Why Masculinity is “Whatever Men Can Get Away With”
When you have zero cultural limits on the assertion of masculine dominance, guess what you get?
Our dominant culture of masculinity, also called man box culture (a term based on the pioneering work of Paul Kivel and Tony Porter), enforces a performance of masculinity that has zero upper limits on the assertion of dominance. Man box culture is designed to enforce a bullying, hierarchical social order. It trains boys and men to accept bullying from those above them even as they are encouraged to dish it out to those below. And how much bullying is enough? “Whatever you can get away with,” is the rule.
Learn more about the impact of man box culture here.
Because man box culture glorifies bullying and dominance as the primary expression of masculine power and success, all men are invited to daily test the limits of what society will tolerate. Accordingly, we see dominance-based interactions play out in every aspect of our lives, from within our most personal interactions to the dynamics of our national politics. While millions of good men care about creating more compassionate personal and professional relationships, and so choose not to test the limits of men’s collective permission to be dominant, the fact that this choice is an opt-out, tells us all we need to know about what’s going wrong.
In making dominance-driven masculinity our default, we have normalized the cultural force which underpins predatory capitalism, environmental destruction for profit, catastrophic economic inequality, unending wars, and all the other abuses of power that plague the human race. Man box culture has given us a world based on creating power over others instead of creating power with others. It is a formula for our collective demise.
For generations, our culture of masculinity has insured that the primary metric for our sons has been “how much aggression can I learn to assert?” instead of “how will my actions impact my personal and professional relationships?” If we fail to acknowledge that reliance on dominance is the metric we actively teach our sons (either by our action or our inaction), the violence perpetrated by aggressive and bullying men will continue to be framed by the poisonous and false assertion that “boys will be boys.” Dominant and aggressive is not what boys are, it is what boys are forced to become. Beginning in early childhood, we collectively teach our young sons how brutally effective aggression is, while also stripping away the powerful relational capacities for connection we are all collectively born with.
Judy Chu (When Boys Become Boys) and Niobe Way (Deep Secrets) clearly document the process by which our sons are collectively shamed out of wanting or needing close meaningful friendships and relationships. Those aspects of our sons that find joy in connection are denigrated as “girly or gay.” They are subjected to a drumbeat of bullying and abuse that eventually forces them to turn away from connection and close friendships into the open arms of bullying and dominance as the only acceptable performance of masculinity in the narrow confines of the man box.
We do this to them.
The resulting isolation, fuels repeating cycles of rage depression and aggression for boys and men. Our masculine culture of domination is an iron-clad closed loop, an aggression trap, which leaves our sons, husbands and brothers doubling down on the very dominant behavior that isolates them. The end result for men is crippling levels of loneliness, divorce, addiction, stress-related illnesses and early mortality.
The result for women is sexual assault, second class legal status, ongoing economic violence and a daily battle to assert their basic human autonomy.
While women also commit acts of aggression and violence, 80% of violent acts are committed by men. A conversation about male violence does not dismiss the importance of addressing acts of violence by women, but for the purpose of this conversation, we are addressing how we privilege man box culture and the resulting aggression it creates in men.
Phrases like “boys will be boys” or “it’s just locker room talk” are examples of how we collectively shrug off man box culture. We hear our president declaring that his position as a celebrity gave him the power to ‘grab them by the pussy’ and then we give him a pass, when, by shear dent of his abusive dominance, he dismisses the violent implications of his statement as locker room talk. This is because we have no collective consensus for dealing with bullies. The fact is, for generations, we have collectively accepted a culture of masculinity that rewards bullying as an empowering expression of manhood.
And for this, we each pay dearly. Our culture, in failing to effectively challenge dominance as a central tenant of masculinity abandons each of us, men and women alike, to individually set and enforce boundaries with every aggressive man we encounter. Which is exhausting. With some percentage of men, we must reassert these boundaries daily because such men will never stop testing our professional or personal vulnerabilities, seeking the weak points where they can push past our boundaries, boundaries which represent a direct challenge to their model of man box dominance. A joke here. A small transgression there. It is a carefully modulated series of aggressions by which the rest of us are invited to take small steps backward and allow alpha bullies a bit further into our emotional and physical spaces. And while some women may practice this model of dominance, man box culture systematically conditions all men to embrace it, making this a wide spread issue for how men see the world.
For the worst of these dominance obsessed men, the successful suppression of other’s interpersonal boundaries eventually leads to acts of verbal, physical and sexual abuse. This explains why #MeToo is so widespread and spans so many levels of abusive behavior. Men who embrace the man box culture of dominance are testing boundaries at every level with every woman in their orbit, modulating those tests from micro to macro-aggressions depending on the context and relative power of their targets. If their micro-aggressions are challenged in an relatively equal power relationship, say in the workplace, these men will quickly back pedal, throwing up their hands, saying “I was only joking.” It is a form of interpersonal gaslighting designed to add insult to injury as they fade back and seek the next opportunity to test us.
Those of us who have been in proximity to a bully for any period of time, carry the scars of this constant testing of our will to resist. It results in a lasting form of PTSD, whereby every new human interaction conjures fears of abuse for us instead of the miraculous possibilities of human connection.
My brother, just a year and a half older than me, became a textbook alpha bully. His violence toward me began with I was barely a toddler. I remember being with him in the baby pool. He would follow behind me, pinching me over and over. If I would cry to my mother, her response was, “you boys need to work it out.” She was either unwilling to see her older son as a bully, or more likely, saw her younger son as weak. I couldn’t have been more than three or four years old at the time.
Perhaps my brother had been sensing the growing acrimony of an impending divorce. Perhaps, he simply didn’t like competition for my parent’s declining attentions. Whatever the case, his issues went unaddressed. For him the solution became venting his fear and anger at me. With meaningful parental engagement, his solution could have been a better one. Instead, his bullying went unchecked for eighteen years.
What I was left with was a central memory of my brother in which he would instantly go from calm to raging for no particular reason. It was a jump-scare explosion of rage and he used it to intentionally try and overwhelm my defenses, seeking to get me to turn and run. If I did run, his rage increased and he would go physical.
“You boys work it out.”
This has been our collective response to the ugly pecking order violence of man box culture for generations. We turn away. We abandon our sons. We assume it will all work out.
Well, I have news for you. The boys will not work it out.
They. Are. Children.
Instead, the alpha bullies will rise out of the vacuum of our inaction and failings, both as parents and as a larger culture. When we, by our inaction, accept the stripping away of our sons’ joyful relational capacities for connection, and turn a blind eye to the drumbeat assertion of a masculine culture of bullying and dominance in their lives, we fail them in every possible way.
If we are to have hope for the future, we must create a new culture of masculinity, or better yet, a culture of simply being human.
Please understand. I do not condemn masculinity. Far from it. There are beautiful and transcendent expressions of masculinity playing out all around us. But if we as men cannot step up, call out our bullying and violent man box culture, and create something better, then we are failing in our responsibilities to our families, our communities and to the millions of our brothers who are suffering, and dying.
Our collective well being hangs in the balance. Yes, create a culture which asserts the importance of toughness, strength, and leadership while also teaching the power of connection across difference, collaboration, emotional expression and relational capacities. Stop falsely gendering basic human capacities for emotional expression, connection, leadership or toughness. These things are not inherently masculine or feminine. To do so enforces a corrosive gender binary that herds our sons toward violence and isolation. For our sons, we can encourage and grow the joy they find in their close friendships, teach them their responsibilities to our larger communities, and model for them the long term value of our own close friendships as people across the full spectrum of gender.
For men who are tried of feeling isolated and alone, for men who are ready to create connection in their lives, organizations like The ManKind Project stand ready to do this work with you.
When we grow our own capacities for connection, we better understand how to empower our young sons to willingly set healthy boundaries on their own aggression, relying instead on a much wider range of powerful relational capacities for creating rich, meaningful personal and professional lives. It is through generative and life affirming human connections with others that our sons’ distinctive and authentic expression of self will fully emerge. When we show our sons how to connect, the men they will someday become will have the capacities they need to escape the isolating and bullying trap of man box culture.
And in this way, we will change the world.