Patriarchy is the organization of society, such that men hold a majority of the roles associated with social power (if not all of them). Feminist theory tends to focus on the many ways that patriarchy subjugates women. I focus on it a lot, too. But it hurts men as well, and though I have not spent a great deal of effort talking about it, I have been obliquely referring to some of those harmful effects in much of my writing. Such as when I wrote about the social construction of masculinity through forced gendering. This blog entry will deal more directly with how these issues effect men in a number of negative ways.
Infant Male Circumcision
Infant male circumcision is a tradition which arose as an aspect of the Jewish identity. It was part of how both parents and male infant together formed a blood covenant as the Chosen People with their God. I’d like to avoid a particularly deep analysis of exactly how and why, but this practice has become deeply rooted in the dominant North American culture (which is superficially Christianized and paradoxically Antisemitic). What infant male circumcision represents in the dominant North American culture has dramatically changed from its roots of origin, thus it stands to reason that colonialism (i.e., cultural chauvinism, imperialism, and appropriation) plays a keystone role in how it came to be such an important pillar of the forced social gendering male children. Nonetheless, no matter how it got here, and though it is widely acknowledged as both medically unnecessary and abusive to children (even by Hasidic Jewish communities, which see these facts as a necessary tension of the sealing of the blood covenant), its practice is widespread and has only been successfully challenged (though to a limited degree) over the past 2 decades.
And what does infant male circumcision do, as a social process, to men? I would argue that it teaches young men that they are not in possession of their own bodies, and must therefore overpower both men and women in order to earn the right to autonomy. I would also argue that it teaches new fathers to perpetuate this practice as an unconscious projection of this same insecurity — securing his son’s submission to his will as the father, by taking possession of his son’s body soon after birth. But it also teaches young boys that their parents can be extraordinarily abusive to them, that they cannot trust adults, and that being perceived as different must carry an even larger threat. And as none of these feelings and internal conflicts occur in isolation from one another within the self, let alone from other children and adults, I am not attributing the whole of default mistrust on the part of adult men to an isolated (though traumatic) event of parental abuse (with life-long consequences). But certainly this particular event, happening most often within the first few weeks after birth, has more power than we often take the time to acknowledge when we focus instead on the permanent loss of sensation in the most sensitive aspect of the penis, or the magnitude and scale of the pain experienced by the child, which both illustrate why this practice is both medically unnecessary and abusive.
Non-consensual gendering is a systemic social process — everyone in society is both subject to and complicit with it until they begin to interrogate how they talk about gender; how they respond to masculinity, androgyny, and femininity; and how aspects of their own identities have been systemically suppressed in order to force them to choose one that is artificially manufactured by social pressure and punishment. The processes of social gendering includes non-violence, such as the use of gendered pronouns and the selective visibility (usually of a negative characteristic) of even a hint of femininity in much of our day-to-day language, or the relative prominence of masculinity in mass media. But it also includes violence, such as selective microaggression (i.e., low-grade hostility towards individuals with whom one shares even a minimal rapport — when it occurs between complete strangers, it is generally considered harassment), and disproportional group hostility among males relative to females (which is passive-aggressively encouraged between boys, e.g., “Boys will be boys”; while being actively discouraged between girls). Thus, non-consensual gendering is both a cause and an effect of binary-oriented social genders (i.e., boy/girl, man/woman).
I would argue once again that non-consensual gendering, like infant male circumcision, instructs young boys that they are not in possession of their own bodies. They are told how to dress and carry themselves, and are slandered or aggressed upon when they stray from the expectations that are dictated to them, often in terms young children do not yet have the faculties to comprehend. But I believe it also teaches them that gender exploration beyond very rigid stereotypes of masculinity are forbidden territory that carry the perceived threat of even greater abuses than they are already subjected to for any failure of their strict adherence to aspire to become men. And in many cases, these perceptions of a threat are entirely valid. One need only think of the words “gay-bashing” or “homophobia” to realize why that might be. Thus any young boy will very quickly learn to mistrust other children and adults, and to suppress differences they internally experience relative to the expectations imposed upon them, if any aspect of their identity should fail to measure up to the standards force-fed to them through virtually every interaction with masculinity that they will encounter in society. This is an unrelenting process that begins within boys’ early formative years, and carries on for the rest of their lives. Suppression and automatic distrust become their only viable coping mechanisms.
What could possibly result from constant messages telling you that your body is not your own until you fight over it? Or that the only acceptable ways you have at your disposal to express your subjectivity as a person of masculine gender are still answered with microaggression as if you’re automatically undeserving of trust no matter which face you present to the world? Of course, this is astronomically exacerbated by being racialized, sexually inclined in any vector other than of an exclusively heterosexual persuasion, being from a working class or poor family, being gender-variant/gender-diverse, and/or living with a disability. And the highly individual experiences of men and boys lack the systemic quality that characterizes the oppression of women. Nevertheless, men are socially alienated from their families, women, and each other, as a product of the norms of raising boys. The same is true, on a significantly larger scale, of all women. But while it is generally accepted that masculinity is associated with aggression, femininity is constructed on the principle that it is best embodied by acts of obedience and self-less courtesy.
This profoundly felt sense of alienation often reproduces the very structures of sexism between individuals in an intimate relationship that each partner faces outside of it on a daily basis. They turn to each other seeking solace, and an alienated man who has learned to distrust everyone by default over the course of his entire life, finds that he can at last trust someone and begin venting some of the tension he carries within himself. This doesn’t happen overnight, and progress is often repeatedly stifled by a defensive reflex to shut down emotionally before he invites repercussions on himself that he has been told in so many ways to anticipate for as long as he has been alive. Heterosexual women in particular, having both directly experienced and witnessed the effects of alienation first-hand, often come to see venting of this deeply rooted emotional tension as a sign of intimacy, and frequently encourage it as a result. But they do this not realizing the impact of silencing it has on their own voices, as the male voice — in a relationship between two people who are not treated as equals outside of it — takes up some of the space she needs to be heard by her partner, on the issue of how systemic sexism limits her abilities and paints her intimate relationships with individual men and women. She finds herself giving into her nurtured nature: extending self-sacrificing courtesy to obey her partner’s need to be heard and trusted. The inevitable resentment can and often does cost individual men everything they gain through the relationships they formed in seek of retreat from alienation, which now reproduce the very structures from which they sought an escape.
Compartmentalizing one’s emotions is a complex that occurs hand in hand with alienation. It’s both productive, in that it provides a useful temporary escape from the frustrations and tensions produced by alienation (thus allowing oneself to essentially move on with life); and limiting, in that it merely puts some fraction of one’s emotional processes on hold until a later time, which may or may not arrive at one’s convenience. I exhibit an extreme of emotional compartmentalization, known as emotional dissociation, when a repressed memory of some past trauma is reflexively unearthed in the course of an interaction during which I was either not anticipating it or not feeling emotionally integrated enough to handle it without losing my sense of emotional self-governance. Thus I know intimately, the experience of alienation and emotional compartmentalization. I know first-hand what it is to feel a sudden burst of rage or sadness that simply cannot be contained, that doesn’t make sense but feels completely legitimate at the same time, and is exacerbated by any attempt on the part of others to trivialize it or invalidate its legitimacy. And I know full well how isolating this experience is, as people around me have dealt with it variously, but very rarely by enquiring into where it’s coming from. Even as I’ve begun to learn over years of work with a psychiatrist to understand where these episodes come from and maintain emotional presence despite the perceived threats associated with doing so.
But through this work, I’ve also begun to see that I compartmentalized my emotions between the sheets with many lovers, and so did they. We had to, in order to negotiate through the awkwardness that was finding someone that we could each share understanding with, while also juggling secret resentment for being exploited by the same person — my male partners often exploited me emotionally, as though I was their therapist, and I exploited my male partners as an outlet for my barely veiled masochism. We wouldn’t be able to look each other in the eye if we didn’t each put all of this out of our minds when our bodies made contact. And in my case, being a closeted queer trans person through all but one of these relationships (and during the one exclusion, my partner acted as though I was straight and cisgendered anyway), emotionally compartmentalized sex became both a weapon and a tool of emotional manipulation my partners used against me. Though my experience is fairly anomalous, both in scale and in my ability to relate it to you now, I know from talking to women all my life that this complex is not at all uncommon. Just smaller in scale. Just like what I described above about fleeing alienation only to involuntarily reproduce it and alienate oneself from an intimate partnership, emotional compartmentalization operates the same way.
Feminism isn’t the enemy of man. It isn’t a concrete place that exists exclusively for the purpose of discounting and dismissing men’s voices simply because of their octave (or their chromosomal sex, or their social gender). A majority of feminists recognize that patriarchy hurts men, and that because men are hurt by patriarchy and find themselves unable (or unwilling) to empathize with women that they perceive feminism as equivalent to misandry, a threat to male power, or a demand for the flow of oppression to be reversed. But the goal of (most) feminisms is gender equity, and systemic patriarchy is the target that (most) feminists seek to subvert and dismantle in order to achieve that goal. Thus, feminism is working to benefit men as well as women (and trans* people). All we ask is that you work with us too.