Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Masculinity and I


I hug my male friends frequently and they hug me frequently. We touch each other in non-intimate ways. We care for each other and when somebody is feeling down, we listen and try to help. We put our arms around each other's shoulders and two of us have been mistaken for a couple. My friends and I are not the most enlightened men in the world, and we still have a lot to learn about feminism, equality, rape culture, privilege and race, but I'd like to think that this new strain of masculinity is a step in the right direction.

Masculinity is not a simple proposition. It is not a measurement of toughness or of power. It is not an equation of physicality and aggressive heterosexuality. Unfortunately, our culture circulates and perpetuates an ideal image of a man that is tough, silent, strong, and almost exclusively depicted as heterosexual.

The very fact that my friends and I are comfortable enough with our masculinity to touch each other and care for each other is a challenge to an outmoded and terrible form of masculinity. In this post, I want to explore one of the greatest gifts my father ever gave me: the idea that masculinity isn't defined by culture but by one's actions.


X, Y, and myself are at a local karaoke bar. We had played guitar and sang at X's house previously and wanted to hit up the karaoke bar. We had no intentions of "picking up chicks" or even socializing. We went for the explicit purpose of singing some songs and having a couple beers. The night ended strangely.

After about an hour of being there, a girl with a cute punk haircut (shaved on one side, the long part dyed blonde) began giving Y and I "the eye" — the eye that meant, "I'm interested in you; please come talk to me." She was clearly drunk, as she wavered and wobbled across the room when moving. As aforementioned, we weren't terribly interested in socializing, so neither of us did anything about the "come hither" look. At this point, X is fairly drunk and also wavering and wobbling when in motion. I took it upon myself to keep an eye on X as well as maintain sobriety in order to accomplish the first goal.

X goes on stage to sing a song and Y goes out for a smoke. Right away, the girl walks by the table and smiles at me, a sexy smile that is clearly an invitation to have a conversation with her. Or more probable, to initiate the complex social protocols of casual sex. The smile is broad, warm, and almost menacing in its unwavering confidence. This is a girl who clearly knows what she wants. She maintains eye contact with me to signal this desire.

Now, she comes to the table and sits down in Y's chair. She continues to hold her smile and eye contact. I try to start conversation but she's too drunk or not interested in engaging in dialogue. I tell her my friend is singing and she nods. She provides a few half sentences. Y comes back from his smoke, sees the girl, turns around and walks to the bar. It's becoming awkward, this girl and her menacing stare of sexual invitation. X comes back from singing and he and the girl have a bizarre dance, and both are so drunk that awkwardness increases exponentially.

Somebody starts singing a Talking Heads song, and the girl says, "Oh my god, do you know what movie this is from?" This is the first full sentence she has spoken. I say I don't know and she shouts, "Revenge of the Nerds!" I respond that I hadn't seen it and she gets frustrated by that.

I had already my decision, fairly quickly, that I didn't want to have sex with her — not because she wasn't attractive but because I was sober and she was drunk. I made my decision known by my body language. She figured this out, and as her friends were leaving, she grabbed my face and kissed me. It was the worst kiss of my life: slobbery, wet, and cold. When the kiss broke, she giggled and playfully slapped my face, as if to say, “You’re a fool for missing out on this.” Apparently, she thought this lesson need to be reiterated so she kissed me again, followed predictably by the slap. I was taken aback of course. What a strange turn of events.

As she walked away, she realizes she left her purse. We are now at maximum awkwardness. She turns back, grabs her purse, giggles and slaps me a third and final time, of course.

For the next hour, I struggled with what had happened. I was thinking that this was an opportunity for me to have sex, and that I had passed it up. I was thinking that my friends would repeat the story and emphasize how I didn't have sex with this girl. I was thinking that it was sort of my duty as a young male to capitalize on moments of sexual opportunity. I was thinking that I would regret this decision.

I was also thinking that if I had taken this girl up on her intoxicated offer, I would have completely overruled my own ethics, my own beliefs. I would have been guilty of rape. The girl would no doubt not have made the same actions if she had been sober. Her judgement was impaired, but mine was not. Thus, I made the right decision.


I woke up the next day, resolutely believing I had made the right decision. However, I do not want to be congratulated for this. At all. I shouldn't be congratulated or lauded for having basic human decency. I didn't take advantage of a girl, and nobody should award me a medal for not doing so.

So instead of telling this story to feel good about myself and to recuperate the feelings of regret and frustration, I'm telling this story to explore the complex feelings I experienced during the moment. Specifically, the feeling that I should have done this in order to be perceived as a man.

"Men don't let sexual opportunities pass them by" is a lesson that culture repeats over and over. A recent example of this is 2011's Crazy Stupid Love starring Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell. The latter character goes through a divorce, so Gosling takes it upon himself to teach Carell how to seduce women. The presented equation is rather simple: Carell's manhood is at stake when divorced by his wife (emasculation) so in order to reassert his masculinity, he has sex with strangers. Male power is expressed through virility and fecundity.

Thus for a few moments, I felt my very masculinity being threatened by "feminine" thoughts of ethics or moral responsibility. By turning down so naked an opportunity, I was allowing myself to be feminized, to be emasculated.

Of course, without a doubt, this is absolute bullshit.

My masculinity was not at stake if I had decided not to rape an intoxicated girl. Rather, by being a responsible and decent human being, I asserted empathy and self-awareness, neither of which are specifically gendered. My masculinity was not diminished by my ability to make a decision so obvious that it's painful and embarrassing to think that I had even considered the wrong answer.


My father taught me that I could be whatever person I want to be. This sounds trite and small, but like David Foster Wallace said in a commencement speech.
the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.
What my father taught me is worth untangling from its banal bindings. He never said I could do anything I wanted to, if I set my mind on it. He never said I could have anything I wanted if I worked hard at it.

Rather, I was taught to be and act the way I would want to be. My father meant that if I wanted to be a person who operates with positive ethics, then nothing was stopping me but myself. I could be an ethical person if I so choose.

He also taught me that, in his implicit way, that I didn't need to be whatever anybody else told me. He meant that I should follow my passions and not let anybody dictate what was appropriate or valuable. By this, he was referring to my dislike for sports, cars, war, and other things boys should be interested in.

To me, this is the ultimate sacrifice my father made: a man who loves sports so intensely raised a child with enough agency to choose something else. I've always assumed that my lack of sports knowledge and interest was a source of disappointment for my father, but he repeatedly assures me that it doesn't matter; he loves me regardless. My father is masculine not because he's interested in sports or cars, but because he is loving, supportive father.

Thus, he taught me that I could be masculine without resorting to essentialist gender norms. I could be whomever I wanted to be and I chose to be myself.

The implications of this are obvious: if I had been gay, he would have loved me; If I had been trans, he would have loved me.


Hanna Rosin, a journalist whose interests coincide quite neatly with me (vis-a-vis the culture of hooking up), recently published a book called The End of Men about the "rise" of women in contemporary Western society. Recently, she published this article on Slate about the rise of gender neutral toys. She writes
boys pay a higher penalty for diversifying. No one looks twice when a girl plays hoops or drives a toy race car; in fact it’s probably considered pretty cool. But a boy with a doll is still almost as alarming to many parents as it was in 1970. One classic study on peer pressure at SUNY Binghamton, for example, showed that boys were twice as likely to avoid exploring the typically girl toys if another child was sitting in the room.
Cultural norms, and thus peer pressure, exert an immense pressure on boys and girls. This is why for moments, I regretted my decision not to have sex with the cute punk girl. It was expected of me, and I was worried about cultural pressures.

I'm very fortunate that my father raised me to be self-aware and to — always — question what on prima facie appears to be the status quo. If someone says, "this is the way it is and that's why" my immediate reaction is to keep asking questions. Thus, instead of fundamentally compromising this girl and myself, I made the right decision and this does not make me less of a man.

This piece has the flavour of a mea culpa, but there is no error here. I am not rationalizing or excusing my behaviour, and I refuse to be congratulated as such. Rather, I wanted to explore why I'm able to display physical affection with my friends, display empathy and sensitivity, why I am comfortable enough with myself as a person to resist essentialist gender norms.

I don't want to say that perhaps my friends and I are the future of masculinity, but perhaps we are one step closer to a world of gender equality by combating restrictive and proscriptive cultural expectations. My father's father would have never showed physical affection with his friends. My father resisted this and I'm enjoying the fruits of this: comfortable in my own skin, enough not to rape somebody because culture and society tells me I should.


Joe said...


matthew. said...

Thanks, Joe, but this book doesn't sound anything remotely close to the ideology that I've expressed here. The Way of Men seems to pine for an older form of masculinity that I openly despise.

Joe said...

I know. We have different ideas of masculinity and I recommend you reading this book.