What’s Going On with Men?
By Bethany Webster
“The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.”
“The mother-child relationship can be seen as the first relationship violated by patriarchy.”
The Oxford dictionary defines misogyny as “dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.” To understand misogyny, then, we have to explore the first relationship a man ever has with a woman— his mother.
For both girls and boys, the relationship we have with our mothers is among the most significant in our lives. It is impossible to overstate just how foundational this relationship is and how it impacts our well-being well into our adulthood. In the first weeks and months of our lives, mother is food, mother is world, mother is body, and mother is self. For both women and men, the mother wound itself is a product of patriarchy, of living in a culture in which domination of women by men is at its core.
On a personal level, the mother wound is an internalized set of limiting beliefs and patterns originating from the relationship with one’s mother. The mother wound exists on a spectrum, with healthy, supportive mother/child relationships on one end and abusive traumatic mother/child relationships on the other. A host of complex factors go into how one’s mother wound manifests and where one falls on that spectrum.
For men, it comes down to the specific dynamics that played out between a boy and his mother and how the father supported or thwarted that primary connection. Because patriarchy—with its core principle domination—can be embodied by either men or women, or father or mother may have played the role of patriarchal parent in a boy’s life. For example, some boys may have experienced their mothers as neglectful or as domineering. Some may have experienced their mothers as victims of their fathers or experienced their mothers as dominant and their father’s passive.
“Patriarchy demands of men that they become and remain emotional cripples. Since it is a system that denies men full access to their freedom of will, it is difficult for any man of any class to rebel against patriarchy, to be disloyal to the patriarchal parent, be that parent female or male.”
— bell hooks
As a boy grows up today, he is being socialized about what it means to be a man by his father, by other men, and by society. The patriarchal culture enforced by the media, education system and traditional religion reinforces that function. To some degree this socialization involves boys learning to dominate others, to shut down their emotions and to devalue women. The result is both a personal and collective trauma.
Healing personal trauma is central to undoing patriarchy
Unlike the modern world, history is full of examples of cultures giving boys an initiatory experience of graduating into manhood through physical trials, which helps them symbolically cross a psychological bridge from the relative comforts of childhood into the rigors of adulthood. In such a positive context, surrounded by male elders, some kind of physical/emotional wound occurs, helping the boy contact his inner strength, confidence and sense of responsibility. Today, however, most boys experience wounding but with no positive transformation. There are too few official rites, too few wise elders and a dearth of positive male role models.
The cultural expectation to devalue women, including his mother, sets a boy up for cognitive dissonance about what his mother represents in him including, among other examples, the ability to express his emotions, to be vulnerable, and to express physical affection. In this way, his mother could be seen broadly as a “lost source” to the boy, and the father, as socializer of the boy into the world of men, could be seen as “severer of the bond” with the mother, with his source.
For white men, privilege plays a big role. In addition to discouraging men to express their emotions while simultaneously encouraging them to dominate, society gives men unearned advantages denied other groups, including especially women and people of color. As the sociologist Michael Kimmel, executive director of the Center for Men and Masculinities, has observed, “Privilege is invisible to those who have it.” In the case of white men, they have a triple wound: an injury to their ability to process their emotions, blindness about their privilege, and a lack of empathy for those they harm. For most white men those wounds have numbed them into relative unconsciousness while causing unspeakable suffering in the world.
In her critically important 1977 book, On Lies, Secrets and Silence, the poet and feminist theorist Adrienne Rich wrote powerfully about the connection between misogyny and the mother wound in men: “Much male fear of feminism is the fear that, in becoming whole human beings, women will cease to mother men, to provide the breast, the lullaby, the continuous attention associated by the infant with the mother. Much male fear of feminism is infantilism— the longing to remain a mother’s son, to possess a woman purely for him. These infantile needs of adult men for women have been sentimentalized and romanticized long enough as ‘love.’ It is time to recognize them as arrested development, and to re-examine the ideal preservation of ‘the family’ within which those needs are allowed free rein to the point of violence. Because the law and the economic and social order are heavily weighted in favor of men, the infantile needs of adult males are affirmed by a machinery of power which does not affirm or validate the needs of adult women. Institutionalized marriage and motherhood perpetuate the will of male infants as law in the adult world.”
The #MeToo movement, with women telling their stories of sexual assault and outing their abusers, has meant men are being called out, that their belief that they have “free rein” to dominate women in the home and in the workplace is being interrupted. Women are less willing to remain silent; they are rejecting being a blank screen onto which men can project with impunity the pain they wish to deny. And many male witnesses are no longer willing to look the other way.
Assault as sexualized hostility
Sexual assault is not about sex; it’s about power. “Guys who engage in this type of behavior are incredibly rageful towards females,” according to Los Angeles sex addiction therapist Dr. Alexandra Katehakis, clinical director of the Center for Healthy Sex. “It often harkens back to childhood abuse… maybe they had mothers who were emotionally abusive or who didn’t protect them from abusive fathers. As some men get older, they act out that anger towards women in the language of sex. They sexualize their emotions because they don’t know any other way of comporting themselves.”
It is as if the inner male child is unconsciously caught between his painful longing for the “lost source” represented by his mother and his cultural conditioning to hate her as a woman. Put another way, men are caught between a natural desire for their full humanity—the ability to be emotional, vulnerable and empathic—and their desire to remain privileged and dominant. They can’t have both. To hold on to the dominator model (patriarchy) is to lose access to their humanity (egalitarianism). And to be fully human, one has to forsake the dominator model and all the insidious ways it can show up in oneself. No amount of privilege—wealth, power, fame, prestige—will ever compensate for the devastation, to whatever degree, that patriarchy has wrought on the little boy within. No amount of power over others will ever make up for that lost part of himself. It can only be found by doing the inner work to reclaim it.
A man can find his lost source not in the form of physical women, but through exploring what it means to reclaim what the mother—or the feminine— represents within him—the world of feelings and emotions, the experience of deep connection within himself, and a sense of authentic belonging with others. However, in order to access these vital capacities that have been in shadow, men first have to engage with the angry child within for whom there has been little payoff to forsake these vital aspects of himself. It’s easier to project rage onto a “mother substitute” or “father substitute” out in the world.
It takes courage to process the anger about the inner patriarch— the archetype of the cruel, unfeeling father. The father may have granted him access to the world of men but at considerable cost: disconnection from the true self, the innocent boy who came into this world capable of expressing empathy, emotionality, and vulnerability. The anger belongs with the patriarchal father (personal and/or collective), the “severer of the bond,” who betrayed the boy, who socialized him to give up a vital part of himself in order to be accepted in the world of men. The anger also belongs with the mother who was unable to protect him from this patriarchal wound or who may have inflicted it herself. When men can direct their anger there, the culture will begin to shift. “One oppresses what one fears.”
Healing from patriarchy requires that every privileged group actively confronts its ignorance and cultivates empathy for how its privilege has caused harm to others. Allowing ourselves to be emotionally affected by the truth of what we have perpetrated by our privilege is a necessary but often avoided step in creating real equality between people. Just as white women need to endure the experience of feeling genuinely horrified about the ways in which we have, knowingly or unknowingly, facilitated white supremacy onto people of color, white men have to do the same about how their ignorance, afforded by privilege, has collectively caused an unspeakable amount of pain in the world to women, people of color and the planet itself.
May the rising tide of female anger be followed by a commensurate wave of brave men willing to explore their inner lives, embracing the abandoned boy within and addressing the legitimate anger and grief about what patriarchy has stolen from them—their humanity.
Described as “a midwife of the heart,” Bethany Webster’s work focuses on helping women heal the mother wound as a portal to access their full power and potential. She teaches workshops, an online course, and offers a coaching program for women leaders who want to accelerate their impact and leadership. A version of this article appears on her website, https://womboflight.com/ © 2017.
“Misogyny is a son’s outwardly projected rage on a mother who was unable to protect him.” — Gabor Maté
At its core, for men and women alike, the task of healing the mother wound is ultimately the same: to decouple one’s inner and outer life from the lamination of “mother,” in order to fully access and actualize their potential. In Under Saturn’s Shadow, author and Jungian analyst James Hollis encapsulates it this way:
“When we remember that patriarchy is a cultural contrivance, an invention to compensate for powerlessness, we realize that men, contrary to widespread opinions, are more often the more dependent sex. The Marlboro man, the rugged individualist, is most ambushed by his inner feminine, for he is most in denial. Whenever a man is obliged to be a good boy, or conversely he feels he must be a bad boy, or a wild man, he is still compensating for the power of the mother complex. I do not say it is a man’s fault that he is so vulnerable, so dependent; that he is merely human. What is his responsibility is to recognize how deeply any child needs positive mothering and how much the pattern of that need sets his psychic life in motion and continues to operate beneath the surface. He may pretend to adult empowerment, hold the reins of government or the purse, but the lines of stress reach deep down into his relationship with his mother. Men must grasp and accept this fact, and then take responsibility for it, or they will continue to play out infantile patterns forever.”
For men, healing the mother wound means redirecting their rage away from women and toward the true target—patriarchy itself, including the very specific traumatic events of their childhood in which that played out. To do this deep inner work, it is crucial men get support from other men who have already engaged in this journey, including seeking professional support from skilled male therapists.