Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In which I talk about unlearning hegemonic masculinity.

Something amazing happened to me yesterday. I was reading an old Feministing post about feminist masculinity, and the ad on the page linked to this. I almost thought it was supposed to be ironic.

I was reading that post because I'd been having a conversation with Jonathan T, who's busy fighting the good fight against the conservative takeover of Shimer College, about feminist masculinity, and about how because most feminist writing is (rightly) directed at an audience of women, there aren't that many resources available for feminist men trying to rethink their masculinity. People talk about the importance of rethinking masculinity, but there are few resources for men who want to unlearn the harmful habits they've picked up.

The problem, I think, is that the patriarchy largely feeds on our subconscious beliefs about women. Our conscious beliefs can change, and we can try to base our actions around these conscious beliefs, but many of the habits of mind we've picked up will persist, and will continue to have effects on our choices of friends and lovers, our use of language, our ways of presenting ourselves, etc., and these effects serve to reinforce the patriarchy. So I think it's important for us to think about how to unlearn those habits of mind.

I'm not sure I think it's appropriate to talk about this project in terms of feminist masculinity. To me, that phrase carries the baggage of implying that we're going to excise the problematic parts of masculinity, and replace them with a new, virtuous masculinity -- which weirds me out because conceptions of masculine virtue (including, I suppose, use of the word "virtue," which is etymologically roughly equivalent to "manliness") are some of the very same problematic parts of masculinity that we're trying to be rid of.

Basically, what I'm saying is, once we've gotten rid of the fucked-up parts of masculinity, we don't need to refer to what's left as "masculinity." Because if we've really gotten rid of the fucked-up parts, the gender binary should cease to matter. So let's just talk about unlearning problematic habits of mind.

I've got a couple of techniques that have worked for me.
1. Shut the fuck up and listen.
As men, we are taught to be assertive/aggressive in social interactions. This is partly problematic in itself, because the counterpart is the expectation that women will be submissive. But it's also fucked up because we don't hear shit that we need to, because we're busy talking. I've found it really useful to actively stop myself from responding to things I'm told -- especially by women, people of color, or queer people, and especially when they're criticizing me or privileged groups I belong to -- until later, when I've taken the time to listen and to think about what they're saying.

This is especially important because it helps you unlearn the defensiveness that's built into us, as men, as a response to criticism. I remember having furious objections to people talking about rape culture, because as I was interpreting it, I was being accused of participating in rape -- which is a pretty heady accusation. Once I got past that defensiveness, though, of course there's a great deal of truth to arguments about rape culture.

Another piece of this that's important is that it gets your subconscious to realize what (hopefully) your conscious mind already knows: that just because someone isn't jumping on the ends of other people's sentences to get a word in, doesn't mean they don't have anything to say. It helps you get around your tendency to monopolize conversations, by helping you to the realization that other people -- even people who haven't been trained to be assertive -- have shit to say too.

Hopefully, this will also help change the way you think about women. By forcing ourselves to listen, to not try to change the subject to something we know about, to view our conversations with women as opportunities to learn, we can hopefully start viewing women in terms of what they think and say, instead of in terms of their bodies. The more experience we have with what women do think and say, by giving them chances to speak, the more opportunity we have to define them that way.
2. Practice absolute nonviolence.
It's really difficult, as a man, to get around the idea of yourself as a protector of "helpless" people (women and, if you have them, children) around you. This casts women as victims who can do nothing to secure their own well-being without you. As long as you're thinking of yourself as their protector and acting as their protector, you're denying them opportunities to prove you wrong.

That, on its face, is just an argument for a reluctance to use violence. But even casting your own violent action as the last resort if someone else is endangered is problematic, because it's still reinforcing the idea that women, in the end, need men for protection. Also, Geoffrey Canada, in Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun, talked about how the willingness to use force in an emergency leads us to create those emergencies for ourselves as ways of demonstrating our masculinity:
At first I continued to avoid the gang of teenagers. I crossed the street or turned down another block when I saw them. But slowly as I carried the gun with me day after day, my attitude began to change. I began to think, "Why should I have to walk an extra block? Why should I feel that I have to cross the street or look down when I pass those kids?" By the end of two weeks I had convinced myself that all the habits I had cultivated to avoid conflict with the gang were unnecessarily conciliatory.

My behavior when I went outside began to change. I stopped going out of my way, or crossing the street, or avoiding eye contact when I passed the gang. In fact, I began to do the opposite. I would choose to go to the grocery store on the side of the street where the gang was gathered. I would walk through them head up, eyes challenging, hand in my coat pocket, finger on the trigger. I was prepared to shoot to kill to defend myself. (source)
Your willingness to fight in an emergency will lead to your broadening of your understanding of emergencies in ways that deny women's ability to defend themselves.

The knowledge that we're not going to end a conflict in violence also changes the way we handle conflicts, and makes us less aggressive and less domineering in our disagreements. This leads to #3:
3. Actively lose face.
A lot of the damaging aspects of our masculinity are reinforced by our unwillingness to look unmanly in front of others. If we actively lose face by refusing to participate in hegemonic masculinity -- even though internally we might be scared shitless of being seen as pussies -- we can deny this mechanism a lot of its power. Over time, others will expect less violent masculinity from you, and so it'll become less scary to back off from that masculinity.

This sounds really hard, but if you start small -- sometimes in ways no one but you consciously notices -- you can make a lot of progress. Sit "like a girl." Wear a dress in public. Refuse to get worked up -- "Yes, I am going to let him do that, because I don't think it's worth fighting over." Start taking pride in emasculating yourself. Eventually, your unmanliness starts to seem like a natural part of your masculinity, and you start to realize that people have stopped bothering to think less of you for it (which you can think of as having nothing left to lose, but either way, it's working for me so far.
4. Stop watching sexist porn.
I've become convinced this is completely necessary. It's fucking terrible for you. It really does shape what you think is hot, in ways that are unacceptable. Not only in the obvious ways -- unreasonable expectations of women's bodies, dehumanizing sex acts, rape and exploitation themes -- but also in that it makes you think sex should be pandering to you rather than challenging you.

Go cold turkey with me. Please. It is as hard as it sounds. Do it anyway.

Unfortunately, for many of us, a great deal of damage has been done already. It's less clear what to do about this, but here are a couple of thoughts:
5. Explore kink.
There are whole worlds of people out there who think all kinds of shit is hot. Looking around the kink scene may or may not change your love for money shots or schoolgirls, but it can make you see it in a new light -- as a fetish, rather than as normative. It gives you a language in which to talk about your desires that doesn't imply that that's just what sex should be about. It also puts you in a framework that very strongly emphasizes the importance of consent, and of valuing your partner's agency even as you subvert it.

Also, there, you'll find a lot of people who have believed their desires for specific acts or styles of sex was wrong, and who haven't been able to completely rid themselves of those desires.

There's also the issue of what categories of women we find hot -- and since I can't do better than fromthetropics's description of it here, I'll just quote it:
What we have here is male desire for women. This is obvious. Specifically, white male desire for white women. This is also obvious. But it is not merely a desire, it is a desire to (sexually) conquer and subjugate (white) women (in order to appear masculine). Still obvious.

What is less obvious is that it invites all men to express their masculinity by conquering, so to speak, white women. Conquering WOC is easy. But to conquer white women? – now that’s the pinnacle of masculinity for all men in a white dominated society. The emphasis is on masculinity and men. It is not about women striving to be on top of the food chain, hence it is not about whether or not WOC feel as though their beauty is being (de)valued. It is about the male struggle to be at the top of the food chain, and whether or not their masculinity is being (de)valued.
There's no doubt that this constitutes a lot of what sexuality is about for many of us. And there's no doubt that the most important first step to remedy this has to be to stop seeing our sexuality in terms of conquest, and therefore viewing women as potential objects of sexual conquest (which has a lot to do with our desire to "protect" them, as well).

But having talked about some steps we can take to remedy our conquest-based sexualities, I still want to address our hierarchies of sexual desire. Extending our conquest-based desire to women of color, fat women, women with disabilities and other women who don't meet our expectations of femininity won't do anyone much good, but reforming other aspects of our thinking and feeling about sexuality without addressing the hierarchy that we create among women based on their bodies seems incomplete.

My one suggestion on the subject is based on fromthetropics's later comment that "it's easier for people (of all colors) to objectify someone who seems very different from them." Here, I'd change the word "different" to "unfamiliar." If you're looking at a body that's unlike any body you've seen before, it can be difficult to remember that there's an actual person, with real opinions and stuff, inside that body. In your curiosity, you can turn the person into a specimen rather than a human -- which renders them fine, if not particularly important, as targets for a conquering sexuality, but completely incomprehensible as partners in a truly human sexuality.
6. Explore different types of bodies.
It should go without saying -- but I'll say it anyway because all too often it doesn't -- that this exploration of bodies should always be done with the utmost respect for the owners of those bodies. After we just got done talking about the turning of real people into specimens, please don't go and do that.

But some people do, voluntarily, put their bodies on display. Take advantage of that. Find out what fat bodies, bodies of color, bodies with disabilities, are like, so that you can get over how weird they are already and see the beauty in them -- both in the bodies themselves and in the people they contain.

This was the scariest post I've written. I'm sure I fucked it up in places, left some things out that were important, said some things I didn't mean to say. I'm sorry. But I think it's important for us to have concrete steps we can take -- in our lives as well as in therapy sessions -- to unmake some of the horrors that masculinity has created in our brains. I think some of these things have worked for me, but I have a long way to go. Please, everyone, share thoughts about what I and other feminist men can do better.

UPDATE: With regard to sexist porn, check out Cindy Gallop being the shit.


  1. Per, this is an excellent post, and I am glad to have participated in the inspiration for it. I like all of your ideas and I hadn't directly thought about some of your suggestions, all of which are very good ones.

    I do think you left one very, very important and necessary action out of the discussion. I think this can fall into the category of "losing face," but it deserves its own individual attention. This is the act of talking about your feelings. Talking about your feelings is an activity that women are often completely accustomed to and quite good at, but men are taught to pretend like they don't feelings other than anger, or sadness only in the event that masculinity has already been "proven" (Susan Bordo has a good discussion on this in "The Male Body"). One of the reasons for this is that the activity is considered "feminine" and thus "weak," and it requires someone to make themselves extremely vulnerable -- which obviously we're taught to avoid at all costs. As such, talking about your feelings involves "losing face," at least by "masculine" standards.

    But one of the reasons that it is so important is that men's unwillingness to confront their feelings causes people (especially women) pain. Often in (at least heterosexual) relationships, men are unable or unwilling to explain their behavior or mistakes, leaving the woman guessing as to what's going wrong. This combined with the amount of social expectations placed on women to be "sexy enough," "satisfying enough," and "supportive enough" puts women in an unfair and worrisome position.

    Richard Schmitt wrote a good article (included in the anthology "Men Doing Feminism") on the fact that because men do indeed have feelings, they need emotional support too. The unfortunate but all-too-common situation is that women are expected to provide this emotional support, but men, because they can be incompetent at discussing feelings or providing strong emotional support, don't reciprocate.

    I think that men's lack of experience with confronting and sharing their feelings contributes to some of the other problems you mentioned. Violence, for example, is more likely to happen when someone has no outlet for sharing their feelings. Aggressive conversational habits are partly fueled by the fact that men don't have experience listening to people expand at length on their feelings and learning from them. I think both in academia and in day-to-day interactions, personal feelings deserve to be discussed more often and taken more seriously.

  2. You're absolutely right. I had thought of this as included under losing face, but I think you're right that it deserves its own attention.

    As a side note, I'm not sure I agree that sharing feelings is weak because it's feminine -- I think we think sharing feelings is feminine because we think it's weak. Sharing feelings, especially sadness, implies the admission that there are things that make us sad that are beyond our control -- which is an admission of weakness and vulnerability.

    The other piece I'd add is that our unwillingness to share feelings is not only unfair to women because we expect them to provide emotional support but are unable to reciprocate because we don't develop the skills, but also because we expect them to provide emotional support without feeling okay about telling them what support we need.

  3. I am in full agreement of both of your points here. (Your clarification/correction definitely captures the issue more accurately than I had.) Keep up the awesome work and thanks for welcoming my criticism!

  4. Per, my dear, I dig your blog. That's why I follow. But I've got to say this.

    Nifty though they may be, concrete steps are only one part of the equation. Half the things I find myself objecting to on a daily basis are the words people use to describe their journey. I know that words are merely the manifestation of ideas, the steam of the process, some might say, but when folks go hunting, don't they check for tracks?

    As a Black woman, I do my learning from the outside in. For me, the unknown isn't the outskirts of society - it's the center. When I rail against institutions, I often don't have a clue who the culprit is because we've spent so much time on the xenophobic route, exploiting dark people, marginalizing women and stuffing rags down the mouths of the queer community.

    There are so many volumes on the forging of Black Identity, on the reclamation of Female Sexuality, on the idea of multifaceted gender that it can be difficult to understand the house that patriarchy built.

    There's a saying in racial reconciliation circles: People born on third base have to recognize that they didn't get there of their own doing.

    The same can be said of gender. After talking to the people I've met on the street, I've realized one thing: so many of us have this limited idea about justice - they think that White Privilege dug a hole, Patriarchy dug a hole, Heteronormativity dug one too [and everyone is so intent on filling the holes], that no one is thinking about dismantling the edifice we built on top of them. But there are stones and mortar that go into the construction of institutions.

    Wanna know how lily white suburbs went up? Well, exclusionary housing laws, white flight, terror. That's how many a family hearth got its start. Wanna know about the thorn in many a white feminist wave? Well, America's obsession with white womanhood helps; keeping it beyond the reach of black male 'hypersexuality' certainly played a role. The assumed links between femininity, infancy and silence certainly add to it. A number of said sisters were Klanswomen as well. These are the stones of injustice, the apathy and silence of the day the mortar.

    So when I traipse around Cambridge, asking random people about their impressions of whiteness or masculinity or heterosexuality, it's as if I'm filling in the blanks - not because I don't have any ideas about them, but because so many in the center have taken forward motion to mean silence [not you, in general] that they are afraid or reluctant to speak on pain of being branded as non-PC.

    And it usually is.

    Many haven't taken the time to examine the muck in which they live because the ability to step outside themselves has never been an option.

    It's never had to be an option.

    And when stepping outside oneself becomes an intentional way of life, the words, the manifestation, the steam of the process must reflect that - the anatomical homes, the bodies of living, breathing people are not to be referred to as 'weird', nor is the process of becoming acquainted with them to be referred to as:

    'extending our conquest-based desire to women of color, fat women, women with disabilities and other women who don't meet our expectations of femininity...'

    even in describing how not to make progress.

  5. And about this:

    'Conquering WOC is easy. But to conquer white women? – now that’s the pinnacle of masculinity for all men in a white dominated society. The emphasis is on masculinity and men.'

    I'll just say that for as long as sexual exploitation and rape have been a reality in the lives of women of color, there have been untouched places as well. For as long as the Peculiar Institution wrought havoc, there have been subtle revolts. Double Consciousness is a hell of a drug. And in order to be broken, its resolve would have to be tested by something much greater than a forceful penis.

    You're in Chicago. Maybe you've heard of North Park University. That's where I went to school. Many a student of Swedish ancestry flew their flags, but so few could tell me what it meant to be white. Many of them went to the Homeless Ministry on Wacker Drive, but they wouldn't question the issues that contributed to the homeless population being there. They'd go on missions trips to Africa [they'd never say which country of the 53, just 'Africa'], but they wouldn't question why Senegal speaks French or why some people speak Italian in Eritrea.

    Truth is, I've grown weary of people trying to figure me out before they look at their own faces. Seems to me that we have a serious Dorian Gray issue on our hands.

    I believe that there is a difference between the seeds of injustice, their fruits and the people who benefit from them. Every day I try to understand a little more, come to terms a little more with what others do and think. So I appreciate your blog there, Per. Way to examine.

    Oh, and if you're going to wear a dress, make sure it's flattering. You wouldn't want to be mistaken for one of those feminists. :D

  6. shaun gray,

    Thanks very much for your comments.

    With regard to your criticism of my use of the word "weird," you're absolutely right. I was speaking in the language of hegemonic masculinity to describe how to resist it -- which is destructive and offensive.

    My use of the word "fat" (am I right that this is what you objected to in the paragraph you quoted?) made me uncomfortable as well. I was aiming to follow the lead of the fat acceptance movement in reclaiming it -- but in retrospect I think you're right that it doesn't work because it's not for me to reclaim, and from me it still sounds like a slur. But from arguments like the one I linked, I've inherited a profound skepticism about other words for fat -- which either reinforce the idea of a normative weight ("overweight"), or are euphemistic, and thereby reinforce the notion that there's something unspeakable about fat ("husky," "big," "curvy"). I haven't found a good answer to this, which is why I went for "fat" -- but I'm definitely interested in hearing other options ("portly" might have all the advantages of "fat," but with a less-well-established negative connotation).

    With regard to the fromthetropics quote, I don't think she meant to imply that WOC are actually easy to conquer -- and I didn't interpret it that way, although I see how it could sound that way. I think this is another case of the problems that arise when we adopt the point of view of hegemonic masculinity to critique it. What is true, I think, is that women of color are perceived as easy to conquer -- and may in fact be easier to dominate and to coerce in particular instances, because they have fewer mechanisms of recourse available to them.

    Another thing that's raised for me by this discussion is that talking about hegemonic male sexuality as being about "conquest" isn't quite right -- and can serve to trivialize the forms of resistance that do persist despite it. It might be more accurate to talk about it as expressing and reinforcing dominance -- because "dominance," unlike "conquest," doesn't necessarily have the connotation of being complete.

  7. (oops, that link didn't show up: it's here .



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