Monday, January 16, 2017

The Broken Manhood Spectacle

Click to view the thread on the original website
In recent years, I’ve watched three women I know endure long, bitterly contested divorce battles. In all three cases, the court battle has turned heavily on their efforts to regain their own birth names, so they need not be legally known by their abusers’ surnames. Names have power, and when abuse survivors are still required to sign their abusers’ names on legal documents, it has the ability to double down on scars that haven’t healed.

That was my thought when I wrote the image at right. For those unfamiliar with Whisper, it’s a smartphone-only social media app where people post 200-character thoughts without bylines, sort of like anonymous Twitter with better graphics. It’s fun sometimes to post random thoughts and get general feedback from strangers. This particular idea, more a random musing than a thought-out manifesto, sat unread for days. Then, over the weekend, it blew up in my face.

Click the link if you want particulars, which I don’t recommend. The idea got over 600 clicks on the heart logo, indicating over 600 people like this idea. But it also got nearly 250 text responses, skewing heavily negative. And by “negative,” I don’t mean people saying that’s a bad idea. Many responses are hostile and vulgar. Many impugn my sexuality. Several include threats against me, and against women who don’t adopt their husbands’ surnames.

This battery of emotionally charged, bizarrely personal responses possibly bespeaks an important cultural issue. These responses variously indicate I’m gay, I’m weak, that I’m an embarrassment. But I can’t help noticing two recurrent threads in these responses: accusations that I’m a porn addict, and that I’m sexually impotent. Both imply I’m incapable, psychologically or physically, of having normal heterosexual sex. These respondents, presumably mostly male, feel the need to impugn my sexuality and my manhood.

I’ve experienced this before. When I positively reviewed a book questioning why women are systemically marginalized in churches, I received responses indicating I was homosexual, that my receding hairline proves my moral degradation, and that I’m so weak and enfeebled that I can only convince women to have sex with me by pretending to be nice. Overthinking the responses arrives at multiple contradictions, not least that gay men aren’t interested in sex with multiple women.

But in both cases, we have men who’ve never met me, mostly men who don’t post their real names, projecting fears of diminished manhood onto me for isolated opinions. They don’t know my context, like the three women I’ve watched struggle to reclaim their identities from their abusers. They simply assume, because I don’t desire to dominate and sublimate women, that my manhood is somehow diminished. The consistency of their imputations is bizarre, and noteworthy.

These men lash out at another man who doesn’t share their dominance-based model of manhood. They implicitly see masculinity as something not innate, but achieved, presumably through shows of strength. They dominate women, and when the opportunity avails itself, they dominate other men. If they cannot dominate others face-to-face, they dominate electronically. But their behavior demonstrates that dominance beats all. You aren’t a man, their words declare, until you crush somebody else beneath your boot.

One other common trait bears comment. Though the app conceals the users’ names (unless users voluntarily offer their names), other details are visible, like gender, location, and broad age range. These hostile comments overwhelmingly come from men between ages 18 and 25, the ages when men are most likely to seek partners and marriage. I cannot say how these men treat the women in their lives. But their response to a male stranger is telling.

There are legitimate arguments against my position. Several young women, responding to my statement, expressed a desire to take their husbands’ names to shake off abusive fathers. That’s a good reason. A woman may want to adopt somebody else’s name. If and when I get married (a prospect seeming increasingly unlikely at my age), my wife and I will discuss, and make a decision then. My thoughts now aren’t binding for the rest of time.

But these responses, disproportionately, don’t involve appeals to contingency. They’re largely free of nuance. They bespeak a model of manhood that doesn’t brook women having separate identities, or men having dissenting ideas. I spoke for myself, not all men everywhere, but these men choose to threaten, insult, and belittle me. Be honest, you only attack somebody when you believe they’re dangerous. These men see independent-minded women, and men who support them, as threats to manhood.

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