ME(N) TOO: part 2
How Our Definitions of Masculinity Contribute to the Problem
*Trigger Warning: This article deals with the difficult subjects of sex trafficking and domestic abuse. Though it is never explicit or graphic in its language, if you are a victim of such abuse, I suggest you read this with a friend you trust, as some parts of it may be triggering. This article also contains images of above-the-waist male nudity that may be triggering for some viewers.
In the previous part of this four-part series, we explored some of the facts behind how boys and men are silently suffering from the same problems that are widely thought to be “women’s only” problems. Though they suffer in many of the same ways as women, our culture marginalizes male victims and refuses them help. In the following three parts of this series we will explore some of the root causes behind this marginalization, as well as some potential solutions and ways that each of us can help. Though there are many causes that need to be addressed, we will focus primarily on three, with an article for each: 1) the conservative and liberal definitions of masculinity that are imposed on boys from a young age, 2) the prevailing subconscious idea that male lives are less valuable and more “disposable” than female lives, and 3) the joint problem of the winning one-sided feminist narrative and the self-destructive communication of the men’s movement. In this part we will address the conservative and liberal definitions of masculinity that are imposed upon boys from a young age.
There are several things worth acknowledging before we get into this. First, many readers will disagree with at least some of the things I am about to say. That’s okay. What matters is that we agree there is a problem in need of addressing and that we decide to work together in love until we find a solution. Second and relatedly, this is only the beginning of what needs to be a much longer conversation. I value diverse perspectives and acknowledge that I will get some things wrong. Though I will state many of my claims boldly, these articles are not an attempt to make a definitive statement about what you have to agree with or else. I invite loving and constructive criticism. This is such an important issue that we should all care infinitely more about getting it right than “winning the debate.” Third, this is only an introduction to extremely complex issues, it is not an extensive account of any of those issues. In these articles, we will talk about things like masculinity, male disposability, male privilege and many other complicated topics. These articles will not give an extensive account of any of these. Again, the goal of these articles is to invite all of us into a longer and more inclusive conversation about sex and gender issues. There is a world more that needs to be said before we can reach a conclusion. I do not have the final answer. Fourth, we need to agree up front that our goal is to find the truth and agree about it. Our goal is not to find the truth. Our goal is not to agree. Our goal is to do both. This will require a lot of love, patience, forgiveness and humility from all parties involved.
Finally, since we are now delving into the realm of opinion, it is worth acknowledging up front that some (and possibly many) male victims may themselves disagree with some of what I will say—especially since these later articles will step beyond the immediate concern for male victims and into concern for other related men’s issues as well. Most of my research involved watching videos made by or about male victims, reading studies conducted on male victims, and engaging through other online resources with those who have engaged with male victims—but none of it involved me personally interviewing male victims. Some will undoubtedly critique me for this and I myself have my own qualms about it, but here is my defense. As someone who has worked for a magazine and conducted several interviews in that and other positions, I have learned that the most loving thing you can ever do before interviewing someone is prepare. You learn as much as you possibly can about them, their experience, their work and whatever else is relevant so that you can develop the best questions and hopefully make them even feel like they are getting something out of it. These articles are my way of preparing (and hopefully of helping you prepare too). Like I said above, these articles are the first step, not the last—and talking with victims will be the essential second. I am not ever, in any of these, claiming to have the last word. Nor am I trying to start a movement—with riots, marches and all—without the consent of those for whom these articles were written. I am simply trying to start a much needed conversation that will not be over when the fourth article is published. These articles are also a way to hopefully reach male victims—to tell them (to tell you) that if nobody else cares, I do. I want to hear your stories and I want to support you in whatever ways I can. So this is, in large part, a way for me to actually find people to interview.
With that, I think it is safe to begin.
Masculine: Survival of the Fittest
Do you think that Hollywood, advertising and the media objectify and stereotype women? If you do, you are not alone. I do too. But do you think that Hollywood, advertising and the media only objectify and stereotype women? If you do, again, you are not alone — but you are wrong.
As someone who is technically underweight, who has more female friends than male friends and who many would describe as more “feminine” — I can tell you, not only from observation, but from personal experience that men are objectified and stereotyped just like women. Our objectification and “stereotypization” just looks different.
Have you ever google image searched “masculine?” What about “male?” If you do, here’s what you’ll find:
To put it simply, if you google either masculine or male, you won’t find me. If google images was the dictionary — I would not qualify as either “masculine” or “male.” In fact, if you google the definition of the word “masculine,” I am definitely not masculine. Google defines “masculine” as “having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with men, especially strength and aggressiveness.” I am neither physically strong, nor am I especially aggressive. So… by this definition, I am not masculine. But I am biologically male. There is thus a disconnect between what I am biologically, and what a large portion of America (and the world) says I should be behaviorally or physically.
A real man, in the eyes of many in our culture, is one who is physically strong, successful (especially monetarily), attractive, brave and tough. If you are not these things—or worse, if you are the opposite—then you will be viewed as less of a man, not a man at all, or gay.
Though most of us do not hold this view to the extreme extent I’m presenting here, most of us do hold it to some extent. Think about what comes to your mind when you think man or masculine. Think about the people you assume are gay (which is not the equivalent of “unmasculine,” though many believe it is). What do they look like? What do they talk like? Think about someone like me (skinny, with a more high pitched voice and probably a pink scarf) next to Chris Hemsworth and ask yourself who you view as being more of a man. Though most of us like to think that we do not hold this stereotype, the reality is most of us do to at least some extent.
In my experience, it has been mostly conservatives (though by no means all conservatives) who hold this stereotype as the only or best expression of masculinity. In my experience, it has primarily been conservatives who express the “man up,” “be a man,” “you fight like a girl,” “don’t be pussy,” “no homo” mentality. [On the other hand, it has been mostly liberals (though by no means all liberals) who, though they are more open to the more “feminine” expressions of masculinity, are excessively hostile to the more manly man expressions of masculinity. Anything that even slightly resembles it is labeled as “toxic.” More on the more liberal view in the next section.]
It is also worth noting that this macho-man stereotype is the most prominent in advertising and TV. Think Old Spice. Think Carl’s Jr. Think pretty much any advertisement geared toward men. They sell by saying, “If you buy this product you’ll look like me—strong, sexy, shirtless, confident, with a truck, a beer and a girl.” Oh and better yet, if you are not all this, then surely you must be gay or a nerd.
But what is the problem with this? If this is a stereotype, at least it is a positive stereotype, unlike the negative stereotypes women have to deal with, right? At least men get to be portrayed as strong and confident, whereas women are portrayed as weak and submissive, right? Wrong. A stereotype is a stereotype, and it is going to hurt someone no matter what.
If the stereotype for men is that they are strong and capable of defending themselves, then this stereotype is going to do a whole lot of damage to those men who are neither strong nor capable of defending themselves.
The reality is, this strong-male stereotype reinforces the oppressive idea that men cannot be victims of domestic violence or sex trafficking. If everyone thinks that men are tough enough to defend themselves and that only women are abused, then who is going to believe the male victim who comes out? Or how are we going to recognize the warning signs for the male victim who does not come out? This strong-male stereotype also reinforces shame for those who do suffer from these things because it communicates the message that if you cannot defend yourself against a woman (or another man) then you must not be a “real” man. Ironically, however, we also raise our sons by constantly telling them “don’t hit girls.” Thus, even if they were to hit back, they would be “girl-hitters.” Men who are victims of female violence are thus trapped between being shamed as wimps for not defending themselves or being vilified as (and potentially imprisoned for being) girl-hitters if they do defend themselves. If you don’t think that raising our sons not to hit girls while not raising our daughters not to hit boys is really that big of a problem, watch the following video. It’s huge.
It’s no wonder male victims are less likely to report abuse than female victims. Who would help them anyway?
In the short film Same Risk, Different Gender (posted at the end of Part 1), 15-year-old Connor describes how this “manly man” masculinity stereotype was the biggest reason he remained a victim for as long as he did. His parents did not believe that he could be a victim because he’s male and all males are tough. Meanwhile, if he came out, he’d be viewed as less of a man because so many people in our culture have equated toughness with maleness. Like many other boys, he was trapped.
If you still don’t believe me that holding this restricted view of masculinity is a problem, if you are still inclined to think that men should be tough enough to not be victims, or if you still want to say that male victims of domestic violence are wimps—watch the following video. Warning: if you have experienced domestic violence or if the sight of blood and severe injuries will be triggering to you, do not watch this video. It contains countless graphic and bloody images and descriptions of the injuries this victim suffered.
Frankly, I’m not sorry to be blunt: If you could sit at a table across from this man and tell him that he should have been tougher, that he is not a real man, that he is less of a man, or that he is a wimp—then something is severely wrong with you.
Here’s the reality: everyone is weak enough to be abused by someone. And almost everyone is strong enough to abuse someone else. Being abused does not make you any less of a man.
No matter what your definition of “masculinity” is, it is never permissible to shame, degrade or vilify a man who has been abused. This is like calling a woman who has been sexually abused “used goods.” Similarly, if a man is not tough enough to defend himself, this does not make it any more permissible for the abuser to abuse him. If a woman who dresses immodestly isn’t “asking for it,” then a man who is weak isn’t asking for it either. We should help those who are being hurt no matter who they are, no matter what their sex, and no matter anything else about them.
This vision of masculinity—this strong-male, every man is tough enough to defend himself stereotype—is exceedingly dangerous. Not every man is tough enough to defend himself and we should do everything we can to help male victims no matter their score on a tough-o-meter. Toughness is a virtue—it is something to be encouraged and striven after—but weakness is not so much of a vice that we should shame and gawk at those who are being abused. We must reject the sweeping stereotype that all men are strong enough to defend themselves and that those who are not are not “real men.” We need to redefine masculinity, but some redefinitions take things too far…
“Toxic”: The Opposite Problem
One re-definition of masculinity that is growing in popularity — particularly among liberals and the left — involves a whole-hearted rejection of the tough manly-man vision of masculinity and labels anything that even slightly resembles it as “toxic.” This re-definition only accepts the “Newt Scamander” type of male: the male who is gentle, shy, nurturing, physically weak and all around more stereotypically “feminine.” The problem is, this re-definition is just as damaging and dangerous as the definition of masculinity that it is trying to correct.
Stereotypes — damaging as they are — are typically stereotypes for reasons. The reality is, most men are aggressive and most men do value the more “masculine” virtues of strength, bravery and toughness. And that is okay. Though some of this is certainly socially-created, some of it is undeniably biological. Even Time magazine’s very liberal and very feminist The Science of Gender issue could not help but acknowledge that most men (though certainly not all men) are more aggressive than women for purely biological and hormonal reasons.
Aggression is not always a bad thing—it is neutral, and only becomes bad when it is misdirected. Though liberals and the left tend to argue (and not without reason) that male aggression is dangerous and evil—where would we be without it? The answer: Undeniably dead. Though I take issue with much of PragerU’s content, they have an excellent video that makes this apparent:
Manly-man men are not the problem. The problem is the sweeping view that all men are or should be “manly” and that if they are not then they are not “real men.” Furthermore, the problem is not manly-man men, but rather, immature and misguided manly-man men. The desire that most men have for these “manly” virtues is God-given. It is biological. It is good. And because most men have it, to reject it as evil is actually to do more damage to men as a whole than adopting the original stereotype. Ironically, this solution only makes things worse.
So it’s time for something that might initially seem like a diversion—but I promise it will come back around.
One way this solution harms boys (and everyone else) is in the area of education. Because the traditional view of masculinity is being so whole-heartedly rejected as “toxic” and evil by so many people (especially left-leaning academics), education is being “feminized.” Boys are dropping out of high school at record rates because so many of them are not able to express their God-given boyishness without punishment. Boys are also attending college at a significantly lower rate than girls, and it’s only getting lower. According to Stanford University,
For the current graduating class of 2013, the Department of Education estimates that women will earn 61.6% of all associate’s degrees this year, 56.7% of all bachelor’s degrees, 59.9% of all master’s degrees, and 51.6% of all doctor’s degrees. Overall, 140 women will graduate with a college degree at some level this year for every 100 men. [This is for all American universities, not just Stanford.]
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), approximately 11.3 million students enrolled for college in 2019 were female—only 8.6 were male.
At Biola University, in the 2019–2020 academic year, there were 9 male undergraduate students to every 16 female undergraduate students (that’s essentially 1 to 2). In my incoming freshmen class, the ratio in the Torrey Honors Institute was even more extreme: 90 girls and 30 boys. In most of my English classes, there is anywhere from 15 to 25 students, and without fail I am either the only boy in the class or one of only two or three. This is how it is at almost every university across the nation. (And yet we still think that giving scholarships specifically for boys would be sexist, while at the same time, we give out hundreds of scholarships that are exclusively for girls in the name of “diversity.”)
PragerU has another video that sums up this problem quite accurately (though I still quibble with some of their points):
To be blunt yet again, there is a reason why every school shooter is male. Education is increasingly anti-male and is screwing males over from the time they turn 5. But here is where the diversion comes back around: Suppressing natural aggression does not create fewer victims — it creates way more. When we teach our boys to suppress their God-given aggression, rather than direct it toward the right things, they will inevitably grow up to direct it toward the wrong things. Aggression can be used to protect women; but it can also be used to hurt them. Aggression can be used to save other boys and build them up; but it can also be used to abuse them. Aggression can be used to protect a nation against external (and internal) threats; but it can also tear a nation apart from the inside. It all depends on where the aggression is directed. When we raise our boys to suppress their natural aggression—we are raising our boys to become truly toxic abusers. Instead of suppressing a boy’s natural aggression we should teach him to direct it toward the right things. In other words, to use it virtuously — to help people rather than harm them.
Most boys want to be providers and leaders. Most boys are more aggressive than most girls. Though “toxic masculinity” is a thing, this is not it (and, for the record, some feminists will agree with me on this). We should not punish boys for these God-given qualities. If women can be whatever they want, then boys should have that freedom too. When we take that freedom away, we increase the number of victims of every sex and gender.
Despite the ways this phrase has been abused, there is an extent to which we really do need to “let boys be boys.”
Conclusion: Where Do We Go From Here?
So, where do we go from here? If we should reject both the more conservative and the more liberal visions of masculinity, what vision should we adopt? How do we start changing the cultural perception that men cannot be victims? How do we free male victims from feeling shame about coming out?
These are all very difficult questions and we have a lot more work to do before we’ll find all the right answers. For now, though, here are the directions I would like to suggest:
- We need to accept and promote the idea that the only qualification for being a “real” man or woman is your biology as male or female. Cultural expectations and gender roles have nothing to do with it.
- We need to accept a more broad range of masculinities as equally legitimate. So long as something can be done worshipfully (or virtuously) and a male human being is doing it, it counts as a legitimate expression of masculinity.
- We should raise our sons to be good—not “masculine.”
- We need to stop stereotyping men who do not fit neatly into our definitions of what men should be.
- We need to find ways to promote the virtue of toughness without shaming victims of abuse.
- We need to raise awareness about the facts of male victims of all types of violence, so that male victims feel more empowered to open up. We need to normalize the idea that men can be victims of domestic abuse, sex trafficking, et cetera.
- We need to raise our children, regardless of their sex, to not hit each other unless they are defending themselves. We need to rid ourselves of the notion that it is somehow worse for a boy to hit a girl than it is for a girl to hit a boy. It is wrong for anyone to hit anyone.
- We need to teach our sons (and daughters) to direct their natural aggression toward the right things—to use aggression virtuously rather than viciously.
- We need to find ways to make education at all levels, less anti-male. (We need to do this in other institutions as well.)
- We need to do what we can (obviously with due caution) to help male victims of violence whenever we see it, wherever we are.
There is a lot more that could be said on the subject of masculinity and maleness, but I think this is enough get the conversation rolling in a good direction.
In Part 3 of this series, we will take the ideas in this article even further and into increasingly controversial territory as we explore the ways in which male disposability contributes to the marginalization of male victims of domestic abuse and sex trafficking. In other words, we will begin exploring the sketchy possibility that, as a society, we might value women more than we value men…