On Guns and American Masculinity in Daily Life

At Daily Life Australia, where I’m now contributing occasionally, here’s Defending Masculinity with Guns, written in response to the Connecticut horror.


The “Man Card” campaign can only work in a culture where white masculinity is seen not only as fragile, but under attack. The modern enemy isn’t King George III and his Redcoats; it’s the emasculating influence of a culture in which women and ethnic minorities have gained access to what were once all white, all-male preserves. (Though a “Bushmaster” refers to a kind of snake, the name instantly conjures up an image of an intrepid white male explorer in Africa, using his gun to fend off wild animals and natives.) The company is coy about what it is that young men are supposed to do with the gun once they’ve bought it, knowing that for many, merely owning it will be sufficiently “masculinizing.” The hope, presumably, is that young lads will think “as long as I own this gun, I am still an independent person, a force to be reckoned with, even if I never use it.” One gun is invariably an insufficient talisman, however. This is why so many American young men collect as many as they can afford, perhaps hoping to amass an arsenal to protect themselves against every imaginable threat (or, more honestly, against their own nagging self-doubt.) Adam Lanza brought so many weapons to the Sandy Hook elementary school that he couldn’t carry them all; forced to leave one in the car, he carried three, including his Bushmaster, on his rampage.

Fragile masculinity was not the sole cause of last Friday’s massacre. Lax gun laws (themselves rooted in our national myth of violent self-reliance) and mental illness also played a part. So too did class privilege: Lanza, like most rampage shooters in America in recent decades, had grown up in comfort in bucolic suburbia, the son of a vice-president at General Electric. Privileged white men aren’t the only ones to suffer from mental anguish, but as a result of our national history, they are disproportionately likely to imagine that they are entitled to foist their pain onto others in a terribly public way. Privileged white American men are also the ones most likely to feel the rage of “frustrated entitlement,” keenly aware of the disconnect between the affluence and autonomy they were taught was their birthright, and the anxiety and rejection that seems to characterize their daily experiences with others.

Two Genderal Columns on Men and Sexuality

Because I didn’t have a column at Jezebel last week, I’ve had two up in the past four days.

The first is based on the great research on male promiscuity by my friend Andrew Smiler: Why Do We Think Guys Just Want Sex? Excerpt:

In Challenging Casanova, Smiler notes that heterosexual young men tend to fall into three categories: a small percentage of “players” with a high number of sexual partners; an equally small percentage of young (almost always devoutly religious) dudes who are determined to remain abstinent until marriage, and a much larger third group whom he argues want to follow “a reasonably traditional, romantic approach to dating.” Even when they’re “hooking up” (a practice that is neither as novel nor as ubiquitous as wistful and censorious aging pundits imagine) these guys are engaging in the gateway behavior into what they hope will be a relationship.

These findings contradict most of our received wisdom about what young men really want. “I’m constantly told that the ‘boys are lying’ to me about what they really want,” Smiler says in a phone interview. “The Casanova myth is so deeply ingrained that people are convinced that boys who claim to want relationships rather than casual sex are either incredibly rare or full of crap.” The small number of genuinely promiscuous boys is explained away by absence of opportunity rather than absence of desire; the myth that most young men would be Casanovas if they could is as tenacious as it is unfounded. There seem to be few other aspects of human sexual behavior where the disconnect between reality and perception is so vast.

In the second piece, Why We Still Fall for the Myth of the Uncontrollable Boner, I look at the way the “myth of male weakness” still functions to excuse infidelity:

Wachs’ suggestion that “every man’s fantasy” is to cheat on an “aging” wife (who doesn’t appreciate him) with an “adoring younger woman” reframes an individual act of betrayal as an unavoidable male failing. This recasting is comforting. It’s a lot more pleasant to believe that your husband is weak than it is to believe that he had the capacity to resist temptation, but made a conscious decision not to do so. This is what makes the “myth of the uncontrollable boner” so seductive; it’s preferable to think that a painful betrayal was the result of irresistible evolutionary imperatives rather than choice. “My man is so manly that he gets urges that trump his very real love for me” is ever so much prettier than “In the end, he didn’t care about me enough to keep it in his pants.”

On the false claims of “A War on Men”

I have another piece up at Daily Life Australia (part of the Sydney Morning Herald media family), looking at the risible claims of a “War on Men” that have set the interwebs ablaze this week.


Much of the male rhetoric of the so-called ”gender wars” is rooted in rage-filled indignation at women’s newfound capacity for sexual selectiveness. Dimly aware of an “earlier time” when “women knew their place” (the bygone days of the vulnerability-for-responsibility exchange), these men (and their female surrogates, like Suzanne Venker) direct their anger not only at the women who reject them but at the feminism that empowered women to be more “choosy” about those with whom they mated. Women today can afford to say, as many of my students do, “If I meet the right person, then I might consider getting married – and if I don’t, then I’ll still be fine.” Contrary to what the Abbots and Venkers might claim, that “if/then thinking” represents tremendous opportunity for both sexes. It means women can avoid being trapped in desperately unhappy marriages; it means that men can trust they’re being chosen for their emotional and sexual desirability rather than their bank balance or their staid reliability.

To put it simply, the more freedom women have to say “no,” the more men can trust the authenticity of their “yes.”

If there is a “war on men,” it’s not being waged by feminists. It’s being waged by an unholy alliance of social conservatives and evolutionary psychologists who relentlessly repeat the message that men can only feel powerful when women make themselves powerless. In the modern gender battles, it’s worth asking which side believes in men’s capacity to be fully human. Reading the propaganda, it’s clear it’s not the side of the sexual traditionalists.

Read the whole thing.

When White Men Lose their Monopoly on Power… It’s Good for White Men, Too

A second column went up at Jez this week: Why the End of White Men is Actually Good for White Men. Excerpts:

The day after the election, I tweeted that I was glad that “middle-aged, middle-class white men like me no longer have sole control of the levers of power.” A friend in my same demographic shot back grimly that “after all, we are the cause of all that is wrong and soul-less in the world, or so the narrative goes.” We’ve all heard a variation on that point before, as white dudes complain that they’re unfairly held accountable for historic and contemporary injustices. Whining about “reverse racism” or about being “blamed” for the exclusionary practices of those who shared (and share) our color, our class, and our sex doesn’t change the reality that we’re the ones who’ve enjoyed unearned advantages for eons.

So instead of mourning, it’s time for middle-class white dudes to look on the bright side. Not only do we get a more inclusive, fairer nation, we also get these priceless benefits that come along with the loss of our once vaunted power…

3. Women –- and everyone else –- will be more likely to tell us the truth. The more privilege you have (or are perceived to have) the riskier it is for someone who doesn’t share that privilege to be honest with you. Anglican feminist theologian Janet Morley suggests that when the privileged use power to dominate, they force the less privileged to use their “weakness to manipulate.” Most people dislike being manipulated — and yet a system in which women and non-whites lack equal access to power is one in which honesty often comes with dangerously high risks. We soothe people whom we fear, and we flatter when we’ve got few other options to get what we need. The more power white men hold in public and private, the less likely that they can fully trust the smiles and the nods and the “yesses” of those who don’t share their privilege. Put simply, when we lose our privilege, we’ll start to be able to trust what we hear.

Read the whole thing.

Talking Petraeus at Jezebel and on Current TV

In response to the David Petraeus sex scandal, I wrote a piece at Jezebel: ‘I Know You Better Than You Know Yourself:’ Why Men Cheat With Their Biographers.


It’s hard not to suspect that that same lack of self-awareness drove General Petraeus. Men whose lives are defined by public action and attentiveness to image are vulnerable to “imposter syndrome.” They may be keenly aware of the disconnect between how they are perceived and the messy reality of who it is that they “really ” are. Married to women who are under no illusions as to their shortcomings, plenty of middle-aged men make the mistake of turning to the women who “understand.” An affair with a journalist or documentarian offers a double bonus: not only the chance to be validated as privately worthy by a star-struck lover, but the promise of being presented to the public in the most favorable possible light by a woman whom you like to imagine knows you better than you know yourself.

Sex scandals are rooted in male narcissism, as Irin Carmon wrote for Jezebel when the Edwards scandal broke. Rielle Hunter famously first got John Edwards’ attention with a blunt “You’re hot!” But we make a mistake when we assume that male narcissism is only about being validated for being sexually attractive. It’s also about the longing to be seen as worthy by a woman who is presumably in a position to know the truth about his goodness. Men who froze their own capacity for introspection when they were young are particularly likely to seek out the affair with the woman who promises to peek underneath the uniform and pronounce that what she sees is hot, fascinating, and noble. This is a narcissism driven as much by a specifically male lack of self-awareness as it is by preening, anxious vanity.

Last night, I appeared on Current TV’s The War Room with Gov. Jennifer Granholm to talk about this issue. The five-minute clip is here.

Men Aren’t Over, But They’re Getting Needier

Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men:And the Rise of Women started as an epic article, and has become a conversation-changing book. I’ve touched on her work before, but pick up on one tangential thread in my Genderal Interest column at Jezebel today The Rise of the Needy Man.


Rosin writes that men “theoretically can be anything these days.” What they lack, she argues, are qualities that they once had –- and that women now seem at least more likely to possess: “flexibility, hustle, and an expansive sense of identity.” Chloe Angyal is surely right that Rosin oversells the expansiveness of that self-confidence among young women. Even so, one key missing piece of the “end of men” narrative is not just the degree to which men have ceded “flexibility” and “hustle” to the women in their lives, but the extent to which men now turn to women not merely for partnership, but for mentoring, inspiration, and direction. What makes characters like Charlie, Dean, and the subjects of Rosin’s book so recognizable is that mix of people-pleasing and passivity that is designed to force young women to take the initiative and give instruction to the men they love.

Men, writes Matlack, are filled with yearning: to talk, to be understood, to be accepted. Men, he suggests, have more emotional depth than we give them credit for having. What he doesn’t say is that guys today have so much less emotional resilience than we need them to possess. The contemporary female version of “male yearning” isn’t just ambition, it’s exhaustion. Part of that exhaustion may be due to the “feminization of success” that Hanna Rosin describes. But surely a hefty chunk of that weariness comes from the reality that even as many women do surpass men educationally and financially, they’re still expected to play the traditionally feminine roles of sympathetic listener and constant encourager. Pay the rent. Make him feel safe. Tell him what to do and how to be. And make it all look hot.

Read the whole thing here.

Five Tips for Recognizing “Mansplaining”

After a hiatus of more than a month, my Genderal Interest column returns at Jezebel. Here’s Five Tips for the Mansplainers in Your Life. Excerpt:

As I learned teaching workshops on sexual harassment to all-male audiences, most guys don’t want to do or say offensive things. Their misunderstanding of what sexual harassment entails led some to fear that even their most well-intentioned gestures or remarks would be misconstrued as harassment. The bulk of my job was making it clear that sexual harassment was less of a vast catch-all than they imagined. Harassing women, in other words, was less difficult to avoid than they imagined.

The same is true for mansplaining. Despite the fears of many fellas like my student, mansplaining isn’t a term for any time a guy tries to explain himself. Mansplaining is about a very specific instance of “privilege and ignorance… when a dude tells you, a woman, how to do something you already know how to do, or how you are wrong about something you are actually right about, or miscellaneous and inaccurate ‘facts’ about something you know a hell of a lot more about than he does.”

But that description may still be too vague for some guys. So to help them out, here are five ways the fellas can check to see if they’re mansplaining –- or just men, talking like human beings.

The Privilege of Lusting for the Village Idiot

At Role/Reboot, writing about Ryan Lochte and the rise of the “himbo:”

Lochte’s combination of washboard abs and cretinous, perhaps calculated puerility (he made headlines as much for admitting he pees in the Olympic pool as for his medal triumphs) is hardly sui generis. Rather, the athlete Ryan calls “fratty as fuck” is the latest example of what Lauren Bans calls “himbos.” Writing in GQ earlier this year, Bans defines a himbo as a “man who is more attractive than he is smart. A bimbo with nuts, to put it testicularly.” Think of the hunks of shows like Jersey Shore; think of what many people assumed about the male stripper movie, Magic Mike (though the title character turned out to be far more complex than the himbo stereotype.) Though women’s attraction to lantern-jawed simpletons is not new (think of Miss Jane Hathaway on the Beverly Hillbillies remarking about Jethro Bodine: “I like my men big and dumb”), Bans is right that we’ve arrived at the “Golden Age of Himbodom.”

On the one hand, the ascendancy of the beefcake numbskull is partly good news. If straight women can publicly acknowledge that they’re turned on by men with ripped bodies and no other redeeming qualities, we can at last put to bed the hoary old myth that “women aren’t visual.” The lie that women invariably need a satisfying emotional connection in order to be sexually aroused can finally be allowed to die a very public death. In our national conversation, we’re beginning to recognize that the kind of sexual feeling we once ascribed solely to males is simply part and parcel of being human. Women aren’t becoming more like men, in other words. We’re just getting a long-overdue reminder that women are people too.

Read the whole thing.

Equipping guys to be better platonic friends: a note on some new research

Today’s Genderal Interest column at Jezebel looks at the latest research about why platonic friendships between men and women remain so difficult.


The problem isn’t just, as the Bleske-Rechek study shows, that men wildly overestimate their female buddies’ sexual interest. It’s that they also undervalue their own worth as friends. In a world where we still cling to the belief that women are naturally more intuitive and verbally adept than men, many guys assume that if a woman wants a non-sexual friendship, she’ll naturally choose from the ranks of those who “do” friendship well: other women. The idea that a straight woman might want to be close to them without wanting to fuck or marry strikes them as utterly implausible. As a result, men do two things at once: they overrate their own sexual irresistibility and depreciate everything else they might have to offer. Little wonder, then, that so many dudes wrongly assume that their lady friends are crushing on them.

So what can we do to better equip guys to be “just friends” with the women in their lives? For starters, we can debunk once and for all the myth that sexual desire makes friendship impossible. The traditional reasoning is that male-female platonic relationships only work when neither friend is ever attracted to the other. Given how fluid and surprising desire can be, those friendships where lust never appears for even an instant are going to be relatively rare. But this reasoning overstates the power of sexual attraction to drown out everything else. As this new study makes clear, it’s not that women are never attracted to their male buddies. It’s that women are probably better acculturated to put lust aside for the sake of a friendship.

Read the whole thing here.

Men’s Heroism, Women’s Mortality

At Role/Reboot this week, I look at the connection between historic rates of maternal mortality and the idea that men should be willing to die for women. Excerpt:

It is right to honor the brave acts of men like Matt McQuinn, Jonathan Blunk, and Alex Teves. They did well. But in the subsequent debate about masculinity and heroism, it’s worth pointing out two things. First, it’s time to let go of the myth that men have traditionally endured more physical danger and suffering than women. In Euripedes’ Medea, the title character remarks that she “would rather stand three times with a shield in battle than give birth once.” For all women, that’s a historically honest and accurate risk assessment. We may not have a Tomb of the Unknown Mother at Arlington, but the suffering of women’s bodies has been at least as important in guaranteeing our collective survival as men. In any discussion of sacrificial heroism, that truth deserves remembering.

Secondly, romantic proclamations about a willingness to die for someone else are cheap and easy. The kind of heroism that’s needed from men today has less to do with leaping in front of guns and more to do with showing up for the often maddeningly mundane tasks of living in relationship with another human being. Perhaps the greatest courage lies less in being willing to die for someone and more in being willing to partner with another human being in this difficult, confusing, marvelous business of living.