Wednesday, July 20, 2011

More on Masculinity

What follows is a slightly abbreviated part of a lengthy email response - in correspondence with another man Jack.

I see one basic issue - which I do not have a clear answer for which is extremely problematic for me.

Let's assume for example, that:

a. Man 1 - is a survivor of childhood abuse,
b. Man 2 - is Gay and his Gay identity is extremely important to him,
c. Man 3 - is the father of a young child - partnered with a woman and
d. Man 4 - is heterosexual, childless, and somewhat career driven

Man 1's issues of abuse in today's world would oft times be silenced out of shame. He might be "functional" or "dysfunctional" in various ways. If he does seek out and find support (particularly locally), it likely will come primarily from women in agencies that deal primarily with women. (He might find male contacts on the internet.)

Man 2 - might relate to Man 1 - if issues of abuse were highly relevant to him. Otherwise, most likely his world(s) will focus upon his identity - and what is important within his worlds. IF he is a father by choice - he may have some things in common with Man 3, however his circles of attachments related to fathering and parenting are more likely to be with Gay (and possibly Lesbian) parents. Various - other worlds - may appeal to him based upon his identity and interests,

Man 3 - is most likely overwhelmed focusing upon parenting and his work (assuming he also works at paid employment). His support network, if any, is likely to relate to couples with young children - through common daycare connections and other ties through the parenting.

Man 4 - is likely not significantly connected to any of Men 1-3. His world(s) relate to his career, his primary relationship (if he has one), and his friends - who likely share some commonalities with him. He may have some friends who are fathers, however most probably the friendships are fleeting both because of his interests and how little time the father(s) have to spend with him.

When my son Ben was several months old - I noticed how easy it was to interact with women outside our home - who were most helpful as I struggled to shop and similar. These women - varied in many ways - could see me more than completely superficially - and reached out to try to help me. Men - that I saw - would help where it was obvious that assistance - was "polite" - such as opening a door for me, but otherwise didn't really see me in a sense.

I was immediately struck- by the understanding - that a few months earlier - even days before Ben was born, I would have been exactly like these other men.

We men - seem to focus our energies upon - what is "right in front of our faces". If we are disabled, we may see disability issues as important. If we are able bodied (including mentally), we are unlikely to connect with or volunteer time towards issues of the disabled (unless we have a close family member with such issues - where we will in a sense have that connection to which I'm referring).

AIDS support work - had women who were Lesbian, Het, Bi etc. - women saw the importance of the work - back even when AIDS was a "Gay Men's Disease". We het or hetish men - were barely on the horizon of the issue, because it wasn't "our issue".

As young children we face both biological issues as well as societal pressures which encourage us to be the one who:

1.) Plays parallel to or obliviously around - others (boys generally),
2.) Is generally not responsible for younger siblings - though a big sister may be responsible for us,

We rarely learn to socialize with both girls and boys - of varied ages unless we lack any other playmates.

We are pressured to - be with peers - and conform to the norms of our peers - "packs of boys" (our own age, and generally of similar backgrounds).

I had an excellent conversation several days ago with Stacey Bellem, whose organization (under development - website deliberately very limited now) of The Unifying Center - is going to focus substantially upon how many boys and men are wounded (e.g. childhood abuse, living around constant gunfire, growing up fighting with other boys and/or being bullied, etc.) - and how masculinity - is a prime "culprit" (my word). She sees the need for significant mental health intervention and outreach to connect to males - so that we won't remain silent - and anger focused for example.

I have no problems with women such as Stacey - trying to do work reaching out to men and boys. They can be a huge help to us men!

I do have problems with some men (not you) - who take a "we're all in this together" approach - which on the surface reaches out to younger men and women with equal focus. In such situations the women commonly respond much more and the men can be easily sucked up into the positive attention from the women. Again the men and boys in part due to how we are - remain oft times not reached.

I both agree and disagree with you in some of the important areas we deal with. Stacey spoke with me of how her father was abused emotionally by his mother and how this hurt him as a man, distrusting women. I certainly agree that such abuse is not rare.

I think that our separate discussions of issues of racism vs. gender issues are telling in how we see things differently. I would certainly agree with the first part of your discussion where you note that there were (and probably still are) no substantive advantages to being Black.

I would argue that racism remains a major societal problem today as a result of what happened in past decades. White People generally believed that the passage of the Civil Rights Legislation of the 1960's completed the necessary work on Racism related issues. The repeated emphasis upon foci on either radical extremist White People (e.g. David Duke) or upon blaming Poor Black People for their perceived problems really did not get at the core problems of Racism as a "White Peoples' Problem". The issues that remained were viewed as "Black Problems" that were the responsibility primarily of Black People.

I agree that men as a gender - have major issues and that being "male" can be as difficult or more difficult than being "female" can be.

I can not, however, see that our issues are similar in Very Important ways to the issues that women face.

Related to gender issues I've gotten a lot more support over the years from girls and women - in general than from men and boys. The pressures I've felt to "be male" have come subtly from women in some instances and steadily from men and boys in varied ways, sometimes blunt, direct, and scary.

I have been held up at gunpoint twice in my life. That is the closest experience I've had which might help me understand emotionally the fear that women and girls can face from men and boys. The fears that I have from men are limited and relate to a fear of being held up, not being assaulted. I do not have flashbacks or direct associations to my past experiences and these were limited to several months after the second holdup.

While there certainly are women who do not have fears of assault from men, the fears are quite common. I honestly don't know how men who've been abused and assaulted feel in similar circumstances. I would guess that particularly where they were assaulted by strangers in public they may have similar issues.

I can not imagine the experiences of being "hustled" and similar that (particularly young) women commonly face, sometimes related to their "appearance" and sometimes simply being perceived as being female of a young enough age to be "desirable" and thus justifiably being pursued.

It would be so simple to try to point the problems as being "the system" or "women" or indeed "men".

For me to seriously change masculinity - requires us to see that we have both:

1.) Privilege - that women and girls don't have - and see a lot of what this is as well as,
2.) Oppressions - in "masculinity" and a recognition - that it is a core part of a system that includes: Class, Race, and other factors.

The Parallel with race as an issue is important to me. One - great example - is Little Rock, Arkansas - related to its integration of public schools under Governor Faubus in the period of 1956-1958 - and leading into years beyond then. Working class Whites - were manipulated by business interests - Whites with Money - and pushed to oppose the Blacks. The battles - were not in the upper-middle class White High School - but in the high school where the poorer Whites predominated - Central High School. Class - was used as a weapon - to pit Poor Whites against the Blacks - when in a best of world they would have worked together to confront the oppressions of the wealthy White People.

Men - are manipulated by a system - that disproportionately has power - within Wealth - White, often Male White Wealth. Men have natural allies in some Women - in opposing Masculinity. Not all women, of course, are the potential allies.

As long as men - Don't Recognize - the "class power" of masculinity - in perpetuating and supporting the system through men, I don't see how men - beyond a relatively powerless minority, can seriously change masculinity. Recognizing that we have "male privilege" and that it is real, need not trap us in feeling that we want to continue in support of masculinity.

It is important to me to recognize both our potential power - because we are men, as well as how it is and will continue to be easy for men to not "get it" thinking that they will lose more than they will gain by giving up traditional masculinity.

We, of course, will always be "male" and have something that makes us different from those who are "female" that likely will be well beyond our genitals and related body differences.

I can't define seriously what we should in a sense become beyond several factors and clear things that we Don't want. We clearly need to learn the importance of relating to others in ways that deal with our feelings. We need to not focus upon things and material based communication such as is common in evaluating sports figures statistically and "qualitatively" and their teams. Sports and indeed competition need not be eliminated, however the vicarious participation and serious parts of the big name sports seem suspect to me.

I would guess that as male children we will in serious ways need to learn a lot that we don't learn now which will make it easier to relate to others. Part of this must relate to living with serious communication with others who are "different" from us. While this will of course include girls, it also will include relating to and being in relationship with others who are not our peers - older and younger children (and adults). While I don't think that a 1 year old boy will developmentally be able to relate tremendously to a diverse people world around him, I'm very, very aware that as young children we learn from much around us.

When my son B was celebrating his second birthday, a neighbor friend gave him a large plastic bat with a large plastic baseball. My (first) wife thanked her for the gift and said that she didn't think he'd know what to do with it. B picked up the bat and whacked the ball. He'd observed older kids, probably mostly boys, and had a clear understanding of elementary baseball. Girls - in many home settings lack the chance to live as boys often do as they are socialized to be caretakers of younger children as well as "homemakers".

I'm not naive enough to believe that the differences between genders are all related to how we are socialized. I'm also aware that we make decisions in our socialization efforts which greatly affect both boys and girls. Girls also need to be raised in more effective ways. I prefer to limit my focus primarily upon boys and men.

Changing socialization is not simple, nor obvious as to how it can best be done.

It is obvious that boys need to learn options in how they can develop that go far beyond what we can possibly imagine today. We need to help support behaviors which allow boys to be more like girls in some ways as well as doing the opposite with girls.

Until and unless - men in far, far, far greater numbers become far more involved in focusing upon masculinity and the difficulties that both boys and men face related to it, expecting substantive change seems problematic to me. Women have created a substantive feminist movement over the past 40+ years to focus upon their needs.

While the modern feminist movement has certainly had difficulties of its own related to racism, classism and heterosexism (at a minimum), a significant percentage of feminist women have been forced to face serious issues related to gender oppression and discrimination. Where they may deny such issues, reality can get in their way bringing such issues back to them.

I have a hard time seeing where men have had a comparable experience related to our difficulties as a gender.

We certainly face a variety of issues!!! At the same time, I can see little that has evolved in terms of men working with other men to confront the problems that we face related to masculinity.

The foci upon masculinity from my perspective has three very primary reactions from men:

1.) Apathy and non-recognition - the most common approach,
2.) Anger in general against others as well as primarily against women and against feminism - as in Men's Rights Advocates.
3.) Self-Actualization Models including:
a. Gay - Guppie Based - "let's prosper and enjoy ourselves" approaches,
b. Generic - cushioning - that some upper-middle class men have found - which allows them to feel good about themselves and to live a comfortable life - apart from most of the major problems that surround them in much of their lives,
c. A portion of the Mythopoetic Movement - which allows its adherents to live comfortably and avoid the deeper societal problems - at least at a deep level.

All of these models in my mind avoid dealing with the core issues that many, if not most of us, men face in terms of really working seriously to help others - including seeing the issues of sexism, racism and classism as well as heterosexism.

I see two very basic issues related to what I've discussed above:

1.) As men - we need to learn new ways of reaching beyond ourselves and being holistic in seeing the worlds around us as needing our support beyond our initial needs to feel good about ourselves, and

2.) We live in a "class based" world which includes: class, race and gender as primary factors in how we perceive things and move ahead in our lives.

I certainly feel that being "male" is Not giving us "privilege" in some key ways. We are more frail in terms of our survival as a gender. We are more likely to fail in school. We are much more likely to successfully kill ourselves as teenagers - due to the pains that we feel being male.

To the degree that men are victimized through sexual or other abuse as children in particular I see us as hardly, if at all, privileged. Anyone who is seriously hurting, due to major trauma can generally not realistically use most of the privileges that one may otherwise have.

I would argue, though, that a majority of us are not abused or otherwise traumatized. Particularly this is most common amongst those who are not poor, are heterosexual and are White, though some of those of us in such groups are certainly survivors of abuse and trauma.

Such men, and I would include myself within this group, in my mind have a responsibility to try to help others around us.

We face a changing world which increasingly contains fewer privileges than our fathers and grandfathers may have had, if they weren't hurt or contained by others with class privileges and similar.

At the same time I still see strong potential advantages in being male. I can not ignore that realities that are stated such as:

"I think I am even more driven because my abuser still lives at home with my parents, he was never punished and he walks around like he got away (which he did). My parents support him as do my mother’s extended family."

It may seem extreme to hear the words of a woman from the Caribbean referencing the man who has clearly repeated assaulted her and is protected within her culture.

I have never faced living in a world where others might follow me - because of my gender.
I have never faced living in a world where others might comment upon my appearance - because of my gender.
I have never felt scared of others - that they might anonymously in a sense - sexually assault me.

I'd like to come back to some of your words from your last email:

"We should not be surprised that many men are resisting changes that would take them into territory they have been shamed -- and some might say tricked, not just by women but by the culture in the aggregate -- into avoiding.

Moreover, I would say that the past forty years have seen a significant focus on Male Shadow and Female Virtue. Now it's time for the rest of the story -- so we can get this thing right. I acknowledge that there is much that can rightly be said about Male Shadow and Female Virtue. I wonder if you can acknowledge there is much to be said about Male Virtue and Female Shadow. That would create a bridge that could carry a lot of helpful traffic."

I am not clear how we've been tricked by women in substantive ways. The major shaming that I've seen has:

1.) Come from Men primarily -in issues relating to "being a man".
2.) Had parts that certainly had "enforcers" who were commonly our partners and ex-partners - related most commonly to ways that we really have failed to act responsibly.

Where we men are fathers, I've known of relatively few situations where it is not either:

1.) Difficult for both the man and his partner - because parenting and working and living together are difficult or
2.) Clearly problematic because the woman is working, parenting and maintaining the household and the man is carrying well under 50% of the load.

I'm not particularly familiar with other situations which obviously exist - where:

1.) The man is working at paid employment - as the sole breadwinner in the family,
2.) There is serious conflict between the partners

My general impression is that more commonly where the man is the sole-breadwinner - the roles are chosen by both partners (traditionally obviously) - and things work for both partners however they evolve.

Much more commonly, I believe, both partners work either out of choice or more likely out of perceived economic necessity.

I'm really not familiar with the male shadow and the female virtue. I see few people lauding women in general for most anything. I see complaints coming from men about women. I see complaints from children resenting their authority - and where there is divorce oft times having the "good parent" the father who buys the love of his children, during his weekends with his kids, and the "bad mother" who of necessity is the disciplinarian. I see complaints from women about how they feel trapped without options as well as criticizing other women for their choices.

Some women have it good in various ways. Some may financially have it “good” to the detriment of their ex-partners or even current partners. My sense is that this view is oft times biased by the unhappiness of the male, whose perspective is distorted by his pain and anger. Other women have it much better than the men because they develop support systems amongst other women.

I think that there has been a tremendous amount of focus culturally upon men. Indeed I think that we men oft times focus upon men in general. We are oft times caught up in our local sports teams and focus far, far, far too much upon the “greats” of baseball, basketball, football and hockey in the U.S. We may argue about other men such as President Obama.

We certainly don’t focus much upon ourselves and our fellow men and boys around us in substantive, emotional ways. When I parented my son, I faithfully went to his sports practices and games. He was an excellent athlete and cared about sports. In that sense I did far better than my parents ever did with me. At the same time I totally missed being “with my son” in terms of where he was at emotionally. I also missed being with him when what he was interested in seemed “beneath me” in various ways. My wife (ex-wife now) was the one who listened to him and really was connected to him.

I’ve also found that throughout much of my adult life, I’ve not reached out beyond my immediate world(s) to help other men and boys. In some ways I’ve done more than most men, as in having been a volunteer working within the public schools tutoring (rare amongst men) from when my son was in the 3rd grade through 7th grade at least, as well as an additional year more recently. Except for the most recent year, this was done while I was working full-time.

I don’t see us men – building structures – to encourage our visibility in necessary, helpful ways. We do certainly work to build some useful things for boys such as sports teams and the like. We do far less, though, at building the listening and caring for those boys who are having problems in school as well as in many other areas in their lives.

Most commonly the complaints come from our female partners and ex-partners seeking help for their sons. We are surprisingly apathetic unfortunately towards “men’s issues” until and unless we are directly connected to the issue. Prostate cancer is not an issue for men who are not aging. Gay marriage rights are rarely an issue for most het men.

I’d have more sympathy for us men if I didn’t see so many examples as to how we do really focus upon our perceived needs which are different from much of what seems important to me. Early in the 20th Century there were the relatively poor (married) men who found outside pleasure with poor prostitutes. Today we have many ways of escaping through the internet as well as outside our homes.

Obviously, individual women are not without fault in how they treat particular individual men. Some women buy gender roles and push and otherwise encourage men to “be a man” in various ways. Women with money may seemingly “oppress” poorer men in various ways as their “class” interests are seemingly more important than gender in terms of their power and priorities.

Most commonly I see women doing bad things not out of malice, but rather out of ignorance.

Obviously men and boys also to a significant degree make what I would call “mistakes” out of ignorance.

I would like to see many men really work on our issues and get to the point where we could honestly move positively towards a healthy masculinity and then work with women related to necessary changes in both our gender roles as they relate to women and in our relationships in general with these women.

I think, however, that it will be difficult for most of us to successfully do this until and unless we begin doing serious work with men first. Such work of necessity will go well beyond what nearly all of us have done in the past.

We have a tendency, when we see the desirability (and necessity) at all, to want change(s) to occur right away and relatively simply.

To really bring about serious change I see a need for responsible varied efforts from:

1.) 1.) Older men such as you and I both working with our peers and helping share ideas with younger men and boys as well as being visible and available for them,

2.) 2.) Young (adult) men roughly from college age into young adulthood (roughly into their early 30’s) largely working with their peers age wise including helping build new models – using social media and much more to reach out to others,

3.) 3.) Young men increasingly supporting the efforts of other young men building allies.

I don’t see the efforts of any of these groups of men and boys succeeding substantially unless they:

1.) 1.) See and understand how they are in some ways favored by being male, as well as how being male can be difficult,

2.) 2.) Recognize – how they face issues of being played off against others – and seeing how gender, race and class as well as homophobia get in the way commonly and must be confronted and dealt with, and perhaps most importantly,

3.) 3.) Learn how they need to initially deal with whatever traumas and deep hurts they may have – and Then – begin to Move Beyond what I would call the “small I and We” and see others around them – finding common ground as well as celebrating differences – confronting the forces that are trying to stop them.

While women can provide substantial support, I think that in the end the efforts of the men and boys will always be both the greatest strength and weakest link in what happens or doesn’t happen. Where we may “fail” I think that we need to own our failures. Where we succeed I think that we need to recognize both how we have built the successes and how much we owe to many others who’ve helped us in building our successes.

IF we do what I think that we need to do, we will learn a lot from men and boys who are increasingly diverse and are largely not “older White Men”. Our Youth –are our future.

I do not believe that what I am saying necessarily disagrees with much that you believe in. I believe that its emphasis is rather different though.

I’ve had a hard time putting this together and it still doesn’t feel “great”, but is the best that I can do.

Thanks for listening to my words!

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