This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
So what are some ways that sexism hurts men?
Other than the ones I talked about already, I mean?
I recently wrote a piece, Five Stupid, Unfair and Sexist Things Expected of Men, about how sexism damages men as well as women, and how men as well as women get pressured to fit into narrow, rigid, impossibly self-contradictory gender roles. I argued that people who care about feminism ought to care about how sexist gender roles hurt men: partly because we’re human beings, with a sense of justice and compassion for one another regardless of gender, and partly because the cause of feminism can only be helped by convincing more men that it’ll be good for them, too.
Many people, including many men, responded positively and passionately to the piece. They saw themselves in the piece all too well. They appreciated having their experience recognized and — dare I say it? — validated. They hoped the conversation would bring these issues into the light, and lighten the burden of these expectations on them and on other men. Of all the complaints I got about the piece, one of the most common was that the five gender roles I picked were just the tip of the iceberg.
So today, I’m following up.
Here are five more ways that men in my life have told me they feel screwed over by sexism: five more rigid, narrow definitions of maleness that men feel pressured to contort themselves into.
Make money. When I asked the men in my life what (if anything) they felt was expected of them as men, this one came up ridiculously often. A huge part of how we define maleness lies in men’s bank accounts. Even today, when women’s income is on the rise and the two-income household is becoming standard, men are expected to rake in the bucks: to be wealthy if at all possible, to be a good provider for their families at the bare minimum. Failure to do so catapults men directly into the Girly Man camp. Witness, among other things. this charming article in the New York Observer, exploring the phenomenon of stay- at- home dads… and arguing that the popularity among women of the successful, sexist jerk Don Draper from “Mad Men” somehow proves how dissatisfying it is when men don’t bring home the bacon, and instead stay home and fry it up in a pan.
In my conversations with men, this particular role came up a lot — and it seemed to hit a particular nerve. Mike got the memo loud and clear: “Earn money, or be independently wealthy. In ‘standard’ society, a woman should be beautiful, and a man should be rich.” As did Michael: “To be a man,” he learned, “you must have money and material possessions,” and he referred to the role of “Mr. Money Bags (hides behind materialism).” Craig agreed: “My parents disapproved of my major choice (German Linguistics) because it didn’t have enough earning potential — especially for a man who has to provide for a large Mormon family. My dad is a doctor, so he chose a good, manly profession, unlike the liberal arts.”
And whatever money men do bring in, it bloody well better be more than the women in their life. Whether they’re rich CEOs or blue-collar Joes or comfy middle-class guys in between, making less money than their wives or girlfriends makes their masculinity suspect at best. Christopher quoted helpful comments from his friends about his life choices: “‘Oh, dude, your girlfriend makes three times what you do? Aww, that sucks.'”
This particular gender role ties men into some uniquely convoluted knots. On the one hand, a man is supposed to be independent, to pursue his own vision and forge his own path. And yet, if he chooses a path that isn’t paved with gold, if he chooses job satisfaction or a happy home life over financial gain, it somehow magically makes his penis wither and die.And of course, this particular role often conflicts with other male gender roles, creating an impossible bind in which men, no matter what they do, will never be able to meet their expectations. (A pattern we see a lot with these roles.) David spoke of how working to get a Ph.D. — which would help him, among other things, achieve the manly goal of higher status — was creating financial hardship, and was therefore making him feel less like a man. He said he felt pressure about this from his in-laws, “who would value work-money now and have something of a ‘you’re still in college?’ mindset.” And he added, “Undoubtedly, this cash crisis, however short-term, has left me feeling emasculated.”
Weird. You’d think that the willingness to sacrifice short-term pleasures for long-term goals would be admired and celebrated — especially in men, who are expected to be the primary long-term breadwinners for their families. And it is admired and celebrated. At the exact same time that it’s being undercut.
Win, win, win! And no matter how much money you earn, it had better be more than anyone else. Because whatever you do, it had better be better than anyone else. The pressure on men to compete — to win, and perhaps more importantly to care about winning — can be intense. To be acceptably masculine, men are supposed to care passionately about their position on the primate hierarchy chain. And about other men’s positions on said chain. Even not being interested in competitive sports is often greeted with bafflement at best and derision at worst.
Among the men I spoke with, this particular subject inspired both eloquence and passion. Here’s what Kyle said: “If there is one thing to remember about being a ‘man’ or male culture, it’s that it’s hierarchical. Men live in a hierarchical world. It’s all about who’s the top dog, who’s the best, who’s the strongest, etc. Don’t get me wrong — I can be quite competitive myself, and I firmly believe that competition makes people stronger, better, etc. However, I also believe that the male ego is responsible for at least 90% of the wars that have ever been fought in human history (along with religion of course, lol). So do I think men are given narrow expectations? Yes. To win. Winning and being #1 is the definitive aspect of male culture. As George Carlin put it, it’s ‘dick fear.'”
Michael agreed, and defined the male role thusly: “To be a man you must have titles, positions and power.” Mike concurs: “Be a patriarch of some sort. This doesn’t necessarily mean a father of children, it could just as easily mean be the head of a department at work, or the chairman of the board of a non-profit. There’s something about ambition in this one, I think.” And Craig says that, when he was growing up, he wasn’t allowed “to hate sports, competition, violence and hierarchical structures.” Even if you aren’t a winner at these games, you still have to care about them. Stepping off the ladder isn’t an option.
And Leo made an interesting point about this — namely, that the hierarchical world of male dominance and competitiveness only benefits a handful of men at the top. “A misconception about men,” he said, “is that it is thought that we have all the advantages, all the privileges, that it’s a man’s world, that we thrive in this environment of male dominance and competition. It’s a man’s world, yes, but only for the select few, for the alpha males at the top of the heap. What is not fully appreciated is that it’s not all men who dominate society, but only the small alpha-male subset. In reality, the rest of us, 99% of the females and 95% of the males, are subservient to the 2-3% of the population that call all the shots… Unless you are an independent professional or the lead dog in a corporation, you will spend 20, 30, 40 years of your career taking orders from someone who can terminate your job, end your career and force your family into bankruptcy at a moment’s notice, needing no reason or justification, whether it’s your fault or not.”
So, unless you’re one of the 2-3% of men at the top, you’re never going to win the game.
But you bloody well better care about it anyway.
If you don’t, your penis might fall off.
Be physically strong. This is an obvious one: so obvious that it almost seems ridiculous to mention it. One of the most common expectations of men is that they be physically powerful: big, strong, muscular, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. We see this one everywhere: it’s in TV, it’s in movies, it’s in video games, it’s all over advertising like a cheap suit. It’s tied in with competitiveness, of course — but it’s also very much its own thing. And lots of men that I talked with about gender roles brought it up. Even gay men, who on the whole seem to feel a lot more free of these gender expectations than straight men, have a decided tendency to buy into the Big Strong Man myth. For themselves, and their objects of desire.
And yet, this is a funny one. Because it’s one that men have only a limited degree of control over. Sure, you can work out and buff yourself up to some degree. But if your natural build is small and slight, you’re not going to turn yourself into Vin Diesel no matter how hard you try. It’s deeply weird to have a male gender expectation that’s not only rigid and narrow, but literally unachievable for a large portion of the male population. It’s deeply weird to make men feel like losers for losing a game that’s rigged from the start. It reminds me of what Mike said about height: “Men are supposed to be tall and intimidating — being a short man is akin to not being very manly at all.” What the hell are you supposed to do about that? Take growth hormones? Stretch yourself on the rack?
Fix stuff. Well, I guess one thing you could do about it is to fix a flat tire. Or fix the broken door on the cabinet. Or fix the glitch on the computer that won’t let you download mpegs. Men in our culture are expected to have some sort of inborn ability to fix just about any physical object that’s broken. Mike, among others, learned from a very young age that being a man meant being “intrinsically able to fix things, especially mechanical things.”
This one creates an interesting self-fulfilling prophecy. From a young age, boys are commonly expected to tinker with mechanical objects — and they’re taught how to do it, at the side of their dads or older brothers or other men who are tinkering and fixing. And since they’re more likely to be taught how to do it, they’re more likely to know how to do it. And since they’re more likely to know how to do it, they’re the ones people turn to do it. Which reinforces the idea that men are better at it than women… and reinforces the expectation on boys and men that they bloody well better know how to do it if they don’t want people to think they’re sissies.
Get it up. If you have any doubts about this one, check your spam filter. Legions of businesses, legitimate and otherwise, are making themselves stinking rich off men’s insecurities about their hard-ons. Lots of the men I talked with mentioned about this expectation, but nobody put it more succinctly than Christopher: “You have failed as a man if you do not or cannot give your partner a complete erection for a minimum of twenty minutes before you orgasm.”
Like I said in Part One of this piece: Being a man in American culture means taking care of women — sexually and otherwise. (While at the same time not being “pussywhipped” and caring too much what women think of you. Oy.) What makes this expectation more frustrating is that that this sexual caretaking is supposed to be accomplished with a penis, and nothing else. A penis that can get hard at a moment’s notice, and stay hard for as long as needed. If you can get a woman off with your hand or your mouth, with a vibrator or a dildo, with nipple clamps or a whip (for her or for you), with nothing at all but your voice in her ear… well, that’s very nice for you. Yes, foreplay is lovely. Very important. So have you gotten it up yet? No? Pussy.
Feminists talk a lot about the privileging of penile- vaginal intercourse. We talk a lot about how the word “foreplay” is misleading at best and sexist at worst. We talk a lot about how most women can’t come from penetration alone, and how treating non- intercourse forms of sex as simply a preamble — not even sex at all, really — trivializes female pleasure.
What we don’t talk about as much is how this assumption trivializes male pleasure. We don’t talk about the pressure it puts on men to “perform” — pressure that, ironically, can make said “performance” more problematic. And we don’t talk as much about the ridiculous limitations it puts on male sexuality. We don’t talk as much about how enjoying full-body sensuality, nipples and ears and toes and hair and the huge range of sexual pleasures available to all human beings, is typically seen as girly. We don’t talk as much about how men who like receiving anal sex are widely assumed to be gay… even if the people they like receiving anal sex from are consistently women. And we don’t talk as much about how this assumption reduces men’s pleasure, their possibilities, their entire sexual beings, to a few inches of erectile tissue between their legs.
So is it ridiculous to even be talking about this?
Is it silly and self-deluded for feminists to talk about the ways that gender roles are constructed? Isn’t gender- specific behavior something we’re born with, part of our hard- wiring as animals? Isn’t griping about it akin to salmon griping about the fact that they swim upstream to spawn?
You might be surprised to hear this, but I don’t entirely disagree with this. Largely… but not entirely. I actually think it’s very likely that at least some degree of gender-specific behavior is inborn. After all, it is in most other animals; it would be very surprising indeed if it weren’t in human beings.
And these are some very important Buts.
First: If there are inborn behavioral differences between women and men, they’re not clear-cut. It’s not like all women fall into Box A and all men fall into Box B. It’s more like overlapping bell curves. On a scale of one to ten, men’s bell curve for (say) competitiveness might peak at six, and women’s might peak at four… but there are still oodles of women who are higher than five, and oodles of men who are lower. (Speaking for myself, I once took a “Do you have a male or a female brain?” test, and scored significantly more male-brained than female — 25% on the male side of neutral.) On average, men may be genetically predisposed to be more competitive than women — but that doesn’t tell you anything about any one particular man or woman, and how likely they are to whip your ass at Scrabble.
And in fact, this isn’t just one pair of overlapping bell curves. It’s several. Gender is complex, and gender- differentiated behavior comes in a wide assortment of flavors: a tendency to be competitive, a tendency to be co-operative, physical aggression, verbal communication skills, spatial reasoning, the ability to recognize emotions from facial expressions, making decisions rationally versus intuitively, etc. And again, while on average, women and men’s bell curves peak at different places on all these spectrums, any given man or woman is very likely to score more typically male in some areas, and more typically female in others. (On my own “Male or female brain?” test, I scored male in my spatial relation ability, female in my verbal ability, and neutral on some other scales that I can’t remember now.)
The simple fact that plenty of men and women don’t fall into these gender categories, and complain about the fact that we’re expected to, should be proof enough of this. If we were all born into genetically determined gendered categories, with all women being co-operative and communicative and all men being aggressive and competitive… we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Any more than salmon have conversations about the rigid and narrow social expectations they feel about swimming upstream to spawn.
Second: The “nature or nurture?” question doesn’t have to be a simple Either/Or. It’s entirely possible that the real answer is “Both.” In fact, I think it’s likely. I do think some degree of gender- differentiated behavior is probably genetic — again, it is for every other animal I know of, it would be surprising in the extreme if Homo Sapiens was the sole exception. But we also know — and I don’t mean that we think, I mean that we know, as well as we know anything — that gender roles are also taught, and learned. Ask any butch dyke who was pressured to wear dresses when she was little. Or any sensitive arty guy who was pressured to be a fullback. The training starts from birth, in fact: I’ve seen research showing that people treat infants they think are female differently from infants they think are male… in ways they’re unconscious of and will even deny, but that are unmistakable to an outside observer.
So even if there is a genetic component to gendered behavior — which again, I agree is very likely — that doesn’t mean that there isn’t also a social component as well. There clearly is.
And even if there is a genetic component to gendered behavior, it clearly shows up as averages, overlapping bell curves rather than clearly defined categories. There are clearly large numbers of men, and women, whose natural personalities and abilities fall well outside the gender norms.
And we are all too aware of the intense social pressure on us to fall right back into those norms.
And we’re sick of it.
And we’re bloody well going to speak up about it.
Thanks to Adam, Alan, Andrew, Ben, Other Ben, Chad, Christopher, Craig, Crypt, Damion, Darren, David, Other David, Still Other David, Yet Still Another David, And Yet One More David, Dean, Georges, Glendon, Jacob, James, Other James, Jason, Jeff, Joel, jraoul, Kyle, Lauro, Lenny, Leo, Mark, Other Mark, Michael, Other Michael, Still Other Michael, Rick, Scott, Other Scott, Still Other Scott, Sean, Anonymous, and everyone else I talked with, for their invaluable help with this piece.