While bent over locking up my bike in Chicago a few years ago, I heard the all-too-familiar sound of a wolf whistle. I turned around to get a look at the jerks accosting some woman on the street, only to realize I was the one who was being cat called. A man passing by from behind had seen my long curly hair and tight jeans and mistaken me for a woman. When I turned around to face him, he was shocked and started apologizing profusely. In so many words, he was saying: ”This is an unacceptable way to behave toward a man.” And we both knew, if I were a woman, there would be no apology.
This is the double standard at the heart of masculinity: Men are taught to regularly say and do things to women that they would never say or do to other men, that they would never want men to say or do to them. That is not due to some timeless “male libido” driving their behavior. It’s because masculinity is founded on the myth that men alone are rights-bearing persons and women are subordinate, passive, second-class beings who either need the protection of or deserve to be subjected to men.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, however, writer Stephen Marche uses some outdated Freudian ideas about sexuality and gender and the recent explosion of allegations of sexual misconduct to argue that male sexual desire is inherently brutal and oppressive. Thus, there’s no use, as Marche puts it, in “pretending to be something else, some fiction you would prefer to be.” So, feminist ideas are practically useless. The only fruitful thing men can do to respect women as equals is repress their natural urges.
In truth, the very problem with masculinity Marche describes in his op-ed is too much repression: The rules governing masculinity require men to be stoic, to repress virtually all of their emotions (except anger). This leads many men to severely underdevelop their own ability to analyze and communicate about their own feelings. Our culture, not men’s nature, has enforced this emotional repression.
Indeed, every man can think of at least one experience where he was punished for failing—whether intentionally or accidentally—to obey the dictates of these masculine rules. I remember a playground game where my friends and I would re-enact scenes from Disney films. I volunteered myself for the role of Ariel from the Little Mermaid. She was the protagonist and, it seemed to me, the best character to be. My peers bullied and teased me for this failure to obey the rules of compulsory masculinity for weeks afterward, and “Ariel” became a standard go-to insult in arguments.
This policing of masculinity is the reason why the vast majority of fist fights I’ve witnessed between men were preceded by trash talk in which the men called each other “little bitches” or “pussies.” The worst thing a man could be accused of being is feminine, since femininity is, in contrast, just another word for weak, passive, and fit to be dominated by other men. (This kind of masculinity is not just responsible for misogyny then, but for homophobia and transphobia too.)
This is the kind of masculinity that also teaches men they don’t have to ask permission to act on their sexual desires. They’re supposed to take charge and have no reason to respect women’s autonomy. This is what feminists mean when they say sexual harassment and assault are about power, not desire. It’s our culture, not our libidos, that shapes the way men act upon otherwise healthy, run-of-the-mill sexual desires. In itself, there is nothing inherently brutal in a man who is sexually attracted to a woman he works with—no more than there would be if a woman desires a man she works with.
But there is a difference between discreetly (or silently) deriving pleasure from someone’s presence, on the one hand, and imposing one’s desires on that person, especially if they’re unreturned or unwanted. The difference here, as the feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky puts it, is the difference between healthy eroticism and rituals rooted in toxic ideas about masculinity.
If a man wants to act on his attraction, or sexual urges? Here, communication, the very thing modern notions of masculinity train us away from, is key. Genuine communication is a two-way street; it presupposes that both participants have an equal right to withdraw from the interaction or decline an offer. Men already understand this to some extent, because this is how men typically behave in interactions with other men.
So, relating to women as equals, as genuine peers, doesn’t necessarily require repressing desire. Instead, it requires coming to terms with the fact that masculinity trains men to have great difficulty recognizing women—or, indeed, anyone that presents as feminine—as persons, as agents, as authoritative and worthy of respect, and then making an effort to see and treat them that way.
In 1945 only 24 percent of Americans thought women should be allowed to hold jobs outside the home. In that same year, 25 percent of Americans thought there were often good reasons to pay men and women different amounts for doing the same kind of work. But by 1993 that number had dropped to 13 percent—and women’s workforce participation rate had doubled.
In 1987, 30 percent of Americans said they agreed that “women should return to their traditional social role of remaining in the home.” In 2012, by contrast, only 18 percent said this. Thus, it’s no surprise that in the past 20 years, the number of dads who stay home with children has dramatically increased and men in general are spending significantly more time parenting their children. Masculinity and femininity are changing quickly, and both men and women are the better for it.
Instead of calling for repression, we should stop punishing children and adults for failing to obey the unhealthy dictates of masculinity—men need less repression, not more. That this would make for a less violent, sexist (and transphobic) world is reason enough to see it as a worthy goal. But, so, too would it free men from a great deal of anxiety, self-hatred, pain, and loneliness.
A few years before my own experience with a catcall, I saw a young woman walking down a Chicago street with a milkshake in hand. A man watching her pass by shouted, “Titties!” at her. Without skipping a beat, she turned around, threw her milkshake at him, and continued on her way. Those of us on the street chuckled in admiration as the man stood dripping from head to toe with chocolate milkshake.
Was this a man overcome by brutal sexual desires he needed to better repress? I don’t think so. This was a man who needed a wake-up call that the woman he was shouting at was a person, not an object for him to dominate. Maybe the #MeToo moment will be just that for a lot of men, and we should consider ourselves lucky not to get our wake-up call served up so icy cold.