Male passion is maligned in two ways: through rebuke and identification as uncontrollable.
Don’t cry, because tears are not for men. Don’t despair, because weakness and inaction are not for you. And if you should feel sadness, don’t explain or dignify it, because stoicism shall be the stamp of your virtuous manhood. The same goes for immoderate excitement, as a stoic man, a true man, is guided by his logic and not beholden to his emotion. You should be calm and collected, motivated by your inner drive, not some flame of womanly passion or emotion.
Implied, codified in common phrase, formally endorsed, or carried through by rebuke, these are the suggestions and rules of masculinity when it comes to emotion. The message is pretty clear when it all comes together: men are not to indulge or air their emotions, whether they include fear, sadness, excitement, love, or joy.
There are millions of us who live according to this message, taking care to conceal the emotions that we’ve been told are unacceptable. And such personal pressure can easily lead to anxiety, shame, and self-hatred for many of us, as we find ourselves incapable of completely suppressing these feelings. If unable to do so, some of us worry that we are not full men, barely in control of these non-masculine traits. Or, we become ashamed of such weakness, worried that we will be found out, or angry at and hateful of ourselves for failing in such an important part of manliness. To some reading this, this description probably sounds extreme, but I followed this exact path for much of my teenaged years, feeling shame at my weakness and expressing it through anger at others and myself. And don’t only take my word for it. Shame, anger, worry, and self-hatred are the inimical feelings which propel drug abuse, alcoholism, and suicide, diseases and violences by which men are overwhelmingly afflicted relative to women.
And, in addition to this platonic, patriarchal ideal of male stoicism is another concept of male passion that is interestingly related: male passion is uncontrollable. This idea, that our passionate drives, including anger and our desire for sex, lie outside of our own conscious power to manage them, is less obvious than the directives about emotion above, at least until you start looking for it. But, it is there, indeed it is a culturally dominant tenet of masculinity.
For example, consider the notion of a “crime of passion,” the legal defense that a man’s murder of his cheating wife or her lover is justifiable, or at least mitigated in its seriousness, because of his own anger. Or, consider the similar gay panic defense, a less commonly-known, yet equally ridiculous, argument that a murderer was driven to kill by unwanted homosexual solicitation or homophobia. Likewise, think about the pernicious idea, much more powerful, that victims of domestic violence have provoked their abuser, that their abuser is not in control of his violent anger, that the victim is the impetus. All in all, these are institutionalized and socialized suggestions that we are not in control of our rage.
Similarly, there are parallel narratives surrounding male sexuality. Dress codes for young women in school are often justified by a reminder that boys cannot concentrate otherwise. Countless ignorant and downright dishonorable men and women endorse this view of male sexuality in regards to rape and sexual assault, crediting victims for the perpetration of their assault by focusing on their behavior beforehand, or their dress during.
These practices are rightly identified as victim-blaming. The murder victim is to blame because of her infidelity or his homosexuality. The survivor of domestic abuse is to blame because of her provocation. The survivor of rape or sexual assault has brought the crime upon herself by sending ‘mixed signals,’ or dressing suggestively.
But more than that, these tendencies impose a hurtful notion upon us men: that we are weak, not in control. We do not choose violence, distraction, rape, or abuse, but are rather driven to it by urges and impulses that may be ours, but which we are not capable of directing. And thus begins the tendency to victim blame: because men are moved by uncontrollable impulses, society must delegate the power to manage men to women. It is women who should not provoke men. It is women who should not flirt, flaunt, or be sexy unless they want sex. It is women who are pure, perfect, and counterintuitively powerful, able to provoke, goad, or transform their man.
Such a notion of passion, of sexual drive and rage, is a powerful one, I think. It works to justify rape and domestic violence, both by encouraging perpetrators to believe in, and realize, their own lack of control, and by mitigating their worthiness of blame when accused or addressed. And there is another effect as well, when this notion makes so many of us live in fear of what we might be driven to do. I know that I’ve felt such fear. When we are told, time and time again, that these traits are monolithic, powerful, and uncontrollable, we tend to internalize that idea over the long term. And when we see those drives realized on others, whether they be survivors of sexual assault or abuse, we are horrified at the results of such beastly power. Unless we challenge the notion that we are uncontrollable in our rage and sex drive, the only reasonable response to such an idea is fear and constant self-suspicion.
These two parallel narratives, that emotion should be repressed and that passion, whether it be in anger or sex, cannot be controlled, constitute a central conception of masculinity.
And, not only is that conception wrong. We should feel free to express, air, and share our emotions as we see fit, and we are in control our anger and our sex drives.
Not only is this conception influential, as it drives us to a collective lack of emotional health and far-too-high rates of abuse and assault.
But more than these things, this conception is both disrespectful and unjust. Our passions, feelings, and desires are natural things, standing at the center of who we are as human beings. When it is argued and thought that we should conceal, or that we are not in control of these things, the argument is also made that these parts of us are wrong. The argument is made that there is some wrongness in our maleness.
As a man who knows his self-control and the great meaning of his passions and emotions, I reject that idea. As men who collectively know our agency and worth, we should all reject this idea. The alternative is an unfeeling existence characterized by seemingly inevitable violence, and that is unacceptable.
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