*Note that the following post is a work in progress and was originally posted here in Aug 2018. It is imperfect. There is always more reading and writing to be done. However, it is a starting point and adds to the collective voice that a change and healing needs to happen. *
A call to arms
Our men are injured. But we knew this, right? It has been at slow simmer for years, decades even, possibly longer, that has boiled over with former President “Grab ‘em by the pussy”, #metoo, #timesup, and discussion of consensual, sexual intimacy. We know the men are dis-eased, a handful pathologically that they ‘poison the well’.
There’s a wakeup call, a reckoning, as the collective, particularly women, voice and demonstrate their frustration. Women are no longer accepting victimhood. But women were the canaries of the mine – women’s harm is the reflection of an even larger problem.
The problem, put simply, is harmful gender norms and dynamics. When looking at the big picture and trying to find out where to start, it looks like a manic spider diagram or crazed Jackson Pollock painting. The mess is real, interconnected, disheveled, and chaotic. My small blog post is unlikely to untangle this issue, but it adds to the rising chorus demanding change by contributing perspective, education, and bolstering efforts for a greater restructuring.
How did we get here?
We, as in the female collective, have been hyper-focused on healing ourselves, recovering from the fallout of 1960s and 70s feminism that grew us on mantras of “you can have it all”, “you can do what he does”, that compared our success and progress with that of men. But what if we don’t want to be just like men? The same logic dismissed mothers (and their children) as being an integral part to our community by their undervaluing the worth and time. And let us not forget that earlier forms of feminism were not intersectional – they left women of color and our trans sisters and nonbinary loves in the margins; they also left out our men. To be clear, the women then did important work and cleared some paths, but not without losses that we are trying to repair, clean up, dig out of today.
But now……now we are called to our men. (Who has been minding our men????)
Patriarchy and toxic masculinity: what are they
To follow this issue to the source, we need some definitions. Mine will no doubt be imperfect, but serve as a starting point. Let’s start then: Patriarchy is political and social system that establishes the framework and social norms in which men hold the power and are valued over women and people of nonbinary gender. More broadly, it is a cultural practice that rules by domination, with men as the ruling class. More information can be found here: https://everydayfeminism.com/2014/11/what-is-patriarchy/
Toxic masculinity is a narrowed definition of the “masculine”, viewing emotional expression as weak, for example, and praising aggression and sexual domination. Toxic masculinity is separate from, but supports the patriarchy, and some suggest that the partriarchal systems have pushed traditional views of masculinity into toxic masculinity (more https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/never-confuse-masculinity-patriarchy-lbkr/). Even though men may be privileged in a patriarchal society, they don’t always benefit from the specific social codes that it entails. Many individuals do not have the words for this phenomenon, unable to name this pervasive and invisible system that encapsulates so much of our human interactions, making it even more difficult to pinpoint, identify, and deconstruct.
“We cannot dismantle a system as long we engage in collective denial about its impact on our lives……..A great majority of individuals enforce an unspoken rule in the culture as a whole that demands we keep the secrets of patriarchy…..The rule of silence is upheld when the culture refuses everyone easy access even to the word patriarchy…….how can we organize to challenge and change a system that cannot be named?…….Patriarchy as a system has denied males access to full emotional well-being, which is not the same as feeling rewarded, successful, or powerful because of one’s capacity to assert control over others. To truly address male pain and male crisis we must as a nation be willing to expose the harsh reality that patriarchy has damanged men in the past and continues to damage them in the present.” (Bell Hooks, Understanding Patriarchy)
This next topic might be difficult to consider for some. Take what you can and leave the rest, or come back to it later, but I would be remiss not to bring it up.
In the beginning of a boy’s life, his body is not his own, at least here in America. At only days old, medical providers in America preform a culturally-specified surgery on the boy’s most intimate parts. What am I talking about? Routine infant circumcision (RIC): a surgery promoted by some as having health benefits, yet these benefits are small, preventable with less invasive measures, and/or are unable to be replicated with subsequent research. Because of the lack of medical benefits, it is a cultural surgery. For some, it might be a religious ceremony; however many requesting it be performed on their sons are not Jewish or Muslim (and these religions have groups moving away from genital cutting with new ceremonies, such as the brit shalom). We are taking away some of their most basic autonomy, cutting our boys without their consent. And yet, we are demanding the men and boys acknowledge consent from their partners before pursuing new intimacies. But, where is their consent? And at their youngest and in regards to their most vulnerable body parts? I suspect that this is one of the first wounds we inflict on our men, and it is not without harm as any quick google search can inform the reader.
Was that uncomfortable? How quickly did you dismiss those words above? And isn’t that part of the problem, that many readers will have to gloss over this section, and think that our baby boys can just “handle it” or be a “soldier”? The cognitive dissonance is so thick here, you need a head lamp just to catch a line of vision and find your way home.
If this issue is new to you, please educate yourself. I have included some resources below. The point of this particular blog post is to discuss male healing, not RIC. Maybe I will circle back to this if needed on some future date.
- The Elephant in the Hospital, A lecture from Georgetown University: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ceht-3xu84I&t=27s
- Your whole baby: https://www.yourwholebaby.org/ (so much information here, including links to research as well as information on men speaking out against circumcision, healthcare providers that can help with emotional trauma from circumcision, and foreskin restoration)
- Doctors opposing circumcision: https://www.doctorsopposingcircumcision.org/
- Nurses for the rights of the child: http://childrightsnurses.org/index.php/nurses-stories/nurses-speak-out-against-circumcision/
- International policy statements regarding RIC: http://www.circumcision.org/position.htm
- Ask Dr. Sears: https://www.fullcirclemidwifery.com/2009/02/circumcision-decisions-by-dr-sears/
- The Ethics of Male Circumcision: http://www.academia.edu/3430963/The_ethics_of_infant_male_circumcision
The Boy Code and Male Mythology
As the boy grows, he will be influenced by the “boy code”, a term that is typically credited to William Pollack, PhD (Real Boys: Rescuing Our Boys from the Myths of Boyhood). The “boy code” is cultural reinforcements or rules that limit a boy’s access to his WHOLE self but dismissing his emotions and intuition and requiring stoicism. Examples of the “boy code” include “don’t be a girl”, and “act like a man”, be powerful, athletic, and dominant, all of which contribute to a “gender straightjacket”. James A. Doyle (The Male Experience) explains that instead of boys being taught how to act, they are taught how NOT to act – mainly, like their female counterparts, and to not be close to their mother, an relationship of obvious importance, which undermines his connection to her, but also future women in his life (some call this the “mother wound”).
Further, boys are taught to not display emotional connection or they risk being perceived as vulnerable, weak, and/or gay. As Bell Hooks wrote: “To indoctrinate boys into the rules of patriarchy, we force them to feel pain and to deny their feelings” (Understanding Patriarchy). These experiences create a disconnect between the boy’s inner (emotional) and outer (physical, manifest) world that can cause a variety of individualized signs and symptoms including depression, violence/aggression, substance abuse, and suicide, any of which can contribute to impaired public health and the undoing of our boys and men on a personal and collective level. (Did you know that suicide is one of the most common causes of death for men? https://www.menshealth.com/health/7th-leading-cause-of-death )
“Patriarchy demands of men that they become and remain emotional cripples. Since it is a system that denies men full access to their freedom of will, it is difficult for any man of any class to rebel against patriarchy” (Bell Hooks, Understanding Patriarchy).
The male mythology is what it means to be a man. This is the boy code; grown up, it becomes toxic masculinity. It is the trash talking to male peers that devalues women. It is the objectification of male bodies and expectations of specific body standards. This objectification shows up as the hyper-sexualization of men (and the appropriation and pornification of female sexuality). Tony Porter explores male mythology, calling it the “Man Box”, discussing the focus on male success, power, and lack of emotion, which contribute to sexual assault and violence against women and other marginalized groups.
For further reading about the boy code:
- More on the boy code: https://buildingboys.net/the-boy-code/#:~:text=According%20to%20William%20Pollack%2C%20PhD%2C%20author%20of%20Real,No%20crying%2C%20whimpering%20or%20expressions%20of%20hurt%20allowed.
- More on the “mother wound”: https://womboflight.com/article-169257?inf_contact_key=61617797eb76eaa0b2e6e75e1c007355dadc14781b1468f342c44161e11254f2
Resources for the male mythology:
- Man box: https://www.acalltomen.org/resources/video-what-is-the-man-box/#:~:text=A%20Call%20To%20Men%20coined%20the%20term%20the,at%20the%20margins%20of%20the%20margins%20to%20persist.
From this loss of connection to his WHOLE self in denying him autonomy and in the severing of his inner world from his outer world via boy code and male mythology, our men are wounded. He is unable to access his intuition, his inner self, his emotions, other than perhaps fear and rage – the acceptable emotional landscape of men. He has not been properly, lovingly initiated into the rights and ways of boyhood and manhood by way of healed and whole male elders or community; instead relying on guidance from caricatured depictions of what it means to be a man by a patriarchal society.
This loss of self is analogous to what shamans have called power loss and soul loss, that is, losing critical parts of oneself that give life, vitality, soul-ful-ness. Power loss and soul loss are spiritual illnesses that can manifest as emotional or physical dis-ease, causing depression, apathy, listlessness, and some even immunological disease. To retrieve power or a soul, the client would need the services of a shaman, who would perform a ritual or ceremony and “journey” via an altered state of consciousness to retrieve the lost parts (i.e. soul retrieval).
I am aware that many of the readers have not heard of soul loss, maybe even a shaman. Why do I bring these up? Because there exists a model to explain the collective trauma and disconnection of our men and the pathology related to the lack of male wholeness. This model is an explanation for something that we can’t articulate well, especially if we have difficulty naming patriarchy, how can we even name something more ephemeral? Is “it” (woo-woo, juju, shamanism, magick) even true? I address some of this in another blog post on spirituality and healing. My short answer would be a question for the reader: does it matter? If something brings healing to a client, the Truth of that technique might not matter.
What is interesting to note is that there is a ritual involved – as I mentioned before, ritual tends to strengthen medicine (ex. pain medication given with the awareness of patients is more effective than when it is administered without their awareness). Ceremony is a component. In ceremony, community comes together to support an individual during some transition, here a transition to healing (but it could be one related to newly acquired responsibilities, such as ceremony marking the beginning of ‘manhood’ or puberty). Community support and a sense of belonging and love are healing. If healing directly via soul retrieval is difficult to accept, is it possible that the healing experienced is from ritual and ceremony? Dr. Edward Tick explores the issue of soul wounding and loss in men in his book War and the Soul, which specifically examines war-based trauma and PTSD and how community can help reintegrate the warrior into society for “his” whole health and being.
Are we looking at a collective soul loss of our men? Has the patriarchy caused the deadening of his WHOLE self? There is poetry, metaphor, analogy, and, possibly Truth here.
For more information on shamanic practice and soul loss:
- Sandra Ingerman (a leader in shamanic practice in the US) http://www.sandraingerman.com/
- Society for Shamanic Practice (a professional organization) https://shamanicpractice.org/
- Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self by Sandra Ingerman https://www.amazon.com/Soul-Retrieval-Mending-Fragmented-Self/dp/0061227862/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1517246695&sr=8-3&keywords=sandra+ingerman
- Shamanic Soul Retrieval: The Resuscitation of Beauty https://shamanicpractice.org/shamanic-soul-retrieval-the-resuscitation-of-beauty/
- Tragedy, Collective Soul Loss, and the Healing Story https://www.huffingtonpost.com/kelley-harrell/soul-healing_b_2401783.html
- An Interview with Isa Guicciard, PhD, on Soul Retrieval http://www.shamanportal.org/article_details.php?id=912
Illusion of separateness and how feminism failed our men
“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Another way we have failed men and each other is through the illusion of separateness. Mystics, Hindus, Buddhists, and shamanic practitioners share a world view that much of the pain experienced by humanity is a direct result of our thinking that we are separate from one another, from the earth, and even from the divine/Source/Mystery. Metaphyscial interconnectedness is explained through concepts such as Indra’s net, that is that all individuals and acts are connected and reflected in one another. The sensing and uniting of Shiva and Shakti, the spiritual masculine and feminine energies within a single individual, is the goal in some yogic traditions. We are now recognizing that the separation of male and female as a distinct anatomical binary is not biologically accurate (ex. Intersex individuals), and our related binary genders are also inaccurate and a cultural construct, related to patriarchy and colonization in order to create “other” (see Jailbreaking the Goddess L.A. Firefox, as well as works by MJ Barker, bell hooks, and others, including my piece here: http://ignitewell-being.com/sex-gender-and-sexual-orientation/ ). Energetically, we can sense this interconnection too, particularly if you are intuitive or an empath. Studies are showing that one explanation for energetic connectedness between humans is the sharing of electromagnetic fields from the heart. Even big picture, we can no longer deny that we are separate from the earth, as her ecological collapse, warming climate, and dis-ease has begun to impact humans.
Older versions of feminism were wrong. Men are not the enemy. Outdated and inappropriate patriarchal models of gender norms, yes, but men, no. bell hooks refers to this as “separatist ideology”, which ignores the impact and hurt of patriarchy and its rigid gender roles on men. We, the other, the females and/or gender nonbinary, have been complicit in this wounding and undoing just through our participation in a partriarchal society. He is hurting, and he is we.
Intersectional feminism is recognizing how we left men out. How we denied him what he needs the most – access to the emotional, the intuitive, and the relational. The old way of thinking was that women should be just like men. The old way fought gallantly for a place at the men’s table. But we are now realizing that we don’t want what’s being served at the table (patriarchy and toxic masculinity). The old way of thinking had men up on a horse, high and proud, as a way of being to aspire to; we need to invite him, instead, back to the earth (also said to the realm of “women”) and put that horse to pasture.
Community is the bridge to reconnect men to the earth, to his full potential, to his whole way of being. But we need to make room for that. We need to create “containers of emergence”, sacred emotional or physical space where he can be vulnerable, try and fail, experience shame, cry, speak secrets, and just breathe. Women, historically, were the healers of the family and community, holding the ancient knowledge of birth, death, and the ethereal. Women, secondary to socialized gender roles, are comfortable with community, relationship, voicing emotion, eating secrets and alchemizing them into fire and light, exploring the liminal and magic offered by earth and our existence. Let us allow men this freedom as well. We can honor our heritage by healing our husbands and sons, doffing the strict masculine code of conduct, undoing the “gender straightjacket” that we have accepted and been complicit in maintaining. It is time to awaken the divine masculine, our WHOLE men.
For additional reading:
- Indra’s net: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indra%27s_net
- Heart Math Institute: https://www.heartmath.org/articles-of-the-heart/science-of-the-heart/the-energetic-heart-is-unfolding/
Solutions and People Doing Work:
I am not in any way saying that these bigger social problems will be healed by our men doing yoga or reading poetry. Or that every man should seek out a shaman. I am not that naïve, though, admittedly, I wish it were that easy. But, we need to start the change in our own families. Calling out rigid social constructs that serve no purpose other than to harm. By creating space and time for our men to feel and conduct meaningful self-care. By encouraging mentoring and supportive male relationship.
Further, men need to be responsible for their own work and healing. We, as community, can create spaces of compassion and empathy, but ultimately, they are the ones responsible for doing the emotional and mental labor of true self-care and change. Let us avoid the temptation of the savior complex and the temptation to hasten the work along by doing it for him because ultimately, this is something he has to go alone. Men need to take themselves to task, take initiative, and get to work.
There are societal level works to re-establish other narratives to the story of what it means to be a man and connect to these narratives within the male psyche. These include King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette. The book The Mask of Masculinity by Lewis Howes explores the cultural beliefs that surround masculinity in an attempt to heal. Men, like Tony Porter and Jackson Katz, have established businesses to assist men in accessing their WHOLE selves. Men’s groups exist with the intention of expanding what it means to be a man, such as the ManKind Project https://mkpusa.org/mens-group/ Movements abound on social media to end the stigma of male intimacy, such as #Blackboysembrace. The website The Good Men Project (https://goodmenproject.com/) is doing current work on ending toxic masculinity by examining violence, sexuality, and vulnerability among other topics.
A note on gender
Please recognize that sex and gender are distinct but inter-related, and gender is essentially a made-up, cultural construct. Parsing out characteristics like “strong” for masculine and “emotional” for female is not accurate and only reinforces patriarchy and contributes to all of the problems mentioned above. But asking people to notice gender and patriarchy is like asking a fish to see water – it is everywhere at once, and we take it completely for granted. But because it is a part of our culture, we cannot step out of these ideas completely. This is a slow game. I have edited this article several times in an imperfect attempt to be more expansive in the wording and understanding of gender. For more information on sex/gender, please see my article referenced in the text above.
“The wound is the place where the light enters you” – Rumi
It is my hope that these ideas are 1) new to the reader and 2) are a starting point or an initiation for change. Cut each other some slack, be kind, always, and we can undo these cultural messes together.
Thank you for reading.
The above content is written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT), RYT 500, sexologist and sexuality counselor and educator (in supervision); copyright protected, please cite accordingly. The picture is from Pexels. To work with me or for more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
This piece of writing was posted on several of my websites and moved around secondary to the sensitivity of its nature. It will be permanently homed here. Originally written in 2018, edits are on going.
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*Please note that none of the above information is specific medical advice, but is meant as educational information only. If you have concerns about your health, please contact a trusted healthcare professional*