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Man Up! A Male Perspective on Masculinity & Rape Culture

Guest Blog By Hoon Choi,  Assistant Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, St John’s University (NY)

Bodily experiences are unique.  They can be vehicles to an immediate knowledge of reality. The human body–and the sexual experience enjoyed in the body–can reveal to us “what is beyond our conscious rational apprehension,” according to Mircea Eliade.

When I reflect on the experience of my body, I notice that it is soft most of the time, unless I am excited or tense, or when I exert force onto or within it.  I think this recognition—a fuller identification of the complexity of maleness and of the male body—can contribute to the call, by Meghan Clark and others, to fight against every element of the rape culture. Just as women are not dimorphic beings (“Virgin or whore”), men are also not simply fragile or aggressive.  The culture of rape, which Dr. Clark so evocatively discloses, will not disappear, until men are able to embrace a more authentically integrated sense of manhood.

I first moved to the States when I was 12 years old. I struggled to fit in to this new culture. I did not look like most people, and I did not speak their language—literally or figuratively. Like many other students of color, I hung out with my own (Asian) folks. In high school I began climbing the proverbial social ladder, trying to reach a level of acceptability among my white male friends.  Again, it was difficult. The language barrier was nothing compared to the bullet-proof glass ceiling of normative masculinity. I was too feminine. I was told to “man up.”  Even in those few areas where I was “manly”—sports like volleyball, high-jumping, or basketball—the horizon of masculinity remained out of reach.  My prowess was attributed to some exotic Asian, Ninja-mystique.  I was “Bruce Lee,” complete with Kung-Fu action sounds. If I was going to be accepted, it would only be by engaging in aggressive or even belligerent behaviors.

I eventually reached out to my church. After all, I thought, here is a place where I can freely express my emotional attachments to God, my inclination for service, and my deep interests in singing. I found comfort in the fact that Catholic priests practiced ministerial nurturing and ritualistic attentiveness yet were accepted unconditionally.  Unfortunately, however, I found that even the most beloved of priests was no less guilty of gendered ideology than my classmates.  The priests obviously compensated for their “unmanly” ministerial practices by highlighting the essential, complementary difference between men and women, or they spoke out vehemently against homosexuality (including sermons from the pulpit). The message I received was that religious behavior must be overshadowed by stereotypically masculine values. I too got caught up in this ideology, taking on “leadership” roles, so that I would develop an essential masculinity. The deep-rooted theology of gender complementarity instilled in me the notion that just being spiritual was not enough for a man. Indeed, I needed something more active, something more assertive, something more, well, phallic.

I hesitate to suggest that social or religious constructions necessarily cause rape. Nor do I want to suggest that the rape culture will disappear if we eliminate complacency. The one-sided portrayal of male perpetrators in the Steubenville case is certainly a problem, but it is only part of the problem. If social institutions reify “maleness” and ostracize anyone who does not fit that category, men will continue to be anxious about their incompetency as men.  Why?  Because NO ONE fits the normative definition of masculinity. To ensure men’s well-being, and to contribute to the well-being of all, we must jettison traditional notions of masculinity.

To confront the problem, we must develop a sense of masculine integrity, where “integrity” connotes honesty, fullness, and an embrace of “the whole” of being a man.  We must encourage men to examine their lives, to be honest about their lived experience, and to notice what their bodies are telling them. Indeed, men—and their bodies—are hard and soft, active and passive, aggressive and vulnerable, assertive and gentle.

Of course, being good Catholics, we already have a sacramental theology that allows us to redeem all these qualities—including the traditional.  We also have a Savior, Jesus, who displayed them.  If we are going to live up to our name—“little Christs”—we must follow him as our example par excellence, allowing boys to see themselves as humans, to see girls not as “opposites” but as fellow humans, and to reject any behavior that compromises our common humanity.

In my view, our bodies are already telling us all this. We just need to be more attentive.

 

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5 Comments

  1. When Hoon Choi writes “Because NO ONE fits the normative definition of masculinity. To ensure men’s well-being, and to contribute to the well-being of all, we must jettison traditional notions of masculinity.” I wonder what “traditional notions” he is referring to. The portrait of a man as macho, athletic, aggressive, emotionally distant, dominating, and selfish is not traditional from a Biblical perspective. Traditional masculinity emphasizes responsibility, self-control, community involvement, strong moral character, and protection of the weak and vulnerable. Any article by Focus on the Family will confirm this.

    What seems to be the problem is the MODERN view of masculinity, which depends on testosterone and entitlement, and removes any obligation to deny the self or choose what is right for others over what is right for oneself. Jesus was not athletic, nor was he aggressive, but he was wholly masculine. I agree wholeheartedly that we should encourage our boys to emulate Christ and turn away from societal notions that define masculinity by achievement or power over others. That would be a return to traditional norms, not a redefinition of them.

  2. “The priests obviously compensated for their “unmanly” ministerial practices by highlighting the essential, complementary difference between men and women, or they spoke out vehemently against homosexuality (including sermons from the pulpit). The message I received was that religious behavior must be overshadowed by stereotypically masculine values. I too got caught up in this ideology, taking on “leadership” roles, so that I would develop an essential masculinity. The deep-rooted theology of gender complementarity instilled in me the notion that just being spiritual was not enough for a man. Indeed, I needed something more active, something more assertive, something more, well, phallic.”

    I have two questions about this passage.

    1. I know many people–both men and women, heterosexual and not, ordained and lay–who believe in some version of gender complementarity, but at the same time reject our market-constructed and false sense of the masculine. Are you trying to make a necessary connection between a false belief in the masculine and a belief in gender complementarity? If so, could you tell us what the basis of the necessary connection might be?

    2. Can you say more about what was “obvious” about the connection between the priests’ belief in gender complementarity and their false notions of the masculine? Do you have any evidence you could offer in support of this very strong (and perhaps even demeaning) assertion? It is quite a thing to lay at the feet of a group of people, especially because it means ignoring or dismissing the stated reasons for their position.

  3. TNMCKENZIE says, “Traditional masculinity emphasizes responsibility, self-control, community involvement, strong moral character, and protection of the weak and vulnerable.” Those are fine, virtuous traits and actions–but why are they not equally so in a woman? Like Hoon Choi, only worse (that I once struck out three times in an inning is typical of my prowess in all sports), I grew up suffering from societal expectations of masculinity that I did not live up to. Eventually I concluded that “masculine” and “feminine” are descriptive terms but not ethically normative ones. Many good things are manly, but none is good simply because it is manly, and none is bad simply because it is unmanly.

  4. William: A man can be masculine without being an athlete, just as a woman can be feminine without wearing a dress or makeup. My point is that society has a warped view of how we should express our masculinity or our femininity. This warped view alienates and divides, assigning labels of “good” or “bad” to certain traits and expressions which are, as you say, able to be both. A Godly view of sexuality and gender unites us around our complementarity and allows for a full expression of our true selves. Rather than doing away with masculinity and femininity to encompass all people in a general “humanistic” sense, I favor a more accurate expression of gender which takes into account our biological needs and differences without limiting individuals to the “standard” expression of their gender.

    I believe Church teaching on sexuality to hold the Truth in this regard.

    So much of what defines masculinity is cultural! Dressing nicely or having an interest in art and order is seen in modern society as effeminate, while in the Regency such things were the hallmark of a true gentleman. Jesus did not play any sports, He did not compete. Yet He was fully man. He was a leader, thoughtful and highly educated, strong in His character and firm in His statements. He was not feminine in His care for the weak any more than Mary, Martha’s sister, was masculine in her declaration of loyalty by sitting at His feet. Our expressions of femininity and masculinity have more to do with our priorities than they do with our impulses. Jesus went out as a man, calling men to follow Him. Those men left their wives at home to care for their children. Certain women who did not have the responsibility of motherhood to order their priorities also followed Him, like Mary Magdalene. Certain men, like John the Beloved Disciple, expressed a nurturing side and not only stayed with Jesus at the foot of the cross but also took care of Mary, His mother, after He died.

    Those involved in the Stubenville case are identifying with society’s warped view of masculinity. They have received accolades for being aggressive and dominant, and for making sexual conquests. I fail to see how declaring that there is no such thing as “masculine” helps these men channel their natural tendencies towards healthy expression. It will merely do the opposite of what was done to Hoon Choi, and make them feel that there is something wrong with them.

  5. Thanks for your helpful comments and criticisms. I learned a great deal from them. I agree that TNMCKENZIE’s kind of the “MODERN view” of what is considered “traditional” is problematic (although the problem is not limited to the modern view and not all modern views define masculinity in those terms). The kind of “fullness” of masculinities that I advocate can certainly be found in Christian traditions; especially in the Bible (although many use the same Bible to present a much narrower view of masculinity as the “traditional” view). This is why I turn to Jesus as the example par excellence. Perhaps it would have helped if I put the word traditional in quotations to imply that, in fact, a more traditional reading would yield a more authentic view of masculinity(-ies).

    Also I think it is possible to both embrace our common humanity and distinguish (and empowered by) the male experience. Borrowing from Robert Schreiter’s method called the “relative incommensurability of cultures,” it is possible to highlight the difference and search for common grounds. Feminist scholars have already done this by emphasizing specific experiences of women (the nature of their breasts and genitals, the experience of menstruation and birthing, etc.) and finding the common dignity and rights required of all human beings. Hence, men can find the idiosyncratic experience of the male body (including changes in the male genitalia, male circumcision, semenarche, deepening of the voice, growth of bodily hair [especially chest and facial]) a source of a great discovery and awakening and embrace our common humanity.

    CAMOSY asks, “Are you trying to make necessary connection between a false belief in the masculine and a belief in gender complementary?” and “Do you have any evidence you could offer in support of this very strong (and perhaps demeaning) assertion?” referring to the connection between the priests’ belief in gender complementarity and their false notion of the masculine. The answer is no. There is not a “necessary” connection. Not everyone with a belief in gender complementary (and certainly not all priests) necessarily have a false notion of the masculine. However, I think a kind of gender complimentarity, that sees the essential difference of men and women necessarily leading to specific roles (women to more domestic, nurturing roles and men to more public, active roles), does contribute to misunderstandings about a false notion of masculinity. This may not be “obvious” for many Catholics with wonderful local priests whose theology of complementary manifests itself into a loving, pastoral, and compassionate ministry. For others, however, they have some experience with priests who assume, demand, and preach about, specific roles because of one natural maleness or femaleness (and THESE moments ARE demeaning). For them (myself being one of them), it is painfully obvious that this partial understanding of masculinity or femininity (with its corresponding roles) is, at least in part, due to the emphasis put solely on the differences between men and women. Since it would not come as “obvious” to those people without this experience, I can concede my usage of the word “obvious.

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