(h/t to friend GSL for inspiring this post)
I've had a post in me on men and violence for a while, ever since I went to a great conference sponsored by Boston University Law called "Evaluating Claims about “the End of Men”: Legal and Other Perspectives." Apologies if it's a little rambly.
Men and violence. Whenever there's a tragedy the kind of which we've seen far too many times in the past year, from the Tsarnaevas, to Adam Lanza, to Virginia Tech, to so many others, the question always comes up: why is it mostly men who commit these atrocities?
I think a lot of it has to do with how men are taught conflict resolution. Men aren't given a very wide spectrum of emotions that we can articulate. That is, men are socialized to be pretty unemotional. Men are supposed to be "logical" and "rational." Pretty much the spectrum of emotions that men are permitted to express are anger and lust. Men aren't taught to be able to talk about their feeling in constructive ways. Men aren't taught ways of non-violent conflict resolution. If a little girls hit another girl, that's not "lady-like," but if two boys get into a fight, that's just "boys being boys." We socialize our children at a very young age on the appropriate ways each gender should resolve their conflicts.
A lot of the anger and frustration that I think a lot of men seem to exhibit has to do with how they perform their masculinity. There's a very specific way to perform a white, middle-class masculinity: men are the breadwinners. They go to high school, maybe college if they're lucky. They'll get a good job for sure, and they can support a family on that. That kind of "Leave it to Beaver" style of masculinity has been something that has permeated our culture for decades, and though it does not (and perhaps never did) reflect reality, it's how a lot of men choose to perform their masculinity.
But what happens what that performance is denied to them? For the sake of argument, let's pretend that that kind of white, middle class dream existed in America and it was achievable once. It's much less achievable now. Real wages have gone down since World War Two. Student debt is skyrocketing. So for a man who's masculinity is tied to this notion of being a breadwinner, being able to support a family, getting a good job out of college, that's just possible anymore. A college degree doesn't get you a job; you come out of school with tons of debt; and you often need two incomes to support a family.
So you get this group of men, again, mostly white, mostly middle class, who feel that they're deserved something that has been denied to them. And what's being denied to them isn't just the job, the wife, the kids, supporting a family, but their masculinity itself. Because that's how they perform it.
So what does a man do? Well, I think he turns to these other hyper-masculine methods of performance. And one of the few acceptably masculine ways to perform is violence. It's gun culture. It's lashing out. All of these things are encouraged as acceptable ways for men to express their masculinity.
Another question: why don't women do it? Women just aren't socialized that way. Women are socialized to resolve conflicts without violence. Women aren't socialized that they're "owed" the same things by society. They're not "owed" good jobs, they're not "owed" being the breadwinner to support a family. Certainly society places different kinds of expectations on women, but white, female sexuality seems a lot more flexible in how it can be performed. There's a broader range of emotions that women are permitted to experience, besides say, violence and lust, which seem to be two of the ones society limits men mostly to.
This way of expressing masculinity does not just express itself in these (thankfully few) mass shootings, but also in other tragic ways. As the MRA crowd is always swift to point out, men are overwhelming the victims of suicide compared to women. I wonder if the same type of hypermasculine violent impulses don't influence that highly asymmetric statistic. Rather than lash out at others, men turn their violence on themselves. Although, I would note, women attempt suicides at higher rates, and part of that is explained by the methods used. Perhaps the gender differences influence the methods chosen.
Where do we go from here? Well, as I and many others have been advocating for more positive and broader masculinities. If men are allowed to have a broader masculine experience, then maybe fewer of us will feel compelled to perform these hypermasculinities that hurt ourselves and others. I hope!
Let me echo the comments of fellow well-named feminist man, Jeff, on Feminist Allies -- the Good Men Project does not strike me as feminist and it seems to perpetuate the same structural issues, but simply from a masculine, "nice guy" perspective.
I don't wish to overstate my criticism. I support any discussions of masculinity, and a lot of the things at TGM seem like they're going in the right direction. I'm just uneasy about it all. I can't quite put my finger on it all. They seem to have a number of posts that simply celebrate good men doing good things. It stikes me as the kind of puff pieces your local paper does, profiling a "good" person in the community. I mean, I get that they're "The Good Men Project" and they want to showcase men who are, well, "good," but it just doesn't strike me as particularly progressive, or feminist, or anything.
I can't quite put my finger on it. Any of the commenters have any thoughts?
I originally posted a modified version of this in response to a post on Twanna Hines's Blog, Funky Brown Chick. Twanna asked "Is porn ruining mens' sex lives?" Now, I don't think too many people would say it's "ruining" it, but it's certainly changing it.
Many feminists have difficult relationships with pornography. While being sex-positive is always a principle we strive for, it frequently collides with an analysis of mainstream pornography, which objectives women, frequently has issues of consent, and, in the topic of this post, can change how people perceive sex.
Porn seems to have fundamentally altered sexual relations for our generation (mid-20s and younger). I would speculate that there are few men indeed who were not exposed to pornography by the time they entered teens. (Anyone who hasn’t viewed porn by their teens did not abstain for lack of access — though perhaps means if they didn’t have a computer.)
What that means is that men first learn about sex from porn, rather than any awkward first-time experiences or glimpses of dirty magazines (which are softcore by today’s standards), as people must have in the past.
As people perhaps soon find out when they begin being sexually active, “porn-sex” and “real-sex” are different things. Porn-sex is designed with camera angles in mind, can cut scenes, unrealistic body types, etc., etc. But, perhaps most importantly, it is able to appeal to market niches (fetishes) much more readily than it ever could in the past, with the Internet as a means of distribution.
That means that a boy who discovers porn at a young age, rather than having to desperately search local communities to find fetish porn, can find it very easily. That leads to a very distorted idea of what the average partner wants.
Porn fundamentally requires people to “up” the ante. I would speculate the average male porn watcher’s experience as a young man proceeds in a positive feedback loop thusly: beginning with porn X (softcore stuff), becoming disenchanted with X, requiring more hardcore stimulation, and moving to porn X+1, becoming disenchanted, and so on and so forth. That means that if a kid starts watching at 13 (beats me when most kids start, but I would bet around there), they’ve got five years of porn watching under their belts (pun intended) by the time they’ve graduated high school. And, by the time they graduate college and enter a more “real” world of serious relations, they’ve been watching porn for a decade.
Is a man who began watching softcore porn at 13 still watching X+0 at 23? I’d say no, they’re way beyond that.
So if one follows that men are watching more and more nichy/fetish/hardcore porn as they age, that means their images of sexual relations (derived from “porn-sex”) become increasingly divorced from “real-sex. ” Now, there’s an assumption there, and that’s real-sex has remained static as internet porn has developed, and I think that’s a false assumption. Ten or twenty years ago, people with off-the-beaten-track fetishes might have suppressed their sexuality out of shame, or simply not expressed it for lack of being able to find like-minded partners, but now can find communities of like-minded people on the Internet, so I would guess that real-sex has “advanced” (advancement being moving from a more conservative sexuality to a more open/liberal/fetishized/whatever-one-calls-it or moving from X+0 to X+some number) due to porn-sex, but there remains a large gap in the het male consciousness in the perceptions of porn-sex and what real-sex really is.
Het men’s expectations of sex are radically different than they were twenty or even ten years ago. With broadband internet, men learn about sex from porn, watching porn-sex that is increasingly fetishized and divorced from real-sex. There’s been analyses of porn from a feminist perspective (I’d point to anti-porn advocate Robert Jensen’s Getting Off) that suggests that pornography gives men views about sex that are wildly misogynist and indeed violent.
So, where does that leave us? I'm not sure. Banning or regulating pornography is simply out for me -- I'm not throwing my lot in with the religious right, whose goals are to suppress sexuality. Anti-porn crusades strike me as naive and impossible, so perhaps the most realistic goal is simply to educate people so that they intelligently consume pornography as healthily as possible.