This has been percolating in my head for months now, and I've realized that if I don't just start writing, it will never get done.
Men, We Need to Talk...
...about how we are in the world, about how we treat each other and ourselves, about how we treat the women in our lives, about how we hold ourselves to standards that are literally killing us. The most common term for what I'm talking about here is "toxic masculinity", but I don't like using that term, because it makes men feel threatened and defensive about it, and that won't solve our problems.
If, as you read this, you feel like I'm attacking your identity as a man, I ask that you take a moment to breath, and continue reading with an open mind.
It's not a woman's problem
For too long, this topic has almost exclusively been written about and talked about by women.
- For the Love of Men, by Liz Planck
- Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit
- The Mother of All Questions, also by Rebecca Solnit
- ... and on and on
They are on the receiving end of a lot of the problems I want to talk about, but they can't solve them. They aren't the ones who have to change and grow. We are.
I've read these books looking for answers to how we solve this problem. I read through chapters upon chapters cataloging all the ways in which we hurt ourselves and others, the statistics on how men die more frequently than women of preventable disease because of what... pride? But I never find the answers I'm looking for. The solutions I'm looking for.
If you want a cataloging of our problems, read any of those books. I'll not repeat here all of what has been said over and over again. I want to try to get us men talking to each other so that we can actually solve these problems rather than inflicting them on our sons, and indirectly our daughters.
And yet it is a woman's problem
Most of us are terrible in relationships with women. We interrupt, talk over them, don't listen. Without even knowing it, we make them manage our emotions for us, because we were never taught how. We live as though some hierarchy exists between us, and don't see them as the equal partners they are.
Because we haven't been taught how to manage our emotions, it sometimes comes out in violent outbursts. Some of us assume that the problem must be with the women. They're too "liberated", too "bossy". You lament, "Why can't it just be like in the old days?" Never stopping to think that maybe the reason you're alone isn't because of them, but because of you. You are voluntarily alone, trapped by your own ideas of what it means to be a man.
In child care and housework most men, even the well-intentioned ones, leave the bulk of the work to their female partners. Why? Often because we don't even see the work. Don't recognize it as work. Women have been trained to pick up the pieces and keep things going.
It's no wonder I hear such dating horror stories from my female friends, and some even give up looking for a partner. It's no wonder the pregnancy forums my partner visits are filled with stories of men doing or saying the stupidest things to or about their pregnant partners. We should know better, but we've been taught not to.
What does it mean to be a man?
I've been asking myself this question for years now. Am I a man? In a world of gender fluidity, what does it mean to be a man?
I'm biologically male, and comfortable with that. I'm attracted to women, and comfortable with that too. But I've always had trouble taking on the mantle of "man". What archetypes of masculinity have I been presented with by society?
The most common one is the macho tough guy. The one that says "be a man", "don't be a pussy", "don't you dare cry", "suck it up", "don't show weakness", "be the alpha", "real men don't need help".
If you aren't that, then you're a "wuss". You're bullied into trying to match that macho image, one that doesn't fit. You forget how to feel, and you bottle up all of your anger. You forget how to be yourself, to live in your own skin, always worried someone is going to find out you're not a tough guy, that you're not good enough. Always living in fear.
We inflict this on our sons. From a very early age. They quickly learn to suppress their feelings, to hide the best of themselves away from the world. To be aggressive, less cooperative, more selfish. We ask ourselves and our sons to kill off our compassion, our ability to truly love, our caring nature. Caring and nurturing is for women, we're told. That's somehow below us.
Presented with this version of what it means to be a man, it's hard to see myself there. Do I give up on it? I don't think rejecting the label solves the problem. Clearly there's something to it, if there are so many trans-men who must have some strong idea what it means to be a man, if they're willing to risk their lives for it, given the stigma being trans still entails in most parts of society. I would love to hear some of their points of view on this.
What kind of man do I want my son to be?
One of the driving factors behind my exploration of this topic is that my partner and I are about to have our first child, a son.
When I found out, I was worried. I think a daughter would be easier. I've always been more comfortable around women, most of my friends are women, because with them I don't have to play the "male social game" that I never really learned, what Pieter Hintjens called the "male protocol", an analogy to computer network protocols. I'm always a little awkward around my male friends, I don't know how to be, and since I can't play the "game", don't want to play the "game", I usually don't connect.
I worry, how can I protect my son from this? How can I help him grow up to be something resembling the person I'm trying to become. It's gotten me thinking about what I want to see masculinity become.
What kind of man do I want my son to be?
- A man who cares deeply about the well being of those around him. His friends, his partner, his family.
- A man who isn't afraid to feel, who owns those feelings, and isn't afraid to show them.
- A man who isn't afraid to cry when he feels moved to do so.
- A man who takes responsibility and is generous with his time, shouldering the burdens of those around him, most of all his partner.
- A man who knows who he is, and isn't afraid to be that person in the world.
- A man who isn't afraid to ask for help, especially when facing mental health issue, but in general as well.
Is this really exclusive to men? Isn't this what I'd want everyone to be? Wouldn't I want the same for a daughter?
Freedom from fear
Looking at this list, I see one phrase repeated over and over again, "isn't afraid". For all of our machismo posturing, we men are filled with fear. Fear of being found out, fear of being found wanting by other men living with that exact same fear.
This fear seeps into other parts of our lives. We're afraid to ask for help when we need it because we're afraid of appearing weak. We'll talk to a car mechanic and tell them what we think the problem with the car is without having ever worked on a car in our life, but we won't tell a doctor everything they need to know about our bodies to save our own lives.
My father died last year because he was afraid to see a doctor about his symptoms until it was too late. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure", and yet we continue to pay for the pound, often times losing much more. A choice that affects not only ourselves but those around us.
We need to learn to let go of our fear, and learn to do as Oscar Wilde put it:
Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.
That's all I have to say for now. I hope this helps start a conversation. We desperately need it.