Learnings from talking about 'healthy masculinity'

I’ve been pleased that my essayHow Talking About ‘Healthy Masculinity’ Is Like Talking About ‘Healthy Cancer’” has been generating a robust conversation online. Though I’ve responded here and there to questions and comments that have come up, I’d like to pull together what I’ve learned from following the conversation.

The first thing I’ve learned is that though most people seem to have read the piece pretty accurately, others have completely not. For example the title: It’s intentionally a teaser provocation, and I expected it could lead some to think they were about to read an article that equates masculinity with cancer. In fact that’s not at all what the piece says or does; the title is a blatant bait-and-switch. The piece actually continues a theme from Refusing to Be a Man and The End of Manhood (“The core of one’s being must love justice more than manhood”) and explains further how and why the gender identity manhood is a constraint on conscience—which is not an easy concept to package and market for mass consumption. I thought everyone could easily pick up on the deliberate misdirection of the title by the seventh paragraph, where I use “talking about ‘healthy cancer’” in a thought exercise. But apparently for some—even some otherwise careful readers—that title was like a red flag, and it kept them uncomprehending all the way through.

I’ve also learned much about what my piece has led readers to wonder about on other subjects related to my topic. For instance, I was asked 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 [the] 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.

In a follow-up to that answer, someone else asked: “Is there a Harper or Quinn’s identity (including sexual identity) independently of the culture/society Harper and Quinn were born in?”

I replied:

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.

For many years I had the pleasure of talkbacks and Q&As after having given a speech or lecture. And online comment threads bear some similarity to that engaging and stimulating experience. But there are huge differences as well: In online comment threads, all the thoughts and language are immediately preserved for others to see and read. And maybe more important: One always has time to carefully think through what one intends to say before saying it.

On Feminist Current, the wonderful website where this piece was first published, an extensive conversation emerged about whether my term “penised person” was cis-sexist (meaning prejudicial to trans-men by privileging male-born men). That reading quite took me aback, because I thought I had built a disclaimer into the piece making clear that it wasn’t about transgender life experiences at all. As I explained in a comment:

The 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.

And in a different digital context, a cis-man, a careful writer highly regarded for his scholarship about men and masculinities, wrote: “I wasn’t persuaded by the Reformer/Conserver binary, nor compelled by the ‘healthy cancer’ metaphor.” Again, this extreme misunderstanding perplexed me, because I thought I had clearly used “Reformer” and “Conserver” as demographic identifiers, as ways of naming two broad segments within the population of male-born men, big-bucket descriptive generalizations no more absolute or “binary” than, say, the words “liberal” and “conservative” when applied to the spectrum of political opinion. Compounding matters, “healthy cancer” does not function in the essay as a “metaphor” at all. Rather, as I mentioned above, “talking about ‘healthy cancer’” is used in a parable-like thought experiment to illuminate the predictably negative impact on the Conserver demographic of “talking about ‘healthy masculinity.’” My point—which I thought would be quite obvious—was based on contemporary communications best practices: If you want to reach a particular audience persuasively, don’t use language that will piss them off. (Duh.) But apparently for this particular reader (who represents an academic audience I would have hoped to reach with more comprehension), the language I used to say that did not communicate well at all.

As I wrote in a comment on Feminist Current:

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 flat-out 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. 🙂

Among careful readers with an interest in masculinity that is not only personal but professional, my piece hit another snag: They expected it to do something it did not do. But what these readers expected my piece to do was something worthy and valid: They wanted my piece to clearly state how it relates to the existing profeminist political discourse around men and masculinities. And of course they were correct: My piece did not do that, as this commenter correctly observed: “When I saw on this list that 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 transgender folks.” As this reader also accurately noted, my piece presented no such structural analysis, did not reference “the key components of patriarchy, privilege and power.”

Now, I’ve been aware for a long time that the relationship of my writings to the work of many others in this field (which I construe very broadly as those who critique patriarchy, privilege, and power from a profeminist perspective) tends to go unremarked. And part of that is completely understandable, because I rarely if ever mention cross-referential connections. For one thing, I almost never write as an academic (or as someone who would have that professional responsibility to scholarship). But not only do I eschew academese; I use a maverick vocabulary and theoretical framework. I don’t ever talk about “masculinities,” for instance; I talk about “people raised to be a man.” I don’t ever talk about “hegemonic masculinity”; I talk about “manhood.” And when on occasion I do reference my theoretical framework, it’s more in terms of ethics than politics. I of course identify with and support a politics (radical feminism, “not the fun kind”). As anyone who knows me knows, I’m not shy about saying so, and I expect myself to act so. But in the course of writing I’ve been on (for, gosh, 40 years now), I’ve tended to foreground the connection between ethics and identity in people raised to be a man and take a deep dive into what change needs to occur there and how it can occur—which has always seemed to me the nexus where I have most to contribute and can be of best use in the larger struggle.

A few years ago, I went back to school (something I never thought I would ever do). I enrolled in a graduate degree program in public relations and corporate communications. I wanted to learn as much as I could from professionals and best practices about how to communicate more effectively what I believe needs to be communicated. I’ve learned a ton. And I’ve begun the next chapter of my life working out how to apply what I’ve learned to causes I care about. Among which, of course, is radical feminist social change.

My essay about “healthy masculinity” is the first piece of writing I’ve sent out into the world using stuff I’ve learned about communications best practices. The whole discussion of the groupings Reformer and Conserver I borrowed from a crucial stage of strategic communications planning, which is to clearly identify relevant personas within one’s target audience in order to accurately identify their self-interest (yes, you read that right: self-interest), because unless your messaging speaks to that self-interest, it won’t get through and it will have zero effect on their behavior or attitudes. (I say a lot more about this critical communications point in a webinar that originated as a class project, “Health Messaging to Boys and Young Men: Dos and Don’ts.”)

Following from all that, my discussion of “Real Men Don’t…” campaigns demonstrates what is in effect self-interest messaging gone wrong: communications utterly wide of the mark because for their intended target audience, the self-interest spoken to hinders and impedes the communications purpose (a point portended by the “healthy cancer” thought experiment).

The gamble I take next is that readers will have been prepared to understand the nexus of identity and ethics in a way that they did not know to be relevant to the project of “redefining masculinity.” It’s a big leap, a game changer. And for many readers with a vested professional interest in that project, it’s completely counterintuitive, and may even be interpreted as an attack. Which is why, to dispel the latter, I included that discussion of bystander intervention training. And which is why, to deal with the former, I am paying close attention to what is working and what is not working in how I try to say what I mean and why.

That process took a very surprising turn, as I explain in this comment on Feminist Current:

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 and the original review is here.)

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.

Which brings me round to why I assembled and composed this present essay: The experience of publishing online has completely altered my own sense of my role and responsibility as a writer. (Readers who grew up digitally literate may not deem this big news. For me it was a eureka moment.) Back in the days of print only, I had a tendency to view criticism as a kind of challenge or dare (the perfect pretext, perhaps, for me to fulminate back in kind, whether I did so or not). But in the big chat room that is publishing and commenting online, I now have the opportunity to pay a very different kind of attention to what I can learn about readers’ thoughts and experiences as they read me. No longer need I leap to the knee-jerk assumption that because a reader has rejected something I’ve said or snarkily rebuked me for saying it, one of us has to be right and one of us has to be wrong (and by gosh I’d better not be the wrong one!). Instead, I have new means to try to understand my failures to communicate along with my successes.

Granted, new technologies and platforms for online communications have enabled an escalating level of flame wars, ad hominem attacks, slander, distortion, rumor-mongering, and worse. Civilized discourse has taken a huge hit on “teh interwebs.” And damaging communications online have precipitated much harm in real life in real time. Which is why the very last lesson I expected to learn was this:

The experience of communicating my work in cyberspace opens me to new ways of seeking connection and communication (rather than conflict), new ideas I would not otherwise have had (because I listened to the ideas of others), and a new way of being in the world as a writer ethically committed to personal, relational, and political change.




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.


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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  • Rob Langford

    John, a short comment to say that I only first learned of your work two weeks ago, and I’ve just finished eagerly gobbling up “Refusing To Be A Man”. Your insight about moral vs. gender identity was like the missing catalyst to a million disjointed ideas for me. I’m delighted that you’re embarking on this exploration of ever-better ways to get this liberating message across. I’ll be following it eagerly and supporting it however I can.

  • I think that’s well put, Rob Langford. I’ve also become very interested in how moral agency might be constrained by dominant constructions of masculinity.

    On the other hand, I think I’m still a reformer. Indeed, if Stoltenberg himself were to identify as masculine, I would support him in doing so. I say let a thousand flowers bloom. Yes, dominant masculinities have been (and continue to be) problematic. But what masculinity *is* and *might be* is not frozen. It’s not stone. And most importantly, it’s not singular.

    A very wise acquaintance of mine said recently that they think “it is up to each individual to define their own masculinity, femininity, whateverinity.” I think there is very much hope and optimism and practicality in this approach.

  • M.T.

    I hope you read those comments with a critical framework, because that comment section was filled with trolls fighting for transphobia. It is clear that you need to get up to speed on trans issues, because your use of the term “penised person” IS transphobic and woefully behind where this movement is in terms of talking about gender.

    This article was filled with you over-explaining “what you meant” and is not a helpful follow-up. I’m interested in your ideas but brevity and clarity are your friends, here, not stream-of-consciousness bordering on mansplaining. See, look how short this comment is!

    • “that comment section was filled with trolls fighting for transphobia.”
      Here we go again. Perhaps I should make an observation about the trans style of radfem-phobia.

    • Pointing out that some people have a penis, and talking about them, is not “transphobic” or “phobic” anything.

  • Okay, I am really sick and tired of all people hanging on to gender as if it was anything else than an oppressive construct designed to perpetuate the subjugation of women.

    If femininity and masculinity mean anything I want them to mean it’s useless to actually talk about femininity and masculinity because a concept so individual is not socially significant anymore. You’ve got to relalize that gender is not significant outside of its function to establish a hierarchy. Going aroung talking about YOUR femininity and masculinity nicely plays into beliefs that men and women are different in a way that empowers the former and disempowers the latter. Your personal feelings on the matter do not register with people eager to have their discriminatory worldview validated/in a world where femininity is crippling and disadvantaging for women everywhere. This supposed necessity to still have all the boxes readily available to sort yourself into because it makes you feel better about yourselves disregards the people who know that your voluntary act will be used to coerce them into these very same boxes.

    And I beg to differ on the revolutionary qualities of the transgender movement! This is a movement based on gender – it simply would not exist without women’s oppression. You have to realize that gender is supposed to oppress women. That’s the sole reason for its existence. Have the courage to be individuals, goddammit! If that makes me transphobic I will be transphobic any day of the week.

    The poisonous belief that existing as a woman/man is not significant and a state of being that one can simply identify into carries the seeds of invalidating women’s lived experiences. It is simply not the case that transsexuals have the same identity as non-transsexuals, it is not the case that men have the same identity as women. What you are and think of yourself is as much the work of other people as yours so identifying as something will never be the same as inhabiting the body of that something or someone. As Old White Dead Male Sociologists have alread found out decades ago and as we should actually know by now, especially in politics, the neoliberal free market rhetoric of unlimited choice is an ideological construct and does not depict the reality of human interaction.

    I do not fall for propaganda that tells me that ways of being can be attained through sale or a simple act of my agency in the form of “I think I am X therefore I am X!” And neither should anyone else. It is also offensive to the people whose life experiences you appropriate and which you will then have to silence if they feel different from you since this would destroy the illusion of being something you are not.

    • Norne

      I more than liked how you expressed that, thank you.

    • annika

      This comment deserves a standing ovation! The rise of transgenderism and it’s not too distant relative, the MRA movement, show just how persuasive the hatred of women is. I wish the funfems will realize that transwomen are male to the core. After they waste their gynergy on remembering the right pronouns and bogus lady brain studies and the cotton ceiling, they’ll be tossed to the side and once again the males will get what they want off the backs of women. Transwomen don’t care about abortion rights or childcare, since like typical men theoy can”t empathize with the concerns of women. Gender is dangerous, and as feminists we have to put women first.

    • Coromandel

      I was very much hoping a feminist who believes MtT are women would respond to this post with the respect it deserves.

  • trey1963

    But is there such a thing as healthy femininity? By the standard you espoused I’d have to say that also is destructive by it’s nature.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Of course. We are opposed to constructs of femininity and masculinity. We are feminists.

  • lizor

    Thank you John Stoltenberg for re-entering the radical feminist conversation in such a serious committed manner. I am heartened by your commitment to effective strategies for communication and dissemination of these ideas, despite the evidence of them being distorted or glancing off of so many readers.

    I wish you all the best and send you my deepest gratitude.


  • sporenda

    ” My point—which I thought would be quite obvious—was based on contemporary communications best practices: If you want to reach a particular audience persuasively, don’t use language that will piss them off. (Duh.)”

    Of course, no need to piss off people if one can avoid it but…
    Communication is not and end per se, it’s a mean to an end.
    If the concern to communicate more effectively takes precedence over the integrity of the message and leads you to water it down, to alter it significantly to make it more palatable to a certain audience, this can raise ethical issues as well as being counterproductive.

    When we convey a feminist/anti patriarchal message, we are running against the tide, so it’s not going to be well received by most of the audience anyway. Better accept this and go from there: we can’t please everyone–and we shouldn’t even try.
    A feminist author who is a crowd pleaser and the darling of the media is very likely doing faux feminism.

    And “sexing down” our message for the sake of communication is not necessarily going to win more people over–possibly quite the opposite, as we might be seen as unprincipled and opportunists for doing so.
    Too much is made of communication in politics and the media lately, it tends to create relativist attitudes and distract people from real issues.

    Personnally, I think that your formula “healthy masculinity/healthy cancer” is great, it’s striking and meaningful : traditional masculinity is indeed toxic.
    There is no beating around the bush with this fact: violent realities cannot be accurately described with euphemistic language, and whatever words you are using to express this unpalatable truth, it’s never going to be remotely as brutal as patriarchial violence itself.
    I like the fact that, while being quite courteous and respectful, you state your positions in a straightforward and uncompromising way. So don’t change a thing.

    And I don’t see what’s transphobic in using the term “penised people”. As I understand it, it expresses the notion that human beings, male or female, are people first and foremost, and gender is not at the core of their identity.
    I certainly wouldn’t consider the expression “people with vaginas” as misogynistic; on the contrary, it like it because it asserts the fundamental humanity of women.

  • lizor

    I’m sorry but I have to bring this up. I trip over it every time I open the webpage since this posting has gone up: Isn’t a bit ironic to have Hugh Grant holding up a “real men don’t buy girls sign when he’s a known john? Do real men buy women instead?

    • Meghan Murphy

      Yes it is extremely ironic. That campaign was indeed flawed (I agree exactly with your critique), and critiqued by many, including John. That’s why I chose to use it.

      • lizor

        Of course. *penny drops*

        Thanks for clarifying what should have been obvious to me, Meghan. 🙂

        • Meghan Murphy

          No worries. It’s a totally fair question. And yeah, again, I completely agree with you. The hypocrisy is staggering.