Men’s reticence to show vulnerability is seen as a source of male anger, and as a challenge to men’s ability to connect emotionally with others. But vulnerability takes many forms. Showing vulnerability to deepen his relationships is praiseworthy. But men’s vulnerability can also challenge society’s beliefs about gender, which can be discomforting for progressives as much as conservatives.
Charlie Brown’s Football
Advocates for men and boys point to the sex abuse scandal you’ve never heard of. The victims are boys in juvenile detention. But 95% of the perpetrators are women, and that contradicts what we think we know about sexual predators.
Unconscious gender biases play a role. One comment on a Good Men Project article (I forget which one) noted that talking about female perpetrators is more socially unacceptable than talking about male vulnerability.
Along the same lines, the Centers for Disease Control found that over a third of severe domestic violence victims are men, and men and women are equally likely to experience emotional abuse. Yet, many still deny that violence against men is a problem.
A man who openly talks about these issues is likely to find himself accused of playing the victim. He may find “ironic” hashtags waiting for him – #WhatAboutTehMenz, #MasculinitySoFragile, or #MaleTears.
Another comment on a Good Men Project article described this double bind as being like Lucy asking Charlie Brown to kick a football. First he says no, she’ll just pull it away and he’ll fall flat on his back. But she promises she won’t, so Charlie Brown agrees to kick the football. We all know what happens next.
No wonder men hide their vulnerability.
Quit Your Whining
One alternative is for men to frame their vulnerability in terms of masculinity’s affect on women. But men’s ability to speak authentically about their issues is limited if showing vulnerability must be carefully calculated to remain within other people’s comfort zones. So most men avoid gender issues like the plague.
But this comes at a cost. Boys are falling far behind girls in school, but little is being done to address it. And almost four in five suicides are male, but we resist talking about suicide as a gender issue. Instead, it’s pointed out that while women attempt suicide more often, men use more lethal methods. Which is as insightful as saying that people who drive faster get more speeding tickets.
We rarely ask why men use more lethal methods. After all, a suicide attempt is a cry for help. And a cry for help shows a belief that someone will listen. But if you don’t believe anyone will listen then you don’t attempt suicide – you commit suicide. Why don’t men think people will listen to them?
That people listen to men more than women is taken for granted. But that’s with impersonal things like sports or politics. Personal issues are a different matter. Advocates for men and boys point to Boko Haram as an illuminating example. When Boko Haram kidnapped girls there was an outpouring of international concern. But there was silence when boys were kidnapped – or even burned alive. This enormous empathy gap, however, is largely invisible.
Men Must Change
This whining is more than most us can take. Men are told to step up to the plate. The United Nations campaign is HeForShe, not HeAndShe. Its focus is gender equality, which means men doing something about violence against women and girls.
To show their vulnerability (but only in certain ways), men must change. Writer Ally Fogg describes this as the last great masculine delusion. He asks us to image telling women that to close the pay gap women must learn to change their behaviors. The problem, of course, is ignoring that our culture needs to change. This doesn’t deny women’s or men’s personal responsibility – it just acknowledges that social context matters and that responsibility is an interactive process.
But when the topic is male vulnerability, saying that men must change doesn’t strike the same discordant note. Rather, saying society first must change sounds off key.
Without looking at the larger picture, however, the vulnerability dilemma remains – being perceived as a whiny victim or as being strong and silent. We shouldn’t be surprised that men so often take the most socially acceptable option.