Chris M. Anderson tackles the rather large question of how we as a society go about talking about masculinity without shame.
A question about “shaming” men. Ok – so this has been coming up a LOT lately, and I want to understand it. A fair number of people are calling us out lately for “shaming” men. I am putting the word in quotes because the word confuses me. And I’d like your help figuring it out.
Lisa Hickey – aka the big cheese round these parts — posted an open question on the GMP writers Facebook page recently about whether people think GMP is a site that “shames” men and/or masculinity. (By the way, if you are a GMP contributor and you are not a part of that group – feel free to visit: Facebook Groups: GoodMenProjectWriters). Ultimately the major question that we seem to struggle with here is, “Is there actually something inherently wrong with men, and/or masculinity itself?”
There are two core attitudes at war in this debate. One side feels that masculinity has been given a bad rap and is out to “reclaim” it as it were. The other identifies masculinity with beer chugging, boob staring, and sexual obsessions that are inherently unhealthy and counter to what is required to building a just, civil, and respectful society.
Neither side is completely right, or completely wrong, in my opinion. Should a man feel guilty about lasciviously ogling pictures of bikini clad women (or rugged and half-clothed men if that’s your cup of tea)? No, but at the same time he shouldn’t allow that activity to dominate how he interacts with real people in the real world. I should not permit my lust to justify treating anyone (male or female) as nothing more than a sack of flesh that exists to satisfy my needs. The question ultimately comes down to whether there is such a thing as a socially responsible, sexually sensitive, and essentially masculine man? Or does a modern man have to trade in some part of their sexual appetite in order to be considered a “good” man?
Attempts to answer that question inevitably lead to a vicious paradox. Modern, liberal, and socially conscious people want a lifestyle that embraces a certain degree of sexual freedom and that shuns the Puritanical constraints of former times. Sexual liberation was supposed to free us from the degrading social norms that kept women in the kitchen and rewarded philandering and powerful men for being pigs. (We hate Don Draper.) But what has happened in the past 30 years? Some would say that we have regressed morally. And when you look at the shockingly high numbers of women and men that are victims of sexual violence, it can be hard to argue against that perspective. But is that really true? Are men behaving more badly than before? (We love Don Draper.)
It’s a fairly common presumption that males are, by and large, easily distracted by anything that has to do with sex. Given the popularity of columns here at GMP that include “sex” in the title, and the profundity of boobs, butts, and cleavage surrounding us in all other forms of media, there seems little reason to debate the point. But does modern, stereotypical “male” media really reinforce and encourage dangerous and harmful kinds of sexist behavior in men (and accordingly permissive attitudes in women)? I’m somewhat dubious of that claim, especially when much of stereotypically “female” media is just as “sex” obsessed as their “male” media counterparts. Like it or not, we may simply be stuck with this paradox between sex and reason. Our sexuality is a primal, animalistic part of our selves, one that does not always play by the nice, rational rules that we want to establish for our society.
But this is not a satisfactory answer for those who earnestly believe that there are social ills that require fixing, and for whom outdated masculine norms and patriarchal social structure lie at the root of all wrong. There’s plenty of things that obviously cry out for change. I’m not at all saying that we have to tolerate sexual violence simply because we are not pure rational creatures. But neither can we expect that demonizing masculinity or male sexuality will improve the social condition and the behavior of men and boys en masse.
But that’s precisely the tact that many in the modern men’s movement have taken. In response to which, an increasingly loud and emphatic “Men’s Right’s Movement” (MRM) has come to the fore in an attempt to discredit what they see as an unwarranted attack on maleness. There are certainly justifiable objections to much of the “man-bashing” that many people see in the social changes made possible by the rise of modern feminist theory. To name one example, it’s virtually impossible in many communities for male survivors of sexual and domestic violence to get any assistance and protection at all. But GMP is not, and will never become, a bastion of Men’s Right’s theory in response. (For more info on the MRM and it’s more outrageous attitudes, see R. Tod Kelley’s piece recently published in the Daily Beast).
Sadly, the one thing that unites both sides of the debate of whether men are inherently good or bad is that they usually turn to the rhetoric of shame and blame in an attempt to discredit their opponents. Anyone who uses shame as a tool for promoting social change profoundly misunderstands the destructive power of shame. Shame is a tool that bullies and predators use to shred the souls of their victims. How can any movement that seeks to lift people up justify methods that do nothing more than tear people down? Ultimately, I believe what we want to promote is healing, not harm. Is a drunken frat boy really going to change his ways because an “enlightened” soul has come to his campus to speak on the ills of modern masculinity? So long as the kegs are flowing at the tailgate parties, I doubt it very much. But more than that – why is it so hard to get some crusaders for sexual and social justice to see that that frat boy might himself be a victim who might be drinking to excess precisely because it is so hard for him to get the help that, were he a woman, might (and I stress might) be more readily supplied?
Men have evolved to be what we are—an often infuriating blend of lustful impulse and emotional sensitivity. Fostering a “healthier” masculinity starts with understanding that masculinity itself isn’t a bad thing, it is what we are. We should be finding better ways to hold men (and women) accountable for the harm they cause and reward them for the good they do, that’s ultimately what GMP and the discussions fostered here are working towards.
Photo: bmente / flickr