Over the past few years, men of all ages have unleashed an endless stream of essays about toxic masculinity, new masculinity, and traditional masculinity in a furious, urgent attempt to mop up the mess that we have created. As a featured columnist for The Good Men Project, I am one of those guys.
My aim has been to blow up “The Man Box”, the set of toxic hyper-masculine behaviors codified into a belief system that is perfectly set up to resist change. It asserts that “Real Men” are heterosexual, strong and muscular, sexually dominant (indeed dominant in every exchange), unemotional, stoic and non-communicative, committed to hierarchal power structures and status-oriented. Clearly, this model of masculinity has got to go.
I believe, however, that if we are to eradicate toxic manhood from our midst, champions of new forms of masculinity need to acknowledge the good work that is being done by “traditional” males.
I find myself with my feet firmly planted in both camps, and am increasingly concerned about a growing split between them. New masculinity advocates tend to be very vocal, and fiercely dedicated to the diversity of ways in which men can express their manhood, often defying social conventions that have guided us for generations. Our ambitions are admirable, but I believe we must better calibrate our expectations as to how rapidly the majority of men will fall in line behind us.
Standing in quiet counterbalance to the revisionist band of brothers is a boatload of men who identify as “traditional” males. Some of us are feeling a bit beleaguered. Why? Many reformers perceive traditional males as being wed to old models, but I don’t believe that’s actually true. Our movement towards change may have been less overt, but we have been advancing.
The way I see it, our collective understandings about what it means to be male, and what men’s corresponding social contracts with women should be, have been grinding through a long, slow evolution that has been recently brought to a head. The current explosion of “new” male behaviors did not appear out of nowhere.
On the gender fluidity front, we can look back to Kinsey, who documented that men experience a range of sexual impulses in his research in the 1940’s and 1950’s, along with other biologists, sexologists, and social scientists. In the late seventies, the male feminist movement arose, as Robert Okun, Michael Kimmel, and others so eloquently record in Voice Male: The Untold Story of the Profeminist Men’s Movement, edited by Rob A. Okun. Did these early waves of men and women who hit the beach in the battle between the sexes succeed? Of course not, but they set the stage for the revolution that is underway.
That may be disconcerting for a small segment of traditional males who are committed to incremental change, but my sense is that the vast majority of us are making a big shift that is playing out as follows.
First, traditional males can’t relate to non-binary gender constructs and social innovations that lie completely out of the realm of their own personal experience. We are, however, already reinventing the rules of what it means to be a “Real Man” to include men of all orientations, because our sons have demonstrated that this is a non-negotiable in the way men are going to roll. Period.
The rest of the “Real Man” rules are evolving as well:
- We have already begun to acknowledge that “Real Men” come in all shapes and sizes, not just the muscled, hard-bodied athletes that we have been conditioned to worship since childhood. We are no longer buying into the shame that we are taught about our bodies, and are learning to celebrate our own unique physiques.
- Instead of expressing a purely assertive, hyper-aggressive sexuality, research is telling us that “Real Men” express a range of physical desires that sometimes change over time but nonetheless tend to coalesce mid-twenties into either hetero or same-sex relationships whose duration are determined by mutual interest. We are learning that those desires must always be responsibly expressed, no matter how deep the passion within.
- It has been hammered into us that when we are fully developed as adult males (yes, cognitively we eventually get there), “Real Men” are not just combatants on the battlefield of life. We are fierce, protective lovers who understand and are practiced in the language of consensual touch. We are trying to master the fine art of communicating our thoughts and feelings and connecting with our bodies and words, in support of healthy relationships.
- Today’s “Real Men” also understand and are beginning to embody and reveal an aspect of our being that society has labeled “feminine,” tapping into the power that comes from being open, vulnerable, networked and transparent. We are participating in non-hierarchal structures, and learning when to be assertive and goal-oriented, and when to go with the flow.
- Finally, “Real Men” are discovering that we need not just things, but multi-faceted lives filled with purpose, caring for those we love and the communities around us.
For new masculinity advocates who are fighting to eliminate The Man Box, this “new” framework for traditional males is a giant step forward. It addresses the key tenets of the toxic male model. It offers some common ground from which all sides can work together to build change.
For traditional males, this new model is a liberation. We have been quietly pursuing these principles in our daily lives, and are enjoying our new MO, even if we haven’t articulated it as a personal or public manifesto. That’s why we are baffled that our commitment to these practices is dismissed by some women, whom we believe are confounding the good guys with the bad, and underappreciated by some men who are proponents of more sweeping change.
I agree with the #MeToo Movement, and all women who have been victims of men’s bad behavior. We must punish males who commit sexual assault to the full extent of the law, and we must change our paradigms of masculinity.
To my fellow champions of 21st Century Masculinity, I would say, let’s be thankful that it does appear that a clear male majority — traditional and progressive — are trying to make a shift, and let’s work together to make that happen.