I do not have a penis, so I cannot with any security say what it is like to be a cis-man. As a therapist, I have listened to a lot of men, intimately, with details many struggle to even express to their partners. So I can say with confidence that I have some understanding of what men go through in this culture. I have worked with police, fire fighters, veterans, and even a few sailors in my day. I have a special soft spot for men doing the rough work of putting themselves in danger to help others, for the tough guys. I also am personally close with many men and treasure their friendship. This is written for them.
I have been watching, reading and hearing the dialogue from men about my posts and think it’s great that issues are being discussed. There is hope for change! One thing that comes up often is a certain kind of subtle defense or misunderstanding from both men and women that what I am talking about isn’t intentionally sexist or bias toward women. This may shock you, but yes, sometimes you are right.
Some of the mansplaining, over-explaining, domination and rudeness might not be gender specific towards women. Have you considered the possibility that men often don’t treat each other very well? That maybe, just maybe, there are communication styles and traits men have been taught culturally and through families that promote and value acting like an asshole over being kind? Let me define asshole here as being dominate, not listening, asserting yourself and opinions over all else, not thinking of the other persons experience, showing little or no empathy or connection, essentially being a bully. I understand that the assholes are extreme cases, but let’s be clear, everyone can be an asshole sometimes: even me. The reasons are many as to why we sometimes act like this and I am only exploring this one cultural angle here for now. As usual, let me give you some sailing examples, although you can see this in many contexts.
I often see it with men discussing how to work on sail boats on and offline. Many men don’t listen to each other, they do a kind of pissing contest talking over one another, one upping each other in a tug of war for being the best or right. It is far from a kind or collaborative interaction. It goes like this:
Jim and Bob are discussing how to tension a backstay.
“Bob, you are wrong. The only way to do this is my way.”
“Jim, I disagree, I have done it like this for years and here are the reasons your way is wrong.”
“Bob, you shouldn’t own a boat and you are gonna kill yourself with your dumbass rigging set up.”
“Jim, you have no idea what you are talking about and can’t sail a boat worth shit.”
Sometimes this is serious and mean, sometimes both men are laughing like it’s a joke, but you can tell it’s not. I almost went onto some sailing and cruising sites to pull actual public dialogue that mirrors the above. You know you have seen it before, you know you have heard it before. Question: what do you do when you witness it? How do you feel? Do you like to talk to people who are like that? Do you sometimes participate, and if so, how?
The big question is why is male culture steeped in this kind of aggressive interaction? There is a lot of really solid research being done on what is called toxic or restrictive masculinity out there and how it not only harms women, but hurts men too. Before I define it, let’s start with the cultural messaging behind it:
Be a man, boys don’t cry, boys will be boys, suck it up, be tough, be the best, be powerful, know everything, take control, go big or go home, be strong, be muscular, one-up everyone, be rich, be a provider, be the person in charge, be angry, be a protector, don’t make mistakes, suffer in silence, don’t be vulnerable, don’t be sensitive, don’t show you care, don’t let them see you sweat, be independent, don’t ask for help, it’s not okay to be scared or sad, be a stud, be hyper sexual. Any of these sound familiar? What feeling comes up as you read them?
People often get confused that the term toxic or restrictive masculinity is saying men are bad. That is not the case at all. The definition is about the harmful cultural idea of manhood being aggressive, sexist, and powerful. The research solidly shows that these messages of restrictive masculinity lead to epic rates of isolation, addiction and depression. This happens as men hold in their feelings and are ultimately only allowed to be tough and silent or tough and angry to cope. It shuts down empathy, emotional intelligence and connection that limits relationships, job performance, and even impairs physical health. This kind of toxic gender role also promotes entitlement, privilege and violence in speech and action by taking a stance that men are and have to be at the top with everyone else deferring to them. If you think about it, this is tragically sad. It doesn’t allow men for the full experience of their humanity at all. It is a tremendous amount of pressure. Men have feelings and vulnerabilities too, they have a need to connect with others and express their full selves.
In my experience, many men have shut their feelings down to survive and belong in this culture. Some have gained great external power and success by doing this, even at the expense of others or themselves. By the time men recognize their emotional side has been strangled, their lives and relationships are falling apart. They struggle with learning how to feel or cope and communicate in healthy way. It is heart breaking to watch. Because of the message “suffer in silence,” many men are lonely, they have no one they feel they can tell their true feelings to. Some feel they can’t even talk to their wives because they fear they will reject them for not being the strong one. They worry about being seen as weak. Some men cannot even find words. Many have been medicating with alcohol or other substances for a long while to cope with stress because they don’t know other ways. Some went to addictions because it was the only way they know how to connect by getting fucked up with the boys. Men can become depressed or anxious and either don’t know they are or don’t know what to do about it. Because anger is the other socially acceptable option to silence some have road rage, or engage in domestic violence verbally or physically. They get into trouble at work for poor performance or being a jerk. These men are the online trolls of the world. It’s sad.
Let me hit this home with how it starts and hopefully give you some empathy. I work with young boys and see the emotional shut down begin right around ages 8-11. They are sweet, caring little humans who have sharing supportive friendships. Then the cultural messages of manhood start to set in and they think they need to act super tough. Instead of saying, “Hey Jimmy, do you want to play. I love our games!” They say, “Hey Bobby, you suck, you loser, want to go kick a ball?” I have had many young boys come into my office in tears and say, “I don’t understand, why did Bobby say I was a loser, then ask to play? That’s confusing. I thought we were friends. Then I cried and told him I didn’t like being called a loser. He said I couldn’t take a joke and called me a pussy.”
I do my best to educate in these situations and bring in the cultural messaging piece. I tell the boys that they have a choice to be different, they don’t have to relate with each other that way. I give other options on how to communicate. Sadly, many times these same sweet boys come back to my office in a few years sarcastic and tough. They often have become popular and hard, thinking everyone is stupid and mask their own insecurity through anger. It is difficult watching these little guys become more and more aggressive in order to fit in and not be seen as a “pussy.” I also have great compassion because the pull is strong and the consequences steep to stay open and kind in male culture. Also notice the inherent language and attitude of sexism in toxic masculinity. Anything related to women, like the word pussy, or showing feelings is seen as being weak or bad. Women are seen as less than and sexual objects.
So, how do we work with any of this? Understanding where these messages come from historically, culturally, from media, from family, experiences, professions and how we have internalized them is a good starting point. All of these toxic messages live in us somewhere, men, women, or queer, and impact us all. Watch almost any blockbuster movie with the lens of toxic masculinity and tell me what messages you see. Then ask yourself, do I want to be like this? Is this in line with how I truly feel as a person? Do I want to limit the men in my life to being like this? How does this impact me? The next step is compassion. I bring the little boy stories into this blog to make us pause in that compassion. You can see why these kiddos go down that road. You can see the sensitivity at first, and then the coping and protection to belong.
So yes, the mansplaining or hepeating is not always just toward women. I have seen men re-rig what another man has done, talk over them, re-explain things to them, ignore them, repeat what another man said right after he said it, and make something his idea when it wasn’t. I’ve also seen women do it to men and to other women. Let’s be clear though, all of this stems in part from a culture based on a kind of masculinity that is sexist and toxic at its core. Furthermore, women can be a part of the problem with their expectations of men. I have seen women refer to sensitive men as pussies, or weak and not being supportive of their fears and vulnerabilities. I have seen women expect their partners to “just handle it,” and not give space for their insecurities or worries. Women can also internalize this toxic masculinity and turn on one another with a mean girl type of bullying. We have our own limited toxic gender roles to work through as well. I plan on writing about some of that soon.
What I am trying to bring home in this post is a call for us to question cultural norms, do some self-reflection and maybe create new definitions of manhood where there is more aspiration to kindness, integrity, respect, emotional intelligence and inclusivity.
To illustrate what that might look like, here is my dream conversation with Bob and Jim above discussing rigging:
“Well Bob, I see your point and appreciate the advice. I like to do it this way and it works for me.”
“Thanks for that input Jim, that’s a really interesting approach and I will think about it even though my way works for me.”
“Bob, I really respect and appreciate how thoughtful you are about sailing and supporting one another on the water.”
“Jim, I really feel the same way, let’s go share a meal and talk about more ideas.”
I have delightedly seen it go down like this because I know some pretty enlightened male sailors who care about each other and our community. I’m not saying that we all hold hands and sing kumbaya, walk on egg shells, become delicate snowflakes or flowers, or restrain humor or playfulness. This also doesn’t mean people can’t be strong or tough, it just means don’t limit people. What I am saying is that we try to be mindful of our bias, words and actions so we can create emotional safety and treat one another with respect. We all say asshole things sometimes, that doesn’t make us an asshole. Creating relationships internally and externally where we can recognize hurt, have compassion and create repair is important. I am suggesting we make space where we can grow and learn together for better connection and support. I am asking that we change so the upcoming boys and girls (and yes, non-binary kids) can have an environment where they all can have a full range of their human experience and expression. Thanks for reading and contemplating.
May we all sail in peace.
The Good Men Project also has a wealth of information on it for further exploration.