Masculinity today has become the source of great ire, such that men, as a general rule, feel threatened as a point of order when masculinity is scrutinised. As a construct, masculinity is interwoven down to the very core of what it means to be male. The late sixties and early seventies saw, perhaps, the most pointed critique and challenge to masculinity to date. Today the same critiques have become muddied. What it means to have this or that identity retains its political implication, but does not necessarily threaten existing structure. The queer and women’s liberationists of yesterday, who challenged all gender normalcy, have now been relegated to fringe “radicals.” In this way, what defines us as masculine or feminine is largely the same. Attitudes, presentation, social engagements, remain unchanged but for a few provisions (namely work opportunities, rights and conditions).
The issue manifests somewhat garishly when we look to rates of violence, sexual violence, and domestic violence. In 2017, 82% of victims of sexual assault were women aged 15–19 years old at the time of reporting, and 60% of those were assaulted in the home. Roughly 70% of men occupied the total number of homicide victims, while at the same time occupying the majority of violent crime offenders.
We have found that the above data fluctuates only marginally from year to year. So we are left with relative stability. Stability, however, in the context of our discussion, does not mark an improvement.
When we extend our discussion into industry, we find puzzling statistics. Women are, on average, paid less than men. However, women are also more educated than men. Women occupy significantly less leadership positions than men, despite this gap in education.
Our results, on purely empirical bases, have a consistent theme. Men, by and large, are in positions of authority and dominance. Men are the majority agents of their own norms. Why?
Having established a tangible result, we look to causes, and a cause can come by no other means than structural, sociological, paradigms. Paradigms that, in turn, inform gender-based psychology. For men, we argue that masculine psychology is formed as part of a structural phenomenon: structural patriarchy.
Now, “here we go again” comes to mind at the word “patriarchy.” Often, when we discuss patriarchy, we discuss it in the context of the oppression of women. Specifically, an oppression of women as a focal point — sexism. However, in this discussion the focal point is, “How does structural patriarchy affect men?”
Karl Marx famously wrote, “Social progress may be measured precisely by the social position of [women].” This conclusion is met by a tracking, on a material basis, of women’s roles in society, and more specifically, their economic relationships. “Hitherto” society has, in no uncertain terms, been divided both on class lines, and on gendered lines. Though “patriarchy” may seem antiquated, it remains as locked in place as ever. There are a multitude of reasons for patriarchal structure, not least of which is economic. However, importantly, the subservient or marginalised role of women requires a dominant ideological persona. A superior thing by which to measure the other. To this end, all men must be superior. And while this superiority complex is within itself a contradiction, all that we become is hegemonic and symptomatic of a structure that doesn’t reflect us as men, but rather a demand of us as men. And the demand, in all its insidiousness, continues to rot the souls of men.
Like any unjust structure, it has made women objects. And a creature that is justified as an object is no longer a creature with agency. “Men,” we are the agents. Only we are not agents. We are daily confronted with our lack of agency. We are herein caught in a vicious feed-back loop. We assume our agency in the only way that we are allowed to, within the parameters of the masculine: violence.
As a point of order, we need to look to lived experience. The experience of what it is to be a man, to experience the normalcy of being a man, and to experience the internal and external conflicts that arise from those norms.
Speaking in my own person now, masculinity, as something I was grown into, was a closed off, often conceited, perspective. We were to hold our grievances and manage them ourselves. We treated our partners, and each other, with degrees of indignity. And, I would argue, this in turn inspired the same indignity in others toward us.
As men these indignities manifest themselves in abusive cycles. We take, we control. We are angry, and others become accessories to our anger. This aggressive disposition can explode, but is more commonly turned into a kind of micro-aggression. “What a bitch…”
My experience of masculinity has always been, to degrees, a violent one. Being abused, and being abusive. Being a victim, and being a victimiser. Fighting barrel chested. Being terrified of the barrel chested competitors. The first time, as a point of reflection today, this became identifiable to me was in trauma. First as sexual trauma, and second as a host of non-sexual traumas, but equally, if not more, violent. Both forms of these traumas would repeat themselves regularly in a seemingly never ending cycle.
These experiences stole away my identity. My ability to connect became manipulation so that all connection was on my terms alone. And therein, my empathy vanished. My love became control. My kindness became destructively paternal. If I didn’t protect, no one would, and to protect it I had to control it. My mind no longer saw others as friends, acquaintances, lovers and family. Instead, they became threats. My sexuality became hollow, a thing within which there was no agency. All of these things constituted, for me, what it meant to be masculine. And these things were instigated by a version of masculinity that was equally destructive: Power.
There is no exaggerating when I say that what I became was the direct result of an almost cliche, masculine, trope. I was used for someone else’s gratifications, for their own desire to explore their version of masculinity. I was reared into asserting masculinity that fit with the depiction of someone else’s. Man was violence. Be violent. Men don’t get hurt, they hurt. Men are superior, any weakness and you’re no longer a man. Men don’t get fucked. Men fuck. Men tell other people what to do. They don’t take that shit from anyone.
As a testimony to the destructive persona I took to, with all of its traumas, self-hatred and hypocrisies, visceral and unforgiving, the solutions were escapism. Drugs and drink. Sex — most often without consideration to the person or myself, no matter how good they or I felt. Masculinity was an ideal of many parts that had made contact with one another, and like a boss might descend on a workplace, would point and say, “Get this done by 5PM.”
I sometimes think back to some of those traumas, especially the ones that I have a vivid, and in some ways intimate, memory of, and I find myself saddened. Not because of what had happened to me, but because of what had created them. I realise that though I like to believe I am nothing like them, the reality proves different. I have distilled abuse like moonshine, and I drank it with equal enthusiasm. My rage as a partner to someone was never genuine. I did not punch walls because I was wronged. I did not raise my voice because I needed to. My head and heart were being torn by my own devils. I drank the moonshine for free. I made other people pay for it. That is masculinity.
When a man, suffering the most extreme manifestation of trauma — post-traumatic stress disorder — packs and leaves his family because he is terrified that he will hurt them, that is masculinity. When a man beats his cousin half-to-death, despite the trust between them, that is masculinity. When a man takes his own life, at a rate three times higher than women, that is masculinity. When nearly a quarter of adolescent suicides are people who are LGBT, and the majority of those are young, gay, men, that is masculinity.
We can collect case upon case upon case, and the result will, by degrees, measure up to the situation I describe. When we investigate the experiences of women, as a way to meaningfully contextualise masculinity as violence, we receive consistent reports — fear, car keys, cat-calls, harassment, deference (forced and unforced).
Masculinity of this kind, the masculinity, is a destructive force in society — both for women and men, and if it is our goal to improve our society, both by opposing oppressions like sexism and creating a new space for men to express themselves, masculinity needs to be rejected wholly. We do not, and should not, attempt to replace one masculinity for another. Nor try to discern an abstract concept of masculinity being personal. Masculinity, in all conception, merely perpetuates a hostile, destructive, tendency instilled in us as men. Masculinity, as a distinction, will always be an othering, it will always assume characteristics that distinguish themselves from others. In other words, whatever the masculine is, everything else cannot be. Masculinity therefore demands, controls, and resumes its destructive superiority in whatever domain it has or could arbitrarily occupy.
We should, instead, abandon masculinity entirely.
It is possible to be a man and not be masculine. I am a man, and yes, I am masculine. But I am trying very hard not to be.
* Australian Bureau of Statistics, Recorded Crime Victims 2017 and Crime Victimisation 2018–2019
* Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Australia
* Bessel van der Kolk, “The Body Keeps the Score”
* New York Times feature, “My Cousin Was My Hero, Until He Tried to Kill Me”
* Lifeline Australia, Suicide Statistics
* Australian Men’s Health Foundation