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.