Not long ago I was visiting a friend who I had not seen in quite a while. Both of us are early middle aged men who are members of Generation X. We have know each other for almost 20 years. We met when I lived in New England during the mid 1990s. He is in his early 50s. I am in my late 40s. We are men who have managed to achieve success in our respective professions and, moreover, have settled comfortably in our careers. It was good catching up and reminiscing about old times and the fun, enjoyable and frequently adventurous days of yesteryear. All was good.
We engaged in some provocative discussions on a number of issues – politics, economic, the environment, race etc… And yes, we eventually got around to discussing gender. We both agreed that men and women are complex human beings and that we are both similar and different in many ways. The conversation took an interesting and pivotal turn when he began to discuss his frat days. Jeff (not his real name) was a member of one of the masculine fraternities (at the time) on his campus. He mentioned he fact that over the past few decades, the fraternity in questions has gone through some radical changes and has had its ups and downs but is now rebounding.
It was fascinating to hear him discuss many of the risky and in some cases, outright insane behavior that he and a number of his frat brothers engaged and indulged in. Although I cannot say that I was totally surprised or naive about some of the stories he divulged. One particular theme that stuck with me was the fact (according to him) that so many, arguably too many of his fraternity brothers, seemed to be in a perpetual state of hyper-masculinity. It seemed that the brothers lived to “out man” one another. Constant references to athletic prowess, sexual conquests, virility in all aspects of the word were routine. Anything other than being seen as a certified alpha male was considered deficient, unacceptable. Frat brothers that failed to live up to this standard were frequently ridiculed, sporadically hazed or in some cases, ostracized from the supposedly “real Alpha brothers.”
For some reason, many of his frat brothers were very concerned about having too many virgins( he mentioned the fact in some cases, sex was arranged for new frat brothers) or gay men (they were referred to as fag boys in his frat) in their fraternity. In fact, he remembered hearing a few of his older brothers commenting that “no fags or virgins are going to be a member” of the fraternity in question. He (Jeff) said that till this day,the conversation surprised him and made him feel somewhat unsettled. As someone who had lost his virginity at 18 (according to him) and was heterosexual, Jeff “met the minimal qualifications” so-to-speak. Not surprisingly, some of his brothers harbored negative attitudes about women and members of other minority groups.
Now, decades later at age 51, the still in very good shape, yet slightly balding father of three boys among them, a 22 year old recent college graduate, 20 year old college junior and an 18 year old soon to be college freshman and partner of a lovely, attractive, successful wife, admitted that he did not always agree with the callous and insensitive antics of a many of his frat brothers, and as the years have progressed, regrets not calling some of his brothers out on their behavior. Nonetheless, being a young guy who wanted to fit in, he decided to look the other way or pretend that certain things never happened. For him, it was easier to live in denial than risk confronting some of his less than socially progressive brothers and risk ostracism or alienation. In short, going along to get along was the safest and most profitable path to take.
As someone who was not a fraternity brother or interested in Greek life in any capacity (although I was friendly with a number of fraternity guys) such stories like Jeff’s reconfirmed to me that I was justified in not wanting to be a part of an environment where retrograde vices such as misogyny, homophobia, racism, sexism, elitism etc… was par for the course. There is no doubt that some of these men may have been internalizing their own insecurities and acting out on their own resentments and fears.
To be sure, frat houses (not all fraternities for that matter) are not the only environment where toxic masculinity is an entity that is allowed to manifest itself like steroids. A few months ago, at a conference, I attended in the Midwest, I overheard three men whom I was sitting next to at the bar of a restaurant discussing and bragging about how many blow jobs they had gotten in the past few months. Yes I did! I have to admit hearing such banter among these guys simultaneously annoyed, yet amused me.
Fraternities and bars aside, a sizable number of men, possibly too many, fat, thin, short, medium height, tall, rich, middle income, poor, successful, not so successful, attractive, not so attractive, and so on, feel that in order to be seen as “a real and legitimate man,” he must exude as much testosterone and braggadocio as possible. It is as if there are a list of commandments he must adhere to. Anything less than is seen as failure and his Alpha Men’s club membership club is in danger of being revoked. If we are honest with ourselves, we all know or have known men who:
- Always have to be dating or in some sort of romantic relationship regardless of compatibility
- Played every sport in high school regardless and still attempts to pursue any sort of athletic sport regardless of their ability to adequately play the sport(s) in question
- Drinks/drank harder than everyone else to the point of passing out and getting into fights with others
- Brags about supposedly well endowed (large penis) he is/has
- Are constantly pursuing outdoor pursuits – fishing, hunting, hiking and other supposedly “manly” pursuits whether they genuinely enjoyed such activities or not
- Spends an inordinate amount of time at the gym, participating in the most strenuous activities flexing his muscles for all to see
- Routinely dropping hints/comments about his sex life or sexual prowess or conquests
- Boasting about his masculinity and that he is a man in the REAL sense of the word
- Ridiculing men who he sees as failing to measure up to his standards be it looks, finances, love life etc…
For some men, they believe that indulging in such behavior will afford them some degree of status, and respect from their fellow male brethren as well as admiration from the opposite sex. Truth be told, in some cases,they may very well be correct in their assumptions. However, I would argue that, more often than not, for every guy or gal who sees you as someone to admire, there are just as many, if not more ,men and women who are more inclined to see such men as shallow, superficial, misguided, insecure, in some cases, pitiful and view them with a jaundiced eye. Acting as if you are an overgrown, testosterone gorilla 24/7 is likely to mitigate any real chance that you will find pure and genuine happiness in any facet of your life. Rather you are more likely to become emotionally and psychologically isolated and distraught both mentally and socially.
On the contrary, engaging in activities and pursuits that genuinely please you, living your life in a manner that is real, honest and transparent and on your terms, in short, being your true self, is the path that is most likely to result in genuine and sustained satisfaction. For all you men in the former category you might want to consider growing up. Think about it guys. Food for thought.
Photo Credit: Getty Images