Is Manhood a Vessel? A minor disagreement with Hugo Schwyzer

Hugo Schwyzer is discussing prostitution, and in particular a proposal to “punish U.S. servicemen who visit overseas prostitutes.”

Rep. Chris Smith – who is the worse enemy of women’s rights in Congress on issues like abortion rights, UNFPA, same-sex marriage, and the global gag rule – is a leader in congress when it comes to opposing International Trafficking of women. This is, as Hugo points out, one of those rare cases where right-wing evangelicals and feminists agree on a topic. (Bean tells me that she read that funding for fighting International Trafficking has gone up significantly since Bush took office).

I certainly agree with Hugo when it comes to prostitution (actually, I agree with Hugo about virtually every issue, except for abortion). In particular, I like this new law, because it focuses on punishing johns (in my opinion, prostitution should be decriminalized, but being a john should be a frequently-enforced felony). However, I’m actually posting because a comment Hugo made in his post points out a difference between his view of masculinity and my own. Hugo wrote:

Real men never exploit other human beings for their own pleasure. Real manhood — not puerilty — is accompanied by a mature sexuality that doesn’t wound.

Implicit in Hugo’s writing is the idea that “real manhood” and “masculinity” can be positive constructs. To Hugo, masculinity is a vessel. The problem is that the vessel has been filled with bad ideas, such as “to be a man, get laid a lot” or “to be a man, you better be able to physically beat down fags and women, at the very least.” If the “masculinity” vessel were to be instead filled with positive ideas, then the conception of “real manhood” would become a tool for progressive, pro-feminist change.

I disagree. No matter what you try to fill it with, talking about who is and isn’t demonstrating “real manhood” is implicitly setting up a hierarchy of “real men” and “non-men.” And when boys are told they aren’t “real men,” they learn to hate themselves; and meanwhile, other boys who are desperate to remain “real men” will do almost anything to defend their manhood. (I’ve written previously about my theory that this need to protect masculinity is a major motivation for date rape.) It would be better, in my view, to try and teach boys that manhood is nothing that can be lost, and therefore nothing to feel insecure about.

Furthermore, when you set up a hierarchy with “real men” at the top of it, inevitably – no matter how good the intent – it is implied that girls and women rank low on that hierarchy. What, after all, could be less like a “real man” than someone who is not a man at all?

Finally, if there are positive virtues we ascribe to “real men” and masculinity, aren’t we implicitly saying that men have some special claim to those virtues, or that women are less likely to embody them?

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32 Responses to Is Manhood a Vessel? A minor disagreement with Hugo Schwyzer

  1. 1
    Hugo says:

    Oh Amp, now you’re going to send me into my Sam Keen/Robert Bly/Shepherd Bliss moment, aren’t you?

    Technically speaking, this is where pro-feminist men and the mytho-poetic men’s movement part company. I have a foot in both camps, and it is in the latter that I have found a positive vision of masculinity as something that is acquired (or more accurately, transmitted) from older men. I will blog about it at great length, at some point.

    Suffice it to say that I see no reason to concede the language of “real men” to the right-wing. Check out the folks at Men Can Stop Rape, look at their men of strength ads — you’ll see what I mean:

  2. 2
    Hestia says:

    So, Hugo–what makes a “real man,” and why can’t I be one?

  3. 3
    Willful Damsel says:

    What, after all, could be less like a “real man” than someone who is not a man at all?

    It’s funny that a very similar phrase came up in a conversation I had with a friend a month back. I was trying to think of a synonym for emasculate that could apply to a female and, unable to think of one on my own, published a post to an etymological community for their advice. The closest we came was “defeminize”, but I’ve never heard that used as an insult. A friend told me she didn’t think there was a good alternative to emasculate: “not in a society such as ours where to be a man is to have power and to be a woman is to be without power. So to strip one of one’s manhood would be bad, whereas how could one be made lower than not man?”

  4. 4
    Amanda says:

    I think a better way to view it would be that men should have a positive definition of what they imagine manhood itself is–one is going to see one’s gender through a lens no matter what, but a positive one can replace the currently negative one.

  5. 5
    Hugo says:

    Okay, I promise this will be my next “long” post topic at my place. Tomorrow or Monday. Promise.

  6. 6
    dana says:

    i don’t think either prostitutes or johns should be punished, as long as the latter don’t abuse the former. i do think pimping should be outlawed though, with prejudice. it should be a felony, it should carry a meaningful prison term.

    but, that’s just me.

  7. 7
    Allen says:

    I can add a small comment, in response to Amanda’s statement that “It would be better…to try and teach boys that manhood is nothing that can be lost, and therefore nothing to feel insecure about.”

    Many men’s concern is not insecurity about losing manhood — it is insecurity about GAINING manhood. While girls have a certain point in their life at which their mother takes them aside and explains that, like it or not, they are now a woman, boys have no such experience. The onset of shaving really doesn’t have the same significance.

    How, then, does a boy know when he’s become a man? This question, I think, is what Hugo is trying to address.

    I think, and you might agree, that it is important for there to be a positive definition of manhood. This definition is what Hugo is trying to create, when he speaks of “real manhood”. Boys have a strong desire to have something, anything, to strive towards, and pointing them in the right direction is better than letting them choose a bad direction on their own. (Consider this example of a bad direction: Is a boy a man after he’s had sex with someone? Would he be even more of a man if he’s had sex with even more people? Is there an alternative “path to manhood” that high-school and college boys can be directed towards?)

    In closing, I’ll say that yes, some men are worried about becoming “less masculine”. But the root of this fear comes from men’s perception that manhood is NOT intrinsic. We perceive it as an acquired characteristic, and many men don’t know how to acquire it.


  8. 8
    Amanda says:

    Well, I agree, Allen, and I think that’s the issue. Is “manhood” the equivalent of “womanhood”–which is to say, a way of saying that someone is a proper adult? Or is it the charade of masculinity that passes for “manhood”–something you can see all the time in our President?

  9. 9
    Richard Bellamy says:

    So perhaps there would be less rape if everyone had a bar mitzvah?

  10. 10
    nobody.really says:

    I sense that I share Amp’s aversion to gender roles, but I occasionally appeal to them for strategic purposes.

    I sense that people often develop policies designed to address the needs of some archetypical person or situation, even if they ignore non-conforming people and situations. Ideally I’d like policy makers to reject the use of archetypes and embrace difference generally. Another strategy, however, is to embrace the appeal to archetypes, but to expand the archetype catalogue.

    Thus in 1950, the “voter” archetype may have been a white, educated, middle-class, “upstanding” male, and the “black” archetype may have been an uneducated, poor, “unworthy” male. Elections were designed for the convenience of the archetypical voter. While liberals talked about creating a “color-blind society,” the civil rights movement may have created a color-conscious society, complete with a new black archtype: long-suffering, persevering, patient, worthy, and male. Thus if people in the 1960s talked about lazy, shiftless blacks, someone could respond, “Would you say that about Dr. King? Or Reggie Jackson?” There was a new archetype, and the old arguments based on assumptions of the old archetype no longer fit.

    Of course, Dr. King does not reflect the diversity of all blacks. Anne Franks does not reflect the diversity of all Holocaust victims. Helen Keller does not reflect the diversity of all people with disabilities. But if people can bear these archetypes in mind, they will be less likely to conclude that policies designed for white, educated, middle-class, “upstanding” males are good enough for everyone. It’s progress.

    Back to “manhood”: I see gender roles as one more pernicious aspect of archetyping that should be abandoned. But this is a hard sell to a 12-yr-old who is persuaded that he must be Rambo to be a man. Rather than opposing his desire to conform to some concept of masculinity, I may have more luck redirecting him to a different masculine archetype: a knight errant, the cowboy sheriff, Superman, Han Solo, Jesus, that Kung Fu guy, a Promise Keeper, the Fonz. (Ok, I’m dating myself, but you get the idea.)

    Yeah, the kid will need a few more attitude adjustments throughout his life – but don’t we all? Often, incremental progress is as good as it gets.

  11. 11
    Charles says:

    I shouldn’t speak for Hugo, since I don’t think I agree with him about this, but presumably women can be Real Women instead.

    To my mind, the greatest problem with trying to make Real Man and Real Woman into positive constructs is exactly what I take Hestia to suggest: that they either place unacceptible requirements that men and women should behave differently, or they are really just unnecessary distinctions within Real Human or Real Adult.

    On the other hand, in defense of such constructs, I can see a point to them as way stations (or as the best we can hope for in the present moment). I don’t carry the baggage of being raised a girl and living my adult life as a woman. I carry the baggage of being raised a boy and living my adult life as a man. In a gendered society, this is different baggage. In order to overcome this baggage and be a decent human being, I may have to work on different issues and come to different realizations (or the same realizations by different routes) than I would if I had been raised as a girl and lived my life as a woman. To the extent I will never overcome my baggage, and to the extent that I wouldn’t even want to totally obliterate my history, I may never be able to achieve an ungendered Real Human state. Instead, the best I can achieve is a state in which I figure out what it means to be both a decent human being and a man. I think that Hugo is using “Man” in a gender specific maturity dichotomy, rather than in a gendered dichotomy: the opposite of “Real Man” is “boy,” not “girl”.

    Still, the Real Man language strikes me far too much as “Don’t worry guys, you can be a decent human being without being weak like a girl.” In the general culture, the opposite of Real Man is woman (or maybe girl), not boy. I think Hugo’s use is an attempt to change that, but for me it doesn’t work that way. It just seems (at a gut level) like an affirmation of the same old shit.

  12. 12
    Tara says:

    I actually don’t think I became a woman in the eyes of anyone, including myself, when I got my period (I assume that’s what you’re referring to). My impression is that, basically, you’ll know when you’re an adult, and now I generally think of myself as an adult, but it’s not a black and white thing, and I’m not sure it’s a process that ever really culminates?

    It may be possible to turn ‘being a real woman’ from all that old shit about femininity and love of men, but I doubt it, and I doubt the need. Possibly because of not growing up with any particular aspirations to be a ‘real woman’.

    Boys don’t emerge fully formed from the forehead. If they feel that there’s some barrier of risk or strength or whatever that they have to cross in order to be respected and to respect themselves, and that it’s a distinctively male thing, it’s because they’re getting it from their environment.

    I think it’s a real problem that we have an idea of a static sort of point. If being a man is something worth preserving, it shouldn’t be about, today I became a man and now I’m one forever because I’ve proved my good qualities, but rather, every day I strive to be a man. But of course that striving part sounds like weakness and admitting failure, as opposed valiant efforts to be a good *person*.

    Anyway, I suggest, “Be a mensch!”

  13. 13
    Crys T says:

    Actually, Allen, the moment at which a girl supposedly “becomes a woman” is not seen as the menarche, but when she loses her virginity. Having her first period only makes her eligible for the transformation, it doesn’t complete.

    Western culture is full of stories and myths about how boys become men by performing feats of physical and/or moral strength. So, boys become men by actively proving themselves worthy, while girls passively become women via the magically transforming power of the penis. Also note: while men make themselves, women cannot come into being without men.

    (and I figured that one out all on my own way back when I was a Young Thing in college–Yay Me!!)

    As to the whole question of “Real Men”, it makes me uneasy, too. For all the reasons cited above, including the fact that it presupposes the existence of “Real Women”. Now, the definitions eventually worked out may be positive ones, but the fact is that once you define, you are also prescribing, and that I do not want, as like many here, I reject the entire concept of gender roles. I think we can make a definition of what makes a Decent Human Being or Decent Adult, but to try and divide characteristics into “proper” Man-or-Womanhood gives me the creeps.

  14. 14
    Amanda says:

    I think that’s a fair assessment, Crys–think of the implications behind the word “maiden”.

  15. 15
    S. Ellett says:

    The problems that I have with “real” men is that “real” is entirely cultural. For someone in the US (for example) to try to outline the contours of a Real Man, they have to deny and denigrate all alternative masculinities. Those masculinities that fail to make the standard which applies to European descended Whites are either considered less-than, or in certain cases, more-than (which often leads to criminalization of those masculinities). For example, the masculinity of a butch dyke is not seen as masculinity, but rather as a certain immaturity (i.e., not Real Woman). Men of Asian descent would have a harder time fitting the Real Man mold, as their masculinity is often seen as more akin to femininity in their passivity (I’m thinking about Asian men mostly in the US where there is a long history of racial violence against Asian men); African American men suffer from the opposite where their masculinity is seen as hyper-masculinity (the images of gang bangers, pimps, and black men-raping-white-women, which are all still popular stereotypes) and therefore African American men would also be discounted as Real Men and put closer to the Brute end of the scale.

    Further, our ideas of what it means to “become” a man (or woman) are predicated not on biology but on myth-making, both ancient and modern. Allen’s post above is a key example that usually flies under most radars.

    Allen pairs two images together as if they were indeed fact, objective at that when he says:

    “While girls have a certain point in their life at which their mother takes them aside and explains that, like it or not, they are now a woman, boys have no such experience. ”


    “Boys have a strong desire to have something, anything, to strive towards, and pointing them in the right direction is better than letting them choose a bad direction on their own.”

    This is a modern myth! The menarche-aged girl is “taken” aside and told “like it or not” that she is now a woman. The sheer passivity of this image makes me naseous. What Allen is saying (and he might not know he said this, b/c again we’re talking about a socially supported myth) is that when a girl becomes a woman, she loses agency. For a girl to become a woman she must accept that she is to be acted upon for the rest of her life.

    Now pair this with Allen’s statement about boys. Boys have a “strong” “desire” to “strive” for something. Apparently men don’t take them aside, but rather are psychically beside or behind them to “point” the way. And even though men don’t want boys to make the wrong “choice”, the fact that in the transition from boyhood to manhood there is even a choice to begin with is key in the mythologizing (?) of Manhood and by extension Real Men.

    Allen paints boys as active, striving, strong, full of desire. He paints girls as losers who have to succumb, like it or not, to adulthood.

    Just my $.02

  16. 16
    S. Ellett says:

    And what I meant by my last quip above is that, by extension, no man can be a Real Man without this particular myth of the boy-to-man transition and its mythological counterpart the girl-to-woman transition. And it’s not the Man part that comes into question, but the validation of what is considered Real. “Real” being more of a cultural convention than a fact; a convention predicated and authenticated on the loss of agency of particular subsets of society (i.e. False, which is the linguistic/ideological opposite of Real)

  17. 17
    Hugo says:

    Okay, I did the first stab at a reply to you, Amp. It’s long…

  18. 18
    Don P says:


    in my opinion, prostitution should be decriminalized, but being a john should be a frequently-enforced felony

    Why? If you believe prostitution is a bad thing, it makes little sense to try to deter it by criminalizing the demand side but not the supply side. And why is prostitution a bad thing, anyway?

    It’s no coincidence that countries with progessive laws on sex more generally also tend to be the same countries where prostitution is legal.

  19. 19
    alsis38 says:

    Anyone remember the Joseph Campbell craze ? He stated firmly that menses was indeed Woman’s “tribal rite of passage blah blah blah” and that boys need their own rite of passage to grow up properly “blah blah blah.” Damn me as some kind of overcivlized First World snot, but I hated that shit then and I hate it now. I could do without the assertion that “womanhood” is something Nature or Fate pushes upon girls, but “manhood” is something that boys can/must go out and seize for themselves. Those who romanticize such rituals never have anything to say about those who either failed to achieve the societal brand of “manhood,” or about those who didn’t want it.

  20. 20
    Don P says:

    I too would like Hugo to explain what he means by being a “real man.”

  21. 21
    flaime says:

    (in my opinion, prostitution should be decriminalized, but being a john should be a frequently-enforced felony).

    huh??? I don’t get this. Fucking is legal. Selling is legal. Why shouldn’t selling fucking be legal?

  22. 22
    Hestia says:

    I have never gone through any experience and come out of it realizing that I’d changed into something I wasn’t before. In my house, the traditional switch was less “You’re a woman now!” than “There’s a box of tampons in the closet, kiddo.”

    Does that mean I’m not a woman?

  23. 23
    jstevenson says:

    There is a boy-to-man transition that cannot be avoided. Women go through the same transition. Both have different effects, but it is the same transition. It is called puberty and that cannot be avoided.

    The transition to a “real man” or a “real woman” is a psychological transition that is defined differently in most societies. We cannot ignore that this psychological transition takes place. I would venture to say most boys and girls strive for some vision of “real man” or “real woman”. IMHO, we have two problems, the definition of “real woman” is unclear and the definition of “real man” may not necessarily be desired.

    I don’t think men can do anything to provide young girls with a woman’s perspective of a “real woman”. However, providing young boys with a male perspective of a “real man” is something we can do. Men can do two things, we can ignore the reality that boys are going to seek out male role models (call it a myth) or we can acknowledge the reality and ensure positive models are set forth.

  24. 24
    Don P says:


    There is a boy-to-man transition that cannot be avoided. Women go through the same transition. Both have different effects, but it is the same transition. It is called puberty and that cannot be avoided.

    The name for that is maturing or growing into adulthood or somesuch, and it is a change that occurs independent of gender. What does that have to do with being a “real man?”

    I don’t think men can do anything to provide young girls with a woman’s perspective of a “real woman”.

    Why not? And what do you mean by “real woman?” What do you mean by “a woman’s perspective?” If you mean “real” in the sense of being a mature, adult human being, rather than an immature or childish one, why can’t men provide that to “young girls?”

    The term “real man” implies characteristics that are exclusive to, or more strongly associated with, men rather than women. That is why the term suggests sexism. Otherwise, the appropriate term would be “real adult” or “real person” or somesuch. I assume you are not claiming that maturity or adulthood are primarily associated with men rather than women. So what does it mean to be a “real man?”

  25. 25
    mooglar says:

    I do think that the term “real man” has the underlying connotation ‘as opposed to being a girl (or woman),’ as Amp points out. “Real men” are strong and not weak like women, “real men” don’t show their feelings like women, “real men” are independent and don’t let anyone tell them what to do like women do. Etc. Etc.

    Even if Hugo somehow comes up with a redefinition of “real man” that was not sexist in and of itself, the term would still be sexist, in my opinion.

    This touches on the fact that traits perceived as “male” traits are valued more than traits perceived as “female” traits. This is made obvious by the fact that women are praised for things like “being tough like a man,” and men are derided for being “girlie” or “crying like a woman.”

    So, without changing the underlying assumption that male traits are superior to and basically the opposite of female traits (weak vs. strong, emotional vs. stoic, etc.), how can we develop a concept of “real men” and “real women” that isn’t somehow predicated on not being like the opposite gender? If it’s not acceptable for men and women to have traits in common, how can being a “real man” include men who are seen to be in any way similar to women?

    I will sign on for the idea of “real men” when I can tell people that I have many traits often associated with women and be considered a “real man” rather than being denigrated for it. Until then, I can’t help but see that the whole concept of “real men” is going to be pervaded by underlying sexism.

  26. 26
    monica says:

    First, I don’t see the logic in making prostitution legal while punishing men (or women, even if it’s a tiny percentage, it’s there) who go with prostitutes. It’s like legalising drugs but criminalising those who buy them, how do you that?

    I don’t have to think prostitution is a great thing to accept it extists, has always existed, in the best conditions (health safeguards, regulations, no coercion into prostitution, no trafficking of women, no paedophilia, etc.) it doesn’t harm anyone. In the best conditions, a prostitute decides to do what she does, and can make a lot of money. It’s a two-way exploitation. It’s a cheap, sad notion of sexuality that drives people to regularly go with prostitutes (I can understand a one-off curiosity but when it becomes a habit, it’s pretty sad all right), but you can’t eliminate that kind of appeal of cheap, sad, paid sex.

    Secondly, I don’t understand the “real men never exploit other human beings for their own pleasure” – hello, everybody “exploits” everybody else for pleasure, that’s what sex is about (ok the word is not “exploit” but you get the idea), the difference is not “real men” vs. “not real men” or “mature” vs. “puerile”, the difference is between consensual and coerced. If it’s consensual it’s an exchange. If it’s coerced it’s not even “exploitation”, it’s abuse, violence, rape. Prostitution is commercialisation of sex, that kind of exploitation is on both sides, it’s commercial exploitation, it doesn’t have anything to do with violence (again in the best conditions).

    Finally I get mightily bored by all discussions on what “masculinity” or “feminineity” are or should be. Kids today get their own rites of passage, and it’s not getting periods (come on the whole “takes her aside and tells her she’s a woman now” is such a pathetic cliché, I surely hope mothers are more clued in today than to embarass their daughters even more by putting on such victorian theatricals about menstruation), or pubic or facial hair, it’s the first time you have sex, the first time you drink, the first time you smoke dope, the first time you go on a trip alone with your mates, the first time you are away from home, etc. It’s more about independence than sex. Anyway. The passage into adulthood happens (or, better, is perceived) in different ways for each person. It’s less about notions of what your gender identity should be, and more about what you want your identity as a person to be, how you construct it, how you manage to express yourself, and how that is influenced by the society you grow up in. In a culture where both consumerism and bigotry, individualism and group pressure, are such powerful drives, things can get very fucked up for both genders. The less we are obsessed with notions of masculinity vs. feminineity, the better.

  27. 27
    monica says:

    ” I could do without the assertion that “womanhood” is something Nature or Fate pushes upon girls, but “manhood” is something that boys can/must go out and seize for themselves.”

    Exactly, besides, if girls get menstruation, and have to put up with it and wear tampons, pads, etc., boys get beards and moustaches, and have to put up with it by shaving; their voices change and crack, they also get their own hormonal earthquakes. All those physical signs of growth are passive, in both females and males, they just happen, they shouldn’t be remarked on with any value judgement, it’s patronising to kids. It’s just a completely arbitrary decision to identify a passage into womanhood with menstruation, but for a boy it must take something more active than facial hair to become a man, it’s just nonsense. You’re an adult when you make you own choices and are responsible for them.

  28. 28
    piny says:

    Hestia: I have never gone through any experience and come out of it realizing that I’d changed into something I wasn’t before. In my house, the traditional switch was less “You’re a woman now!” than “There’s a box of tampons in the closet, kiddo.”

    Does that mean I’m not a woman?>>

    Yeah, my mom took me aside and told me that this was what happened to growing girls who didn’t eat all their vegetables.

    She had a sick sense of humor, my mom.

    …Seriously, though, I’d like to ask Hestia’s question from a different angle. I’m an ftm, a female-to-male transsexual, currently taking hormones that will leave me looking very much like Hugo, amp, and everyone else who’s never menstruated.

    I grew up female. I got my period (I’ll still be getting it for a little while longer, actually), and even if my mom didn’t consider it a female-maturity milestone, I was bombarded with cultural imagery that insisted that YES! You’re now a woman! The trickle of blood on the white napkin symbolized everything potentially dangerous and disruptive–and anti-feminine–about female bodies. I didn’t agree with the ways in which our society obsesses itself with menstruation and female reproduction, but I could hardly get out from under them.

    Does this intimacy with menstruation and its cultural import mean that I cannot call myself a man? Hugo’s “just as good but different” generalizations about the sexes would seem to indicate that, no, I can’t.

    And there are a lot of other dis-qualifications he makes in his masculinity post. I cannot, for example, effectively raise a male child as a father. Of course, the same logic would prevent me from raising a girl. I’m a parenting neuter!

    This discussion is pushing every single button I have.

  29. Yeah, I hardly ever agree with this use of the word real. As for prostitution, the most convincing argument for pointing guns at sex workers or clients says that police don’t respect sex workers and won’t adequately protect them. Okay. So why would you give the cops more power to control these people’s lives? Why let them threaten to arrest the worker’s clients (her source of income) unless the police receive free service? And why write their negative view of sex workers into law? Or do you think that Kallistoi (my name for humans) will distinguish between the ‘sin’ and the ‘temptress’? If anything, I think the situation calls for pressure on law enforcement to do their jobs and protect people.

  30. 30
    Tara says:

    You could say that in the best instances murder is a victimless crime, when one sees their loved one suffering in a state beyond communication and knows that the person would not want to live and kills them. Even though we are now contemplating, very cautiously, making that legal, and even though murder, despite all our laws and efforts, has been committed flagrantly for ages, we don’t that the possibility of positive instance to be a reason for decriminalizing murder.

  31. 31
    Charles says:


    If you consider yourself a man, then I consider you a man. I can see no reason that you could not be a role model to a son (nor for that matter to a daughter). While you don’t have the experience of being raised a boy, you presumably have a sufficient affinity with our culture’s boyness to wish to be one.

    I think that children should be taught the fullness of gender (the range, the benefits, the disadvantages, how the systems limit us, what we can do with them), and I think that we each fit somewhere in that fullness and can teach as much as we can understand.

    And agreed that this is a button pushing topic. It really seems to be so all around, even if it is feeling particularly bad for you.

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