More than half my lifetime has been spent in “men’s stuff” or “menswork”: being in mens’ groups, going to men’s circles, men’s workshops, men’s festivals, and hanging out in men’s community. On top of this experiential stuff I studied gender at university and ended up with a PhD in men and social change.
Along the way I’ve been troubled by a conundrum which has reared its head at various times: is my focus on men’s stuff simply reinforcing one pole of a binary – reinforcing the social view that the categories “men” and “women” are very important? And am I thereby reinforcing the limiting view that gender can only be a binary?
The same conundrum is often encountered by feminists in regard to “women”, so it’s not just an issue about men or masculinity – it’s not an issue about just the “men” part of gender.
After talking with people in a wide variety of gender positions, sexualities and sexual orientations I’ve realised that actually my interest doesn’t revolve around men at all. I’m very happy to work with men – but not because I call them men or because they self-identify as men. “Men” is actually not the defining characteristic or identity or quality which is of greatest interest to me.
What I’m interested in is working with people who have been or are engaged with the “men” pole of the gender binary. Our society views gender as a simple binary – all people are put into one of only 2 boxes: if you have a penis you are in the “men” box; if you have a vagina you go in the “women” box. Not only that, every person MUST have a penis OR a vagina, one OR the other and NOT both and NOT something different.
I’m interested in that “men” box – I’m interested in what might be called masculinity socialisation – how that “men” box is constituted – what it’s made up of, the proscriptions it holds out for people who identify with it, the pressures it exerts and the stories and techniques it uses to exert those pressures. And how the “men” box interlaces with other major things like citizenship, health, individualism, “the nation” and democracy.
And, most of all, I’m especially interested in people’s direct experience with the “men” box: how people who present as male are pressured to fit in the box, how the shape of the box defines what is OK maleness and what is not; how people handle, mediate, come to terms with the opportunities and limitations the “men” box creates. What it’s like to live life as a “man”? what is sex like in the “men” box? What are intimate relationships like from within it? And what are all these things like – and the rest of life – OUTSIDE OF that box?
Among all this, the thing that fascinates me most is the experience of social power that the “men” box creates. It’s very clear that in our society’s gender binary “men” are privileged over “women”. Yet my experience and those of many other men is of being in a disempowered relation with that power: it is there at our disposal and we benefit from it yet we often feel bulldozed or bamboozled by it. Pushed around by its effects and its requirements.
How does this come about? And what can we as individuals do about it? How can we come into an empowered relation with our social power? (This question applies, I think, to all privileged groups – straights, whites, monogamous people, etc)
I’ve come to see that men – or more precisely, cismen – are not the only people who know the insides of that “men” box. It’s true there are some commonalities among men – and these are great to name, explore, and unpack. But many other people also hold pieces about the “men” box. Some feminist insights about “men/man/Man/maleness” are extremely rich. Some transwomen who were socialised as boys and then stepped aside from that “male” identity have beautiful clarity, insight and perspective on masculinity socialisation. Some transmen – those who are stepping into masculinity or maleness from another place, are likewise very juicy to engage with. Some transmasculine women also are excellent interlocutors – again because of how they engage maleness and masculine energy.
The commonality here,then, clearly is not that these people identify as “men”. Rather, the commonality is in the engagement with the “male/man/masculinity” pole (the “men” box) of our Western gender binary – whether that engagement be reluctant or celebratory, restrictive or expansive. “Engagement” here means a great deal more than simply being in a relationship with a man, having a dad, a husband or son, or working alongside men as colleagues. Rather, “engagement” is a far more deeply personal thing – a sense that male/man/masculinity has significant meaning within the person’s inner world, that in some way it is at play in their own identity, part of “who they are” (or, perhaps, were).
What grabs me, then, is not working with men. Rather I’m grabbed by exploring masculinity socialisation and what it’s like to engage with the “men” box. Anyone who helps to bring clarity and insight about that area of life is worth working with, in my book!