyond your control, which you then spend a lifetime apologizing for. i guess some people really like to feel that way but it does not seem like a very accurate view of the world as a general thing.

  2. 2
    annqueue says:

    Richard, thanks for this post. It’s not a point I ever would have thought of.

  3. lurker23:

    i know it seems simplistic but i find it pretty easy to argue that the “all men must want to screw as many women as possible all the time without regard for their feelings or interests” is NOT traditional or stereotypical, at least in my relatively white rich educated culture.

    I am going to assume you did not intend the class and racial snobbery that is, at best, implicit in the way you wrote that comment. Still, it’s interesting that you should characterize “the stereotypical manhood script” I wrote about in the way that you did, especially since I made clear what I meant by it in the sentence directly following the passage you quoted:

    To put it another way, whatever beating Michael up would have meant to him and my sister, it would also have been a denial of my own complicity in that script’s definition of getting sex from women as proof of manhood.

    “Getting sex from women as proof of manhood” does not require the kind of indiscriminate screwing you talk about. More to the point, the script I am talking about is one that obtains—at least in my experience, based on the men I have known over the course of my lifetime—even in “relatively white rich educated culture.”

  4. 4
    J. Squid says:

    This is one of my all time favorites of your posts, Richard.

  5. Thanks, Jake and annequeu.

  6. 6
    Ben David says:

    Worked differently in my house: my older sister would come home from bad dates and say, “when you start dating, don’t do X”.

    How is this different?

    IMO the real question is whether you (as an older sibling) thought younger sibling was vulnerable to manipulation, or sufficiently knowledgeable/self-possessed to navigate these waters alone, or could benefit from your perspective/experience.

  7. 7
    LimitsOfLanguage says:

    I would describe reality like this:
    – There are norms, including gender norms that people subscribe to.
    – These norms include behavior that is disallowed and behavior that is expected. Behaving in the expected way is considered honorable.
    – Transgressors get policed.
    – Men and women get taught and expected to do different kinds of policing, where the more risky (and physical) kinds of policing are expected of men (like using violence).

    So given this, I take issue with this:

    You don’t understand what guys are like, my part in this discussion would go—and it’s a part we have seen played in movies and TV shows over and over again by countless brothers or fathers, cousins or friends—but I do understand, and I am telling you that when it comes to sex you shouldn’t be so trusting. Sometimes the man who speaks these lines will explain what he means in more detail and sometimes he will not. In each case, however, he is asking the woman to whom he is speaking to recognize that, because he is a man, he is more of an authority on men and male sexuality than she is.

    This same kind of advice/demand is also given to girls/women by other women. Also, boys/men are given advice by women, not just by men. These women then sometimes explain what they believe that other women (or men) are thinking.

    So I take exception to making this into a gendered issue, where men are supposedly doing something special. I see men and women doing the same basic things, where the details differ because male and female gender roles are different.

    There is, in other words, a kind of self-hatred operating here.

    I don’t see how this follows from what you’ve said. It doesn’t require self-hatred to recognize that certain mandated or allowed behavior requires accommodation by others.

    For example, kids who swim in a river where people jet-ski may get told off for not realizing that jet-skis can hit swimmers. You don’t have to hate jet-skis or swimmers to police behavior like this. You don’t have to believe that wanting to swim or jet-ski is an immoral desire. It’s merely necessary to believe that two behaviors are incompatible and that one has to yield for the other.

    Your specific example doesn’t even require that one believes that male and female sexuality are incompatible, but merely a belief that young women are not yet capable of responding to sexual advances and/or preventing pregnancy properly. It’s quite common for society to come up with asymmetric solutions that mostly fall on one gender. For example, traditionalism could also mandate beating up the girl and giving the boy house arrest, but it is typically the other way around. In Islam, one solution to prevent out of marriage pregnancy involves requiring women to hide their hair or covering up far more than that.

  8. 8
    RonF says:

    I was living in a fraternity house my Sophomore year in college. My cousin, who was fairly attractive and who I well knew was sexually active, was going to come to one of our parties. During the chapter meeting prior to the party I announced that she was going to show up. Lots of “UH OH”s, etc. – I was the biggest guy in the house. I told them all that she was a big girl and could make her own decisions, but God help them if she came to me and told me that anyone tried to force her to do something she didn’t want to do. Mind you, I had zero expectation that such a scenario was going to occur; that was definitely NOT the culture in our house.

    But I think that it does speak to the point here that I felt the need to say that because a) I figured that otherwise guys would be reticent to approach her because she was “Ron’s cousin” and b) I thought it was my duty to put out a pro forma warning.

  9. 9
    RonF says:

    In Islam, one solution to prevent out of marriage pregnancy involves requiring women to hide their hair or covering up far more than that.

    Another solution that seems to be often applied is to either kill any woman who gets pregnant out of wedlock or to force her to marry the male who got her pregnant (regardless of whether it was rape or consensual).

  10. I would prefer that this not turn into a discussion of so-called “honor killings” per se, except insofar as they reflect the degree to which women are understood to be the repositories of family (male) honor in those cultures where they take place. These kinds of killings, while practiced by people who are Muslim, are in fact not part of Islam and are not sanctioned in the Quran. Nor is there a single Muslim scholar or religious authority of note who has said it is permissible to kill a woman for tarnishing her family’s honor. So let’s please not attribute to Islam a practice that is, in fact, not part of its tradition.

    As for this:

    Another solution…seems to be…to force her to marry the male who got her pregnant (regardless of whether it was rape or consensual).

    The “shotgun wedding” is certainly not a uniquely Muslim phenomenon, and it takes many forms. My parents, for example, “had to get married” because my mother was pregnant with me, even though they were not in the least interest in being married to each other. So, again, let’s please not needlessly generalize about Islam when it is perfectly possible to make the points we want to make without singling out one particular tradition.

    Limits of Language:

    So I take exception to making this into a gendered issue, where men are supposedly doing something special.

    First, you yourself acknowledge that this is a gendered issue when you point out that men and women engage in these kinds of behavior differently precisely because of their gender.

    Second, I did not suggest that women don’t engage in that behavior. In fact, I acknowledged quite specifically that they do:

    I realize I am being reductive here. In fact, the threat to male honor in cases like this comes from both the man and the woman, which is why the male partners of women murdered by their families in so-called “honor killings” are also often killed or beaten; and I have completely left out of this essay the ways in which women—mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins—are expected to preserve this male honor by policing other women’s sex lives.

    That just happens not to be what I was interested in writing about, which I went on to explain in the next couple of sentences:

    It’s not that the layers of complexity [regarding women’s roles as discussed above] are not worth writing about. Rather, it’s that these layers of complexity tend to obscure the relationship between the men whose job it is to demonstrate their manhood by protecting their family’s honor (in this case, me) and those whose job it is to prove themselves as men by doing whatever they can to get around that protection (my sister’s boyfriend).

    While you and I, I assume, will have a very different take on what that relationship is, I also assume that you would agree it is something that is possible to isolate and discuss on its own terms. Or perhaps that second assumption is wrong.

  11. 11
    Adrian says:

    I think it can be very hard to see that male self hatred you describe, when it gets hidden by the way patriarchy scares both men and women into a kind of collaboration. The “I’ll do what you want if only you don’t hurt me” kind of collaboration. The even stronger “I’ll do what you want if you don’t hurt my kid.”

    Mothers as well as fathers try to protect their children from a dangerous world. All the boundaries around this are fuzzy: what hazards can a child defend themselves against? When is a child independent? How independent?

    Your sister and her young man were having illicit sex. They were both scared of getting caught, getting in trouble. Many 16 year old would worry about being caught by one of their mothers. Not fearing violence, but a thorough scolding that started “Did you idiots give a moment’s thought to what could have gone wrong?!!”

  12. 12
    Petar says:

    Nor is there a single Muslim scholar or religious authority of note who has said it is permissible to kill a woman for tarnishing her family’s honor.

    Well, duh. It would be like a Christian authority of note saying that Jesus impregnated the Holy Spirit.

    Everyone who is familiar with the Qurʾān knows that the punishment for zina (زِنًى , assuming Sharia, as is the case in most countries with a Muslim majority) is restricted to flogging for unmarried criminals. Also, the punishment is to be administrated only by the proper authorities, and the patriarch is the proper authority only in very rare cases, practically never applicable to a family living among other Muslims.

    So, any scholar permitting ‘honor killings’, defined as the family killing the defiled daughter, would be going against the Qurʾān and not once, but three times. She should be (1) flogged, (2) after presentation of conclusive evidence to someone qualified to judge her, and (3) not by her family. Now, I’ll grant you that Ḥadīth strongly suggests that it is possible, and not necessarily undesirable, that the flogging results in death, but the Ḥadīth is not the Qurʾān.

    If the criminal is an adulterer (and this simple English word does not quite describe the six Sharia prerequisites), the Qurʾān still does not prescribe death. While the Ḥadīth is very clear on the subject according to most of what I have read, there are plenty of Muslims who do not accept it as law.

  13. Thanks, Petar. I appreciate the detail of that response.

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