Wednesday, November 28, 2012

On masculinity

(Originally posted by Pat on 7/21/10)

Human gender is bafflingly complicated. There are many times in my life in which I have been tempted to give up on the concept entirely, to say that there is no such thing as "masculinity" or "femininity", only male and female biology and then a series of psychological traits that happen to be more or less correlated with that biology. There is no "manly" or "womanly", only a mass of penises and vaginas, and minds that happen to be attached to them.
But then, what to do with the fact that most of us live our lives more or less enslaved by a search for secure gender identity? What can I make of the fact that a substantial part of my physical and emotional energy has been expended trying to make myself be (or at least seem) more "masculine"? If there is no gender, why are there trans people? Is transsexuality nothing more than an attempt to modify the body to conform to arbitrary gender norms?
What I have come to realize is that even if gender is ultimately the social-psychological impact of biological dimorphism, it is nonetheless a real phenomenon. The correlations may not be perfect, but they are strong enough to be important in our lives. And so it is with this in mind that I reflect upon what masculinity is and what it means for my life.
The fact is, humans are sexually dimorphic. Not radically dimorphic---not honeybees or blanket octopus---but dimorphic nonetheless. We have well-defined sexes, and there are significant differences in physiology and behavior between them. Indeed, what I have come to realize---but resisted realizing for a long time---is that differences in physiology entail differences in behavior. The fact that men are bigger and stronger than women really does affect the way it makes sense for men and women to live.
Indeed, even the mere fact that we have different sex organs influences the sort of beings we are. My boyfriend first pointed this out to me, and in retrospect it's the sort of brilliant idea that seems stupidly obvious in retrospect: There is a very profound difference between an insertive, convex sexuality and a receptive, concave sexuality. To some extent everyone has both, of course; but I definitely have a much more convex gender, and he has a much more concave gender. (This raises two realizations: 1, it can't be all about anatomy, and 2, if he and I weren't as we are, we probably wouldn't be compatible!) It's strange, but to some extent the mere fact that I am most aroused by sticking something into someone rather than having something stuck into me changes the sort of person I am. It makes me inherently more assertive, more ego-driven, perhaps even more dominant. There is something inherently asymmetric about the act of penetration, and we'd ignore this fact at our own peril.
The hardest fact about gender that I have had to come to grips with is the fact that aggression is an essentially masculine trait. This is something I am incredibly uncomfortable with; it is frankly terrifying to me that violence is manly. But the correlation is undeniable: roughly 90% of murders, 99% of rapes, 99% of wars, and 100% of genocides have been orchestrated by men. The biological reason for this is clear enough: Human males have androgenic hormones (testosterone, DHT, etc.) that increase our size, muscle mass, and yes, aggression.
This is not to say that all men are aggressive, nor that women never are; but the correlation is too strong to ignore. It isn't just a cultural pressure or a stereotype; it is a fact, a fact that has consistently held in all human cultures for all of recorded history.
Hence, the greatest problem with human society---that we are so very tribal and aggressive---is almost entirely due to an excess of masculine behavior. If Homo sapiens were a little more feminine, things would be a lot better. And realizing this knowing that I am a man, moderately masculine, who has long sought to be even more masculine than I am---that is terrifying.
On the other hand, aggression is not inherently bad. Aggression can be used for good, and often is. Soldiers and police officers are aggressive, and are widely held in high esteem---this is because they utilize a controlled, targeted form of aggression that, at least in principle, makes the world better rather than worse. It's hard to argue that Jeffrey Dahmer shouldn't have been imprisoned (in fact, it's hard to argue that it was right not to execute him!). It's hard to argue that the United States Marines shouldn't have stormed the beaches of Normandy. This is aggression---and conducted entirely by men, I might add---but it was clearly good aggression, violence used to defend the innocent against worse violence. So maybe the right way to reclaim masculinity is to tame it, to control male aggression and harness it for greater ends.
The second thing about gender that has been difficult for me to accept is that I am about 75% masculine. I have sought to be either 50%---completely androgynous, so I could pretend that gender meant nothing to me---or else 100%---so that I could be secure in my status as a masculine man. Instead I am about 75%, masculine enough for neither true androgyny nor total masculinity to be an option for me. I am forced to deal with the fact that I am mostly a man, but not entirely---and not as much as some people I know and many I have seen.
My own gender identity is really quite strange, and perhaps others have similar strangeness, but I am not exposed to theirs, only my own. I can't arm-wrestle at all, but to look at my chest you would never mistake it for anything but a man's. (My bench press is a pathetic 80 pounds, but I'm working on it.) I like sci-fi action films, but I also like deep, intellectual dramas. I'd wear a kilt, but never a dress. I like clothing that is pink or orange---but I hate clothing that is frilly or covered with flowers. I am extremely talented in science and math, which is generally viewed as masculine---but I can't stand sports, either watching or playing, and have no skill at them, which makes me officially a "pussy". I like my hair long, but really feminine hairstyles (like pigtails) would be highly aversive to me. I am extremely aggressive in argumentation---I almost never lose an argument, though in fact I'm also almost always right---but hardly aggressive at all in terms of actual physical violence. I will tear your argument into tiny little pieces, but if you tripped and scraped your knee I'd help you up, even if I hated you. I like guns, jets and tanks, and know more about military hardware than any of my friends except the one who actually is in the military, but I have never actually fired a gun. I would eagerly enlist for the United Nations peacekeeping force, but I've never had any more than a fleeting interest in the US military that I could actually join (if DADT were repealed or I lied about my sexual orientation of course). (In case you were wondering, the UN peacekeepers are appointed by their national militaries, so there is some chance that I could join the US Army and get deployed to the UN---but it's too small to base decisions on. The US deploys fewer UN peacekeepers per capita than almost any other nation, despite having one of the largest standing armies in the world.) I have great love and compassion toward animals and small children.
One of the most difficult struggles in my gender identity has been the fact that I am not very talented or well-endowed sexually. I am average physically, and my lack of skill is not abnormal for a man of my inexperience---but one of the few things about masculinity that I really do care about is being able to please my lover, and so far I don't have a very good track record of that. I understand what I'm supposed to do in theory (detailed theory---how many men could tell you where your perineum or your vestibular bulbs are?), and I'm always an affectionate and sensitive lover, but I just don't have much skill and experience in that department, and it shows. Maybe it's silly, but when sex doesn't go well, I generally feel emasculated in a way that I never feel any other time. (This occurs with both sexes, though I think I'm better with male bodies than female bodies. It's a little weird when you think about it: Being unable to satisfy a man sexually makes me feel feminine?) This in turn is not good for my depression. (On the other hand when sex goes well, it's the strongest antidepressant I have yet encountered, which makes frankly perfect sense in terms of evolutionary psychology.)
So what does this mean for masculinity? I guess the best I can say is it's complicated. That's not a very satisfying answer---it never is---but at my present state of knowledge, it may be the best we can do. I don't think most people have given gender nearly enough reflection, and I know the scientific community hasn't done nearly enough to study it carefully. Most scientists are still stuck in a concept of gender that is either "gender is a social construction" or "human psychology is just glorified ape psychology, sex dimorphism and all". Both of these are clearly wrong---gender is real, and our biological history does have a great deal to do with it, but on the other hand there is a very complex interaction of biology with society that we would be fools to neglect. Every society has something it means to be "masculine"---and aggression is almost always part of this---but every society also has different meanings of "masculine", and this means we may be able to change what "masculine" means to us as well. In this way, gender is a lot like language, technology, clothing, and many other features of human life; it is in our nature to have them, but it is our nurture that decides their precise character.
We might be able to construct a society where rape is no longer seen as masculine, because it is a cowardly and selfish abuse of maleness rather than a courageous harnessing of male power. We might be able to separate different kinds of war, finding defensive war masculine and offensive war not masculine but subhuman. We might be able to learn to better tolerate deviations from our gender norms, deviations that could in fact help us to improve our lives and expand our identities.
But to do that, we will first need to admit that we are not inventing gender from thin air, but molding a sculpture upon the very real substrate of our biology.

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