Bullying and murder are bad enough, but the meta risk factors of the Man Box can kill our sons decades in the future.
We are confronting an epidemic of violent bullying. And the only explanation we can seem to come up with is that some boys are different and need to be protected from bullying. It is suggested that some boys don’t fit in. Fit in to what, exactly?
What we need to be saying instead is that all boys are vastly diverse and wonderfully different. Because they are. But in America, our sons are pressured and bullied to conform to the rules of traditional American manhood. We refer to this constant pressure to conform as “living in the Man Box”.
As America’s rich and diverse population of boys are driven down the cattle chute of the Man Box, millions of our sons will always be found wanting. They will be bullied, abused and even murdered for being nothing more than supremely human.
The victims are easy enough to spot. Some of these boys are too awkward, or too skinny. Some are too small. Some are too emotionally raw, or too nervous. Some may be gay or trans. Some are simply too silly or too playful, too unschooled in the postures and poses of toughness.
Damned If You Don’t
The rules of traditional American manhood enforced by the Man Box are as follows:
- Real men do not express their emotions, except for anger.
- Real men are financial providers not care givers
- Real men are heterosexual and dominant in and out of the bedroom
- Real men are leaders and have the final word in any discussion
- Real men are never unemployed
- Real men are always confident
- Real men play sports and talk about sports as their primary mode of interaction
The Man Box says, “Be a ‘real man’ or pay the price.” But this test is rigged. As a system of enforced conformity, the Man Box requires a victim population to bully and abuse; a population that can stand as a warning of what happens if you don’t conform. And so, boys are forced to make the choice, either conform or face the threat of expulsion and relentless abuse. Except for those who never get the choice at all.
The Damage Done
As part of the process for conforming, boys who once had vibrant male friendships in early adolescence begin to shut out those vitally important friendships as they enter late adolescence. Why? They fall prey to our culture’s messages about how to be a real man.
Niobe Way, Professor of Applied Psychology at New York University, and author of Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, writes:
Boys know by late adolescence that their close male friendships, and even their emotional acuity, put them at risk of being labeled “girly,” “immature,” or “gay.” Thus, rather than focusing on who they are, they become obsessed with who they are not — they are not girls, little boys nor, in the case of heterosexual boys, are they gay.
Boys begin the insidious process of shutting down their emotional needs and turning away from friendships as a source of life affirming and sustaining connection. They are herded toward the emotional isolation of the Man Box with the promise of belonging. But belonging to what?
Damned If You Do
And here’s the double bind. The bullying inside the Man Box is just as ferocious as it is outside. We need look no further than the brutal initiation rituals of fraternities to see examples of this. A central expectation of the Man Box is that our sons will not only administer but also absorb punishing abuse as part of proving they are real men.
And here’s the other way the game is rigged. Men in America can never finish proving they are “real men”. They are never allowed to completely and finally pass the test. They have to keep proving their manhood over and over again, forever.
According to the National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention at the University of Maine, hazing is defined as “any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers them, regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.
How bad can it get? Here’s one example among hundreds of hazing related deaths. In 1994, a student as Southeast Missouri State University died after being brutally beaten as part of a hazing ritual. He was unconscious when he was driven home and put to bed. He had broken ribs, a lacerated kidney, a lacerated liver, and bruises all over his chest, neck, back and arms. He died from bleeding in his brain.
A list of hundreds of hazing deaths can be seen here.
Death by Solitary Confinement
But there is a larger hidden epidemic here, one that claims millions of lives. Keep your eye on rule number one, “don’t express emotions.” It is by far the most insidious killer.
In the world of traditional masculinity, we Americans hold emotional connection as a feminine trait. We reject it in our sons, demanding that they “man up” and adopt a strict regimen of emotional toughness, even isolation, as proof they are real men. Behind the drumbeat message that real men do not show their emotions, is the brutal fist of the homophobic bully, ready to crush any boy who might show too much of the wrong kind of emotions.
Accordingly, at an early age, boys make the very logical decision to suppress their emotions. They never develop their gift for emotional fluency, the powerful ability to navigate and express emotions.
Emotional fluency is a learned skill based on years of practice in communicating our own feelings and acknowledging/engaging the feelings of others. It is a competency that is learned in our homes, and in our communities, through the tens of thousands of small conversations that make up a boy’s life. In daily interactions, we parents have the opportunity to model for our sons emotional expression, courage, compassion and curiosity. We can create a counter message to the Man Box. A message which says, “‘Emotional expression and empathy are powerful strengths. Learn to use them.”
Without emotional fluency, we can not create the social connections we need to heal and create resiliency in our lives. If we as parents don’t teach our sons to connect emotionally, the poisonous culture of the Man Box will teach them to suppress and deny their emotions.
Men who do not connect emotionally, find it more difficult to form lasting friendships, typically relying on their wives or workplaces to provide social connections. When they divorce or leave their workplaces, those relationships falter, being more circumstantial than emotionally resonant. The results? Widespread chronic loneliness for men as they enter middle age.
Want proof of how widespread this is?
In 2010 the American Association of Retired Persons conducted a survey in which revealed that 1 in 3 adults over the age of 45 are chronically lonely. That is 44 million people. And this number is growing at a dramatic pace, up from 1 in 5 just ten years before.
And here’s where the dying comes in.
The New Republic published an article titled, “The Lethality of Loneliness.” Here is a quote from that article:
Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. diseases thought to be caused by or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.
In a meta review conducted in 2013, researchers reviewed 148 studies involving over 308,000 participants. The study titled Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review concluded:
The quality and quantity of individuals’ social relationships has been linked not only to mental health but also to both morbidity and mortality…indicating a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships.
These findings indicate that the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.
Male suicides outnumber female by a factor of three to one and are climbing. Gay and trans people are being murdered all across the world. As catastrophic as this slaughter is, a whole additional population of men are dying too early in their lives. And they’re dying for lack of human connection.
Its not difficult to connect the dots. We train our sons away from emotionally vibrant friendships in adolescence. Men confront epidemic levels of social isolation. Isolation increases the risk factors for mortality across a wide range of dangerous illnesses.
If we can give our sons only one gift, it must be the gift of emotional fluency; the capacity to comfortably and openly express their emotions and feel empathy for others. If we are dying from anything in this angry conflict ridden world, it is, at its base, an epidemic of emotional isolation.
The good news is our sons can learn to connect emotionally and they can learn how in our homes. We just need to commit to the task.
So, we are confronted with a decision. Do we teach our sons how to connect emotionally or do we abandon them to be shut down, savaged and ultimately killed by the Man Box?
I think the choice is clear.
Photo by: Emmett Tullos
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