Identity as a man runs deeper than society’s definition of manhood.
One of the most challenging labels I struggle with is one that is at the very heart of my identity – man. For most of my life it was hard, if not impossible, to see myself as a “man.” And today I continue to struggle with the label “man” in many ways. In large part because many things people perceive as intrinsic to being a “man” simply didn’t apply to me.
I am all at once a man, not a man, something more than and something less than a man. All of these statements are true not because I am different things, but because the ideas of what is and is not a man are so… complex. I cannot stop the world from applying the label of “man” to me. Therefore I find myself having to confront the critiques and expectations attached to it. The truth is very little about my life has seemed to align neatly within the commonly held “male” paradigm:
- I’m a survivor of sexual violence. That alone is something that most people cannot reconcile with the idea of a man. Even though more than ¼ of males in the US will experience some form of sexual violence in our lifetime, sexual victimization is still seen as almost exclusively an issue that women have to fight against. Today, I have no problem seeing myself as a “man” and as a person who was sexually abused. But before I began my own healing journey, the rape and other abuses I endured as a child definitely made it harder for me to see myself as a man. Today, I take pride in being able to say that I am a survivor, but, honestly, I’m not always comfortable with that label either. I have no doubt that part of my struggle with terms like “survivor” and “victims” is that they don’t “fit” into what the paradigm of a man is or is supposed to be
- I have a complicated relationship to sex. Although I personally have no confusion about my own sexual identity (which is a serious issue for many survivors of who had an abuser of the same gender), I don’t embody the sex machine stereotype that most people seem to believe a man is or should be. I think the stereotype massively overstates the reality – many men, perhaps even most men do not center their lives around the pursuit of sex, nor do they gauge their level of success or satisfaction with themselves solely on the basis of how much sex they have. In my case, I do enjoy sex. At the same time, however, sex is also a significant trigger for me. It’s very difficult for me to separate out sex from feelings of intense and oftentimes destabilizing fear and vulnerability. I have no conception of what it must be like to have the kind of sex life that I see modeled throughout popular culture as the way that men should act.
- I’m not the sole breadwinner in my household, nor am I the primary earner. My wife is a senior executive at a for profit corporation; I am the executive director of a 501(c)(3) organization. Even though I see myself as modern and enlightened, there have been times when the outdated expectations of man = provider have been a source of frustration for me personally, and a source of criticism from others. I work from home, and I am the one who is usually responsible for food shopping, cooking, and cleaning the bathrooms. (but I do draw the line at laundry, it’s just not my thing). That might make me a better husband in many people’s eyes, but there are many people who would nonetheless call into question whether or not I am really being a “man” and fulfiling the expected duty to sufficiently provide for my family. Personally, I think those expectations are bunk, but they exist, and they will impact the way some people perceive who and what I am.
- I do not intend to have children. I am at peace with this decision. It is one that my wife and I have discussed together openly and that we agree on. (For the record, I was the one who was more inclined to have kids.) I actually know that I would not be the great father that so many others predicted I would be, mainly because I simply don’t want to be a dad. But even making that statement is in some way rebelling against what a man is supposed to be, and there are likely some people who would consider my decision selfish.
- Lastly, I am not an oppressor. But according to some people, simply by being a man I am guilty of actively perpetuating and also of benefiting from a patriarchal system of oppression and violence against women. This is a difficult, perhaps the most difficult aspect of “manhood” to navigate. I enjoyed few of the privileges and protections afforded to the dominant class. That said, I cannot disavow that, as a white male, I have benefitted by not having to combat certain prejudices, institutional barriers, and cultural presumptions that others have faced. Nonetheless, I emphatically deny that I, as a man, am somehow responsible for the perpetuation of patriarchal systems of oppression I recognize this is difficult and divisive issue for many people to discuss. But I strongly believe that progress will not come by simply labeling men as broken or bad.
When I was a child, I remember one of my constant wishes was to be able to see myself in the eyes of someone else. I had no idea how other people saw me and I thought that if only I could see exactly how other people saw me, maybe I could fix those things that made me such a target.
I am finally beginning to learn how to see who I am through the only eyes that truly matter – my own. By empowering myself to take back my own identity, it not only frees me from being limited by the presuppositions and prejudices of others, it allows me to choose to let into my heart the opinions of those who truly care for me and support me. In the end, those are the only other opinions about who I am that really matter.
The role of men is changing in the 21st century. Want to keep up? Get the best stories from The Good Men Project delivered straight to your inbox, here.Photo: Shahin Edalati/Flickr