Why We Should Challenge the Directive to Protect Men’s Masculinity
When I grew up, there was one lesson I learned about male-female relationships that I was taught to prize above all others: to never threaten or diminish a man’s masculinity. The adults in my life — my dad, in particular, though not exclusively — reinforced this message over and over again.
What did this mean? They gave me very specific examples:
- Don’t criticize a man in front of others.
- Don’t criticize a man in private, but if you do, do it gently in a way that doesn’t make him think you don’t respect him.
- Don’t express authority over a man under any circumstance.
- Don’t say no to a man who asks you out unless you have a reason that won’t hurt his feelings.
- Don’t say no to a man who initiates sex. (If he thinks you want sex, that’s on you, after all.)
- Don’t ever tell a man what you want or like in bed — that will make him feel like a bad lover.
- If you don’t have an orgasm, don’t tell him — that will also make him feel like a bad lover.
I could add so much more to the list, but you get the picture.
As an adult, I look at these directives and am stunned by them— stunned by their implications and stunned by their toxicity.
For most of my life, I thought of men as authority figures. It doesn’t matter who they were, how much education they had, how old they were… It was deeply ingrained in me that they led and I followed.
The story I was told was that men were powerful and strong, above all else, and that it was my job as a woman to edify that power and strength.
It’s interesting to me now to look at these rules, these “stories,” and to realize how little strength they demonstrate. On the contrary, they imply that men are weak — that they cannot handle rejection, are not mature enough to take criticism, and value their presumption of sexual prowess above the pleasure of their partners and health of their relationships.
Okay, sure, this is true for some men. We are all flawed in some way, after all.
But what an odd sleight of hand for the patriarchy to perform — to teach us that men are all-powerful while simultaneously treating them like (and sometimes training them to remain) fragile little boys.
What disempowers women disempowers men
The patriarchy disempowers men as much as it disempowers women, and this is a clear illustration of that. It gives men a little bit of power while simultaneously emasculating them — and in a way that makes it look like it’s a woman’s fault if he feels that way, setting them in perpetual conflict.
Well done, patriarchy. Well done.
What’s odd to me is how many men are willing to take this payoff — the false power system that paints them as fragile creatures who are emotionally castrated by a “no,” or a woman who says “a little to the left,” or a tired wife who snaps at him after being up all night with the baby.
We all know men, and all human beings, are perfectly capable of developing emotional resilience, maturity, and compassion. And yet, I still find myself daily confronted with that behemoth of toxic masculinity (which is not the same thing as plain old “masculinity”) and its followers’ insistence on wrestling me and my fellow women to our knees.
What, I want to ask, is accomplished by this? Do they not see that this trick of the patriarchy actually weakens, not strengthens, them? That it makes them less, not more? That it chips away at them until the slightest tap can break them?
So why do those men persist in bastardizing masculinity and wielding it like a sword, I wonder?
Let’s do it — let’s threaten masculinity
I am in the process of unlearning the toxic lessons of my youth — including the insistence that I, as a woman, need to prioritize the preservation of a man’s masculinity.
At this point in my life, I have a new clarity around this:
1. This is not about masculinity — it’s about toxic masculinity, which is not the same thing, and not something any of us should be striving to preserve.
2. It’s not healthy to prioritize another human’s well-being over our own — except maybe occasionally our own offspring.
3. Women were not created to serve other people, build other people’s confidence, preserve other people’s sense of their own identity, or heal others. We have been taught that this is our role, which is just another way the patriarchy subjugates us. We must remember that we are allowed to develop our own selves, our own identities, to serve ourselves, and to heal ourselves.
4. I, as a woman, am allowed to exist without orienting myself around a man’s sense of himself.
I am throwing away the rules about how to treat a man and all the ways I should tiptoe around his (alleged) ego. Men deserve better. And so do I.
It’s about respect
It’s funny to me that when I talk about this to others, the response is often a shocked admonition. “No, Yael, the answer isn’t to tear men down and treat them cruelly. That’s the last thing we should do.”
Wait a second. Who said anything about being cruel or tearing men down? Why is challenging the idea that we shouldn’t threaten a man’s masculinity correlated with cruelty or a lack of respect for men?
That’s just another trick of the patriarchy.
I argue that it’s far more respectful, compassionate, and loving to see men not as fragile beings who need to be treated with emotional delicacy, but to be honest with them, trusting in their maturity and resilience.
“I don’t agree with that.”
“Thank you for the invitation, but I’m gonna pass.”
“I need that report finalized by 3PM and please make the edits I suggested.”
“That actually feels a bit painful. Could you shift to the right and try it a little softer, please?”
“Mmm, that was lovely. I didn’t have an orgasm, but I could if you finger me for a bit…”
To me, these honest declarations are all about respect. They reinforce that a woman’s authority and needs matter just as much as a man’s, and they reinforce a man’s identity as a strong, mature adult who can handle straightforward interactions.
Keeping the endgame in mind
I have a long way to go in this process of unlearning. I genuinely think I’m just at the beginning of this path. My tendency to prioritize a man’s sense of his masculinity — and the damage that does to me and to the men in question — has become glaringly apparent over the course of the past year. It is literally the reason why I found myself crossing moral boundaries I never dreamed I would cross.
I’ve learned the hard way how toxic this behavior is and I’m committed to liberating myself — and the men in my life — from this.
That means every time I feel afraid to speak my mind, I have to remind myself that this is an act of respect — for me and for the man in question. I have to remind myself that striving to preserve a man’s sense of “masculinity” (in quotation marks because it’s not true masculinity) disempowers him and disempowers me.
My job is striving for my own liberation, which in turn liberates others. That is the endgame.
© Yael Wolfe 2020