men, masculinities and gender politics

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Listen to me, damn you! (Why men’s pain so often goes unheard.)

The other day I listened to a radio documentary that featured an adult man who, as a 14 year-old boy, had gotten his teenage girlfriend pregnant. She subsequently gave birth to twins who were then adopted out, and he lost all contact with them. One of the themes that the producers of the show wanted to explore was the painful road that many teenage fathers must travel. And an issue that came up repeatedly was that there was simply no one there to witness this man’s pain.

I hear that a lot -- that there is simply no one there to witness and acknowledge men’s pain. And I think that’s often true. But I also wonder how can this be? How can it be, in a patriarchy, that men’s genuine needs so often go totally unmet?

Clearly there must be someone to blame...

Let’s blame feminism! (’Cause it’s an easy target). One area that is often pointed out as being a source of society’s failure to honor men’s pain is the fact that “man-hating” feminists and their “women-and-children-first” social programs refuse to serve men. Because these initiatives focus primarily on women and children (the argument goes), those cruel and emotionally-withholding feminists neglect the very real pain that we men also experience.

Those damn feminists have no time for us! Or for our suffering! They just leave us out in the cold!

Don’t they care about us?

Don’t they love us?

In general I would say that the answer to both of those questions is yes. In general feminists do care about us and they do love us.

But that does not mean that they are always going to immediately drop whatever they are doing in order to kiss away all of our boo-boos. Why? Because they are not our mommies. And because they are already so darn busy trying to help women and children who have been brutalized by men. And as if that weren’t enough to attempt to do, feminists are also busily pushing for a world where women and children are no longer second-class citizens whom men can use and abuse with impunity.

And they do this work with heartbreakingly little assistance from us men.

Yet even despite being so busy (and despite being under constant attack from media misogynists like Rush Limbaugh), most feminist organizations actually do help the men who come to them for assistance. They won’t turn you away just because of your biology. (But if you start pulling sexist crap, you might well get shown the door!) And while the services you receive might not be exactly the same as what the women and kids get, at least you will find someone who cares. Stay appropriate, and chances are you will get someone to listen to your pain.

(And that’s a whole lot more than what most other men will do for you!)

Why not just “blame Canada”? This spurious attack on feminists for the lack of services for men reminds me of the (now classic?) Grammy-nominated song Blame Canada from the (now classic?) animated film South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. This movie features U.S. parents who start blaming Canada because their American children are watching (and imitating) a fictitious Canadian movie about people who fart. Not wanting to feel responsible for controlling their own children’s behavior, the parents launch into the song, which contains the lines:

We must blame [the Canadians] and cause a fuss

Before somebody thinks of blaming us!

Like the neglectful parents of South Park found out, it is so much easier to blame someone else for our own failings. So a lot of us men like to blame women’s organizations -- founded by and for women -- for society’s failure to provide healing resources for men.

When in reality it is we men who bear the responsibility to provide this assistance to other men.

Blame the patriarchy instead! While we are looking a little closer to home for just whom to blame, maybe we should consider pointing a finger or two at the patriarchal social structure in which we all find ourselves embedded. Despite the advances of feminism, patriarchy is still an extremely powerful force in society. And one of the strong messages of the patriarchy is that we men should feel no pain -- or that if we do, we should not let it affect us. We are not supposed to allow it to knock us off our game. Here are some of the messages we hear:

Play through the pain.

Suck it up.

Don’t be a wimp.

Boys don’t cry.

So one of the main reasons that we as a society don’t make the time to hear men’s pain is that we don’t want to make space for men’s pain even to exist. Instead, we try to force men to channel their pain into rage-filled lashing out or into drowning their sorrows at the neighborhood bar.

How are we supposed to witness men’s pain when men themselves are compelled to hide it?

Your pain does not exist. (So get over it.) The patriarchy also reserves for itself the right to assert that which is “true” and that which is “false” -- to distinguish that which will be culturally recognized as “reality” from that which will not be.

(This is called “the power to name.” Just think of the recent idiotic comments by an American Congressman about just what constitutes “legitimate rape.” He was simply blithely asserting the historic right of the male power structure to determine just what is and what is not rape. What is and is not reality.)

A man who is suffering does not fit the patriarchal model of just what it is that makes a man, so he has no recognizable place in the penile power structure. So he gets ignored. Derided. His lived experience is denied. His pain is not “legitimate pain.”

Why are there so few programs to help men who are in pain? Because the patriarchy says that men’s suffering simply does not exist.

(And feminist organizations are among the few who actually acknowledge that it does.)

The angry wounded man. And often when we men do begin to relate our own pain, we do so in a hostile and aggressive way. Like an injured dog who snaps at you because he himself is hurting. We do this because hostility is a much more socially acceptable way for men to express pain than are tears and grief.

This response pattern can make us pretty unattractive characters. And it makes us terribly difficult to reach out to. Because who, really, wants to step in to help someone who is acting like a grade A asshole? Like a mad dog?

An emotionally immature child, when sad, will often lash out in anger. He or she might scream at his/her parents or caregivers: “I HATE YOU!!!” Unfortunately for many of us men, our emotional development is not much further evolved than that. When wounded, we may still lash out with many an “I HATE YOU!!!” And this too makes us pretty tough to help. Because even someone who manages to see through a man’s angry smokescreen may still find that the guy is just too hot to handle.

The confusion of anger and violence. Another issue that gets in the way of men getting a witness for our pain is the cultural confusion that modern society has when trying to distinguish between anger and violence. (This is real set-up for men, given that anger is the only emotional response available to many of us!)

Everyone has the right to be angry. No one has the right to be abusive. But as a society we are still so confused about this issue.

We think that anger looks like violence/abuse and we think that violence/abuse looks like anger. As Lundy Bancroft observes in his book Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, controlling men are not abusive because they are angry – in fact, they become angry in order to get away with abusing others! (What looks like someone just “blowing his top” is in fact a tactic that an abuser is using to consolidate his control over the target of his domination.)

But we are terribly confused about this issue. We tend to see his dominating abuse as just anger.

And, conversely, we think that just being angry is also linked to violence/abuse. A great place see this phenomenon in action is what “The Incredible Hulk” says whenever he is about to turn from a meek human being into a green, raging monster:

Don’t make me angry. You won’t like me when I’m angry.”

But what The Hulk does is a hell of a lot more than just get angry. He erupts into a volcanic rage, destroying nearly everything in his path. Yes, The Hulk may be very, very angry, but his behavior is far, far beyond what healthy anger should look like. But unfortunately in our society we see abusive, destructive behavior all the time, and rather than name it for what it is – violence, vandalism, interpersonal terrorism – we mislabel it as anger.

When people are abusive, we mistakenly call it anger. And when we get angry, many of us mistakenly think that we are supposed to (or get to) act abusively.

This all can make men pretty difficult to help when we are in pain!

Our exaggerated sense of uniqueness also makes us hard to help. Another message that many men grow up with is an exaggerated sense of our own uniqueness in the world. Many of us truly believe we are “the shit.” The be all and the end all. This male narcissism leads a lot of us to think that if we have experienced something painful, then we are the only ones who have ever gone through it. Or, if we are not the only ones who have ever gone through it, then what we went through was somehow worse. More intense. More painful. More of a psychic insult.

And, furthermore, we often believe that it has made us a total expert on the situation.

(I have been witness to conversations where male rape survivors have attempted to lecture female rape survivors on the fundamentals of sexual assault, and on what it means for a woman to experience being raped -- as if these dudes had any freaking clue about what that would be like for a woman! This is evidence of male narcissism in action!)

Peer support and a sense of mutual identification with others are often very helpful in the healing process. But if you have a sense that you are the shit, the boss, the bomb, the expert, then truly experiencing mutuality is just not going to happen for you. Because you see yourself as somehow better than the others: as more healed, or more traumatized, or more wise, or more misunderstood…

All of those stances make a guy pretty hard to help!

Our twisted ideological notions of what it means to be a man also make us hard to help. I began this post by relating the story of the adult man who as a young teen got his girlfriend pregnant. The news story took the angle that no one was there to hear this man’s pain when he was a kid, and no one – really – is there for him now. My empathy for his experience, however, was knocked down a little bit when he fondly recalled his reaction to the arrival of his girlfriend’s twin babies.

He had been at school that day, and he was paged over the intercom. He made his way to the hospital, where he waited for the birth. (He was not in the delivery room, but was in a waiting room somewhere.) When told of the arrival of the babies, he quickly made his way up to the top of the hospital, and went out onto the roof. There, overlooking the city, he cried out to the heavens in exultation.

“I was proud,” the man said, uncritically recalling his youthful reaction to hearing that his now-ex-girlfriend had just brought two unplanned children into the world – children they would be immediately giving up.

He felt a surge of manly pride. Pride that he had sired offspring.

But is the fact that the sperm in a teenage male’s ejaculate managed to find purchase in a teenage girl’s womb – and that she conceived and delivered two babies – really something for him to be shouting about from the rooftops?

As I heard this wrap-up to the story, I found myself scratching my head in wonder. What did this guy have to be so exultant about? That he had knocked up a girl?

If that young girl could have even walked anywhere immediately after giving birth, you can bet that she would not have made her way up to rooftop to shout out in joyous celebration. No, she was undoubtedly in a world of pain – both physically and psychically – as she prepared to give up her two babies… forever.

Some things you just can’t help. A person’s sociopolitical ideology is typically slow to change -- even in the face of overwhelming counter evidence. And men’s allegiance to the ideology of traditional manhood can significantly interfere with us getting the support we need. It is in the odd things we do -- like shouting from the rooftop in celebration of a successful (?) teenage ejaculation nine months before – where we can see how a man’s adherence to masculine ideology becomes a real barrier to helping him.

Making space for the pain of a young man who accidentally gets his girlfriend pregnant and then watches as the babies are adopted out? That is a rather easy thing to have empathy for.

But it’s this other stuff – like bellowing from the rooftops with misguided masculine pride, the confusing, jarring psychic noise that is the result of having grown up male in a patriarchal society – that is pretty tough to bear witness to.