This is going to be long.
No one in the blogosphere "fisks" (takes apart expertly) weak and embarrassing posts about gender and sexuality better than Amanda. This morning, she goes after the fellows who wrote in to Salon to attack Rebecca Traister, author of an online article entitled Attack of the Listless Lads.
I'm bearing witness to a bona fide crisis in American masculinity, one that seems especially, but not exclusively, to afflict the young, urban and privileged. And with it, I have observed the birth of a new breed of man: a man of few interests and no passions; a man whose libido is reduced and whose sense of responsibility nonexistent. These men are commitment-phobic not just about love, but about life. They drink and take drugs, but even their hedonism lacks focus or joy. They exhibit no energy for anyone, any activity, profession or ideology. While they may have mildly defined areas of interest -- in, say, "Star Wars," or the work of Ron Jeremy -- they have trouble figuring out what kind of food they might want to eat on a given night. And, in an effort to cure what ails them, they have been medicated to the gills with potions designed to dull their feelings even further.
While a bit of a whopping generalization, Traister isn't far from the mark here.
The best of the letters to Traister (in terms of encapsulating what I hear from many Men's Rights Advocates) is from a Paul Fenn. He writes:
Don't forget, too, that from the standpoint of even smart, well-rounded bachelors, modern women are harder work than ever. Women always were an unfathomable puzzle. But now they're like men -- narcissistic, selfish, demanding, neurotic, image-obsessed, ego-driven, attention-needing, impatient -- AND an unfathomable puzzle, one with money, power, expectations and strong feelings of entitlement. That's a hell of a lot for a man to factor into everything he says and does and feels.
To me, a well-traveled North American recent ex-bachelor of 46, our culture's been over-designed, and weakened for it. In the older cultures, young men and women would paddle through the rapids of change and only get splashed, while over here the canoes have been overturned and the current has all the paddlers in its grasp. The irony or paradox is, most of the single, attractive, intelligent women I know -- and being in the beauty business, I know plenty -- would prefer the male of the pre-feminist, pre-p.c. era to the lifeless twits and insipid metrosexuals they have to make do with nowadays. Interesting too, how so many of the single, attractive, intelligent men I know avoid local women and instead pursue immigrant girls from more established cultures who are comfortable in their own less-complex skins and bring their own flourishes of exotica and mystery with them.
Well, Fenn is a far more articulate misogynist than most I run into.
Do read the Salon piece, the letters, and Amanda's response.
What I wanted to touch on briefly was on Fenn's notion (one that I've heard from many MRAs) that modern American women are simply "too much" for contemporary men:
Don't forget, too, that from the standpoint of even smart, well-rounded bachelors, modern women are harder work than ever. Women always were an unfathomable puzzle. But now they're like men -- narcissistic, selfish, demanding, neurotic, image-obsessed, ego-driven, attention-needing, impatient -- AND an unfathomable puzzle, one with money, power, expectations and strong feelings of entitlement.
Well, he doesn't argue for male superiority here, which I suppose is a plus. Still, I'm deeply troubled by the complaint that women are "harder work than ever." The underlying assumption -- and it isn't always unique to men -- behind a line like that is that hard work isn't part and parcel of any enduring romantic and sexual relationship. It's true that in our pornographic age, men can find sexual release without doing much more than switching on the computer. Our sense of what is "difficult" has become so distorted that a great many men seem to regard even basic pleasantries like actually going out on a date to be too much of an effort. Our fantasy -- Fenn's fantasy -- is of simple, uncomplicated girls (not women) who will not ask us to do the hard work of really building a modern, loving, egalitarian relationship.
Committed monogamous relationships ought to be a hell of a lot of work. As one of my old friends used to say to me, "Hugo, you're either transforming or you're stagnating. Those are your only two options." Stagnation is easy; growth is hard. When men masturbate to porn rather than pursue relationships with real women, they're stagnating. When they seek out the "less complex" and the "exotic", they are stagnating. Though both men and women can grow professionally and intellectually in solitude, damned few of us of either sex really do our best emotional work alone. And if we engage in what Traister calls "institutionalized promiscuity", then we absolutely guarantee ourselves stagnation. Having what is essentially the same experience over and over again with different women gives the illusion of everlasting novelty, but in fact, there's no growth there. Having a series of different and challenging experiences with the same woman is far more likely to produce beneficial results for one's soul.
If there's one unifying battle cry among most men's rights advocates, it's this:
"Men are okay as they are. We don't need to change! It's women who need to change, and they need to stop making unreasonable demands of us!"
I don't think any of us ever get to say "I don't need to change." All of us, without exception, carry around our selfish desire to stagnate, to be comfortable, to focus more on ourselves than on others. That's true in my case and in the case of everyone I've ever met. Some folks are wise enough to recognize that dark side of their nature, and they spend their lives actively seeking to transform it by reaching out to others and by challenging themselves to grow. Most simply shrug, say defensively "I can't help the way I am" and demand that others change to accommodate their own needs.
I became an active pro-feminist for both ideological and personal reasons. Ideologically, I saw that the triumphs of earlier generations in securing things like the right to vote and the right to education had not really given women full and equal opportunity in society. I saw the women I loved struggling with everything from the glass ceiling to eating disorders to sexual assault to the mom/career dilemma, and I became convinced that theirs was a struggle worth joining. On a personal level, I liked that the pro-feminist men I knew were not willing to sit around and cheerfully affirm reckless and irresponsible male behavior. They didn't believe that "boys will be boys"; they didn't believe that our hormones or our DNA excused infidelity, abuse, porn addiction, or self-centeredness.
Where the men's rights movement says to men: "You're okay, it's those feminists who are at fault for your pain", the pro-feminist movement says to men: "Look, women have their part. But we don't grow -- not at all -- by pointing out the faults of others until we've first addressed our own failings. As men, we need to hold each other accountable. We need to see where we've been wrong -- personally and institutionally. And we need to empower each other to break out of these painfully confining roles and actually start to live!"
On a "macro" level, pro-feminist men's work is hard work. It's not easy challenging apathy; it's not easy challenging boorishness, it's not easy challenging the pervasive sense that women have become too demanding. On a "micro" level, for those of us who fall in love with and build lives with women, relationships are a hell of a lot of work. Monogamy magnifies our failings, and what a blessing that is! There are some truths about us only a lover who has known us a long time can see. The best partner will, with love and patience and caring, challenge and push his or her partner to transform himself or herself into becoming more loving, more giving, and more of a beacon of light to the world.
It's funny: we live in a society that romanticizes one kind of male transformation. The journey from scrawny recruit to buff Marine, from chubby sloth to sculpted athlete -- these cliches are on our television sets and movie screens every day. But while men expect to be challenged and changed by a military boot camp, we don't have the same expectation about romantic relationships. No, I don't think our girlfriends and wives are drill instructors! But I do think we need to see that becoming "all we can be" (to borrow the old Army slogan) takes a colossal amount of work. Just as no soldier or Marine can become his best without the support and encouragement to grow that his comrades give him, no man or woman can, I believe become his or her "best" without being supported, encouraged, and ultimately confronted and challenged by a romantic partner.
When women are economically, politically, and sexually dis-empowered, they are dependent on men. When they are dependent on men, they are less able to challenge them. Women's financial, educational, and corporeal autonomy allows them to speak truths more fearlessly; truths that we men are often stunned to hear. Little wonder the MRAs rage against the feminism that has empowered women to finally, after eons, give voice to their frustrations and their wants! But seen from a pro-feminist perspective, the movement has liberated men as well. It has given us mothers and wives and sisters and girlfriends and daughters and coworkers who are increasingly unafraid to push us to transform ourselves and break out of old and stagnant patterns.
Do women have their work to do? Of course. But as I've said on many an occasion, it's not appropriate -- given the history of sexism in this country -- for a man to preach to women about what they ought to be doing differently. Men need to focus on confronting one another in love, and encouraging our brothers to be willing to do the difficult and ultimately rewarding work our sisters are calling us to do.