Dr. Mike Obsatz, Professor Emeritus at Macalester College
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When I was a little boy, I was repeatedly shamed and bullied. I was hit and hurt, and told that I was not a "real," guy. I was put down, ridiculed, made fun of.
Being shamed regularly was an attempt to control me, and make me feel bad about myself. The more worthless I felt, the more the bullies and shamers could feel happy that they accomplished their goal. It has taken years to overcome that early shaming and bullying. Emotions I felt went ranged from anger to fear to sadness.
Millions of boys are shamed into fitting into a model of masculinity. They are called sissies, wimps, wusses, momma's boys, etc. if they don't conform to a cultural norm. In the process of conforming, boys lose a part of themselves, and spend their lives grieving these losses. Rather than being allowed to authentically develop into their true selves, they are coerced into a narrow "blueprint" of masculinity. Herb Goldberg, in his book "The New Male," written in 1979, says that "blueprint for masculinity is blueprint for self-destruction." This shaming process means that boys experience loss if they do fit in, and if they don't fit in. It is a no-win proposition. There are at least twenty-five messages that boys are taught. They include the following:
Maintain a strong image
Prove manhood by taking risks, even if foolish
Sexualize affection - all touch is sexual touch
Have many sexual conquests
Don't be a virgin
Don't be vulnerable
Don't express fear
Don't ask for help, guidance or directions
Don't trust anyone
Be disposable - be willing to die for your country
Pretend to know even when you don't
Be in control
Devalue what is "feminine" in yourself and others
Be emotionally detached
Tough it out
Don't take care of your body
Win at all costs
Abuse your body
More is better - money, sex, food, alcohol
You are what you achieve or accomplish
Boys who are close to their mothers are shamed. There is a fear that boys will turn into women if they are not tough enough. The losses that boys experience as a result of this process include:
Loss of intimate connection to mother and father
Loss of emotional outlets - crying, showing fear
Loss of trust in other males who betray, tease or shun them
Loss of the option to be gentle, nurturing, vulnerable
Loss of the freedom to make mistakes
Loss of internal awareness - emotional disconnection
Loss of learning opportunities - empathy, other "feminine traits"
Loss of power over one's own destiny
Loss of support
Loss of freedom to give and receive non-sexual affection
Loss of ability to connect non-verbally
Loss of trusting one's own intuition
Two aspects of the grieving process are anger and depression. Many men respond to these losses by becoming hostile and angry. Other men become isolated, lonely and depressed. There are many costs of the boys and men, as well as the larger culture due to men grieving over these losses. A few of these include:
Violence against men, women and children
Deaths due to foolish risk-taking
Addictions to numb out pain
Depression, isolation and loneliness
Injuries and deaths due to men's sports - racing, boxing, etc.
Father absence - over 36 million children live without biological fathers
Hierarchy, racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, etc.
Unhealthy families, and unhealthy male-male and male-female relationships
Child abuse and neglect
Sexual abuse against women
Shame-based systems that are perpetuated from one generation to the next
We must ask why there are such narrow definitions of "real manhood" and where they came from? Men have had to be strong for societies to survive. In many cultures, men were previously hunters, but aren't anymore. Men still fight and die in most of the wars. Men are expendable and disposable. Since they are considered stronger, they are the supposed protectors. But women now are in the military, and in some countries, serve in combat situations. If the man is not a protector or hunter, then what is he? He provides food, shelter, and clothing. But women are also providers now, so men are not the sole providers.
So, we come to the question of what makes a man a man. It is his genetic make-up, hormones, brain development, and body parts that make him male. Why does there have to be an emotional component that defines him as different from females?
My guess is that we haven't been willing to accept the fact that little boys are masculine without having to prove anything. To prove masculinity is to be accepted by a group of peers or adult males as a "true male." This is as opposed to a woman, or a pseudo-male. This proving is based on fear, and controlled by a gender that is fearful that it is not okay. If males feel inadequate, they will put more pressure on younger males to prove adequacy. Shame-based masculinity is fear-based masculinity.
The alternative to this is holistic manhood, when the boy matures into manhood from the inside out. This authentic process, learning about oneself, and then loving what one learns about oneself, would make boys into healthy, whole men. The men who achieved authentic manhood would not be easy to manipulate, dominate, or control. A man would know who he is, what he stands for, and what his life is about. Such men are a threat to shame-based systems and hierarchical structures. They would not need to drink alcohol or drive fancy sportscars to prove manhood.
The following are the traits of healthy manhood. They are:
Power for and with, not over
Knowing one's purpose gives one's life meaning and direction. Whole manhood requires commitment and goal-setting.
Real power is power for others, to help others, and sharing power with others. It involves faith in oneself, assertiveness, and compassion.
Passion is being alive, with vitality, energy, sensuality, healthy sexual energy. It involves cherishing as well as grieving, and allowing oneself to fully connect emotionally.
Paternity involves helping others, children, and animals, mentoring, and stewarding the earth.
Piety is about wonder, gratitude, reverence, humility and spiritual connectedness.
Persistence includes endurance, resilience, responsibility, and follow-through.
Presence means being open, not judging, accepting others, and paying attention.
Patience means delaying gratification, impulse control, and being slow to anger.
Pardon means forgiveness and kindness.
Partnership includes collaboration, community building, and negotiation and compromise.
Pliability is flexibility, openness to change, willingness to see other points of view.
Playfulness is laughter, joy, lightheartedness.
Peacemaking includes justice-seeking, non-violent alternatives, and mediation.
Politeness means have courtesy and manners.
Perspective is being able to see the larger picture.
If we change the "p" in paternity to "m," we have maternity. Then we could discuss the qualities of healthy holistic womanhood. And guess what? Healthy manhood and womanhood involve the same character traits. And, believe it or not, men will not turn into women, and women will not turn into men.
Holistic manhood and womanhood would create a culture with less pain, less loss, and more interconnectedness. We can teach both boys and girls these traits of emotional and spiritual health through role-modeling and mentoring.
As we move away from shame-based and fear-based masculinity, we will discover that boys who don't have to prove themselves can relax more. Bullying will decrease, as will drug abuse. There will likely be fewer lonely and depressed men and boys, and fewer hostile and aggressive men and boys. Since males won't need females to prove their manhood and sexual prowess, rape and other crimes against women will decrease considerably. Men might live longer because they can admit that they need help from doctors. Healthier relationships, better parenting, and more compassion and empathy would most likely contribute to a better society.
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The Trauma of "Proving Manhood"
Boys growing up in America experience trauma. They don’t have to come from dysfunctional families, or poor neighborhoods. This is a rash statement, but from my 50 years of working with boys and men, I have concluded that the male socialization process can be traumatic for most boys.
Herb Goldberg wrote in The New Male, “Women bend and men break. The blueprint for masculinity is a blueprint for self-destruction.” Terrence Real, in I Don’t Want to Talk About It, claims that many boys and men are depressed and isolated.
When we look at the number of men in prison, men who are homeless, men who are drug addicts, men who are violent, men who lack meaningful relationships and connections -- we can begin to see that the old messages are still very potent in 2018.
Be strong. Be sexually active. Be straight. Be independent. Don’t ask for help. Don’t cry or show vulnerability. Focus on the goal, not the process. Take control. Be dominant. Be right. Pretend to know what you are doing even if you do not. Give up your life for your country.
I believe that men and women have different bodily and hormonal structures. Their brains are different. Michael Gurian has written about this in Boys and Girls Learn Differently.
But these difference do not take away from the fact that boys are whole people who give up part of their wholeness to conform to an image of masculinity that may make for good soldiers, or corporate employees — but make for poor life partners, fathers, uncles and friends. So boys and men grieve the loss of part of themselves, and project that onto resenting others, or putting others down who show vulnerability, sensitivity, and compassion. They become angry or depressed, or both, two aspects of the grief process.
The losses that boys and men experience in their early years leave lifelong scars and pain. Boys who don’t “fit” the traditional macho image, are marginalized, ostracized, harassed, and physical and psychically punished. Bullying results in trauma. Bullying is not easily fixed with band-aid programs and simple answers. While we acknowledge that some men are “nerds,” they are usually portrayed in sitcoms and provide lots of laughs.
The trauma that males experience is lethal, large, and hard to work through. Many men who have hurt others have been hurt themselves. Some men who try to control others have been controlled from the moment they left the womb. Boys are taught in the early years by mothers and female teachers who don’t have the visceral understanding of what it means to be a boy.
Michael Thompson says that some boys are viewed as “defective girls.” Men are taught they need to be reigned in by females if they want to develop any sense of morality.
Why do boys and men act out? They do so out of a gaping internal hole of despair. They have be deprived of their essence by a culture that does not value their “being-ness.” Capitalism, hierarchy and competition become the major ways boys and men get to prove their manhood.
It is foolish to have to prove manhood. One is a boy or a man. There is nothing to prove. And yet, manhood is defined by some type of bravery that transcends the normal every day way of living. Rising to the top means having to put someone beneath you. If you are not the winner, you are a loser.
Jennifer James wrote a book called Success is the Quality of Your Journey. It is not a destination but a process. Proving one is better or right results in people waring with each other, and nations waring with each other. Along with this is the notion of scarcity. There is not enough to go around so you better take yours before someone else does, or if they have taken theirs, take it away from them. War is trauma, and we have an incredible number of victims of war to prove that.
It is believed that society benefits from the all-powerful male image. The longterm losses include a wide array of suffering that gets passed on from generation to generation.
Unless men and boys are allowed to claim their wholeness — including their fear and vulnerability — we will have to live with the collateral damage. The core issue is about being whole.