Jonathan Dresner was the first, but not the last, to send me a link to this Sara Robinson post: There's Something About Men. Picking up on the recent disturbing news of adult men targeting young girls in school shootings, Robinson muses at length about "the man crisis". Her most powerful paragraph:
Something is not right with the boys. Something in the way Americans look at males and manhood has gone sour, curdling into to a rank, toxic, and nasty brew that is changing the entire flavor of our culture. Men everywhere seem to be furious. Some turn it outward against women, against society, against the institutions that no longer seem to nurture them. Some turn it inward against themselves, putting their energies into bizarre self-destructive fantasy lives centered around money, violence, and sex. Some, more disenchanted than angry, check out entirely, abdicating any interest in making commitments or contributions to a family, a profession, or a community to spend their lives as perpetual Lost Boys. Together, all this misdirected, destructive energy has become a social, cultural, and political liability that we can no longer afford to ignore.
As is being widely pointed out (and as even Robinson acknowledges) this sense of "crisis" is an old one. Read Michael Kimmel's magisterial and indispensable Manhood in America; he points out that virtually every generation since the advent of mass industrialization has worried frantically about "what's wrong with men today". (Teddy Roosevelt's hyper-masculinity gets particular attention in this context.) Pointing out that anxiety about male behavior is not new is at least partly helpful; as many feminist commentators have pointed out (see Amanda's long and excellent post, as well as the comments), it's hard to blame modern feminism for all of the ills of contemporary men when the sense of "men in crisis" long predates what is claimed as the cause of the problem!
In discussions like this, I'm reminded of why it is that I sometimes prefer youth ministry to academia. It's not that I abhor a vigorous discussion of ideas; it's not that I don't think trading fashionable gender theories isn't (sometimes) productive and useful. It's that frankly, I don't read a lot in these discussions (from either side) about what folks are actually doing to help change and transform young men's lives. This isn't a criticism directed solely at feminists, mind; often the worst offenders are those in the men's rights advocate (MRA) community whose proclaimed concern for the well-being of young men is not matched by a consistent track record of volunteering with the very lads they are apparently so worried about. Pontificating is easy -- teaching and youth work are a bit tougher.
I've taught a course on men and masculinity, and I have worked with high school boys in a volunteer capacity for seven years now. As I sit here at the computer on this Monday morning, I can feel the sore muscles in my lower back. They're not sore from running, boxing, or lifting; they're sore from spending Saturday night on the floor in a sleeping bag, hanging out with the All Saints Pasadena 2006-2007 confirmation class. We've got a small group of boys this year, but they're great guys and I loved the chance to get to know them better this weekend. We're going to be spending lots of time together between now and May, when they will (if they choose) get confirmed at the hands of Bishop Bruno. So, in other words, I spend a lot of time thinking about young men, masculinity, and what I can do to reach out to boys who may feel alienated, lonely, exhausted, and overwhelmed.
Though I love both boys and girls equally, I feel especially called to mentor and care for young men. I wrote at length about how challenging and rewarding this can be at Participate. Let me repeat a relevant portion of what I wrote last year:
"Unlike some folks in the pro-feminist/feminist community, I'm not troubled by the notion that some of the most important "growing" we can do needs to be done in single-sex environments. What we need -- and need desperately -- is more men who are willing to mentor other young men and oversee all-male groups where sexism, homophobia, and misogyny, and ultimately, harassment are not used to foster male solidarity!
One of the most important things I do in the context of my work as a youth leader is spend time with groups of boys. Talking with one other man, one on one, it's far easier to "let down one's guard" and step away from sexist humor, than it is in a larger group where several young men may be (consciously or no) jostling for status. The vital task is to get groups of guys talking about sexuality, rape, and harassment, and to get them accustomed to the experience of discussing these things without using ugly humor to alleviate tension and bond the group together in quick solidarity against women. To lead groups like this, you've got to be secure in your own sense of masculinity; it's all too easy for even adult males to get sucked into the tremendous temptation to try and win the approval of the other guys in the room by talking a "macho" game and using demeaning language about women to establish one's manly bona fides. And of course, the other thing you've got to have is a love, a genuine love, for young men.
When I first started mentoring young men, I still wasn't sure how I felt about other guys. My initial foray into men's work was motivated, frankly, by a desire to do everything I could to protect the women in my life from rape and harassment. The impetus to work with boys had more to do with protecting girls than it did with a real desire to connect with the guys. Happily, in the process of doing the work, that all changed. As I made a conscious effort to overcome my fears of being judged "not cool enough" and "not man enough", I made deep and abiding friendships with men my own age, older men, and some of the teen boys whom I was mentoring. With the latter group, I was able to earn their trust first -- and then, only then, begin to talk to them frankly and boldly about sexism, rape,and harassment."
I stand by that today.
In my work with boys, I do two things: I talk openly about the importance of courage, creativity, kindness, self-restraint, and a willingness to express emotion. In ways both subtle and direct, I advocate for both traditionally "masculine" and "feminine" virtues. And yes, to the dismay of some of my feminist friends, I often say things like "Bobby, you know, part of becoming a man is learning to..." My critics immediately want to know why I can't say "Bobby, part of growing up is..." Why must I insist on naming anything good as particularly masculine, since it should be obvious that courage, creativity, and compassion are as easily manifested by women as by men?
But I remain convinced that while an insistence on gender-neutral language sounds lovely in theory, it's lousy in practice. Young men are overwhelmingly anxious about one thing: "being man enough." A few opt out of the competition, choosing to openly reject participation in the anxious jockeying and measuring. (A disproportionate number of those who "opt out" end up blogging about gender issues. Ahem.) But for the rest, trying to tell them that "being a man" isn't important is absurd and counter-productive. In youth work, trying to eradicate any sense of significant difference between the sexes may be a noble cause, but in practical terms, it just doesn't meet the needs of most boys. What they need least is a gender-studies professor's lecture on why masculinity and femininity are strait-jackets! What they need most is a loving, responsible older man who will challenge them to rethink what it means to be masculine, and who will offer them a more expanded understanding of the joys and possibilities of being male.
I reject the false dualism that sees the celebration of masculine virtue as a zero-sum game. (Echidne feels very differently.) In other words, hanging out with the boys and talking about "persistence" as a positive attribute of manhood doesn't mean that it isn't also a positive attribute of womanhood. And while it would seem obviously more accurate to speak of these virtues, therefore, as being attributes of "gender-neutral adulthood", to do so is to ignore the enormously compelling need young men have to be affirmed as young men. We live in a culture where the only folks who seem to celebrate the specifically masculine are those who are pushing a far-right social and religious agenda. In order to counteract that message, we must do more than reject masculinity itself as a false construct. Rather, we've got offer a vision of what it means to be a man that is grounded in justice, grounded in compassion, grounded in a respect for diversity -- but also grounded in a sense that there is something magical,, unique, wonderful, and positive about masculinity itself.
I'll finish this long post with a story. A few years ago, while planning our major confirmation retreat to Big Bear, I came up with an idea. We had equal numbers of boys and girls that year, and of course the two groups were placed in separate cabins. I told the boys they had to come up with a "fun surprise" for the girls. The female youth leader with whom I work told the girls they had to do the same for us. I let the boys plan, but I told them to think carefully about what they wanted to do for all the girls as a group. And the boys picked an astonishingly traditional role for themselves. When the vans finally arrived at our mountain cabins, the boys leapt out, and insisted on carrying in all the luggage. The girls simply pointed to the bunks they had chosen, and the boys placed suitcases and sleeping bags neatly and carefully on top of them. The boys then gave cards (signed by each of them) to each of the girls, as well as a flower (the boys had bought these themselves.) The girls ended up giving each boy a personalized note, and (oh stereotype!) a bag of cookies and treats. Both groups loved the whole experience.
Were the "treats" they planned for each other rooted in stereotypical gender roles? You bet. Were the kids left disempowered, angry, alienated? Uh, no. Did I have to face a furious parent or two when we got home? Yes, I did. All Saints has many very liberal parents, and a couple had heard about these "treats" from their kids, and were angry that I hadn't done more to prevent the kids from acting out traditional gender roles. But my job is not to teach kids gender theory. My job is to love them and help them grow up. Where gender theory is useful, I'll use it. Where traditional gender roles leave everyone feeling affirmed and valued, I'll use them too. Ask any youth worker -- we live in the realm of the practical, the possible, and the effective. And while sometimes that means challenging negative aspects of the "masculine ideal", at other times, it means celebrating and encouraging the positive attributes of the same.