Liz Plank’s For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity is the kind of book I wish would be good and change things, but I end up feeling let down. I’m still working my way through it, but I’m far enough along to start forming some impressions.
The premise of the book is that a liberal feminist started talking to men about masculinity and discovered things that were already old news when Andrea Dworkin spoke about them in the 1980s:
I have heard in the last several years a great deal about the suffering of men over sexism. Of course, I have heard a great deal about the suffering of men all my life. Needless to say, I have read Hamlet. I have read King Lear. I am an educated woman. I know that men suffer. This is a new wrinkle. Implicit in the idea that this is a different kind of suffering is the claim, I think, that in part you are actually suffering because of something that you know happens to someone else. That would indeed be new.
But mostly your guilt, your suffering, reduces to: gee, we really feel so bad. Everything makes men feel so bad: what you do, what you don’t do, what you want to do, what you don’t want to want to do but are going to do anyway. I think most of your distress is: gee, we really feel so bad. And I’m sorry that you feel so bad–so uselessly and stupidly bad–because there is a way in which this really is your tragedy. And I don’t mean because you can’t cry. And I don’t mean because there is no real intimacy in your lives. And I don’t mean because the armor that you have to live with as men is stultifying: and I don’t doubt that it is. But I don’t mean any of that.
I mean that there is a relationship between the way that women are raped and your socialization to rape and the war machine that grinds you up and spits you out: the war machine that you go through just like that woman went through Larry Flynt’s meat grinder on the cover of Hustler. You damn well better believe that you’re involved in this tragedy and that it’s your tragedy too. Because you’re turned into little soldier boys from the day that you are born and everything that you learn about how to avoid the humanity of women becomes part of the militarism of the country in which you live and the world in which you live. It is also part of the economy that you frequently claim to protest.
And the problem is that you think it’s out there: and it’s not out there. It’s in you. The pimps and the warmongers speak for you. Rape and war are not so different. And what the pimps and the warmongers do is that they make you so proud of being men who can get it up and give it hard. And they take that acculturated sexuality and they put you in little uniforms and they send you out to kill and to die. Now, I am not going to suggest to you that I think that’s more important than what you do to women, because I don’t.
But I think that if you want to look at what this system does to you, then that is where you should start looking: the sexual politics of aggression; the sexual politics of militarism. I think that men are very afraid of other men. That is something that you sometimes try to address in your small groups, as if if you changed your attitudes towards each other, you wouldn’t be afraid of each other.
But as long as your sexuality has to do with aggression and your sense of entitlement to humanity has to do with being superior to other people, and there is so much contempt and hostility in your attitudes towards women and children, how could you not be afraid of each other? I think that you rightly perceive–without being willing to face it politically–that men are very dangerous: because you are.
The solution of the men’s movement to make men less dangerous to each other by changing the way you touch and feel each other is not a solution. It’s a recreational break.
Liz Plank’s book is here to say the same things, but weakly and hypocritically, so nothing ever changes. I might revise that opinion as I make my way through, but it’s not looking good after the first 7 chapters. I do appreciate the book for being revealing about the way normal people think, but the way normal people think is infuriating and wrong.
When half the population gets trained to block emotions, they lose the ability for compassion. This was best explained to me by David Hogg. He became one of the most well-known gun control activists after surviving a school shooting in Parkland, Florida. “A really good way for me to describe it is that I didn’t feel empathy until the day of the shooting,” he told me when we met in Houston. “I didn’t even know what it was like to feel someone else’s pain because I didn’t know what that felt like. I had constantly throughout my life told myself that it wasn’t okay to feel emotion and that I had to go out there and be this ‘lone wolf’ individual. But when I heard my sister crying after the shooting because she had lost four friends that day, I didn’t know why I couldn’t stand to be in the house and it was because her crying made me so uncomfortable because I was feeling her pain. But it took a mass shooting for me to realize that. So I can’t imagine what it makes so many other men across America.”
Reading that actually pisses me off, having to live with the widespread belief that autistic people don’t have empathy. If we’re talking about me having empathy problems, it calls into question my very humanity and worthiness for romantic relationships. When this unfeeling weirdo doesn’t even love his family and admits to levels of callousness I find unthinkable, it’s bad but it’s still considered normal and acceptable.
It’s baffling to me how much anxiety a lot of people show around simply having ” bad thoughts.” “Oh, no! I’m feeling an emotion! This is horrible.” Dude…you’re by yourself in a room. Calm down. When I believed Jehovah’s Witness stuff in childhood, I believed God could see my thoughts at all times, and I had to keep them pure. Even after I stopped believing consciously, it took another few years before I could play Doom II or hear someone yell “Satan” in the background of a punk song and not feel uneasy. But I got over it. You have to reach a stage of moral development where you realize that what matters is how you actually treat people, not your experience of your own feelings. People waste so much energy on “I’m not supposed to feel that.” Ethics is a lot about deciding which impulses to indulge.
Anyway, the choice to lead with David Hogg is questionable. I didn’t follow the Parkland stuff closely, because I think the Black Panthers had the right idea about gun control. Even barely paying attention, I’m aware that got a TON of hate from angry rightwing dudes. One of the book’s earliest examples of someone enlightened is widely considered a pussy who wants to take away the prime phallic symbol. Who the hell wants David Hogg as a masculine role model? This is already making Plank seem unserious about producing social change.
If you aren’t trained to understand your own emotions, it’s fairly predictable that you’ll have difficulty understanding the emotions of others. Because men are encouraged to play games that center on competition rather than relationships, emotional intelligence is a muscle that never gets developed. Research from Dr. John M. Gottman, one of the world’s foremost experts on relationships, has found that a man being emotionally intelligent is one of the greatest predictors of a successful romantic relationship. Gottman finds that while it’s a crucial skill, it’s not always taught to boys. One of the biggest ways it shows up in his research is men resisting their wife’s influence by not attending to her feelings and desires. When a man resists his partner’s influence, Gottman says there’s an 81 percent chance the marriage will not survive.
Then Plank is immediately off to talking about men being lonely and not friends with each other. What she skipped is any discussion of why this is the case. It’s because being emotionally in tune with each other is the BASIC POINT of relationships. If you don’t care about someone’s feelings or desires, you simply don’t care about them. You might perform grand gestures and say you love them and blah blah blah, but really you’re emotionally incapable of actual love. That’s what Plank won’t say bluntly. Ladies out there: huge numbers of you picked dudes that are incapable of ever loving you. Don’t believe in it becaues it’d make them some kind of faggot. It’s true.
If men can’t ask for directions to the closest gas station, then how the hell are they supposed to ask for directions about being a man?
The more I thought about how rarely men ask for directions, the more I realized that what I had written off as arrogance could actually be rooted in something much bigger, with much more far-reaching consequences than just getting lost on the highway. It made me reflect on all the other ways that not asking questions revealed an inability to show intellectual vulnerability and how it spilled over into the struggle to demonstrate relational tenderness or emotional flaws. It also made me think about a whole host of myths that we entertain about men that could affect their lives in small or large ways.
In other words, she was operating on the fundamental attribution error before. It hadn’t occurred to her that asking for help is emasculating, so people don’t want to do it. Psychoanalysts like Guntrip were talking about a “taboo on tenderness” in the 1950s. As a man, it seems so basic and obvious that I’m skeptical Plank really thought it was genuine arrogance. In other contexts, women write all the time about their hyper-awareness of male insecurities. That makes it hard for me to believe Plank sincerely believed it was “arrogance.” Come on. Everyone that’s been bullied knows the bullies are afraid and overcompensating. It’s just not a very deep observation. It’s great if it’s new to her, but the credibility of the book took a hit. I’d rather read the same book by someone who’s spent a long time thinking about it deeply.
Instead, bad self-help books, the kind Mari Ruti’s The Age of Scientific Sexism is about.
Because I’m part of the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus generation, a book that attributed most of men and women’s problems to innate biological differences between each other, I expected the biggest problem for men to be women. Given how much emphasis we put on so-called innate differences between the sexes as a barrier to healthy relationships, I expected men to make a laundry list of all the ways that women drove them nuts. But within a few minutes of our social experiment, I quickly realized that for many of the men we talked to, the hardest thing about being a man was not necessarily dealing with women: it was dealing with other men.
This came up with one of the first men we spoke to. He was British, in his midfifties, and seemed a bit taken aback when I asked him bluntly what was hard about being a man. But he didn’t pause for very long before he earnestly responded: “Other men.” When Esther pressed him to finish his sentence, he responded: “Expectations about men by other men.” He explained that he felt the pressure of “being a leader” and to “have a point of view rather than not know.” He also talked about feeling a pressure to speak rather than listen.
The gay men we spoke to were even more explicit about the way they felt uneasy in environments where there were a lot of men. For them, the rules imposed by traditional masculinity didn’t only make them feel personally uncomfortable; it made them feel unsafe around members of their own gender. One gay couple who came over to us explained that they found themselves constantly and subconsciously sweeping environments for men who could be a threat. “I’m scanning for other guys like me, so other gay guys, and women, and the other thing I’m trying to look for is hypermasculinity, because those are the guys I want to avoid.” They explained that this was the reason they primarily hung out with women. Although we were in the middle of the West Village in New York City, one of the most progressive cities in the world, the rules around what being a “real man” were a significant barrier to gay men freely existing in both private and public spaces.
I can confirm that those dudes are physically dangerous and it’s good to be hypervigilant. They might beat the shit out of you if you look at them the wrong way, which is easy to do when you’re autistic.
It’s hard to tell if this next passage comes from deliberate bad faith or profound ignorance of anthropology:
If you stop to really think about it, it’s pretty extraordinary that we’ve decided here in the United States and many other industrialized countries that women can wear a skirt to a meeting, but men can’t. Who decided that women and men can wear the same colors, the same materials, but that if there are a few little stitches in the middle separating the legs, it’s unacceptable for men? What if we assigned similarly arbitrary rules to what women and men can eat instead of how they can dress? Saying men can wear pants but not skirts is like saying men can only eat square pizza because the round shape, well, that’s just for girls. It would be absurd! Yet we accept gendered norms about clothing as truth. We don’t ask questions because we assume it’s just the way things are, but perhaps it’s time to leave some of the rules about gender that regulate the lives of men that no longer serve us behind.
It could be fairly easy to eradicate oppressive norms, because in order to exist, norms need to be applied. A social norm is only powerful to the extent that people are willing to respect it.
Jesus Christ. Everyone else noticed a long time ago that achieving social change is hard and usually requires heroic self-sacrifice. She thinks you can just will yourself to start acting right or something.
It’s interesting that men were the first to wear heels, but she knows damned well that arbitrary cultural symbols matter. That’s just how human societies are. There’s no utopia without arbitrary social customs. We’re not free neoliberal subjects, above it all and living according to pure reason.
This is how liberals raise their children to be just as awful as conservatives:
Because the fear of being emasculated is so potent, parents often end up pushing unhealthy ideals of masculinity on their own children because they are led to believe that this protects them. When I discussed this with a progressive and self-described feminist dad, he told me about a recent incident where he went to visit his parents with his daughter and son. When he saw his 5-year-old son holding the bouquet of flowers they had brought as a gift, he swiftly reprimanded him, ordering him to give them to his sister. The man said he felt bad doing it bu felt like it was the right thing to do. Of course, as a father he isn’t trying to harm his son; he’s trying to save him from the abuse society reserves for boys who transgress the male code. The system works because it’s not questioned. The system works because men think they are passing it down out of love, when of course denying boys the full experience of their humanity is what truly loving them would look like. The problem is not boys; it’s us. Flowers don’t harm boys; it’s the labels we ascribe to those things that do.
Ok, that guy is a weirdo. I’m criticizing a contemporary feminist work as not second wave enough, and I don’t describe myself as “feminist.” I’m anarchist. If I’m against hierarchy, being agains the patriarchy is implied. I shouldn’t have to make some special effort to understand feminism. Feminism should be self-evident and subsumed by anarchism. Anarchism is more general and abstract. I never heard my dad the domestic violence social worker describe himself as feminist. Actually, he said benevolently sexist things all the time.
But that guy self-describes as feminist. From my own childhood, I never would’ve imagined either of my parents yelling at me for holding a bouquet of flowers. That’s just bizarre. It’s normal for men to give people bouquets of flowers. But the guy is actively cultivating anxiety around gender in his 5-year-old. That’s more than a lot of men who wouldn’t call themselves feminist probably do. He’s very much the bad guy, but he tells himself he’s the hero of the situation. From both of my parents, I got the message loud and clear that doing the right thing isn’t popular, and could get you bullied. The masculine courage consists of facing that kind of threat instead of cowering from it like a goddamned pussy who can’t hold flowers for 5 seconds without feeling like his dick is going to fall off. If he were secure in his masculinity, the hysteria around flowers never would’ve occurred to him. What if it turns out his son is gay? Is this progressive feminist really going to make it easy for the kid to grow up with a healthy self-image?
That sort of hypocrisy is the defining quality of liberalism. It’s wanting to have your cake and eat it, too. Wanting the social credit for being a Good Person without being a good person and suffering the consequences. It’s a refusal to acknowledge that morality is fundamentally self-defeating. That’s the whole point of it. The idea that morality and self-interest are compatible is called objectivism, and it’s stupid.
But on the other side of that coin, and somewhat less widely discussed, is how frequently men feel uncomfortable asking for affection. Besides the fact that we expect men to always be up for sex (pun definitely intended), if we don’t always give men the space to ask for or experience emotional intimacy, physical contact can become the most acceptable way for them to express or receive love. In either case, men and women aren’t asking for what they want.
In other words, she suppresses her own needs because she’s taught that the needs of others are more important–he suppresses his needs because he’s taught he doesn’t have any.
Although some would argue that the male demand for sex workers powering the sex industry proves the veracity of this myth, sex workers frequently cite that the biggest part of their job has nothing to do with sex at all. Janet Mock, who has been open about her experience in the industry, said that stripping was much more emotional labor than physical work. In her book Redefining Realness, she says her job was more about “crafting open roads in conversation that would stimulate him, inflate his ego, and make him feel centered and listened to.” In an interview for the New York Times, she says: “Everyone talks about the tricks that we were doing, which was great and glamorous and looked like a Nelly video. But for clients, it was more about the quiet stuff: sitting and letting someone rub your thigh, and you nodding and listening.”
This is just another example of sex positive liberal feminist stuff being too clever by half. Supposedly, the goal of feminism is to change the rules of society. What she just explained is that men are totally capable of vulnerable self-disclosure. It’s just that we’ve set up institutions where we can get drunk and unload on poor women we’ll never be accountable to, and we never have to develop actual relationship skills with our wives and girlfriends. The liberal feminists think this is great. It’s not. For feminism to succeed, the old way has to stop working. Sexually degrading strangers isn’t a legitimate emotional coping mechanism.
Men also said that they felt like this culture of conquering meant that they used sex for personal gain or as a form of currency to gain status with other men, which explained why so many women reported feeling used in the context of sexual intimacy. “I have had periods in my life, particularly after a divorce, where many women (unfortunately) paid for my hurt and anger,” one user explained. “Those sexual interludes were devoid of intimacy.”
As I listened to men describe their insecurities and their inability to share them with other men and how it affected their presence in the bedroom, it explained a lot of the frustrations I heard from women. One of the most frequent complaints I received from heterosexual women I spoke to was that their male partners felt disconnected during sex. They didn’t feel present in the act and focused on what to do to their partner rather than how to be with their partner. Women told me that the men they sleep with often treated them as unidimensional, as if all women enjoyed the same thing in the same way, when in fact what works for one woman may not work for another. The truth is having sex with a woman is a lot like driving a car: it’s important to pay close attention to sounds, bumps, and signals. But repeatedly, I kept hearing from women that the men they were intimate with weren’t tapping into those signals because they were focused on their own performance. So ironically, it seemed like because straight men were so focused on having great sex, they were having a lot of bad sex, at least from her perspective.
I’ve also experienced that feeling in bed, as an autistic male. Women can do it, too. They can get just as performance-focused, or act like everyone wants the same thing. Paying attention to something other than your partner generally results in bad sex.
On the other hand, as an autistic male who’s had sex with 3 people in my entire life, I’ve already noticed that different people like different things, based on body language, sounds, and explicit verbal instructions. I find it INCONCEIVABLE that neurotypical men who have a lot more sex than me haven’t noticed. They don’t give a fuck. Partly, they were selected on the basis of not giving a fuck, i.e., dominance. The book doesn’t want to say the obvious: your boyfriend doesn’t love you. Never will. Doesn’t have the desire or the capacity. Scared of it, like a giant baby. You’ll be lonely forever with him, I regret to inform you.
The personal is the political. You can’t sexually reward the patriarchy for being the patriarchy, and then expect it to dismantle itself because you asked nicely and talked up the virtues of feelings.
Plank devoted a significant amount of space to the issue of shame preventing homeless men from seeking help:
He says we tell men, “You’re a man; go figure it out,” and this in turn often means “people are less likely to provide assistance to a man.” He remembers absorbing this very mantra when he was homeless. He didn’t think about who could help him; he just thought about how he was going to help himself. “I didn’t think who can I turn to…it was like I gotta figure this out somehow,” he explained. “Pride plays a very big role from a very young age…Men are told that if you don’t have anything, well, at least you have your pride.” He also noted the link between men’s identity and their work. While women are often desperate for work, it’s to provide for their children; for men he noticed it was related to their sense of self-worth and identity. “When we have no work, we have no purpose,” Charles said.
Let’s be clear: while shame perpetuates the cycle of homelessness, it’s not the primary contributing factor. That would be a gross oversimplification. Homelessness is a systemic problem that receives a fraction of the consideration and airtime it deserves from policy makers and the general public, and what those who aren’t housed want above all else is access to affordable housing. Nonetheless, the data points to the role of shame perpetuating and exacerbating the crisis, so this aspect deserves more attention, too.
When we don’t think about male shame we are not productively addressing the world’s biggest problems, because many of them are rooted in that shame or exacerbated by it.
And this is how liberal feminism makes itself useless with liberalism. Homelessness is some other, unrelated problem, addressable within the framework of capitalism, and only interesting here because it hurts men’s feelings. No.
Universal housing and basic income is a feminist issue. How does the patriarchy give men power over women? By giving us financial power over their basic survival needs. How much “sex work” would still happen if everyone had their basic needs met?
She treats homelessness like an incidental problem in society, and not a structural feature of capitalism. People wouldn’t work minimum wage jobs if not for the threat of homelessness!
Liberal feminists can’t imagine a level of freedom beyond wage slavery at the mercy of “policy makers.” It’s given up before starting.
And that’s the first 6 chapters. The 7th started to surprise me with self-awareness, but in the end that was also disappointing. Subject of the next post.