American men, accustomed to exercising power for generations, are adrift in a liminal cultural space unlike any we have ever experienced.
I really wish I had better news for you, but who we are and how we got here is not a pretty story. And now, we are suspended, rudderless, between our long history of male privilege and newer more diverse masculinities emerging from decades of social and economic upheaval. For this generation of men, there will be no quick or easy way forward. It will take generations for us to free ourselves from what was done to us, by us, for us, and through us in the name of traditional American masculinity.
And here’s the part where we all get uncomfortable. It’s the part where I talk about what’s dangerously wrong with American manhood. I’m uncomfortable writing it. And if you’re a man, you’re likely uncomfortable reading it. But soldier on. Man up. Because, whether you buy into my critique or not, being uncomfortable is likely going to be par for the course for men for the rest of our natural lives, and how we process our cultural anxiety will impact our families for generations to come.
To begin: whether we are conscious of it or not, many of us continue to perform manhood as an exercise of our power over women; a mindset handed down from when American women were legally little more than property. As women and their allies agitate and legislate their way towards equality, men are responding ever more angrily, refusing to acknowledge women’s long history of chronic trauma, much less our own. Beneath all this male anger lies an avalanche of fear. The idea the women are less then men is so deeply ingrained in how we are trained to perform manhood that the loss of our privileged position, for many of us, is the loss of core identity.
Generations of men have been conditioned to leverage the authority over women granted us by virtue of our simply being male.
We never learned to negotiate as equals in our personal relationships because we didn’t have to. We never learned to deal with the daily uncertainty of not knowing because we were free to declare what and how things should be. For many of us, developing our more nuanced relational capacities faltered or failed utterly, preempted by manhood’s blunt assertions of dominance. And even when we attempt to navigate the complexities of equality in our romantic relationships with women, always behind the carrot lurks the stick of our power as men. It takes only the slightest bit of empathy to imagine the rage this would create for us where our positions with women reversed.
A cursory glance at the makeup of the U.S. Congress will verify that men continue to hold the levers of power over women. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, nearly one in five women report being the victim of rape. Physical violence by an intimate partner was experienced by almost a third of women. Across the US and globally, men threaten, brutalize and murder women with shocking ferocity.
Presented with these easily verifiable facts, men’s defensive anger surges up from the disconnect between the male privilege that we continue to leverage to this day and the calamity that is modern life. Surely, this is someone else’s fault? Immigrants. Socialists. Feminists.
The wave of chronic trauma we are confronting has taken generations to form and will take generations to spend itself, if ever.
For men and women alike, every action we take either adds momentum to this wave or decreases its impact on the generations that will follow us. And because women’s and even children’s voices are growing louder and more insistent, men are slowly coming to a painful realization. There is nowhere to hide from the collective trauma all around us.
Whether it is video of gunfire in our schools or the cries of terrified children at our borders. It is universal and ubiquitous. It is the air we breathe, the water we swim in; so universal as to be background noise, numbing us to the grislier realities of famine and war. If ignored, chronic trauma will be the defining legacy we leave to our children and theirs. If ignored, it may well be the end of us all.
The deep well of male loneliness
Male rage is rooted in the collective self-alienation and isolation that is part and parcel of our culture of manhood. In her book When Boys Become Boys, Dr. Judy Chu of Stanford University documents how our sons are taught to hide their early capacity for being emotionally perceptive, articulate, and responsive. Starting in preschool, our little sons learn to align their behaviors with “the emotionally disconnected stereotype our culture projects onto them.”
“Boys are taught to hide vulnerable emotions like sadness, fear, and pain, which imply weakness and are stereotypically associated with femininity,” Chu writes.
Our culture tells our sons “don’t be a sissy” or “be a man” but the message is clear. Don’t be a woman. Women are less. As early as age four, our young sons are already being taught to reject the feminine, constructing a version of themselves that integrates women’s second-class status into their masculine identities. This drumbeat condemnation of the feminine is the perfect trap, cementing in place the interlocking double bind of misogyny and self-alienation that is the man box.
The deep irony of all of this is that men don’t feel empowered by male privilege. What they feel is trapped in silos of social and emotional isolation, under seige, as millions of women and other men rebel against an antiquated social contract that systematically cuts us off from deeper, more authentic human connection.
Niobe Way, author of Deep Secrets, documents how we shame and bully our adolescent sons into giving up their loving friendships in order to prove a destructive and isolating set of negatives. In Way’s words, “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. In response to a cultural context that links intimacy in male friendships with an age, a sex (female), and a sexuality (gay), these boys mature into men who are autonomous, emotionally stoic, and isolated.”
The Health Impact
In 2010, the AARP published a study which shows that one in three Americans, age 45 and older is chronically lonely. That’s equal to 42 million Americans. Studies show that the health impact of chronic loneliness is equal to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. The result is much higher rates of diabetes, cancer, obesity, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and more. Our culture of masculinity suppresses our sons’ relational capacities, making it a major contributing factor to the epidemic of loneliness in America.
By training our sons into foregoing authentic relational connection and expression, what some call living in the man box, our culture blocks them from the trial and error process of growing crucial relational capacities even as it coaches them to police and bully other men to conform.
At a time when boys should be expressing and constructing their identities in more diverse, grounded, and authentic ways, they are brutally conditioned to suppress authentic expression and instead cleave closely to the expression of male privilege as identity. And so men brag about hook up sex and ghosting women, seeking to bond via the uniformly degrading and contemptuous narratives of locker room talk.
The result is generations of men who are half anti-women and half anti-self, suppressing the authentic expression of who we are, even as we compete to parade our male privilege. In this context, the impact of women’s steady progress toward equality on men’s privilege-based sense of identity cannot be underestimated. Many men are now fighting to overturn the progress women have made because women’s empowerment is antithetical to how our culture constructs our sense of what a man is.
Boys and men have never been encouraged to develop a robust community of relationships; the parts of us naturally designed to create connection atrophing within us through lack of use. So, even as isolating as it is, when our “women are less” based identity is threatened, we fight angrily to maintain it, sensing the alarming lack of any authentic sense of self to fall back on.
What’s the way forward?
We are confronted with a choice. We can allow the man box driven policing of ourselves and others to continue, or we can start making space for more options, for a much more wide ranging set of masculinities. Millions of men are already doing this work. Rigid, limiting performances of manhood are giving way to much more fluid expressions of gender, especially among millennials. Millions of fathers are taking on the role of full time parents and primary caregivers. Homophobia, long used to enforce the man box, is in decline among the young.
But men are facing a double bind, the second half of which will require even more courage to confront. We must work to end the systemic violence created by a culture of masculinity that has clearly privileged us. It’s a man’s world, right? As men, we cannot sidestep our part in creating everything from #MeToo, to the ugly culture of white nationalism in Trump’s America. And because our man box culture has bullied and shamed each of us into siloed, isolated lives, we have developed none of the relational capacities needed to repair the damage that has been done in our names.
And so, we are facing the very task we have been conditioned to avoid at all costs. In order to break the man box cycle of isolation and abuse, men must take everything we have been taught about gender the flip it on its head. We must activate the parts of ourselves we have been trained to suppress. We must call on every aspect of ourselves we were taught to deny, aspects degraded and wrongly gendered as feminine. These aspects include empathy, play, compassion, collaboration, connection and that greatest of human challenges, bridging across difference.
Generations of men have been nothing short of relationally castrated, but we must rediscover our empathy and much more.
We must rediscover nothing less than the art of being in relationship. We must come in from the cold and focus on growing our relational intelligence, learning to daily negotiate, explore and play within our relationships in the context of a world that remains trauma inducing and trauma informed.
Men can no longer avert our eyes from what is deeply broken in ourselves and in others. We can no longer cater to our discomfort, avoiding at all costs the challenging conversations required of us. We must do the work of connection and self-reflection, knowing all the while that the trauma we seek to engage will not likely be fixed or resolved in our lifetimes.
We must learn to sit with the uncertainty this lack of closure creates for us, not knowing what is emerging while the human heart does its mysterious work. In a world where men have been trained to fix instead of host, repair instead of engage, we must learn to hold the challenging emotions of others, possibly for years. We must understand the power we have when we listen. We must learn to sit with things that will not be easily resolved and in doing so, perhaps, some day, resolve them.
Human beings heal in the back and forth of relating and connecting. We don’t heal in isolation. We don’t heal others. We heal in relationship. It can seem like a cruelly ironic thing, for men to be asked to learn to connect after being brutally trained out of it all our lives, but the benefits of doing so are very real. When we learn to connect in the back and forth of sharing our stories, something remarkable happens. We’re not alone any more. We come in from the cold. We become family. We become community, and any of us, regardless of our histories, our challenges, or our past sins, can begin this work.
It’s time for all of us, for all men to gather our courage and connect. We must do this work for our children, our partners, our communities, our world, and ourselves.
We must do this before it is too late.
Photo illustration by Tatiana T
Worried about what the man box might do to your sons or daughters? Mark Greene and Dr. Saliha Bava, have co-authored The Relational Book for Parenting a game changing new book for growing our children’s (and our own) relational capacities. Watch our two minute video below. Or go to ThinkPlayPartners.com.
Order The Relational Book for Parenting on Amazon.