Photo by Giuseppe Milo

Yes, Men Have Been Cheated

Why do so many men struggle to process the simple message of #MeToo? This is why.

Ask most men, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum and they’ll tell you. Something feels off. Something is not right. Daily we feel it, a surging dislocation, a weary dissatisfaction, and a restless sense of growing anxiety. It’s the kind of discomfort you feel as you slowly realize the game is totally rigged; the game you’ve been bullied and shamed into playing all your life.

I’m here to confirm men have, in fact, been cheated, and they are starting to understand this in ever greater numbers.

From some quarters, men’s voices are angry and reactive. They say that men are not allowed to be men; that women are taking over. Others feel deeply uncertain, wondering how to engage, even support movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp without getting caught up in the binary crossfire of our culture wars.

Not only that, I’m also here to confirm that the fight for women’s equality is creating upheaval that is explosive in its implications for men’s core sense of identity. #MeToo is a particularly timely earthquake, coming at a liminal moment in history when much of what once underpinned men’s identities is collapsing. Even as women and their allies fight ever harder for equal rights, American jobs are shipped overseas and the American economy is subject to the shock and awe of banking and real estate collapses, making this an economic crisis for men as well as a cultural and interpersonal one. It’s everything at once.

As a result, American culture is no longer able to provide a stable container for the dominant version of masculinity men have been taught to perform for generations.

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Our dominant culture of masculinity is often referred to as the man box. Rule one of the man box is that men do not express their emotions. To this day, we coach our sons to present a facade of emotional toughness and our daughters to admire that facade in men. Even in infancy, little boys are expected to begin modeling stoicism, confidence, physical toughness, authority, and dominance. The strong and silent type remains a central American symbol of “real manhood.”

In the moment we make the choice to teach our boys to hide their emotional expression, we commit to raising sons who focus, not on the back and forth of human relationships, but on performing a narrow and closely policed version of manhood based on the rules for being “a real man.” While the rules of the man box are highly effective in enforcing hierarchical, command and control structures, they suppress or eliminate boys’ capacities for connection, empathy, collaboration, innovation, co-designing across difference, and forming authentic relationships.

This is why the nostalgia for a bygone 1950’s era America is so compelling for some men. An America where large numbers of women accepted their status as second-class citizens provided the cultural container that made the man box seemingly rewarding for men, and its catastrophic personal costs relatively invisible. With the container failing, the brutal and isolating costs of the man box becomes more evident to men, minus the countervailing benefits it once provided when women (and people of color, and LGBTQ people) had no choice but to play along.

The source of men’s anxiety
Even many progressive men struggle with the backlash of unintentionally internalized man box beliefs, feeling deep uncertainty as the generations old container collapses. But men who advocate for returning a 1950's era balance of power between men and women are openly enraged, because for them, inequality for women is central to the man box identities they cling to.

This liminal cultural space between what was and what will be, is a huge source of men’s anxiety. Long reliant on the command and control hierarchy of traditional masculinity, men have never been taught to manage or deal with uncertainty, while women, who have historically been subject to the whims of men, have had to manage it all their lives. Long used to operating in a culture based on dominance and control, any loss of control feels to men like loss of identity.

We start em off early
Man box culture is so deeply ingrained in boys and men because it begins exerting its influence shortly after we are born. After a few years of man box conditioning, our naturally occurring capacities for emotional and relational connection, capacities that are our birthright, have been stripped from us. The damage is done before we are even old enough to understand what is being done to us.

The list of central relational capacities that man box culture suppresses in boys includes empathy. The suppression of empathy is no accident. It is the suppression of empathy which makes any culture of codified inequality for women possible. It is in the absence of empathy that men fail to see women’s equality for what it is, a simple and easily enacted moral imperative. Nor do we see our agency in homelessness, racial inequality, environmental harm, economic injustice, the marginalization of LGBTQ people or any other social ills.

It is remarkable that in spite of our man box culture, many men continue to act from a place of empathy, fighting for connection, community and equality in the world. But this happens in spite of everything man box culture does to them. Imagine a world where we encourage every boy’s relational intelligence instead of suppressing it. Imagine a world without the man box.

Yes, men are being cheated, but it’s not by women gaining political and economic power. It’s not LGBTQ, or any other initials out there. Its not fake news or #MeToo. We are being cheated by our own culture of manhood. The isolating impact of the man box is at the heart of our culture’s epidemic levels of male isolation, addiction, depression, violence and suicide. So, even as man box culture condemns those closest to us, our own mothers, wives and daughters, to second class status, it is also cheating us out of living fully authentic, connected lives. And until we wake up and understand that this is quite literally killing us, it will continue to kill us every damn day.

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Welcome to the man box
American men have, for generations, been conditioned, first and foremost, to win at all costs, forever struggling to rise to the top of Darwinian pyramids of male competition, framed by a simple but ruthless set of rules. But here’s the kicker, while men in man box culture are raised to focus on winning, we are collectively doomed to fail because the game is most certainly rigged. We’re wasting our lives chasing a fake rabbit around a track, all the while convinced there’s meat to be had. There is no meat. We are the meat.

Man box culture is the equivalent of millions of gamblers sweating around a Las Vegas craps table, never questioning that the house always wins, even as our chips are slowly, inexorably taken away. This rigged game, a game we have collectively bought into for generations, is the unspoken and unacknowledged source of the male panic surging through our culture.

I should know. I wasted decades of my life trying to perform a version of manhood that turned out to be a trap. Man box culture presumes to define the rules for how to be a “real man,” brutally and universally enforcing these rules through bullying, shaming and violence. This enforcement begins so early for boys, that we don’t understand what’s happening until the damage is already done. Trapped in the man box, we live out our lives hemmed in by rules designed to cut us off from authentic connection to others. We are forever scrambling, conditioned to perform a version of manhood that is surface level, competitive, cartoonish, and fraught with false confidence, doubt, and confusion.

Even now, as I struggle to get free, the man box seeks to drag me back in. On difficult days, it continues to eat away at me, at my self-esteem, by sense of purpose and my hard earned new identity, chipping away at me via the same poisonous messages that I have internalized for decades. “You’re not man enough. You’re not rich enough, strong enough, or successful enough. You’re losing. The people who love you are going to find out you are a fake.”

I have to give the man box its due. This particular trap, this man box culture of manhood we have collectively created? It is a real nasty piece of work.

The perfect trap
In the man box culture, boys and men to police each other, enforcing the rules as part of the performance of manhood. Here are the rules:

  • “Real men” don’t show our emotions expect for anger.
  • “Real men” are heterosexual, hyper masculine, and sexually dominant
  • “Real men” never ask for help
  • “Real men” are decisive and always have the last word
  • “Real men” are always providers, never care givers
  • “Real men” are economically secure
  • “Real men” are physically and emotionally tough, we never show pain
  • “Real men” are sports focused

Men in the man box prove our manhood, not by who we are, but by what we do; by what we earn, the points we score, who we bed, how we exercise, when we dominate, succeed, command, lead, fix and control.

This becomes a never-ending cycle for us because in the man box, the men around us challenge us prove our manhood over and over and over and over and over. We are only as good as the last paycheck we cashed, or the last women we bedded, or the last ugly wrenching pain we silently endured.

This is the genius of the man box. We, as men, will never finish proving our manhood. We can only keep going, pushing toward an end zone that recedes before us; ever a few more yards away. Ever a few more runs into the bruising defensive line, spread out before us, other men, waiting to hammer us into submission, their eyes fixed on some distant goal posts we can never see.

The man box is entirely role based and in no way relationship based. Because it is rigidly focused on dominance, authority, command, control, and conformity, it shames and suppresses the development of those relational capacities in boys and men that empower us to collaborate, co-design, relate, hold uncertainty, empathize, and connect across difference.

In her book, When Boys Become Boys, Dr. Judy Chu of Stanford University documents how our sons are taught to hide their early capacity for being emotionally perceptive, articulate, and responsive. Starting in preschool, our young sons learn to align their behaviors with “the emotionally disconnected stereotype our culture projects onto them.”

Chu writes, “Boys are taught to hide vulnerable emotions like sadness, fear, and pain, which imply weakness and are stereo-typically associated with femininity.”

In her book Deep Secrets, New York University professor and researcher Niobe Way shares research from interviews with hundreds of adolescent boys. Way’s research shows how our sons’ joy in friendship and connection slowly atrophies over time, hammered away at by the message that needing or wanting close friendships is childish, girly, or gay.

As a result, men suppress our need for authentic connection, settling for the surface level interactions of the workplace and the gym. “Talk sports, avoid anything real.” When we fail to conform, we are quickly reminded to get back in line. What begins for us as external bullying becomes our internal voice. “I don’t make enough money. I’m a pussy for feeling fearful. I’m too slow, too fat, too weak.”

The anxiety this internal voice creates is so consistent it becomes our baseline. We can never have enough success, confidence or security. There will never be enough of anything. Maybe getting more money or sex will help. And back on the hamster wheel we go, no longer just to prove to others, but also to prove to ourselves that we are real men.

For the record, man box culture is not traditional masculinity. The two are not equivalent. The man box refers to the enforcement of traditional masculinity. This is a crucial distinction. For some men, traditional masculinity is a good fit. Man box culture rears its ugly head when traditional manhood is forced on the millions of men, for which it is not a good fit, seeking to stamp out the vast range of other possible masculinities.

For those courageous men who do so, opposing man box culture by performing manhood differently can get you ostracized, dumped, shamed, fired, beaten or murdered. And even when we try to conform to the man box, there remains thousands of ways to falter, to stumble, miss a step, or fail. The man box is not designed the let us finish, to let us win. It is designed to keep men policing, and bullying, and ultimately, fearing each other.

Men, aging and anger
 It’s no accident that some of the angriest voices in our cultural and political spaces are those men among us who are aging out. As we age, we realize with growing horror that we can’t keep proving our manhood forever. Maybe the paychecks aren’t coming, or our knees are failing, or the one-liners aren’t working, or whatever. Eventually, the system of manhood we bought into dumps us by the side of the road and barrels on, fueled by a new generation of younger, more hungry men, perhaps even our own sons; new greyhounds to chase the rabbit, more hamsters on the wheel.

For men in the man box, this winner take all culture eventually delivers on its promise. It has always told us what it is. Maybe we weren’t listening? A few people at the top win, the rest get erased.

A central component of 1950’s America was a booming post war economy and job security for men (not women), which underpinned for millions of working men the central role of being a breadwinner. But the dog-eat-dog ethos of the man box ultimately led to an America where offshoring jobs, short selling subprime mortgages, and creating predatory healthcare business models are just examples of someone doing the man box right, robbing men of our primary role as breadwinners within that very model of manhood which makes it a central marker of our success. The result? Unemployment is linked directly to rising rates suicide among older working age men.

And so, as the curtain falls, aging American men are ditched, isolated and disconnected, left to express the only emotion we have ever been granted permission to express. Anger. True to our man box training, we attempt to direct our anger at anyone other than ourselves. To admit men have been bullied and cheated out of engaging our powerful capacities for human connection would break every rule of the man box. It would require that we acknowledge our own agency in all of this.

It would require we admit that our steadfast reliance on dominance and certainty, our obsession with America’s cult of bootstrap individualism, has ultimately failed us. It would require a reassessment of our priorities, our beliefs and our view of others. Most of all, it would require self reflection, a capacity we were never taught to value, by a culture that does not care who we are. And when our anger ultimately turns back on ourselves, men commit suicide in ever growing numbers because we have no one to turn to.

How are men being cheated? We look up one day, and we discover we have been robbed of the authentic relationships and robust community that for hundreds of thousands of years, literally from the dawn of humankind, have given human beings their purpose and meaning. Instead we sit in our gated communities before our big screen TVs and we are alone, distrustful of others, and fearful of anyone different, anyone who is not us. We have been bullied by the man box into swapping the fundamental joy of human connection for an empty, isolating, alpha male pecking order. We become like dogs, chained up alone in the back of the yard, howling and crazy. It’s no wonder paranoia runs deep in the dark side of the American narrative.

The constant drumbeat of male rage that floods our media and surges up in our national politics is rooted in the collective self-alienation and social isolation that defines our man box culture of manhood. The result for men is epidemic levels of divorce, depression, addiction, suicide, violence, and mass shootings.

We got cheated. Yes, we did. And everyone else is paying the price.

Billy the bully
Recently, WokeDaddy blogger Ludo Gabriele dropped a blog post titled The Sordid (Yet Insightful) Tale of a Panic Attack. It’s a glimpse into one man’s collapse into terror. It implores us to look more closely at how the man box operates for men in our culture. Even woke men. Even me.

The internalized voice, the cop-in-our-head, that Ludo describes (he calls him Billy the Bully) is the low level anxiety men feel constantly as we look over our shoulder to see if we’re being watched, judged, about to be called out. “What are you, a sissy? What are you, a fag? Pussy. Loser. You’re not a real man,” and so on.

When the constant stress and fear of the man box gets to be too much, when booze or drugs or sex won’t calm the anxiety any more, the cop-in-our-head offers us a get out of jail free card, an instant pass to the front of the line. Simply vent our anxiety by shaming and policing other men.

Bully a skinny kid. Beat up a queer man. Ghost a women. The abusive, locker room talk component of the man box is its most insidious component. In one simple act, we both enforce man box culture by attacking those who are different, and reinforce that we will be next if we fail to conform. Sooner or later, at age five or age fifty, this ugly loop of policing gets located entirely within ourselves. We become our own abusers. The cop-in-our-head, Billy the Bully, reminding us daily that we might fail at any moment, that we are being watched. To prove to Billy we are with the program, we beat ourselves into oblivion. “See Billy? I showed him.”

It’s a nightmare of exhausting self-criticism, toxicity, shame and isolation. And because the man box trains us to deny our need for human connection and deeper male friendships in our lives, we have lost the central mechanism by which we can ask for support, by which we can heal. It is through relating, in the back and forth of our relationships with others, that we process the challenges of life, that we grow as human beings. But men in man box culture have had our connection in the world shamed and bullied out of us, leaving us alone in the dark with Billy the Bully. And he wants us dead.

A culture of isolation
An AARP study estimates that one in three Americans aged 45 and up (that’s 42 million people) are chronically lonely, up from one in five ten years before. Cigna released a 2018 study, which shows that “nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone.” The Cigna study goes on the say, “Generation Z (adults ages 18–22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations.”

Whats more, chronic loneliness is as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking, increasing the likelihood of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, depression, and a raft of other illnesses. Cancer metastasizes faster in lonely people. The alarming reality is that for millions of men (and for the women who love them), anxiety, stress and loneliness are our toxic baselines.

Jay Sefton recently wrote the following on Medium:

“Working in the field of addictions and with people struggling with opioid addiction, this is often underlying the issue. Perhaps someone was treated for a knee replacement and didn’t realize the psychological pain that was running in the background for so long until the pain medication relieved that too. I think of it like the quiet that descends during a power outage. We never knew how loud the ambient electricity was until it was gone. The culture of male suppression is like that. Once it is relieved, we never want it back again. Unfortunately drugs and alcohol fail in the long run to deliver on that promise, so we must rely on radical compassion and love to offer real healing.”

Mens’ real power
 Men’s anxiety isn’t going to go away any time soon. This is not a process that will likely end in my lifetime. Men are collectively arriving at a pivotal point in our evolution as human beings, an evolution which keys on a central lesson.

For many of us, it’s a lesson that is a long time in coming. It’s always been with us. It’s embedded in the crumbling pages of thousand year old spiritual texts and carried aloft on the prayers of countless AA meetings, whispered by broken men holding cups of black coffee and their own fear in check. As men, we can come to understand this lesson, but often at great cost, after a crisis of our own making, the loss of our careers or the collapse of a marriage.

Our power as men does not lie in how well we can dominate and control those around us. The dominating alpha male culture of the man box equals never ending stress to perform coupled with the growing panic of eventual failure. Moreover, it is deeply and fundamentally isolating. And isolation is death. More and more men are coming to understand this.

Men’s real power lies in our natural ability to form relationships, to collaborate, share, empathize, and connect, creating meaning and purpose for ourselves, alongside our partners, our children and our communities. We can create lives in which we experience feeling deeply human and fully alive. We can make the world a safer and more joyful place. We can leave the anxiety behind. We can be free.

True and lasting security is created in a network of authentic relationships. It is in robust and reliable communities that we resource ourselves during times of personal and professional crisis. This has always been the central purpose of human relationships, to form more stable, secure and rewarding lives in community.

The first step to this more joyful life is simple. We need only admit that we want and need authentic, meaningful connection in our lives. What follows this simple admission is the miracle of being human. Even if we have been bullied and trained out of forming relationships over the course of a lifetime, the capacity to fully connect remains, just beyond the door, waiting for us to let it back in. And there are others waiting to help us open that door.

Good, decent, empowered men are working to end man box culture, based on the following simple truths. Men do not want to be angry. Men do not want to be alone. Men are not naturally inclined toward the toxic confines of the man-box. If we were, it wouldn’t be killing us.

If you have had enough of the man box, join us.

Groups like The Mankind Project are tearing down the walls of isolation that trap men in cycles of anger and reactivity. If you are a man who is struggling, who is tired of being alone, reach out to these guys, or to other men’s groups. When you enter a room full of men who are not judging you, not skeptical of you, not looking to undercut or dominate or reject you, the difference is palpable.

If you want to help our sons and daughters grow their relational capacities check out The Relational Book for Parenting. In mindfully growing our children’s relational intelligence, we also grow our own.

Wonderful people are waiting to help and to heal the damage done by our man box culture. Our personal work as men, lovers, fathers, and sons is there, waiting to be done. Together, we can all become the radical love and compassion Jay Sefton speaks of.

All we have to do is open the door. So, please, for all of us; for ourselves, for our families, for our children and for the generations of little boys and girls yet to be born…

…let’s do it.

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This article is an excerpt from The Little #MeToo Book for Men.