The Gender Syndrome

Yemenite, Jewish, and Transsexual

Yemenite, Jewish, and Transsexual

A young gunman murders people at a sorority house in Santa Barbara. Members of a football team rape an unconscious girl and proudly broadcast their happy discussions of the act, only to be protected by their community. A star football player hits his fiancée so hard he knocks her unconscious. These, and far too many other acts of overt violence by men against women have generated debate, outrage, and apologetics.

More than fifty years after the publication of Betty Friedan’s landmark book, The Feminine Mystique which helped politicize the continuing oppression of women in the Cold War United States, the struggle rages on, even while significant and undeniable progress has been made. But the latest big news incident, the Isla Vista massacre, has unwrapped a new level of the debate. It demands a new tactic to address it, one in which men take the leading and active role.

Murder and rape are the horrifying, violent pinnacle of the problem. They are the logical and unavoidable extreme that arises from a culture that teaches men that we are entitled to women’s bodies, and that violence is a legitimate, even heroic, expression of masculinity. All of the sexist notions that privilege men over women end up in violence, even if most men don’t take it that far. Or do they? We don’t really know. Statistics for women who have been victims of violence are flimsy due to under-reporting. And they mostly cover only direct violence. There is nothing reliable on how many men engage in passive violent behavior, like stalking, leering, harassing, and other acts which are pretty much impossible to trace. I’m not prepared to say that the number of men who have never done any of those things is the minority. I suspect it’s quite the opposite.

These behaviors are all of a piece. Because of course, most men have not shot up a sorority because they couldn’t find a sex partner. Few of us have even considered such a thing. But how many of us have felt the way that killer, Elliott Rodger, did in some toned-down way? How many times have we complained or heard another guy whine about how “girls won’t look at me even though I’m such a nice guy, they are so shallow, they just want guys who will treat them badly, they’re so stupid…” I’ll go out on a limb and say you’d be hard-pressed to find a man who wouldn’t find some part of Rodger’s mad ranting familiar on some level.

I was never told explicitly that I am entitled to women’s bodies, but it was communicated to me anyway. Sure, it was in the context of being “man enough,” being “good” to women (often in terms of placing women on the proverbial pedestal),  and for a woman, most often expressed in terms of earning potential or physical prowess, but also in other terms of proving my worth. These were ways I would “earn” the exercise of my inherent right to “possess” one or more women.

Recognizing these things in myself was a difficult process, one which I could never have accomplished on my own. My desire to transcend the sexism and misogyny I had been taught wasn’t enough. I needed guidance and was fortunate enough to have had it. Yet, even today, after many years of work, self-reflection and conversations, I still have reactions I don’t like, and attitudes I need to address. I have come to realize the effort will last the rest of my life, because the lessons I had been taught at a young age were so subtle and became so ingrained.

That’s why a new aspect of the struggle against misogyny is so badly needed. It is something that men must lead and take control of, because it is about us. Either we do it now, or these issues will never be transcended. We need to reinvent masculinity.

From Yossi and Jagger (Israel, 2002)
From Yossi and Jagger (Israel, 2002)

I grant that doesn’t sound revolutionary. Various men’s groups have worked at this, and certainly rethinking masculinity has also had its place in feminist thinking. But efforts have been sporadic, disorganized and, to a large extent, ineffective. Why hasn’t it had a greater effect? I submit it is because so much of the effort has understandably targeted violence, especially rape, rather than the root cause: the inherent misogyny of the way masculinity is defined.

Look, for example, at the response to the Isla Vista massacre. The social media war that erupted in the wake of the killings featured dueling hashtags that showed just how badly men and women are talking past each other. The #YesAllWomen meme was a bold and important statement, an open declaration of women’s frustration at what they confront every day. No, most of those women have never been shot at by a sexually frustrated boy of privilege like Elliott Rodger. But I have not met a woman who hasn’t experienced harassment; felt intimidated or frightened of a man’s persistent sexual advances; felt shamed or at least insulted or embarrassed by leering men; or delegitimized by men for not looking like a supermodel; or any one of a hundred little agonies that a misogynistic culture tries to convince women are just part of the natural order of things

In response, we got the #NotAllMen campaign, a defensive, somewhat pathetic statement from men who, understandably, don’t want to be lumped in with murderers, rapists and harassers, or even with men who just routinely treat women as children or with less than the respect they deserve as human beings. As we move along those categories, though, we are going to find more and more men who feel defensive yet fall under one or more of those headings. Many men would never physically harm a woman, but would use their gender privilege to harm them emotionally. Some would never harm women in any way on purpose, but simply don’t realize how their actions affect the women in their lives. Still, others think they are real feminist men but aren’t willing to take a long, hard look at their own privilege and, more importantly, their own behavior.

Still, let’s say the number of men who can legitimately whine out loud about #NotAllMen is the majority of us. What we are learning about a broader rape culture, a broader training of misogyny that both men and women are taught to internalize tells us that something is still amiss. Indeed, in some ways, it is rape culture itself and the discourse around it that is keeping men from getting to the heart of the problem.

Because, ultimately, the violence cannot be stopped if the violence itself is all we target. It makes perfect sense that feminism would target rape, sexual violence and murder. These are, obviously, the worst parts of misogyny, horrifying acts that must be stopped. It is hard to tell if the incidences of such acts has diminished as a result of feminist activism, since massive underreporting remains a problem. But we can say at least that a more open discourse has commenced and that, as a result, there is more consciousness of these things as serious problems and as unacceptable behavior than we saw in the past.

Sacha Baron Cohen in Bruno (UK, 2009)
Sacha Baron Cohen in Bruno (UK, 2009)

But few would argue that gendered violence, sexual violence and the privileged violence that Rodger brought a little closer to the center of discussion are not still rampant. And why wouldn’t they be? Men are still taught that heroism and violence are virtually synonymous. We are still taught that women are primarily valued for their bodies and, if we are worthy men, we have a right to those bodies. And when reality, or our individual perceptions of it, doesn’t measure up to that, rage is going to be the result.

Yet while that rage is directed outward in far too many cases, it is almost always directed inwards. Some of the more contemptible apologists for Elliott Rodger have talked about the pain he felt, the pain of a near-constant feeling of rejection. That’s a pain many men deal with, and it is an integral part of male hostility toward women. This is what men need to address.

We, as a group, need to break the boundaries of a rigidly defined gender identity to a much greater degree than we have to date. Boys, adolescents and young men need to get a much stronger message than just “It’s not OK to hurt women.” Males need to be taught, at a young age, that whoever the focus of their sexual desires may be, there is no inherent right, nor any way to “earn” that person, body or soul. In order to bring that message across, it is masculinity that needs to be re-defined.

And only men can do that. One of the most basic principles of feminism is that femininity is not defined in relation to men. From there, new understandings of a feminine identity could be opened up, until, both theoretically and for an increasing number of women, practically, their femininity could be understood as however they themselves defined it. That is, to be sure, an ideal to which many, even most women still have to strive. But men are, on the whole, much farther away from it in terms of masculine identity.

A fluid concept of masculinity cannot be defined as “what women want me to be.” Men must teach ourselves how to move beyond the sense of entitlement that leads to frustration, rage and anger. We must understand masculinity in terms that do not include entitlement. We must understand that our sexuality is a good thing, a positive force, not a demand on women (assuming we are attracted to women, of course) but a mutually beneficial force that can fulfill us both. Sex is not owed to any man, but the fully consensual joining of two people raises the spirits of both.

Feminism has opened femininity to fluid definition. A woman can be a mother, a nurturer, a warrior, a stoic, a debater, or she can be none of those things. She can be obsessed with power or wealth, or not. She can, in the feminist view, be what she wants to be and feminist activity has been largely devoted to actualizing that idea. The same must be done for masculinity, but only men can lead the way to it.

Feminists correctly target sexual violence as the ultimate expression of misogyny. That is the fight they have been leading, and the feminist movement has made important gains. But only by redefining masculinity in more positive, less oppressive and binding terms will we ever resolve the underlying issues that are the foundations of the violence we seek to stop. That is primarily the job of men, and thus far, we haven’t gotten it done.


Dana International montage courtesy of David Conch Condon. Published under a Creative Commons license.


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