Towards a New Masculinity – a Father’s Day Post

I identify as male.

This is far from revolutionary, nor is it a surprise to those who know me, whether in person or through this blog.

In the modern world, as we increasingly embrace the fluidity of gender, and the difference between sexual identity and gender identity, the idea of masculinity grows ever harder to pin down. Yet, as any parent will tell you, there are definitely strong and different currents that run through the different genders of our children. And, as I raise my son, I’m coming to understand that those children who identify as male are in trouble, because the way we define masculinity is a hot mess.

My parents were raised in the 40’s and 50’s – when masculinity was deeply oversimplified but disarmingly straightforward. One didn’t need to question what it was to “be a man” – an entire generation of soldiers was returning from a war about which nothing was ever spoken, but everything was understood. They manned up. They did their jobs. Ernest Hemmingway, John Wayne, Arthur Miller and Jackie Robinson spoke for them – they gave that generation a sense of what manhood was. It was brutal and just, unthinking and swift. Men of that age were taught to protect and provide for their families, rather than participating in them directly. And, of course, the true fruit at the top of the tree of masculinity was women. Women were conquests. The manliest of men had Marilyn Monroe on their arms.

I was born in the early 70’s, so as I came of age, a new kind of man was being added to the mix. Alan Alda, Morgan Freeman and Woody Allen joined Stalone and Richard Roundtree on the big screen. Hermann Hesse’s questioning of everything found international fame even as Spenser and Hawk’s muscularity stepped onto the page, and Bowie and Prince rocked manhood as powerfully as Keith Richards and Henry Rollins. But, as sensitive, intellectual or physically less powerful as the new guys were, their masculinity was still pinned to sexual success. Bowie may have been pan-sexual, but he was still damned sexy. It was clear that part of their power was about numbers and/or social desirability of their partners.

Now we have the Men’s Right’s movement – straight men, plagued by the notion that women’s struggle to gain the freedoms men have had all along (like the right to chose their own sexual partners and identity, to live with or without men, to party and go home alone, to travel or drink late at night without fear – you know, basic human rights), leads to men being denied the essence of being a man. Because, in their minds, men simply have a right to the sexual partners they feel they deserve. Masculinity is still being defined the same old way. How many partners do you have, and how attractive are they? The higher their quantities and qualities, the more of a man you are. And I don’t limit this idea to heterosexual men – as far as I know, this same bedpost-notching culture thrives in gay culture.

I’ve heard the argument that this is connected all the way back up the evolutionary ladder – for the species to thrive, male apes needed to mate with as many female apes as possible.  Lead/valuable/powerful apes get to run the tribe, and have lots of mates.  To prove my power and importance, I must have lots of partners, because, according to this way of thinking, my inherent genetic value is based on the question of just how many members of the tribe I can impregnate. If you get Darwinian, this seems reasonable – the two centuries that have passed since underpopulation was a danger are not long enough to change evolutionary pressure – that happens over millennia, not decades.

Except for one big thing – our evolution has all been directed at developing a single advantage, which is our intensely complicated brains. We have invented tools for everything – hell, we’re so smart, we can actually create weird evolutionary leaps of our own by manipulating genes – scientists are breeding new species! And, you know what?  If we’re smart enough to understand all that, we’re smart enough to overcome our apelike urges to beat our chests and screw everything that moves to prove how powerful and important we are. I’ve heard that excuse, and I call it out as bullshit.

It’s simpler than that – I know, as a man in Western Culture, that I was taught to experience sexual desire at some stage in every affectionate relationship with those who fit my personal definition of “sexy.”  Not because of the evolutionary thing, but because that’s what I learned, from the beginning, defined manhood. But, while I have many attractive friends, I make no effort to turn those friends into lovers. Because, when that desire rises up for someone who is NOT a potential partner (which is everyone, since I’m monogamous with my wife) I just slap myself and say, “Shut up, dumbass. No part of this relationship should involve your junk.” But it’s hard. Because the world tells me I’m less masculine for not trying. Society tells me that my masculinity hinges on conquest.

(And, to be clear – I make no assumptions that any of these friends harbor secret sexual desires for me. I am not suggesting that I am someone with the magical ability to beckon and make underpants fall off. I am talking about what’s in my head, not what’s in the world.)

I know I’m going long here, so I’ll offer two sad stories, and wrap it up.

  1. We had a family friend. He had a son and a daughter. Pre-puberty, they got equal doses of physical affection – hugs, kisses, wrestling and tickling and all the zerberts a little giggler could want.

Puberty came, and he never touched his daughter again.  No more hugs or kisses, no more anything. This friend (with no history of sexual predation and no predilections for children) couldn’t separate his affections from his fear that he would be overwhelmed by sexual desires if he ever allowed himself any points of physical contact.

She never forgave him – she felt unloved and betrayed so deeply that, as an adult, she excluded him from her entire life. He never met his grandchildren. Because he feared his own potential short circuit, he cut the connection entirely.

  1. A different friend once told me about his greatest teen weekend – it was the one in which he slept with three different women over 48 hours. As he described the juggle, I grew sadder and sadder – here was a man who had always preached the gospel of feminism, expressing great pride in that moment in which he had achieved his ultimate power: the ability to bed three different women in two days. I’m no Victorian – I’m sure those women got something out of those liaisons – one aspect of this cult of manliness is that you make sure you satisfy your partner no matter what. But the problem is that what they got out of it didn’t matter to him – what mattered was the bragging rights.

What I’m trying to get at is that our culture teaches that the essence of manliness is being the Alpha Male, and the essence of being the Alpha is getting the most desirable people to have sex with you. As many and as often as possible.  If you can overcome their objections, you’re that much more powerful.  And, boiling underneath THAT madness lies the even crazier belief that every single attractive person is a potential partner, waiting to be won over.  If that door opens even a crack – boom, sex.  We can’t resist.

I wonder – if we could somehow redefine masculinity for the next generation as something other than the ability to have sex whoever appeals to us at any time, might we move past a whole lot of society’s mistakes?

I’m sure it’s not a new thought, but isn’t this mindset behind all kinds of foolish legal and social norms? Isn’t this behind the laws that make it harder to prosecute a rapist than a pot-smoker, and those that make prison terms for rapists shorter than those for petty thieves? Haven’t our lawmakers bought into the false idea that men cannot help themselves, that sexual conquest is an essential part of masculinity? Isn’t this behind the laws aimed at protecting women from transgendered folks using the bathroom, because men feel as though they would be unable to resist raping women if THEY were allowed into that same bathroom? Behind the laws that punish the victims of sex trafficking rather than the perpetrators and slave traders? And even behind the laws trying to prevent access to birth control and safe abortions? Because, of course, making children is the ultimate proof of masculinity…

Of course, outside of the laws, we have our whole culture of shaming – shaming of women, for tempting us men. The shaming of Monica Lewinski, that treacherous intern who dared to admit to her crush on one of the world’s most powerful men. The shaming of the rape victims, and of the strangers who rebuff catcalls.

Can we teach our male children that these self-aggrandizing urges have nothing to do with being a man? Can we teach them to embrace the notion that sex only happens as the result of mutual sexual interest, not because someone is hot, or nice, or just there? Is it possible to dismantle this version of masculinity?

In the end, I don’t know what masculinity should become; I just know that it needs to change from what it has been for generations. And that, come puberty, I am going to fight like hell to teach my little boy that a powerful man isn’t defined by the number, variation, or social desirability of his partners. That masculinity is not projecting our desires and egos onto other people’s bodies.

The way I see it, I’ve got three or four years to figure out what it is, rather than what it isn’t.   I’m open to advice.


3 thoughts on “Towards a New Masculinity – a Father’s Day Post”

  1. Brilliant, so thoughtful, so powerful. Niall is one lucky boy, and so is his Mum. Love you. Xx Di

    Sent from my iPad



  2. The men’s groups that I was around in the 80s we’re not so much about reacting the achievements of feminism, but rather how to recover brotherhood that has been undermined by capitalism, to analyze and slough off male privledge and to find new ways to triumph in risk-taking that was not harmful to self for others. I think of it as a parallel to feminism, not an opposition.
    Btw. I like your writing, but have difficulty reading the white font and studies show I am not alone in this. Consider my perseverance a testament to your thoughtf writing, not your font choice.


    1. Absolutely. I had started to write about the Iron John/Men’s group movement in the 80’s and 90’s, but realized that my knowledge of it came only from a couple of visits to my father’s men’s group, and my reading of the book (which I didn’t find terribly valuable.) Also – as you’re the second person to comment on the white on brown – is this better?


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