Is gender innate or is it a set of behaviors and attitudes taught in the context of culture? Male or female are biological assignments. Man or woman are gender assignments. Masculinity or femininity as we perform them or define them make men or women. How much does the biology inform the sociological reality?
This question is more important than ever, beyond the halls of academia or inside the walls and compounds of laboratories where it is most likely to be discussed. We’re seeing a torrential outpouring of rage and a pursuance of justice in the stream of rape, sexual assault and misconduct stories women are coming forward with. The sheer numbers are shocking to many people. The people to whom these numbers are shocking are almost universally men, almost being the key word in that sentence. They’re not always, but men are certainly more likely to be shocked.
It’s also the question on which so much of our current spate of white nationalists and fascist sympathizers are basing a good portion of their recruiting. The “natural order” they hold up includes gender and race. The explanation they offer to white males experiencing alienation is that this “natural order” has been upset or ignored by social justice activists and social engineering, leaving white men out of place as the order is upset. The hard truth being that in those places where there has been plenty, and a racial minority was present, white men have been favored and afforded privileges anyone else wasn’t. Where racial minorities weren’t present in enough numbers, those privileges were only for the already privileged. Even among minorities who have been the target of racism (usually because there just aren’t any around in a specific geographic area), men have been afforded favor and privilege women haven’t.
In an Op-Ed in the NYT titled The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido, Stephen Marche, author and columnist for Esquire dances around the question, but never actually gets to it. Marche is also talking almost exclusively about sex, as in intercourse or some variation thereof, not the biological assignment. He makes reference to sex being about power, but never begins to delve into the connection or attempts to make any statement about how that relationship to power is. He uses the word “male” not in the scientific categorical sense, but in the sociological sense, and it’s important to make that distinction. Is male libido actually the basis of this brutality or is it the norms of masculine gendering that is the basis? It might seem like semantics, but where prevention is concerned, where reclamation of the next generation or even those young enough to be reclaimed, it’s deeply necessary to ask.
Luckily, there is a recent event that can help hash this out. In August of this year, a Google employee named James Damore wrote and circulated a memo suggesting that the companies public facing policy to be as inclusive as possible where hiring is concerned is specious, at best, and dangerously naive to its well being at worst. Titled “Googles Ideological Echo Chamber” it then leaked, and the rage of a few million netizens arguing both pro and con was released.
It seems relatively well meaning and non-aggressive as reads of this nature go, Damore takes the tone of someone being “objective”, but that’s part of what makes it a good symbol for questions related to innate nature. The reality is that it’s doing something we’ve seen far too often in human history, cherry picking scientific data to create a reason for discrimination that the data doesn’t actually support. Wired published a piece thoroughly addressing the scientific claims Damore made, “The Actual Science of James Damore’s Google Memo”, going as far as to contact some of the researchers whose work he cited. New York Magazine also did some digging on where the science actually falls in relation to Damore’s memo, “Here Are Some Scientific Arguments James Damore Has Yet To Respond To.”
Though it may be written in a tone that suggests it, and he himself may even believe it, Damore’s manifesto doesn’t make it into the realm of well meaning. It’s trash, some of which can be quickly and easily sussed out by the relationship it has to the arguments currently in circulation among the alt right and forever in circulation in the realms of the explicitly white supremacist. To put it bluntly, Damore’s bullshit may have come from a different bull, but it’s in the same pasture.
There essentially is no consensus on the question of whether or not differences in gender are innate or learned, and at this point, the more we research it, the less it seems to matter, due to the capacity of the human brain to learn. What may begin as nature can be changed by nurture, as far as we can currently tell. It’s been essentially rendered moot, as a question that doesn’t actually matter where human behavior is concerned, but still hasn’t lost its pull on the culture as a whole.
This is an important point related to the Stephen Marche piece in the NYT. Some of what Marche is saying has truth to it. That there has been, for good reason, throughout history, a fear of the male libido is true. That it has been a source of horrific brutality is true. He does also to some degree address the fact that there is a component of being “gendered,” a suggestion that he does at least realize there is a difference between the scientific aspect of biology (being categorized as male) and the social construct (being raised as men). But he repeatedly turns back to the “nature of men and sex,” which suggests something innate, as does the term libido in itself.
Marche ends, in much the same place I’m beginning these days:
I’m not asking for male consciousness-raising groups; let’s start with a basic understanding that masculinity is a subject worth thinking about. That alone would be an immense step forward. If you want to be a civilized man, you have to consider what you are. Pretending to be something else, some fiction you would prefer to be, cannot help. It is not morality but culture — accepting our monstrosity, reckoning with it — that can save us. If anything can.
Stephen Marche is genuinely attempting to add to the public good. The more of us who are beginning to come to the realization that masculinity is something that needs to be looked at, acknowledged as existing as a social construct, and then examining it for what in our current understanding of it is healthy, useful and helping to create a society that is both stable and empowering to all of its members, and that which is destructive, horrific, deadening and dismissive to the well being of those who have it and those who have to live with us.
That though, leads to where Marche does go astray, where most of these conversations currently run off course, where the likes of the alt right and white supremacists find fertile ground and what helps create the environment where the fact is that every woman (and many men) in the country has experienced sexual harassment, sexual assault or rape. If we keep thinking about masculinity as if it has any connection to something innate, even in the way we begin to attempt to address its destructive features, we are doomed to failure for ourselves and for the next generation who will be the victims of its brutality both outwardly and inwardly. It’s not just that the idea has no support in scientific reality, it’s that addressing this destructiveness as if it were somehow innate, means there is nothing to do but react. It leaves no room to be proactive. If this is just the nature of what it is to be male, then there’s nothing to do, there is no changing that nature. If instead, it’s not something that is innate, in the fundamental nature of being male, then it’s something we can take a proactive perspective on and begin to look at what exactly it is we believe and are teaching about being a man that is creating this incredibly destructive, harmful reality.
It’s precisely that space that the likes of the alt right, white supremacists, even what black Twitter refers to as the “hotep movement” is exploiting. All of them speak to a belief in some kind of innate nature, a natural order among the sexes definitely, and once someone has begun to see the world from that perspective, how far of a jump is it for them to really begin to tie that up in a “natural superiority of my race?”
Marche does have it right that there is a component of individual responsibility involved. It is up to each of us, as individual human beings, to begin to seriously interrogate our own views and beliefs about all of the things related to masculinity, including but certainly not limited to sex and libido. That individual effort and responsibility though is just the beginning. We also need to start taking very seriously that we are, right now, raising the next generation of men, and we need to begin to address what we’re teaching them about masculinity right now, in order to prevent another generation of women from being subject to what the generations of the past and present have been. It’s also incumbent on us to prevent the next generation of men from having to shoulder so many of the same issues we face, between trying not to be a generation of sexual predators, the skyrocketing suicide rates, shorter life spans, and the rate at which we men murder each other, diminish and subjugate each other.
In leaving the reference to sex being in relation to power to only one sentence, and in not attaching any sense of what that means, where it comes from, how it plays out or what it looks like, Marche misses something central to what he’s trying to address. Power and status are very directly connected to masculinity, and therefore male libido and everything having to do with sexuality.
Marche starts down the path that would be useful for exploring that reality in the opening paragraph of his piece.
What any given man might say about gender politics and how he treats women are separate and unrelated phenomena. Liberal or conservative, feminist or chauvinist, woke or benighted, young or old, found on Fox News or in The New Republic, a man’s stated opinions have next to no relationship to behavior.
This isn’t a phenomenon singular to gender, though it may be rooted in gender. As a people, a nation, culture or society, however one might choose to express it, The United States hasn’t been very concerned with its stated values or principles also being it’s practiced values or principles. If nothing else is true, the current moment, politically, economically, socially, including the #MeToo movement, the current president and all of the other strains that are becoming evident are a battle between the desire of many to more closely hue to those stated values and the desire of others to continue more doggedly with our practiced values. Masculinity is no different, and is central to understanding those strains.
It’s only in the rarest occasions that the relationship between masculine sexuality and power is directly addressed. It again becomes one of the places where the inference and the chasm between meaning and understanding, between the meaning of the person/group expressing it and the understanding of the person/audience hearing it is fertile grounds for the instillation of the differences in meaning. That difference may be circumstantial and essentially an innocent misunderstanding or it may be the more nefarious variety where it’s exploited by bad faith actors.
From our earliest years, boys are instilled with the understanding or the inference for domination and conquest. It’s built into the language of more or less every part of what teaching masculinity is. It isn’t something most of us as adults consider when we’re interacting with children. Some of it is simple, and has started to make some headway into the way we talk about child rearing. It’s in the difference between, “Aren’t you a big strong boy?” and “Aren’t you a pretty little girl?”
There have been plenty of deep dives into the question of what it does to a child to essentially be insisting, from the time they’re toddlers through the rest of their formative years that they must be pretty to be valued, but we haven’t had nearly as much investigation of what it does to a child that they have to be strong to be valued, and what we’re actually saying, even if it is not what we’re attempting to convey consciously.
What they have in common is that they are comparisons. To suggest she is pretty is also, without saying it directly, to suggest that there are those who aren’t pretty. The same is true of boys. To suggest there is strength is to suggest there are those without it. The difference between them is that strength isn’t based solely on perception and social standards. Strength can be demonstrated, and where it becomes a central value (especially when it comes in combination with a focus on competition), the necessity of that demonstration becomes inevitable.
Feminism has correctly identified the objectification of women, and we’re not long away (when we look at history in its entirety) from women being legal property. Part of what masculinity teaches is that conformity to its standards has rewards, and women are seen as one of those rewards, along with status and wealth, which together equal power. With status and wealth, and the resulting power, comes more or “better” (read as more correctly signaling the existence or attainment of status) women. Sex, and particularly sexual conquest, are part of that whole constellation of trash ideas.
In the case of a Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby or the like, to have a sexual advance rejected is to upset that order, to engage in an act of non-conformity, as masculinity is concerned. The status, wealth and power have been acquired, and therefore they are due their rewards. That they are, after that level of achievement, still at odds with their masculinity to a degree that they would see fit to go to the lengths they have in order to insure that non-conformity is corrected or punished is part of what’s at the heart of creating the monsters we’re now seeing dragged into the daylight of public accusations.
For someone who hasn’t achieved that level of status and wealth, the rejection of a sexual advance is a reminder of that lack of achievement, it’s a reminder of the lack of masculinity, which then is compensated for through the varieties of harassment and assault we’re now seeing in the revelations by so many women in so many other work environments etc. The local bar manager who is routinely harassing the members of the staff isn’t doing that because they’ve somehow violated the rules of masculinity by existing. He’s doing it because he feels, in every minute of his day, that he has in some way failed in his attendance to the rules of masculinity. In the wrong environment, that can be a genuinely terrifying and threatening reality.
Make no mistake either, as boys, those who are raised in this strange society of masculinity learn very early that a lack of masculine signifiers is dangerous to their well being. What is often thought of or referred to as “boys being boys” isn’t much more than the the combination of the assertion of dominance and the reinforcement of conformity to those rules of masculinity. Take this incident at a middle school in Virginia as a prime example. The other aspect of this is that the failure to uphold and reinforce those rules of masculinity, the idea that a boy may just let someone else go and not take some action to reinforce those rules and assert their masculinity, is that boy is then essentially signaling that they are not willing to assert their dominance and masculinity, and therefore need to be dominated so as to reinforce the rules and norms. To leave someone else to be as they are is to make ones self a target, because one of the rules is making sure everyone follows the rules. Just do a quick Youtube search for “fistfight” if there’s a single doubt about this.
This is something that it seems so much of popular feminism misses. The question “If there are so many good men out there, why don’t more of them stand up and say something?” doesn’t fully take into account the truth that many of those good men, are just as afraid. This cyclical reinforcement of masculine norms is so ingrained, from the earliest of ages, that it becomes almost instinct itself. It doesn’t have to be directly conscious to exist, but it doesn’t mean that each of us can’t guarantee that every single male we know has been physically punished by peers and/or authority, at least once in their lives because they failed to adhere to masculine norms and have experienced the same in failing to enforce those norms on someone else.
Should there be any question about the depth of truth to this statement, consider that gay men who have spent most of western history being essentially othered into a separate culture of their own, don’t have very high regard for men who don’t present in keeping with masculine norms. It would be easy and probably preferable to believe that due to the discrimination gay men have faced, they would be a much more tolerant and understanding culture or group, but this understanding of masculinity is so heavily, consistently enforced that even those who have even more reason to reject it have also become infected with it. Consider as well that the history of open and accepted violence toward gay men specifically because the existence of homosexuality alone undermines the narrative of masculinity and “natural order,” that this fear of reprisal may be even more prevalent and genuinely rational. Being male or presenting as masculine doesn’t mean that someone is more safe from the violence of our concepts of masculinity. It’s much more likely they have either already been victims to it or have been witnesses to its victimization of others. Boys and men are not getting a free pass from masculinity.
Hyper masculinity, as it expresses itself in adults, and is perceived by adults, is an implicit threat of violence. It’s presence alone is the threat of violence. The hyper masculine are to masculinity what the SS were to the Third Reich, the ultimate enforcement, backed by the understanding that they will go to brutal lengths to insure they have done what they understand is their duty. Make no mistake either, it is believed to be a duty and it crosses every boundary we have, including gender. There is no shortage of women who support, uphold and will enforce masculinity with the zeal of the hyper masculine male, at any opportunity, as it is really the flip side to internalized misogyny.
This is one of the many ways that our concept of masculinity so easily marries to both racism and fascism. The lack of enforcing conformity, is non-conformity, and therefore a threat. When that idea is already established as part of a persons understanding of themselves individuality and their own safety, it’s not a far leap to also attach it to race, religion, sexual orientation or really anything else.
It is a question of the degree to which we, both as a whole and as individuals, value autonomy. The need to reinforce the rules or standards of masculinity comes down to a question of identity. If person X doesn’t have to adhere to those standards, then do I? If I don’t, who does that make me? Who do I become?
This is in no way to excuse the socially accepted practice of stepping aside or not speaking up when someone is being subjected to sexual harassment, assault or rape. It couldn’t be so wide spread if it weren’t socially accepted. This is though, to point out that the men who aren’t speaking up are also terrified, having been subjected to the same reign of this horrible concept of masculinity that women have been and to be able to highlight something that is a point of commonality and creating space for collaboration in undoing it, and that whether or not any of us may like it, we’ve all been shaped by these gender norms, in ways we may not fully realize without investigation.
In that, may lay part of a solution. There is a difference between, “Who do I want to be?” and “What do I want to be?” It’s something so essential that it too is something we often put to children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Maybe instead, if we can begin to shift some of the focus so the essential, fundamental at the base of what we believe and who we are has less to do with the what, and more to do with the who, we can make some real progress. It’s a simple question, with answers that will no doubt be complicated, but whether or not we want to ask it, the time we’re living in is demanding that anyone who has been influenced by growing up with these gender norms asks, “Who do I want to be?”