I’m taking a day away from writing about Jerry Falwell. I will post my own reflection, including “the good, the bad, the ugly” tomorrow.
On a blessedly different subject than anything I’ve been writing about lately, I’ve just finished a wonderful new book that I’m considering for use in my “men and masculinity” course next year. Dude, You’re A Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School is from C.J. Pascoe, a Cal grad and a sociology professor at Puget Sound up in Washington state. It’s a remarkable, challenging, provocative and at times depressing study of the obsession with “proving masculinity” and the “fear of faggotry” among contemporary American high school students.
I picked the book up on Saturday afternoon, and read it all by Sunday night. Though like many social science texts, it’s jargon-laden (and the APA style of citation drives me bats), Pascoe’s work is fresh and exciting. While in grad school at Berkeley, Pascoe spent a year among students at the pseudonymous “River High School” in Riverton, California. (She’s very careful not to name the real school or real town, though from little references she drops, it sounds suspiciously like somewhere near Stockton.) She didn’t pull the Cameron Crowe trick of pretending to be a high school student; Pascoe made it quite clear to the administration, the teachers, and the students that she was there as a researcher writing a book about boys and masculinity.
Pascoe writes of what she calls the fag discourse. The discourse manifests itself in the almost incorrigible way in which young men label each other “fags” while seeking to avoid having that label applied to them. According to this discourse, fear of being called out publicly as a “fag” is the primary driving force behind what Pascoe cleverly calls the display of “compulsive heterosexulity.” Playing on Adrienne Rich’s classic notion that contemporary society functions with a discourse of compulsory heterosexuality, Pascoe notes that among young men desperate to establish their masculine bona fides with their peers, what we see in American high schools amounts to compulsive, almost frantic efforts by young men to prove their manhood.
Anyone who has worked with adolescent boys knows how much anxiety many of them feel about their own masculinity. It’s not news to say that our sons, like their fathers before them, often have to endure or participate in physical or at least verbal violence that we tragically and falsely believe is necessary to transition into manhood. It’s not news that boys torment each other with the “fag” epithet. And it’s not news that the real stigma in being labelled a “fag” doesn’t lie in the association with homosexuality, but with being seen as feminine. Pascoe correctly points out what has been clear for years — that what we often see as homophobia is really thinly disguised misogyny.
Pascoe’s most original insights are her most troubling. After a year of observing the kids at “Riverton”, she found that boys chronically used their access to girls’ bodies as a way of establishing masculine credentials and escaping the “fag” label. Pascoe describes what I’ve seen all too often (and what I always try and break up as quickly as I can when I’m with high schoolers): the tendency of many young men to touch and “playfully” harass young women as a way of proving their own manhood. Pascoe describes incident after incident, in cafeterias and gyms, in breezeways and even, sadly, in classrooms. Pascoe:
… other ‘touching’ episodes has a more explicitly violent tone. In this type of touching the boy and the girl ‘hurt’ each other by punching or slapping or pulling each other’s hair until in the end the girl lost with a squeal or a scream. Shane and Cathy spent a large part of each morning in government class beating up on each other in this sequence of domination. While it was certainly not unidirectional, the interactions always ended with Cathy giving up… while this sort of interaction disrupted Cathy’s work and actually looked exceedingly painful, she never seriously tried to stop it.
There are quite a few similar, heartbreaking anecdotes. Pascoe notes, not surprisingly, that this sort of aggressive behavior (which to an impartial observer regularly constituted assault) was only done in the presence of other men. Pascoe notes what I’ve often observed:
When not in groups — when in one-on-one interactions with boys or girls — boys were much less likely to engage in gendered and sexed domination practices. In this sense boys became masculine in groups… when with other boys, they postured and bragged. In one on one situations with me they often spoke touchingly about their feelings about and insecurities with girls.
Bold emphasis mine.
Many men in the men’s movement have lamented the “fag discourse” in American youth culture. Most adult men have their own scars and wounds that they received in adolescence as they struggled to establish their manhood in the eyes of their peers. Less often discussed, most adult men — when pushed in therapy or group discussions — will cop to the various ways in which they cruelly inflicted wounds on other boys. As Pascoe and others have pointed out, the only way to deflect the fag label is to slap it on to some other nearby man. Most adult men carry with them the wounds inflicted by the fag discourse in their youth — and many carry the guilt of the verbal and psychic violence they did to their peers.
But when men get together to lament the fag discourse and to talk about how difficult it is to grow up male in this culture, how painful it is to try over and over again to establish one’s manhood, we forget something that Pascoe, rightly, doesn’t. The fag discourse doesn’t just victimize men; indeed, men aren’t even it’s chief victims. Pascoe notes that time and time again, women’s bodies are used as yardsticks for men to measure their manliness. When boys brag about their sexual conquests, or pressure young women for sex in order to have a story to tell “the guys”, it is women who are the chief victims of the fag discourse. When boys, as Pascoe describes, snap bra straps and slap bottoms and pull hair in order to display their apparent “right of access” to girls’ bodies, they do this not out of authentic sexual desire but because of this compulsive need to perform, over and over again, as masculine. Women are harassed, assaulted, and taunted because we are raising generation after generation of young boys that sees no better way to establish their manhood than by demonstrating their ability to impose their will on the bodies of their female peers.
So much of the writing by pro-feminist and gay men about the “fear of faggotry” has focused primarily on the profound psychic (and occasionally, physical) injury young men inflict on each other. Pascoe doesn’t dispute the genuine pain and desperation that adolescent guys endure, but she convincingly makes the case that they are not the chief victims of the discourse they perpetuate and try, over and over again, to escape.
I recommend Dude, You’re a Fag with enthusiasm.