Bryan Reeves from The Good Men Project claims that the three sexiest words a man can say to a woman is neither “I love you” nor “you look beautiful,” but simply, “I got this.”
Reeves’ reasoning would be perfect for a 1950's book entitled How to be a Good Breadwinner for Your Housewife. There are just fundamental (read: stereotypical) differences between men and women, explains Reeves. Men want to feel strong while women want to feel safe. Thus, clearly, there is nothing more sexy to a woman than a man who steps up in “all kinds of situations” and shows the woman how it’s done. Even when a woman is perfectly capable of handling things by herself, Reeves particularly enjoys it when she allows him to take care of her.
Reeves’ message may resonate with a lot of people, but in the long run, it can lead to poisonous reasoning that actually damages relationships. Simply put, Reeves’ beliefs are a classic example of benevolent sexism: when subjectively positive gender stereotypes actually hurt the overall cause of gender equality.
An example of benevolent sexism is the belief that women are “pure” or “innocent” beings, which in turn implies they should be cherished, protected, provided for, remain virgins, avoid certain jobs and responsibilities, etc. As Rikki Rogers points out in Women Are Kind and Men Are Strong: How Benevolent Sexism Hurts Us All, while seemingly benign, these beliefs are indicative of an insulting, stereotypical world view.
This distorted view is most obvious with catcalling, where men think it is appropriate to shout lewd compliments to women on the street. These comments are, of course, not compliments at all, but instead a kind of street harassment that reinforces the objectification of women.
Now, I don’t really expect a website like The Good Men Project to go about deconstructing historically based gender norms; it would be bad for their business for readers to realize that their relationships would actually improve if they dropped such binary beliefs. But the truth is, not only are gender stereotypes disempowering for women, they are damaging to men too.
No, I don’t got this
In light of Robin Williams’ recent suicide, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s drug overdose (aka acute mixed drug intoxication), and other high profile male deaths, its become increasingly clear that a new emphasis needs to be made on actually encouraging men to show vulnerability and reach out for help when they need it.
Its time to rethink masculinity. Rather than encouraging the idea that it means providing for and being strong for women, we must instead remove the hardened shell that forms around a man’s heart by growing up in a “big boys don’t cry,” and “be tough, be a man” world. Because the truth is we need less men who pretend to be a knight in shining armor and more men to take their armor off.
It’s a tough shell to crack. From a young age, boys and girls are treated differently. Infant boys receive less physical affection and less verbal encouragement than their female counterparts.
Through fear of being called a “wimp” or “sissy,” young boys quickly learn how to repress their feelings and often completely cut themselves off from their emotions. Reaching out for help is seen as a sign of weakness.
As a result, men are four times more likely than women to commit suicide, a majority of whom do not ask for help before it happens. This is due in part to the social isolation and emotional disconnection that men feel, but also simply because men choose more deadly methods: the majority of male suicides are with handguns.
While the solution to this situation is far from simple, a step in the right direction is encouraging men to actually open up to others and reach out when they need help. The Australian campaign Soften the F*ck Up is designed to tackle this very problem. It seems the only way to cut past a man’s thick headedness is telling him to “soften the f*ck up.”
The Aussie solution is not to redefine masculinity, but to undefine it, to remove the conceptions we have around what makes a man “manly.” Undefining masculinity means seeing vulnerability as a sign of strength, and acknowledging the bravery it takes to initiate having difficult conversations with loved ones. It means encouraging men to let themselves be vulnerable, to ask for help when they need it, and to open up their hearts enough to let another person in.
Essentially, men care but they often pretend not to. When researchers ask men and women to report how empathetic they are, females consistently rate themselves much higher than men. But when those caring qualities are actually tested (such as by gauging how well a gender can read another’s emotions), the disparity shrinks. When it is not obvious the researchers are specifically asking about emotional abilities, the difference drops to zero.
In other words, as psychologist Nancy Eisenberg put it, men and women differ not in actual empathic abilities, but “in how empathetic they would like to appear to others (and, perhaps, to themselves).”
This outlook is reinforced within male communities too, as most bar fights among men are meant to gain approval of other men. The more a man believes other men approve of fighting, the more likely he will enter a fight.
Gender stereotypes like those presented by Reeves end up becoming self-fulfilling prophecies: tell men to harden up, and they will try their best not to care. Define masculinity as strength and protection, and men will fight to showcase their prowess. Tell men they are supposed to have “got this,” then failure to do so can quickly turn into feelings of depression and despair, making suicide a very real option.
Reclaiming the heart
Putting men back in touch with their emotions will not only improve their lives, but the depth of their relationships too.
So here is my proposal for the sexiest words anybody can say to anybody, and I only need two of them: I care.
It goes like this: I care about you, I care about our family, and I also care about me. I will try my best to take care of you, and I hope that you will take care of me too.
Mutual care is the art of being in a relationship. It’s a two-way street that acknowledges it’s better to be together than to be alone. Because sometimes we actually don’t got this and we need somebody else to support us before we fall.
With radical love,