Men Must Be Needed Because We Can’t Be Wanted

ClarkKentNeeded

We believe we have to be the heroes only because we can’t yet see other roles for ourselves.

Running an online magazine about masculinity, I’ve come to observe a curious phenomenon. When we post about male rape victims or the enforcement of masculine gender roles, we get plenty of interesting comments. But when we post about Nice Guy Syndrome and other issues around men who feel sexually unwanted, our comments blow up like they were directed by Michael Bay. This is an issue that touches men deeply and damagingly, and ties in with a lot of pain that, hegemonic masculinity being what it is, usually doesn’t get talked about.

Others, such as Hugo Schwyzer, have written about how straight men don’t feel sexually desired, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s hard to overestimate just how deep this idea goes. It feeds into a phenomenon a lot of guys have experienced, a phenomenon based on weird broken ideas about gender roles, ideas so deeply rooted in the subconscious that most men aren’t even aware that they’ve got them.

The core issue is this: many, many men in our society feel they have to be needed, because they can’t imagine they could ever be wanted.

Being needed can take different forms, all of which resemble traditional male roles. Brave protector against danger. Breadwinning economic provider. Indispensable handyman. Problem-solving leader. We get any more macho stereotypes in here, it’s gonna look like a Village People reunion. This is what being masculine means in our culture: to be necessary.

Plan A, for men in our society, is to be necessary, to be needed, to be indispensable. There is no plan B.

One of the most common complaints about feminism, all the way back to the First Wave, is that feminism seeks to make men obsolete or unnecessary. “If women can [fill in anything about female agency] what will they need men for?” runs the line, in every decade, in response to every advance. And while nobody is arguing that that’s a legitimate criticism, it’s important to understand that it arises out of a real fear. Look at the key word in that sentence, need. It’s always the same concept, however that objection is phrased. Plan A, for men in our society, is to be necessary, to be needed, to be indispensable. There is no plan B. If plan A doesn’t come off, we are lost, we’re adrift, we have nothing. This is an existential fear, on a very deep level.

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There’s a common observation among those who, like myself, have worked in senior citizen care homes. It’s related to why the population of those homes skews heavily female, to why men die younger than women. Over and over, again and again, those who are around senior citizens have to deal with retired men who, no longer working and no longer earning money, don’t know why they’re still alive. They don’t know who they are or why they bother to continue drawing breath, if they’re no longer needed for something important. Some of them find something else to define themselves, some new project or internal source of worth. Others just give up and let the next swell of ill health carry them overboard.

We’re at a place, culturally and economically, where many of the traditional sources of necessity for men have evaporated, or at least been drastically downsized.

The “crisis of masculinity” that many people are currently wringing their hands over, the “mancession” involving men’s employment dropping slightly faster than women’s, the cultural yearning for an imagined past when men bestrode the world like gray-suited colossi, building and making and innovating Important Things… same problem. We’re at a place, culturally and economically, where many of the traditional sources of necessity for men have evaporated, or at least been drastically downsized. We don’t need to have 25% of the population growing food any more, we can do it with 2%. Women don’t need men to provide for them any more, education and career opportunities have opened up. All this would be fine, if there were any plan B.

It’s a well-worn observation that media is the first place to look for enforcement of societal norms. A quick glance at our culture’s media demonstrates that it endlessly reinforces the notion of male necessity. On a surface level, there’s the fact that with fictional heroes remaining overwhelmingly white males, if a guy doesn’t show up, there’s no story at all. That’s a nice form of necessity. Deeper than that, though, there’s the structure of every “romantic” subplot in every movie that has a character who can be accurately described as The Girl. Every action movie, every sci-fi epic, all the movies that are stereotypically written off as male power fantasies, all have the same way that the hero gets the girl: he proves his necessity, usually by saving her life. If he weren’t there, she’d literally be dead.

Interestingly, the romantic movies often stereotyped as female fantasies do not generally have this dynamic. Oddly, however, even those rarely focus on the male lead as the object of desire; the female gaze is commonly absent from these stories. Instead the heroine tends to be the object, and the hero prevails by demonstrating that his desire for her is the biggest and most special and pure and so on. Not even in the realm of “chick flicks” about the joys of heterosexual pair-bonding are men seen as desired, as wanted.

I’m not speaking in the abstract here; when this wanted/needed dichotomy was first pointed out to me, I felt a deep and embarrassed pang of recognition. I myself like it when I can rescue my girlfriends, when I can save the day or handle the problem or otherwise demonstrate my irrefutable necessity. I like feeling needed because even for me, even with all my ever-so-educated awareness of gender roles and stereotypes, even with all the women who’ve told me I’m sexy and desirable, I still can’t quite convince myself that I’m wanted. Even if I am, being wanted can only be a nebulous and fleeting state. Being needed, now, that’s solid. That’s a reason to keep going.

It is downright incredible how resistant to empirical data the sense of being unwantable is. It took many years and girlfriends before I began to suspect that every women who slept with me might not be humoring me out of pity. Even then, and to this day, I feel more secure in relationships when I can provide a measurable and necessary form of value other than just my own charms, whatever those might be. Girlfriend needs a ride to the airport? I’m on it! Needs a ride to the hospital? Even better! The rare occasions where I can help out with covering bills when she’s short on rent (most of the women I’ve loved make more money than a starving writer, it turns out) are even better, because I am Providing For My Woman, and I feel the warm glow of centuries of hegemonic masculinity validating me.

Let me be clear: I know this is stupid. I know it’s asinine social programming and that these women consider me sexually and emotionally desirable. But there’s a difference between knowing that and believing it. And for guys who haven’t got a girlfriend, who feel the bitter sting of active rejection or the endless cold of passive rejection, who yearn for love and sex and the touch of another hand… what can they possibly believe about being wanted?

The fact is, as I’ve learned during prolonged periods of loneliness myself, when a a lifetime of “Ewwww, gross, naked guy!” jokes combine with stretches of personal rejection, it’s easy to feel neither wanted nor needed. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have a job where your particular abilities are necessary, so that’s a form of being needed, one you can throw yourself into, but it’s not the same as being needed by another person. Being wanted by another person, at that point, has disappeared over the horizon, into an unmarked area of the map labeled HERE BE UNICORNS THAT DISPENSE FREE MONEY.

It’s easy to get bitter when you feel unwanted, and so this unfortunate confluence of forces has left our culture littered with embittered men who get very upset about what they can’t help but perceive as their own failure. It’s easy to dismiss them as angry losers or some other convenient pejorative, but I’ve walked a few too many miles in their shoes to call their pain baseless. I don’t pretend to have a solution, but the least we can do is begin to correctly identify the problem.

Photo—daspader/Flickr

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About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is an Editor-at-Large at Good Men Project, and possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.

Comments

  1. Dead on brilliant. Seems like I’ve been trying to say this exact thing in so many ways that don’t get to the point: a point which to me was blurry and undefined. I’ve known and seen many guys who seem to defy this phenomenon, but I have a feeling whenever I see it, that unless they’re some famous sexual icon of masculinity themselves, then it’s just a front.

  2. Nienke-Fleur says:

    The first thing that’d come to my mind is,
    “get a plan B”, of course, that’s easier said, than done,
    what if you just keep in mind that a woman might need you for emotional support, love, someone to talk to, someone she can trust, then being Mr. Nice-guy makes you needed, in these times – where women can provide themselves with most of the things they need – a man who wants to feel needed, should try to find the things that women still can’t do on their own: They need someone to be able to talk to, who supports them, loves them, someone they can trust, intimacy is also something you simply cannot get on your own, and although she could get sperm from a donor, I think the majority of women would rather have her children come from a man they know and care about, and if a woman works more outside of the house, she’ll have less time for things she would otherwise do, such as cooking, cleaning and parenting
    men shouldn’t try to stop women who are more independent, and should instead use it to their advantage, by using the things women still need, or by using the things women start needing if they work more outside of the house

  3. I’m not a man so I can’t speak from personal experience, but from what I’ve seen a lot of men feel this way about being needed/not wanted and it’s one of the key concerns of masculinity, that is, defining what it means to be a man.
    What I can speak to is my frustration at the lack of female gaze in film/media… we seriously need more scantily-clad hot dudes on screen! This may in part be due to the fact that the film industry – specifically directing and writing for film – is still a very male dominated field, but given how much of their viewership is female they probably should think about a few more ab-shots.
    I’ve noticed men usually don’t mind it when I oggle them… or whistle, or make pervy comments, or giggle and whisper to my friends.

  4. Sean Lawrence says:

    The article has a lot of value, but I’d disagree with its approach, which I’d qualify as more or less sociological, deploying terms borrowed from culture and media criticism, and to a lesser extent psychological, diagnosing anxieties.

    Allow me to suggest that we should look at this from a more philosophical point of view, treating the ideas of heroism or niceness as real ideas, worthy of intellectual consideration, not as mere ideology only worthy of deconstruction. Such an approach to our problems is endemic to our culture — anything we need to explain, we explain in the sorts of terms you use. The answer comes about too quickly, almost glibly, and doesn’t, I think, provide much of a model of how we go through life.

    I’d propose starting with what Paul Ricoeur said in his acceptance speech for the Kluge Prize, the so-called Nobel of Religious Studies. We inhabit our selves, he argues, by knowing what we can do, by our attestation of our capacities. (Ricoeur elsewhere links this to the capabilities approach of international development theory). “The certainty of being able to do something is private. To be sure.” Each capacity nevertheless “requires a vis-à-vis.”

    Hence the problem with men and retirement: they lose the daily affirmation of their abilities. These include their specific work-skills, of course, but also the basic capacities that orient us within the world. Even men who adopt hobbies often find them trivialized by those around them. The dream of being a hero is not only a desire for power — superpowers, in fact — but more basically for recognition of our capacities, a recognition of ourselves. In fact, status of hero seems to require recognition, unlike, say, the status of a saint.

    The frustration of men today arises, I would argue, from a lack of recognition of our capacities. When a man becomes passionate about his work, many people will assume that he’s just fulfilling the socially-mandated role of a provider, rather than recognizing that work is our very being-in-the-world, whether or not it’s paid. Even physical courage is dismissed as a sort of soulless pursuit of a socially-mandated goal. National Geographic ran an article on Arctic adventurers a few years ago, and was bombarded by letters expressing scorn for their “selfishness.” I run marathons (badly) and keep being asked why I “enjoy” them, as though they were a trivial amusement. How many men have their gyms or studies dismissed as “man caves”, as though whatever they pour their passions into merely qualifies them as neanderthals?

    In fact, I should even argue that you contribute to the problem, dismissing the capacities by which one constitutes a self as mere enslavement to arbitrary and destructive cultural forces.

    • “The frustration of men today arises, I would argue, from a lack of recognition of our capacities”.

      Good hypothesis.

      From the ‘silent types’ who weren’t talked to as kids and ended up monosyllabic to parents who don’t step in when two boys fight because ‘boys will be boys’ – the negative attributes feel like a self fulfilling prophesy from the outset.

      I often feel that the things I’m good at aren’t worth a damn and that the things I enjoy are simply narcissistic. Nobody else does it to me, it’s inside. If I tile a roof though, or bring in a boatload of cash then that’s okay. What I do best is fatherhood, talking, writing, presenting, exploring (places like the arctic and the unspoken parts of ourselves both good and bad), then inspiring – why does it feel socially acceptable to do one and not the other?

      On the whole want/need thing in the article, my mrs and me both had nutty previous partners who always said they ‘needed’ us. We made an agreement that we would always want each other, not need each other. It keeps us both motivated, independent and desirous.

      • Exactly!!!! While quite a number of men whines that they don’t feel needed, that the women don’t make them feel that way, one thing is being forgotten – the person who *needs* you wil be …well.. needy! And from what I know about people, no sane person wants to be with someone who is needy.

    • On man caves – I bet the termn in rarely used by men. And I can understand where its coming from. I live in Eastern European country where the mentality that a man can do anything and a woman can only do what doesn’t harm her family in some way (be it hobbies, career or whatever) is very much alive. And the thing is men do use their passions and hobbies to get away from whatever issues they have, which definitely makes women feel that men have some sort of an escape route (I need my space, yada yada) whereas women needing their escape route are often chastised. Add dating coaches rambling how a man needs his cave (whereas woman must always be welcoming whether he leaves for that cave or comes back from it), and we have what we have.

  5. Man, all the Internet Tough Guys are out in the comments on this one…of every gender.

  6. Too bad that this is (yet another) problem that is solely blamed on men.
    (In the beginning it says “subconscious of men”.)
    Especially since it pretends to “correctly identify the problem”.

    Women play an active and crucial part in “if you’re not needed you’re not worthy”.

  7. ‘Look at the whole concept of “women and children first” – yes it does value the life of men as something to be sacrificed for the lives of women, but not because the woman is wielding power over the man – it’s because she’s being equated WITH CHILDREN. It’s a construct of helplessness.’

    I think that’s an artificial narrative covering up a really old and once useful cultural meme. Its a strategy to keep a culture going in its most basic sense: reproduction. This is obvious on the level of the nourishment of babies all the way to the capacity for a man to father dozens of children simultaneously. A village with 1 man and a hundred women will survive. A village with 100 men and 1 woman will not. So, men are more expendable.

    And women and children are consequently more valuable when it comes to reproduction. Gender has equalized on this level too, taking the value of reproduction away from women because the earth is swarming with humans. It actually threatens a lot of the older narratives in feminism equating ‘women power’ with motherhood. This hurts fertile women too, because it takes away a sense of being ‘needed’ on a heterosexual, heteronormative and//or procreative level. Male narratives of provider and protector are very palatable with having children as well… not just protecting their partner.

    In a way this is good; we are becoming individuals without larger hetero-normative or engendered narratives to follow. Straight women and straight men in the US increasingly don’t know how to attract virile mates anymore. We don’t know what’s expected of us. While resources are abundant we can increase variability, try new things, explore different strategies for relationship equality. Swallow the self doubt and the loneliness, its the price of individuality and resource abundance.

    However, the only true, True test of any of these cultural memes will be in whether they can survive a resource crunch. If we were in a real depression would all these ‘progressive’ ideas get thrown out the window? Would they threaten the procreative virility of the new cultural norms we produce? Would other memes procreate faster or produce more children in a time when procreation was again valuable?

    It might not seem like these are the important questions, but they are. A 5% edge in reproduction when it comes to a population (even on an overpopulated planet) will lead to that group dominating the gene pool within a few generations. Its important to recognize this when thinking about what parts of our culture will survive. Its why religious cultural memes that demand sexual interactions that only produce more offspring dominate our pale blue dot. Its not that they’re morally right. Its because they’re reproducing their ideology and their followers in every sense better than the others.

    If good men and good women, including the good men and women and everyone in between, the good people in the ‘LGBT community’ (who are an integral voice in the defiance and questioning of old hetero-normative behavior) are to stand a chance of long term survival in this world, reproduction of ideas and reproduction on the literal level of genes and people has to be part of the discussion. Without it, we will all be drowned in the larger, more procreative voices of dogma.

    To be ignorant of how our ideas, cultural memes, and populations reproduce is to be ignorant of our long term individual value in the global village.

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  9. I never thought that some of you might feel that way, but know this: men are very much wanted and very much needed. A high-value male (which doesn’t necessarily mean wealthy) will always be in demand. Evolution didn’t ditch you. Come on! Trust in your own value and power. Women love men just as much as men love women.

    • Kristijan says:

      If this were the case, then this article would not have been written.

      The places in which men feel wanted are very small, and very rare.

      • Josh K. says:

        That goes for everyone. Do you see, many people are depressed, have low self-esteem, feel under appreciated. It can be in different ways for women and men in general, but yes, that is a a very real social issue.

  10. In my experience while dating men I’ve seen this quiet often. I do not need a man to pay my bills or fix my car. But if suddenly I tell him I was at the mechanic because there was something wrong I feel like I hurt him some how; “why didn’t you let me check it before spending all that money?” and I just start feeling awful; did I just emasculated him? I also notice when men are not used to getting attention from a woman. Damn I am attracted to him and I want to show it the same way he does to me; but he’ll be happy if I pretend I am in distress and he can rescue me. I do not mind a helping hand, but only if I can also help him in some ways. I also want to be able to express my desires for him, because in my eyes he looks so damn sexy for being just him.

    • Try showing him you’re attracted. Show him you desire him and find him sexy. I don’t think he’ll resent thatjust because yyou’re not a damsel in distresa. Believe me.
      Part of the allure of a strip club is women acting like they are attracted by the man, even if it’s pretend.
      normally men are the ones expectes to being the chasers, the pick up-ppers and the ones taking the initiative in sex. All that feels like a job and like having to show the woman how attractive and lovable she is, never the other way around.

  11. I think the article touches a very good point but makes the usual mistake in this site of blaming men for it.
    Women are doing a lousy job at making men feel wanted. In valentines and such you see what women get from men, in tv and movies its always the man doing things for the woman, and its impossible to find comments, articles or posts of women saying good things about men. Even when celebrating men’s day, you get mentions about male violence and domestic violence.
    It’s very hard to find a woman talking about a man being desirable or lovablr without turning it into a complain
    if men don’t feel wanted it’s because the ones who should make them feel that way are not doing it right.

    • Josh K. says:

      So it is a mistake to blame men, but then you just go and blame women for men’s problems… ok. Why not the culture? The fears and desires of both men and women and how many times they do not meet?

      “If men don’t feel wanted it’s because the ones who should make them feel that way are not doing it right.”
      Do you believe men make women feel wanted in the “right” way? Most women just feel like men are trying to buy them or do things to buy their attention or sex; most sexual attention is unwanted. TV and moviesare mostly ruled by men. And I see women talk about their boyfriends and husbands in a so much more open and cute way, and more often. That is not about competition, though.
      How do men want to feel needed? What they want women to do or say?

  12. The irony is that when you are actually not wanted, you can still be needed.
    I was married to a closet lesbian (and no, it’s not any fun). Boy was she ever needy. Work, home, family, she was a dream come true for a guy who equates being useful with being loved. But despite putting a roof over, filling the bank account (for her to empty), keeping house and helping to set up a business, not one ounce of affection or appreciation was coming my way. Where was the payoff? I was useful, but not loved. Men are sometimes called a tool as an insult, but tools also fix stuff, and that’s what we try to do best. I was indeed a tool, and was used as such. When she came out, I think she hoped that I would be supportive, as she certainly needed me around as a front for her. But I was at the end of my usefulness. It dawned on me that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be wanted by her, because I quite literally had the wrong tools for the job.
    So I split. It took me 28 seconds to blow up the marriage home and all the work I had put in, because all that I had built was a house of cards. To this day I don’t know what women see in men, other than a paycheck, a workhorse, a hero or a challenge. I’ve decided that I am none of those things anymore, but in doing so, I don’t know what I actually am to them. What I am though is alone, in the black, and reasonably happy, if not satisfied. That may not make much sense. My time is filled with my stuff, my family, my son, my home. If I can’t be any fecking use to a woman, at least I can be useful to myself.

  13. YES!!!! Thank you, Noah!
    Every line in this article is absolutely golden! I feel like I’ve been trying to argue this point for a long time. But because most every time I’m trying to address it I’m in a classroom, I’m immediately shot down (and in one case verbally attacked) by the bell hooks and Pride and Prejudice thumpers. And their response, honestly, made me feel quite insignificant, like my point of view is both trivial and illegitimate, or unneeded. In turn, I spend a lot of time in a state of ‘existential crisis’ trying to balance my insecurities about my undesirability (wondering if that undesirability is entirely perceived on my part) and my self-confidence about the ways I know I’m needed (which I also feel are becoming fewer and thinner).
    The academy aside, this is absolutely a discussion that ‘needs’ to be had on popular level.
    Frankly, too, I’m freakin’ SICK of all the dull, unimaginative superhero flicks. Why can’t we force Hollywood to break its catatonic trance on this monochromatic and trite genre??

  14. women are made to feel guilty and slutty for their sexuality. When that stops, women will make men feelmtheirmdesire. Desire for women is judged as being slutty. The Patriarchal archetype of who’re and Madonna had led to this . Women are just people, not your mom or your prostitute.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] just read an article on The Good Men Project called Men Must Be Needed Because We Can’t Be Wanted. It really hit home for me. I’m dealing with this a lot with my girlfriend and I think [...]

  2. [...] We believe we have to be the heroes only because we can't yet see other roles for ourselves.  [...]

  3. [...] This comment is by KatyD on “Men Must Be Needed Because We Can’t Be Wanted“: [...]

  4. [...] addition, this is partly a rebuttal to this post that my friend DP linked on his Facebook. He did not write this article, simply was interested in [...]

  5. [...] a great post was published by Noah Brand on The Good Men Project.  Now, you may ask “Why am I linking to this?  It seems really far off from the general [...]

  6. [...] I realized I censor myself. My friends posted an article on Facebook recently. There is SO much in this article that resonates with things I’ve been feeling for a while. I thought about sharing it, but then I censored myself. I thought it might cause a potential mate to pass me over… or that someone might argue with it or be offended. Here it is: http://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/brand-men-must-be-needed-because-we-cant-be-wanted/ [...]

  7. [...] We believe we have to be the heroes only because we can't yet see other roles for ourselves.  [...]

  8. [...] That’s a slightly edited observation from Noah Brand, editor-in-chief of The Good Men Project, and author of a top-read post entitled, “Men Must Be Needed Because We Can’t Be Wanted.” [...]

  9. [...] brilliant, openminded physicist friend from grad school shared the first essay, Men Must Be Needed Because We Can’t Be Wanted.  I read it avidly, hoping to discover some secret about men that I have been missing all these [...]

  10. [...] friend of mine recently sent a link to an article on The Good Man Project that I thought was worth some consideration.  The writer, Noah Brand, [...]

  11. […] “men must be needed because we can’t be wanted” by noah brand, published on goodmenproject.com on 2013년07월18일 […]

  12. […] be in close fulfilling relationships, independent work, caring fatherhood, or even love itself. Noah Brand has written that because we only know how to be needed, we have trouble being wanted. We have […]

  13. […] como en el trabajo independiente, la paternidad cariñosa o incluso el amor en sí mismo. Noah Brand escribió que, puesto que solo conocemos una forma de ser necesitados, tenemos problemas a la hora […]

  14. […] An interesting article from the “goodmenproject”. Read it here. […]

  15. […] Men Must Be Needed Because We Can’t Be Wanted […]

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