Dr. Mike Obsatz, Professor Emeritus at Macalester College
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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.
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