Walking A Mile…

Our perspectives are so limited by the time and place we were born into, the racial or ethnic group we belong to, the religion we are raised in, and so on. But we can gain a new perspective, for example, by living in a different culture.

To live as a different sex, however, is far more difficult. But not impossible. As Norah Vincent wrote about her year long experiment posing as a heterosexual man:

…it wasn’t being found out as a woman that I was really worried about. It was being found out as less than a real man… And that, I learned very quickly, is the straitjacket of the male role… You’re not allowed to be a complete human being… You get to be what’s expected of you. (p.276) …Being a guy was just like that much of the time, a series of unrealistic, limiting, infuriating and depressing expectations constantly coming over the wire, and you just a dummy trying to act on the instructions. (p.280)

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She also gained a new perspective on women:

Women were hard to please in this respect. They wanted me to be in control, baroquely big and strong both in spirit and in body, but also tender and vulnerable at the same time, subservient to their whims and bunny soft. They wanted someone to lean on and hold on to, to look up to and collapse beside, but someone who knew his reduced place in the postfeminist world nonetheless. They held their presumed moral and sexual superiority over me and at times tried to manipulate me with it. (p.277)

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But men are not allowed to be vulnerable. She writes, “a tough front is all you have when there’s nothing behind it but the weakness that you’re not allowed to show”. (p.279)

Recently I read Max Wolf Valerio’s The Testosterone Files, a memoir about how he came to terms with being transgender – back in the 1970s when the issue was almost completely invisible. Going from a radical lesbian feminist to a heterosexual man is a paradigmatic shift, to put it mildly.

He writes that while still appearing female “she” got cat called all the time. He expected street harassment to stop once the testosterone physically changed him. And it did. But what he didn’t expect as a man is being at greater, not lesser risk of violence:

…as a hard-assed hard rock punk chick I’d aroused fear and awe.  As a cool-looking rocker dude in a black leather jacket, dark shades, and long hair, I was getting nothing but trouble – challenges, weird male angst.  The look was similar, but the response it got was vastly different. (p.330)

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He explains male privilege as

…the privilege to be threatened or beaten because you cross an invisible, inviolate line. …Now that I’m a man I find that an invisible coating of protection, a soothing, sweet barrier has fallen from around me.  I hadn’t even been aware of its presence. Women ask me, sometimes with a resentful tone, “So are you more safe on the streets now?” It’s not that simple. It’s true, I no longer worry about sexual harassment on the streets, about intrusive ogling, or rape. That’s a huge relief. I don’t make light of it. However, there’s another side to violence that women aren’t exposed to. The competitive angst and edge of man-on-man violence. The pecking order, the daily drills of masculine testiness. I no longer have any slack cut for me. …Everything in my feminist background informed me that I would be safer as a man, more secure walking the streets, being in crowds, going about my life in the world. So when I actually begin to experience more violence being out in the world, I’m startled.  (p.271-272)

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Valerio writes that such observations of the male gender role, and the feminist failure to understand it, caused a greater departure of feminist friends than coming out as transgender did.

A man showing his vulnerability is a man admitting he is weak and in need of protection – not a real man. To talk openly about domestic violence against men being far more common than popularly believed,  about male victims of sexual abuse (especially with female perpetrators), paternity fraud, and so on is an admission of vulnerability. This is too radical even for many feminists – particularly male feminists, who in my opinion, seek a positive male identity as the protectors of women. Paul Nathanson and Katherine K. Young write that for many, “taking any problem of men seriously would mean taking a non-feminist point of view”. (p.246)

But these issues are important precisely because of men’s humanity. An exclusive focus on the men at the top – history’s kings and today’s corporate executives – ignores the overwhelming majority of men. Because not only is it mostly men at the top – it’s mostly men at the bottom. Feminism’s understanding of gender roles is distorted because they don’t see these men at the bottom – the overwhelming majority of war deaths, job deaths, suicides, and chronically homeless being men. Men are even a slight majority of sexual assault victims in the military, but few are talking about this.

I’ve even heard some use the sexist dismissal that, so what, it’s men who create war. This ignores men’s humanity, however, with its refusal to acknowledge that men forced to die in war are not to blame for choices made by other people who happen to look similar to them.

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