There is strong evidence that American masculinity is creating lonely men. Rates of depression, suicide and drug abuse are soaring – especially among middle aged men. Researchers point to loneliness as the culprit and attribute the loneliness to both institutional changes and the self imposed rules that men think they must follow. Eighteen years ago Robert Putnam’s ” Bowling Alone” was published and focused on the decline of social capital in the United States. He illustrated how the many community based organizations – both formal and informal – have lost membership over the previous 30 years. Although both genders were affected the loss seems to have taken a greater toll on men. Traditional male civic/social organizations like Elk’s, Kiwanis, and American Legion have seen a sharp decline in membership as older members pass away and few young men seem interested in joining. Many volunteer fire companies, traditionally populated by men, have been replaced by paid fire fighters. The result has been an increase in male isolation. Furthermore, role changes in family life have kept men closer to home and more involved in child rearing than in the past. More women are working and the expectation is that their husbands will be sharing responsibilities at home rather than socializing with other men.
Another contributing factor to male loneliness is the perception by many adult men that they must always demonstrate strong independence and follow social rules that prevent them from forming the intimate friendships similar to the ones that they enjoyed growing up. Organizational hierarchies at work do inhibit men from sharing their doubts and vulnerabilities which are necessary ingredients of intimacy. Showing weakness in the workplace might give competing males an advantage in seeking power and promotions.
Intimacy among men seems to be viewed as contrary to manliness unless there is a social organization which brings men together and allows them, within that group, to find close connections with other men. In other words without the catalyst of a safe structured group men do not seem to have the tools or inclination to make friends. Women, on the other hand, seem to be unburdened by self imposed restrictions and do a much better job of generating new friendships throughout their lifetimes.
What baffles me is how few men take advantage of existing men’s groups that are dedicated to exploring masculinity and their life’s journey in the company of other thoughtful men without fear of shame or judgment. National groups such as the Mankind Project and local groups easily found on the internet and on the Meet Up website offer a setting where intimacy among men flourishes naturally and adult friendships develop. Wives and female partners rarely object to the men in their lives attending a men’s group because thoughtful men who have exposed their vulnerabilities make better partners. Men need to seek out these groups to protect themselves from the ravages of loneliness. On a personal note I have been part of what we like to call “Men’s Work” for over 20 years and it has sustained and enhanced my well being and connectedness.
No wonder there is so much confusion about how men are navigating their interactions with the opposite gender. On the one hand the call for gender neutrality and the Me Too movement has focused on sexual abuse and bias in the workplace and has contributed to the empowerment of women now running for political office. Yet, a new Playboy club opening in progressive New York City advertised for women to work as bunnies in the traditional bunny suits and remarkably they received hundreds of applications for 54 positions. I guess women can choose to be sex objects when they feel like but when they seek equality men must quickly adjust and be extra careful not to demonstrate any gender bias. Following this logic women should be more tolerant of our man caves and locker room banter as long as we do not cross the line of abusive or biased behavior. There is ambiguity on both sides of the gender battle and in these confusing times mutual respect will go a long way
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.
It seems that the latest overused word in the broadcast media and cyberspace is misogyny. The problem is that by extending its literal definition we will lose sight of the what is really going on in the gender cultural war. The dictionary definition of misogyny is “a hatred of women.” However, so often the word is applied to any man who behaves badly around women. It would be extremely helpful to break down these incidents of bad behavior and differentiate insensitivity or boorishness from behaviors which are intended to maliciously harm women. For example, the allegations against former senator Franken for his actions towards women while campaigning is certainly, if true, unacceptable but not misogynistic.
By putting all male inappropriate behavior in the verbal basket of misogyny the defensive reaction by men can lead to true misogyny like the “incel” fringe responsible for the tragedy in Toronto and the toxic manosphere bloggers, or on the other extreme, a sense of gender isolation and confusion further contaminating the routine social interactions between men and women.
I recall that at the beginning of the modern feminist movement bad behavior by men that was insensitive or sexist without malice was labeled as male chauvinism. The worst offenders were called “male chauvinist pigs.” Chauvinism , defined as “an attitude of superiority toward members of the opposite sex,” is learned and therefore can be unlearned. However, a true hatred of women is far more pathological and far more difficult to reverse. If one lets a man know that he has made a behavioral choice or has an attitude that is perceived as chauvinistic he is more likely to engage in introspection and subsequent change than if he is simply called a women hater. Most of us can respond non-defensively to feedback about a particular incidence of bad behavior but will react with complete denial to being accused of a major character flaw. Calling a male chauvinist a misogynist will simple lead to a reply, “I don’t hate women,” eliminating a honest appraisal of his biases and behaviors and preventing a change in attitude and behavior.
When we fail to differentiate between chauvinism and truly misogynistic behaviors we inhibit the power of bringing about the needed societal changes about gender equality. If we focus on helping men and women renegotiate the gender social contract by focusing on biases, attitudes and behaviors instead of simple name calling there is hope for transforming the gender narrative from war to respectful dialogue.
How we treat women in our day to day interactions continues to confound men. What used to be simply good manners in our social behavior with women has been labeled by many in the feminist movement as benevolent sexism. Meaning something as casual as holding a door open for a women or making sure she gets home safely after a date, although well meaning, is inherently sexist – hence benevolent sexism. I guess offering to carry a package or following the maritime regulation that women and children should be evacuated first in a disaster at sea are further examples of benevolent sexism. A recent comment on a website succinctly summarizes the dilemma. “A man who seeks to cherish, adore, love, and protect his female companion is apparently a sexist pig.”
The problem is that there is ample evidence that a majority of women are covertly or unconsciously attracted to the benevolent sexist male. Consider the fact that 42% of women ( 52% of white women) voted for Donald Trump despite the clear evidence that at best he is a classic male chauvinist. Romance novels, which are read almost entirely by women, present their male heroes as starting off gruff, rude, arrogant, and cold, but with fantastic looks. In the middle of the book, the hero tries to prove that he’s good enough for her, and that he’s changed to meet her criteria. Something happens by the end of the 180 or so pages, and he turns into a man who wants to settle down and have a few children in a monogamous relationship. He’s happy to be loyal and adore the heroine for the rest of their lives. A tough recipe for a guy to follow. Start out as a bad boy but be sensitive enough to modify your behavior to demonstrate your commitment to her and your ability to provide and care for your offspring.
Generally speaking research has revealed that most women are attracted to strong, healthy, physically fit specimens who project confidence and are more likely to succeed in surviving, reproducing, and prospering in any society. Perhaps for this reason many women still prefer if the man pays the expenses of a date. In our society, this is a sign of having disposable income and being generous enough to dispose of it. Women have rated men higher who take heroic and sometimes primal risks. Furthermore, many studies demonstrate that women prefer men who have the size and strength to protect them and whose financial resources and character offer the promise of good parenting. An evolutionary approach would suggest that women might even consider risk taking as an advantageous trait in a male that can better protect her from adversity.
A recent story widely circulated in the news described a man coming to the rescue of a women who was shamed by a seatmate on an aircraft. Her seatmate texted to a friend that he was sitting next to a “smelly, fatty.” The women saw the text and was so shamed that she started to cry. A guy sitting behind the women also saw the text and heard the women sobbing. He got up and told the texter to change seats and admonished him for being so cruel and insensitive. A classic example of a heroic man coming to the rescue of a women in distress. Is this an example of benevolent sexism? Would a female passenger have acted the same way as the hero in this story?
It appears that there is a discrepancy between the espoused desire by women for gender neutrality in their interactions with men- devaluing stereotypical male protective and chivalrous behaviors – with an unconscious or covert attraction and appreciation of those very same behaviors. No wonder so many men are struggling.
The gender equality discussion which has again risen to prominence as a result of “Me To” has also prompted a re-visit of the notion that men are boxed in by stereotypical notions of what it is to be a real man. According to some masculinity writers the “Man Box” is a set of rigid expectations that define what a “real man” is. A real man is most importantly strong and stoic. He doesn’t show emotions other than anger and excitement. He is a breadwinner. He plays or watches sports. He is the dominant participant in every exchange. He is a man’s man. This “real man” represents what is supposedly normative and acceptable within the tightly controlled performance of American male masculinity. He has dominated our movies and television. He defines what we expect from our political leaders.. He is our symbol for what is admirable and honorable in American men..
My question is,” Is this all bad?” To begin with we all need boxes -more formally role expectations. These are shaped both by biology and culture and give us a structure to help us define ourselves. Clearly it is important that these expectations are not overly rigid and do provide some room for re-definition. However, it is a mistake for a man to pretend to discard the Man Box leaving him with no sense of what it is to be a man. Instead we need to redefine not abandon the notion of the Man Box.
The rubric that real men don’t show emotions – real men don’t cry – misses an important distinction between feeling emotions and how we express those emotions. Are strength and stoicism negative characteristics? The first thing to get out of the way is the misconception that stoicism is about suppressing one’s emotions and going through life with a stiff upper lip. Rather, stoics are taught to transform emotions in order to achieve inner calm. Emotions – of fear, or anger, or love – are instinctive human reactions to certain situations, and cannot be avoided. But the reflective mind can distance itself from the raw emotion and contemplate whether the emotion in question should be absorbed and cultivated. What does this look like? Basically it is keeping one’s cool in order to respond to a situation in the most thoughtful way despite what one is feeling. I don’t think it much of a stretch to imagine a situation where a man is feeling fear or extreme sadness but chooses to not share the feeling in order to protect his family and take necessary action.
It would be helpful for both men and women to look at the Man Box with a more discerning perspective instead of simply accepting the simplistic narrative that the concept of a real men is an artifact of an earlier age.
The other day I was watching the Ali Velshi & Stephanie Ruble show on MSNBC. As Ali was explaining some point he misspoke and mangled a few words. Ali, a seasoned journalist, was taken aback by his mistake and clearly embarrassed. Stephanie, quite spontaneously without consent, gave Ali a quick hug to let him know that his stumbling over a few words was no big deal. It was a natural gesture and to me exemplified a close working relationship between the two reporters. There was nothing remotely sexual about the encounter and it demonstrated a moment of intimacy that was generous and purely platonic.
However, what came to mind is what would the reaction have been if the situation were reversed. Let’s say Stephanie had misspoke and Ali was the one giving the hug without permission. I truly feel that it would have unleashed an unrelenting media backlash. I can easily imagine the image of the hug going viral coupled with a “Me-To” diatribe against another sexual predator – Ali Velshi. His actions would be labeled as a further example of men, especially in positions of power, dominating and patronizing women. MSNBC, a progressively slanted station, would be receiving countless emails and tweets demanding that Ali be fired from the network for his thoughtless and biased behavior.
What comes to mind is how much our increasingly myopic perceptions of male-female interaction has missed our common humanity. Men and women can comfort and relate to each other with a spontaneous touch that has nothing to do with gender inequality. Rational dialogue about gender issues requires understanding context, nuance and a rejection of instant over reaction. There are clearly instances of sexual misconduct that require immediate condemnation but let’s make sure that we don’t continually rush to judgment. Rather, we need to take a pause to be certain that we got it right and fully understand the circumstances of the alleged misbehavior.
Featured on Sunday’s front page of the New York Times is an article describing the gender neutral policies being followed by pre-schools in Sweden. Even though we don’t live in Sweden the extreme practices mandated reflect the growing ideology that equates gender equality with gender neutrality. The logic seems to be that the only way to make sure women are not discriminated against and subject to domination by the so called patriarchy is to eliminate gender identity. The schools have eliminated gender personal pronouns, frown on their perception of gender specific clothing and try to teach girls to scream and boys to be more gentle. They proudly call their agenda social engineering designed to forge a gender neutral world.
Two crucial elements are missing from this approach.. First, let’s be clear. As succinctly articulated by Dr. David Reich, professor of genetics at Harvard University, “Most everyone accepts that the biological differences between males and females are profound. In addition to anatomical differences men and women exhibit average differences in size and physical strength.” He also notes that there are average differences in temperament and behavior between the genders but the degree it impacts behavior is still subject to some debate despite the fiact that most adults report that men and women on average do differ in various aspects of communication and behavior.
My other concern is that the youngsters who are programmed not to recognize gender differences are part of a culture, even in Sweden, with many markers of gender differences. How are they going to develop a sense of self that it is in sharp contrast to the existing cultural norms about gender. Both in the media and in everyday life men still dress and behave as men and women dress and behave as women. Why is it so difficult to imagine a world where women have equal opportunity in their careers, equal pay for equal work and are free from sexual harassment and still feel comfortable wearing makeup, dressing up when they see fit and being respected for their gender specific energy that they bring to society. Conversely, men can feel comfortable in their masculinity and the gender specific energy that that brings to society while respecting women and making sure they are afforded equal rights. Again I wait for an answer to my fundamental question: Why must we equate gender equality with gender neutrality?
No reasonalble individual could argue against the goals of the “Time Is Up” and “Me-To” movements or the overall on-going feminist campaign for gender equality. However, a certain amount of caution is needed to temper some of the more strident voices championing women’s rights. For example, a recent critique of the Oscars stated that just six women won awards this year compared with 33 men – the lowest number of female winners since 2012. The implication of this report coupled with the rhetoric of some of the Oscar winners and presenters is that women are not getting an equal opportunity to excel in the movie industry. I am not in a position to comment on the validity of that conclusion but what I do fear is a knee jerk remedy that measures equal opportunity by simply looking at percentages. In other words a quota system. Since only 18 percent of this year’s Oscar winners were female and females make up about 50 percent of the population should the movie industry be judged on its mission of equal opportunity next year on how close they come to 16.5 female winners? The problem, as it is with the worst aspects of affirmative action, is that less qualified individuals will be chosen in order to reach the 50 percent quota. Will a highly talented male director be left out of the winner’s circle because the academy voters feel obligated to find a female director with less chops so that the image of equal opportunity will be reinforced?
My concern about quotas was further reinforced by stories in the media offering statistics about women not occupying the top positions of power in politics and corporate America despite exceeding male enrollments in undergraduate and graduate university programs. Again, without looking at this data in an informed matter the numbers alone might lead to erroneous conclusions. If I remember correctly last November a women ran for president and actually won the popular vote. Over 30 years ago Geraldine Ferraro – a former congresswomen and UN ambassador – was on the Democratic ticket for vice-president. A women is minority speaker in the House of Representatives and a women was just nominated to head the CIA. Are there reasons other than gender bias that have kept more women from top management positions in Fortune 500 companies? Is it possible that many smart and capable women have chosen to lead a more balanced life than is required to climb the corporate ladder all the way to the top? Do women dominate teaching and social work positions solely because they can’t work anywhere else or is this a conscious choice that is more aligned with their personal journeys? Another example of changing gender occupational preferences can be found in the mental health field. In 1970, women made up just over 20 percent of PhD recipients in psychology, according to the National Research Council. In 2005 nearly 72 percent of new PhD and PsyDs entering psychology were women, according to APA’s Center for Psychology Workforce Analysis and Research. As of 2013 the percentage of female active psychologists in the workforce increased to 68.3 percent).
My take away is that numbers alone do not tell the whole story. Gender equality is not the same as gender neutrality. The advocates of gender neutrality would have you believe that the fact that women do not make up 50% of all occupations is due to patriarchy and gender discrimination. This opens the door for a benchmark of gender equality based solely on percentages. The issue is far more complex and if we are ready to hold a conversation about discrimination and equality that is not based on the evils of masculine dominance we need to tone down the rhetoric and look at gender issues in a rational and nuanced fashion .