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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  • stephen m

    I agree that re-framing social behaviour with an asexual perspective would help. Some of the current Resisters would be able to save face about their sexuality when they are required to temper their least socially acceptable behaviours. The pressure to reform would be perceived to come from all society not just the women, and as suggested this should also result in less backlash.

    I am inclined to believe that generally most men *assume* their current privilege and women will have to fight hard through legal and other channels to get the equality they deserve. I would bet that a fair percentage of current male Reformers are functionally blind to their male privilege and for them it is still an academic exercise. They too might benefit from asexual framing.

    • Huh? What does not wanting to have sex have to do with this issue?

      • stephen m

        Obviously a semantics quibble here. “not wanting to have sex” where and what are you talking about? Is it: asexual – free from or unaffected by sexuality, that you object to?

        • Yes, that’s what asexual means… I know what asexual means, I have a friend who’s asexual and she’s taken quite a lot of time to explain to me what it means.

          • Andrew

            I think stephen m simply meant a moral perspective free of a bias caused by one’s sexual identity. He didn’t mean it in regards to one’s interest IN sex.
            Perhaps non-sexual or agendered might have worked better?

    • lizor

      “The pressure to reform would be perceived to come from all society not just the women, and as suggested this should also result in less backlash.”


  • I’m sorry for leaving a nitpicking message on a great entry like this, but I believe the correct term is bepenised. I totally agree with you on the trap of “healthy masculinity.” They are “gender reformists,” and you don’t reform something that’s fundamentally wrong. That’s just dumb thinking.

    • Andrew

      The author was using the term he created for one of his books. He references it at the end of the article.
      I don’t know that we have a “correct” term for this. It’s open to multiple phrasing.

  • Julian Morrison

    This article needs to be revised to take out the AWFUL CISSEXISM.

    • Can you define “cis” in any meaningful way?

      • Rye

        “Cis Privilege” is a term typically used by the transgender community to refer to the privileges accrued by individuals who identify with the gender associated with their genitals, aka cissexual/cisgender people. For example, males who are comfortable performing masculinity have privileges that males who prefer performing femininity do not.

        Likewise, “cissexism” refers to the prejudices cisgender persons have towards transgender people. For example, a man dressed in a woman’s dress may likely experience prejudice from his coworkers.

        Personally, I do not know why he/she labelled this article cissexist. But if it helps, for reasons I do not yet understand, I have witnessed a pattern where transgender people express their anger on radical feminist blogs. And, some radfems will assert that transwomen (men) are trying to colonize woman-only spaces, such as bathrooms and radfem meetings.

        • One’s subjective evaluation of one’s gender does not convey any privilege. I can go around thinking in my own head that I am a woman and nothing will change because of it.

          • Dec

            No, but the way in which you interact with the world changes.
            Cissgendered persons are more able to find role models who are of their gender, they are able to see other cissgendered people in the media without them being presented as a side-show attraction. Cissgendered people enjoy easy access to what are considered ‘gender-apporpriate’ facilities and clothing for example.
            i.e. As a cissmale I can look at the symbols of the public toilets and easily decide which toilets are most appropriate for me to use.
            I can also go shopping for clothes and be confident that in the men’s section, there are clothes that I can wear without the fear that my choice of clothing will be questioned in relation to my gender. i.e. “I don’t think that shirt is meant to be worn by…”

          • Lela

            Why does everyone assume they know all about what it is to be a “cisgendered” woman and disregard everything said by radical feminists who are trying to tell the world about what that experience is actually like? That there is no such thing as a “cis” woman? That “femininity” is actually a set of mostly harmful coping mechanisms developed under patriarchy – which are fetishized by men – that we want to see abolished?

          • Dec

            I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to be a woman, ciswoman, transwoman etc. Of course I have no idea, which is why I orientated my reply around being a cisman, which is what I know enough about to try to construct an explanation. In hindsight this was probably ill-thought out considering this is a female space.

            Having read another article you commented on, “plus-sized pin-up,” I suppose the premise of the ciswoman is something that’s imposed on women, particularly since female sexuality has yet to be ‘created’ by women. This is what I took away from that blog and something I didn’t think of until now.

          • scaldingmay

            Can I just say that this is my favorite comment ever and I want to put it on a tshirt? Women are never listened to when we tell our experiences. It’s not a coincidence that men are quick to support the trans narrative (especially how they’re the most oppressed group on earth and are better at being women than us) but will threaten women who dare to demand being treated as human beings. Applause for Le!

          • Lela

            Men tend to have few problems with the “cis” terminology because the “gender” male actually serves their interests quite well, vs. gender actually being an oppressive hierarchy from women’s perspective. This is often glossed-over or omitted from discussions of “cis” as though there is some semblance of equality between the sexes. There is not. Male privilege is the privilege that threatens us all, trans and otherwise.

          • R. Royo

            I don’t assume I know all about what it is to be a disabled person, but I sure help and listen and learn from then whenever I can. I will never understand everything, but I try.
            Similarly, every single radical feminist I know listens and learns from trans people (and many other people) instead of dismissing them.

          • Lela

            Are you listening to radical feminists, R. Royo? Do you hear our accounts of what being female is actually like? Do they matter to you? Does a critique of masculinity and how it affects us matter to you at all?

          • R. Royo

            Oh, I sure listen to the ones I know personally. It’s harder to understand this kind of things trough online arguments, but from what I’ve read it seems the thing that worries you most is the very concept of gender. It seems you claim that oppression is exactly the same for every female human.
            And I really love this kind of critique of masculinity, I actually have been talking about this for some time. Some people I know (men and women) tend to praise any man who’s into the “new masculinities”. They sometimes even forgive some really worrying stuff done by those men (cis and trans).

          • MA

            ” It seems you claim that oppression is exactly the same for every female human.”

            It’s really not a hard concept to understand if you actually took the time to listen to what all of the radical feminists on this thread are saying. Sure, my life probably doesn’t match up exactly like a a Filipino woman who immigrates to Dubai, for example.

            But we both share the same biology-we both fear being raped and having an unwanted pregnancy. Women suffer from sex based oppression. And this doesn’t change because some women are infertile-women from an early age are assumed to be impregnable, and the majority of women spend their entire lives trying not to fall pregnant.

            That’s why we’re so “worried” about gender, b/c it’s a patriarchal smokescreen that masks our sex based oppression. If a man wants to wear high heels or makeup I say more power to him, but when he tries to obfuscate the gains made by feminism, he can shove his special snowflake identity up his ass.

          • Henke

            The radical feminist view of masculinity took me by storm when I first got in touch with radical feminist writing.

            Being male myself and born and raised to be a man it was not ’til I got in touch with radical feminism that I even began to question my own behaviour, because that is what it roots down to (at least in my opinion).
            Behaviour, attitude and how I built relations to others.
            If you don’t question these things it doesn’t really matter if you later on in life come to terms that you are a transexual, if you are raised by parents and society to be a man chances are huge that your behaviour patterns and how you build relations to others will still be this pretty nasty way of being even though you might not feel like you belong to the class of men and this I can see very clear as Ive followed this pretty nasty online war that was started by (some) transexuals and their followers.
            Rapethreats, deaththreats, bully behaviour. It was this over-the-top masculine behaviour.

            As long as the transexual community don’t activly take action against this, or at the very least says “no this is not what we are about” then I would say that you, as a community and group of people, are into patriarchy as it now stands pretty much as the rest of society.

          • I have no idea who is cis and who is trans, since the term is defined purely subjectively. In your reasoning, I would have really no way to know who is or is not a “role model” for me, assuming I am as prejudiced as you are and only want people like me as role models (fortunately, I am not).

            The issue of bathrooms is primarily an issue of sex, not of gender. But it is also an issue of men being socialized to act aggressively and to despise women.

          • Dec

            I feel like you’re making assumptions.
            Perhaps it’s my fault as I often find it difficult to convey my meaning effectively.

            I’m far from opposed to having role models who are of another sex or gender from onself, but my point was that cismales are more able to find male role models should they wish to choose them, while transmen or transwomen do not have that luxury were they to want a role model who is of the same gender as themselves.

            The “bathroom dialemma” is the result of binaryism, the societal assertion that there are men and women and that those constructions are absolute. Which is simply not the case.

          • Rosa

            The reason that Julian called out this article on cissexism (often defined as the equation of “biological sex” or birth assignment with gender) is because this articles use of “penised people” to mean “men” is incredibly hurtful to trans* people. As a trans* woman, I had an incredibly hard time even getting through the article because of its insistence that people with penises are men (and therefore people without them are not). This not only fails to address masculinity and sexual assault culture among trans* men (and tells them that they aren’t men), but also ignores that trans* women are NOT men, and are almost always victims of what the author rightly calls “male-pattern violence”.

            “Cis” is simply a term like white, or male, or straight. It refers to those who identify their gender in the same way they were assigned at birth. The term comes from a latin prefix meaning “on the same side as” (the opposite of trans, or “on the opposite side of”).

            Refusing the label of “cis” because you just see yourself as “normal”, as “not trans”, is similar to saying, as a white person, that you’re just “normal” — in other words, it’s refusing to recognize your privilege.

            Cis people have all sorts of privilege. You don’t get your gender questioned the way trans* people do. You don’t get misgendered the way trans* people do. You don’t face the systematic violence that trans* people, especially trans* women, face.

            As far as bathrooms go, Dec is absolutely right that the issue is binaryism. As a trans* girl, I have very few choices — go in the mens room, where I will feel incredibly uncomforatable and, depending on my presentation, may face violence; or go in the women’s room, where i will feel comfortable but, if I don’t “pass” as a woman, I am also likely to face violence. This is another example of oppression of trans* people, and thus cis privilege.

          • Lela

            “You don’t get your gender questioned the way trans* people do. You don’t get misgendered the way trans* people do. You don’t face the systematic violence that trans* people, especially trans* women, face.”

            But so-called “cis” women face all of these things, Rosa. Particularly those of us who disbelieve in the concept of gender and refuse to perform it.

          • Lela

            Oh and also, re: Dec’s assertion that “cis” people are not presented as a “sideshow attraction” in the media…. from women’s perspective that is completely bunko. The objectification of women is the biggest show on Earth. NOTHING in the male-controlled media represents us accurately, but in fact denigrates and dehumanizes. Is that privilege?

          • Dec

            You’ve made it clear that a lot of what I considered to be cis-privilage is largely male privilage. Kudos to you for getting that across.
            I agree that things such as body fragmentation in the media are comparible to a patriarchy-condoned massacre of the female body.

          • MA

            How dare you come onto a feminist blog and be so condescending? Women are allowed to talk about our oppression whether you like it or not.

          • Dec

            Actually it was sincere.
            Having only just begun reading feminist writings and also someone who finds it difficult to sit down and read anything, there’s a lot of information to get my head around.

            I wasn’t granting permission for a woman to speak of her oppression, I thought that Lela was trying to express a particular point towards me.
            I’m not trying to be condesending. Sorry.

        • Ash

          But gender has nothing to do with genitals? Feminism 101 – Judith butler anyone?

        • coelacanth

          Cis is a hate word invented as reparations by trans people for having the term trans foisted on them (even though it is their own chosen word!). You have certainly drunk the koolade of trans 101 brainwashing. Any non-trans person who uses the hate word cis is a person who cannot think for themself and who has only the most simpleminded and ideologically-driven concept of the tyranny of transgender on maleborn gay men, femaleborn lesbians and self-called radical feminists. Try googling Die Cis Scum to understand the real context in which this hate word is being used as a weapon of revenge and retribution by some very ill people. Read Gender Trender the rad fem blog that documents trans atrocities against women (like this week when a high ranking SF official who is trans tolerated calls on her twitter to do violence to women who did not tow the trans party line). Eye opening especially for men who think with their shame and not with the brain and who buy the trans 101 like religious gospel to a convert.

    • Ash

      Can you explain?

    • MA

      There’s no such thing as “cis,” and hysterically screaming about “cissexism” and “transphobia” is not an argument. If transowmen are so worried about violence against them, why don’t they go after the men who commit the assaults, and not the radical feminists who only want safe spaces for women? And leave it to the benevolent john to take the side of men in dresses over the women he exploits.
      Personally, I couldn’t care less about men and their “crisis of masculinity” or transwomen. Sorry I’m not being nice. Outside of feminism, there is absolutely no one advocating for women. Men and transwomen can go almost anywhere in both real life and the internet to have their voices heard, their feelings catered to, and their delusions validated. Women have nowhere to go without men trying to destroy it! Men will be fine, I’m going to focus my energy entirely on women.
      Before I write a novel, I’d like to add that the author’s arguments pertaining to the “Real Men don’t…” campaign are spot on. I find it interesting, however, that he chose to write in such a “logical” and overly intellectual tone. When women do it, we’re accused of “faking,” but when men do it their words are taken as fact.

      • Rye

        To clarify, I believe FAAB women (female assigned at birth) have a right to trans-exclusive spaces. Moreover, transwomen should not be accommodated with access to spaces from which men are normally excluded (e.g. bathrooms), and they ought to respect the wishes of any association of FAAB women to exclude transwomen from their space. And, they definitely should not be insisting that lesbians have sex with them… that is beyond outrageous.

        @ Meghan Murphy

        If you don’t mind answering my curiosity, is the author of this post the same John Stoltenberg who was Andrea Dworkin’s husband?

        • R. Royo

          I agree that trans-exclusive spaces can be useful sometimes.
          But to claim that trans women are insisting that lesbians have sex with them… that is beyond outrageous. It is dangerous hate speech.
          Incidentally, Dworkin wrote some interesting stuff on trans issues on Woman Hating. It’s a shame that some feminists tend to forget that and only remember the stuff influenced by Janice Raymond.

        • John Stoltenberg

          Everyone: Just want to say I really am appreciating following this thoughtful discussion. Thank you all.

          Rye: To answer your question, yes–but Andrea and I never referred to each other as wife or husband. I met her in 1974, and we were life partners until her death in 2005. We married in 1998 but didn’t tell people (for reasons I explain here: http://www.andreadworkin.net/memorial/withoutandrea.html).

        • Stephie Smith


      • R. Royo

        “Men and transwomen can go almost anywhere in both real life and the internet to have their voices heard, their feelings catered to, and their delusions validated.”
        Do you believe that transwomen have the same privileges as men?
        That belief is based on cis privilege.

        • MA

          “Do you believe that transwomen have the same privileges as men?”

          Yes. Gender is bullshit and so is “cis” privilege. Moving on.

      • Morgan

        “I couldn’t care less about men and their “crisis of masculinity” or transwomen.”

        Glad I’m not the only one on a radfem blog who feels this way.

    • Is this about describing people as “penised”? It is actually supposed to emphasize that manhood is assigned – trans politics should not see any cause of conflict here. Especially since this assignment happens following birth (by identifying a penis) and is then continuously re-done.

      • Ian

        It makes sense to talk about “penised people” in, for instance, an article about sexual health relevant to people with that anatomy (in fact it would even be more inclusive given that trans women may have penises too). But this article is about masculinities, and [penised people] is not synonymous with [people at risk of absorbing and acting out unhealthy masculine ideals]. *All* men, including pre/non-op trans men, are very much at risk of this behavior. Some women may be too, but it is unfair and just implausible to suggest that trans women are more likely to than cis women.

        Yes, birth assignment has effects on how one is socialized and the messages to which one is exposed. But trans people (and some cis people) often find themselves absorbing messages intended for their identified gender from a very early age.

        In short, it is problematic to conflate anatomy and identity. It contributes to the stereotyping of trans women as predatory and gives trans men a free pass on their behavior, which can have real consequences for people in their lives.

        • Lela

          If there had been a lengthy disclaimer at the beginning of this piece expressly stating that this is NOT a piece about trans people who comprise a small minority of the population, but about the majority culture of male-socialized people with male anatomy, would you be spending so much time commenting on this site? Would you have been moved to put so much effort into supporting a critique of masculinity for its own sake out of concern for women’s welfare? I highly doubt it.

          • R. Royo

            I think that would have been a great solution. The disclaimer, or just using the word “men” when talking about men.

          • John Stoltenberg

            Forgive me, folks, but I thought I did build such a disclaimer into the piece: The two large groupings I talk about, Reformers and Conservers, are both introduced as “people raised to be a man” (i.e., not people raised to be a woman and not people raised to be woman who subsequently live as a man). I’m therefore focusing specifically on two subsets within the class of people who were assigned male at birth on account of having a long-enough genital tubercle with which to pee standing up. The issues and questions about masculinity raised by people assigned female at birth who subsequently transition to life as a man are important and compelling; but (though obviously not entirely unrelated to the issues raised in this essay) they deserve their own full consideration–something that I know other writers have begun to do, no doubt with more relevant life experience than I may have. Hope this helps clarify.

        • Lela

          Oh and p.s. there are NO radical feminists out there who would give violent behaviour on the part of trans men a “free pass.”

          • Ian

            I believe many of them wouldn’t, and I’m grateful for those radical feminists’ work. It is only the language used in this article that I’m taking issue with, because it suggests that the author of the piece *is* prepared to overlook such behavior, provided the anatomy of the perpetrator doesn’t fit a certain pattern.

          • Lela

            I think you’re reading things in this piece that do not exist there.

          • Alien

            You sound suspiciously like an MRA insisting women are equally as violent as men, especially as perpetrators of domestic violence and child sexual abuse.

            Radfems recognize yet another attempt to elide the significant epidemic of men’s violence that is the #1 threat to women, children, civilization.

          • Ian

            I have never said anything like that. I am in complete agreement with your last sentence and I appreciate the author’s term “male-pattern violence”. I *only* object to the author’s concurrent sidelining of some men (trans men) and finger-pointing at people who aren’t even men (pre-op trans women). How hard is this to understand?

          • MA

            Your whole statement falls apart because transwomen are men, no matter if they get surgery to turn their penis into a designer fuckhole. The problem lies not with radical feminists, but with transwomen who think that being called male is an insult. It’s not a value judgment, but biological fact.

          • Me

            I’m not sure if I’d use a term like “designer fuckhole” though.

          • scaldingmay

            Well they are designer fuckholes b/c they need to be dilated to keep open, as opposed to a real vagina that is part of an organ system, so……

          • Me

            And you don’t have a problem with the language because?

            There is no question it’s a hateful/contemptuous label. I wouldn’t defend using it. I’m not making a judgment about how MA or you have meant it.

            If somebody called a female’s surgically altered vagina and reproductive system a designer fuckhole, or breasts with implants designer fucktoys, I’m sure you’d have a problem with that. Both can be altered gruesomely to make women more “fuckable”, with women’s consent or willingness, to the point of making them biologically useless. The women are still human despite that and don’t deserve anything of their bodies or themselves labeled fuck-this or fuck-that, no matter how deep in the patriarchy they are. It labels the person violable. That’s not okay.

            Nobody’s body parts are “fuck-anything”, altered or not, or even if the parts are artificial. I would argue even if the person was troubled enough to call parts of their body that themselves, I still wouldn’t go along with it.

          • Lela

            “Nobody’s body parts are “fuck-anything”, altered or not, or even if the parts are artificial.”

            Thanks for that Me. In what way is using the word “f***hole” to describe a person’s body parts, whatever they may be and however they got there, not just a reiteration of men’s violence? Honestly every time I hear/see the word f*** I am reminded of men’s cruelty, particularly leftist men I’ve known and the way they always talk about “f***ing things up” or “f***ing the system” without a trace of irony. It’s a term that directly evokes the concept of sexual violence. That’s what it is. If we can’t leave this language behind as feminists then I don’t know what we’re doing here.

            There are real issues to be discussed here but this has turned into yet another shit show. I think I have to take a break from commenting here for awhile, I suffer from OCD as well as being a recovering addict and this is just too much for me.

          • “Nobody’s body parts are “fuck-anything”, altered or not, or even if the parts are artificial.”

            So what you’re saying is that surgical alternations are NOT done for greater fuckability due to internalized misogyny? Then please, do tell us what breasts implants and butt implants are for, since you seem to know something we don’t? Are they for better equilibrium? Better buoyancy? More comfortable sitting position?

            Come the FUCK on…

          • Lela

            Seriously MA, “designer f***hole” is cruel and abusive language. I refuse to get behind that shit. Have some sensitivity.

          • MA

            So basically your argument comes down to that I’m not being nice enough? I didn’t say anything new, femonade discussed the whole neovagina issue at her blot. If radical feminist discourse triggers you more than the lovely terms transwomen call women then I don’t know what to tell you.

            Thank you Francois for backing me up!

          • Me

            Insisting that that expression is radical feminist “discourse” is a bit much. I’m sure I could find a similar comment on a men’s rights forum or a white supremacist forum where it should be obvious why I’d object to the fuck part, the gendered part.

            Essentially you’re saying it was a slur. And that you believe you have a right to throw insults at trans online because of what trans activists do to women. I don’t want to get very much into that.

            I will say though, that trying to frame mine and Lela’s comments as expecting you to be more nice is sly and also destructive to having a discussion. Similarly, you seem to be trying to put us in a bind by suggesting that if we strongly disagree with what many trans activist do, we then need to accept your way of attacking–I don’t actually even know who? And that’s precisely the point. That part of what you wrote is a mind fuck and I don’t agree with that. I also think “designer fuckholes” is in itself pretty much a mind fuck, which is a part of why I brought it up in the first place. The way the respond would’ve been to simply clear that up and state your opinion clearly. Had your hostility been open, clearly directed and without this ambiguity in the first place, I might not have commented.

          • Lela

            “F***hole” is not discourse. Goddess forbid I don’t hang on every single word that comes from Femonade (although to date I’ve read pretty much every single post of hers?) Trans people are only human, and they’re confused and suffering like the rest of us. Are we really at a place in this movement where dehumanizing masculinist slurs count as “discourse” and any disagreement amounts to a tone argument? That’s bullshit.

          • Me

            I didn’t notice my above comment got posted, I got a database error when I did, so it’s all included in the much extended comment below.


            I think insisting that that expression is radical feminist “discourse” is a stretch. Discourse would’ve been to expand on it. I’m sure I could find a similar comment about designer fuckholes on a men’s rights forum or a white supremacist forum, where it should be obvious why I’d object to the fuckhole part, especially the gendered aspect of it. To take a similar example, I don’t have anything against killing rapists in self defence (which I’d define broadly), but this is more like saying let the rapists get raped.

            I think trying to frame mine and Lela’s comments as expecting you to be more nice is underhanded and destructive to having a discussion. You are not coming clear about what you meant yourself and how you meant it, you’re shifting the focus back on us.

            What I get from your last comment to Lela is that essentially you used “designer fuckholes” as a slur. And that you believe you have a right to throw even gendered insults at trans online because of what trans activists do to women. I don’t want to get very much into that, it’s something of a cesspool I think. Online, it looks like it’s predominantly a question of trans activist men flooding feminist discussions with mindfucks and also threats faster than anyone can counter them. So I understand the hostility. But I don’t appreciate responding to mindfucks with mindfucks. I think frank, clearly directed hostility is much better than mindfucks, because it doesn’t muddy the waters the same. And I understand expecting trans activists to do their share of looking through and past the hostility, to accept some of it as understandable and to try to dig through it to understand the underlying arguments. That’s possible with open hostility. Mindfucks completely defy that because they don’t let on what you actually believe. They put your opponent in a bind where they can’t know the degree of hostility they should interpret into the your words, or what the charge is, so they have two impossible options, of either falling back not knowing by how much or why because it wasn’t made clear how they were transgressing, or to fight back without really knowing what exactly they’re responding to or why, both of which only lead to facing the exact same situation immediately again at the discretion of the person who the mindfuck came from.

            Responding to Ian here has been largely about first trying to overcome his mindfucks, to figure out what he actually believes and is saying. He did come clear about that, for example in the above comment you responded to using “designer fuckhole” as part of your reply. Right there you tried to arbitrarily beat him back, in my opinion, and you presented the attack as being a part of your argument, which it wasn’t. It was an attack, not discourse, not an argument. Call a spade a spade.

            You also seem to be now trying to put myself and Lela in a bind by suggesting that if we strongly disagree with what many trans activist do, we then need to accept your way of attacking–I don’t actually even know who? And that’s precisely the point. That’s a mindfuck and I don’t agree with that.

            I also think “designer fuckholes” is in itself pretty much a mindfuck baked by patriarchy, which is a part of why I brought it up in the first place. The way to respond would’ve been to simply clear that up and state your opinion clearly. Had your hostility been open, clearly directed and without this ambiguity in the first place, I might not have commented at all.


            “So what you’re saying is that surgical alternations are NOT done for greater fuckability due to internalized misogyny?”

            No, I’m not saying that.

            I’m saying that despite whatever atrocities or devaluation is done to someone’s body to make it more fuckable, nobody’s body or person becomes a fuck object. As I see it, it doesn’t really matter if they’re women or men or somewhere in between, or to what degree they want to see themselves as fuck objects. It is violation, rooted in misogyny, fear, masculinity, that creates and fucks fuck objects. When someone’s being fucked, there’s always the man doing the fucking, the violator violating. That violation doesn’t become okay, as a social matter, as a personal matter, as a spiritual matter, no matter how, or how much the person(s) being fucked are lead to want it themselves. Designer fuckhole points to fuck object status. Therefore too, “designer fuckholes” is not okay, because the violation and the violator are implicit, just like BDSM and kink are not okay no matter who is getting fucked. I wasn’t trying to make a big deal of it, I think you do if you find reason to defend the expression. I do wonder how much more explicit than “designer fuckholes” does one have to get before I could raise a point? I didn’t cry blasphemy or transphobia to start with, I said I wasn’t sure if I’d use a term like that. My point wasn’t even specifically about trans.

            I’m actually starting to think I’m calling you and MA out on something important in this instance, which looks like arrogance. I’m reminded of Egypt today and in the last month or two, where someone commented about the strange feeling when you realize that the Egyptian left actually stands to the right of the right when it comes to this coup. The so-called rebels called for a “cleansing” of Egypt from Muslims. Still after how many hundred Muslims massacred by the army, they thought the army was doing a good thing defending the revolution and killing those pesky Muslims. I mean, people went along with that framing. In the West the media made a story of how the revolutionary women in Tahrir didn’t wear head scarves, and how therefore the anti-coup protesters were these reactionary zealots demonstrating in favor of misogyny instead of against a coup and the massacres, and the women on their side didn’t understand what they were on about because they wore head scarves. The point is the media and the army, joined by a lof of people, reduced the anti-coup protesters to completely worthless “illiterates”, terrorists, infidels, I recall insects but I’m not sure, and believed the army that had run the country as a dictatorship for decades had turned around. The point is they lost sight of the army, the men, the perpetrators, the violators, and their institutions.

            All I’m trying to do is to hold on to a fundamental respect for our bodies, mainly the bodies of women and children, as patriarchy hates them, and for ourselves a humans instead of fuckable whatever. I think this hatred is the root of misogyny. I don’t think we humans are so logical or so capable of seeing things clearly that we should forget how evil works, in fact I think just the opposite is true. Evil does possess. Culturally, we have tremendous orientation towards it and few good defences. Staying clear comes from a cultural practice, not from how radical your analysis is. I think we leftist men are a great example of that. And this can not be reduced to, or in no way implies, “being nice.” That is not what I’m after. It can imply open hostility and aggression, it can imply a lot of things, definitely standing up for women, but in my opinion not “designer fuckholes.”

          • Lela

            Also MA, I don’t believe the neo-vagina is an actual vagina either. But to object to the use of masculinist slurs, and be told by other feminists that I should just suck it up…. that seems strange. My concern is that once we start using patriarchal language like “f***hole” then we are assisting men in dehumanizing trans people. You may not agree but it’s worth thinking about.

          • vouchsafer

            I object to the term as well.
            its pretty misogynistic.

          • Alien

            By “sidelined” you mean the author didn’t bother bending over backwards to pacify a statistically insignificant percentage of the population in an essay not remotely about trans issues. The author didn’t “finger point” at transwomen because they weren’t even mentioned.

            It’s like how MRAs get offended when feminists talk about rapists because they reductively assume we’re talking about them despite their claims that they aren’t rapists themselves. If we’re not talking about you, then we’re not talking about you.

          • MA

            You’ve completely missed my point entirely. Read what transwomen say about their neovaginas and you’ll my description is pretty apt. I also like how paragraph long comments were devoted to my “slur” but not so much to the blatant misogyny on the rest of the thread. I don’t know why you hung on to my mention of femonade, I just meant that she also saw the misogny in transgenderism

            How am I dehumanizing anyone? You’re basically saying that my words are just as bad as physical violence. I know we cant dismantle the master’s house with his tools, bu I think I have a right to be angry at the way this thread is being hijacked. I’m a woman and my only loyalty is to women, if transpeople are so oppressed they can make their own movement.

          • Lela

            Misogyny on the part of the male interlopers has been pointed out at length here. So “f***hole” is an integral part of radical feminist discourse and those who object to the use of slurs are traitors to the cause. Got it.

            My only suggestion here is that we take the high road. Nothing can be gained by stooping to that level.

          • Me

            “How am I dehumanizing anyone? You’re basically saying that my words are just as bad as physical violence.”

            That’s a big leap you take there. I, and I’m quite sure Lela too, have not said or think that your words are as bad as physical violence, or that they are the same as online rape threats from men to women, or anything like that. Your words here, and physical violence, or online rape threats aren’t even in the same ball park.

            You have every right to be very angry at the way this thread was hijacked, and I think you have a right to lash out at the misogyny and mindfucks they come with. But I think it’s something of a problem if you use a gendered slur, and mindfucks against mindfucks, not because you don’t have the right to be angry or insulting back.

            When you touch and take in the kind of vile material trans activists men are throwing online, it taints, and you really have to shit it out. And it needs to come out transformed to come out well. It’s what I think commenters here regularly do: take the shit in and take the time to digest it and shit it out transformed. When it’s a mindfuck, which is what most articles are about anyway–misogyny shrouded as something else–it’s important to name the aggression for what it is and direct it back to where it belongs or stop it. That is what I’ve asked you to do. As this is a public space and not safe from mindfucks, that’s a defence I think we need to take when we come here. I don’t often agree with it at the time and feel just angry all over, in which case Meghan has had the good sense to delete some of my comments ;), but I really appreciate it after a while.

            That clear direction of anger is exactly what trans activist hijackers here have tried to prevent: calling a penis a penis and saying it’s relevant. That wasn’t what the article itself was about, but for abusive assholes every opportunity to pre-empt themselves and their penises from all scrutiny seems like a good opportunity I guess. Brain wracking as it is, I don’t think that’s made their case here any stronger.

            The thing is, if I read your comment with all this in mind way, the aggression going whichever way makes sense, and I will simply reply saying as I did, that “Your words aren’t nowhere near as bad as physical violence, that’s absurd!” To which you can reply, “Thanks. But AARGGH Fucking fuck these misogynistic!!111. Maybe the fuckhole was a bit off.”

            But if I read what you wrote word for word as you also wrote it, “How am I dehumanizing anyone? You’re basically saying that my words are just as bad as physical violence”, and if I clear out the twists, it also reads like this: “If I haven’t used physical violence, my words can not have been dehumanizing.” Think about that. Do you intend to say that? Do you want to make that argument? As a gaslighting argument, that’s what abusive men say. As an argument, I completely reject it. Of course it has a whole different level of meanings coming from a man in a relationship with a woman, but that is the argument.

            I think it’s perfect if your only loyalty is to women. I think it’s perfectly fine that you consider transwomen men and don’t want to spend time defending the idea of women only space, or don’t want to exhaustion try to figure out what your relationship to transpeople is beyond setting healthy boundaries as everyone has to. In my view that doesn’t make you unreasonable or inflexible, and frankly I doubt transpeople seriously working for the same goals as you do would have problems finding ways to work together yet safely separate towards those goals. But I’m not sure if you’ve been setting healthy boundaries?

          • Meghan Murphy

            Hi all,

            So it seems this thread has gotten a little off-track… I’m not quite sure how to resolve this and feel free to continue the debate if you like, but perhaps our energy would be best spent elsewhere at this point? And yeah, I am pretty sparing with the “trash” button when it comes to comments from regulars 🙂

            I’m struggling as to how to respond to this thread and thought perhaps some of you might have some thoughts? https://feministcurrent.com/7773/podcast-deep-green-resistance-under-attack/#comment-103764

        • Birth assignment is still the major route for men to gain privileges solely based on them having a penis (to follow John’s terminology). The tiny amount of trans men who might gain temporary privileges by passing as male, i.e. as long as their birth assigment is unknown, cannot compare to the almost life-long privileging of male-as-assigned-at-birth (MAAB) people. Transmmen’s misogyny is the outcome of their gender identity insofar as some of them feel the need to overcompensate due to “being born in the wrong body” – they think hating women makes them more of a man. Transwomen, on the other hand, are almost always socialized as men, so there is a big chance they have exactly the same entitlement issues and misogynist attitudes as men in general. In short: there are sensible reasons to distrust both groups.

          …People really have to understand that no one can see how you feel about yourself and that no one is under any obligation to accept anyone’s self-identification. This is not Big Brother.

        • Henke

          “In short, it is problematic to conflate anatomy and identity. It contributes to the stereotyping of trans women as predatory and gives trans men a free pass on their behavior, which can have real consequences for people in their lives.”

          This can sadly be found on twitter as I write in which transwomen now make fakeaccounts claiming they are radfems and go out and send deaththreats and what have you to other transwomen.

          I stand behind the transcommunity but what I don’t stand behind is how this community is so terrible at putting its foot down and saying “NO, We do not support this obvious masculine behaviour”.
          The behaviour to me is like when homosexualmales becomes even more violent and abusive in their language (and/or physical) than heterosexualmales (whom this culture is centered around).
          It doesn’t do anyone any good especially when you belong to a group of people that our society looks down upon 24/7. Having the same attitude and behaviour in a minority group makes it, at least in my opinion, impossible to adress these problems and how to dismantle them.

          I’ve seen a few from the transcommunity speaking out against these behaviours but I would expect (and hope for) more since so many from this community are raising the voices in how opressed they are.
          And let it be clear, I do not try to minimize the fact that transpeople are not opressed because they are but I can’t stand behind anyhone that is not openly adressing abusive behaviour head on even when it comes from your own community.

        • Komal

          These are good points, and I too was bothered by the use of ‘penised people’. My two reasons are that it unnecessarily invokes images of genitalia, and that it is phallocentric by defining maleness in terms of penises. I tend to use ‘male-bodied person’ and ‘female-bodied person’ where I can (where it doesn’t sound too awkward), in order to emphasize that the person is distinct from the body (by which I just mean they are not identical, not that they are totally separate in some Cartesian way) and that gender is distinct from sex.

          I think a better approach would have been to say ‘most male-bodied people’, rather than ‘penised people’. The ‘most’ allows for exceptions, such as trans women and girls, etc., and the ‘male-bodied’ avoids phallocentrism and unnecessary invocation of male genital images.

  • Vouchsafer

    HOw nice to read an article that seeks to calmly address a problem and offer a suggestion for working to resolve it without bashing anybody, that’s written in positivity with an altruistic goal.

    • Nicole

      Agreed! After my experience with the last poster’s attitude (a.k.a. “I have a DEGREE in this and you DON’T so I’M THE REAL FEMINIST”) I was thinking to steer clear of Megan’s blog. Thankfully, with Stoltenberg’s entry, Megan’s blog is back to business 🙂

      • Lela

        Yes, if only Meghan would stop publishing pieces written by educated, articulate, critical radical feminist WOMEN on this blog.

        What a relief this must be for you.

        • MA

          Exactly, Lela! Isn’t it funny how whenever Meghan writes a post herself, or gets another awesome radical feminist voice like Aphrodite, people can’t comment fast enough on how they’re evil bigots who want to take away women’s choices? But when a man writes a post, it’s the greatest contribution to feminism ever. It’s like a sausage love fest in here.

          And by the way, I read all of the comments on the pin-up post and no where did anyone say “I have a degree in feminism and I’m a better feminist than you.”

  • marv

    Well written composition, John. Males invented men and men devised women out of females. The reformers remind me of harm reductionists in the sex work movement. They reproduce the sexist system by regulating it. They are gender pushing humanitarians, keeping women hooked into prostitution while attempting to alleviate some of its worst atrocities. Likewise, decaffeinated manliness is as dangerous as the regular version because it valorizes the continuation of masculinity as essential to male nature, which in turn functions to hold down females and stunt males.

  • Me

    I think the article puts it well how for so many Reformers it’s basically about them and about making their masculinity into the center.

    I loved this part:

    “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”

    If it’s okay to ask, I’d really like to know what online resources (or otherwise) others have found around this issue? I mean, it’s wonderful to be able to glean so much from radical feminist websites and discussions, but what else is there? The world, I know, but online because I still tend to have a good space for that most days 🙂

  • Fivel Rothberg

    While I agree with the premise of the article, I found it garbled and even rambling, despite it’s brevity. It would be far better if it had been given an editor’s strong touch. I also think it would be helpful to point out specifics.

    Stoltenberg, I believe, is referring to several of Men Can Stop Rape’s (MCSR) campaigns, their recent “Healthy Masculinity” push comes after their “Real Men…” efforts. There is also a new film “The Mask You Live In” which showcases the idea of “toxic masculinity.”

    I attended the MCSR “Healthy Masculinity” summit in DC when it opened. And I think to begin with it’s important to note that yes, they are reformists not radicals or revolutionaries. The program, as far as I could tell, was sponsored by Verizon – who has put some money toward campaigns against domestic violence. They didn’t brand themselves all over the summit, but their footprint was evident in the fact that the words “patriarchy” or for that matter “feminism” were not part of the official packaging (from what I recall). People brought up those key concepts, etc. in the breakout sessions, but it wasn’t part of the hegemonic discourse, if you will.

    When I saw Stoltenberg wrote an article critical of the “healthy masculinity” concept I was excited. And I assumed that he would come at it from a structural standpoint – that we need to undermine or destroy the system of patriarchy and (white, straight) male privilege that upholds both hegemonic masculinity and supports the oppression of women and transfolks – AND I’d argue that this system oppresses us men as well – we are more often the victims of male violence than any other gender, no?

    Finally, while I’m a bit critical of Stoltenberg’s take, I am deeply thankful for his work over the years, for this conversation and hope that we can keep it going. It’s very necessary.

  • Ian

    I take serious issue with the phrase “penised people”. It seems to be trying to avoid essentialism but ends up reinforcing it. As trans women and trans men know all too well, genitals do not determine one’s place in patriarchy/rape culture. The way one thinks of oneself and relates to the world does. Trans women are no more likely to commit sexual violence than cis women, and trans men struggle with the same societal messages and pressures about masculinity that cis men do. “Penised people” makes sense in an article about sexual health, but not about masculinity.

    • sporenda

      “trans women are no more likely to commit sexual violence than cis violence”.

      Sexual violence, I have no info about that, but as for other typically male forms of violence, the behavior of trans women with radfems (harassment, threats etc)shows quite clearly that trans women still behave like men when it comes to their relationship with violence and in particular being violent with ciswomen.

      Trans women operate on the denial of their own socialization as males. But it doesn’t take much to see the old male patterns come back.

  • Sally

    I agree soo much with this. I’ve always found shaky and awful the very concept of masculinity, and the “real men” and “real women” talk drives me up a tree.

    But please, do yourself and your readers a favour and learn more about transgender issues (preferably listening to trans people themselves), because I can see clearly why this can (and will) be considered cissexist.

    Other than that, I’m forwarding this to some people now.

    • There is no such thing as cissexism. Trans people are not discriminated against for being trans. No one cares what you believe about yourself. They only care about how you present yourself.

      • Lou

        Someone clearly need to educate themselves on transphobia, cis privilege and such. Transwomen DO get a lot of crap, from being called names to job discrimination. I think someone in the comments above (Ian) explained things well.
        Seriously, this is a issue that pisses me off : I agree with like, 90% of what radical feminists have to say, but their anti-trans biais is awful. You know what is actually radical? Standing up for a group that faces terrible discriminations everyday!

        Except form this, the article is interesting.

        • lizor

          Sure, transwomen get crap – it’s called SEXISM. Transwomen are subject to danger for the same reasons gay men are: because they do not perform masculinity and, within the dictates of the binary, are therefore are seen as female which our culture (and most others) despises.

          What part about feminism, including this essay, working to change that don’t you get? Why waste your time and ours focussing your so-called “oppression” at the hands of women who simply want exclusive space instead of joining with people who are fighting a shared oppression?

        • Norne

          You know what is actually feminist? Standing up for women.

        • Trans people do not get crap for being trans. They get crap for presenting in ways people hate.

          I am anti-genderism, therefore I am against trans advocacy. Don’t assume I am ignorant because I disagree with you.

          • Rye

            Hmm, the possibility of being anti-gender is a serious intellectual challenge for the concept of cisprivilege, isn’t it? It means that gender is a social construct. If so, then the most transgender people can say is that they prefer to perform the opposite gender assigned to their sex at birth.

            Which means that transgender people are rebels, not a sex class within the patriarchy. Therefore, because transsexuals are not a sex class (or any kind of class within the power structures we live in), the concept of cisprivilege is nonsense.

            Of course, transgender people will likely experience negative consequences for being transgender. But that is only because they are rebels, not because they are an oppressed sex class within the patriarchy. If transgender people are a separate sex class, then radical feminists would qualify as a separate sex class as well.

            Another point that the possibility of being anti-gender raises is that transgender people are, in a way, perpetuating the patriarchy by legitimizing the masculine/feminine dichotomy.

            Which brings us back to the original post. Gender, especially masculinity, is toxic. Lets do away with it completely.

          • “Hmm, the possibility of being anti-gender is a serious intellectual challenge for the concept of cisprivilege, isn’t it?”

            Well, yes. But the greatest intellectual challenge to the concept of cis privilege is that no one can come up with a definition that makes any sense.

          • Me

            “Which brings us back to the original post. Gender, especially masculinity, is toxic. Lets do away with it completely.”

            Yes, lets! Are you still putting your penis into that prostituted woman and using porn?

          • MA

            This comment made my day!!

          • Komal

            “Which means that transgender people are rebels, not a sex class within the patriarchy. Therefore, because transsexuals are not a sex class (or any kind of class within the power structures we live in), the concept of cisprivilege is nonsense.”

            This is a logical fallacy. While your premise: “transgender people are rebels, not a sex class within the patriarchy” is true, your conclusion: “the concept of cisprivilege is nonsense” does not follow and also happens to be false. The concept of cis privilege does not require that trans people be a sex class. It simply requires that there be systemic privileging of people who are cisgender, and discrimination against people who are not.

            If one applies your reasoning, one would have to conclude that there is no such thing as heterosexual privilege either, since gays and lesbians are not a sex class but are rebels (sexuality and gender rebels) under patriarchy. But there clearly IS such thing as heterosexual privilege: even radfems with all their hangups about transgenderism would have to admit this.

          • “It simply requires that there be systemic privileging of people who are cisgender, and discrimination against people who are not. ”

            There is no systemic privileging of people who are “cisgender” and discrimination against people who are not.

    • sporenda

      I would certainly try to learn more about trans women if they were not systematically derailing feminist debates to re-center attention on themselves, if they were not systematically invading feminist spaces (wether Meghan’s site or public toilets), if they were not threatening radfems, and behaving generally like typical obnonoxious males.

      If you want to be seen as women, may I suggest that you take note of the following facts:
      cis women do not hijack transfems sites to advertise for the feminist cause,do not threaten trans if they want to have their own spaces, or even if they want to be entitled to use women bathrooms.
      So you see, some differences remain.
      When it comes to gender, it looks like trans want to have their cake and eat it too: behaving like males when it suits them, or like females when they feel like it.

      • Ian

        Is it “derailing the conversation” when black feminists criticize white feminists for using language and behaving in ways that make it clear they aren’t concerned about people of color in their movement? I see the behavior of cis feminists in relation to trans feminists as a rather similar dynamic.

        • Lela

          This was supposed to be a conversation about the harms of masculinity. You’ve put a lot of effort into derailing it.

          • Ian

            I think the author (as well as many commentators) have made plenty of good points about masculinity and the pernicious ways it plays out in our culture. I agree that this is something that needs to be addressed more. I just want to make sure we’re aiming at the right targets here (in this case, anyone at risk of internalizing our societal ideals of masculinity, not just people who happen to have a particular anatomical makeup). But I think I’ve made my point sufficiently, so I will leave it at that.

  • Vouchsafer

    To all our trans friends who commented:

    Trans issues are important, equally as important as feminist issues. But having said that, when feminists can’t have a discussion about feminist issues without being asked to first re-evaluate our critique and make it acceptable to another’s viewpoint, it just reinforces the ‘woman as caretaker of others first before self’ stereotype.

    IE- gender socialization.

    In an era when each individual is supposedly entitled to valid personhood regardless of how they self-identify, why are feminists still being asked to remove ourselves from our own perspective and re-package our critiques to be acceptable to someone else?

    • R. Royo

      I guess it’s because of intersectionality. All the feminist groups I know are intersectional, so instead of working to solve only women’s problems they end up working to solve everyone’s problems, starting with women’s.

      So when I find someone online who claims that every single person who was assigned female at birth faces the same kind of oppression, and that every single person who was assigned male at birth has the same privilege, I can’t help but notice that they are stepping on someone’s toe.

      Incidentally, I feel the same way about men who claim to be fighting class oppression but deny the existence of gender oppression.

      • Lela

        What is being discussed are the ramifications of “masculinity” for those born with male anatomy and socialized male *as a class.* This is of great concern to radical feminists who address issues common to females as a class. Do you want to talk about masculinity, Ian and friends?

        • Ian

          It seemed to me, from the title and from the main thrust of the article (which I actually agree with on many points) that the author wanted to talk about masculinity and all those at risk of falling into the negative patterns with which it is associated. Which is why all the penis talk is, in my opinion, a misnomer. Because I see socialization as somewhat more complex a phenomenon than penis->male assignment->boy socialization and vice versa. A lot of societal messaging is of the form “all girls are like this”, not just “you, girl child, are like this”, and trans people very often end up absorbing much of the messaging intended for their identified genders. Hence a lot of trans men being every bit as misogynistic and abusive as cis men, and a lot of trans women struggling with the same oppressive internalized messages as cis women. In short, I just don’t see why the author would use the term “penised persons” because the presence of a penis is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for “male socialization”, and a “male socialization” is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being at risk of absorbing traits of toxic masculinity. That’s all.

          • Lela

            But Ian, there is no mention of trans women (or men) in this article. Did you see this at the bottom of the piece: “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.” The people Stoltenberg is referring to are those who have been born with male anatomy and socialized male and have been receptive to this socialization. I don’t think “penised person” is a very good descriptor either, probably for different reasons than you do.

          • Me

            “the presence of a penis is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for “male socialization”, and a “male socialization” is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being at risk of absorbing traits of toxic masculinity.”

            Hello, have you actually lived on this planet?

            For how many boys is their penis NOT a “necessary and sufficient” [pre]condition for male socialization, because that’s the argument I get from your comments? Are you serious?

            If you don’t think putting male socialization in scare quotes, and saying that it’s “nether a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being at risk of absorbing traits of toxic masculinity”, i.e. for being raised to act in violent, unfeeling and misogynistic ways, is anything but a huge red flag to women and might freak a lot of women out, you might want to think again.

            I personally didn’t like the use of penised person simply because I thought the article was somewhat difficult to read anyway and that seemed to add to it, though the main points stood out better on second reading. The point about penised persons he made is a point very much worth making, but I think using the word men might otherwise be clearer. It is a bit tough if a layman needs to learn a vernacular in order to even understand what’s being said.

    • Ian

      With all respect, a lot of us see trans issues *as* feminist issues. Trans people (and especially trans women) have a stake in feminist debates too. Saying that trans issues aren’t relevant/central to women/feminists is basically tantamount to saying that only cis women are women and only cis women are feminists. Which is not at all the case.

      • vouchsafer

        you smoking the crack Ian?

        seriously,”saying that trans issues aren’t relevant / CENTRAL to women/ feminists is tantamount to saying that only CIS women are women /feminists?”

        Do you see the way you just took trans issues and shoved them to the forefront of feminism?

      • Lela

        In your objective male opinion Ian, would there be a way to designate a type of feminism concerned solely with the welfare of those born with female anatomy, without this being branded transphobic? Because right now it looks as though there isn’t.

        • Ian

          My opinion is in no way objective. But speaking personally as someone “born with female anatomy”, trans men like me need to be checked on our privilege* more than trans women do, and they need feminism much more than we do.

          *I mean god, I’m the one barging into this conversation here. Typical dude.

          • vouchsafer

            No one has said that there isn’t a place for trans women in feminism.
            But feminists are allowed to have a conversation about something else once in a while.
            Feminism is a movement in which hopefully a wide segment of society, not just women, (and I agree with sporenda, the term ciswomen others women by defining us in terms of what we aren’t rather than what we are)strive to eradicate women’s oppression.

            Trans people can join the feminist movement all they want. But they can’t co-opt it. That’s called sidelining.its like saying decades of critique and discussion seeking to end female oppression has to be silenced so we can focus on trans issues. That’s not being anti anything, that’s just trying to keep to the original goal.

          • Lela

            I was making a joke about the myth of objectivity. All people born with female anatomy need feminism in a culture that teaches us see ourselves as less than human and shunts us into the SEX class “woman,” and teaches us that if we truly want to be human we must present and behave more “like a man.” BTW you didn’t actually answer my question. Can those born with female anatomy be seen as a group with common concerns and allowed to organize on that basis?

          • Lela

            Also do you not see how trans politics and terminology leaves those born with female anatomy literally unable to describe ourselves and our oppression? I mean we literally cannot even describe our bodies properly (i.e. you’ve put “female anatomy” in quotes)? FAAB doesn’t do it; the existence of two x-chromosomes, a host of secondary sex characteristics and female reproductive organs is not “assigned at birth.” Femininity is oppression. Many of us are not gender conforming and yet the label “cis” is foisted upon us with derision. It’s time for the “trans vs. cis” crowd to come up with a better descriptor for us or actually let us define who and what we are.

          • lizor


            67 comments here and thew conversation has been all about Trans people even though the post was about masculinity. Thanks a bunch, comrade.

          • scaldingmay

            Ian, I hate to break it to you, but you’re a woman and always will be. As another commenter said, that’s not a judgment on you personally but a biological fact. I completely understand why a woman would want to transition: men are considered the default human beings, and we want to brecognized as autonomous beings too. Would it really hurt yo accept yourself as the perfect woman you are, and not throw your sisters under the bus? The internalized misogyny you displayed here doesn’t get you very far in a patriarchy. And why do you care so much about transwomen? They’ve made it clear that they’ll throw women and transmen tothe curb once they get what they want.

          • Ian

            Oh my god, thank you! I’ve seen the light! Would you believe it, *not one person* has been so kind as to inform me that I’m a woman before! I didn’t even think to consult *biology*, even though it’s been staring me in the face this whole time and I’ve taken major medical steps to address it! And I certainly hadn’t considered that this might be a result of a *privilege* differential, you know, despite the fact that I’ve actually lived for multiple years as both a man and a woman. Boy, am I dumb! This comment of yours has really made all the difference!

            (Or, you know, maybe we just have radically different views of gender :P)

          • “(Or, you know, maybe we just have radically different views of gender :P) ”

            You’re definitely right about THAT. Too bad you’re on the wrong side.

          • Lela

            There is nothing radical about reinforcing gender which, as radfems repeatedly say, is an oppressive hierarchy from a female perspective. The concept of gender is harmful to women as a class whether you like it or not. Anyone can perform masculinity or femininity, but to think these things can be revolutionary is misguided.

            Our sex-based oppression exists because of men, with penises. John Stoltenberg is addressing this. What you seem to be saying is that we cannot go there, because trans women also have penises. So essentially we cannot discuss the mechanics of our problem. In the same way, perhaps, that we apparently can’t discuss prostitution as an oppressive institution and must kowtow to “sex work” dogma because trans people and fun-fems support it, and we can’t discuss femininity or objectification as oppressive because trans people and fun-fems like these things. Do you see the position you’re putting us in?

          • scaldingmay

            Unman okay, you’ve made it very clear you’re not on the side of women Ian. If you want to be part of the oppressor class, you’ll be treated like one. Why don’t you get the hell out of here if what we say angers you so much? I, nor anyone else here, has to cater to your delusions. Your internalized misogyny is so toxic you’re at an MRA level of insanity.

  • sporenda

    “In an era when each individual is supposedly entitled to valid personhood regardless of how they self-identify, why are feminists still being asked to remove ourselves from our own perspective and re-package our critiques to be acceptable to someone else?”

    Exactly, it’s truly mindblowing to see how trans behave like typical males: IT’ S ALL ABOUT ME ME ME; shouting louder than women, invading their space, forcing them to reformat their messages to catter to their needs, telling us what to do.
    This is why, even if I use the term casually sometime, I absolutely refuse to be called a ciswoman.
    Ciswoman is a vaguely derogatory term used by trans to refer to biological women.
    Not only this term is insulting but it’s once more about the right of men, trans or straight, to name and define what women are and conversely, to deny them the right to define themselves.
    By calling me a ciswoman, they are redrawing the sex/gender map with “trans” as the point of reference and defining women from this benchmark.
    Puting us back in our place, showing us who really matters.

    Trans might want to behave like females to males, but to females they prefer to behave like males: no way they are going to give up their ingrained feeling of superiority. Best of both worlds.

    And frankly, based on what I see here and on the net, I find it increasingly difficult to see trans as our friends.
    In fact, they look more and more as the attack dogs of patriarchy.

    • Me

      “Trans might want to behave like females to males, but to females they prefer to behave like males”

      Perhaps for some transwomen womanhood and femininity are closer to a reformed masculinity, and that they therefore often face just the same issues with gender reformism and the better-than/worse-than categorization the article talked about.

  • marv

    Both cis and transgendered identified folks misinterpret cultural scripts as biological essences. When you invest your whole life into a belief system it is threatening to surrendour it. This all makes complete sense given that our cherished desires and yearnings are fashioned by the cultlike forces of patriarchal power.

    The day of our deliverance from the night of patriarchy is unknown to us. Figuratively speaking, when it comes we will be rising from the dead. We need to abandon therefore, the allure of our old self identities with their practices and create lifegiving ones by being renewed according to the image and likeness of feminism. In that renewal there is no longer gender and transgender, races, rich and poor, employer and employee, people and animals for we will have atonement (at-one-ment) at a level never before achieved. I suspect many of us won’t be around for it or the emancipation proclamation and revelry that would follow, unless the partying is boisterous enough to raise the dead 🙂

  • sporenda

    I read a text online lately–unfortunately, I can’t seem to be able to locate it now–; it was about a trans group calling some feminists transphobic because…they dared to crtiticize the traditional norms of femininity, and wanted to do away with them.
    Whereas these trans (according to what they said) wanted these norms to remain unchanged, and were eager to comply with them to the point of seeming to worship them.
    understated: they were the “real women”, the feminists who were straying from traditional feminity were not .

    I could not believe my eyes: the fact that you do not want to submit to the patriarcal definition of femininity makes you transphobic!

    Could somebody please help me locate this incredible piece of sophistry?

    • stephen m

      It sounds like something that might be here though perhaps not literally.


      Thomas Kando: Sex Change – The Achievement of Gender Identity Among Feminized Transsexuals

      Thomas Kando: Sexism (Pt. 1)

      Thomas Kando – Homophobia (Pt. 2)

  • sporenda

    Thanks stephen, it’s not the text I was trying to find, but it’s very interesting because it reaches pretty much the same conclusion:

    ” transsexuals endorse such traditional values as heterosexuality, domestic roles for women, the double standard of sexual morality, the traditional division of tasks and responsibilities, and the discreditation of deviant sexuality.
    Unlike various liberated groups, transsexuals are reactionary, moving back toward the core-culture rather than away from it. They are the Uncle Toms of the seuxal revolution. With these individuals, the dialectic of social change comes full circle and the position of greatest deviance becomes that of the greatest conformity.”

    Eexcept it went one step further: the feminist rejection of all the above noms was labelLed “transphobic”.

  • John Stoltenberg

    A while back I was asked this question on a Facebook page: Hey, John, thanks for the wonderful article; it’s an excellent point you make, and have been making. Not to distract from the issue, but do you think there is a parallel or at least analogous link with idea that there is no healthy ‘straightness’?

    I answered: Thanks so much for your nice comment! Your question isn’t a distraction at all; it’s actually a deep one. And it prompted me, to refresh my memory, to look back at the chapter called “How Can I Have Better Sex” in The End of Manhood, where I worked out an explanation of the difference between “feeling sexual in manhood mode” and “feeling sexual in selfhood mode.” (In the language of the article you just read, it’s the difference between feeling sexual while trying to stay within the boundary of a gender identity and feeling sexual while expressing one’s moral identity. I know that *sounds* kind of abstract, but the very real difference in physical sensations and relational dynamics between those two “modes” is not at abstract all. My own speculation is that most (or maybe all) of what we understand to be “sexual orientation” is actually our acculturated brain and body trying to inhabit a boundaried gender identity for *ourselves* by perceiving, and responding sexually to, solely that which represents to us *someone else’s* embodiment of boundaried gender identity. In other words, sexual orientation functions not only to police our compliance with boundaried gender identity but also to blinker us to human moral identity–our own and another person’s. So in real life, what would one’s “sexual orientation” be if one was “feeling sexual in selfhood mode”? Put simply: It would be like saying, “I’m Harper sexual,” or “I’m Quinn sexual.” I happen to have used so-called nongender names here, but those sentences would work equally well to say something real and true about one’s erotic bonding with any particular real person’s whole selfhood whatever their name.

    • Me

      A very good comment!

      A big problem with the manhood mode is that this:

      “feeling sexual while trying to stay within the boundary of a gender identity”

      runs a range from “healthy sexuality” all the way sexual aggression. It also frames sexual aggression as a defensive act, aggressively trying to stay within the boundary. Men who act violently are defending their “selves”, while othering/making into women those who they target. That othering/making into women seems inherent in this straightness. There’s no easy knowing when a man might perceive that boundary being threatened and act aggressively, or how aggressively he might act, except that he might.

      I think this “straightness” is a mode men switch into that allows aggression and in many ways is a mode that’s out looking for a target. It’s everywhere. It’s something men try to stay on the “good side” of. It’s the guard and the basic aggressive posture men typically won’t drop until they’re senile, if then. I would imagine that’s very frightening to women, a sort of numbing, “feminizing” fear at the very least.

  • sporenda

    Thanks for these explanations, John.

    ” In other words, sexual orientation functions not only to police our compliance with boundaried gender identity but also to blinker us to human moral identity–our own and another person’s.
    So in real life, what would one’s “sexual orientation” be if one was “feeling sexual in selfhood mode”? Put simply: It would be like saying, “I’m Harper sexual,” or “I’m Quinn sexual.”

    I agree with the first part, it’s what you say in the second sentence that I can’t quite figure out.
    Is there a Harper or Quinn’s identity (including sexual identity) independantly of the culture/society Harper and Quinn were born in?

    Sexually, most people do pretty much what society tells them to do, within a fairly limited range of choices in most cases.
    And the ethical principles that an individual adheres to are also mostly dictated by his culture: there are wide discrepancies between what is considered ethical in different places .
    I cant’t see how ethical values (what you call selfhood if I understand correctly) are opposed to cultural formating, in my experience, they are part of it.

    • John Stoltenberg

      Hi, sporenda. You asked, “Is there a Harper or Quinn’s identity (including sexual identity) independantly of the culture/society Harper and Quinn were born in?” My answer is: of course not. But my point was: for the person who is (let’s say) in *love* with Harper, that person’s *sexual attraction* would not be “templated” or “targeted” on the basis of Harper’s conformity to anatomical markers of a gender class. Instead, that person’s *attraction to* and *bonding with* Harper would be in physical/sexual/emotional/maybe-spiritual response to Harper’s whole self, whole character, distinct identity, etc.

      It’s so tricky to try to communicate this kind of stuff, since it’s so far out of the mainstream consciousness, which is so shaped by coercion into adherence to gender polarity and hierarchy. And, as it happens, sometimes my linguistic attempts to *subvert* that mainstream consciousness (like my use of “penised person” instead of “boy” or “man”) confuse people, or freak them out. Which is why I’m following this comment thread with such interest, because for me as a writer it’s like an online focus group that’s letting me know what’s working and what’s not in my efforts to communicate what I see and what I mean and what I’m really talking about.

      It’s one thing for me to read a post by someone who *does* get what I’m saying and just flatout disagrees. That’s actually fine for me, and I (kind of) welcome it, because at least it tells me that what I meant got through. But it’s a whole other thing to read a post by someone who, as I take it, was just flummoxed by my communication choices: the vocabulary, the reading level, the structure or pace, the whatnot. That’s what I learn from–so hopefully next time I can be clearer. Anyone who’s followed my work from the early days could probably point to any number of terms or phrasings or “authorial voices” that I’ve simply abandoned…because I learned they weren’t serving my purpose terribly well. Obviously one of the things I’m taking from this thread is that my use of “penised person”– with a *very* buried footnote explaining it–was probably not the best way I could have handled that. Readers had to get to the very end before getting a clue about my reason for the choice, and until then their minds were understandably at liberty to speculate or free-associate as to its intent and then react to their speculation or free association. If I had a do-over, I’d fix that. 🙂

      • John Stoltenberg

        And another thing I’m tracking closely here is how my article has prompted interpretations and evaluations from those who are reading with particular awareness of the trans experience and the trans community. As I mentioned in an earlier comment here, I did try to include language that would function as a disclaimer and make clear this article was going to talk about the general audience or constituency of “people raised to be a man” on account of having been assigned “male” at birth on account of having been born with genitalia that sufficiently (to the medical professional) resembled a penis. That’s where it begins for this (roughly) half of the human population, so that’s why I referred to this class of humans as “penised people.” Obviously I’m learning from this comment thread that my intended disclaimer was not prominent enough—in fact it appears to have just flown by unnoticed by some, for which I fault more my own writing than their reading. Another lesson learned.

        But I also want to thank all those who have been commenting here about the trans experience. While some may regard their comments as “hi-jacking” the discussion, I myself have been taking them in and reflecting on them a lot. And I want to share something I wrote recently that was in fact directly influenced by that reflecting on this awareness-raising conversation.

        I wear another hat as a blogger about theater in Washington, DC, where I live and in that role I recently reviewed a theater piece called “Bradass87” about the American soldier Bradley Manning. When, a few days later, right after sentencing, Private Manning revealed that she was now Chelsea, I had an in-depth Q&A with the playwright about that.

        (The Q&A is here: http://www.dcmetrotheaterarts.com/2013/08/28/magic-time-now-that-bradass87-is-chelsea-a-qa-with-playwright-claire-lebowitz-by-john-stoltenberg/ and the original review is here: http://www.dcmetrotheaterarts.com/2013/08/20/bradass87-at-universalist-national-memorial-church-by-john-stoltenberg/)

        There is much in these two posts that came out of learnings I can attribute to my reflections on what’s been talked about in this comment thread–maybe not so as anyone else would notice…but I know. And I was very heartened to discover yesterday at the end of the Q&A a nice comment from Kate Bornstein. (If you don’t recognize her name, she’s a trans pioneer. Her own open letter to Chelsea Manning is here: http://www.out.com/news-opinion/2013/08/26/open-letter-kate-bornstein-chelsea-manning)

        Well, that’s three links in one post–maybe three links too many!–so I’ll sign off for now. But I’m staying tuned…with great interest and thanks.

  • ulysses

    No, you don’t understand. I’m not seeking to change who I am. I’m seeking for you to not frame me as toxic because I’m a masculine man. There is nothing toxic about courage, hard work and self sacrifice.

    They say there are no atheists in foxholes. I know this not to be true. But, I’ve yet to see a feminist in a tornado shelter.

    • You are absolutely right; I have never seen a feminist in a tornado shelter. But I’ve also never seen a masculine man in a bumper car ride. And I have never seen a hermaphrodite in an unmarked van. But I have seen a French-Canadian in a hot air balloon.

      You are right that there is nothing toxic about courage, hard work and self-sacrifice. This is why today we hail the Wehrmacht and suicide bombers as shining examples of masculine enterprise, and… hang on. Breaking news, I’ve just been told that you’re a fucking idiot. Yes, it’s confirmed, you are a fucking idiot. Sorry.

    • lizor

      “There is nothing toxic about courage, hard work and self sacrifice.”

      There’s also nothing masculine about those traits.

  • I’m super appreciating this article! There’s lots to chew on for me. I especially like this: “practice acting out of one’s moral agency without trying to prove one’s manhood.”

    But I have questions about the conclusion: “And yet the idea of ‘healthy masculinity’ does not liberate conscience from gender. ‘Healthy masculinity’ keeps conscience gendered. And it’s not.”

    I guess my questions are: 1) Isn’t it possible to liberate my moral agency from my masculine identity? 2) Wouldn’t doing so result in me having a healthier moral decision making capacity? 3) Can’t I do so and still have some remnants of my masculine identity, eg fashion cues, the way I walk, tone of voice, etc? 4) If I can practice my moral agency without “proving my manhood” wouldn’t this be a healthy masculinity? 5) If I can liberate my moral agency from my masculinity, wouldn’t this be a healthy masculinity?

    I guess what I’m gesturing at, is a distinction between kinds of reformers. There are those that are entrenching notions of justice and moral decision making within the confines of masculinity. This is problematic for various reasons that you write about, here and elsewhere. But there are those who are working towards a healthy masculinity by, in part, liberating their moral decision making from this identity, without totally eschewing their masculine identity. Seems plausible?

  • Still thinking about this, and have another way to put my concern. You seem to be saying that masculinity is necessarily trapping/shaping/constraining moral agency and therefore unhealthy. But you don’t give any evidence of this.

    I’m inclined to think that moral agency could be liberated from masculinity, whilst still identifying as masculine. If so, then it seems plausible to me that one could still talk about healthy masculinity and be a conscientious reformer.

    • lizor

      ” You seem to be saying that masculinity is necessarily trapping/shaping/constraining moral agency and therefore unhealthy.”


      Just keep working on liberating your moral agency from your ideas about “masculinity” and maybe one day you will see how your questions 4 and 5 are utterly nonsensical.

  • Pingback: Sporenda interviewe John Stoltenberg | Scènes de l'avis quotidien()

  • Did anyone notice the representation of masculinity in Stoltenberg’s “My strength is not for hurting” campaign? The campaign might not say “be a real man,” but the depiction of men does. For that matter, the narrow depiction of women also replicates patriarchal norms. Kind of a weird irony.

  • annika

    Did I seriously just read a comment thread on a radical feminist blot where a commenter was ganged up on for not using the right tone (re MA, vouchsafer, Me et al)? Use any pretzel logic you want, but you attacked a woman for expressing her truth. I can’t believe there are comments ranting about how it’s just like MRAs, white supremacists and evil. Can you miss the point even more? How is pointing put misogyny misogynist? We might as well throw out Ariel Levy for using the word FCPs.

    • Who are you referring to exactly?

      • annika

        The thread further up where someone wrote f-hole. In the grand scheme of things, I didn’t think it was right calling out a woman for using that language since some of the truly misogynist things in this comment section weren’t approached with such vitriol and condemnation. Like I wrote before, how is it misogynist to call out misogyny? I thought your comment in that thread was very apt.

        • I see. Yes, I agree with you on that point. I thought the statement in question was accurate.

          (i.e. “Your whole statement falls apart because transwomen are men, no matter if they get surgery to turn their penis into a designer fuckhole.”)

  • Sasha

    >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.)”

    I can’t agree with this on many levels. Firstly, I don’t think raping a child would be seen as ‘manhood proving’ in any context, in any society.

    Secondly, you can’t possibly ascribe a single dynamic to an action such as ‘man hits women’. Presumably there are all sorts of reasons why a man might hit a woman, just as is true for the reverse. He might be angry, he might be frightened, he might be a violent bastard, he might be trying to control her, he might be defending himself. Surely it’s not difficult to see that an incident of common assault could have many varying reasons for occuring? There’s a big difference between a McDonald’s server punching a drunken woman who’s jumped the counter to beat him round the head, and a husband who hits his wife because she burned the supper.

    Then John refers to ‘prostituted women’, which is problematic once again. We seem to have a very hard time discussing this in a grown-up way. The fact is that some women are forced into prostitution, and a great many more are not. A great many women really like working as escorts, and I’m sure a great many more simply do it to get by. After all, in the end it’s a service industry like any other.

    • stephen m

      @Sasha: It is time for you to stop using erroneous and made up generalizations and discuss prostitution in a grown-up way. Quite simply and for example here in Canada 95% of prostitutes surveyed want to leave prostitution, 2003. So your statement of “A great many women really like working as escorts”, would seem to be total rubbish for having any meaningful value in any discussion about prostitution.

      Your statement of “in the end it’s a service industry like any other”, is more rubbish. The following quote succinctly describes prostitution as it should be viewed:

      “In Sweden, it is understood any society that claims to defend principles of legal, political, economic, and social equality for women and girls must reject the idea that women and children, mostly girls, are commodities that can be bought, sold, and sexually exploited by men”,Ekberg

  • Komal

    I’m glad John Stoltenberg wrote this article. Very rarely do people speak against gender as a whole; surprisingly many otherwise liberal people are invested in gender.

    According to one taxonomy, there are three positions on gender (its desirability, etc.): gender conservatism (which seeks preservation of a hetero-patriarchal status quo), gender pluralism (which seeks acceptance of gender minorities) and gender abolitionism. Gender abolitionism seeks to abolish gender, not merely reform it. Perhaps Stoltenberg’s position falls under gender abolitionism.

  • Komal

    I want to link to a Facebook page on gender abolitionism, not to advertise it, but because the group description might be a positive contribution to this discussion. I have linked to this article on the page too.


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  • Sofie Savu

    Clearly sexism is unethical thinking and behavior and rather than focus on what men or women ought to be and do we must learn to first build our self concept not around gender but around our humanity grounded in ethical rights and behaviors. Being invested in thinking of ourselves firstly as male or female perpetuates in our own minds implicit gender stereotypes and expectations. We may not be aware just how much we’re doing it, but we do become unconsciously comfortable with it. Comfortable and lazy thinking is the enemy here. We also live in and promote a society that strives to keep us comfortable and complacent.
    The great enemy of ethical thought and behavior is the prioritization of comfortable complacency.
    Striving to always be just a little uncomfortable pushes us to be deliberate in our thought processes and helps develop more elaborate metacognition. This fight against the automaticity of our thought processes is the building of deeper and more complex understanding of ourselves and others.
    Imagine being sprightly aware of the needs of the moment without having to rely on tired and comfortable generalizations. That’s building the flexibilty and mental strength necessary for ongoing ethical consideration to all.


    I like this article. I always hated the phrase “real men blah blah blah”. It always seemed like it was said with male superiority, even when the intentions were good.