Philip Zimbardo gives a TED talk about the “Demise of Guys.” Dan Griffin respectfully disagrees.
I was watching this recent TED video with psychologist and researcher, Philip Zimbardo, and he was talking about the “demise of guys.” He focused on what he considered to be the crisis of young men today. He used some statistics – that I have often seen – about how boys and men are falling behind girls and women in education and job status while outnumbering women and girls significantly in mental health and behavioral issues. No argument from me there. One of the main points of his presentation was the idea of the “fear of intimacy” that so many boys and men have and how it shows up in all of our relationships. Again, no argument from me. I agree that we should all be concerned about the young boys (and girls) of our society. I also agree that men are experiencing some serious challenges in our society. Technology has certainly had an indelible impact on men and women – the effects of which have been and will always be – negative and positive.
However, I have two problems with Zimbardo’s presentation. The first is it reflects our tendency as a society to love to hear how the younger generation is going to hell in a handbasket – drugs, premarital sex, and, of course, every addiction you can imagine. I am confident that these problems are not unique to the adolescent boys in our country – they merely mirror the problems of our larger society and, in this case, so many of the men of our society. I could find as many men ages forty, fifty, even sixty years old, who are addicted to porn or even gaming and cannot seem to form a relationship with any human being – let alone women. I could also find as many young men who are not looking at porn, have good communication skills, and are learning what it means to have true intimacy with other guys and young women.
Is it really worse for boys and men today or are we FINALLY paying attention to boys and men so we are FINALLY asking these questions and not at all liking the answers we are getting? I have been paying attention to men and gender for almost twenty years now. These are not new problems for boys and men: social isolation, fear of intimacy, interpersonal difficulties, and hyper-sexuality. These problems were the exact issues I first read about in 1993 and 1994 when I was in college. Then graduate school. Then as an intern at an addiction treatment facility. I see these challenges in my father’s generation and I am sure they were in my grandfathers’ generation as well. They look differently today and perhaps are even more extreme as they approach the apogee of the crescendo of failed masculinity, but they are not new and they are most definitely not relegated to the male youths.
The second problem I have – and this extends far beyond Zimbardo as it is imprinted on so many of our conversations about men’s and boys’ putative relational ineptitude –is how often our observations or criticisms of men’s fear of intimacy do not take into consideration that men come by this – and all of the problems stemming from it – naturally. We are raised to live our lives, at best with an inherent conflict between intimate relationships and our masculine persona and at worst finding ourselves caught in the impossibility of being able to form a meaningful partnership with any human being. Furthermore, men do not fear intimacy because we want to, we fear it because we have not been taught how to be intimate. We have been taught not to value it. Many of us have literally had the value of intimacy beaten out of us. We have learned very early to value the mask of masculinity over the true face of our authentic selves (though they are not necessarily diametrically opposed.)
To better understand why young men might have a fear of intimacy let’s look at just three of the elements required for one to be in an intimate relationship: 1) Vulnerability 2) Trust 3) Sharing feelings authentically. Which of these three elements is part of the expected performance of masculinity in our country? Which of these three elements are valued amongst the majority of groups of men? Which of these are what we are taught when we are boys or young men about how to be successful in life?
When Zimbardo talks about the current plight of young men and their fear of intimacy he says that boys and men “from the very beginning” prefer to spend time with each other over spending time with the opposite sex (obviously, he is focused on heterosexuals – not sure if he thinks gay boys and men do not have the same problem or if he is simply ignoring them.) Prefer? Really? Every man I have known who has tried to move beyond the emotional chain gang of other men has fought hard to learn the skills necessary to connect at an authentic level with women – and other men! After years and even decades of being socialized away from intimacy, we now have the cadre of TV show pop psychologists demanding that men step up to the plate and be emotional partners in their relationships – which is essentially asking the majority of us, men, to speak a whole new language. The only problem is that you cannot speak French fluently if nobody has really ever spoken it to you, you have not really practiced it, and few people have tried to teach it to you. It does not mean you do not want to speak French or that you are not willing to try. It does not mean you prefer to only speak English you merely go back to that with which you are more comfortable and have a lot more practice. There is no question that a lot of guys hide out in groups of other men but I would defy you to prove to me that, given a true choice where they genuinely felt they had another option they could exercise, it would be their preference.
I have watched men struggle to share themselves and practice any one of the three aforementioned elements of intimacy while trying to navigate the often mixed messages from women – I want a sensitive and vulnerable man and I want a strong and independent man. These are by no means mutually exclusive but they are damn hard to practice together. I have supported men as they have struggled through trying to be close to their partners and beginning to open up and talk about things they didn’t even realize they were thinking. We have worked together to learn how to share our authentic feelings and not push people away with anger or, at the very least, not deny the constancy of fear. I have known so many men who have continued to try to connect and stay in relationships that were scaring the hell out of them because they do not prefer just hanging out with other guys and really want to experience deep connection and even, God forbid, Love. (Of course, Zimbardo also implies that men hanging in groups together is somehow inherently growth inhibiting or devoid of true intimacy and connection but that is another article!)
I do not really mean to pick on Zimbardo because his heart is in the right place. He just hit some big buttons of mine with some of his comments. I am sick of women and men talking about men’s fear of intimacy as if it exists in a vacuum removed from the multiple forces that have defined our ideas of being men and constantly moved us away from intimacy and learning how to actually practice it. Don’t talk to me about men not caring about relationships – talk to me about what we can do to help men be successful in intimate relationships – a goal every man I know has. Instead of talking about the “demise of guys” (or the end of men) we should be talking about how men and women can work together to move into these new genders of the 21st century and create something that will continue to transform human relationships. We should be talking about what we can do to help men stay connected to their inner selves and not feel the need to hide or run from genuine connection. Instead of talking about the demise of guys we should be talking about – and praying for – the demise of the guise of guys.