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

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.