Towards a Discussion of Male Self-Hatred

Richard Jeffery Newman discusses the paradoxical situation of being a stereotypical man, while also protecting women from men “like that”.

In his recently published memoir, Kayak Morning, Roger Rosenblatt writes:

The literature involving fathers and daughters runs to nearly one thousand titles. I Googled. The Tempest. King Lear. Emma. The Mayor of Casterbridge. Washington Square. Daughters have a power over fathers, who are usually portrayed as aloof or mad. The father depends on his daughter and he is often isolated with her—the two of them partnered against the world. It is a good choice for writers, this pairing. It may be the ideal male-female relationship in that, with romance out of the picture, the idea of father and daughter has only to do with feelings and thoughts…. A girl may speak the truth to her father, who may speak the truth to her. He anchors her. She anchors him.

Rosenblatt’s book explores his grief at the untimely death of his own daughter, Amy, and this passage, in the form of a short-hand literary analysis, mourns the relationship he had with her—one that, for him, was clearly about a kind of truth-telling that only happens between men and women when the possibility of romance does not exist. Rosenblatt’s grief is his own, and I would not presume to suggest that his relationship with his daughter was anything other than what he says it was. His assertion, however, that the father-daughter pairing is a “good choice for writers” because it allows us to deal with issues between the sexes solely in terms of feelings and thoughts, without the messiness of romance, gave me serious pause. It’s not that I think he has mischaracterized the father-daughter relationships in the works that he cites—it’s been long enough since I read any of them that I simply do not remember—but rather that, in a male dominant culture, and we still live in such a culture whether we like it or not, the father-daughter relationship is never only about feelings and thoughts. The daughter’s body and how she uses it—in sex, in marriage—and how that reflects on the father as a man, on his reputation and the reputation of his family, is always already contested ground.

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I doubt most people in the United States see the father-daughter relationship explicitly in these terms any more, though the custom of giving a bride away on her wedding day is an echo of it. Still, it’s important to remember that there are immigrant subcultures in this country—and think, also, of the Christian institution of purity balls—where it is still a father’s duty to manage his daughter’s sexuality, at least until she is appropriately married. In my own life, where fathers have been conspicuously absent, these attitudes have manifested themselves most obviously in the assumptions people make about my relationship with my sisters. Or, more specifically, what they imagine my relationship with my sisters should have been like when we were younger. I am thinking specifically of how most people react when I tell them about the time I walked in on one of my sisters, who was sixteen at the time and should have been in school at the time—she is six years younger than I am—in flagrante delicto with her boyfriend.

I did not care that she was having sex, but the circumstances in my family at the time meant that I did need to confront her about playing hooky. So I closed the door and asked her and her boyfriend to get dressed and come out into the living room. I waited for a couple of minutes, but nothing happened. I knocked again, receiving this time a muffled reply from my sister, as if she were sick in bed and my knocking had roused her from sleep. I opened the door and there she was, alone, with the blanket pulled up around her neck. “Where is he?” I asked.

“Where is who?”

“Michael. I saw him.”

“Michael? No. No one else is here.” Her voice cracked as if she had a horrible sore throat.

“Come on. Don’t bullshit me. I know what I saw.” I started to look around the room and eventually opened her closet, where I found Michael trying desperately to disappear behind the clothes that were hanging there. It was hard not to laugh at him, but I didn’t. I just asked again for them to come out into the living room. When they did, I told Michael to go home, that my sister and I had to talk, and I will never forget the look of surprised relief and gratitude on his face when he realized that I was not going to beat him up. He even asked me, “You mean you’re not going to beat me up?” That made me laugh out loud. I told him no, why would I. He said thank you and he left.

More often than not, the people to whom I tell this story, and it doesn’t seem to matter how old or young they are, are as surprised as Michael was that I simply let him leave. When I ask them why—since the idea of beating him up never even occurred to me—they always give the same answer: She was your little sister. It was your job to protect her. And if I ask them what they think she needed protection from, they tell me, From guys “like that,” by which they mean, of course, exploitive, sexual opportunists who tally the women they have sex with by making notches in their bedposts and bragging about it to all their friends. But why should I have assumed that Michael—a decent guy, a guy I liked, a guy my sister clearly trusted—was “like that?” Okay, so maybe you didn’t have to beat him up, but you should at least have put the fear of God into him, just to keep him honest.

Honest about what? I ask.

Well, they say, you wouldn’t want your sister to get a reputation, would you? You wouldn’t want him, or anyone he told, to think your sister was just giving it away, right? And most, but not all, leave the next question unasked: You wouldn’t want your sister to think it was okay to give it away, would you? Clearly, it was not her boyfriend from whom my sister and her reputation really needed protection.

But there you have it: Because I was her older brother, these people seem to think, my sister’s emerging sexuality was my problem, not out of concern for her health and safety—and even then it really wouldn’t have been my problem—but because if I did not keep a watchful eye on her she might have undeservedly acquired the reputation of or, worse, actually become, a “slut.”

The people with whom I have these conversations usually try to avoid using that word, because they are afraid it will offend me. Or, to be more precise, because they are afraid I will suddenly feel the need to defend my sister’s “honor,” even after all these years. Yet it’s not really, or at least not only, my sister’s “honor” that they think I should be worried about. Inevitably, when we get to the point in the conversation where they realize that they’re not going to change my mind, that I truly do not think there was anything wrong with my sister having sex, they get down to where the brass tacks really are. What kind of a brother were you, anyway? What they mean, of course, is What kind of a man are you?, and their logic is not so different, really, from the fathers and brothers who murder their daughters and sisters in so-called “honor killings”—and, just to be clear, there is nothing honorable about them—because even the hint of female sexual impropriety is a stain on her and her family’s reputation that only her death will remove. Granted, no one has ever suggested that I should have killed my sister, but they clearly think I should have seen the fact that she didn’t “keep her legs closed” as a threat not just to her, but to myself as well.

Unlike the logic that seems to hold in so-called “honor killings,” however, where the existential threat to family (read: male) honor is embodied by the woman, the threat in this case—at least as perceived by the people I have these conversations with—was embodied by my sister’s boyfriend. His “success” in having sex with my sister, in getting around the protection they tell me I should have been providing for her, is clearly something they see as a stain on my honor that only some form of violence against him would have removed. The fact that I chose not to commit that violence, or even to threaten it, is bewildering to them. How could I have let Michael get away with something so serious?

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I realize I am being reductive here. In fact, the threat to male honor in cases like this comes from both the man and the woman, which is why the male partners of women murdered by their families in so-called “honor killings” are also often killed or beaten; and I have completely left out of this essay the ways in which women—mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins—are expected to preserve this male honor by policing other women’s sex lives. It’s not that the layers of complexity here are not worth writing about. Rather, it’s that these layers of complexity tend to obscure the relationship between the men whose job it is to demonstrate their manhood by protecting their family’s honor (in this case, me) and those whose job it is to prove themselves as men by doing whatever they can to get around that protection (my sister’s boyfriend).

Leave aside, for example, the fact that there really are guys “like that” and that it is possible for an older brother to sniff this out about his younger sister’s boyfriend before his she does and consider the conversation I might have had with my sister in order to get her to stay away from Michael. You don’t understand what guys are like, my part in this discussion would go—and it’s a part we have seen played in movies and TV shows over and over again by countless brothers or fathers, cousins or friends—but I do understand, and I am telling you that when it comes to sex you shouldn’t be so trusting. Sometimes the man who speaks these lines will explain what he means in more detail and sometimes he will not. In each case, however, he is asking the woman to whom he is speaking to recognize that, because he is a man, he is more of an authority on men and male sexuality than she is. Moreover, in doing so, whether he realizes it or not, he is admitting that this authority comes from the fact that, even if he himself is not “like that,” he nonetheless has first-hand knowledge of the truth behind the assumption that most men are. After all, in this way of seeing the world, being “like that” is part of what being a man is all about, and so it is inescapably part of every man, even if he consciously lives his life in opposition to it.

There is, in other words, a kind of self-hatred operating here. Had I tried to protect my sister in the way I have just described, or even if I’d resorted to the violence so many people seem to think I should have used, I would also have been trying to protect her from a version of myself, or at least from the kind of man I knew I was supposed to be if I’d followed the traditional, stereotypical manhood script. To put it another way, whatever beating Michael up would have meant to him and my sister, it would also have been a denial of my own complicity in that script’s definition of getting sex from women as proof of manhood. So, if you understand this story not from the perspective of my relationship with my sister, but rather of my relationship with Michael, it becomes a narrative that is less about the sexual double standard—though it is of course also about that—than it is about men’s internal experience of manhood and masculinity as an identity divided against itself. On one side is the man we are (traditionally, stereotypically) given permission to be with women who are not our mothers, sisters or daughters; on the other, the man whose manhood depends on protecting our mothers, sisters and daughters from what that permission means to all the other men who are not us. To be both those men at the same time, in an integrated way, seems to me impossible—which raises the question of what forms masculinity might take if it were truly unmoored from a notion of manhood that requires us to hate a part of who we are.

 

Photo — istolethetv/Flickr

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About Richard Jeffrey Newman

Richard Jeffrey Newman is a professor in the English Department of Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York. He is the author of The Silence of Men, a book of poems, and three books of translations from classical Iranian poetry, most recently, The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferdowsi's Shahnameh. "For My Son, A Kind of Prayer" is from his second, as yet unpublished poetry manuscript, Because Men Only Understand Cliches. He blogs at Because It's All Connected.

Comments

  1. Quadruple A says:

    I myself have would have been equally baffled by the claim that I should “protect” my sister. I’ve never experienced walking in on my sister but I’ve experienced people claiming that I should “protect” my sister and I have always been baffled by that claim. My sister can sleep with who she wants to and its her choice outside of rape nobody is forcing her to make those decisions. That scene in movies where the dad shows his daughters boyfriend his personal hand gun always never struck a chord with me other than to make me think that the values our society promotes are backwards and brutal. I don’t respect the claims of self-appointed alpha males who tell women to stay away from all men just because they themselves are assholes. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that a self-hatred of male sexuality is at this root of the need to protect their sisters the question is why is that self-hatred so wide spread(at least in the United States)?

    • A huge part of it (the hatred of male sexuality) is connected to the U.S.’s historical hatred of sexuality in general. For a long time, and still today in many ways, the U.S. has had a pretty puritanical bent on the way it views sex. Also for a long time (and still today in many ways) the U.S. has had this weird idea that women don’t like sex, or at least ‘good girls’ don’t like sex. There are all sorts of cultural and social systems that have played into those two statements. Understanding, critiquing and changing those systems has been a slow process and has been met with a whole lot of resistance…so we get bits and pieces of them that stick around. Part of the bits that have stuck around is the idea that sex outside of a relationship is a bad thing and that sex outside of a relationship is something men prefer.

      • Also, just as an addition…I think it’s wrong to think that there is ‘male sexuality’ and ‘female sexuality.’ The two aren’t nearly as different as society often portrays them.

        • Quadruple A says:

          Well I think that this true depending on how exactly we define different. On the one hand the central selling point of woman’s magazines such as Cosmo is sex. On the other hand I don’t think that women are as likely to go to a bar to cruise for casual sex. Am I wrong?

        • As you say there is a need to portray them differently. Sex is still seen as dirty for the large part. Girls/women are supposed to be clean therefore they should not be interested in sex while boys/men are supposed to be dirty therefore they should be interested in anything other than sex.

          However I don’t think its wrong to say that there is male and female sexuality. If anything else it does hold some water when it comes to pure biology. But I agree that they are set at opposite poles all to often.

          • @Danny …“Sex is still seen as dirty for the large part. Girls/women are supposed to be clean therefore they should not be interested in sex while boys/men are supposed to be dirty therefore they should be interested in anything other than sex.”

            Why do we paint “sex” with such a wide brush and accordingly box it in. In my book, the guy and gal are put on the same level playing field. It appears that as a society we’re pushing for gals to be just as unemotionally tied to sex many perceive men to be. Of course we can completely ignore the fact that men can be and are emotionally tied to women whom they have sex with. Of course a guy having sex is no more then accommodating a sexual need/desire, right?

            Countless articles about men and their emotions, their feelings … getting in touch with themselves, right? So why doesn’t anyone take a close look at the adverse affects teen sex has on boys? Why is it that the guy that wrote this article struggled with how he felt about his 16 year old (underage) sister having sex, lied about it and at the very least struggled with “protecting” her?

            All for the sake of making recreational sex okay? Is that what we’ve come to? That’s what it looks like to me …. Any time abstinence or as you say being “clean” is brought into the picture, sex has to be viewed as dirty. The “puritanical” view of sex …. Wow, ya’ll may want to open your eyes and see that it can and does work. Yup, I “protected” my daughter and for good reason.

        • @Heather …“Also, just as an addition…I think it’s wrong to think that there is ‘male sexuality’ and ‘female sexuality.’ The two aren’t nearly as different as society often portrays them.”

          Says who?

        • Soullite says:

          Yes, they are. I’m sorry, but this is one area where your personal experiences leave you totally ignorant. You just don’t have any real ideas about male sexuality. Everything, for you, is purely theoretical.

          Here’s one simply for instance: Male and females clearly don’t feel arousal the same way. I know this, because I’ve never heard a female complain that she was so horny her ovaries ached. I have, however, heard enough women claim that ‘blue balls’ wasn’t real to lead me to believe that nothing on them actually hurts due to a state of extended arousal. This is further underscored by their preference for non-sexual cuddling, and their refusal to understand just why it is that most men can’t stand that.

          If something so fundamental is different, then how similar can our sexualities really be?

      • Quadruple A says:

        And yet the historical hatred of sexuality is truly baffling. I think that somehow we need to get in touch with what sex is on an ontological level so that we can know why people have these strong negative feelings about it. I don’t think it is simple enough to simply say puritanism because so many culture around the world have felt had similar negative attitudes about sex. The idea that sexual desire is objectifying if for example expressed in the wrong context by a man is also another manifestation of our societies negative attitude toward sex. I think that any cultural response to sex is a great puzzle or mystery that needs to be unriddled.

        • Unriddling is never done by the mass culture. The questioning minority do it and usually get some poo flung from the ordinary folk, but only when fundamental changes occur in daily life do most follow along. And the questioners are never the inspiration – they’re radicals. They only get any credit after that radicalism is no longer relevant and doesn’t make anyone angry.

          Now to the hatred of sexuality. What if it were – in some small degree – actually necessary? Not for some rigid god-centered code or for a rigid social code (“men, do this! women, do that!”), but simply to keep a healthy tension in place between one individual’s desire and another’s autonomy?

          • Quadruple A says:

            “Now to the hatred of sexuality. What if it were – in some small degree – actually necessary? Not for some rigid god-centered code or for a rigid social code (“men, do this! women, do that!”), but simply to keep a healthy tension in place between one individual’s desire and another’s autonomy?”

            In order for this self-hatred to be necessary you would have to clearly illustrate that there was a necessary conflict between individual desire and anothers autonomy or if not a necessary conflict a conflict which was pervasive enough to justify a general hatred of sexuality. Even this higher level of speaking about sexuality (rooted in Kantian ethics I think) which tries to justify the disgust/hatred of sexuality in terms of a rational principle of autonomy has never persuaded me.

            If we could think of sexuality as transcending barriers of rationality or of gap between ourselves and others instead of compromising those barriers then we may be on the course to a healthier concept of sexuality. As it stands most efforts to predefine the meaning of the sexual act in pessimistic terms fail to justify an intrinsic connection between morality and something which in itself is merely a physical act with no meaning outside those meanings we project on to it.

            • Thanks for such a serious response…Looking back on it, it seems paternalistic to ask people to hate their sexuality at all. I considered whether fearing sex (my own legacy, FWTW) might be less morally suspect than hating it, but at the end of the day it’s all kind of an end run around healthy respect. I was assuming, and many people do, that actually teaching people to respect others and themselves is an act of futility. But how do we know? It’s never been tried…

        • I suspect a part of the historical “hatred” and control of sexuality is linked to birth control / paternity. In a world where there wasn’t any truly effective way to prevent sex leading to children, there would be a greater need to be cautious and responsible to avoid unintended children (especially since a lack of “legitimacy” was often a stain on that child’s future reputation, despite being of no fault of their own).

          Of course, we now have much more effective ways of eliminating this risk. Some level of tension may still be necessary for the whole desire/autonomy aspect but if that’s the case we should re-visit how we create that tension. Shame probably isn’t the best way to approach that problem.

  2. John Anderson says:

    I wonder what your sister thought. I know my sister wanted her brothers’ blessings on her prospective mate. I didn’t give it because I didn’t think he was a good choice. I’ve joked with adult women who’ve just met a man about bringing him by so I could gauge his worthiness and had them actually take me up on it. It seems to give them comfort that a guy would say OK or possibly they felt he’d be less hostile if he suspected somebody may hunt him down. To some extent we’re all little kids who like the idea that someone is taking care of us or watching over us. That’s probably where religion gets its pull.

  3. Men traditionally need to hate themselves in another very deep way: they must use force and yet be peaceful. In draft-era America that meant being ready to be part of a highly mechanized and dehumanizing military and (maybe) the wholesale slaughter of combat, then to resume home and family life with as little help as possible. Because after all, you were indoctrinated that you were defending your way of life. But in reality the contrast was total, but to admit it was sissy at best and subversive at worst. No wonder so many men hated one side or another of themselves after WW2, Korea, Vietnam. And that hate-lesson inevitably spread to how they raised generations of sons.

    • pwlsax:

      Men traditionally need to hate themselves in another very deep way: they must use force and yet be peaceful.

      I just want to say that this is a crucial, crucial and so often overlooked point. There is, at the heart of traditional manhood and the masculinity required to achieve it, precisely this self-hatred. More, it is a purposeful self-hatred, by which I mean that traditional manhood couldn’t function, wouldn’t be what it is, with out it.

      • I’m not sure any civilization that has to defend itself could function without it – even if its warriors were not all male. Someone has to be indoctrinated not just to use force, but to believe without question in the use of force to allow a society that believes in peace to keep on existing.

        • @RJN “I just want to say that this is a crucial, crucial and so often overlooked point.”

          And it looks like it’ll stay overlooked, at least here on the GMP. :(

          Not just saying that because it’s my point – but because I don’t think men are ready to tear it down to that level. Nontraditional men today don’t think they’ll ever have to engage the issue, and traditional men are immersed in it without engaging it, or even knowing how.

  4. Another set of conflicting signals. We’re raised thinking that we are the greatest threat to a woman and then turn around and paint that same bullseye on other men later.

    • It’s an indirect lesson to men that accepting oneself fully might not just be a danger to oneself, but to people one loves! How carefully, yet how unconsciously, policed are the frontiers of manliness…

      • Yep. Although I think that being a danger to oneself isn’t held in high of priority as being a danger to others. No we are supposed to thrive on danger!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] “Towards a Dis­cus­sion of Male Self-Hatred,” revised from the ver­sion that I posted here some time ago, is now up at The Good Men Project. The post begins by respond­ing to a pas­sage in Roger Rosenblatt’s Kayak Morn­ing: Rosenblatt’s book explores his grief at the untimely death of his own daugh­ter, Amy, and this pas­sage, in the form of a short-hand lit­er­ary analy­sis, mourns the rela­tion­ship he had with her — one that, for him, was clearly about a kind of truth-telling that only hap­pens between men and women when the pos­si­bil­ity of romance does not exist. Rosenblatt’s grief is his own, and I would not pre­sume to sug­gest that his rela­tion­ship with his daugh­ter was any­thing other than what he says it was. His asser­tion, how­ever, that the father-daughter pair­ing is a “good choice for writ­ers” because it allows us to deal with issues between the sexes solely in terms of feel­ings and thoughts, with­out the messi­ness of romance, gave me seri­ous pause. It’s not that I think he has mis­char­ac­ter­ized the father-daughter rela­tion­ships in the works that he cites — it’s been long enough since I read any of them that I sim­ply do not remem­ber — but rather that, in a male dom­i­nant cul­ture, and we still live in such a cul­ture whether we like it or not, the father-daughter rela­tion­ship is never only about feel­ings and thoughts. The daughter’s body and how she uses it — in sex, in mar­riage — and how that reflects on the father as a man, on his rep­u­ta­tion and the rep­u­ta­tion of his fam­ily, is always already con­tested ground. [...]

  2. [...] These are comments by pwlsax and Richard Jeffrey Newman on the post “Towards a Discussion of Male Self-Hatred“. [...]

  3. [...] want to do–the three pieces are For My Son, A Kind of Prayer; My Feminist Manifesto; and Towards a Discussion of Male Self-Hatred. At the same time, I recognize that there may be people reading this who will not want to click [...]

  4. [...] do – the three pieces are For My Son, A Kind of Prayer; My Fem­i­nist Man­i­festo; and Towards a Dis­cus­sion of Male Self-Hatred. At the same time, I rec­og­nize that there may be peo­ple read­ing this who will not want to [...]

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