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By Bruce Fleming


The Montréal Review, May 2018


Masculinity by Andrew Salgado (www.andrewsalgado.com)


Most Murderers Have Two Arms

            The recent wave of accusations of sexual harassment against celebrities, almost all of them male, seems to prove what the US military’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program presupposes, as well as the long-term misapplication of Title IX in the United States to encourage women in colleges to make complaints of sexual harassment and assault against men. (This has been recently revised by the US Department of Education to be less Draconian.) Namely that men, as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon preached, really are potential rapists. And the #MeToo movement, where women speak up to tell their stories of harassment, clinches the deal: beware of men. It’s men who do the harassing and the raping.

            That’s true. It’s almost always men who harass women and not the reverse. The US Navy—I’m in year 31 as a civilian professor at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, and take mandatory training every year in sexual harassment prevention--has recently tried to generalize the problem, claiming that more men are harassed in the military than women. This is because women are only about 15% of the US military. And who is accused of harassing the men? No surprise: other men. And harassment according to the UCMJ, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (remember the adage that “military justice is to justice as military music is to music”) includes making fun of other men, creating what the military calls a “hostile work environment.” This may not be fun, but calling people names (maggot, dirtbag, and yes, derogatory racial and sexual epithets) is part of classic military behavior. You want to change that? Fine. But keep in mind it may be less sexual than merely military, just the way that when people say something “sucks” they almost never think about what is being sucked.

            All of us want women to be able to do their jobs without the men in power demanding sexual favors in exchange. But the training the current age has unleashed is largely ineffective because it attacks men as a group rather than isolating the specific behavior we want eliminated. What we want eliminated is a form of abuse of power. So we need to call it that. As it is, men tune out reformers when they imply that all men are potential aggressors.

            The logic of the acolytes of Dworkin and MacKinnon is precisely that: almost all harassment and assaults are committed by men, so all men are potential assailants. This is what we call in philosophy (I was an undergraduate philosophy major) a false converse, similar to this: almost all murders are committed by people with two arms, so anybody with two arms is a potential murderer and must be regarded with suspicion. We push back against logic like this: much crime against African-Americans is committed by African-Americans, so all African-Americans are potential criminals against other African-Americans. Why has this logic, when applied to men, become so fashionable?

            The answer is that men, unlike advocates for African-Americans denouncing racist stereotypes, don’t push back against anti-male sexist stereotypes. Why bother? To us it seems ridiculous, because all but a few men are upstanding citizens who don’t assault women, or anybody else, just as all but a few people aren’t murderers. But check out the columns of major North American newspapers for editorials that in fact suggest that men as a group are prone to harass and assault and can only be contained by more legal actions. Men in fact are beasts.

            It’s difficult for men to claim the position of victim, because according to current views, we’re the ones who victimize, not to mention harass and assault. Besides, men don’t like to achieve strength by asserting powerlessness, the basis of the shrill “I’m the biggest victim” push of our time. It’s quite true that men typically like power. And we won’t stay around to argue if someone attacks us for being big and strong. We know we’re not that big or that strong, and most of us stay in our lanes most of the time. But if somebody says we’re “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”—as Lady Caroline Lamb said of the poet and libertine Lord Byron—it’s simultaneously wrong and kind of flattering.

            Why is this wrong? Because all this “men are potential rapists” stuff is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how men operate. Because we’re being told we’re guilty for being men, we’re not about to stick around and explain nicely how, in fact, men operate. Especially so because we’re then probably going to be accused of “mansplaining,” and maybe even “manspreading” as well.

            So let’s try it again, false converses aside. How does male sexuality work? I have had to articulate all this because I’m male and though now married, have interacted (euphemism) with my share of women. Besides, I write books, have read Kinsey and everybody else, and have two teen-aged sons. More to the point, I’ve spent more than three decades mentoring a largely male student body at USNA (when I started, 85% male), most of whom were attracted to the military precisely because of the lure it held out of being a refuge in a feminized world, a refuge where men could be men.

            Did that last bit cause your hackles to rise? If so you’re part of the problem. If making the military safe for women to be women is a good thing, making the military a safe place for men to be men ought to be equally good. No? Men together multiply the grossness of being male, and always go wrong? There you go again: it’s intrinsically the fault of men. Besides, if this is true, it shouldn’t be a cause for celebration, because if that’s who we are, that’s who we are. Trying to change us would be like trying to get a dog to hold a cup of tea with pinkie raised and make polite conversation.

            The good news is, it isn’t. The idea that men are intrinsically bad is of course an outsider’s viewpoint, one that comes from feminist over-reach, and that unfortunately has become codified into institutional mismanagement of individual transgressions as being intrinsically male.

            That’s the tone of the US Navy’s mandatory SAPR training; my male students tell me its bottom line for them is that they are all rapists that have to be held back by force. All of the how-not-to scenarios in the videos are of attacking men and helpless women; recently the women are held to be so helpless that the Navy has been recommending so-called third-party intervention, where a friend of the “victim,” as she is always called –not the “alleged victim”—she’s always right—is supposed to save her before the fact, and indeed before anybody has an inkling there is going to be a problem. Huh? (Keep in mind that a “victim” assumes a “perpetrator,” and whether or not there was assault is precisely what subsequent litigation is trying to find out.)

            So the good news is that this view of men as potential assailants who have to be restrained by ever more complaints, ever more punishments, and ever more lectures making it clear to them what horrible mis-formed creatures they are, is simply wrong. That’s not how men operate at all. And the further good news is that we don’t have to target the proclivities of an entire sex, er, gender, to solve the problem—an undertaking that certainly will not work anyway. Instead, we only have to target a very small percentage of cases in very predictable circumstances. And the even better news is that if we target small rather than large, we can probably get men to listen, as they will not if the attack is general, an attack on their maleness.

            Kindergarten teachers make a distinction between inside and outside voices, and make it clear that one is appropriate indoors, and the other outdoors. They don’t say “never yell,” because that isn’t healthy and it won’t work anyway. Now we say to men: women don’t want you to come on to them and we’re going to punish you if you do.

            The reason this won’t work is that coming on to (some) women (sometimes) is the very definition of most straight men’s essence—and those trying to defend women from men are talking about straight men. And men know it’s not true that no women at all want us (as a group: maybe not me, or her, but generally) to come on to them. So when are we to use our outside voice (coming on to women) and when our inside (not doing so)? Oh, that’s different. That’s a specific issue. But that’s not how the problem is approached nowadays.

            Here’s some good news. Men have a very good idea of when to use their inside voice, usually. That means: most men most of the time are very good at self-policing. We’re actually socialized beings, not just drunken kids who spill beer all over ourselves, scratch our testicles in public, and reach out to cop a feel on random women. So it’s insulting to say that we know no boundaries and have to be policed from the get-go.

            Male desire is situational, not (as Kinsey thought) the result of a certain setting on the individual man’s sexual gears, or related to the sex (gender) of the object. A woman can be desirable to others, but if she’s our daughter or mother, we’d be repulsed by the notion of feeling desire ourselves. Similarly situated in what I call the no-fly zone are, typically, married women, female colleagues, or (if the man is married) almost all other women. As we say when admiring a passing attractive female: I’m married, I’m not dead. And everybody goes to the movies to see “legal” hotness—legal because by definition we can’t act on it.

            If this isn’t self-policing, I don’t know what is. This is good news.

            So when do men go wrong? Usually it’s when many of the situational givens that define the no-fly zone are removed. If all of a sudden you’re not married, when before you were, the world of available females opens up. If you’re no longer working with a female colleague, or taking a class with a female professor, and you run into her on the street, can you chat and express interest? Of course. If you’re too young or too old for her, that acts as another set of situational brakes.

            What is the ideal situation? Young unmarried men and women who have come to a specific place in alluring clothes with the idea that they might hook up. This is largely a do-fly rather than a no-fly zone: nobody is married (or not supposed to be), nobody was forced to come, everybody looks hot, everybody is there for a good time. A dance club—or a frat party, where all these college men go wrong!

            But this is where the men-are-rapists people pounce. Are you telling me that anything goes even if she says no???? Of course not. In an individual case you still have to talk and question, read signals and hear “yes” or get very clear body language that means “yes.” The mistake of young horny men thinking tonight’s the night is to assume that because the major definers of a no-fly zone are down, that each individual case is a do-fly, so that they are too forceful in an individual case. We can talk to them about this, but we have to start by saying that it’s ok to come on to women if there’s no clear reason why not and it seems the women themselves are in a situation suggesting potential assent. Potential assent—the last hurdle is the hardest. No, the short skirt doesn’t mean she wants to be raped. It needn’t even mean she want you, or wants you tonight. But it is part of a situation that indicates a potential do-fly zone, in a way that a woman eating dinner with her family or sitting at a classical music concert does not.

            What about the Weinstein situation, or drill sergeants in the military who make sexual favors from women a condition of employment or advancement? That’s an abuse of power and has to be targeted as such. It’s not a quality of men. We have to talk to men about the appropriate times to come on to women, how to read their signals, when to proceed, and when to back off. And it’s rare when you hear “please kiss me.” Any chance of some understanding of the male situation of having to read signals as best we can?

            That is teachable, and targeting that is a goal that can to a large degree be achieved. Getting men to stop being men, or attacking them because they aren’t women, by contrast, can never be achieved. We’re alienating men by trying.  Our current blame-the-men world is going in the wrong direction. Men see themselves as independent agents (wrongly, according to current theory—but if women have the right to their own perception of themselves, so do men), and so need to be encouraged to self-police, which means have their testosterone channeled by other men they respect who do understand them.

How to Talk to And about Men

            The theoretical push of our times on this subject emanating from the academic world is to deny the fundamental belief of most men that being a man is different both from being a woman, and from being male: masculinity is something biological males seek to achieve. Males seek to become men—and that’s not the same as being a woman.

            At least that’s what we men typically think. Our self-image may be wrong in particulars (anybody can get particular facts wrong about him- or herself) but the whole project can’t be misguided. Or at least if others say it is, we won’t listen. This is what we know about ourselves: no good can come of wholesale denying of its validity.

            The air waves and the emitters of current theoretical talk about maleness are owned by people who use vocabulary and presuppositions developed to express the perspective of marginalized groups rather than that of  (straight) masculinity. This is taken as the contrast definer to their own position, its existence assumed and its presuppositions unarticulated. For the non-marginalized, being non-marginalized is not something they think about too much: they have their own problems. Of course they can be sensitized to the plight of those who are marginalized. But this can’t happen if the marginalized attack those whose sympathy they want to enlist for being what they are.

            And just for the record, “marginalized”—a term I use because it’s the term we use these days—implies a process of pushing away from the center. In other words, the less powerful are less powerful because the powerful made them so. And this can’t be presupposed. What about a striver group, say immigrants, working their way up? They may be marginal with respect to the position they want to achieve (a situation those now at the center of things may well once have been in), but they aren’t marginalized, at most just marginal. Worse, the choice of words has already made a value judgment: the margin is where the text isn’t, so being in the margin means a qualitatively different position than being in the text. It’s completely excluded. And for many groups, this isn’t how they see things: for them, they may well have less power and less money than those they would like to become. But the situation is a continuous scale, a climb up the same ladder. It’s not an absolute contrast, and it’s not something those higher up did to those lower down. You think men sit around thinking of ways to keep women down? Most of us don’t, despite the convictions of outsider extremists.

            The moral fervor of those who see themselves as marginalized by straight white men is thus a problem. Everyone has the right to better him- or herself, but it’s unwise to do so by attacking the goose that laid the golden eggs, all those lovely things outsiders want for themselves. It also shows lack of perspective. Women only make 77 cents on a male dollar in the USA? This figure has been discredited—it doesn’t compare women and men in the same jobs, and doesn’t take account of the fact that many women choose to work part time. Still, if it’s a problem, figure out why and address it--absolutely. But don’t assume that men set things up to deprive women: until recently it was largely only the men earning salaries at all (exceptions made, as in Ibsen’s “A Doll House,” for widows and unmarried women: my grandmother quit her job as a one-room schoolhouse teacher in Somerset County Maryland USA the day she married). Why not celebrate the 77 cents before focusing on a postulated goal of absolute parity?

            Besides, some perspective would be nice. Nobody who feels him- or herself marginalized in North America has it as bad as the truly unfortunate of the Earth. Women in North America may earn less than the average man, but they are comparing their earnings to the highest category of earner, Western men—not, say, with the earnings of women in Rwanda, where I lived and taught for two years. Indeed being in North America at all is such a huge advantage that pay disparities between men and women shrink in importance by comparison. I left Rwanda simply by getting on the Air France with my American passport three years before the killings started. Some of those dead included a lovely Quebecoise whom I knew because she worked at the US Embassy, married to a local Tutsi restaurant owner, and their two bi-racial children: all were slaughtered. German friends who were still there in 1990 were rescued by Belgian paratroopers in tanks. And the Rwandans? They stayed to face the horror. Many of my Rwandan colleagues were killed.

            Why them and not me? Is this fair? No.  North American women have it better than women, and also men, in Rwanda. Women in Rwanda largely tend babies and hoe in the potato fields with the babies in colorful wrappers sleeping on their backs, and so merely grow food to eat: no salary in our sense at all. And Rwanda is one of the poorest countries on Earth. People in the West who feel themselves disprivileged have every right to try and better their situation within their context—and everybody wants to get what the best-performing group is getting. But they already are among the most privileged of the Earth: they should lose the indignation and moral fervor against the highest performing group they would like to draw abreast of that marks our contentious times.

            Because formerly silent groups achieve their goals with verbalization, the academic and intellectual air waves are now full of the self-presentation of striver groups. Those are the only groups anybody hears from, and their vocabulary fills our ears. An outsider would think as a result that it was these groups that see themselves as marginalized that had the actual power, and that there was no center. This is so because the state they see themselves as striving for, inhabited by people they usually see themselves as striving against, is silent. Men, for example, still hold most of the power in our world, but you wouldn’t know that to keep a log of chatter traffic, which is monopolized by others.

            To the extent that the fact that men occupy many positions of power is articulated, it is to deplore this fact. Indeed one solution proposed to the Harvey Weinstein problem is to make sure that men no longer have any power. When women run everything, harassment—we hear—will stop. Problem solved.

            Or we postulate absolute gender parity as the only morally acceptable state, and then criticize the extent to which our world fails to achieve this. That’s the intellectual move popularized by John Rawls in his Theory of Justice, that holds that any departure from absolute equality of birth situation (wealth, country, nature of parental unit, geography) is intrinsically unjust, because unfair. Why not rather start from reality and acknowledge history, which also counts? What if we say: a mere century or so ago, almost 100% of such jobs were held by men? Look at the progress we’ve made in opening them to women! But that’s not what we say. We say it’s terrible that there are more men doing them than women.

            Besides, we don’t even know what would satisfy us. Only 49% of all jobs may be held by men? Prestigious ones only? What if there are some jobs women or men as groups want to do rather than others? Will we force things to achieve parity? What if in our society (say China as a result of its preference for male children under its one-child policy) doesn’t have the 49-51% sex/gender division of the world as a whole? What numbers do we adopt then? And this: how do we decide what jobs are comparable? Do two jobs of lesser prestige (how determined?) equal one job running a movie studio?

            Words like “marginalized” are examples of the current vogue for what I call linguistic over-reach, where concepts invented by a minority to mirror their view of the world are the only words available to talk about the situation. They’re the ones most interested in talking, after all, so they invent concepts congenial to their world-view. The center, here men, that know these to be incorrect, simply refuse to use them or roll their eyes at what is usually called “political correctness”—having to say, rather than do, the acceptable thing. Words are out of sync with reality because words are owned by vocal minorities who want to re-organize the rubrics of the world.  The movement of our times is thus linguistically centrifugal. However this means that words don’t describe reality, only the view of reality from the outside. Thus we live in a world whose intellectual world is out of sync with its reality.

            The result is that a generation of males is growing up hearing that men “objectivize” women and that any sexual approach can become “harassment” if the woman changes her mind after the fact or fails to say “no.” Our definition of being a man is apparently only negative, the extent to which we make life miserable for women. How about a definition of men as men, without reference to other groups? Believe it or not, men do not define themselves most primarily through their relationships with women, nor do straight men with respect to non-straight. We see being men as something that is contrasted to being merely male: we want boys to become men. But we can no longer say what this is, because our only vocabulary for talking about men is with respect to the harm they inflict on women

            The lack of a shared societal vocabulary for how to become a man is the biggest problem for young men today, because their greatest goal is never acknowledged. Men disengage, taking their wounds to the locker room and the playing field—certainly not to academia or the opinion columns of The New York Times. This has become clear to me over more than three decades dealing with thousands of young men at Annapolis looking for positive role models (which are few, because even the military now uses the vocabulary of feminist extremists to talk about manhood), and looking for a positive view shared by society as a whole about how mere biological males can become men. All they hear now is what’s wrong with men. Our only definition is through the harm we cause others. We may in fact do this, but that’s not how manhood seems to us—and our goal of becoming men would remain the same in a world without any of those others at all. Becoming a man is not defined by relations with women. We still have to go kill the dragon, even if there is no princess being held captive. 

            The current generation of young men thus lacks a societal acknowledgment of its great goal: to become adult men. (And don’t we all want males to become men? Or should we just euthanize male babies?) The Victorian era had such a sense, apparently: its most concise expression is the once-popular poem “If—”  by an author that several generations have been taught to see only as an apologist for empire and colonialism, the inventor of the phrase “the white man’s burden,” Rudyard Kipling. (The Indian scholar Sudhakar Marathé, by contrast, argues, in his introduction to his Penguin India selection of Kipling’s short stories, that Kipling was at heart an Indian.)  For many readers, the final line, addressed to the narrator’s son, that sums up the list of conditional clauses of which the poem is composed and announces that if he achieves these things he’ll “be a Man,” reeks of exclusion. That’s not the way it seems to young men. We can’t help being what we are: now show us how to become better! You have problems? So do we!

            Nor is this poem about putting others down. It’s clear that this being a man business isn’t a walk in the park, carousing and eating prawns and oysters and expensive hot-house grapes while the starving masses peer in at the windows. Indeed, the lot of someone who would be a man in this poem seems largely negative, being lied about and hated (even when he’s right), having to treat both triumph and disaster as imposters (you don’t even get to celebrate when things go your way), you have to understand why others would doubt you rather than dismissing them, deal with waiting and with being blamed, keep calm when no one else is doing so. Why would anybody do this? We can disapprove of anyone even wanting to be a Man, but at least we have to acknowledge that it’s built on self-sacrifice and denial of pleasure to the self. We can argue against it, however we’re unwise to mock it. And it has nothing to do with denying things to others, as the current academic cant has it.

            The ideal of bettering the world through sacrifice of the self is still at the core of how males see their quest to achieve manhood. Only now it’s largely met with skepticism (men really want to achieve power for themselves) or even derision (their power is based on denying it to others). The result is that nobody talks about what males think they have to do to become men. And thus many go astray, or have a much harder trek than  they are going to have anyway—at least according to Kipling, writing at what current theory usually holds to be the height of male domination and privilege.

            We need to say collectively and loudly that masculinity is real, that being a man is something that is achieved, and that expressing masculinity in actions is or should be the primary goal of males. All this is true. Yet saying so nowadays is seen, unfortunately for us all, as delusional and aggressive.  This is bad because, for most men, masculinity is the very essence of who they are and what they hope to be. So men, who sense this, feel they live in a world completely different than the other world that denies it.

            This other world, however, is a relatively narrow one—academia and advocates out to change the world through new linguistic usages. The rest of the world is unimpressed, but because the wordsmiths are using their weapon of choice, words, those who live not words but actions take no part in the dialogue. Typically they turn off the sound, or simply walk away. In men’s mind we are the pack animals and self-sacrificers of the race. We won’t listen to you if you assume that we are out to feather our own nests or to keep others down. Don’t feel you have equal access? Say so. But don’t criticize men for being men.

            There’s little theoretical understanding these days of the basic facts about masculinity. Instead, men live the search for masculinity, either carrying on being men as best they can, or complaining to other men about a lack of comprehension in the outside world. The first is possible because most of the expression of masculinity isn’t verbal at all, but in action. Because this tends to be transmitted, to the extent that it is, privately or one-on-one, or in the locker room of sports teams, we can function without a theory: we resent it that others are so certain about what we are (but are wrong), but we don’t need words to act. Masculinity is still around, and plenty of boys are successfully growing up to be real men. But men being men takes place under the radar, because what shows up on the radar is the only brand going of male theory these days, and that has its own rules of engagement that keeps out those who don’t adopt them. Males seeking to be men would have it easier if all this were actually on the radar, so it doesn’t seem like something done in secret, the way condoms used to be kept under the drugstore counter. Things are better with a “family planning” aisle.  We need an understanding of men to come out from under the counter.


Bruce Fleming is the author of over a dozen books and many articles, listed at www.brucefleming.net His degrees are from Haverford College, the University of Chicago, and Vanderbilt University. He taught for two years at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and for two years at the National University of Rwanda. Since 1987 he has been an English professor at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis. His new book is Saving Madame Bovary: Being Happy With What We Have.


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