A couple of months ago, I saw a poster in the math building at the University of Waterloo advertising an interesting workshop. It was inviting the male Waterloo students to come to talk and discuss what it means to be masculine and to be a man. As a feminist and someone who’s very interested in the topic of gender, I was very curious and so attended. The workshop was run by a young gender equity advocate Stephen Soucie and it took only two minutes into it that I knew I had made the right decision to attend. Stephen lectured and had a discussion with us on how society (especially in our western culture) has shaped the male and female gender roles in detrimental ways and how this has promoted gender inequity and gender-based violence.
I loved the discussion and completely agreed with Stephen throughout. He started by asking us what expectations society holds on males. We brainstormed a lot and came up with several, including stoic, unemotional, hypersexual, strong, aggressive, etc. and then brainstormed ways in which men are ridiculed if they do not live up to these expectations to a sufficient degree. For example, men who do not fit this stereotype are more prone to bullying. They are often called things like “pussy”, “faggot”, “gay”, “bitch”, or “little girl”. Not only is such name-calling hurtful to the targeted men, but they are also harmful to women because they carry the implication that women are somehow inferior to men. These expectations, however, are a product of society and there is no rational basis for them. One could argue that these expectations come from the biological sex differences between males and females, but as Stephen pointed out, western society has overemphasised such differences. Moreover, male and female aren’t even exhaustive categories when it comes to either gender or sex, giving another reason why these gender roles need to be abandoned. Both gender and sex do not just consist of two categories, but both exist on a spectrum with male on one end and female on the other with a great variety in between.
Earlier in this blog, I mentioned how some of my social desires would be classified as feminine, such as cuddling with platonic friends. A little over a year ago, I did attend a Cuddle party once in Toronto (this is a social gathering where people can physically touch each other such as through cuddling in non-sexual ways) and I always find it fascinating that the majority of the attendees are male. I believe this is because society find platonic cuddling between women to be acceptable, but if a man or men are involved in this act, then it’s automatically classified as sexual and two men who cuddle are automatically labeled as “gay”. Society wouldn’t bat an eye if two women were crying in each other’s arms over a romantic movie, yet try replacing those two women with two men and you get something that’s completely unheard of. Our heteronormative society does not encourage homosocial bonding between men, which has a tremendous impact on men’s emotional and physical health.
These gender roles also promote gender-based violence in our society. Often, gender-based violence is portrayed as a women’s issue, often associated with the phrase “Violence against women”. You hear stories, for example on the news or in the newspaper, “Woman raped” or “Woman murdered”, failing to mention the perpetrator in the title (usually a man). But who the perpetrator is is just as relevant and stopping this gender-based violence takes way more than simply informing girls that they need to be careful, or to tell boys they need to behave properly. These, in my opinion, are just band-aid solutions, if they are even any kind of solutions at all.
Who are the perpetrators? Mostly men. Why are so many more men (many with horrible pasts, psychological problems, etc.) than women committing these horrific crimes? This is what the rest of the discussion with Stephen was about. These men weren’t born as killers or rapists. The rub is that it was fed into them starting from an early age, regardless if it was intentional or unintentional. They came to learn that to be a man, you must exhibit certain characteristics. They feel they need to be tough, aggressive, hypersexual, stoic, etc. and it often gets to the point where they feel that the only way they can measure up to these expectations and let out all the negative emotions they are feeling is by committing violence, especially against women. These societal expectations placed on men have affected their well-being very negatively and, as such, gender-based violence is just as much as a men’s issue as it is a women’s issue.
I am not trying to excuse the crimes that men commit here because men happen to be raised in a certain way. Crimes such as murder, rape, and domestic violence and abuse are horrible and should carry a heavy sentence regardless whenever they are committed. Instead, this analysis of the issue should be used when we’re asking what needs to happen for this violence to be resolved. In order to have equality for women, we need equality for men as well and indeed for people of all genders.
Since the workshop, I have stayed in touch with Stephen, and we have talked about these issues further and exchanged books and movies on the subject. One movie that I borrowed from Stephen was called Tough Guise 2 and it’s about everything I’ve written in this post and I highly recommend it.
The world is rife with inequity, and gender is definitely a prime example. I remain optimistic, however, that we as a society can correct this. Simply talking about it and advocating this issue is a definite first step.