This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
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.
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.'”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.)
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.