Refusing Standard Masculinities
The following was part of a subsection in my comps essay which was titled “Theorizing Patriarchy Past & Present,” which performed said theorizing via a variety of epistemologies. I reviewed the hypothesized roots of patriarchy, surveyed the broad cultural expression of its impact on women of antiquity as well as more recent history, researched its close axiological linkage with warfare, and closely studied a specific female resistance to its religious expression. Also included was a wonderful book containing a brilliant debunking of patriarchy’s morally bankrupt, androcentrically obsessed, and starkly positivist modern-day epistemology, followed by a vibrantly new rendition of a very old and powerful mythos: that of all life on earth as being part of a natural gift economy. The majority of these books, however, were written or edited by women — and further, over half of them were written in the previous century. The next three books, therefore — the last in the “Theorizing Patriarchy Past & Present” subsection — offered a perspective on how modern men view patriarchy — or if they can even see it.
In our first example, American activist, radical feminist scholar, and editor John Stoltenberg collects together 13 of his perceptive and disquieting essays in Refusing to be A Man: Essays on Sex & Justice. Originally released in 1978, the book graphically explores the parameters of conventional male sexuality as an artificial socio-political construction grounded in social injustice and designed to accrue and maintain privilege for men; as Stoltenberg explicitly notes: “in the absence of force and anger, the male sex as a class is a chimera” (xi). Through eloquent analysis of the initiatory effects of hegemonic masculinity upon rape, domestic violence, sexual objectification of women, war, denial of abortion, homophobia, social injustice, and the pornography industry, the author demonstrates the cultural, collateral, and very human damage which this pernicious myth of male superiority creates. While Stoltenberg does not interrogate the full depth and complexity of interlocking kyriarchal structures — I would be interested, for example, to see him examine the effects of racism or transgender perspectives on masculinity — he does thoroughly dissect white hetero- and homo-sexual socio-sexual privilege and presentation for misogynistic subtext. However, despite extensive study of the painful nature of this abusive cultural bias, Stoltenberg’s message remains ultimately one of hope: that men can refuse to act out current social constructions of masculinity, creating instead an ethical, non-sexist definition of manhood based in empathy and responsibility. The impression Stoltenberg gives is that he writes for all those men who find themselves oddly uncomfortable with current social constructions of masculinity, but who don’t really know what to do about it.
The text is excellent, brutally honest in assigning personal responsibility — and also stomach-churning, from the perspective of a woman; as a single example, the statistics about the appalling male indifference to women as people, as individuals deserving of bodily autonomy, are intensely disturbing. However, while all Stoltenberg’s contentions are disturbingly viable, I find his statements against pornography somewhat troubling, especially since I am still working out my changing personal beliefs on this subject. His arguments are personally least controversial when he discusses male sexual identity and its ethical roots in rape culture — though he never uses that actual phrase, as it had not yet been coined. However, honestly critiquing male privilege is by its very nature a disquieting and unpleasant experience for those it benefits; as he notes, it is emotionally far easier to distance oneself from the subject:
Trying to unlock and unblock the function of sexual objectifying in a man’s life and trying to trace the effects of sexual objectification, particularly on women’s lives, can be to risk recognizing too much that is too deeply disturbing. … There are much easier ways of discussing sexual objectification — types of discourse in which troublesome questions of ethical responsibility need not arise. For instance, a natural scientist can speak of evolution and genetics in terms that provide social scientists with a vocabulary for rendering the function of sexual objectification ethically neutral. … In such ways as these, one can discourse with ease, and one can evade the ethical issues entirely. (Stoltenberg, 37)
Refusing to be a Man was re-released in 1998 in a relatively unchanged second edition save for the addition of a thought-provoking new Introduction. In it, Stoltenberg explores the intellectual origins of both European and American feminism, grounding the former in Marxist thought and conceptions of economic justice. By basing his activism instead in American feminism’s civil rights roots, he simultaneously orients himself with the radical feminist movement, and firmly separates himself ideologically from the growing numbers of aggressively reactionary “men’s rights” groups. Interestingly, he also comments that he left the original book’s essays unchanged due to his recognition that the subjects covered are still serious social issues for modern men and women. As he points out:
We have learned that the suffering under male supremacy in the world can cause us great pain to look at — to look at hard; but we have also learned that blocking out of our minds the awareness of how bad things are is easier to do than making things better. So we try to put together a life view that isn’t such a bummer. Yet our emergent moral identity whispers, even though its whispers sometimes pitch us into despair and denial. (Stoltenberg, 174)
Clearly it was easier for men in the 1970s through the 1990s to simply fail to perceive the inherent social injustice which bolstered their privileged social positions. In the years immediately after the re-issue of Stoltenberg’s book, or even in the next millennium: are men starting to question patriarchal privilege? Can they even see it? The next two selections in my comps essay were for Misogyny: The Male Malady and Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment. Both were written by men, and were enlightening examples of how these issues are currently being handled — or not, as the case may be.