The experience of male powerlessness is very real, and social group influence is our most immediate antidote.
Once you start looking for it, the experience of male powerlessness seems like it is almost everywhere. It’s in the obvious places, some of which I’ve mentioned before: a laid off shipyard worker in Susan Faludi’s Stiffed saying that “I. Feel. Castrated.” The guys in Michael Kimmel’s Guyland who seem owned by the culture around them. The men in Hannah Rosin’s The End of Men who, in differing capacities, seem incapable of adjusting to the shifting world around them.
And it is in the not-so-obvious places, as Noah Berlatsky writes about the “narrative demands,” of the Male Gaze, commenters on my pieces write of the “harsh and unforgiving women” who make them feel impotent, “bitter, and depress[ed]” in the world of modern dating, and my guy friends at school talk about how “easy” girls have it, and how hard they have it, in terms of hookups.
The experience of male powerlessness is as ubiquitous to so many of us guys as its opposite, male power, is ubiquitous to so many of us modern feminists. And navigating those two perceptions is difficult, to say the least, and downright ugly a lot of the time. I am not going to parse that debate today, because it’s worth at least a few thousand words, if not more.
Instead, I’d like to highlight a bit of male power that is easy to forget for a lot of us, especially those of us guys who have been bullied and seen the worst sides of homosocial male dominance.
As I’ve written before, most every one of us young men finds comfort, solidarity, and often even greater character, through the all-male groups that we inhabit and come to love. They are an essential part of guyhood because as brothers and bonded friends, we can lose our selves, at times, and gain a communal identity.
That collective character is empowering. It can bring us agency in new and unexpected ways, but the interesting thing about that social power is that it can go in any direction. Of alleged gang rapes in college, 55% are thought to be committed by fraternity members, and 40% by school athletes. Homophobia is an all too common feature of many all-male groups, as is violence, whether it be intended to dominate, in the case of hazing, or to compete and show off, in the case of fight clubs and inter-group brawls. But, for those of us who have been in all-male groups, we can’t talk about our brotherhoods without also talking about the charities that our many fraternities fund, and the interpersonal care that we’ve offered each other in times of need. In the case of my own small fraternity, our annual charity drive is one of the biggest instances of student-led charitable giving on campus, second only to Relay for Life, and I can’t even begin to explain the pride I felt when my brotherhood came together to say the mourning prayer of Kaddish for a brother’s recently deceased relative this past year.
It is simple to talk abut these behaviors as individualized, personal acts of aggression and compassion. But, we all know that much of our behavior is facilitated, edited, and heavily influenced by those around us, just as we also know our own power to help create those social conditions. It is a fluid process of influence, where social environments are created and driven by individuals but tend to take on a life of their own when ignored. The trick is to always pay attention to those environments and group effects and to tweak or redirect them when necessary. And, there is a lot to gain from that skill.
Whether we be formally chosen leaders, or typical, involved members with social standing, we can help to set the tone and influence the behavior of our groups. If we make our communities more inviting to people who aren’t straight or male, we have the social power to do just that by highlighting and opposing sexist or homophobic language. If we want to stop the sexual assault that is so endemic among our age cohort, we have the power to do that, by coming together to intervene or collectively de-validate the ideas that encourage rape. If we want to direct the energy of our community toward more mutual compassion or charity, we can do that too by identifying our shared strength and capacity for care.
It seems that when I see male powerlessness described, the identified culprit often tends to be distant or diffuse. It’s the larger trends of the ‘War on Men,’ the disproportionate effect of the recession on male workers, or the perceived skewed gains of the sexual revolution. But in the world of guyhood, independent of those hard-to-grasp trends, where so many of us spend time in all-male groups that are beneficial but often less than desirable, we are often more directly influenced by the guys around us than we’d like to admit. I submit that this is as much an instance of perceived male powerlessness as any of the other causes listed above. Many of us have been bullied, hazed, fought, and hated by the all-male groups that surround us. Most of us dislike the ways that we have to sometimes make excuses for our male friends’ assholery. The vast majority of us are made uncomfortable by the sexism, the homophobia, and the aggression of our friends.
But the silver lining around this lack of agency, unlike the other perceived causes of our powerlessness, is that it is immediate. We experience and, believe it or not, powerfully influence, our all-male groups all the time. If we’re not working to create the conditions which make our groups do their best or their worst, we’re either actively facilitating those conditions, or passively standing by them, letting them continue for better or for worse.
Not only do we have the responsibility, I believe, to improve the moral character of the groups we inhabit, but we also have the ability. So, the next time that you feel weak or powerless, regardless of that feelings’ cause, consider the behavior of your friends and chosen brothers, and remember your social power.