A sexist culture harms everyone. Some are harmed more than others. I don’t think I need to argue that women bear the brunt of sexism’s consequences. I’ve written about it here a couple of times. But it affects men, too, and in ways that are often difficult to talk about.
I don’t anticipate bringing a lot of links and scientific research to this post, though I will do so as I consider appropriate. Much of this is based on my own personal experience, which is in some ways typical of a white guy from the US, and in other ways is no doubt atypical. I will find a way to muddle through, somehow.
In my life, I have struggled with having close relationships with other men. Other men report similar experiences. Though our culture has become less homophobic over time, there is still a considerable amount of stigma surrounding men sharing any kind of intimacy with one another. Men don’t talk about their feelings or their inner lives with one another, but instead focus on work issues, pop culture topics, and sports. I often find myself at a loss for discussion with other men because I have no interest in sports and I don’t pay a lot of attention to what’s mainstream in popular culture. I am more than happy to commiserate about problems at work, but too much of that can become toxic.
But going into deeper topics than that is rare. It’s not for lack of having male friends–I have quite a few! But there seems to be this reluctance to talk about anything more substantial. We can have political arguments, of course, and those can become quite heated. Discussing ourselves to any depth, however, is off the table. I have heard the same story from a number of men: their best friends are other men, and yet they know little about those men’s desires, inner struggles, or most intense feelings. Those are things you just don’t talk about. You can go camping, or hunting, or fishing, or to a football or basketball game, or to the racetrack, or cycling, or hiking, or gaming (board, video, or role)–you can have these activities that you share, but they almost seem to exist to put up barriers between you, so you can avoid having connections beyond a shared activity.
This doesn’t mean that sharing activities is bad, obviously. They can be good bonding experiences, as well. But it still remains rather superficial. I would feel less confident in saying this if I had not heard similar stories from a number of guys, but I also have something to compare it to. Many of my friends are women, too, and contrasting my relationships with them reveals some pretty big differences.
I have sometimes encountered the idea that the only woman a straight man should interact with to any real depth is his romantic partner–girlfriend, wife, take your pick. I have known men whose wives forbid them from having other women as friends. It’s not a condition I would tolerate, myself, though I can at least work through the mental processes that lead one to such a conclusion. It highlights a real issue: if a man can only be intimate with women, and the only woman he can share intimacy with is his significant other, this both isolates him and burdens her. It’s unhealthy for both.
I mention my friendships with women because I have realized that, overall, they are deeper. I don’t mean that there are romantic feelings involved, or that I am having sex with them, just that there is a greater level of intimacy and emotional interaction. The kinds of conversations I often have with women, I couldn’t imagine having with the men I know. It’s possible I just know the “wrong” men–I fully acknowledge that. I also know that at least some of it is the result of my own socialization, which was not purposefully homophobic, but nevertheless managed to instill the same vague unease about male intimacy that seems to characterize straight white American men. (I have to say that I cannot speak to the experiences of men of color, though my understanding is that these issues exist to one degree or another within those communities, as well.)
I have to ask myself, what do I talk about with women that I am reluctant to share with men? And do other men feel similarly? I rarely recall trading anything but superficial life stories with other men. Painful experiences tend to be glossed over or left out, perhaps because seeking empathy is a vain effort in man-to-man conversation. Fears, aspirations, traumas, and many forms of embarrassment are off-limits. Self-deprecating humor is OK, and so are tales of romantic or sexual (especially sexual) conquest. Stupid things you did while drunk are fair game; that time life hurt so badly you felt like killing yourself, not so much. It’s been noted that men commit suicide more often than women. Depression is, in fact, about twice as common in women, yet men are much more likely to go undiagnosed, and are at high risk for suicide. It’s not hard to tease out some of the reasons for this in the ways we interact with one another. The term “toxic masculinity” is used to describe the attitudes socialized in men that make them both inwardly and outwardly destructive, and the term is apt. It poisons you, inside and out.
It is necessary to both think and talk about how men interact with one another–and with women. There’s a homophobic stigma against men having much physical intimacy with one another, which means virtually all such touching–which is a fairly basic human need–must be reserved for the woman in a man’s life. This also means that those needs get wrapped up in sexual desire, and that’s where a lot of the problems begin. A man being physically close to another man is improper because we project a sexual element onto it. That element isn’t present because it’s innate to the action itself, but because we have been conditioned to associate physical intimacy solely with sexual activity. Again, women suffer because of this, too: women are called on to satisfy all of a man’s emotional, physical, and sexual needs. Given the ways rape culture interacts with this issue, women are placed in a precarious position, and are easily blamed when a man’s needs–unreasonably forced onto the shoulders of one person–are not met. Emotions and vulnerability continue to be associated with femininity, and nothing is learned.
Women are often demeaned because they “talk too much,” and are accused of talking about “nothing.” Statistically speaking, women actually don’t talk more than men, but they are more likely to engage with others on a cooperative (rather than competitive) level. But men devalue the communication styles of women, often considering the emotional content–the efforts to develop understanding, rather than formulate immediate solutions–superfluous, even irrelevant. It has been my observation that women seem to be better at emotionally supporting one another, especially during turbulent times, when men are more likely to retreat into isolation and depression. The numbers on this speak for themselves–it is a deadly phenomenon.
As a man, knowing all this, I still find it difficult to discuss the issues in question with other men. It’s not a comfortable topic. Men aren’t in the habit of making themselves vulnerable and emotionally available to one another. To women, sure–under the right circumstances. But with other men, it is far more risky. Nevertheless, it is an issue of some urgency, and one that men need to–much as we may hate it–talk more about.