[The phrase “be a man”] is usually connected to one man’s demand that another man be “stronger,” which is traditionally understood as the ability to suppress emotional reactions and channel that energy into controlling situations and establishing dominance.
Be a man, then, typically translates as: Surrender your humanity.
–Robert Jensen, Getting Off
Reversed stupidity is not intelligence. Jensen is wrong, epically wrong, about male sexuality, and not particularly good at critiquing porn either. However, that doesn’t mean that everything he thinks is wrong, and in this post I’d like to highlight some of the things he says that I believe are actually interesting and correct.
Jensen summarizes masculinity as having three primary traits: the avoidance of of things too closely connected to women/femininity; the struggle for supremacy in interpersonal relationships and social situations; and the repression of emotions related to womanhood/femininity. I don’t think this is entirely correct (for one thing, he’s missing the whole “men are horny beasts who are always up for it” bit, which is a really obvious omission in a book about porn), but it’s an interesting starting place.
In the most striking metaphor in the book, Jensen describes masculinity as a constant game of King of the Hill, in which men compete to be the one man who has reached the pinnacle and can be considered a Real Man. But even the one man on the top isn’t safe: he must fear someone else, younger and stronger and manlier, pulling him down. The slightest slip or misplaced foot– getting fired from your job, crying, being your girlfriend’s “bitch,” discovering your love of My Little Pony– will destroy your status as King.
One of the most tragic effects that Jensen describes is the loneliness related to conventional masculinity. “The Man Who Would Be King,” Jensen says, “is the Man Who Is Broken And Alone.” Masculinity circumscribes the emotions that are acceptable to express: sexual desire, competition, anger and, most of all, stoicism. However, in order to maintain a functional romantic relationship, you have to express your emotions and communicate openly with each other– skills men in our culture are not encouraged to develop.
If your view of the world is based around a zero-sum competition of masculinity, a macho competition, a literal dick-measuring contest, it limits your ability to engage in real relationships. And that is, fundamentally, sad.
Jensen says, “whatever the benefits of it, whatever power it gives one over others, it’s also exhausting and, in the end, unfulfilling.” The Man Box is, in essence, a cage. It’s a nice cage, don’t get me wrong. You get gilding on the bars and a pillow and nice food. But it is still a cage; the bars being made of social opprobrium instead of iron doesn’t make them any less real.
Patriarchy harms people of all genders. It’s bad to be forced to be strong when you’re weak; it’s bad to be forced to be weak if you’re strong. The latter is just easier to see.