During the final semester of my graduate coursework for an MFA in creative writing, I enrolled in an elective course called Men and Masculinity. The course would be taught within the psychology department, and I was quite excited about it, as I thought it would be both personally interesting and helpful for some of the writing I was doing. On the front end, I imagined all kinds of intriguing readings and discussions examining what it is like to be a man in today’s world. Would we read, for example, Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson’s book, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys? That was just one useful resource I had come across that had been written by PhD’s; there had to be others.
Ahh, pipe dreams. Silly me for thinking there might be a course at a major university that would specifically take my sex and gender seriously. As I looked around in the class, it was full of about twenty young women and maybe three other guys, most of whom were much better-trained than I was. I knew I was in trouble on the first day of class when the professor told us that the class wouldn’t be about bashing men. In our first three class sessions, we explored many different identities, all of which were spoken about with generosity and respect. Men were the exception, of course. The underlying assumption about men seemed to be that if there was such a thing as masculinity at all, it was to be treated suspiciously. Masculinity is dangerous. Among the opinions that were shared in class, I detected almost no disagreement whatsoever. Why not at least be honest and call the course “Problems with Men and Masculinity”? Imagine for a moment the possibility of a comparative class called “Women and Femininity,” and then you show up and spend the semester criticizing women. No way that would fly (and rightly so).
I know, I know. Patriarchy and all that. We’ve got to be knocked down a few pegs. I have no desire to deny the fact that throughout history, plenty of men have abused their political, professional, economic, and physical power, often at the expense of women. I’m sure I’ve even been guilty at times. But if there has been a battle between the sexes, it hasn’t been a one-sided war. I suppose I’m waiting for the acknowledgement that there are other categories of power, often ones that are far subtler than the kinds with which masculinity becomes associated. As just a few examples, emotions, relationships, and intellect can all be used as power. Age and sexual seduction, too.
For many of the men around me, and the boys I grew up with, long before they tried to make their way in dating and sexual relationships and marriage, their mothers were the most powerful people in their lives. And especially when things aren’t going well with a husband and dad, the son could easily become the object of a mother’s abuse of power, harm which then almost certainly gets transferred into other relationships. Here’s what vulnerability and shame researcher Brene Brown wrote in her book, Daring Greatly:
I was not prepared to hear over and over from men how the women – the mother, sisters, girlfriends, wives – in their lives are constantly criticizing them for not being open and vulnerable and intimate, all the while they are standing in front of that cramped wizard closet where their men are huddled inside, adjusting the curtain and making sure no one sees in and no one gets out. There was a moment when I was driving home from an interview with a small group of men and thought, Holy shit. I am the patriarchy.
Here’s the painful pattern that emerged from my research with men: We ask them to be vulnerable, we beg them to let us in, and we plead with them to tell us when they’re afraid, but the truth is that most women can’t stomach it. In those moments when real vulnerability happens in men, most of us recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust.
If men and women are to work with and love each other well – romantically or otherwise – perhaps any sort of “giving up” of one’s power ought to come from within. In other words, I can be physically stronger than a woman and choose not to use that against her. She can be stronger relationally or even more in touch with herself sexually, and again, choose not to use that against me. Love doesn’t happen when the two parties in question are using their power to exploit the weaknesses of the other, and yet that’s precisely the cultural model I’ve learned. I suspect that a quick look at divorce, domestic violence, or adultery statistics would reveal that I’m not alone.
The solution can’t be, I don’t think, to externally strip away either sex’s power. A more imaginative response than chopping off men’s testicles might be helping them find ways to channel their strength in ways that are good for the people they love, for the communities they live in, and for themselves. For those with eyes that are willing to see, there are plenty of (flawed) men throughout history – the Abraham Lincolns, William Wilberforces, Dietrich Bonhoeffers, Martin Luther King Jr’s, and the Nelson Mandelas – who managed to hold onto their strength and use it to make the world better. But it’s almost insulting that I have to offer up these examples, as if I need to justify that there have been men who, in fact, did good things throughout history. I’m sure there are countless other “normal” men who didn’t become famous but who held onto their strength and lived well. Is it too much to ask that we consider those kind of men? Taking men seriously need not be an attack on women any more than affording women the same respect is an attack on men.
So do these concerns make me a “men’s rights activist”? While I think those groups deserve to be heard as much as anyone else, I wouldn’t necessarily loop myself into their movement. “Men’s rights” is a pretty natural move in terms of the language of identity politics, so we probably shouldn’t be all that surprised by it. And while men not getting an equitable shake in custody battles over their children, prisons being overwhelmingly full of men, dialogues in elite contexts suggesting that we should automatically believe that an accused man sexually assaulted a woman, or the fact that it’s mostly men who get shipped off to wars where they are killed or psychologically damaged for the rest of their lives all seem like valid concerns to me, I guess I still object to going in the rhetorical direction of “rights.” It’s been done enough, and at times quite usefully, but I’m suspicious of buzzwords, and I’m starting to wonder what isn’t a right. There’s a time for righteous anger and fights over injustice, but sometimes these discourses are more like a bunch of social-media whining. There are better ways to talk about these things. And if we would become less entitled, we might learn to be grateful for what we have and to work for what we don’t.
It became quite clear that if I was going to stick around in the psychology of masculinity course, it was going to be one on twenty-four most of the time. I chose to drop the course and instead pick up a theory class in which we discussed what language does in discourses about identity politics. The course was taught by a professor in his forties who wanted us to call him by his first name. I’ll call him Jeff, and he was, of all sins, an NBA fan. He dipped during his lectures and met us out for drinks afterwards. For final projects, Jeff let me write creative essays or book chapters instead of critical papers. When we got together to talk about them, it was clear that he had read my work and taken it seriously. Jeff had an interest in “engagements of style,” as he called it. He said one of the reasons the humanities loses out to the sciences is because the technological fields invest their resources in building cool stuff that we all want to play with. Why weren’t we, he wanted to know, building more, rather than merely tearing things down? The observation felt important, and I wondered what I could build rather than just participating in the shouting contest about what is wrong with the world.
In talking with a friend of mine about how I’d switched classes, we both agreed that my move out of the class was progress. An older version of myself would have entrenched, been a total martyr, argued faithfully on the behalf of men everywhere, and made all kinds of new enemies, all the while internalizing the message that there is something inherently wrong with having a penis. What a waste of energy.
Chris Schumerth is a writer who lives in Indianapolis. His writing has appeared in the Miami Herald, Salon, In the Fray, Punchnel’s, Relevant Magazine, and a number of other places. You can see read his blog at www.chrisschumerth.com or follow him on Twitter @ChrisSchumerth.