men, masculinities and gender politics

Authors

Homosociality

More articles about:

I've been thinking about homosociality a bit these past few days. Homosociality (as explained so well in Michael Kimmel's Manhood in America) is the principle that all men, including heterosexual ones, are raised in our culture to be more eager to please other men than women. It doesn't take much in my classes to get heads nodding as the subject comes up!

To use one cheap and easy example, homosociality explains the function of catcalls and wolf whistles. I've often been asked by female students why men whistle and hoot at them from construction sites and passing cars. "Why do they do it? Do they think this actually 'works' to pick up women?" I usually inquire whether the whistling was done by a single man or a group; the answer is almost invariably that it was the latter. The answer, seen through the lens of homosociality, is obvious -- men whistle and yell to connect with other men. Women are devices for creating non-sexual, same-gender bonds. This doesn't explain all catcalling behavior, but it goes a hell of a long way towards doing so.

One of the most significant difficulties (and opportunities) about pro-feminist men's work is that it challenges homosocial norms. Pro-feminist men are often characterized as "wimps" -- soft, gentle men with submissive natures. Actually, pro-feminist men who work to match their language and their lives have to be remarkably brave. Few things are more difficult than speaking up against sexism in all-male environments! To do so is to risk anger (and in a few areas, perhaps violence) and ostracism. In most contemporary Western cultures, there is a strong code that declares that men don't criticize their fellows’ attitudes towards women and gender. Given the intense desire for male approval that most young men have, it scarcely seems likely that many will feel comfortable taking feminist positions in all-male environments!

When I was an undergraduate, I quickly mastered the "talk" of feminism. In my classes, and around female friends, I was, if not a model of egalitarianism, a thoughtful, polite, and intelligent critic of gender roles and the patriarchy. But get me alone with my male friends (especially with a beer or two in me) and I spewed the same objectifying garbage that they did. There were many reasons for this. First off, I was deeply ambivalent about feminism as a younger man. Being alone with the guys gave me a chance to "blow off steam"; indeed, the more I tried to match my words, actions, and politics in mixed groups, the more I felt the overwhelming need to act boorishly around the guys when we were alone together. Second of all, I was desperate for male approval. In college, most of the guys I hung out with lived in my co-op; they were all pre-law or engineering types. None were liberal arts majors, much less interested in taking women's studies classes! I knew that to criticize their words and actions would be to lose their companionship -- and at that stage of my life, the craving for companionship won out over my ethics, hands down. Indeed, I often made fun of the very material I was studying, as if to reassure my companions that I didn't take it too seriously, and thus could be trusted to remain one of the guys.

This kind of double life left me feeling ashamed and fraudulent.

It wasn't until my thirties that I grew comfortable challenging men in single-sex environments. I'd like to think I do it politely, but firmly. I certainly don't do it on every occasion I hear sexist humor or beliefs expressed. Like most folks, I've learned to pick my battles -- and frankly, sometimes, I'm just too tired or busy to speak up. But what has given me the courage to speak up those times that I do has been the support of other men. It wasn't until I started to do men's work with other pro-feminist men that I began to feel sufficiently empowered to start calling guys on their (sometimes) unintentional misogyny. Doing male retreats (through church, and with groups like Men Can Stop Rape) put me into contact with guys who didn't just share my politics, but had spent far longer than I had living out pro-feminist beliefs as strong, courageous men.

When I talk about these issues with younger men and boys, they almost invariably acknowledge the tremendous power of homosociality. Many of them are receptive to feminist ideas, but cannot even imagine actually speaking up about them when they are alone with other guys. I acknowledge how difficult it is to match language and life in the face of homosocial pressure to conform, and I am particularly careful to stress that just because they aren't ready to speak up yet, it doesn't mean that they are "frauds." The key thing, I tell them, is finding male allies who will support them and share with them a commitment to take small steps towards changing their own lives and (perhaps in due course) asking other men to do so as well.

Whether we like it or not, young and not-so-young men are homosocial creatures. Though the influence of mothers and wives, girlfriends and sisters can be tremendous, most will have their worldviews heavily shaped by their fathers, brothers, and male peers. I think pro-feminist men can see that as a real opportunity. Our sex has given us an unearned credibility with other men, a credibility that on many gender issues may exceed that of women feminists. We need to respond by banding together and reaching out to each other and to our brothers who will, in many cases, be initially unreceptive to a pro-feminist message. We'll have to battle our own insecurities and doubts, and the periodic pressure to chuck our ethical commitments and just "go along to get along." But I've seen this done, and I've seen it work.

I'm so grateful for the women in my life who have shared with me their stories, who have encouraged me to do pro-feminist work. But I cannot do the work I need to do without a band of brothers who share those same commitments. Male acceptance and approval is a uniquely powerful elixir, and rather than ignore or deny that reality, I have chosen to rely on it.