Beyond the BS & the Drumbeating
Presents the author's opinions about man's battle with the masculine mystique from the experience of his son, his nephews, his friends and patients, and especially from his own struggle. A portrait of the man as a young boy; A boy and his puberty;Mating; Living with a wife; What went wrong; Saving yourself; More.
By January 1, 1992 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016published
Men aren't doing very well. In alarming numbers, we drink ourselves sick,take drugs, work ourselves to death, run away from home, live on the streets, kill other people, and kill ourselves. Those still alive enough to be aware of what it feels like to be a man these days tell me they feel lonely, isolated from other men, and peripheral to their family while they trudge along wasting their lives in meaningless work, with very little sense of who they are or what they are living for.
Masculinity has become a problem, not just for the men who spend their lives in mortal struggle with its demands, but also for those who must share the world with them. The qualities that were useful in protecting primitive society from saber-toothed tigers have few practical functions these days. Cities full of men stomping around flexing their muscles and growling manly noises at one another have become our modern jungles. Men fight for turf and wrestle for control over people and things, whether through warfare, armed robbery, or corporate takeovers.
Heavy doses of masculinity are unquestionably toxic. But that's not the problem. The problem is the masculine mystique-the veneration and exaggeration of all that is masculine. It stems not from the testicles but from what our culture defines as masculinity, and how men develop it.
We like to think of masculinity as biologically determined, but most of its origins are cultural and historical and so vary from time to time and place to place. It doesn't exist just in the mind of an individual man; it's a view of life shared by other men.
Masculinity includes the symbols and the uniforms and the chants and the plays that make this the boys' team rather than the girls' team. And as a guy develops and practices his masculinity, he is accompanied and critiqued by an invisible male chorus of all the other guys who hiss or cheer as he attempts to approximate the masculine ideal, who push him to sacrifice more and more of his humanity for the sake of his masculinity, and who ridicule him when he holds back. The chorus is made up of all of man's models of masculinity: his comrades and rivals, his buddies and bosses, his male ancestors, and--above all--his father, who may have been a real person in the boy's life, or who may have existed for him only as the myth of the man who got away.
I will tell you what I know about man's battle with the masculine mystique, from the experience of my son and nephews, my friends and patients, but especially from my own struggle.
A PORTRAIT OF THE MAN AS A YOUNG BOY
Snips and snails and puppy dogs' tails; that's what
little boys are made of.
WE KNOW FROM the beginning that we're supposed to be boys, but somehow the Y chromosome doesn't show. For the first part of our life, the only visible sign of our maleness is a useless little peanut we're told to keep hidden.
So we wear boy clothes and try to act like boys act. We practice being cowboys or soldiers or football players or space jockeys when the other boys are with us. We piss off porches, roll in the mud, and do whatever we can think of that boys do and girls don't. We don't want to be mistaken for girls. We avoid answering the telephone be cause our voice isn't a man's voice and callers might think we are our mother when we say "hello." As much as we love our mother, as much as we depend on her, as much as we enjoy her company, we don't want to be seen with her. We don't want anyone to think we like doing the sorts of things girls do, so if anyone is looking, we have to act uncomfortable around Mom. We want to be seen with Dad, hanging out with men and doing manly things.
We go around pretending that we're big, powerful men, but our mothers keep reminding us that we are still little boys. When we're prepared to test our bravery against the forces of darkness in the night, Mom tells us to brush our teeth and go to bed. Our mother treats us as if she, not we, owned our bodies and our lives. She isn't even fazed by our magic peanut. We're still her baby, and as much as we love that when we need her, she can bring us back from the soaring fantasy word of masculinity to the inglorious life of a child.
As boys, we long for our father. We wear his clothes, and literally try to fill his shoes. Anything of his is charmed and can endow us with his masculinity. We hang on to him, begging him to teach us how to do whatever is masculine...to throw balls or be in the woods or go see where he works.
But we spend so much more time with our mother that we begin to fear she will stifle the masculinity we know we must develop, that she will civilize us and tame us and destroy us as the wild animals we know we must be. We want our fathers to protect us from coming too completely under the control of our mothers. We'll do anything with a man, but we fear that femininity might be contagious, and we don't want it to rub off on us.
We practice our masculinity, trying to develop enough of it. We feel a bit foolish with it, like impostors, so we practice it in front of mirrors, trying to learn how to swagger, trying to mimic the men we admire. We always overdo it. We aren't big yet, or strong, and we can't make our muscles grow very much, so we substitute recklessness. We take risks, dating one another to do whatever frightens us all most: stealing things, jumping off bridges, picking fights, or swallowing live frogs. We talk dirty. We show 1 off for the older boys.
The less we know of real men, the more daring we seem to become in our efforts to be masculine. If we have a father (or uncle or grandfather) we admire, and we can find some of him in ourselves, we can imitate him. If we don't, we may have to imitate movie stars or sports heroes. We look to other boys our own age to tell us when we're overdoing it, and they may be battling just as fiercely and desperately to flex their masculinity at the world. So we bounce our absurdly puffed-up masculinity off one another and think we are preparing ourselves for manhood.
A BOY AND HIS PECKER FACE PUBERTY I wonder why men get serious at all. They have this delicate
thing hanging outside their bodies which goes up and down by
its own free will. If l were a man, I would always be
laughing at myself.
A BOY'S PUBERTY is a strangely unsettling transition, perhaps not quite as dramatic and definitive as menarche (though a boy's first ejaculation can be every bit as frightening as a girl's first menstruation). Before puberty, the bodies of boys and girls are similar enough to be easily interchangeable--except for the insignificant little genitals. Much is made of those little genitals from birth, or nowadays even before birth, and they become the determinant of everything in life.
But for the fast 10 or 12 years they have little significance except as predictors of furore events. Early on, girls begin to menstruate, which is dramatic but not immediately obvious to their playmates. For boys, puberty comes later, sometimes much later, and its delay is humiliating. While the tall, round girls are getting themselves up like grown women, the prepubescent boys, with their featureless, hairless bodies, are just little kids who could almost pass for the children of the grown-up-looking girls.
The genitals are the first part to change. First, there is a little pubic hair, and then, with alarming suddenness, the penis blossoms into its full glory, utterly inappropriate to the little-boy body from which it dangles. A boy's penis seems so enormous and hard to hide, far too big yet still too small, always too small.
The boy has little control over it, and for a few years it is not clear who is in charge of whom. He pushes it down constantly, but it simply springs back up just when it is least expected.
Yet when it is needed, it is nowhere to be found; with any anxiety it will run away and hide.
The boy has become one element of a pair of Siamese twins, with this other independent being attached to his body--a constant, unreliable companion, a source of comfort and entertainment when alone, but a steady embarrassment in public.
While the boy is pre occupied, learning to break this willful creature, thick hair has started at the ankles and moves relentlessly up--as if a furry monster-to swallow him. All this remains concealed from the outer world until his voice changes and his pants, one morning, are a foot short. The hair reaches the pimply face, and the body exudes goat-like odors. The muscles bulge--though never enough, of course--and he bears no resemblance to who he was a year ago or even yesterday.
Parts of his body look like a mans, and impatient girls, who reached puberty before him expect him to act like a man. Yet he doesn't feel like a man, and his parents don't treat him like one. They have no idea what has happened inside his body and inside his mind. And he certainly doesn't know how to talk to them about it. At the beginning, he clings to other boys who are experiencing the same exciting, terrifying changes, and they form a separate society, a very intimate one, ultimately avoiding and examining the sexuality that obsesses them and passing on fantasies, fears, and fallacies about sex.
From the day this man's organ sprouts from this boy's body, the two are in a straggle over who is in charge and whose needs will prevail. Boys with models of masculinity can learn to keep their penises under d control, but a boy without models may turn control over to his penis--which at this most sensitive stage of life seems so I much more masculine than the rest of him--and then spend the rest of his life a slave to an insensitive, noncommunicative, unreliable, utterly self-centered, spineless piece of flesh.
LOSING OUR CHERRY I was never to see her again. Nor was I ever to learn
what became of her....Life is made up of small comings and
goings, and, for everything we take with us, there is
something we leave behind. In the summer of '42...in a very
special way, I lost Hermie-forever.
-- HERMAN, reflecting on his lost virginity,
in Summer of '42
I FAILED my own prescribed masculinity test: I didn't play football past the eighth grade, which meant I wasn't a real man. I had to gain acceptance by getting drank throughout my teens, engaging in activities requiring more bravado than brains, and making obligatory sexual efforts with women I didn't know, didn't like, and didn't want.
These initiations were not pleasant, but they weren't crippling either, and I'm glad I learned to play the macho games well enough to survive adolescence.
The scariest step in a boy's quest for manhood is sexual. Hot and ready since puberty, he feels it is time for the twins to make it with girls. They may not want to get close to gifts yet, but the point may be to remove the homophobic barrier: to prove you're straight so that you won't have to feel unmasculine in your closeness to other boys.
At first we need girls who don't scare us or threaten our budding virility. We feel safest with smaller, weaker girls, perhaps damsels in distress who make us feel strong and important. Yet our male chorus may propel us toward girls who are "popular" and beautiful, trophies that announce our masculinity to our fellows.
A virginal 15-year-old boy's wet-dream Wonder Woman might be a beautiful, popular, undersize, slightly dim-witted, depressed, 14-year-old anorectic (with big tits), who is running away from an abusive family.
These experiences are at least as traumatic and crucial for the girls as for us, yet we're barely aware of our partners as we go through this experience physically together and emotionally apart. Back in my day, in the sexual Dark Ages when virginity was valued (for girls and nerds) and pregnancy feared, there were a few girls who could be had; but since they'd had boys with far more expertise than we, it took guts to expose our amateurish efforts to their possible ridicule.
But "nice" girls set limits on where they could be touched and on just how far the efforts could go--i.e, touching only above the waist or through the panties, sticking it in only partway.
In those days a nice girl would try to hold on to us by holding us off. She somehow knew that the audience for these sexual experiments was still the other boys and the invisible male chorus, and all that we wanted was to get in her pants, and her primary power lay in frustrating us. How tortured we were, and how grotesquely we overvalued sex as a result. We might have even thought we were in love with whatever girl most maddeningly frustrated us.
MATING Woman is the sun, an extraordinary creature, one that makes
the imagination gallop. Woman is also the element of
conflict. With whom do you argue ? With a woman, of course.
Not with a friend, because he accepted all your defects the
moment he found you. Besides, woman is mother--have we
WE MEN NEED WOMEN for many reasons: to take care of us, to bear children for us, to point out reality to us. Once we've passed the hurdle of our own virginity, we don't really need women for sex. We might prefer them, but we can do that for ourselves, and we do. Mostly we need women to affirm our masculinity. They can do so by responding to us sexually; by assuring us that we are strong and powerful; and by loving and nurturing us as our reward for being masculine enough---or as our solace if we're not.
When we choose a mate, a partner for a lifetime, should we choose the woman who makes us feel good or the one who makes us look good to our relentless male chorus? The chorus demands that we honor our masculinity before we consider our comfort, our humanity, and our soul. So we must consider which woman will make us seem more masculine--perhaps someone younger, dumber, poorer, more scared. Or we can try for status. Or we may protect our masculinity by clutching our balls and escaping each eligible candidate just before the wedding bells. Can we have a real partner, or will that just make us look pussy-whipped? Do we want a girl just like the girl who married dear old Dad, or more like the type of girl dear old Dad eventually ran off with?
Our ability to fall in love, to go into that most revered of sacred insanities, requires enough comfort with our masculinity to join it with someone's femininity and feel enhanced. In order to marry, we must find a woman who doesn't scare us. If our mother scared us by depending upon us too much, or because we depended on her too much, or if we felt her to be a threat to our freedom to be men, we have to find someone very different from her: someone less seductive or more so, less manipulative, more direct, sexier, quieter-the opposite of whatever it is that seemed to make our mother a threat.
But if our mother made us feel secure and proud in our masculinity, then we want to find that again in our wife. If we are really comfortable with our mother, we can even marry a woman who is a friend rather than an adversary, and form a tree partnership. The boy still inside us is one of the voices in our chorus and helps influence whether we seek either a woman who will take care of us, a woman whom we can take care of, or, in the best of worlds, a coupling of equals where we look after one another.
What we need most in a mate is someone who can enable us to see and understand all those things to which our masculinity blinds us. Dare we find in a woman the lost part of ourselves, and by marrying become whole? Or are we still just measuring peckers with the other boys?
LIVING WITH A WIFE Man must partly give up being a man when he is
-- ROBERT FROST
MATING WITH A WOMAN is one thing; partnering with a woman is quite another. One steady refrain from the men's chorus reminds us that our balls will fall off if we come under the control of a woman. The choir keeps singing music from Samson and Delilah, warning us that a woman can shear us from our masculine glory and thus rob us of our strength. We approach each woman as if she is our mother come to punish us for our independence by taking away our puberty.
The average man feels fully masculine only if he can attract women, thus granting women terrifying power. And not only must he win her, he must also satisfy her. A woman can utterly deflate a man by refusing to be aroused, or, if things get to that point, by refusing to be satisfied. And a woman's anger terrifies men. It returns us to our childhood with Mom.
I don't think it off the wall to speculate that most of the problems between men and women are related to a man's panic in the face of a woman's anger. A woman who misunderstands the male display of power may assume the man is trying to dominate her because he does not respect her enough. But a display of female anger, however justified, will only frighten the man into a more garish hormonal display. In men whose male chorus permits it, this might erupt as violence--the failing man's last-ditch effort to show enough masculinity to drown out her anger.
When we do marry, we play a new role, discovering the female perspective and the limitations of being male. Are we able to partner with someone whose views are different from our own and ultimately achieve binocular vision-seeing life from both his and her perspectives? Or do we choose to protect our maleness from her femaleness, playing our male role to her female role, going through life obeying our militant chorus?
Our macho chorus might not let us hear her wishes and desires: We may ask our father, our clergyman, or all our friends how to deal with marriage, but completely refuse to talk with the woman, our ostensible partner. Protecting ourselves from her anger comes before learning how to make her happy.
We've been taught that masculinity has little to do with being married. Being a husband means more than the act of being macho. To be a husband means "to take thrifty care of domestic affairs." Much of what we've learned about being male involves escape from female control and the civilizing influence of women so we could join the company of other men out there in the wild.
Some of us, mostly those whose dads fathered well, can adapt to marriage despite previous conditioning. Others, less fortunately fathered, must be dragged, kicking and screaming, into marriage--and in due time, into counseling. These guys have devoted their lives to becoming men, despite their lack' of domestic models; now they are asked to unlearn, and they're 4 scared. They have yet to learn that masculinity and marriage are compatible.
WHAT WENT WRONG: A GENERATION WITHOUT FATHERSS How sad that men should base an entire civilization on
the principle of paternity, upon the legal ownership and
presumed responsibility for children, and then never really
get to know their sons and daughters very well.
-- PHYLLIS CHESLER
WHEN LOOKING FOR ANSWERS as to how men got so messed up in regard to their masculinity, it is easiest (and probably most logical) to cite our society's bizarre attempt to raise our sons without fathers--or at least without someone to serve as grown-up models for growing boys. After three decades of working with men who can't live in comfort with women, I'm increasingly convinced that the problem is not in the relationship with the woman, or with the man's mother, or with society, but in the boy's relationship with his father--or rather, its absense.
Boys know they' re supposed to grow up to be like their fathers, and if Dad is there and the boy is malleable, he will become a man just like his father. If the boy finds something in the father that doesn't appeal to him, he may be able to correct it in himself. But most boys nowadays are growing up with fathers who spend little, if any, time with them. Ironically, when the boy most needs to practice being a man, his father is off somewhere playing at being a boy.
Theories of human development keep assuming that fathers are there, actually living in the same house with the rest of the family, performing some useful functions, interacting emotionally with wife and children, playing a role in a son's life, being a model for the boy. Such blissful days, if they ever existed, have now passed, and fathers wield their influence not by their presence, but by their absence. Instead of real-life fathers, boys grow up with myths of fathers, while mothers, whatever their relative significance out there in the world, reign supreme at home and in the life of the boy.
If fathers have run out on mothers, in any of the many ways men use to escape women, then boys can't imagine that their masculinity is sufficient until they too run away from women and join the world of men. The fathers may have used work, sports, war, other women, alcohol or drugs, or whatever they could come up with to escape home; and their sons would then equate masculinity with whatever they imagined their fathers to be doing that was more important then being at home with their sons. Boys who don't have fathers they know and love don't know how much masculinity is enough.
Fathers have the authority to let boys relax the requirements of the masculine model: If our fathers accept us, then that declares us masculine enough to join the company of men. In effect, boys then have their diplomas in masculinity and can go on to develop other skills. If the father is dead, the boy can invent whatever mythology suits him and imagine his acceptance, but if the father is alive but gone, then it seems the boy can only feel his lack of acceptance.
A boy may spend his entire life seeking that acceptance, the love and approval of his father, and with it a reprieve from the masculine striving. If boys can't get acceptance from their fathers, then they. are dependent on the company of other men to overwhelm the father's rejecting voices or the echoing sounds of paternal silence.
Few girls grow up without mothers or some other woman as a mother stand-in, but boys often see very little of their fathers and have no other man in the family who is involved enough to demonstrate proper masculinity. Most likely the fathers didn't get much fathering either, and the mothers got even less; so no one is alarmed by the fact that boys are being raised by mothers alone and that fathers are not teaching boys how to be men, much less teaching boys how to be men with women.
It's hard to imagine how we can raise a better generation of sons until we have created a better generation of fathers. The miracle in what seems like a hopeless paradox is what can happen to a man when he becomes a father--not just a sperm donor or a landlord but a man who nurtures his children over time. If a man, even a fatherless father, will let himself learn from child-raising rather than just trying to control or perfect his children, they can carry him through all the stages of human development from the other side and help make him aware of how men and women develop, how masculinity and femininity are taught and learned, and how to become a more complete human being.
But if he is a fatherless father, having grown up without ordinary domestic models of men, he may see child-raising as "women's work," and he may distance himself from the mysterious job of fathering and the disconcertingly enlightening process of child-raising. Thus, while he lurks at the periphery of the family, protecting his precious masculinity from questioning its roots, he may miss his last chance.
SAVING YOURSELF FROM BEING A TOTAL ASSHOLE ALL YOUR LIFE All men are not slimy warthogs. Some me are silly giraffes,
some woebegone puppies, some insecure frogs. But if one is
not careful, those slimy warthogs can ruin it for all the
-- CYNTHIA HEIMEL
FOR THE LAST 30 years I've been trying to free men, including myself, from the , spell of the masculine mystique. Luckily I found and married a woman who stayed very sane with me. I still felt I wasn't masculine enough, and when we had a son, I was afraid I couldn't be the man he needed as a father. I went into psychoanalysis and complained about my mother's failure to make me feel manly enough. My analyst was a man whose masculinity I respected, and he declared me masculine enough, and I got on with my life.
Wherever I turned in my profession as a therapist, I found men who feared they were not masculine enough, so I did what my analyst had done for me and what my father had failed to do: I assured them that they were indeed real men. I like to bring men face-to-face with their fathers while there is still time. I find that what men most want to talk about, when the atmosphere is safe and it isn't too embarrassing to cry, is their failure to get close to their fathers. Just try keeping dry-eyed in an audience of men watching Field of Dreams.
I've sent male clients to see movies such as City Slickers, Born on the Fourth of July, and When Harry Met Sally...--all of which gave them a different message than the one they've been getting from Rambo or Rocky, or some shoot-em-up that glorifies men when they die for their masculinity. I'm not trying to give these guys wimp models or heroes of unmasculinity.
I'm trying to show them that society is giving them permission to expose and question the models they already have. All men need a variety of ways to be a man, so we can be free to do whatever life requires of us, and particularly to do whatever our marriage and our family requires of us.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE)