Studying gender roles in-depth over the last few months has resulted in a great deal of reflection on my own preconceived notions about the topic. Specifically, where exactly do gender roles come from, and how can we best utilize them to make our world a better place? The older I get, the more I see my cohorts fall victim to problems associated with their misguided beliefs about gender roles. Specifically, I see:
- People in gender and women in particular that become sexually-bored in long-term relationships (predictably after about four years) and have no idea how to resurrect the passion.
- Women that are shamed by other men and women for openly displaying masculine characteristics.
- Men that are shamed by other men and women for openly displaying feminine characteristics.
- Husbands and fathers that are continually stereotyped as incompetent, bumbling idiots, which is reinforced through TV and movies.
- Transgender friends, both male and female, shamed for choosing to live as the opposite sex.
- Parents of elementary school-aged boys struggling to keep them interested in school.
- Women, as they approach their mid-thirties, becoming increasingly attracted to alpha males.
This is just a partial list of issues I've observed, most of which came from the research for No Bone Zone.
[tl:dr warning: If you don't care to read my personal account of gender roles, skip to the "The Rationale to Protect Masculinity" heading below]
How My Beliefs Regarding Gender Have Evolved
Back in college when I was studying sex and gender, the nature versus nurture debate over gender was raging. Sociologists, as they tend to do, made the claim that gender was a social construct that was born when man decided to start farming, and was generally used as a tool for men to hoard power and influence while simultaneously oppressing women (Yay nurture!)
Evolutionary and biological psychologists, on the other hand, noted the physical and biochemical differences between males and females, and made the argument gender roles are mostly innate and serve a utilitarian purpose. Specifically, men played the role of protector and provider, and women played the role of nurturer and social cohesion. The tribes that best-utilized these roles survived to reproduce and send their superior genes to the next generation (Yay nature!)
At the time, I tended to buy into the first idea a little more, partially because social psychology was my primary theoretical foundation. We pretty much believe all human behavior occurs as a function of the environment. At the time, it seemed to me that traditional gender roles caused a lot of problems, so the solution was to simply alter our environment. I assumed there was a biological basis for gender roles, but I dismissed it as being relatively minor. I pretty much ignored what should have been an obvious data point in this debate - the very sad John/Joan story (if you've never heard of it, read this now; it'll change the way you think of gender.) I also ignored the behavioral effects of biologically-determined hormones like testosterone (which gives us dudes our upper body strength, aggression, competitiveness, and relentless sex drive.)
I personally grew up in a household where gender roles were very fluid. Both my parents worked, and both shared in pretty much all the responsibilities of running a household and parenting. Our family had some emotional issues that were more or less passed on from generation to generation, which caused me to develop tendencies that would eventually lead me to appear to be a pretty "beta" male (sensitive, passive, empathetic, caring, etc.), which was amplified by a weird type of auditory dyslexia that caused me to be a really good listener (I have to process everything people say to give it context so I can follow a conversation... it's a useful but exhausting skill.)
When Shelly and I had kids, we more or less raised them based on the ideas in Lois Gould's semi-famous "Baby X" story (another must-read.) The goal was simple - we wanted our kids to have the freedom to express themselves as they wish. Our job as parents were to channel that into something constructive and help them understand the benefits and consequences they'd face for their various behaviors. The result - our daughter (10) has an interesting mix of feminine attractiveness and masculine aggression and competitiveness. Our middle son (9) is the most feminine kid in the family (sensitive and nurturing), yet he also has an edgy dark side that comes out on occasion. Our youngest (6) is a pretty "traditional" boy; his behaviors pretty much align with the majority of his male peers. He's hyperactive, loves rough-housing, climbing, and exploring, etc.
For me personally, I started to realize my "beta-ishness" wasn't a function of my innate personality, but rather a collection of coping skills I had learned while growing up. That was partially tempered by pretty traditional "male" activities like hunting and fishing, playing baseball, football, and wrestling. Still, I was really good at observing women then replicating their behaviors, which gave me the appearance of a decidedly beta male.
I increasingly realized I felt like I was living a lie of sorts. When I'd talk to my gay, lesbian, or transsexual friends, their stories of feeling as though they had to bury their true self resonated with me in a weird way. About a decade ago, I took up running, which led to barefoot running and ultrarunning. Both of those activities satisfied some urge I had, but it was hard to verbalize. I now realize it was my desire to compete, to overcome, to dominate an activity. It was a socially-acceptable manifestation of my repressed masculinity.
About the only time I didn't suppress these tendencies is with the magical elixir that is alcohol. Drunk Jason became fearless leader Jason. I became assertive, confident, and protective of my tribe (my drinking friends.)
Fast-forward a few years. We had traveled the country for about two years, met thousands and thousands of people (many of which would later inspire my rekindled interest in sex, relationships, and gender roles), and eventually settled in Southern California. We were tiring of the running scene, so Shelly decided to join an mma gym. She loved it. Within a month I joined, too. Both of us were now surrounded by what I would define as Sheepdogs and Wolves. Both of us, somewhat surprisingly, took to the violent nature of jiu jitsu, boxing, and kickboxing like fish to water. We both discovered we like violence. A lot. We like hurting people (consensually, of course.) We also don't mind getting hurt. When we train, like almost all of our gym teammates, we beg our coach to let us live spar.
Like most things we do, we talked about it. We wrote about it. We shared our experiences far and wide. We tried to convince our runner friends to give it a try. To our surprise (then anyway), we had zero takers. In fact, of my thousands of social media friends, only about ten or twelve both run and practice a martial art that involves real sparring. That was the straw that broke the camel's back and made me fully realize I had been living a complete lie for my entire life. I had actively suppressed my masculine tendencies out of fear of social rejection from family, friends, colleagues... pretty much everyone.
So I decided to come out of the closet.
When phrased that way, it seems a bit silly. Still, that's exactly how I felt. I started making changes. I no longer suppressed my masculine persona. The response from others was interesting. Some friends clearly did not like the change and sort of fell by the wayside. I got a lot of "you must be trying to compensate for some hidden insecurities" comments. It was clear the detractors didn't get it in any way, shape, or form. I lost friends that loved me for my facade, but that's okay. I do not want to alter my behaviors just to win the approval of others. I spent most of my life doing that. It sucks. A lot.
Other friends loved it. It was clear a lot of men (and women) love being in the presence of masculine men. I started attracting more like-minded men and started hearing their stories. As it turns out, there are a lot of us guys that have done the exact same thing - repressed our masculine tendencies for one reason or another, usually because we believed it was the only way we'd get a woman to love us. That mentality undermined careers and relationships to the point where a lot of dudes felt completely and totally lost. It was if their world they believed existed for so long suddenly crumbled and they were left grasping for any shred of understanding. As it turns out, that's exactly what living a lie feels like. In retrospect, it was a really fucked-up thought process, but denial kinda does that.
So here I am today. For the first time in my life, I feel like the me that the world sees is the me I see on the inside. And it's fantastic; it feels as if a humongous weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I feel a degree of freedom I've never felt before. This feeling has inspired me to continue supporting my kids and their free expression of gender roles. This feeling has inspired me to support Shelly and her free expression of gender roles (especially when it comes to the fighting hobby.) This feeling has inspired me to start the San Diego Man Camp project, which has sprouted excellent discussions in our male-only Facebook group.
The Rationale to Protect Masculinity
I'm a pretty liberal dude that believes in quite a few liberal causes. I support gay marriage. I support nationalized healthcare. I support environmentalism. I also support the free expression of gender, which includes removing any and all barriers that might prevent all of us from having equal opportunity and equal responsibility. That includes supporting women that want to do traditional "male" careers and activities. That also includes supporting men that want to do traditional "female" careers and activities. Hell, I'm a stay-at-home dad. I'm living the brand.
However, my thoughts on gender role freedom doesn't seem to resonate very well with my liberal friends. Most will readily support gay marriage based on the premise that sexual orientation, as pretty much any gay or lesbian will confirm, is not a choice. Most will also support transgender folks (thanks Caitlyn Jenner!) on the premise the gender roles, as pretty much any transgender person will confirm, is not a choice. Yet when men (or women) make the claim that masculinity is just who they are, they're stonewalled.
That stonewalling is almost always rationalized by making the claim that masculinity is bad. Masculinity is violent and aggressive and the reason we have murders and rapes and road rage. Masculinity is an oppressive force that subjugates women. Masculinity forces little boys that identify with more feminine gender roles to be someone they are not.
I probably don't have to point out the hypocrisy of the anti-masculine sentiment among liberals... I have a lot of faith in my readers. ;-)
The bottom line - if our society is accepting of people like Caitlyn Jenner, we cannot use the "gender roles are a socially-constructed phenomena" to rationalize anti-masculine policies and behaviors. People that identify with the masculine should have the exact same freedom as anyone that identifies with the feminine. To think otherwise is, in my mind, simply inexcusable.
My Gender Role Framework
My Utopia (aka "San Diego Man Camp") relies on a simple principle: Gender roles have a significant biological and/or genetic origin and have a profound influence on our behaviors. Anyone and everyone deserves the freedom to express whatever gender role they choose regardless of their biological or genetic sex and they should be free to express that however they wish as long as they are not infringing on the rights of others. In other words, we can't rationalize vilifying masculinity because a small percentage of dudes commit the majority of sexual assaults or murders. Blame the person committing the crime, not the gender role they're identifying with. From a purely logical point, saying we need to discourage masculinity because it harms others is the exact same bullshit excuse given for the religious right to deny gays equality.
Furthermore, I strongly believe we need to do more to support men that have a more feminine disposition and women that have a more masculine disposition. This is the gray area where I think our society fails miserably, and liberals are just as guilty as conservatives. People with masculine or feminine virtues tend to gravitate towards environments (careers, recreational activities, social groups, etc.) where they can best leverage their particular strengths. Both feminine men and masculine women can be tremendous contributors to society, but we put up a whole lotta roadblocks. That needs to end.
Specific to men (and the SDMC project), I want to create an environment for a very specific demographic - men that, like me, have long-repressed their masculinity. Through mutual aid and support, I want to help these men learn to express that masculinity in a way that's not going to make their loved ones the enemy (which is my complaint about most "pro-man" groups.) I do not wish to make men a victimized class. I do not wish to vilify feminist endeavors. I do not wish to convince men that my way is the correct way. I merely wish to create a road map to a better place where we have real gender equality, then assist those that choose to follow.