Every person on the planet is affected by masculinity in some shape or form. This is why getting masculinity right is so important. If we get it wrong, everything falls apart. You might have noticed that everything seems to be falling apart... But the debate about masculinity rarely seems to progress.
On one side (I'll put my cards on the table here and say my side), progressive academic types mostly take a feminist position and talk about patriarchy and power, and how this marginalises women (and atypical men). Increasingly, these types also refer to queer theory, which is not solely about gay and lesbian people, rather resisting ways of pigeon-holing the identities of all people.
On the other side, are those who (often quite rightly) identify the many problems suffered by men in society, and simply do not see claims about patriarchy and power as valid any more, chiefly because they are looking at individual men who appear not to be enjoying the privileges of power, rather than the systemic and institutional nature of power. The very words 'systemic and institutional nature of power' will often make these types wince.
This debate has been going on for years: one side claiming they cannot state their watertight case about patriarchy any clearer, the other finding that case unrepresentative of the truth. We have to start finding different ways to frame this debate to make any progress. This is not about finding a middle ground; it as about finding a different ground. It is about finding a different lens through which to view the 'problem' of masculinity. Recently I have been using the lens of conspiracy logic.
The popular definition of conspiracy can be found in the idea of a cover-up, and to a large degree this is certainly the case. However, there are various aspects to conspiracy that are worth unpacking. In his book, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, political scientist Michael Barkun claims conspiracy is a method through which people explain the presence of evil in the world. They do this by viewing 'history as controlled by massive, demonic forces'. Conspiracies can therefore be seen as simultaneously frightening and reassuring: the demonic forces are at work, but at least they can be identified as the source of everything around us that is bad, as opposed to the true terror of random evil.
Barkun identifies three key aspects to conspiracy theories, which are worth spelling out. First, nothing happens by accident: there is always intent behind actions; the willed nature of reality is paramount. Second, nothing is as it seems: the source of a conspiracy tends to conceal its activities through the appearance of innocence or misinformation. Third, everything is connected: patterns abound in conspiracy; exposing conspiracy is about unveiling these hidden connections. Barkun sees this type of thinking as ultimately resulting in paranoia: a closed system of ideas that 'defeat any attempt at testing' due to the assumption that all the evidence countering the conspiracy must be part of the conspiracy, and therefore rejected.
To be fair, Barkun is highly critical of conspiracy belief, and when you look at the examples he provides such as the Illuminati and extraterrestrial reptilian masters, it is tempting to agree with him. But because conspiracy theories can often be a bit flaky, it doesn't mean that they are always flaky, or that at the very least there aren't some reasonable things that resemble conspiracies, inasmuch as there being a widespread assumption that needs to be exposed as false.
And this is what I'm getting at with The Masculinity Conspiracy. Gender theorists have been claiming for some time that there is no such thing as a singular 'masculinity'. Instead, there is a vast spectrum of different masculinities, some of which look familiar, some of which do not. The problem, in this worldview, is that those different masculinities (and women) are oppressed and denied by that chief masculinity. Further still, this type of masculinity is responsible for a lot of the problems the world faces today: this type of masculinity needs to be exposed as 'false', inasmuch as it is not the natural and only option available to men.
Instead of thinking about this chief masculinity solely in terms of power and identity, let's try conspiracy. Let's assume there are certain people who are being oppressed (men and women alike, for various reasons). It appears that the way we define masculinity has not happened by accident. It appears that nothing about masculinity is as it commonly seems. It appears that a number of key themes in society are connected to form a legitimising framework for The Masculinity Conspiracy. I'm not, however, suggesting that The Masculinity Conspiracy is 'controlled by massive, demonic forces'. I use the term 'conspiracy' fully aware of its limitations, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek. It is about acknowledging that there is something going on with masculinity beyond the awareness of most people.
Can those who find the language of patriarchy and power too problematic adopt the language of conspiracy? I think it's worth finding out. Perhaps the language of conspiracy is more familiar and less judgmental? Perhaps it is simply more compelling (heroic, even) to expose a conspiracy than overturn patriarchy? This isn't a cynical attempt to lure innocent men's rights advocates into a feminist trap, rather a genuine attempt to consider the problems of masculinity in a different way. Perhaps in doing so we all might discover different insights.
In The Masculinity Conspiracy there is a clear challenge on the table when statements about masculinity are made which appear counter-intuitive: is that your intuition talking, or is it the conspiracy? Following conspiracy logic, the fact that you don't believe me is proof itself that The Masculinity Conspiracy has you successfully conditioned. I say it only half-jokingly.
In the end, once the conspiracy and its method of misinformation have been revealed, it is the choice of the individual whether or not to be misinformed. Either be spoon-fed the lies, or not. It has become a cliché of conspiracy culture, but the 'red pill, blue pill' scenario of The Matrix movie holds true here: 'You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes'.
So, what's it going to be: red pill, or blue?
PART 4: RELATIONSHIPS
For many of us—either through a genuine desire to settle down, or the pressure of social norms—the sexual issues outlined in the previous chapter result in one place: relationships. Like all the chapter themes, relationships are another classic site of masculinity conspiracy activity.
Before we start, there are a couple of caveats for this chapter. First I'm talking here about the relationships that result from sexual attraction. In other words, I'm not talking about relationships with friends. That's not to say that friend relationships are free from the conspiracy (just check out the kind of quasi-autistic communication between some male friends, and the sometimes fraught friendships between men and women), simply that this is a topic for another time. Second, the two books examined in this chapter speak exclusively in terms of heterosexual relationships, which excludes about 10 percent of all men who aren't straight. Needless to say, the fact that this issue is not addressed in the books in question is a problem. However, the kind of themes I address in The Solution section can often be applied regardless of whether you're gay or straight.
There are two things you can deduce from that last statement. First, I don't think it's possible to imply much difference between men due to their sexual orientation, except that gay men have generally thought more about their masculinity than straight men due to the fact that they are under a lot more pressure to justify their existence and difference relative to the norm. Second, the fact that a "romantic" relationship between two men can possess similar issues as between a man and a woman suggests men and women are not essentially different. Of course, this does not mean that everyone is the same: there are differences between men—indeed, all people—but this is due to a variety of reasons: it is faulty to assume any kind of difference because someone happens to be a man or a person with a particular sexual orientation. In short, people are different, but not because they happen to be men or women, gay or straight. And when differences do appear along these lines, it is likely we are not seeing the result of natural differences between men and women or gay and straight people, rather we are seeing the conspiracy at work.
So, caveats tabled, this chapter looks at how the theme of relationships are presented in two texts. First is Double Your Dating: What Every Man Should Know About How to Be Successful with Women by David DeAngelo. This book offers a useful insight into the way the conspiracy frames the initial dynamics of finding a potential partner and establishing a relationship. Second is Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus: A Practical Guide for Improving Communication and Getting What You Want in Relationships by John Gray. A natural progression from the first, this book assumes you have a relationship in place and shows how the conspiracy frames communication when allegedly securing the longevity of a relationship. Let's first give both these books an opportunity to speak in their own voice before identifying any problems, which will take place in the proceeding section.
DeAngelo is an internet marketer whose dating products and particular philosophies about men and women have made him popular within the PUA (Pick-up-Artist) or "seduction" community (sometimes referred to as "The Game"). He writes on his website that, "I'm actually a pretty normal guy, who went through a point where I decided that I needed to get this part of my life called ‘meeting women' handled." He writes that he spent a lot of time observing what men did who were naturally "successful" with women and that he finally began to understand the sometimes paradoxical secrets which attract women, and how this involves understanding what makes women different to men.
Do you remember how in the previous chapter both Robert Lawlor and David Deida suggested women had a natural tendency to tell lies? DeAngelo starts his book in similar territory with his first chapter entitled Women Don't Make Sense. He claims, "most women THINK differently than most men, and most women want different things than most men." This is demonstrated for DeAngelo by the likelihood that "women buy Cosmopolitan magazines, watch soap operas, and read romance novels. Men buy Playboy, watch sports, and read the paper."
The reason for this apparent distinction feeds back into the biological determinism discussed in previous chapters, as DeAngelo argues that "women's brains are wired differently from men's brains." Again, as discussed previously, he also feeds into the historic precedent to justify these differences stating that, "women are playing out a role that hasn't changed for thousands (or millions?) of years. These days the language and clothing are different. But it's the same that it's always been." Outlining the historical characteristics of masculinity, DeAngelo shares a commonality with Harvey Mansfield when he refers to "competition, adrenaline, power, domination... all the typical guy stuff. Incidentally, stuff that fulfills needs that most women just plain don't have."
DeAngelo also questions the value of monogamy as "men are hard-wired to look for sexual opportunities and seek out sexual variety." Again somewhat in line with Mansfield who claimed that the "gender-neutral" society seeks to deny manliness wherever it finds it, in his "it's OK to be a man" section, DeAngelo describes the assumption of monogamy as a "conspiracy against men being successful with women" which has been "formalized, passed down, and force-fed to us culturally by rulers, religions, and women for thousands of years."
The main drive of DeAngelo's argument is that men must seize the power and control in a relationship with women (somewhat like a mantra, a variant of "power" is used 43 times and "control" 31 times in Double Your Dating). Indeed, he must be in control of everything: "of the situation, himself, his emotions, other people, her… control of the entire reality that they share." In short, this means engaging a number of counter-intuitive strategies to attract women, such as avoiding being too nice to them (which is perceived as appearing needy) and rejecting any amorous advances which are not solely on the man's terms. This is encapsulated by DeAngelo's statement of "never give a woman a direct answer… unless it's NO… Never give a woman exactly what she wants." This is offered with the caveat from DeAngelo that, "I want to make sure you don't start acting like an ‘asshole' to women. The masculine man says, ‘No' to a woman calmly. The Asshole says, ‘No' to a woman in an angry tone."
DeAngelo's claim that "men and women are different in many ways and that they usually respond differently to various types of communication" almost suggests that men and women are different species altogether. It is precisely this analogy that is extended and mobilized by our second perpetrator of the conspiracy in this chapter, John Gray, in his book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. As the title suggests, Gray's books is based on the metaphor that men are Martians and women Venusians: different species from different planets.
In Gray's story, Martian men spied Venusian women through their powerful telescopes from their home planet, quickly fell in love from a distance, invented space travel in order to reach the Venusians, and arrived among them where they were welcomed with open arms. At first, the Martians and Venusians knew they were literally different species, and consequently spent a lot of time getting to know one another and learning one another's language and customs and, as a result, got on famously. Then the Martians and Venusians decided to travel together to Earth, where they soon forgot that they were from different planets and therefore profoundly different, and that's when Gray tells us all our problems started.
Gray suggests that life back on Mars was something of a paradise for men, as they only did things which came naturally to them, and which explain the natural tendencies of men on Earth today. On Mars, men had jobs where they could demonstrate their competence both through actions and the way they dressed, such as being "police officers, soldiers, businessmen, scientists, cab drivers, technicians and chefs." On Mars, men were concerned with "outdoor activities like hunting, fishing and racing cars." On Mars, "men fantasize about powerful cars, faster computers, gadgets, gizmos, and new more powerful technology."
However, over on Venus (populated by lovely women), Gray suggests, "everyone studies psychology and has a master's degree in counseling. They are very involved in personal growth, spirituality, and everything that can nurture life, healing, and growth." Such concerns are even reflected in the built environment, as Venus is "covered with parks, organic gardens, shopping centers, and restaurants." While Venusians and Martians were fundamentally different, Gray tells us that differences attract and that "in a magical and perfect way their differences seemed to complement one another." These, it seems, were halcyon days when Martians and Venusians knew who they were and each did things a certain way (halcyon days in which men and women know who they are and do things a certain way).
Back on Earth, this Martian heritage remains and means that men speak and behave in certain ways. For example, when a man gets stressed, Gray tells us he retreats into his "cave." So, when a man returns home from a hard day at work, rather than talking about his issues (which is perfectly natural for Venusians), men retreat into their metaphorical cave of silence and/or watching television. Gray says it is a fundamental error for women to follow men into the cave in the hope of trying to tease them out: men need to be allowed to emerge in their own time. Similarly, men must learn that women need to articulate their feelings in comparable moments of stress and to listen to these feelings without acting on the compulsive need to offer solutions (a distinctly Martian character trait, we are told).
In all the examples of language and behavior Gray investigates, men and women are at least different or sometimes even opposite to one another. Men, for example, are motivated and empowered when they feel needed. Women are motivated and empowered when they feel cherished. Men need to receive trust, acceptance, appreciation, admiration, approval and encouragement. Women, on the other hand, need to receive caring, understanding, respect, devotion, validation and reassurance.
Following DeAngelo's suggestion that women do not make sense, Gray suggests Venusians say one thing but mean something quite different, and he offers excerpts from what might be likened to the Venusian/Martian Phrase Dictionary. For example, when a man hears the words from a woman "we never go out," he should really hear, "I feel like going out and doing something together. We always have such a fun time, and I love being with you. What do you think? Would you take me out to dinner? It has been a few days since we went out." Without the Venusian/Martian Phrase Dictionary, Gray suggests men tend to instead hear, "You are not doing your job. What a disappointment you have turned out to be. We never do anything together anymore because you are lazy, unromantic and boring." By rediscovering that men and women are a different species, and taking the effort to discover each other's differences (and even languages), Gray argues that we can learn once more to get along and enjoy fruitful and long-lasting relationships.
In sum, there are very clear messages to be had about masculinity and relationships from DeAngelo and Gray:
men like certain things, whether it be buying Playboy, watching sports or reading the paper (DeAngelo), or hunting, fishing and racing cars (Gray).
men think and communicate differently to women.
for men to be successful with women—either in terms of coaxing them into sex (DeAngelo) or maintaining a long-lasting relationship (Gray)—men must figure out what women "really" think and either counter or accommodate these uniquely womanly thoughts depending on circumstance.
It's a cliché, but the old adage of "be careful what you wish for because it might happen" is pertinent when looking at these two books and what they say about relationships between men and women. Both DeAngelo and Gray have a particular vision of what men and women are like: they have certain expectations and those expectations are fulfilled. But the thing is, those expectations are fulfilled not because they are "real" or "correct": they are fulfilled firstly because of a confirmation bias, and secondly because we are again witnessing the socially-constructed conspiracy at work.
First, the confirmation bias. We don't need to unpack this too much, but if DeAngelo and Gray expect to see men and women in a particular type of way, the likelihood is that is exactly how they will see men and women, regardless of whether that is actually the way they are. It is absurd to claim that people are the caricatures presented in these books, and to suggest that these are "tendencies" which are in general correct is simply not good enough. Even if this were the case (which I do not believe), it erases all the personalities of those who do not follow such tendencies, which is a power strategy on behalf of the conspiracy to give the impression of its terms of reference being the only terms available (which is completely false), which brings us to the second point. Even on those occasions where men and women do seem to demonstrate the characteristics outlined by DeAngelo and Gray it would be a mistake to say we are witnessing any inherent "truth." Again and again, we witness the conspiracy at work. The whole conspiracy—like gender—is socially constructed, which means we make it what it is: it is not "natural." We shape the masculine reality, the masculine reality does not shape us. It is crucially important to get this distinction in place in every instance the conspiracy operates.
In the case of DeAngelo, we witness the power aspect of the conspiracy operating with complete transparency. The conspiracy revolves around power, and one of the primary ways it does this is by co-opting men as agents of power, over both women and men who either actively resist being co-opted or whose social status make them less capable of asserting power due to issues of sexuality, class, physical ability and so forth (although power plays still happen among such marginalized groups of men).
Throughout DeAngelo's text we see examples of how men need to take power and control over women and relationships. This very proactive strategy on the part of the conspiracy is normalized by suggesting it has been going on for countless years and that it is biologically determined, when in reality it is determined by the conspiracy. More worryingly, DeAngelo's "seduction" agenda requires multiple sexual partners, which means he is casting his net of power as widely as possible, rather than within the confines of a monogamous relationship (which is bad enough). Note: I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with having multiple sexual partners, simply that there is something wrong with using those partners as a vehicle for exercising power, as demanded by the conspiracy.
It might be worth mentioning at this point that DeAngelo gives the impression that most women seem to appreciate his tactics, as demonstrated by his success as a seducer and the "honest" conversations he has with female friends with whom he shares his strategies. He's being completely open about his needs and desires and not lying to anybody, so what's the problem, right? The problem is that even if his partners give the impression they are ok with what he does, we must not forget that they too are under the influence of the conspiracy. Women are also conditioned in many instances to perpetuate the conspiracy, even if doing so seems a rather masochistic or counter-intuitive endeavor: it's a bit like how abductees can develop sympathy towards their abductors. Such is the sophistication and deeply ingrained nature of the conspiracy.
So, in short, DeAngelo expects to find relationships with women where he can assert power and take control and who desire a man who does these things, and that's exactly the type of women he finds. I would imagine the women who do not meet DeAngelo's expectations are either never approached in the first place, or simply tell him to fuck off (even if DeAngelo suggests this is a surprisingly rare occurrence). Consequently, the conspiracy's hunger for power is repeatedly sated and it simultaneously constructs the mythical image of sexually predatory men and sexually-cajoled women, rather than the more desirable situation of sexual relations that are equally filthy and fun but characterized by genuine mutuality.
Gray is far less concerned with power, however if you've been reading carefully so far, you should be able to anticipate my primary problems with Gray's presentation of masculinity. Sure, I understand that the whole "men are from Mars" thing is simply a little gimmick Gray has hit upon to describe men in relation to women, but let's not forget: it simply isn't true. Men are not a different species to women, men do not speak a different language to women. Relationships between men and women can certainly be complicated, but this is down to the complexity of communication between all people, not just men and women. In making it a Mars versus Venus issue, Gray constructs a convenient fiction around the complexity of interpersonal communication, not a compelling explanation. And in doing so he perpetuates the conspiracy.
For example, Gray states that on Mars it was natural for men to have jobs like "police officers, soldiers, businessmen, scientists, cab drivers, technicians and chefs" and for them to enjoy "outdoor activities like hunting, fishing and racing cars." But this does nothing more than demonstrate and consolidate that the conspiracy has allocated such jobs and activities to men. What of the men who want those things Gray allocates to Venus, such as "personal growth, spirituality, and everything that can nurture life, healing, and growth"? I guess those men are out of luck, because these things don't even exist on Mars; in other words, they don't exist for men.
So what does this mean for relationships? The sad irony is that while Gray believes he is shedding light on how men and women can communicate more clearly to one another and maintain better relationships, he is actually doing the exact opposite. By suggesting that men like certain things and communicate in a certain way, and that women like quite different things and communicate in a quite different way, Gray does not enable men and women with better relationships, rather he imprisons them to either Mars or Venus, both fictitious worlds constructed from his own limited imagination, which itself is saturated with binary conspiracy logic. Like so many others who speak to issues of masculinity, Gray responds to the intuitive feeling of dysfunction and wants to make things better, but unfortunately does little but makes things worse. If Gray didn't spend so much time trying to frame men's and women's experiences with his mythical Martian and Venusian complementarity, he might find that men and women are certainly different, but different as people more than sexes. If he saw and communicated with people as individuals rather than fictitious Martians or Venusians, he might not need a phrase book for translation purposes, but he might have to acknowledge that until that point his simplistic presentation of men and women has been shoring up the masculinity conspiracy.
Gray also highlights the issue of how expertise is constructed in the conspiracy, which we briefly touched upon in Chapter 2. The cover of Gray's book proudly carries the name "John Gray, PhD," which gives the impression that he must be coming from some position of research-based evidence, right? One would think (or hope) this to be the case. But if reports are to be believed such as Sarah Hampson's 2008 article in The Globe and Mail, Gray's doctoral qualification stems from a correspondence course from an unaccredited institution. Does that influence your perception of the position of expertise from which Gray is allegedly writing?
You may well be a sophisticated reader who wouldn't be taken in by such things, but plenty of people are not. I remember very clearly being in my early teens, when I lived in a simpler world. When I saw people in the media passing comment on something I would assume they were an expert, simply because they had been selected to comment in the media. If I saw someone was a "Dr," that person was not just an expert, but a "scientific" expert. Plenty of people think like this. It takes quite a bit of exposure to the world to realize that people get media coverage for all manner of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with their expertise.
It also takes some time to learn that unless they are referring to an area in which they have undertaken genuine—ideally peer-reviewed—research, most people who call themselves "Dr" are in no better position to comment than anyone else. You might even want to challenge my appeal to authority in this regard: I include the credential in the transparent hope of capturing a few unsuspecting readers and, to be honest, because I'm proud of my modest achievement. But I don't expect you to give me the benefit of the doubt simply because I have a PhD (even one from a "real" university!). Also, remember how in the introductory chapter I referred to the political scientist Michael Barkun and his model of conspiracy thinking? One of the characteristics he identifies of conspiracy thinking is that it "enthusiastically mimics mainstream scholarship." Have a think about that the next time you see a book where the author is appended with a PhD or talks about their "research" (DeAngelo, for example, refers to his "research" six times in Double Your Dating, demonstrating a key issue of the conspiracy not only in terms of mimicking mainstream scholarship but also that repetition reinforces a guided perception of reality).
But consider too: assuming that, like me, you might once have assumed these people were "experts" but now know better, we see that there are always new horizons of awareness to reach. So if you think the argument of The Masculinity Conspiracy is questionable remember that, like me, you have been wrong before, but moved on. Whatever your opinion, if you think you have something completely understood, there is a high probability you are wrong. Consequently, in this book I am not suggesting that exposing the conspiracy is the end of the line, simply that it brings some critical focus to the issue of masculinity that is otherwise lacking: that focus can then be further tightened until it eventually approximates the truth, or acknowledges that there are multiple truths operating at any one time rather than the prescriptive mono-truth of the conspiracy.
The other tendency with a book like Gray's is to assume that because it has sold a gazillion copies there must be something of value to his argument. Otherwise, how could so many people be so wrong, or so gullible? Unfortunately, crap sells. Indeed, often the crapper something is, the easier it is to sell. I have a great example of this from my own chequered writing history. Back in 2001, I was sat at work reading a copy of The Bookseller and was shocked to discover that The Little Book of Farting had sold many thousands of copies in the three days before Christmas. With dollar signs in my eyes, I set about thinking up the most absurdly crap little book concept imaginable, and quickly settled on The Little Book of Toilet Graffiti. I went to a bookshop at lunchtime to see who published these kinds of things, returned to my desk, knocked out a quick proposal and emailed it to a few little book publishers. I sold the concept that same afternoon, which—as anyone who knows anything about publishing will tell you—is almost unheard of. Hot on the heels of this came The Little Book of Office Bollocks and The Little Book of Student Bollocks. Between these titles there have been translations into Spanish and Portuguese, and also an audio book.
What a success story. As the years have progressed, I feel confident that my writing has become better and better and the content increasingly important: however, it has also become increasingly difficult to sell to publishers. Now, with the writing at its most important, I find myself not even bothering with a publisher and giving it away for free. So, yes: when I see a book selling a gazillion copies it's certainly possible that it's very good, but it's just as likely that it's a pile of crap that plugs nicely into the oddities of the market with its strange desire for novelty books and, more importantly, a market which is under the spell of the conspiracy and requires books that validate and consolidate the conspiracy: neat, eh? While we're on this point, and because I am more interested in getting you to think critically than to blindly accept my argument, contemplate how this text itself echoes the same process, plugging nicely into the oddities of the market with its strange desire for conspiracy books: neat, eh? Are you wondering yet if you are being duped? By Gray, DeAngelo, me, or all three? I hope so, because whatever the answer, this it how we will begin to explore some new territory.
In sum, the conspiracy operates through relationships in DeAngelo and Gray's books in several ways:
Both expect men and women to behave and communicate in certain ways, and these expectations are met, even it involves discarding those examples of behavior and communication which run counter to these expectations.
DeAngelo's whole model is based upon asserting power over women, which is a key aspect of how the conspiracy functions (and by extension over other men who choose not to act in such a sexually predatory fashion).
Both appeal to "research" or credentials to give the impression that their presentation of masculinity is of a credible nature.
If indeed the cliché of "be careful what you wish for because it might happen" is pertinent to relationships, then the trick with the solution is to get the "wish" part right from the start. If the idea of women who speak in some kind of code is not appealing to you, then don't settle for being or partnering with women who speak in some kind of code. If the idea of the role of a man being characterized as uncommunicative does not appeal to you, then don't establish or allow that kind of dynamic in your relationship.
Assume things are not going to change for the better: generally, if things are not working out the way you want them at the start, then it is unlikely they will ever work out (indeed, it's probably going to get more difficult). This is less important if you are younger and floating around between partners, but there is some tough love necessary if you are serious about a long-term relationship: if these things aren't right from the start GET THE HELL OUT because you're going to waste a lot of your and your partner's time before baling out further down the line, or get stuck permanently in a relationship that is unsatisfactory.
Right from the start you've got to communicate effectively with your partner. Now you might argue that this is exactly what Gray is suggesting, but the thing is he is actually suggesting men play a cunning game: decode the Venusian language, pay lip service to its quirky requests, and everyone's happy (and similar tricks for women to pull on men). But in realty there is no such game: only honesty and transparency. Only with transparency can both parties communicate what they need and desire out of a relationship, and if you can't get it at least when you part company you know you have given it your best shot (it's very sad when people part company after many years of things not working out having never really communicated what they want: the other person may never have known and had a chance to meet those needs and desires). The paradox is that the type of man who communicates in this way is likely to be far more "successful" in relationships than with the kind of game-playing suggested by either DeAngelo or Gray. Because the conspiracy has dictated that men are not very communicative, those that run counter to this myth are highly valued.
Assuming effective communication, we then have to return to the issue of power. The previous chapter closed with the idea that if there is a power imbalance in a sexual relationship (whether through age difference or social position), it is likely to be inappropriate. As mentioned above, power is the key element of the conspiracy and it therefore actively seeks out such inappropriate relationships. However, I'm conscious of the highly prescriptive nature of such a statement which closes down relationships based on significant differences in age or social status. So while I think it generally holds true, I want to first open up a space for how such relationships might be able to work.
In short, if you're the significantly older or socially privileged person in a relationship, you have to find a way of giving your power away. You have to exercise what might be called a "radical vulnerability." If, for example, you have managed to partner with some young lovely who is in awe of your achievements, you will need to find a way to empower him/her. Maybe the stereotype is an older man who is successful but emotionally distant, and the younger partner is in a position to be the guide towards greater emotional involvement (assuming this position is vested with the same hierarchical status in the relationship as the achievements of the older partner).
Indeed, that radical vulnerability is probably the key to maintaining power balance in all relationships. It may not seem like it to most men, but they are largely in the position of power (even if they feel they are constantly being denied sex and nagged to do stuff they don't want to do). The power imbalance between men and women goes back thousands of years and even with the relatively equal opportunities of today this imbalance is still clear, most explicitly in the allocation of wealth and the split between the private and public domain (as discussed in Chapter 2).
Even progressive men have a weakness for glossing over this imbalance and repeating age-old patterns of power-grabbing behavior. Key ways power is wielded in relationships includes men assuming their work is more meaningful than their partner's (whether it be paid or parental/housekeeping), not consulting on decision-making, withholding resources, being emotionally distant, let alone more explicit examples such as physical and verbal abuse. Apart from physical abuse, I've done all these things myself (sorry about that), which just goes to show the insidious nature of the conspiracy, even if one is fully aware of the way it operates.
All of this requires making a stance which refuses to take on board these unfortunately too-common masculine traits. Back in the 1980s this idea was picked up by one of the few feminist male writers at the time, John Stoltenberg, in a book called Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice. Stoltenberg's general idea was sound, but like various feminist positions of the time it needs more nuance: no male person should be expected to refuse to be a man (which is, after all, a natural biological reality): a better title would be Refusing to Be Part of the Masculinity Conspiracy.
With transparent lines of communication open and power in check, men should be free to then start being whoever they want to be in a relationship. Maybe men want to do traditionally manly stuff, maybe they don't. In our house, you will usually find me sat reading a book while my wife is up a ladder fixing something. At the same time we also fulfill some quite traditional gender roles inasmuch as my wife stays at home, keeps house and looks after the children while I "go to work" and "provide" in a financial sense. The point here is not that we have it "right" (we most certainly do not, for various systemic issues around the nature of paid work), but that men and women should be able to pick and choose between orthodox and unorthodox gender performances depending on how they want to live and how they feel inclined to manage the challenge of financially surviving in a world which has certain expectations about who does what in a relationship (especially when children are involved). It is important to note, also, that while something like staying at home to look after children may appear orthodox from the outside, the values within that situation may run counter to what many people perceive as orthodox (check out, for example, Shannon Hayes' book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture).
But there's a BUT coming up here. While the onus of responsibility is certainly on men to own their abuses of power, take the initiative exercising acts of radical vulnerability, and enact masculinity in any number of diverse ways, the success of such a strategy cannot be unilateral. Both partners in a relationship need to engage this process: in other words, women need to realize the role they often play in the conspiracy. As I mentioned earlier, women too are co-opted into the conspiracy which can result in them performing some unfortunately stereotypical ways of being a woman: indeed, the conspiracy requires women to behave in stereotypical ways in order to shape that "object" which is the "other" to men and over which they can assert their power. It may even be harder for women to resist the demands of the conspiracy as they are generally in a position of less power to begin with.
In short, any person with a male partner needs to let go of what they perceive to be the natural characteristics of their partner's gendered role. Sometimes this is going to be pretty trivial stuff, such as not assuming who is going to put out the trash. Other times this is going to be pretty fundamental stuff, such as not assuming who is going to "provide" and "protect" in a relationship. Maybe once this happens, such tasks remain with the same person, but if so it should be because they are genuinely appropriate to the situation, not because they are "men's tasks." This process is likely to be uncomfortable to navigate for both men and women: men have to resist manifesting the conspiracy, and women have to resist supporting men who manifest the conspiracy.
But once this sticky process has been completed, things begin to get interesting. Do you remember what it was like to be very young and contemplate what you were going to do with your life? A doctor, astronaut, or explorer? There was an extraordinary horizon of possibilities available to you back then. Much of the grief we feel as we become older is a direct result of those horizons becoming ever more distant, of becoming increasingly resigned to the inevitable "reality" of how things have turned out for us. But exposing the masculinity conspiracy puts us back in touch with that past potential. We may still be stuck shuffling bits of paper for a living, but we get to renegotiate who we are as people, and to be energized by the knowledge that the best is yet to come.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the Part 4 of the series on The Masculinity Conspiracy by Joseph Gelfer. Chapters 1, 2, and 3 of the book were reprinted in the October, November, and December issues, respectively. Chapter 5 will be reprinted in the January issue. The list of references (below) will be included with each chapter. If the reader wants to keep reading, click here. To visit the book's web site, click here.
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