The list of traits we claim to associate with being a man—the things we would feel comfortable telling a child to strive for—are in fact not distinctive characteristics of men but traits of human beings we value, what we want all people to be. The list of understandings of masculinity that men routinely impose on each other is quite different. Here, being a man means not being a woman or gay, seeing relationships as fundamentally a contest for control, and viewing sex as the acquisition of pleasure from a woman. Of course that’s not all men are, but it sums up the dominant, and very toxic, conception of masculinity with which most men are raised in the contemporary United States. It’s not an assertion about all men or all possible ideas about masculinity, but a description of a pattern.
If the positive definitions of masculinity are not really about being a man but simply about being a person, and if the definitions of masculinity within which men routinely operate are negative, why are we holding on to the concept so tightly? Why are we so committed to the notion that there are intellectual, emotional, and moral differences that are inherent, that come as a result of biological sex differences?
It’s obvious that there are differences in the male and female human body, most obviously in reproductive organs and hormones. But how we should make sense of those differences outside reproduction is not clear. And if we are to make sense of it in a fashion that is consistent with justice—that is, in a feminist context—then we would benefit from a critical evaluation of the categories themselves, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.
Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and author of numerous books including Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. The passage above is adapted from his essay “Masculine, Feminine, or Human?” which appeared in Voice Male, Spring 2009.