The Surprising Ways Men Are Oppressed
Men benefit from a certain amount of power based solely on gender, but that isn’t the whole story
A reader recently commented on a piece in which I challenge women to choose the words they use with younger generations with care. This reader asked why I was only focusing on the effect such things have on women and not on men. He pointed out that men also experience oppression in our world.
When I receive a comment from a reader, I try to consider their worldview before replying. Worldview influences what we find important, the way we talk, and how we behave. Having a debate with someone without trying to understand where they come from is shooting in the dark.
My initial reaction was that men hadn’t been oppressed in the same ways or to the same degree as women, and I still maintain that view. However, I just read The Gap by Douglas Vigliotti, who encourages readers to explore the viewpoints of others and close their knowledge gaps to grow as human beings in a connected society. I’m a fan of the book, and of the idea that educating ourselves is the key to a culture that is collaborative rather than mutually destructive.
What I learned was interesting, though, unfortunately, not surprising, especially when I considered the experiences of my husband and sons.
Society oppresses men
The American Psychological Association defines oppression as:
discrimination against and/or systematic denial of resources to members of groups who are identified as inferior or less deserving than others. Oppression is most frequently experienced by individuals with marginalized social identities; is manifested in both blatant and subtle discrimination in areas such as racism, ageism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism; and results in limited access to social power (Robinson, 2012; Worell & Remer, 2003).
Men benefit from a certain amount of power based solely on gender, but that isn’t the whole story. Not all men enjoy the power attributed to their gender. For those that do enjoy the higher social status of masculinity, there is often a tradeoff in the form of mental health and healthy interpersonal relationships.
The APA alerts practitioners that men are quite likely to suffer from a wide range of psychological and physical health issues for which they don’t seek the appropriate help due to social conditioning.
The emotions and biological urges that toxic masculinity requires men to suppress can cause depression and anxiety. Often, aggression or other external manifestations disguise the symptoms, and a reluctance to be vulnerable keeps them hidden. When men are pushed far enough and become suicidal, they are successful more often than women.
Without the barriers that society puts on men and women, there aren’t apparent differences in how they approach life. Men can nurture their children as well as women, and women can demonstrate violent tendencies, the direction they fall depends on the conditioning they encounter.
Men learn from a young age that to be manly, they must be without emotional needs. Boys experience ridicule for showing weakness and celebrated for demonstrating traditionally masculine traits. Often, cultural norms come into play and magnify the requirement for male behavior.
Men, then, are oppressed because they are often unable to demonstrate the behaviors that are both essential pieces of human nature, and considered traditionally feminine. If they don’t adhere to stereotypes, they are mistreated.
While it is true that women have been handed a raw deal in the gender role stereotypes, it’s essential to realize that men haven’t escaped unscathed.
Society celebrates adherence to gender stereotypes. A boy who wins a fight is called a champion. In school, a young boy is a problem child when he can’t sit still, and yelling becomes background noise due to the frequency. He doesn’t cry when he’s corrected. Instead, he talks back because men are tough, and crying is for sissy-boys.
Then, as an adult, the same boy is incarcerated for the behavior that was celebrated by parents, peers, and society in his formative years.
The APA cautions practitioners that multiple layers of oppression compound this problem if the young man is anything other than white.
Psychological and physical illness resulting from exposure to toxic gender bias is worse for men and boys who don’t fit well into masculine stereotypes. Young boys who cry easily, or display unusually feminine traits often grow into men who develop what the APA refers to as Gender Role Conflict (GRC). These men have forced themselves to comply with masculine stereotypes to fit in.
Men with GRC are conflicted about emotional attachment, need for personal and professional achievement, and balancing work and family life. This internal battle becomes a litany of physical and mental symptoms that hold them back from leading a full life.
Despite this evidence of the ill effects of toxic masculinity on all members of our society, current theories and policies surrounding violent and aggressive behavior ignore socialization as a contributor. The APA recommends that social reform policies include teaching men about the ill effects of toxic masculinity through counseling and group education sessions.
Men who recognize their privilege and shed some of the gender role stereotypes are more likely to build meaningful adult relationships based on affection rather than control. That should be our goal for all people, regardless of gender.
Men are part of the problem
In Oppressed and Oppressors? The Systematic Mistreatment of Men, sociologist Caroline New agrees that forcing men to adhere to prescribed masculine traits is a form of oppression. She argues that men are unable to have their emotional needs met within the confines of male behavior expected by society.
I find it interesting that in this way, men are both the oppressed and contributing to the societal oppression of their gender. Men who stand at the sidelines and ridicule boys for missing a goal, or tell their young sons not to cry over a broken toy are the oppressed and the oppressor. They don’t have their emotional needs met, so they are unable to form strong social ties to others, including their children. They are also contributing to the suppression of emotions in the next generation of men.
Humans desire connection, physical affection, and deep, loving relationships. Most human behavior is dictated by this need, regardless of gender. I’m willing to bet, however, that the macho man yelling at his kid for missing a shot on the court isn’t telling his wife at the end of a hard day that he needs some gentle touch and a safe place to talk about his feelings. Men are walking around without an emotional outlet, and that weighs on them. No wonder addictions and self-destructive behavior are so prevalent.
Women are also part of the problem
When my daughter was born, I, like so many mothers, tried to do 100% of the baby-care. The result was that my daughter relied on me, and once she could talk and walk, she’d bypass her father to interrupt my shower and ask for a snack. I’m not unique in this experience. Women, it’s partly our fault.
Men are just as capable as women of providing emotional support, but we have to give them the opportunity.
We make it apparent, based on our behavior towards our husbands, that they are less capable of childcare, less nurturing. Our children pick up on those signals, and our boys grow up believing that they aren’t responsible for childcare, and our girls don’t expect their male partners to share the load.
Men are just as capable as women of providing emotional support, but we have to give them the opportunity. We also need to be available when the men and boys in our lives need emotional support. We can’t brush it off because they are male.
Luckily, I’m married to a man who is willing to call me on my bad behavior as many times as it takes for me to get the message. Imagine my delight when at 4:00 AM during an ear infection fueled sleepless night, my daughter looked at me and said, “I want my daddy snuggles!”
Schools are also part of the problem
As I read an account of male oppression by Julianna Simon and Marianne Preger-Simon, I found myself thinking of my son and the journey through his first nine years of life.
Preger-Simon and Simon ascertain that men are taught by society to repress emotion, ignore empathy, and not show a desire for connection or affection. We’ve seen this play out in pop culture where men are macho and unfeeling in movies and television shows. But, I’ve heard about it around my kitchen table.
My son is an empath with a strong need for affection. At four years old, he desperately wanted a younger sibling for Christmas, but Santa brought him dolls instead. He wasn’t disappointed. Those babies became his.
When he marched into Kindergarten the following October, baby dolls in his backpack for show and tell, his classmates ridiculed him. The other boys in class called him girly and made fun of him for playing with dolls. This happened four years ago, and he remembers it like it was yesterday.
His first run-in with toxic masculinity has colored his life ever since.
My son’s female teacher informed me the other day that my boy cries too easily when upset and that we should teach him to hold his emotions in. I remember my stepson’s teachers saying something similar about him. Would they say this about a nine-year-old girl? No, my son’s best friend is a young girl who wears cat ears every day and also cries easily. It’s accepted because she’s a girl — she’s supposed to be emotional.
Teachers tend to spend more time supporting the academic achievements of girls. Boys, therefore, are less likely to get the necessary academic support to reach their potential. Boys are also significantly more likely to receive correction for their misbehavior than girls.
As it turns out, teachers are far more likely to correct male misbehavior aloud, in front of a large group. Girls tend to receive corrective feedback privately. The problem here is that many boys are sensitive to this sort of feedback, and feel a deep sense of shame and embarrassment that causes them to shut down intellectually and emotionally.
Historically, boys lag behind girls in educational achievement. Girls are catching up in science and mathematics, two areas where female students had traditionally lagged. Boys, however, are falling further behind in literacy Boys worry about how their peers perceive them. Since effort in education is considered a feminine trait, they are less likely than their female counterparts to put in the necessary effort to boost achievement.
I won’t try to persuade you that men have it worse than women, or that the experiences are equal in any way. The societal conditioning of men and women and the resulting implications for physical and mental health are different. Acknowledging the hardships of one group of people doesn’t cheapen the experiences of other groups.
Men must be allowed to express emotions, display vulnerability, and build healthy relationships for the benefit of us all.
If you enjoyed this, subscribe to my newsletter for periodic updates on my work and the work of authors I admire.