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Who’s afraid of giving?

Thanks to conversations with Sarah Stroup, Maha Bali, and Mayara, I’ve realized that my recent post about “gender toxicity” did not address the really crucial point about toxic masculinity specifically–namely, the source of the “insecurity” that, I wrote, “latches onto symbols of male dominance in an endless, futile quest for reassurance.” Assuming that insecurity exists (and, if you identify as a man, you may not agree that men are structurally insecure–but bear with me), where does it come from?

One sometimes hears men blame women’s expectations for their insecurities: women (or at least “hot women”) only sleep with “alpha males”. While there surely do exist women with a marked sexual preference for men who present as “alpha males” (I think of Lindsay from You’re the Worst), I do not believe they can possibly be so numerous (or so uniformly “hot”) as to be the cause of any widespread structural insecurity in men. The truth, rather, is surely that men generally fear that women prefer alpha males, for reasons we shall see shortly.

Lindsay from You’re the Worst

My dad’s go-to historical explanation for sexism is that in the premodern world, men could be called upon at any moment to fight and die in defense of their family or city; thus, they had to be by turns tough, stoic, and aggressive, and it’s understandable if they were sometimes a bit stressed. But if that’s true, I always protest, why didn’t the men invite, or compel, the women to fight, too? Is it really because, on average, women are physically “weaker” than men, or else (to put it in a less hierarchical way) less physically suited to fighting? I have a hard time accepting this: there are all sorts of ways to fight, many yet to be discovered (and many which might already have been discovered if more women had been soldiers), and few battle techniques call for only the largest and most muscular soldiers.

A more plausible story, in my view, is that once upon a time, people of all sexes fought, when necessary, in defense of their community. Over time, however, they found themselves constantly arguing with each other aggressively, even becoming violent over trivial slights or insults (as Achilles and Agamemnon do at the beginning of the Iliad). So they decided that, for the sake of peace, they would institute not only a division of labor, but also a division of “gender performance” (as, after much bloody debate, they decided to call it). “Men” would fight enemies, and among friends and family, they would–out of habit, and to train themselves for days of battle–play a rather dominant, controlled, sometimes aggressive, sometimes stoic role. “Women”, on the other hand, would care for those too young or old or infirm to fight, and among friends and family, they would play a nurturing, healing role, expressing themselves so far as they were permitted, but in case of conflict, ultimately submitting. This was the compromise those primeval prehumans found: nobody loved it, but the majority felt they could live with it.

Only one question remained: how to decide who would be the “men” and who the “women”? For this had not yet been established. The majority were initially in favor of letting each person decide how to identify themself, and of allowing individuals to change their identity at certain points in life, provided the overall balance of “men” and “women” was maintained. This, after all, seemed to offer a refreshing variety of experience to those who survived long enough: after suppressing one’s nurturing, healing instincts behind a facade of martial invulnerability for ten years or so, one would surely be ready for a change. In fact this proposal was on the verge of passing, until a problem, which had at first seemed tractable enough, derailed it: what physical signs would distinguish “men” from “women”? After much discussion, many considered hairstyle the strongest candidate: short or no hair for women (so as not to dirty the house or the food), long hair and beards for men (to appear scary in battle). Hair has the dual advantage of being both more or less permanently attached to the body, and of being changeable at transitional points in life, if the wearer so desires, without too much inconvenience.

In the end, however, possibly because they were drunk or high (or perhaps due to rigged voting machines), they voted for a proposal initially dismissed as a joke: that “men” should be those humans with penises, because the erect penis looks like a spear.

Whether or not you believe this story, it is at least true that the ancient Greeks did not need modern structuralists to tell them that they were defining gender as a “binary opposition”: they knew that quite well, and embraced it. The root opposition, from which many others proliferate, is that men are “active” and women are “passive”. This same oppositional definition–“men are active, women passive”–underpins the gender structure of many contemporary (as well as historical) societies globally.

Such a binary definition would not necessarily cause problems if one’s gender were something one could change throughout one’s life. Problems arise insofar as gender is considered fixed and assigned arbitrarily–that is, on the basis of physical features with no necessary connection to the gender script to which they are linked (i.e., a penis doesn’t make you active). And problems also arise for men specifically because not only a love of activity, but also a fear of passivity, is instilled in them from a young age: a fear of dying, of being beaten in battle by an enemy, of seeing one’s wife raped, or seeing one’s children murdered, of failing to provide food for one’s family and seeing them starve…and also of being put in a “passive” sexual position (the meaning of which can vary: the Greeks considered passive anyone receiving penetration, but they also considered men who used their mouth to give a woman pleasure to be passive–a notion that finds a bizarre echo in tweets I’ve seen calling men who go down on women “gay”). Young “men” may be, and in fact are, manipulated in various ways into feeling that “being fucked” is the worst possible thing that could happen to them, the revolting embodiment of all the humiliation any man could suffer. This explains why men who disapprove of homosexuality typically do so with so much more vehemence than they feel about other sexual acts or attitudes they consider immoral: even to try to imagine being gay, which is the ordinary way humans go about trying to understand things (like “homosexuality”), requires a man to try to imagine enjoying being fucked–which to him seems a revolting paradox.

Homophobia is only one of the toxic products of men’s nurture-induced fear of passivity. Much of what is called “misogyny”, “hatred of women”, is, I think, rooted in a fear of being a “womanly”–that is, passive–man. Men who struggle to express love, care, and other such emotions, must often do so for the same reason.

Toxic masculinity, then, stems from a learned fear of passivity or submission. This is also called “fragile masculinity”. Over time, we might say, fragile masculinity becomes more and more toxic, warping the emotional development of the person labeled a “man”, and producing the ever-more-elaborate, expensive, and (to onlookers of all sexes) ridiculous displays of masculine dominance that I discussed in the previous post. Hence the reputation old men have for being especially annoying.

Speaking of reputations…let me say something about Egyptian men. First of all, every Egyptian man I’ve gotten to know has turned out to be lovely, at least in my interactions with them. However, I’ve also gotten to know quite a few Egyptian women with low opinions of Egyptian men in general. One put it to me this way: “An Egyptian man in an insecurity walking on two legs.” All acknowledge the existence of wonderful Egyptian men but complain that they are simply too hard to find. Without enumerating all of the particular complaints about Egyptian men I’ve heard, let me just say that a root cause of the various related issues seems to be a fear of passivity–of being or, perhaps even more frighteningly, of appearing passive. This hypothesis receives confirmation from the fact that American men in general (my particular case aside) have a high reputation among the younger Egyptian women I’ve met (of course there is selection bias here–none of this evidence is scientific). They especially praise the way that American men–at least those who make their way to Egypt–are less judgmental and overbearing than others.

What can we do to address gender toxicity in general and toxic masculinity in particular? We can begin, I think, by acknowledging that the peacefulness and complexity of contemporary society globally, as well as the power of technology, are such that sharply opposed gender roles are no longer (if they ever were) necessary for communal defense or any other purpose. It is widely agreed, at least in principle, that contemporary “men” and “women” need not follow traditional gender scripts: men can (also) nurture and care, women can (also) lead and fight, etc. One possibility is to identify, as I do, as “nonbinary”–which for me means, in part, committing NOT to replicate or sustain, in my own life and performance of self, gender scripts that I consider inherently flawed and incompatible with the kind of person I want to be. Needless to say, identifying as nonbinary is only one means among many others of enacting such a commitment.

Finally, for any DigPINS readers, what does all of this have to do with teaching? I’ve titled the post “Who’s afraid of giving?” because I think this question speaks to a gender-related fear many teachers share–namely, the fear of being “taken advantage of” by students. This fear is particularly prevalent in the rather masculine (because historically male-only) society of university professors. We fear cheating, plagiarism, and grade inflation–all of which are legitimate concerns, but do we sometimes worry too much about them, on a personal level? What about every teacher’s worst nightmare: that a student who has done very little work will receive a good grade? How worried is the teacher about the student facing troubles later in life due to poor preparation and overconfidence, and how worried are they about being “screwed”–taken advantage of, made passive, “used in womanly fashion”–by some punk kid? And what about all the anxious hand-wringing around Princeton ceasing to require Classics majors to learn Latin and Greek? There are conversations to be had and decisions made about all of these things, to be sure. But isn’t it possible that some of the emotional intensity is due to what we might call fragile professorial masculinity?

I see my job as a professor to be essentially that of a teacher (what I write should, I think, always have some connection to my teaching–certainly this connection makes for far better writing than I would otherwise produce!); and I see teaching mainly as giving: giving students whatever useful questions, attentive listening, ideas, prompts, learning experiences, feedback, and so on, that I can come up with, and seeing what they do with it. Of course I must also find some fair and helpful way to evaluate what the students give me in return as (at least at the end of the semester) an A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, C, C-, D, or F. I accept that this mode of evaluation is necessary for certain specific purposes (companies looking for employees want to see a GPA, etc.), but I find it so coarse as to be more or less meaningless (what does a “B+” in Greek Classics in Translation, or Advanced Astrophysics, actually mean?), so I don’t stress too much over it.

I also don’t stress too much about keeping my “work life” and “personal life” separate–naturally there are some crucial boundaries, and various kinds of separation can be beneficial in various ways. But I see my students not, usually, as “kids” I’m trying to train to be “adults” (“turning boys into men” who can, say, speak Latin flawlessly)–and whose training is an exhausting chore–but rather as friendly collaborators with whom I’m working on projects that interest all of us. Or at least that’s how I want to see them. It’s hard to do that, though, when I’m compelled to play the role of the “father-professor” grading (i.e. “judging”) exams (i.e. “the student’s worth”)–a role I feel Blackboard imposes on me with its categories like “Needs Grading” (why not “Marvels Awaiting Discovery”?). I prefer platforms like WhatsApp, social media, and blogs, where I occupy no structurally privileged role as the “professor”–of course I am the professor, but why should that scare the students into silence (or juvenile misbehavior)? Isn’t the point–the point of every teaching workshop ever–that we should all communicate a lot about the course topic? So why not use platforms where students feel comfortable communicating with us as if we were the human beings that, in fact, we are?

That’s my case against fragile, and toxic, “teacher masculinity”–which, by the way, women who teach, especially in universities, are often led to perform for fear that students will not respect them otherwise.


Published by drsamuelc

Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The American University in Cairo

One thought on “Who’s afraid of giving?

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