*Note that the following post is a work in progress. It is imperfect. There is always more reading and writing to be done. However, it is a starting point and adds to the collective voice that a change and healing needs to happen. Please be aware that this post is intended for mature audiences. *
A call to arms (by AM)
Our men are injured. But we knew this, right? It has been at slow simmer for years, decades even, possibly longer, that has boiled over with President “Grab ‘em by the pussy”, #metoo, #timesup, and discussion of safe, consensual intimacy. We know the men are dis-eased, a handful pathologically that they ‘poison the well’ (ex. Barbara Kingslover’s reflection on metoo). There’s a wakeup call, a reckoning, as women collectively voice and demonstrate their frustration. Women are no longer accepting victimhood. But we were the canaries of the mine – our harm is the reflection of an even larger problem.
The problem, put simply, is harmful gender norms and dynamics. When looking at the big picture and trying to find out where to start, it looks like a manic spider diagram or crazed Jackson Pollock painting. The mess is real, interconnected, disheveled, and chaotic. My small blog post is unlikely to untangle this issue, but it adds to the rising chorus demanding change. I’m not naïve in expecting my post to be the change, but I do hope it will add perspective, educate, and bolster efforts for a great restructuring.
How did we get here?
We, as in the female collective, have been hyper-focused on healing ourselves, recovering from the toxic fallout of 1960s and 70s feminism that grew us on mantras of “you can have it all”, “you can do what he does”, that compared our success and progress with that of men. But what if we don’t want to be just like men? The same logic dismissed mothers and children as being an integral part to our community, undervaluing their worth and time. And let us not forget that earlier forms of feminism were not intersectional – they left women of color and our trans sisters in the margins; they left out our men. To be clear, the women then did important work and cleared some paths, but not without losses that we are trying to repair, clean up, dig out of today.
But now……now we are called to our men. (Who has been minding our men????)
Patriarchy, Toxic Masculinity, and Gender
To follow this issue to the source, we need some definitions. Mine will no doubt be imperfect, but serve as a starting point. Let’s start then: Patriarchy is political, cultural, social system that establishes the framework and social norms in which men hold the power and are valued over women and people of nonbinary gender. More broadly, it is a cultural practice that rules by domination, with men as the ruling class. (More information here) Toxic masculinity is a narrowed definition of the masculine, viewing emotional expression as weak and praising aggression and sexual domination; it is separate from, but supports the patriarchy, and some suggest that the patriarchal systems have pushed traditional views of masculinity into toxic masculinity (more here and more below). Even though men may be privileged in a patriarchal society, they don’t always benefit from the specific social codes that it entails. Many individuals do not have the words for this phenomenon, unable to name this pervasive and invisible system that encapsulates so much of our human interactions, making it even more difficult to pinpoint, identify, and deconstruct.
“We cannot dismantle a system as long we engage in collective denial about its impact on our lives……..A great majority of individuals enforce an unspoken rule in the culture as a whole that demands we keep the secrets of patriarchy…..The rule of silence is upheld when the culture refuses everyone easy access even to the word patriarchy…….how can we organize to challenge and change a system that cannot be named?…….Patriarchy as a system has denied males access to full emotional well-being, which is not the same as feeling rewarded, successful, or powerful because of one’s capacity to assert control over others. To truly address male pain and male crisis we must as a nation be willing to expose the harsh reality that patriarchy has damaged men in the past and continues to damage them in the present.” (Bell Hooks, Understanding Patriarchy)
Of course, patriarchy is not just a “men’s” issue. Women often (perhaps unknowingly) take part in the partriarchy, either in how they raise their children (the boy code, more below), in the gender norms they ascribe to for themselves and others, in limiting the access to and presentation of their WHOLE selves. By our own participation, many of us condone the system that shackles us. For instance, gender is a spectrum, and men and women both have masculine and feminine energies and qualities within their psyche. How many women identify with their own masculinity (and even toxic masculinity)? And how freely can men identify with their feminine energies (ex. the emotion he has been cut off from, more below)? How comfortable are individuals in identifying components of themselves outside of their externalized gender presentation? Patriarchy prescribes and promotes an either/or, black or white mentality for gender, but gender is a spectrum, across and within individuals, changing even over a lifetime. We are familiar with patriarchy wounding the female collective, but it also wounds men, as well as those outside of the “binary”, and limits our ability to accept and navigate masculine and feminine energies within the individual. Throughout this piece of writing, I discuss concepts using terms such as “men” and “women” – these are generalized, and the reader is reminded that many individuals identify as other, or both, or none. Here with gender, as with “patriarchy”, our language is imprecise and not readily available to all.
This topic might be difficult to consider for some. Take what you can and leave the rest, or come back to it later, but I would be remiss not to bring it up.
In the beginning of a boy’s life, his body is not his own, at least here in America. At only days old, medical providers perform a culturally-specified surgery on the boy’s most intimate parts. What am I talking about? Routine infant circumcision (RIC): a surgery promoted by some as having health benefits, yet these benefits are small, preventable with less invasive measures, and/or are unable to be replicated with subsequent research. Because of the lack of medical benefits, it is a cultural surgery. For some, it might be a religious ceremony; however many requesting it be performed on their sons are not Jewish or Muslim (and these religions have groups moving away from genital cutting with new ceremonies, such as the brit shalom). We are taking away some of their most basic autonomy, cutting our boys without their consent. And yet, we are demanding the men and boys acknowledge consent from their partners before pursuing new intimacies. But, where is their consent? And at their youngest and involving their most vulnerable body parts? I suspect that this is one of the first wounds we inflict on our men, and it is not without harm as any quick google search can inform the reader.
Was that uncomfortable? How quickly did you dismiss those words above? And isn’t that part of the problem, that many readers will have to gloss over this section, and think that our baby boys can just “handle it” or be a “soldier”? The cognitive dissonance is so thick here, you need a head lamp just to catch a line of vision and find your way home.
If this issue is new to you, please educate yourself. I have included some resources below (the text is hyperlinked). The point of this particular blog post is to discuss male healing, not RIC. Maybe I will circle back to this if needed on some future date.
Your Whole Baby (YWB) (so much information here, including links to research as well as information on men speaking out against circumcision, healthcare providers that can help with emotional trauma from circumcision, and foreskin restoration)
The Boy Code and Male Mythology
As the boy grows, he will be influenced by the “boy code”, a term that is typically credited to William Pollack, PhD (Real Boys: Rescuing Our Boys from the Myths of Boyhood). The “boy code” is cultural reinforcements or rules that limit a boy’s access to his WHOLE self but dismissing his emotions and intuition and requiring stoicism, and includes specifics such as “don’t be a girl”, and “act like a man”, be powerful, athletic, and dominant, all of which contribute to a “gender straightjacket”. James A. Doyle (The Male Experience) explains that instead of boys being taught how to act, they are taught how NOT to act – mainly, like their female counterparts, and to not be close to their mother, an relationship of obvious importance, which undermines not only his connection to her, but also future women in his life (some call this the “mother wound”). Further, boys are taught to not display emotional connection or they risk being perceived as vulnerable, weak, and/or gay. As Bell Hooks wrote: “To indoctrinate boys into the rules of patriarchy, we force them to feel pain and to deny their feelings” (Understanding Patriarchy). These experiences create a disconnect between the boy’s inner (emotional) and outer (physical, manifest) world that can cause a variety of individualized signs and symptoms including depression, violence/aggression, substance abuse, and suicide, any of which can contribute to impaired public health and the undoing of our boys and men on a personal and collective level. (Did you know that suicide is one of the most common causes of death for men? More here)
“Patriarchy demands of men that they become and remain emotional cripples. Since it is a system that denies men full access to their freedom of will, it is difficult for any man of any class to rebel against patriarchy” (Bell Hooks, Understanding Patriarchy).
The male mythology is what it means to be a man. This is the boy code, grown up; it is toxic masculinity. It is the trash talking to male peers that devalues women. It is the objectification of male bodies and expectations of specific body standards and shows up as the hyper-sexualization of men (and the appropriation and pornification of female sexuality). Tony Porter explores male mythology, calling it the Man Box, discussing the focus on male success, power, lack of emotion, and control, which contribute to sexual assault and violence against women and other marginalized groups.
For further reading about the boy code and male mythology:
Power Loss & Soul Loss
This loss of connection to his WHOLE self in denying him autonomy, in the severing of his inner world from his outer world via boy code and male mythology, our men are wounded. Our men are unable to access their intuition, inner self, and emotions, other than perhaps fear and rage – the acceptable emotional landscape of men. They have not been properly, lovingly initiated into the rights of boyhood and manhood by way of healed and whole male elders or community; instead relying on guidance from caricatured depictions of what it means to be a man by a patriarchal media and society.
This loss of self is analogous to what shamans have called power loss and soul loss, that is, losing critical parts of oneself that give personal autonomy, power, life, vitality, soul-ful-ness. Power loss and soul loss are spiritual illnesses that can manifest as emotional or physical dis-ease, causing depression, apathy, listlessness, and, according to some, immunological disease. To retrieve power or a soul, the client would need the services of a shaman, who would perform a ritual or ceremony and “journey” via an altered state of consciousness to retrieve the lost parts (i.e. soul retrieval).
I am aware that many of the readers have not heard of soul loss, maybe even a shaman. Why do I bring these up? Because there exists a model to explain the collective trauma and disconnection of our men, here a spiritual reason for the pathology related to the lack of male wholeness. Shamanic illness is an explanation of something that we can’t articulate well; if we have difficulty naming patriarchy, how can we even name something more abstract and ephemeral? Is “it” (woo-woo, juju, shamanism, magick) even true? My short answer would be a question for the reader: does it matter? If something brings healing to a client, the Truth of that technique might not be as significant; healing happened, that was the goal.
What is interesting to note is that there is a ritual involved – as I mentioned before, ritual tends to strengthen medicine (ex. pain medication given with the awareness of patients is more effective than when it is administered without their awareness). Ceremony is a component. In ceremony, community comes together to support an individual during some transition, here a transition to healing (but it could be one related to newly acquired responsibilities, such as ceremony marking the beginning of ‘manhood’ or puberty). Community support and a sense of belonging and love are healing. If healing directly via soul retrieval is difficult to accept, is it possible that the healing experienced is from ritual and ceremony? Dr. Edward Tick explores the issue of soul wounding and loss in men in his book War and the Soul, which specifically examines war-based trauma and PTSD and how community can help reintegrate the warrior into society for his whole health and being.
Are we looking at a collective soul loss of our men? Has the patriarchy caused the deadening or shedding of his WHOLE self? There is poetry, metaphor, analogy, and, possibly, Truth here.
For more information on shamanic practice and soul loss:
Sandra Ingerman (a leader in shamanic practice in the US)
Society for Shamanic Practice (a professional organization)
Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self by Sandra Ingerman
Illusion of separateness and how feminism failed our men
“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Another way we have failed men and each other is through the illusion of separateness. Mystics, Hindus, Buddhists, and shamanic practitioners share a world view that much of the pain experienced by humanity is a direct result of our thinking that we are separate from one another, from the earth, and even from the divine/Source/Mystery. He is me. She is me. Metaphyscial interconnectedness is explained through concepts such as Indra’s net, that is that all individuals and acts are connected and reflected in one another. The sensing and uniting of Shiva and Shakti, the spiritual masculine and feminine energies within a single individual, is the goal in some yogic traditions. We are now recognizing that the separation of male and female as a distinct gender and sex binary is not biologically accurate (ex. Intersex individuals), rather gender exists on a continuum, and the gender binary is seen by some as a form of colonization and domination in order to create “other” (see Jailbreaking the Goddess L.A. Firefox). Energetically, we can sense this interconnectedness, particularly if you are intuitive or an empath, you just “know” what others are thinking and feeling. Studies are showing that one explanation for energetic connectedness between humans is the sharing of electromagnetic fields from the heart (more here). Even big picture, we can no longer deny that we are separate from the earth, as her ecological collapse, warming climate, dis-ease has begun to impact humans (ex. Cape Town is expected to run out of water)
Older versions of feminism were wrong. Men are not the enemy. Outdated and inappropriate patriarchal models of gender norms, yes, but men, no. Bell Hooks refers to this as “separatist ideology”, which ignores the impact and hurt of patriarchy and rigid gender roles on men. We, the other, the females or gender nonbinary, have been complicit in this wounding and undoing just through our participation in a patriarchal society. He is hurting, and he is me.
Intersectional feminism is recognizing how we left men out. How we denied him what he needs the most – access to the emotional, the intuitive, and the relational. The old way of thinking was that women should be just like men. The old way fought gallantly for a place at the men’s table, but we are now realizing that we don’t want what’s being served. The old way of thinking had men up on a horse, high and proud, as a way of being to aspire to; we need to invite him, instead, back to the earth, to the realm of “women”, and put that horse to pasture.
Women are the bridge to reconnect men to the earth, to his full potential, to his whole way of being. But we need to make room for that. We need to create “containers of emergence”, sacred emotional or physical space where he can be vulnerable, try and fail, experience shame, cry, speak secrets, and just breathe. Women, historically, were the healers of the family and community. We held the ancient knowledge of birth, death, and the ethereal, the healing potential of touch, ear, and voice. We are comfortable with community, relationship, voicing emotion, eating secrets and alchemizing them into fire and light, exploring the liminal and magic offered by earth and our existence. Let us allow men this freedom as well, calling them home, and calling them into our arms. We can honor our heritage by healing our husbands and sons, doffing the strict masculine code of conduct, undoing the “gender straightjacket” that we have accepted and participated in maintaining.
It is time to awaken the divine masculine, our WHOLE men, our WILD men.
Solutions and People Doing Work
I am not in any way saying that these bigger social problems will be healed by our men doing yoga or reading poetry. Or that every man should seek out a shaman. I am not that naïve, though, admittedly, I wish it were that easy. But, we need to start the change in our own families. Calling out rigid social constructs that serve no purpose other than to harm. By creating space and time for our men to feel and conduct meaningful self-care. By encouraging mentoring and supportive male relationship. Women have the self-care market mastered; what if men could share?
Further, men need to be responsible for their own work and healing. We women can create spaces of compassion and empathy, but ultimately, they are the ones responsible for doing the emotional and mental labor of true self-care and change. Let us avoid the temptation of the savior complex and the temptation to hasten the work along by doing it for him because ultimately, this is something he has to go alone. This is the true Hero’s Journey. Men need to take themselves to task, take initiative, and get to work.
There is literature to re-establish other narratives to the story of what it means to be a man and connect to these narratives within the male psyche. These include King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette. The book The Mask of Masculinity by Lewis Howes explores the cultural beliefs that surround masculinity in an attempt to heal. Men, like Tony Porter and Jackson Katz, have established businesses to assist men in accessing their WHOLE selves. Men’s groups exist with the intention of expanding what it means to be a man, such as the ManKind Project .
Movements abound on social media to expand the concept of masculinity, including end the stigma of male intimacy, such as #Blackboysembrace. The website The Good Men Project is doing current work on ending toxic masculinity by examining violence, sexuality, and vulnerability among other topics.
“The wound is the place where the light enters you” – Rumi
It is my hope that these ideas are 1) new to the reader and 2) are a starting point or an initiation for change.
Thank you for reading.
**This post is dedicated to my children, who initiated me in the ways of new feminism. Let us be the change**