If you have a scrap of progressive politics in your bones, it’s no surprise to you that sexism hurts women. Like, duh. That’s kind of the definition of the word.
But we don’t talk as much about how sexism hurts men. Understandably. When you look at the grotesque ways women are damaged by sexism—from economic inequality to political disenfranchisement to literal, physical abuse—it makes perfect sense that we’d care more about how sexism, patriarchy and rigid gender roles affect women than we do about how they affect men.
But men undoubtedly get screwed up by this stuff, too. Not screwed up as badly as women, to be sure… but not trivially, either. I care about it. And I think other feminists—and other women and men who may not see themselves as feminists—ought to care about it, too.
I care about this stuff for a lot of reasons. I care because I have men and boys in my life, men and boys who matter to me; I see how they get twisted into knots by gender roles that are not only insanely rigid but impossibly contradictory, and it makes me sick and sad and seriously pissed off. I care because I care about justice: fair is fair, and I don’t want to solve the problem of gender inequality by making things suck worse for men.
And I care for entirely pragmatic, even Machiavellian reasons. I care because I care about feminism… and I think one of the best things we can do to advance feminism is to get more men on board. If we can convince more men that sexism screws up their lives, too—and that life shared with free and equal women is a whole lot more fun—we’re going to get a lot more men on our side. (Like the bumpersticker a friend once had on her truck: “Feminists Fuck Better.”)
So I’ve been looking more carefully at the specific ways sexism hurts men. In particular, I’ve been looking at our society’s expectations of men, our very definitions of maleness. I’ve been looking at how rigid and narrow many of these expectations are, creating a razor-thin window of acceptable manly behavior that you’d have to be a professional tightrope walker to navigate. (Which would be a problem, since “professional tightrope walker” is definitely outside the parameters of acceptable manliness.) I’ve been looking at how so many of these expectations are not only rigid, but totally contradictory, creating a vision of idealized manhood that’s not just ridiculous but literally unattainable. And I’ve been asking the men in my life—friends, colleagues, family members, community members, guys I know on the Internet—what kinds of expectations they get about Being A Man and how those expectations affect them.
Here is a list of five:
1. Fight, fight, fight!
When I did my informal, unscientific poll of the men in my life and asked what was expected of them as men, this one came up a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Like, an amount that took me seriously by surprise. My slice of society — and the slice shared by most men I know — is comfortably middle-class: educated, chatty, civilized to a fault, and mostly very peaceful. We resolve our conflicts with words, with glares, with strategies, with the law as a last resort. Even raised voices and insulting language are considered somewhat outre. Not counting sporting events, I could count on one hand the number of physical fights I’ve witnessed in the last decade. Or even threats of physical fights.
And yet, man after man that I talked to brought this one up. The willingness to, as my friend Michael put it, “actually, physically, with fists or other weapons, fight” — to defend one’s honor (or the honor of one’s lady, or country, or sports team, or whatever) — is more central to how men are taught to see manhood than I had any notion of. Even if conflicts never get that far — even if you never actually have to pound anyone with your fists — being both willing and able to do so is a weirdly high priority in the Penis Club. As Adam said, “You would rather get a concussion than be called less than a man.” And Damion told me this story: “I’m in the passenger seat when my (relatively butch) sister-in-law flips off some guy in Baltimore traffic. He jumps out of the car, enraged, and my first thought is ‘Great, now I’ve got to beat the shit out of this guy.'”
Which puts men in a nasty conundrum. The laws and expectations of our civilized society are designed to keep physical violence to a minimum. And for good reason: physical violence is, you know, destructive. So men are expected — indeed required — to avoid and deflect confrontation, and to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence.
And when they do, they get called pussies.
2. Be a good husband/partner/lover — but don’t care too much what women think.
This one falls squarely into the category of “not just insanely rigid but logically contradictory” — a damned if you do, damned if you don’t conundrum that ensures a lifetime of self-conscious anxiety if you let yourself take it seriously. Being a good husband and father — a good provider who cares for his family and treats women with respect — is central to the male mythos. And being good in bed has become a crucial part of this mythos as well. It’s no longer enough for a Real Man to nail a lot of women: he has to get every single one of them off. Performance anxiety — it’s not just for hard-ons anymore! Not that I have any problem with the idea that women’s sexual pleasure ought to matter to men who have sex with them. The problem lies with the notion that women’s sexual pleasure is entirely men’s responsibility; that pleasing women ought to be completely instinctive; that women’s satisfaction is a victory to be achieved instead of an experience to be shared; and that this satisfaction has to be accomplished entirely with the man’s hard dick, and not with his hands or tongue or toys or mind. (But that’s a rant for another time.)
Yet at the same time, men aren’t supposed to care too much what women think. Years ago, when I was married to a man, we were trying to make some difficult decisions together about how to arrange our careers and lives (would he work full-time and maybe even overtime to help put me through grad school?). When he asked the guys he worked with for feedback and advice, he mostly got a load of derision for involving me too much in his decisions about his job. “Pussywhipped,” I believe, was the charming terminology being used. Yes, he was supposed to be a good provider and build the financial foundation for our life… but he was somehow supposed to accomplish this without asking me what kind of life I wanted, and without any willingness to compromise about what kind of life he wanted. For himself, or for the two of us. I guess he was supposed to be The Decider.
Of course, while it was horribly unmanly for him to be guided by his wife, it was perfectly fine for him to be guided by the guys he worked with at the auto shop. As Scott said, the TV show “‘King of Queens’ is a good example, I think because though he tries to be a good husband and companion, he often finds himself in conflict with what his friends want or with his own sense of what should be considered masculine.” Men’s definitions of manhood are supposed to come from other men — not from women. They’re just not supposed to care all that much what women think of them.
You see this a lot in fashion advice for men. Men aren’t supposed to look like dorks or slobs, of course… but they can’t look like they care about their looks, either. Men — straight men, anyway — have to achieve that perfect, razor’s edge balance between good grooming and carelessness. You’re supposed to look good — but those good looks have to seem effortless. Looking like you care how you look makes you look like a woman. Or a gay man. (More on that in a tic.) Women are supposed to be the ones prettying themselves up into objects of desire. Men are not supposed to be the objects of desire. They’re supposed to be the subjects. And subjects aren’t supposed to care what their objects think of them.
Except when they’re trying to get those objects to come.
3. Be hot to trot. Always. With anybody.
This is another expectation that came up with striking (although hardly surprising) frequency. Men are supposed to want sex — and be ready for sex — all the time. With pretty much anyone of the right gender who makes themselves available for it. In his evaluation of male gender roles, Michael T. says, “To be a man you must use sexual conquest as a gauge for manhood.” Jraoul quoted a song, Lou Christie’s “Lightning Strikes,” with lyrics that go, “When I see her lips begging to be kissed, I can’t stop, I can’t stop myself… When I see a sign that she wants to make time, I can’t stop, I can’t stop myself….” And in his litany of male gender expectations, my friend Michael listed, “Have sex with any woman who says yes, or who offers herself. If not, I must be gay, right?”
It’s weird. An intense, even predatory sexual desire is a big part of the Manly Man picture. And yet that picture doesn’t allow for men to have preferences. Or rather: They’re allowed and even expected to have preferences — as long as those preferences conform with social norms. I vividly remember an article from a late ’60s Playboy, analyzing men’s personalities based on what kind of female bodies they liked: liking big breasts made you cool, while liking big butts or legs meant you were immature. And that’s hardly a relic of the ’60s: even today, lots of men feel pressured to date women who meet the current standards of female attractiveness. Lots of men, for instance, feel pressured to date fashionably thin women: even if they personally prefer women with more meat on their bones, they feel embarrassed introducing them to their buddies. Like dating a fat chick is a slam on their ego. Like it means they’re not high enough on the primate status ladder to acquire a high-status mate.
So yes, men are allowed to be hotter for some girls than others. But they’re still supposed to get it on with anything that moves and spreads its legs. Anything female and not grotesque, anyway. Men are expected to have sexual desire… but that desire can’t be their own. It can’t be idiosyncratic. Or even all that personal. It can’t belong to them.
And for the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, it can’t be based on emotion.
4. Stiff upper lip.
Because for men, nothing at all can be based on emotion. Generic sexual desire, and the desire to punch someone’s lights out, are pretty much the only emotions men are supposed to experience. And if they have the gall (or the lack of self-control) to experience their emotions, they bloody well better not let on about it.
This one is so common, it’s almost ubiquitous. At least half the men I talked to made a point about it… and a bunch of the ones who didn’t mention it explicitly alluded to it in other ways. David B. says he learned that men are supposed to be “reserved emotionally. Apparently men are only supposed to be passionate about sex, cars, sports and beer. And even then, passionate is not the ‘appropriate’ way for a man to describe his feeling about something.”
David M. got the same memo: “No whining, no complaining, and no crying.” Michael T., got it, too: “To be a man you must be non emotional and disconnected.” And the other Michael: “Have no emotional intelligence / don’t show too many emotions.” Andrew says he learned that a man “is supposed to be hard as nails and is to show no emotion.” Jason learned that being a man means “not showing emotion, being ‘tough’ so to speak — and that one is from peers, family and all of the above.” Dean points out “the usual messages about big boys don’t cry (yes, we do) and how a real man doesn’t complain (yes, they do).” Scott also points to “the boys-don’t-cry mantra.” Ben T. says, “I hate the fact that men can’t be scared of anything.” James says he learned to appear emotionless so effectively that “I did not shed a single tear when my dad died during heart surgery.” And Georges points out, “It always amazed me how brave I had to be to allow my feelings to show.”
This one, I would argue, is more crippling than all the rest combined. I, personally, might be able to manage a life where I always had to be willing to fight or fuck; where I had to walk an impossible tightrope between caring what my partner thought without caring too much; where I had to twist myself into knots to avoid any hint that I might be attracted to people of the same sex. (See below.) But a life where I had to deny my most basic animal emotions — love and fear, passion and grief — just to not get treated as a gender freak? That would send me screaming ’round the bend. (More than I already am, I mean.)
5. Fear of being perceived as gay.
This is kind of a funny one. Acceptance of actual homosexuality has increased by a staggering amount in the last few decades. In less than 40 years, the LGBT rights movement has gone from fighting for our right to not be put in mental institutions and lobotomized, to fighting for our right to get legally married. (And, okay, the right to not be fired from our jobs or kicked out of the U.S. military… but still.) And social acceptance of queers has paralleled our political acceptance. If you actually are a gay man, the “Don’t be even a little bit gay” message is being replaced, more and more every day, with the message, “Well… okay.”
But if you’re a straight man? It’s a very different story. In TV shows and movies, homosexual panic is still a reliable source of comic hijinks. Wacky situations in which straight men are mistaken for gay — Chandler and Joey on “Friends” being out together with a baby, the “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” gag on “Seinfeld” — these are a staple of modern comedy. And that staple is usually stapled to the assumption that, for straight men, being mistaken for gay is a humiliating blow to their masculinity. You see it in fashion/ dating/ etiquette advice for men, too, which often focuses to an almost hysterical degree on walking that razor- thin line between looking like an urbane, sophisticated man of the world… while still, for the sweet love of Jesus, not being mistaken for gay.
And you definitely see it in some very common male sexual fears. I’ve read way too many letters to way too many sex advice columns from way too many straight men saying they like — how shall I put this delicately? — being on the receiving end of anal pleasure… but don’t want to explore this eminently delightful activity, because they’re afraid it means they’re gay. Or because their female partners are afraid it means they’re gay. (Somewhat testy note to straight men and their female partners: No, it doesn’t. Wanting a woman to fuck you in the ass does not make you gay. Any more than wanting a woman to suck your cock does. Please.)
Now, I will say that these attitudes are beginning to change. The advances of the LGBT movement have freed things up for straights as well as queers, and the younger generation is a lot more fluid and casual about sexual orientation than mine ever was. As my friend Ben pointed out, “The loosening of roles that accompanied feminism and the gay rights movement probably benefited straight men at least as much as it did women and gay men… Witness metrosexuality: now that being mistaken for gay isn’t a disaster, men have more fashion leeway.” And Adam, who describes himself as “effeminate, though heterosexual,” says that being assumed to be gay “gave me a pass on some of the more restrictive rules of masculinity. After all, nobody really bothered to tell me to ‘man up’ when I sounded ‘fruity’ anyway.”
But at the same time, as gay visibility has increased, the likelihood of being mistaken for gay has gone way, way up. And as a result, the number of opportunities for anxious, gay-panic freakouts has gone up as well. Being mistaken for gay isn’t as disastrous as it once was — it’s more of a laugh line and less of a petrifying threat — but it also happens a lot more often. And the anxiety it still creates for a lot of straight men is a lot more constant… even if it isn’t as severe.
So what now?
I’ve just barely started. I don’t have nearly enough space here to write the full-length novel I could write on this subject. I’ve skipped some of the biggest and most important gender expectations of men: the expectations of competition, of status consciousness, of financial success, strength and athleticism, leadership skills, mechanical skills, easy erectile functionality, a dehumanizing attitude towards women, giving a crap about sports. Heck, men get a clear social message that, in order to be manly, they have to be tall. What the heck are you supposed to do about that?
What the heck are any of us supposed to do about any of this?
Well, having unloaded all this depressing crap, I think it’s important to deliver some good news: There are ways out of this, and around it, and through it. A lot of men I talked about this said that yes, they were certainly aware of the rigid expectations held of them as men… but they didn’t personally feel hugely constrained by them. Sure, they were aware of these expectations. But they also felt comfortable rejecting them. Or embracing the parts they liked, and rejecting the parts they didn’t. Or subverting them, in creative and fun and sexy ways.
And many men pointed out that, while they’re certainly getting a super-sized serving of narrow, stupid cultural messages about How To Be A Man, they’re also getting a decent helping of smarter, broader messages about Not Listening To That Stupid Shit. Plenty of men have gotten spiffy, role-modely lessons and examples about being non-violent, respectful of women, emotionally honest, sexually honest, and just generally their own best selves… from sources ranging from pop culture icons to their own fathers and mothers. As jraoul pointed out, “Do I think men are given rigid and/or narrow expectations about maleness? Well, sure! And we are also given fluid and/or wide ones. Depends on who’s doing the giving.”
Admittedly, because of my own personality and proclivities, the men in my life tend to be — how shall we put this? — outside the mainstream of conventional American society. (“Big nerdy pinko freaks” would be another way to put it.) And a lot of them are gay or bi, which skews the sampling even more. But just like lots of feminist women are able to laugh off the sitcoms and billboards and women’s magazines and live however the frack we want, lots of feminist men are able to unload the John Wayne/Cary Grant/”What kind of man reads Playboy” crap they got loaded with — or, depending on their generation, the Rambo/Tom Cruise/Maxim magazine crap — and just get on with their lives.
Different people feel more affected by gender expectations than others. Some of us — women and men alike — still hear these voices in the back of our heads, still feel them shaping our reflexes, still see a need to consciously drag these messages into the light so we know how to recognize them and have an easier time tossing them overboard. And some folks — again, both women and men — feel like this is really not that big a deal. Yes, they say, society wants men to be one way and women to be another. Who cares what society wants? For some people, it takes years of introspection and therapy and processing to unload this junk. Some people never unlearn it, in fact; some people let their whole lives be run by it. And other people seem to unload it just by deciding to do it.
So I don’t know what to tell you about how to do that.
All I can tell you is that it’s totally worth it.
Thanks to Adam, Alan, Andrew, Ben, Other Ben, Chad, Christopher, Craig, Crypt, Damion, Darren, David, Other David, Still Other David, Yet Still Another David, And Yet One More David, Dean, Georges, Glendon, Jacob, James, Other James, Jason, Jeff, Joel, jraoul, Kyle, Lauro, Lenny, Leo, Mark, Michael, Other Michael, Still Other Michael, Scott, Other Scott, Still Other Scott, Sean, Anonymous, and everyone else I talked to, for their invaluable help with this piece.