The conversations around gender roles and gender dynamics are more divisive than ever. They are often oversimplified, emotional and conflictual due to legitimate anger, pain and confusion. There is no question that masculinity is at a crossroad. In that context, falling into the binary trap is easy and attractive. The most recent example of this division has been illustrated by the responses to the Gilette ad, which combined backlashes and praises. In that spirit I would like to address common misconceptions about masculinity that I believe to be harmful for everyone. This is my attempt to depolarize a conversation that craves nuance and mutual empathy.
Here are 8 popular and destructive misconceptions about masculinity and men.
1. There is a clear definition of masculinity
Setting aside the strictly biological aspect of gender, the roles and behaviors associated with masculinity are not fixed. Masculinity varies greatly across culture and historical periods, which make the behaviors and roles attributed to it, a social construct. Both men and women display masculine and feminine attributes.
While completely overlooking biology could be misleading, relying too much on it, is equally erroneous. Falling into the pitfall of biological determinism, which is the belief that “human behavior is controlled by an individual’s genes or some component of their physiology”, is reductionist at best. This theory can be dangerous and alienating for it removes responsibility, accountability and free will from the individual. It also can lead to dangerous ideology such as eugenics and genetic racism.
The latest research in epigenetics, adds another layer of complexity which suggests that the expression of our genes is not predicated on our DNA but by the perception of our environment. According to Bruce H. Lipton, Ph.D., Stem cell biologist, bestselling author of The Biology of Belief: “DNA is controlled by signals from outside the cell, including the energetic messages emanating from our positive and negative thoughts.”
Let us not oversimplify masculinity and let us question our beliefs.
2. Toxic masculinity means that masculinity is toxic
Since the birth of the #Metoo movement, the term “toxic masculinity” has been overused, misused and used interchangeably with masculinity. I am guilty of it too. My rationale behind the use of the term was mainly rooted in the urgency of the state of masculinity. While my intent was a benevolent and genuine attempt to shed light on the destructive nature of the man-box, I have fed the polarization of the conversation by using it too much.
The overuse of the term toxic masculinity gave many men the opportunity to dissociate themselves from the issue and to point fingers to the “bad guys”. Instead of taking the necessary introspective approach offered by the movement to reflect on what the American culture of masculinity expects of us, many men felt accused, shamed and demonized at their core.
“If we are to address the challenges presented by American masculinity, we need to start by stating what we hope would be obvious: masculinity is not toxic; our culture’s narrow, conformist, violent, bullying, man-box version of it is.” (…) “Language that critiques men’s culture (toxic culture of masculinity) is received differently than language that critiques men’s personal sense of self (toxic masculinity).” Mark Greene
Words matter. They can fuel a corrosive environment despite a well-meaning intent. Once and for all, let’s understand that toxic masculinity refers to the toxic CULTURE of masculinity. This can also be called the shadow side of masculinity, which unfortunately, is still the most popular and glorified version of masculinity in media, business and politics.
Masculinity in its positive form is beautiful: courage, protection, stability, strength, logic, reason, confidence, loyalty are all masculine qualities. As beautifully put by activist, mystic and social entrepreneur John Burgos on his website:
“A healthy representation of the Divine Masculine is witnessed through a person who is strong, but gentle.” John Burgos
3. The #Metoo movement is a war on men
On average, there are 321,500 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States. To put the phenomenon in perspective, it means that an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. Unsurprisingly, victims of sexual violence are overwhelmingly women and girls: according to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. Additionally, 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.
In parallel to these statistics, according to the FBI, men in the United States represent 98.9% of the population arrested for forcible rape.
With all of those facts in mind, and without even exploring the realm of sexual harassment, how can one reasonably associate the #Metoo movement with a war on men? #Metoo is born as a result of decades of abuse of women, girls but also boys and men. This violence has been made possible and sustainable through a culture that doubt the victims and protect the oppressors.
And this is the core of the issue.
Many men (including me) have been (and are still) passive participants in the abuse of women and girls by being active subscribers of the toxic culture of masculinity (aka. The Man-Box). Some of the attributes of the man-box facilitate the proliferation of sexual attacks. One of them is the pseudo loyalty men supposedly owe to one another: the infamous “bros before hoes” code. Another attribute is the bystander approach, the one that consist in keeping silent when witnessing an abusive or predatory behavior. Tony Porter’s quote from a blog post he wrote on that regard sums up perfectly the entirety of the issue:
“The vast majority of men are not abusive. The vast majority of men do not sexually harass. The vast majority of men do not sexually assault. But the vast majority of men are silent about the violence, harassment and abuse that women and girls, and other oppressed groups experience.” Tony Porter
4. A man advocating for gender equality is a “gender traitor”
The same way many women condemn the entire male gender as evil, many men characterize other men advocating for gender equality as traitor, a cuck or a beta male. This situation mirrors perfectly the polarized state of a conversation that not only requires mutual empathy but primarily a two-fold commitment of men:
1) A commitment in the form of introspection and critical thinking about what the dominant culture of masculinity requires of us. This introspection is often uncomfortable, long and challenging: how are men supposed to unveil biases they don’t even know exist in the first place? When the system has been rigged in your favor for so long, challenging a birth given privilege can be a daunting task, especially if no event challenges your belief system.
Michael Kimmel says it perfectly in his Ted Talk, with a quote that encapsulates the difficulty of challenging a status quo that has been favorable to us:
“Privilege is invisible to those who have it.” Michael Kimmel
2) A commitment in the form of advocacy and public positioning in favor of a culture that promotes a compassionate and healthy version of masculinity. One that encourages us to take an interest in the experience of women and girls, but also, that allows us the expression of the full range of our emotions. Such a “public” commitment, almost as a form of a pledge, is challenging at best: uncomfortable for sure. On one end, it demands accountability and personal responsibility for our own past and present actions, beliefs and biases. On the other end, it requires that we face our male peers. Our friends, our colleagues, our business associates. Other men. Standing up to them and challenging their views from a place of compassion and love is the hardest step to take; yet the most critical one.
The uneasiness of such process comes with the imposter syndrome: how can I stand up for women’s right as a man, with all the fucked-up shit I have done and thought of in the past? Many of us can relate to that reality, but in spite of it, we need to be brave enough to come forward in full modesty, vulnerability and intentionality. This is the only way we will be able to gradually shift our culture.
The discomfort of public commitment also comes with the fear of being brushed aside by our male friends; the fear of being alone, isolated, bullied and presented as a target. It is hard yet we have to do it. It is becoming the new normal and we must pave the way for ourselves, for our family and for the future of our children. Health masculinity advocate and founder of Promundo Gary Barker articulated it perfectly in a recent interview for Quartz:
“It’s extremely difficult to face the anger of our male friends. And we often don’t know what to say or do to support a female colleague who has experienced harassment. We need to be extremely mindful that this discomfort pales in comparison to the harassment and bias women have faced (…)” Gary Barker
5. There are good men and there are bad men
The polarized state of the masculinity conversation pushes many people to draw a line in the sand and separate bad men from good men. While the need for accountability and personal responsibility are more important than ever, it is also important to be cautious when we label men as good or bad, for two reasons.
First, my personal unscientific theory is that if you are a heterosexual male over 30, you have done something wrong in the past. I am not suggesting rape or explicit sexual harassment but it can also include catcalling, sexist jokes, expressions of misogyny or even taking the back seat while witnessing a questionable behavior of another man. I am aware that I am not taking a wild risk with this assumption.
Some of us, for a long time, did not even consider some of the behaviors described above as being reprehensible: we were just conforming to what the mainstream culture of masculinity expected of us. This is precisely the reason why labeling men as good or bad is dangerous. Some of our biases run so deep that we are not even aware of them. We can’t be what we can’t see. What characterizes healthy masculine behavior, has not been part of the way the vast majority of men have been taught to socialize. The “money making womanizer” has been glorified for decades in the media and by society at large. This form of masculinity was put on a pedestal and it is still there in many cultures. This is not an excuse, but this is an important factor to consider.
The second reason why dividing men between good and bad is unproductive, is that it removes any possible introspection and re-evaluation of what we believe to be true. For instance, if one consider himself as part of the good guys, no space is left for questioning unconscious biases, culture and belief systems. My personal journey has taught me that I could have been on the other side of this issue a decade ago; yet I considered myself a good man: married, a job, a house, never raped or sexually harassed anyone. Chances are I could have been very defensive in light of some of the arguments made about masculinity today. I could have been like: “What do you want from me? I am doing everything I am supposed to do. Back off.”
Labeling me a bad man, would have most likely caused me to shut down instead of inviting me to get introspective and suspicious. While I am grateful that my path lead me to re-think some of my beliefs, it would be hypocritical to not address my past. Tony Porter summed it up perfectly here:
“That’s why I’m not willing to separate men into those categories. These men are bad. These men are just ignorant to the issues. These men are good. This creates an environment where men can say – that’s not me – I get a pass. It reinforces privilege. It allows men the option to stay quiet, to opt out of the conversation, to distance themselves from the issue.” Tony Porter
6. The pain and the confusion of men are not legitimate
The pain and the confusion of men are extremely profound. Yet the empathy for men does not find a favorable echo in the gender conversation. I believe there are two main reasons for it:
First, statistically men are the abuser. We largely over-index in terms of violent crimes. This is unquestionable and this is why finding empathy for men is challenging; especially now that we are (FINALLY) entering the ending phase of the victim-blaming culture. Following that logic, I believe that as men, it is important for us to listen and to hold space for women to express their legitimate anger and pain which represent the climax of centuries of oppression and violence.
The second reason why empathy for men does not come naturally, is that we live in a largely male dominated society. Men disproportionally holds leadership roles in corporations and government. Therefore the shortcut is easy: how can men complain about a situation they are creating?
And this is the center of the problem.
As we all remain captive of the Man-box culture, all the pain we are causing to ourselves,and to each other seems self induced. And it is. Mark Greene explains it perfectly in piece called How the Man-Box Poisons Our Sons:
“For generations, men have been conditioned to compete for status, forever struggling to rise to the top of a vast Darwinian pyramid framed by a simple but ruthless set of rules. But the men who compete to win in our dominant culture of manhood are collectively doomed to fail, because the game itself is rigged against us. We’re wasting our lives chasing a fake rabbit around a track, all the while convinced there’s meat to be had. There is no meat. We are the meat.” Mark Greene
By unconsciously serving a destructive culture of masculinity that we mistakenly consider the “only” way to perform our gender, we kill ourselves and each other as a result. According to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on suicide, men are 77 percent of the 45,000 people who kill themselves every year in the United States, wrote Gary Barker in an article for Slate. In the same article, he explains how young men are socialized into suicide by learning how to suppress their emotions:
“Being a man in the U.S., and around the world, too often means learning to suppress our emotional experience, so much so that we as men often lack even the language to express or understand our emotions. Some psychologists have called this alexithymia—the inability to connect with and communicate one’s emotions—and identified it as more prominent in males. Quite simply, if men can’t recognize negative or troubling emotions, and can’t or don’t seek help or talk about them, we don’t know what to do when we face them.” Gary Barker
Men may hold leadership roles in the world but we pay a high price for it. We bully each other into a lethal social isolation that impacts us and society at large. In addition to that reality, it is undeniable that technological progress and the creation of birth control accelerated the independence of women, which turned traditional gender roles on their heads. The expectations of men are changing. While we can all agree that this is a step forward, we can also recognize that those expectations are also conflicting with long-held values and beliefs. Yes we can be caregivers. No we don’t need to accumulate sexual conquests to get “status”. But this was not the “proper way” to perform masculinity for centuries, and we need to keep that in mind. We were not taught that by our parents, our peers, and we were not shown by the media.
The confusion and the pain of men are legitimate. Make no mistake about that.
7. Men are less capable than women of emotional depth
The popular (mis)belief that women have a larger emotional spectrum than men contributes to the catastrophic state of masculinity. This misbelief is tied to others that are not less destructive such as “men don’t like to talk about their emotions.” This is not that men don’t like or need to express themselves; it is that men were shamed for expressing their emotions when they were little boys. The empathy gap we create inside little boys when we teach them that crying is only acceptable for girls, gets bigger with time and creates a disconnection that scars them for life. We are culturally bullied into the illusion that we, as boys are not supposed to feel anything. Let that sink in for a minute, and let me say it again. As little boys, we are culturally bullied into the illusion that we are not supposed to feel anything.
This is criminal.
We feel. We feel plenty. And the curse with “feeling” when you are a boy, is that you are not supposed to tell anyone. You are not supposed to show anyone, except when you are angry. As a result, we don’t know how to deal with feelings, and we are only “allowed” to express them through anger and violence. A platonic display of physical affection between two men would most likely create a public outrage on social media, while a video of two men fighting would either be ignored, or suscitate a morbid fascination.
Let that sink in for a minute too.
What does that say about what we, as a society consider normal as it comes to men relationships with other men? What does that say about what we consider “acceptable” emotional expressions for men?
The truth is, men have plenty of emotional depth. Men are ready and willing to heal themselves. The bourgeoning of men’s groups and men’s healing retreats is a direct proof that men have started to do their emotional labor. Some groups like The ManKind Project have engaged men for decades. Others, like Evryman and Sacred Sons offer different approaches and contribute to expand the choices for men to engage in their healing process, while also connecting with other men. Men are ready to engage at the human level and this is exactly what we need.
Men need to be able to be vulnerable with one another and to be allowed to say things like: I am scared; I am sorry; I don’t know; I am confused. We no longer need to display self-sufficiency and emotional stoicism. We are human beings. We are relational beings wired for connection. Our interactions shall not be limited to drinking at a bar or go to a ball game. There is nothing wrong with that, but we need to do more. We deserve more. We should give each other the permission to be more for one another.
We are emotional beings and we should act like ones.
8. Fathers are second-class caregivers
One of the most destructive misconceptions about masculinity and men is that we are not supposed to be caregivers. This belief hurts families. Men care and fathers want to be caregivers. We want to be present for our children. We want bonding time with our new born babies.
- 90% of dads say being a parent is their greatest joy.
- 85% of dads say being a father is the best job in the world.
- 73% of dads say their lives began when they became a dad.
- 62% of dads want more information on how to be a better parent.
Those are only a selection of an overwhelming set of statistics that show that men are capable and willing to be caregivers. Dads want paternity leave and babies deserve the presence of both parents when they are born. Unfortunately, many dads don’t feel empowered to take initiatives caregivers.
- 40% of dads would like to be more involved with raising their children but feel their partner interferes with their involvement.
- 43% of dads think their partner take too much control of parenting.
Dads are not second class caregivers. If you need further proof of that reality, I highly encourage you to engage with the community of fathers content creators that composes the Dad 2.0 community. What you will find there, is a beautiful group of fathers, caregivers, engaged in their children’s lives and committed to self-improvement as men and fathers. They are excellent caregivers, the same way mothers are.
A while ago, I wrote an open letter to future dads encouraging them to create and foster a culture of caring. I ended the letter with three practical advices which I think would also conclude perfectly this (long) piece.
- Be a pioneer. Don’t conform to traditional gender roles: be the (dad) man you want to be.
- Be vulnerable. Ask for help: someone will always listen. It’s ok to be emotional.
- Be present. Physically and emotionally: it is the greatest present you can give to yourself and to others.
I truly hope that exposing those popular and destructive misconceptions about masculinity and men will contribute to a more nuanced conversation. Mutual empathy and vulnerability is how we make our way back to each other.
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