I recently read an excellent article by Jody Allard in the Washington Post, in which she concludes: “It’s not enough to teach our sons about consent; we have to encourage them to have the courage to speak out against rape culture, too.” I would like to take her conclusion as the point of departure and think about the implications in practical terms: what might it take to bring a constructive understanding of these concepts into the daily lives of young boys?
Everywhere in art and in academia you’ll hear that masculinity is not easy for boys and men to talk about. Now I’ve spent a couple of years thinking through these things, working through my own masculinity, and I would say that’s an incomplete sentence. Masculinity is uncomfortable for boys and men to talk about, when we have to call it masculinity.
Just put yourself in a little boy’s shoes. When we talk to him about this concept of Masculinity, we are suddenly talking about the dizzying totality of his particular existence. Now if you tell a little boy he has to be a different kind of masculine (not the Toxic kind: Masculine), what is he to think!
We’re asking him to change the rules; to stand apart from all the other little boys. That’s not easy: little boys learn to face the world shoulder to shoulder with other little boys (Margaret Atwood has written exceptionally well on this) and they learn pretty early on that if they’re ‘different’ they won’t have many friends. Standing apart like that takes exceptional courage.
We all want to help our boys be empathetic. But have we really weighed this undertaking yet; have we felt the weight of it? This goes beyond conceptual analysis and one time conversations. This is a lifetime journey of reflection and forgiveness that we have to agree to embark on with them. There is world-building to be done, together. Where do we begin? The earlier, the better.
As I try to think through my own masculinity, I find stories help: they can touch people’s insides in a way that concepts can’t. The abstract becomes concrete in a finger-snap. And so, below I have attempted a brief semi-autobiographical monologue – to try to talk about my own masculinity (lower case ‘m’).
Her? It’s a she?
That’s the way the experts talk about it …
I see, like for a car or a boat, kind of affectionate!
Well, respect really, more than that …
Love? Terror? Well if she’s a woman I’d be careful! (bursts into laughter)
Dialogue from The Trial (film). Orson Welles. 1962.
Why are there certain things no one wants to talk to a boy about? No one will even say the word ‘sex’ in front of a little boy. They change the channel when a bra commercial comes on; leap across the room and turn-off-the-tv en-pointe. They watch us watching tv, reading books out of the corner of their eyes, down their noses through the gap between the fridge and the wall. They call us shameless. Come on. Something happens next and we want to know what it is. If the experts won’t tell us, then we’ll just have to find out. Any system of censors can be bypassed, evaded, outwitted. It’s just another game.
Boys will be boys. You can’t keep them cooped up forever can you? We didn’t learn shit in biology class either: Read it yourselves, shameless children!, the old woman clucked. So we opened the textbooks in the toilet to study the diagrams. We looked down at the oddness of our dicks, cursed – Shit, is that the normal size – and tucked them away.
We found sex out there and we showed it to each other. That first time we saw it in all its frenzied glory, the act – the pounding, moaning, embarrassing silliness of someone else doing it – we blushed from our ears to our knees and kept our eyes on the screen. Six sets of eyes bored holes in that screen. That screen filled the room.
Guys, you ever wonder … why the girls in our school are all so ugly?
Pin drop silence. A bucket of water is poured out somewhere.
Motherfucker! You take that back! You’re talking shit about my girl! She’s beautiful!
The fight is a relief. Real bodies thrashing, smashing, crashing. Someone switches the tv off.
And when our Papa came home, we got spankings. Our little round butt cheeks were tore up: red, raw, leather-whipped … We knew there was something on the other side of pain, on the other side of the sting. We knew, because he was meticulous, because he was precise, because he took his time. He was awakening us …
And when our father was gone, we wanted to be fathers. We hunted animals. We drudged through the muck of the crick, chasing down bullfrogs and water snakes. We plucked the baby robins from their nest. We liked to feel the beat of tiny hearts, the struggle of tiny wings. We brought their tiny animal faces close to ours.
“Who’s your daddy?” we said, then we laughed and tossed them into a shoebox.
We The Animals. Justin Torres. 2011.
He-Man. David Hasselhoff. Salman Khan. All of them had biceps, pecs, rides, girlfriends. We wanted all of it: muscles, women, wheels. Every snot-nosed boy I know dreamed of a beautiful girlfriend. A shy and sexy girlfriend. You know the type? Sweet, soft, petite. Innocent, – just waiting to be taught a thing or two about the world.
Not like the other girls.
Shit you hear about _____ ?
So apparently her boyfriend jumped over the gate after her dad was asleep and he went up to her window and she _____ .
Whooaaaaaaa! She didn’t! What a slut!
That lucky pig!
Boys are lucky or unlucky. Girls are slutty or sweet. When it comes to bodies, it’s easier to talk about girls’ bodies than boys’ bodies. The more we talk about them, the lighter girls’ bodies get: vagina, pussy, cunt; hooters, boobs, tits; buttocks, butt, ass. They float around in our thoughts and we worship these unreal bodies with our erections. Boys bodies are not the same. Pecs, biceps, quads, glutes, wings, triceps, shoulders, forearms – all of these have more weight, more force than a girl’s body.
And so, it’s probably fair that it is the boy’s culturally designated job to sweep the girl off her feet. To go get her and to bring her home. Pretty straightforward terms, aren’t they? Now boys, who’s man enough to get up and go talk to that table of chicks over there?
Do you think that makes him a better man than you?
Yessir. I do.
Cormac McCarthy. No Country for Old Men. 2005.
Girls. We learned to eat them up with our eyes and to want them in our arms. You know that pang of longing when your friend puts his arm around his girlfriend? How do you quiet that? I remember waking up one day and wanting the same thing: a nice girl to put my arm around. We learned how to love girls from songs, stories and MTv; with love notes, mix-tapes and casual put-downs we plotted to get them.
In college I met a wonder woman. She was shy and sweet, soft and sexy. So I wooed her. I ignored the fact that she wasn’t quite petite – who’s perfect, right? She was the outdoorsy kind, so we kissed in the forest. We went on hikes and drives and long walks. When we met my friends, and their eyes lingered on her my chest swelled a little. I was on the sweet side of envy.
As she came out of her shell, it turned out that not only was she sexy, she was strong and fast and funny too. Athletic and very very fit.
The little man inside me thought: Does she do pushups? Aren’t those shoulders a bit too broad? I was embarrassed when she slapped my ass; when she ran faster than I did; when she was hornier than I was. So eager to whip off that bra! I grumbled about her to the boys. They were glad to have me back; I had been spending too much time with her anyway.
The last time that we hung out, we made out until I had to get to work and then she pinched my bum and waved goodbye smiling. I never called her again.
After a long while she spoke very softly. “Is it true that I can have a baby now?”
“Sure”, said Frieda drowsily. “Sure you can.”
“But … how?” Her voice was hollow with wonder.
“Oh” said Frieda, “somebody has to love you.”
There was a long pause in which Pecola and I thought this over…. Then Pecola asked a question that never entered my mind. “How do you do that? I mean, how do you get somebody to love you?” But Frieda was asleep. And I didn’t know.
The Bluest Eye. Toni Morrison. 1970.
I think we have this weird tendency to look at other people from a distance and attribute all sorts of super powers to them – same as a boy will believe his daddy is a superman. Sometimes we take it so far we forget they’re beings with feelings and fears and worries just like us: lets us attack them with a casual cruelty. That’s a tendency I don’t think we simply grow out of. Most of us.
It’s a very conscious decision you either take or you don’t, once you realize what’s at stake. You have to decide to turn around: to learn and to reflect and to cultivate a new awareness.
It is a slow process, because you have to pick up on every little bit of your thoughts and your responses and your inclinations. You miss things and you have to forgive yourself and try harder. But yes its difficult to deny: sexism is everywhere, although it doesn’t have to be. Can you imagine sexism if there were no sexists?