In response to the sexual abuse revelations in the past few weeks the discourse about men has devolved to the point where the esteemed New York Times is publishing opinion pieces about the inherent monstrousness of the male libido. In his article “The Unexamined Male Libido,” Stephen Marche maintains that male sexuality is inherently brutal; the penis is an instrument of violence and repeats the old angry slur that consensual sex between a man and woman can only take place if the penis is flaccid. According to this argument an erect penis and discernment are entirely incompatible.
If the point is that the male libido is both powerful and somewhat indiscriminate, it’s a moot point at best. Males are neuro-biologically wired to procreate with any female. At the same time females are neuro-biologically programmed to be selective in choosing with whom to procreate. A great deal of the behavior of heterosexual men and women would be illuminated if it was viewed through the lens of this dynamic. The tension embedded in the dichotomy of male and female neuro-biology creates an enormous developmental challenge for young males in the journey from boyhood through adolescence and into healthy adult male development. What boys will inevitably encounter at the threshold between boyhood and adolescence is the experience of shame that they are ill-prepared to manage.
One thing that predictably produces shame is the experience of anticipated gratification abruptly withdrawn or denied. In observations of infants whose desire to nurse was abruptly denied, the infant adopts a posture and facial expression that could only be interpreted as the look of shame. (See Silvan Tompkins on 9 basic affects) The infant can’t help but need the breast and the anticipation of that need being fulfilled tees up the infant nervous system for the crushing experience of having that need denied. When I talk about shame in this way, I am not suggesting that infants feel guilt, embarrassment, regret and the other emotions we commonly associate with shame. But rather that these early experiences lay the underlying architecture, the neuro-biological scaffolding for what we commonly think of as shame.
By pointing out the ubiquitous experience of infants and children with respect to shame, I am not suggesting that we should think of men as simply big children though popular children’s books often present them that way. Read any Berenstain bear books and you will see fathers portrayed as just big children. Rather the point is that given our neurobiology men will experience shame when they encounter the neurobiological imperative whereby the female rejects at least some of the male’s advances.
Let’s be honest. We all have the deeply ambivalent relationship to need. It puts each of us in harm’s way in that where need exists, shame is close at hand. And I suppose an argument can be made that men are especially compromised in their ability to resolve this ambivalence given that they can and often do simply take what is being denied them.
But I would argue that when this happens and it happens way too much, it is often because men have been shamed for having the need in the first place and/or because they never learned to tolerate or recognize the rebuff. When anyone desires something intensely, it is often difficult or impossible to believe the other does not desire it as well.
In our collective inability to have a conversation about sex, need and shame we do a disservice to our children in not preparing them for the inevitable painful and disorganizing experience that awaits them in adolescence. And we would talk about it and maybe our parents would’ve talked to us if we and they weren’t so embarrassed and ashamed about our own needs and our sense of inadequacy over not knowing how to approach the subject.
I know from experience that the challenge for young men can be pretty formidable.
I grew up among people who were terribly compromised in their ability to regulate their intense emotions. Our family life was characterized by passion, unruly behavior and the sense that at any moment things could devolve into chaos. When I was 15, I fell deeply in love with a girl, let’s call her Harriet, and I pursued her relentlessly. She was very chaste and Catholic. I was Catholic, as well, but being a young man chastity was, as I have indicated above, at odds with my hardwired instinctual nature. I tried very hard to curb my passions and was, for the most part, successful in that I behaved like a gentleman and tried to win Harriet’s affection honorably. We went out on dates and I tried to charm her parents (though her father saw right through to my salacious motives) and went very slowly in my physical overtures.
This painstaking process went on for so long that by the time I made any real headway, I had gotten my driver’s license. It was a beautiful night in June when I took Harriet to the movies. I had borrowed my father’s Bonneville convertible and parked in front of Harriet’s house. We walked the three blocks to the theater in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. I coaxed her into a quiet area near the back of the movie.
I don’t remember the picture we saw but I do remember Harriet allowing me to put my arm around her and even let me kiss her while the credits ran at the end of the movie. We walked hand-in-hand back to her house and stood on the front stairs leading up to the front door. She stood one step above me and looking up into her eyes I said, “Harriet, I really love you.”
The moment was so perfect, the only thing I could imagine was for her to lean down, kiss me on the mouth and say, “I love you, too.”
But what actually happened was that Harriet put both hands in front of her, waved them back and forth and quickly backed up a few stairs shaking her head. I said “what’s wrong?” And she turned and exclaimed over her shoulder “I have to go in!”
I stood on the stair stunned into silence with this terrible feeling in my chest. Somehow I got into my father’s car, pulled out of the parking space and slammed on the accelerator. Harriet’s street ended in a T intersection with a brick wall on the other side and if I had done what I had the impulse to do, I would not be writing this now. As the car sped towards the brick wall, I somehow found the wherewithal to slam on the brakes and make a right-hand turn at the corner.
I felt like I wanted to die but what I realized later was that I also wanted to hurt Harriet. By killing myself I would have gotten rid of the terrible feeling her rebuff produced in me and give her a terrible feeling for having done so.
Given my family background, I imagine my reaction was more intense than other people might experience. But I believe it captures the basic trajectory of the reaction to shame and perhaps better illustrates it because of its intensity.
Throughout his growing up years a boy has been told that one day he will be a man.
Boys are often asked “What will you be when you grow up?” And most of us wonder what it will look like to be a man and whether we are up to it? For young men, becoming a man is not just about the passage of time. We boys are raised with the idea that manhood is something that must be achieved. The military, sports and fraternity initiation rituals are all seen as tests. To pass you must endure pain, even welcome it, demonstrate strength, often endure humiliation and sometimes sacrifice your ego or selfish motives for the good of the group or to be accepted into an inner circle.
Often young boys are particularly loved by their mothers and prized by their fathers. They arrive at the threshold of puberty ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of adult male responsibilities and especially ill-equipped to manage the intense distress of being rebuffed by women and girls.
Male initiation rituals are designed to maintain the hierarchy whereby older males maintain their power and sexual prerogatives while toughening the younger males to do their bidding: going to war being the most iconic version of this. (See Anthony Stevens “Archetypes: A Natural History of the Self,” 1982) The nature of these rituals invariably shames a young man’s tender most feelings out of him. By humiliating and shaming the younger males, they attempt to inoculate the initiate against shame so that the younger males will do the shameful bidding of their elders. Tender feeling can only get in the way of the brutality necessary to kill.
This produces young men wired for violence, disengagement from tender emotions and ill-prepared to be in a relationship with a woman. He has been hardened against compassion and much or all of his fellow feeling will be reserved, experienced and expressed as loyalty to his comrades.
In the traditionally male venues such as sports, the military and fraternities a young man’s vulnerability will be shamed out of him and he becomes cut off from the more tender aspects of his being, making them unavailable to an intimate connection.
That vulnerability cannot be completely suppressed.
Indeed, it is likely that the need for warm human connection grows in the context of the deprivations of male initiation and can only be directed toward a woman who is presumably safe. But because it has been suppressed, a man’s vulnerability is especially tender and reactive when he brings it to a relationship with a woman. Intuitively many women seem to be aware of the man’s fragility and attempt to rebuff him in a way that doesn’t provoke the shame that they sense is so dangerous.
One of the ironies of male development is that he has an intense need for tenderness and is entirely incapable of eliciting it or requesting it because he’s been hardened against it. The inherent challenges of managing the shame of anticipated gratification abruptly withdrawn are more disorganizing for young men who approach women without any awareness of their vulnerability or their likelihood of being rebuffed.
In the culture of men, to need is a sin.
But since certain needs are inescapable, the denial of need puts immense internal pressure on a man. To me this goes a long way to explaining the sexual abuse of children in that priests take a vow of celibacy, unrealistically denying a basic need. In a culture where to need is a sin, we find ourselves needing sinful things. What is being exposed by these recent revelations of male predation is not the intrinsic badness of men but how ill-equipped men, and especially powerful ones, are to manage the inherent shame and vulnerability associated with needing a woman.
Perhaps the traditional forms of male initiation have been necessary from our ancient past when the willingness to do violence was in the interest of preserving the tribe. But in persisting in this way of testing a man we are ensuring the need to do violence even though we live in relative safety. I am sure that in most versions of modern initiation rituals, men are counseled in chivalry of some sort but that does not invite the man into an awareness of their own vulnerability. Chivalry still keeps the man one step removed from both his own vulnerability and from a real intimate connection with a woman.
Were we to retool traditional male initiation rituals, we would include formal training in compassion. Perhaps, one of the tests would be to accurately assess the experience and feelings of other human beings and to demonstrate the ability to imagine what it must be like to go through what someone they are observing is experiencing. Training in how to metabolize shame would also be useful in attenuating the impulse to self harm or other directed violence that is a predictable reaction to the experience of shame.
In my own case my mother noticed how morose and crestfallen I was after my breakup with Harriet. One day she encouraged me to confide in her. My father had recently left her for a younger woman and I was especially attuned to her sadness. After hearing me out, she took my hands in hers, looked into my eyes and said, “Thomas, you cannot make someone love you.” Coming from her, given how bereft I knew she was, was a balm for me. I had not failed, I was not unworthy. Soon my depression lifted and I moved on to approach the next girl.
In this context it is necessary to point out that the traditional challenges of initiation, i.e. to endure pain, shows strength, suffer humiliation and sacrifice the ego and selfish motives to gain membership in an inner circle are the same tests the young man will face in attempting to engage in an intimate relationship. But when a man accepts these challenges in the quest for a prized relationship with a woman, the couple can make a place for the more tender parts. Sadly, the more traditional pathway to manhood creates an unbalanced, unintegrated and, because he must defend against his vulnerability, fragile man. When I see powerful men abusing women I am bearing witness to their weakness — my sadness at odds with my outrage over the harm they have done.
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