Media attention about violent men has shifted from domestic violence – the Ray Rice incident to child abuse – thanks to Adrian Peterson. Both men are NFL stars who have been suspended from football because of their assaultive behaviors. The silver lining in both cases is greater awareness of these issues. However, my concern is that the talking head experts will over generalize the potential for male violence and once more diminish pride in our masculinity. As discussed in a previous post, the testosterone which we are born with does in aggregate make men more aggressive and potentially more physically violent than women. There are a variety of ways to understand, but not condone, domestic violence. The root cause is usually an erosion of a man’s sense of power and control. There could be antecedent circumstances that make a man prone to spousal abuse such as a loss of a job, diminished or aggrandized self worth and/or obsessive jealousy. For these men even a minor argument with a women can lead to a violent attack. Their anger- in the form of abusive behavior – is a misguided short term attempt to restore their sense of power. The irony is that when these men calm down they are often deeply disturbed by what they have done and beg forgiveness from their partners. Unfortunately, unless they find better alternatives to meet their need for power/control they often repeat their abusive behavior. This scenario is even more mystifying for a super star athlete like Ray Rice. One would think that his status and fame would fill him with an enormous sense of power/control. The likely explanation is that his sense of self worth is so over inflated that his perception of being disrespected by his then fiancé triggered the violent response.
Physical abuse of children is a different story. Women abuse children almost as much as men. The difference is that the abuse by men, as in the case of Adrian Peterson, is by and large more violent and devastating. I believe resorting to physical violence against children has the same root cause as domestic violence. A parent finds their sense of power/control diminished by their inability to control a child’s annoying or destructive behavior. Again, the quick fix is anger with its natural consequence of a violent physical or verbal outburst. An additional explanation for men hitting children – especially their sons – is the mythology that only harsh physical discipline will control a boy’s aggressive behavior. These men often say, “My father beat me and I turned out all right.” This appears to be Peterson’s explanation for his crimes. Frankly they might not be as all right as they think and many other men who were beaten are far from all right and often are abusers themselves. As a professional parenting coach I can unequivocally say the corporeal punishment is never OK and there is an enormous amount of research data to support this conclusion. I understand that even the most grounded parent out of frustration may occasionally resort to a quick spank. Not a great disciplinary tool but probably does little harm. However, when spanking or paddling is the primary disciplinary tool we are on the slippery slope to child abuse and causing psychological and physical trauma to a child.
Getting back to male aggression and the potential for it to be expressed in violence, we need to be reminded that aggressiveness can be expressed in positive ways that are still manly but not violent – unless that violence is in a response to a direct threat to our families. Being assertive through competence, leadership, self-awareness and leading a principled life are ways men can channel their aggression for the benefit of their families and society in general.
Michael Sam’s release from the St. Louis Cardinal football team has again put the issue of an openly gay athlete in the NFL back on the front page of media attention. What I find troubling about the coverage and talking head response to the issue of a gay athlete is that we are only hearing points of view responding to the extremes of the argument.. One side, which is subject to appropriate condemnation, is the view that gay men do not belong, and absolutely should not be in the locker room, of a college or professional team. This extreme homophobic notion is undoubtedly held by some but is far from the mainstream of thought among men. Yet, anyone expressing any concern or point of view or in any way contrary to the idea of total unconditional acceptance of a gay man showering with straight men is immediately condemned as a homophobic caveman. The bottom line is that an openly gay man, by definition, might find a naked attractive man as desirable.. It doesn’t mean he will act on that desire in an inappropriate way but the straight guy next to him is aware that he might be subject to someone elses sexual fantasy. This might make him uncomfortable. Should he be condemned as a homophobe for expressing his discomfort? Logically can we not extend the argument to a straight man showering with women. If he does not act on his desire for the woman next to him why should she object? Taking this even further, I wonder why there is not a hue and cry for unisex bathrooms and locker rooms. My point is that we should be able to voice our discomfort and uncertainties about homosexuality as part of the broader conversation so that we can all better wrap our heads around the bigger issues of gender identity, sexuality and tolerance.
The first anecdote in my memoir exploring my journey as a man is now on the blog in the book section. Please read it and offer your feedback. If you have a similar anecdote from early childhood I would love to read it and share it with the blog readers.
I wanted to wait a few weeks to talk about depression and men because I knew the topic would no longer be highlighted by the Robin Williams suicide. However, depression among men with its strong link to suicide is too important an issue to let the conversation end. Frankly, men suck at confronting mental health issues. Apparently many men still cling to the old man code exemplified by the John Wayne approach to dealing with problems. Suck it up and go at it alone. That is how real men are supposed to deal with problems. It is especially disheartening to see that when it comes to dealing with mental health issues even younger men raised in the feminist era still cling to the misguided beliefs of the old man code. The alarming suicide rates among active military further illustrates the issue. The misguided belief is that expressing vulnerabilities indicates weakness and needs to be hidden. Even more destructive is the linkage between being vulnerable and feeling ashamed of these feelings. Shame is such a negative emotion for men that we will engage in denial or self destructive behaviors to avoid experiencing shame. One way men can free themselves is to become involved in a men’s support/discussion group. In a group setting men learn to share their vulnerabilities without being shamed. Just knowing that whatever dark thoughts you are experiencing is not unique to you but is shared by other men is a great relief. The ability to share both the negative and positives of one’s life journey in the presences of other men helps to liberate a man from the toxic belief that needing help is not manly
Several writers on masculinity have alluded to the concept of a Man Code. Essentially defined as how the mixture of testosterone driven characteristics and societal norms are translated into set of beliefs/principles on how a man should behave and feel good about being a man. It is a strange mixture because one ingredient -Y chromosome generated testosterone – has remained the same over time but social norms about manliness have changed dramatically. Frankly, that is at the crux of the issue. The man code in most cultures that was in place for thousands of years started to become dysfunctional in the developed world as the suffragette movement evolved and became even more obsolete as the feminist movement has matured. What men are left with is ambiguity. Some men try to hold onto the old code with archaic beliefs like “real men don’t cry” and “housework and child rearing is women’s work.” Others attempt to embrace new expectations of behavior that just don’t seem to fit comfortably with their biologically determined flow of testosterone and wind up with uncertainty about what it means to be a man. The challenge is how can we re-write the man code in a way that acknowledges our biological imperatives but still fits the expectations of our 21at century culture.
According to the LA Times only about half of all boys expect to work in well-paid professional jobs when they grow up compared to nearly three quarters of girls. In other words, we’re somehow teaching young boys that either learning is girl’s stuff or that there is no point in aspiring. Either way a dumb lesson that does not seem to be a high enough priority among educators, especially at the K – 8 levels. Compounding the problem is the almost total feminization of school personnel. Only 16% to 18% of teachers in elementary and middle school are male. Therefore, we should be helping teachers learn how best to engage and motivate boys based on their gender based learning styles. For example, boys tend to prefer reading non-fiction over novels. With this in mind, teachers need to allow more freedom in allowing students to choose their reading material. After all the main purpose of reading instruction is to derive meaning from the written word. The particular reading material to achieve that should not be that important. Another example is hands on projects. In general boys are more motivated when the learning experience involves hands on activities. Again teachers should be planning their instructional activities to take gender differences into account. The adage, ” the equal treatment of unequals is inherently unequal” certainly reinforces the need for educators to include gender based strategies in planning educational activities.
If you click on the link to the book you will find the recently added preface to “Walk Like A Man”, the memoir that was the motivation for this blog. I wanted to again underscore that the blog and book are not intended to be read as academic works. Rather they are an attempt of exploring masculinity on a personal level and hopefully will stimulate others to contribute to the masculinity conversation through the lens of their own personal experiences.
In response to the data about men committing violent acts – including domestic abuse and sexual abuse – far more than women one interesting thought is that it’s almost certainly rooted in childhood. Boys are more likely to be beaten at school than girls, and parents are far more likely to encourage fights between boys. Think about it: if one of your earliest experiences is being told to punch that kid who insulted you, it’s no great leap to imagine you’d reach adulthood thinking violence was the right response to, well, everything. And since our culture loves to reward aggression—in the boardroom, on the sports field, in the military—it’s easy to see why unlearning that lesson might be next to impossible.
Although these environmental factors probably play a role in male violence it is not the whole story. The reality is that males are born with higher levels of testosterone than females. This hormone defines one of the biological distinction of maleness and is responsible for aggression and risk taking. From an evolutionary standpoint, male aggression has produced successful hunters and protectors of the community and has been genetically passed on through natural selection. Even though hunting and protecting with violence are not nearly as important in our modern world does not mean that the testosterone has disappeared. The issue for men is to figure out how to channel their natural aggression in ways that are socially and morally acceptable by today’s standards. Using the paradigm of the archetypes of masculinity we can gain insights about understanding aggression. The warrior archetype is a man’s aggressive nature. The warrior can operate either in the shadow or the light. The shadow is being violent, except if it is in pure self defense. The warrior in the light is assertive. Being assertive is the non-violent method to seek control of a situation and to protect what is important for the well being of our partners and families. It is imperative that we teach our young men -especially those in early adolescence when the testosterone starts flowing – how to manage their aggressive impulses through assertive non-violent means.
There was a small really disturbing article in the New York Times, Sunday magazine section entitled “Computer Love” by Hope Reeves.. She described a new app called BroApp which allows guys to outsource their digital affections by sending automated texts to needy girlfriends. Guys pick the messages, days and times, and the app does the rest. She goes on to indicate that the app even has a “girlfriend safety lockdown,” which sends prying eyes to a list of gifts you were allegedly planning to buy her. This is intended to mitigate any resentment of BroApp usage and she will think that the user is the best boyfriend. Not sure if this story was tongue in cheek I googled BRoApp and found that it really exists. Their website tag line is, “message your girlfriend sweet things so that you can spend more time with the Bros”.
Let me explain why I was upset. For the record I have no qualms with an appeal to the lover archetype of masculinity. As men, our lover reflects a man’s ability to be compassionate, sexual and to connect with others – men and women – in relationship. The reality is that we can have our lover operate in the light of in the shadow. Using artificial means like BroApp is a manipulative and insincere approach to growing a relationship with a woman and is certainly our lover acting in the shadow. The other aspect that bothered me was the reinforcement of the stereotype that real men do not want to spend the time on communicating affection but would prefer to use that time hanging with the Bros. This message only serves to diminish the importance of the lover in our lives and limits our ability to be fully connected with friends, family and lovers. The best of masculinity is to embrace our lover in the light and learn to communicate in relationship with honesty and compassion.
A number of years ago there was a problem with the elephant herds on a game preserve in Africa. Because they were protected, the herds were growing to such a size that they were destroying the countryside and even farm crops in a search for food. The local experts decided that the way to control the size of the herds was to “cull” them; to kill the adult bull elephants so that they could not breed.
Elephant herds are matriarchal in nature, in other words the female and young elephants live in a herd under the leadership of the dominant female. Older males live by themselves until it is time to breed. When male elephants are born they live with the herd for protection until they are teenagers, at which time the dominant female kicks them out of the herd so they are not “bothering” the females. Typically, these young males then find an adult bull elephant to live with and learn how a male elephant lives life. Unfortunately, they had killed off all the adult bull elephants. So, much like young males in our culture, with no male role models to teach them, these young pachyderms starting hanging around with each other and eventually formed a “gang” of teenage bull elephants. The results were similar to untrained and unrestrained young males in our culture in that the gang of teenage bull elephants started destroying crops, villages, even killing people.
A group of experts were called in and tried a variety of solutions with no success. Eventually someone suggested asking an old African chief what to do. He said, “Find an old bull elephant.” And so they found an old, old bull elephant and air lifted him by helicopter into the bush where they had last seen the gang of teenagers. He walked off and they did not see him for several weeks. One day, he came slowly walking out of the bush, and right behind him in single file were all the teenage bull elephants. They never had a problem with this herd again. Not because the old male was tough enough to fight the young males, but merely his presence as an older male taught them how a male lives life.
In light of the recent senseless shootings in our country, I couldn’t help but notice that so far there has not been any mention of a father for the Oregon or Connecticut shooters. In the vast majority of these tragedies the young man’s relationship with his father was non-existent or strained at best. It was seldom one of a guiding, loving, protective nature.
As my wise young friend Justin Farrell remarked, “Perhaps we don’t need more gun laws. Perhaps we need more elephants.”
(Rick Johnson – Patheos.com)