Two rather contradictory stories have heightened my sense that a constructive dialogue about gender issues is being damaged by extreme perspectives. On one side there was an article by a clinical psychologist reporting that a number of his male patients are feeling shame for behaviors towards women that are a far cry from sexual abuse. According to the therapist, the men, in response to the Me Too phenomenon, are recalling sexual encounters where they might have persuaded women to have sex. We are not talking about overt actions such as getting a women drunk or ignoring a clear “no” but rather more subtle forms of seduction that appears to be reflective of the typical man advocating sexual acts and waiting for the women to say no when a guy went too far. Yes the man is being aggressive but it does not cross the line of ignoring a refusal. This type of interaction has been normative for countless generations and should not be experienced as shameful by men. I am fairly certain that norms have changed, especially for younger generations, but at the time these men in therapy behaved according to the norms of the time and they should absolve themselves of any guilt for what some might today be considered as mildly coercive sexual conduct.
The other extreme was a story about the National Coalition for Men which has brought countless lawsuits against bars and clubs that advertise lady’s nights offering free or reduced drinks and admission prices. Utilizing an anti-discrimination statute in California they have gotten settlements from a great number of commercial establishments. In my opinion there are far more important issues of gender discrimination that should be litigated rather than a bar sponsoring a girl’s night out. There are legitimate issues of discrimination against men that need to be challenged. Many men going through divorce proceedings have seen judges favor their spouses when it comes to alimony, child support and visitation arrangements. In many jurisdictions men who fall behind in child support payments, no matter the cause, lose their driver’s licenses often resulting in a loss of employment which ironically makes them even less able to pay child support. The National Coalition for Men should spend more resources to these issues rather than worrying about free drinks for women on a Thursday night.
What then is the middle ground for men to be sensitive and introspective about their behavior towards women while at the same time still embrace their masculinity? I believe that the vast majority of men and women would prefer to maintain gender identity as long as it does not impinge on opportunity and equality. A female CEO can still put on makeup and wear a dress to work without diminishing her power. Conversely, a man can still take pride in his masculinity even though he might be a stay at home Dad with a wife being the primary bread winner. We do not need to eliminate gender pronouns and ignore our biology in order to build a society that is not necessarily gender neutral to be gender equal.
Several prominent men accused of abusive sexual behavior have defended themselves by saying that their comments about what they claim didn’t actually occur was just locker room talk. Meaning that the locker room is a place, both metaphorical and literal, where men can be men and say whatever comes to mind. Vocalizations of manliness that value bragging about real or imagined conquests, particularly in relation to women, are at the forefront of locker room talk. I am fairly certain that there are many interpretations of “locker room talk” depending upon a man’s age and life experiences – including those (especially women) who see the underlying message that the talk is actually a precursor to male entitlement and bad behavior.
Based on my personal history and as a student of masculinity issues I view the locker room as a safe place for men to share their fantasies, aspirations and frustrations and at the same time reassure men that they are not alone in their journey. I understand that looking at this behavior from the outside one might see the hierarchical positioning, including the male tendency to “bust balls,” as somehow reinforcing male empowerment. In reality it is a safety valve where men can share and receive the feedback from other men – often laced with profanity – that is not done to shame but rather to ground the individual in truth. An examination of male behavior in tribal cultures provides ample evidence that men for thousands of years have created environments and practices that enabled men for varying periods to be exclusively in the company of other men. For example, when a male Maasai is initiated into manhood he leaves his mother and along with other boys of similar age are circumcised and taught the ways of being a “warrior” by the tribal elders. For the rest of their lives the boys who were initiated together remain as tight knit group who share their most intimate thoughts and feelings and seek advice and support from each other. In her book about Lincoln, “Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin discussed how Lincoln and his fellow itinerant lawyers used to meet regularly around the stove in a general store to share their experiences and life stories and how much these men valued the time to be exclusively in the company of other men.
The desire for men to be able to be in the company of other men appears to be a natural rather than a cultural imperative and our modern society offers fewer opportunities for this to occur. Traditional male organizations like Kiwanis, American Legion and volunteer fire companies have seen a sharp decrease in participation. Therefore, the locker room and its iterations becomes the place where men have the potential to be intimate with other men. Intimacy among men is complicated and often includes behaviors that to women might seem insensitive and even cruel. However, as long as it stays in the locker room and does not lead to unacceptable behavior, locker room talk can prove to be a needed release that prevents the instances of sexual misconduct highlighted by the “Me Too” movement.