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October 23, 2006


The Quartermaster

I usually just a lurker here (trying to learn more about gender issues and feminism here and at a number of other blogs), but I wanted to tell you that I thought this was particularly insightful. I'm the sister of three wonderful brothers (one older, two younger), so I have an interest in making sure that they grow up to be the kind of men who will respect the women in their lives. I've also dated enough to see how a man's perception (or misperception) of masculinity and manhood shape how he treats women.
My brothers each have different talents and virtues, some more traditionally masculine, some less so, but teaching boys what it means to be men doesn't mean that some virtues should be seen as masculine, and others feminine. One of my younger brothers is praised for his ability to make peace in a family squabble; the other might be praised for standing up to the mean kid in the neighborhood. Neither need be treated as more masculine than the other.
It's plain to anyone who spends a lot of time around guys of all ages that feeling masculine is important to them. Men are looking to connect with other men the same way women try to connect with other women. What we teach boys about masculinity will affect whether they bond over demeaning women, or more positive things.
I'll end my commentary there, but thanks for this post.


I appreciate what you have to say about working with youth. I have spent a lot of time working in summer camps and there really is rich opportunity for theory meeting practice and the impact you can have on kids' lives.

(Not to beat a dead horse, but that was largely at the back of my mind in all the hair threads. In every camp I have worked at I was the only woman with hair on her legs. (Once there was one other woman). The ONLY one. How the hell are we supposed to teach girls that hair removal isn't obligatory to femininity if they *never* see women they respect with hairy bodies!) /aside

My quibble with your post is that I think the outcome was pretty inevitable given the starting point of sex segregation in groups. That meant that the kids had to think of what they could do for the others *as a group*, rather than as individuals 'well, Kate would appreciate heavy lifting and Maria would love it if someone else took over her dining hall chores one night,' etc. Further, the division between the groups was entirely and only based on sex.

So basically, when you ask kids to think of other kids not as individuals but as a group whose dominant characteristic is their shared and different sex, it's hard to imagine anything but sex role stereotypes coming out of that.


Okay. So feeling masculine can involve taking care of women. (And feeling feminine involves taking care of men.) And it's certainly nice to take care of other people.

So why not, next time, explain what happened and suggest they try to do something stereotypically associated with the other gender, to see that it's not "taking care of you in a masculine way" feels good, but "being considerate in general" feels good.

Re: zero-sum game? Well, no, talking about positive quality X as a part of manhood doesn't mean it's not a part of womanhood -- but if you aren't quite clear that it's *both*, then you're essentially making it into a black-and-white thing: something is for men or women, but not both. (I have no idea how you present things. This is just a general comment.)

The Happy Feminist

I have to say that I am disturbed by the notion of teenaged boys being so concerned about becoming "manly enough." Because manliness by necessity has to be definied as not female.

As a teenager I was (and continue to be!) concerned about meeting my obligations to become a full-fledged grown-up and adult. It never occurred to be to think of this in terms of being sufficiently "feminine" or "womanly." Why do we have to code the universal human desire to be a strong person in terms of "masculinity"?


Whether the differences between men and women owe more to biology or to social construction, the fact is that they "feel real" to the overwhelming majority of people. The role of the college gender studies professor is to challenge the assumptions that lie behind our notions of sex roles. But the job of the youth worker is to deal with the very real fears and anxieties young people have, and to look to affirm them in their very real sense of themselves as young men or women.

We put young men and women in distinct groups every time we have a retreat -- we have separate bunkhouses for a host of reasons. We have separate bathrooms. This creates "male space" and "female space". Integrating the bathrooms is fine for college students, but for ninth-graders? Most would find it terrifying (or at least awkward.) Acknowledging that there's more to gender difference than different plumbing is fundamental common sense in youth work.

Mrs. Robinson

Hugo, this was the best, most responsive and understanding reply to my post that I've had so far. (Though I can recommend Amanda's as well.) I'm coming from a place that seems to be rare -- and, as you say -- very misunderstood. I believe that women recognize, validate, and appreciate men as men without devaluing ourselves one bit as women. And men can do the same. And it's all pretty nice, when it works.

It's not a zero-sum game. I also worked with Methodist youth for many years (Aleve is good for that sleeping-on-the-church-floor back pain), and am the mother of a 13-year-old son. At that age, as you note, they're all desperate to know how men behave, and how to treat the girls, and what it will take for them to join the adult ranks. No amount of feminist theory changes the facts on the ground. And furthermore, I think they get very angry and disengaged if they're allowed to move through their teens without somebody taking the time to show them what's expected. It's a limited window of developmental opportunity -- especially for those of us who want to raise men with a feminist sensibiity. Once it's closed, you may never get another chance to teach them this stuff. (Unless they father daughters, which seems to be a common radicalizing experience for even very conservative men.)

Tara's comment touches on what I'd like to see happen, which is that we take care of men, and they take care of us. It's time for a whole lot more taking-care-of-each-other on all sides. I honestly thought that there were a lot of other men and women who might be ready for that, too; and that, in pointing out that we've got a goodly number of very scared, angry, disengaged men whose violence may be taking a new and odd turn, feminists might be moved to take notice.

Obviously, I underestimated the degree to which female rage has also festered and grown toxic. Which makes be a bit despairing that anybody's going to be taking care of anybody any time soon.


Thanks, Mrs. R. Indeed, as you say, . No amount of feminist theory changes the facts on the ground.


Hugo, you said "Whether the differences between men and women owe more to biology or to social construction, the fact is that they "feel real" to the overwhelming majority of people."

So, what about the minorities? There are lots of people who do not fit into the stereotypical constructs. I'm a female engineer. I'm more interested in typical male things than typical female things. I do not want or need a guy putting my camping gear on my bed for me. I can do that myself. If I need help from someone stronger than me, I will ask. What about homosexual teens? What are they learning from the gender constucts? Human gender and sexuality is not binary.

I agree that taking care of other people is important, but take care of people as individuals, not as one gender taking care of stereotypical stuff for the other gender.

Usually I like your writing, and your daily blogging is appreciated, but I really don't agree with you here.


Why are people trying to control the idea of what it means to be masculine? They shouldn't have to re-think what it means to be a man to fit the perspective of an older man they trust, part of becoming a man is finding yourself and discovering what it means to be a man. I belive a lot of mental illness is caused by trying to conform to an ideology that one does not belive in, but was raised to believe (usually by a person you trust, e.g. pastor, teacher, etc.) We need to teach boys to be capable to make the decisions themselves and not try to gain their trust and then press our political/ideological views on them. Lead by example and have discussions about issue's but don't try to shape their minds to your ideas.


Mastermind, you point out what I see as the left's great problem: the profound concern for the minority which leads to ignoring the needs of the vast majority. Because a few teens may feel left out, we should therefore not do something fundamentally beneficial for the majority? Wouldn't it be better to do as we do do at All Saints, and offer a time for kids to give feedback and discuss these issues? After the suitcase/cookie incident, we had time to talk and to debrief; like any good youth leader, I checked in with my kids afterwards to make sure they were all good with what we had done.

If we've got an intersexed teen, and we've only got two bunkhouses, we're gonna have to put the kid in one of the two bunkhouses. In an ideal world, maybe we'd have three bunkhouses, or maybe we'd be able to all bunk together in comfort. And if wishes were fishes, they'd swim in the sea.


While I approve of the sentiment behind this topic and even parts of the enacting of it I am once again struck by how, again, in one part of the blog you reference to homophobia, but then engage approvingly on a heterosexist field exercise, one which you defend in your comments. Homophobia doesn't come from mysterious food additives, but though normative assumptions of what it is to be socially acceptable as male and female.

When you earlier blogged about your religious envolvement with teens regarding sexual instruction, this topic came up and you, Hugo, promised a blog to address the needs of the LGBT teens closeted under your care - I'm still waiting for that.

Simply passing off responsibility that you don't feel comfortable approaching with statments about "on the ground" or "wishes were fishes" is unacceptable. You went to school and educated yourself about feminist issues - surely educating yourself to be a resource for the intersex children YOU HAVE ALREADY INTERACTED WITH (incidence rate of 1 in 2000), or the gay children (1 in 10) or the transgender children (stats unclear) IS your responsiblity (unless you really aren't there for all of those in your care).

It is your responsibility to, just as much as you affirm guys paying special attention to girls in traditional ways, affirm that is it just as masculine to pay special attention to guys - effeminate guys, butch guys, all sorts of guys in the same way. That part of "Being a guy..." is not just how we treat those we see as sexual partners or socially acceptable pairings but those whose view of sexual pairing and/or gender may be socially threatening.

Ignoring this gap between the ideology and the reality doesn't make it go away; its kind of like how hundreds of schools have policies on bullying but never openly address the issues of sexual orientation/gender behaviour bullying - by not talking about it, you aren't raising a generation of empowered males; you're raising another generation with the same blind spots we inherited from the last.


Elizabeth, it's a huge reach to say that because I talk about masculinity that I somehow ignore gay and lesbian youth. I've had queer kids in my youth group many a time (we are an affirming church), and I've been a resource to them.

I am very clear that embracing "manhood" in the positive sense is not the same thing as embracing heterosexuality. Nothing I say or do is intended to give the impression that gay men can't be fully and deeply masculine. I'm also clear on distinguishing what society says is masculine (bravado, promiscuity,athletic prowess, power, wealth) from what we in the church offer up as masculine (self-restraint, tolerance, courage, kindness, inner strength). And remember, naming these virtues as "masculine" is not, not, not, not, not, saying that they can't also be "feminine." Insisting we dispense with masculine and feminine altogether, however, and focus only on the "human" ignores both biology and socialization.

The Happy Feminist

I think I'm still confused. Sure, we shouldn't have unisex bathrooms or kids of both sexes all bunking out together -- but that relates to our differences in plumbing, as you put it.

But in terms of our character it sounds as though you want to tell the boys that certain valuable character traits are masculine, while also acknowledging that these same traits may be feminine as well. But, if I understand your argument correctly, we still need to extol those character traits by calling them "masculine" rather than just referring to them in gender neutral terms of being "adult" character traits. This is because (again if I'm understanding correctly) boys have a deep yearning to become "masculine" as opposed to just grown up.

So are we just playing a semantic trick on these kids? Or is there some meaning to being "fully and deeply masculine" that I'm not getting?


HF, it's more than a semantic trick. While men and women are equally capable of the same virtues, most will manifest those virtues differently. A man's courage may appear different than a woman's; not better, not worse, just different.

Teenage boys IN GENERAL (yes, there are exceptions, but not enough to disprove the rule) have stronger sex drives than their female peers. They are also raised with different rules about sexual behavior -- our culture ensures that, for better or worse. So a message about self-restraint and respect for young men can be couched in different terms than it might be couched for young women.

More men rape women than women rape men, after all. An anti-rape message needs to be grounded (as Men Can Stop Rape do) in a particular message about the virtues of Strength and Self-Control; it will be infinitely more effective (ask anyone who has done anti-rape work with boys) if it is couched in terms of masculinity.



Thank you for the clarification. I said what I said not because I am reaching but because as a feminist and a christian, I am facinated by your stories of mentoring within a church structure because they ARE heterosexist. While you may have been a resource to some queer kids, I haven't seen that on your blog, I haven't seen THAT story of big bear, nor do you seem to understand the equal (if not greater) importance of the leadership/mentoring roles to closeted queer youth. While you chastise MRA's for not stepping up, where are the stories, insight and theories that shape your actions, when you know that you may be the ONLY queer sensitive mentor role model in a church setting these scared, closeted and confused queer kids might have.

The Amish youth leaders have LGBT youth in thier care, so do extreme Conservative Evangelicals, they just may not know who they are yet, but those kids are learning a LOT about expected role behavior and what "masculinity" and "femininity" is about. Please share with us, how, as an feminist leader in an affirming fellowship, your role differs, share with us those stories, please. I honestly beg you. Because I'm having a hard time seeing it through stories of boys carrying luggage for girls and girls baking treats for boys.


Hugo - if you ever wonder why people dislike "feminism", read the critical comments here. (ANd rants like Echidne's post.) You've goaded the ugly face of feminism - the intolerance, the One-True-Wayism, the denigration of the masculine, the rejection of reality, all the things which many men and women who don't long for a return to patriarchy see in feminism, and cause them to decide that they can't join the feminist project.


Okay, Elizabeth -- between now and the end of next week I PROMISE a post on youth ministry with LGBTQQ youth.


Hugo - if you ever wonder why people dislike "feminism", read the critical comments here. (ANd rants like Echidne's post.)

I did rant, true, because I felt a sort of despair after reading the post originally, and the reason is my personal experiences of how masculinity has been defined in my own life, and it was as the negation of femininity, and the resulting exclusion of girls and women by gender. It is hard for me to imagine a world where a strong focus on what separates men and women wouldn't fire back as more limitations of women for this reason.

But I never denigrated what is masculine or men, I never advocated intolerance or some one-true-wayism.


Fair enough; Anthony, if you could refrain from using the inflammatory "rants", that would be nice. (Even if Echidne uses it herself.)


Gee, all over the place tonight.

I think one of the reasons for the heat behind this discussion is that many people have had experiences of masculinity/femininity being used as a weapon against them, often by loved ones. This leaves a bad taste and anger that certainly has not left me after 25 years. Throwing in "biology" into this is also problematic, because it's most often used to justify some venus/mars polarity, rather than complex diversity.

So as much as I can respect a masculinity based on justice, compassion, (and I would add non-violence, but that's just my ethical path) I'm not really ready to embrace it. I don't know if I ever will be.

But that's ok. We probably don't need a monolithic pro-feminist men's movement.

The Happy Feminist

Thank you, Hugo. Your comments make a lot of sense to me.

Anthony, I don't see how any of the comments on this thread could possibly be seen to constitute the "ugly" face of feminism. What you are seeing here are people grappling with the concepts of masculinity and femininity, what they really mean, and how to form a concept of masculinity that does not denigrate women or gay kids, or others. I can't fathom anything particularly off-putting about that unless one is very much wedded to a one-dimensional view of masculinity that involves dominance and superiority over others.


Anytime someone engages in the project of finding new ways to present masculinity or femininity, progressive and constructive ways, there are pitfalls. Right? The people who want to defend traditional gender roles will probably hate it, and those who aren't so fond of the masculinity or femininity they were taught would often rather abolish the ideas of masculinity or femininity altogether.

A military officer said in 2005, "You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them."


This is a view of masculinity that explicitly supports women's rights. It's also not pacifist, to say the least. Folks who are unhappy that the story Hugo Schwyzer mentioned included girls giving cookies to boys and boys moving heavy objects might take note.

Was chivalry ever egalitarian or pacifist? No. Can we draw upon the romance of chivalry to create a compelling story and ideal for young men today? Maybe!


And the day-to-day being there, living out that compelling story, is so important. Thank you for doing that, Hugo.


A post I'd like to see is an explanation of what, exactly, these important differences between men and women are. Because right now you seem to be asserting a logical contradiction -- that certain characteristics, say courage, should be considered both uniquely masculine *and* virtues for both sexes. Maybe that works in pulling one over on your irremediably gender-fixated kids, but it strikes me as philosophically unsustainable. On this blog I hear a lot of lip service to the idea that men and women are different, but that claim is never fleshed out in any substantive way -- or if it is, it's immediately contradicted by saying "oh, but that's equally applicable to women, of course."

Emily H.

I've recently come to realize that, as a feminist, I really don't have a problem with concepts of "manliness" and "femininity." In my ideal world, perhaps, we wouldn't have such concepts; but culture has a very, very long memory. We have knights and samurai, and gunmen of the west, and soldiers and survivalists, and--I don't believe that what we call 'manliness' is something that's biologically inherently male, but I do recognize that our culture has historically coded it as male. All of that is okay with me just so long as I feel that these ideas are as accessible to me as they are to any man. Putting on manliness is something I can do, just as I can put on femininity on the days when I can be bothered to wear a skirt and pluck my eyebrows.

Emily H.

Or, to sum up the way I see things a bit more coherently:

-'Masculinity' and 'Femininity' are concepts that aren't biologically attached to the categories of 'male' and 'female.'

-They are, however, historically and culturally attached.

-Given thousands of years of culture that tell us what masculinity and femininity are, it may not be such a bad thing to rehabilitate them as concepts accessible to both genders, rather than trying to extinguish them.

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