Why talking about 'healthy masculinity' is like talking about 'healthy cancer'

I understand—I really do—why a lot of people raised to be a man are seeking a gendered sense of self that is separate and distinct from all that has been called out lately as toxic masculinity. These days a penised person* would have to be really clueless not to notice all the manhood-proving behaviors that have been critiqued as hazardous to well-being (one’s own and others’). However much that penised person accepts the mounting critique of standard-issue masculinity, he might reasonably be wondering what manhood-authenticating behaviors are exempt from it: What are the ways to “act like a man” that definitively keep one from being confused with “men behaving badly”? Or, put more personally: What exactly does one do nowadays to inhabit a male-positive gendered identity that feels—and is—worthy of respect (by oneself and others)?

At the same time—as if in an alternate universe—there are legions of people raised to be a man who have been exposed to the criticism of masculinity but are rejecting and resisting the critique with all their might, almost at a cellular level, the way a body’s immune system generates antibodies to fend off an invading infection. For these penised people, criticism of any masculinity is experienced as an attack on all masculinity. Simmering resentment, eruptive anger, and backlash are but a few symptoms of their abreaction. What’s going on inside—where they feel their authentic “This is who I am”—is a life-and-death struggle against what they perceive portends personal annihilation.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll name these two characterizations Reformers and Conservers. Of course these are not the only segments of the penised population. But I’m going to assume they are both prominent enough that most readers will recognize them in broad outline. And I’m going to assume, further, that most readers place some sort of valuation on these two personas. One is better than the other, most readers are probably thinking. One is Good Guy and one is Bad Guy. And no matter whether you believe that Reformers are the real good guys or Conservers are the real good guys, what will likely be on your mind is that one does a superior job of “doing masculinity” while the other does an inferior job.

Notice how the better-than/worse-than categorization scheme comes mentally into play? It kicks in like a habit whenever one’s acculturated higher cortex is presented with any question having to do with manhood. The brain has been conditioned since childhood to perceive the social gender identity manhood through a lens of better than/worse than. It’s how we all learned to experience the identity, and it’s how we all know to recognize “who’s the man there.” It’s also how some of us embody credible manhood if and when we can, and it’s what all of us try to keep safe from if and when we can’t. Because this interior superior/inferior typology is intractably linked to interactional cognition of the gender identity manhood, it’s no wonder that neither Resisters nor Conservers get round to thinking about the template very critically.

But we must do that. We actually must. Our lives depend upon it.

For reasons implicit in my opening paragraph about Reformers, the notion of “healthy masculinity” has caught on in many circles the past few years. People convene about it, organize and workshop about it, tweet and blog about it, and in general work conscientiously at making the concept mean something viable and valuable that will fill an emptiness in Reformers’ lives—the yawning void left when, beginning a few decades ago, “He acts just like a man” began to shift from laudatory to derogatory.

Conservers, of course, don’t think there’s anything unwell about masculinity at all. And they definitely believe that masculinity ought not be impugned—as, in truth, it is—by the expression “healthy masculinity.” Imagine how a patient in a cancer ward would feel if a newly enlightened roommate began rejoicing about having healthy cancer. Probably offended. Maybe pissed off. Similarly a Conserver will never be persuaded that the masculinity he aspires to and embodies is unhealthy, or an affliction of some sort. Instead, the Conserver will regard the innuendo of “healthy masculinity” as itself a form of life-threatening attack.

Now, call me crazy, but I don’t see much long-term promise in talking only to Reformers or only to Conservers. And I certainly see no advantage in sending a message—“healthy masculinity”—that is sure to exacerbate the gender anxiety of anyone who doesn’t believe that subscribing to analog masculinity somehow makes a person sick. Shutting off communications with Conservers from the get-go by talking of “healthy and unhealthy masculinity” is at best vain and counterproductive and at worst inflammatory. Numerically Conservers represent a lot of penised people; they probably represent more than Reformers, who are still a minority inside the Conserver-dominant culture. But besides being a triggering turnoff to Conservers, there’s an even bigger problem with talking of “healthy masculinity”: It’s based on a well-meaning but ultimately faulty premise. It’s not the right fix for the problem. It’s actually a “cure” that reinvigorates a “disease.”

Many folks of goodwill want whatever’s wrong with the social gender identity manhood to be fixed comprehensively. Their hope is that the fix will avert all those male-gender-identity flare-ups that are well known to cause collateral damage. They want to live in a world where there is no need to be afraid of someone simply because they were born penised and socialized to be a man. In short, they want more harmony among human beings than we are presently accustomed to on the planet.

But here’s the rub: Any movement or campaign to remedy manhood cannot itself replicate the better-than/lesser-than oneupsmanship upon which—inside everyone’s head—manhood is definitionally predicated. Every time our acculturated brains want to identify certain penised people who are “doing masculinity” superiorly, we are reactivating the same mental scripts that were imprinted in us when we watched, or participated in, our earliest mano-a-mano fights. Someone was the victor. Someone was the loser. That was the way we learned the meaning of “manhood.” And that winner/loser, dominant/subordinate definitional prototype does not just vanish into thin air.

Instead we have to figure out a way to retrain brains, and reframe what the problem is precisely. To explain what I mean, I’m going to digress a bit and talk about what’s known as bystander-intervention training.

Basically bystander-intervention training is a program to equip penised people with communication skills, empathy, emotional intelligence, relational tactics, and a sense of personal agency to intervene when they see another penised person about to commit a sexual assault. Bystander-intervention training is widely regarded as one of the most effective means of primary sexual-assault prevention in social situations such as bars and parties where there are likely to be observers.

A big part of the program is teaching trainees (who tend to be Reformers) how to address one or several other penised people (often but not always Conservers) in a way that will effectively interrupt a probable assault-in-progress, create an exit option for a probable victim, and—here’s the tricky part—not precipitate a cockfight with the probable perp.

There are many worthy aspects of bystander-intervention training but the one I want to focus on is this: It is practice acting out of one’s moral agency without trying to prove one’s manhood. This is a discipline that is learnable, replicable, and rememberable. One reason a trainee knows the discipline is important is that he knows darn well what will happen if he does try to prove his manhood in such a situation: The contretemps will turn to combat of one sort or another, because the very act of trying to demonstrate one’s own manhood vis-à-vis another penised person will fuel the other person’s manhood-demonstrating responses (which are fired up already, as evidenced by the sexual-assault-in-progress).

And when a trainee overcomes his own anticipatory dread of what might happen to him if he intervenes—when in real life he actually does step up and say or do something that interrupts what might have ended harmfully—he learns another powerful lesson: “I did that. I said that. I stopped that.” Put another way: “I acted out of my own moral agency and I can take personal responsibility for the consequence of that action.”

Of course, those words are not literally what runs through the ex-bystander’s mind. But there’s a distinct experience captured in that moment. It’s the experience of acting out of one’s conscience and being who one is.

I submit that when we connect the dots of moments like that—real-time instances of embodied ethics and accountability—a new picture of the problem will emerge alongside a new recognition of the solution.

Learning how to act out of one’s moral agency with consistency—how to tap into one’s capacity for ethical choice-making in a way that other people can come to expect one to do—is not a gendered behavior (it doesn’t come with any particular plumbing), nor is it a gendering behavior (it doesn’t make someone more anything except more human).

Another digression.

Ever notice how frequently the words “Real men don’t…” appear in male-pattern-violence** prevention campaigns? “Real men don’t buy girls.” “Real men don’t hit women.” “Real men don’t rape.” The list goes on. “Real men don’t…” has become a Reformers’ mantra. (No pun intended.)

But there are three problems with “Real men don’t…” The first is that the trope conceals and obscures the actual dynamic between manhood-proving and male-pattern violence. Men rape in order to experience themselves as real men. Men hit women in order to show they are the man there. Men buy prostituted women and children in order to get off like a real man—the payoff promised and promoted by pornography. (And that’s the functional purpose of the so-called money shot: to show a penised person ejaculating in circumstances that authenticate him as a real man.)

The second problem with “Real men don’t…” follows from the first: It is a meaningless message to the audience it is intended to reach. Announcing that “real men” don’t commit male-pattern violence is utterly unpersuasive to anyone for whom doing male-pattern violence makes him feel like a “real man.”

And the third problem with “Real men don’t…” is that while it preaches to the Reformer choir, it sends an unhelpful message. It keeps moral choice-making locked into gender identity rather than allowing it to express moral identity. It keeps “who I am here and now” inside the straightjacket of “I am nobody if not a man.” Moreover, by evoking the construct real manhood, “Real men don’t…” retriggers and reifies the anxiety that pervaded every penised person’s upbringing: “Am I a real-enough boy?” “Am I real-enough man?” “How can I convince myself and others?”

That last problem with “Real men don’t…” points to the fundamental problem with the idea of “healthy masculinity.” Talk about “healthy masculinity” sounds good—at least to the ears of Reformers and people who wish to love them. It offers individual respite from the incessant headlines about men’s crimes against women and other men; it functions as a feel-good exemption from being implicated. It helps one belong to a tribe of other “healthy masculinity” devotees—a comfortable camaraderie in which one can feel safe from all those perilous challenges to one’s manhood elsewhere.

And yet the idea of “healthy masculinity” does not liberate conscience from gender. “Healthy masculinity” keeps conscience gendered. And it’s not.

Conscience is human. Human only. And only human.
John Stoltenberg has explored the distinction between gender identity and moral identity in two books: “Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice and “The End of Manhood: Parables on Sex and Selfhood His new novel, GONERZ, projects a radical feminist vision into a post-apocalyptic future. John conceived and creative-directed the acclaimed “My strength is not for hurting” sexual-assault-prevention media campaign, and he continues his communications- and cause-consulting work through media2change. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg and @media2change.


Two notes on usage:

* I began using the term “penised person” in The End of Manhood in order to keep clear that so-called anatomical sex is merely a trait (like eye or hair color), not a ground of being.

** And I use the term “male-pattern violence” instead of the more common (but less precise) “gender-based violence.”

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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