I’ve written a few times about issues dealing with gender. This began in February 2016, when I reviewed recent research in “A Curious Relationship Between Sex and Mathematics.” I concluded that Mathematics directs evolution down a pathway to sexual reproduction and all that it implies – mating rituals, sex hormones, and pheromones. Sex has a special and privileged role in the universe.
The Science of Sex and Culture
A year later I wrote a longer piece, The Delicate Intricacies of Sex and Gender: Mixing Science and Culture, that pointed out the naturally occurring variations in sex and gender norms at the genetic, epigenetic, physiological and psychological levels. I concluded that cultural ideas and practices that convey approval or disapproval or reinforce inequality on the basis of genetic or physiological variations are discriminatory and unfair. Whether you consider this issue from a scientific or religious perspective, men and women, as well as those who experience sexual identify at variance with those norms, are deserving of equal dignity and respect.
When Culture has Gone Wrong
In October, we saw the beginning of a cascade of revelations and accusations about male sexual abuse, triggered by the New York Times report on sexual assaults by Harvey Weinstein and the extraordinary intimidation he and his colleagues used to enforce silence. From this watershed moment in US cultural history, an international movement began that has empowered women to speak out, and opened a collective dialogue about unacceptable sexual attitudes and behaviors. Millions of women responded #METOO to the Weinstein scandal, exposing decades of sexual abuse and coercion.
The response of many of those accused has been to deny the accusation, while others have appealed to prevalent cultural norms, in effect repeating a trope that first appeared some 500 years ago “boys will be boys.” Those cultural norms do not meet the standard of assuring equal dignity and respect. They should be confronted and changed. I believe it is appropriate for everyone, and particularly for men, to stand up in response to #METOO and support efforts to reform the abusive and discriminatory cultural behaviors that have been exposed.
I first commented on Facebook to a very thoughtful private post by one of my nephews about #METOO. On November 17, I gave a longer response to a public post “As a Mother of Sons” on Medium. The following is an elaboration on that response.
As The Father of Two Sons
I am the father of two sons, who are now fathers of three sons. I am also the stepfather of two sons and a daughter. Their children include two boys and a girl. I have a particularly strong interest in the issue of cultural masculinity. My divorce was concluded when my sons were 9 and 6. My goal of being an involved father led to a lot of reading and thinking on the issues of raising boys to men.
Many years later, when my sons married and approached fatherhood, I re-engaged with the literature. I identified two books that I believe capture the best thinking on the question of how to raise boys into good men. The first is Michael Gurian’s The Purpose of Boys, one of a long series of books he has written on raising and educating boys; and Michael Thompson’s It’s a Boy. The book Guyland by Michael Kimmel is an excellent and terrifying read, a good motivator, but I find he offers no good solutions to the serious problems of the Guyland culture he identifies.
Here are some key thoughts: Boys (and men) are VERY different from girls (and women) at a biological and sociological level. This leads to very different acculturation pathways and potentials. The whole process of growing up involves highly complex and intersecting biological, psychological and cultural influences, and our understanding of this process is very limited. Our own cultural constructs often get in the way. For example, I once believed the common view from the sixties that boys and girls were born essentially the same and that acculturation then created the observed normative differences. My own experiences with young children revealed otherwise. Recent research, some of which is summarized in the books I cited earlier, confirms my experience – boys and girls are different. Research also confirms that efforts to impose cultural norms inconsistent with an individual’s biological and psychological reality can be incredibly harmful. Nurture needs to work with, and not against, nature.
The Male Hierarchy
Boys, and men, generally, are exquisitely tuned to the intricacies of male hierarchy, the pecking order. These are the questions that guide male behavior: Who is the best, who is the leader, who is the coolest, who is the smartest. Also: who is the least, the loser, the misfit. Then there are the questions of how to get ahead, to advance, to progress AND to find protection and support from those above in the hierarchy. This male sensitivity to these questions is baked into many mammalian species and especially primates — and it is integral to male socialization from the very beginning of the species as well as the beginning of each new male life.
The pre-occupation among males with hierarchy raises a number of key issues. Vulnerability is perceived as a weakness and potentially lowers your standing. Hence the tendency among boys and men for stoicism, denial of pain, toughness, and competitiveness. These can be virtues when the tribe is facing a common enemy. But they can be disastrous when misapplied, or sublimated into certain cultural rituals, like, for example, daredevil displays, contact sports, conspicuous career success or sexual conquest.
Clearly then, fathers and mature male mentors are critical to the acculturation of young men. But how do you provide a healthy male hierarchy in circumstances, such as a household of a single Mom, where supportive male role models are largely absent?
Gurian offers some thoughts about how to build an affirming and positive culture for boys and young men that is geared specifically to their needs — but these ideas seem remarkably infeasible and naive in today’s world. I was very lucky that in raising my boys I was able to stay in contact with their home community after my divorce and my later remarriage. The community had a small but sturdy scouting program. Scouting is run almost entirely by adult volunteers (with all the problems that creates) and does not work in all communities — but what the program offers is a very specific curriculum teaching skills, virtues, leadership and citizenship in tiny, incremental advancements, in a setting (outdoors, camping, sports, fun) that appeals to most boys. It also relies on male (and female — but the male involvement is critical) mentors and role models. When it works, there is nothing else like it that I’m aware of, in modern American society.
Being a Man
I was fortunate to grow up in the “not cool” crowd — and learned some compassion and humility as a result. I was far enough from the social mainstream that I experienced the pressures of conforming to prevailing male cultural norms of sexual aggression and conquest less acutely than most. I still remember the High School football star bragging about “scoring” — and then getting his girlfriend pregnant his Senior Year.
But, yes, testosterone and ego are also an issue for me, and for almost all men. Thankfully, I was raised in a family with positive male influences and a supportive moral framework. I can look back at key moments in my life when women were vulnerable and I did not take advantage and feel the rightness of those moments. I’ve also been subject to unwelcome advances — although I never felt threatened, I learned about the intense discomfort of being objectified. (#METOO!)
These experiences and the discipline of being a parent, along with the reading I’ve done, have given me a profound appreciation for the plight of the victims of male abuse and aggression. Today, I feel rage, and deep sense of shame, at the terribly dehumanizing, disrespectful and demeaning things many men have perpetrated on women, and on others who were vulnerable. I know have not always “stood up” with courage and conviction the way I should have. I resolve to do better. This does not mean rising in anger and vengeance. That is simply an over-masculinized response. Rather, it means calling upon our innate sense of fairness and rightness to find the courage and the wisdom necessary to protect the innocent, to confront the aggressors and to expose and change the culture that enables the abuse.
The job of raising boys, while requiring the support of mothers and women, belongs principally to fathers and men. We have the primary responsibility of serving as role models, mentors and leaders in the male cultural hierarchy. We need to teach boys and young men how to be good men, and how to be respectful, courteous and loving to women.
We need to stand up and do a better job. We need to answer #METOO.