Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Why I Worry about Masculinity

In my personal life, it is a well known fact that I hope my hypothetical future child (HFC) is a girl. This is partly because I am a woman, I get being a women, and I've worked in girl services for 6 years (so far). It is also partly because I'm slightly terrified of what it means to be masculine in our society--and for all the challenges that I know a girl will face, I sometimes get more worried about how the heck I would raise a boy. (Not that I'd be going it alone, but you know what I mean.)

Sometimes I feel like this is an odd stance for me to take. When parenting comes up on the feminist blogs I read, many of the commenters say how they'd much rather have a boy or that they're happy they have a boy, because he will never face the challenges they faced growing up female. While I know what they mean, I just don't agree because I keep coming back to how scary stereotypical masculinity can be.

Before I go any further, I do want to lay out some disclaimers to frame my discussion.

  1. I am in no way, shape, or form a man hater. I despise that stereotype of feminism. My favorite person in the world is a man as are some of my best friends. In fact, I advocate for a definition of feminism which is inclusive to all people. This topic, for me, isn't about any one man or "all men" (which is a statement which will always prove false.) Instead, it's about societal messages surrounding what it means "to be a man." So what I'm saying here is that if what I discuss isn't about you, don't make it about you.
  2. Building on that, I think that us vs. them mentalities are destructive, overly simplified views of a much more complex reality, and ultimately counter productive. As such, my discussions of masculinity come from a place which sees sexism an obstacle to both men and women (in different ways) and isn't an attempt to place blame.
  3. BUT we must frankly discuss trends and facts about what is really going on in order to see it, name it, change it. Yes, there are men facing challenges like single parenting, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault. But to not acknowledge that these issues disproportionately affect women does a disservice to finding a real solution. 

Ok I guess by now, I should clarify what the heck it is that I even mean by the fear I have surrounding the concept of masculinity as it plays out in our culture. Really, it comes down to three things: entitlement, violence, and the disparagement of femininity.

  • The disparagement of femininity: I'll start with the latter. Simply put, I see that amongst boys and men anything that is considered "girly" is heavily shamed. I know girls are gender policed too, but it seems that the penalties for boys are much stronger (since, traditionally, being female is lesser than being male. In fact, I'd go as far to say that some masculine qualities are encouraged in girls.) However, when we get real about it, all of us have both masculine and feminine qualities. So basically, boys constantly have a side of them suppressed (boys don't cry, don't be a sissy, being nice to other guys is "gay.") When you grow up continuously having the feminine side of you disparaged, it's not that big of a leap to equating ALL femininity as negative; it's conditioning. Then your attitudes and behaviors begin to reflect this, as I will explain in the next two points.
  • Entitlement: Because femininity becomes a cultural synonym for lesser than and thereby not important, a sense of entitlement emerges on the part of men toward women. Men's desires and impulses take a front seat. Women's bodies are put forth as something to be viewed and consumed. Women's boundaries, feelings, and opinions are ignored (because they're not as important.) The examples here are numerous, but I'll point you in the direction of a few key ones. 1) The "smile, baby" phenomena and street harassment. 2) The refusal to accept a woman's right to not want to date. Here's a story about this, which after sharing, I learned from a few people in my life that this has happened to them when online dating men as well (although not as extreme.) 3) Men believing they are entitled to sex with their wives.
  • Violence: It's not hard to see how I can make the leap from entitlement to violence. If men feel entitled to women's bodies, rapes will occur. But furthermore, if men feel entitled to women's bodies, they might also hit, kick, and otherwise abuse them. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 85% of domestic violence victims are women. (Check out that link for a much more thorough examination of the gendered nature of violence.) However, the violent side of masculinity is not only exercised against women. Violence is also used as a general attribute of masculinity and exercised against one another. Real men fire guns. Real men can take a punch. Real men can hold their own in a bar fight. Real men don't back down. Basically, what I'm getting at is that men are frequently the victims of the view of masculinity which normalizes violence. And often men who do not agree to engage in these things are classified as feminine. (See two points up for why that's a problem.)
When you walk through these points, I think it becomes fairly clear why I worry about masculinity. I know that if my HFC is a boy, he will be raised in a feminist environment with Mr. Nerdy Feminist as a positive male role model, but we will still encounter these messages with him. And try as we will to guide him, he will have to navigate boy world on his own. It would be nice if our communities contain more allies who support healthy masculinity.

As I frequently mention, I work for a nonprofit which seeks to build self-esteem in girls and give them the tools and skills they need to grow into happy, successful adults. These programs are so very necessary because of the position that women still occupy in our society. However, when I delve into topics like rape and intimate partner violence, I know there is only so much impact that can be made on my side of the equation. The real work to be done on these issues is with boys. Just like bogus "rape prevention programs" it is wrong and illogical to put the onus of ending violence against women on women. Boys need strong, stable, reliable, responsible men in their lives to not only role model healthy masculinity but to also intentionally talk with them about it.

Sadly, there are far too few programs aimed specifically at this goal. I wish that when someone said "So you can work with the girls but what will we do with the boys?" I had a perfect answer, like a local nonprofit's number to give them. Despite this void locally, there are some groups and writers doing great things in the area of healthy masculinity. I would suggest that anyone interested in this topic check them out (linked below.) 

I always say that my work is aimed at telling everyone that girls matter. But life is not a zero sum game. Sometimes you can root for both teams. Boys matter too!

Recommended resources:


  1. Author's note: I got this comment from "amensproject" and tried to publish from my phone and accidentally messed it up. Anyway, here it is, thanks for the input!

    I agree with your insights and concerns related to men and masculinity. Thirteen months ago I started: A Men's Project - (email: to: encourage 1.) Mmen's efforts to begin projects seeking to reach boys and men on our issues and 2.) Networking and support among those doing the work. URL's to add, questions, suggestions are always welcome. Recently - I began a blog to complement this work at: - which contains data and quotes from the most important CDC: The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (2010) related to men specifically. Thanks again! I've taken your suggestions - to ensure that if missing they will be added to the 1650+ URL's listed on the website.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts. Most valuable. Readers may want to check out the profeminist men's site XY ( for a whole lot of discussion of men, gender, etc., informed by feminism.
    Best wishes,
    Michael Flood.

  3. This is sort of off topic but the mention of men's refusal to accept a woman's right to not date them struck a chord with me. I thought I was the only who had experienced it. It was a guy I met online in college. We never met in person, but his communications became increasingly negative and aggressive over time. He'd gripe about past relationships and all the "fake bitches" who wouldn't date him. I explained that I wasn't interested in an exclusive relationship, which was true, but I continued to answer his calls and emails because I didn't want to be a 'fake bitch'. When I didn't answer or even tried to end a phone conversation with him, he'd accuse me of being 'just like all the rest'. He used guilt, pity pleas, and shaming to stay connected to me. The behavior escalated to angry, drunken calls in the middle of the night. I was too young to understand what was happening, but eventually I wised up and cut off all communication. Looking back, I dodged a potentially dangerous situation.

    1. Yes, I know exactly what you are talking about. It's actually more common than you might think. I had a similar experience, and the desire to not be like those other "bitches" can really guilt you. It's all about manipulation. You did definitely dodge a bad situation.

  4. Hi, the feminist mentality does not work in the real world, men and women are to complement each other and I believe that's the reason many western men are marrying foreign women example asian women are very femenine but also kick ass in intelectual matters without needing feminism, and the true reality is that no true men will let a women rule his life

    1. Um, no. First of all, I live in the "real world" and I'm in a happy feminist marriage. Secondly? Yikes stereotypes, ahoy!


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