Broken Promises or False Premises?

In a recent discussion on an email list I subscribe to, the topic of the double standard with regards to male and female sexuality was brought up. You know the one: men who have sex with lots of women are studs and women who have sex with lots of men are sluts. I was reminded of the infamous Spur Posse back in 1993— that group of high school boys who got points for how many girls they had sex with. They got one point per girl and a couple boys had scores in the 60s! One father said that his son was doing what any red-blooded American male did and one mother said the girls were just sluts who were using her son to gain popularity. I remember at the time writing an article for a newsletter I used to publish about how little self-esteem those boys must have and what a low sense of self-worth they had to take such risks with their own lives (STD's, HIV, etc.) and to degrade their own sexuality to nothing more than a game. But something made me want to do a bit more research on the issue and in doing so, I came across some very interesting articles about the crisis of modern men. Please understand, I'm not a man-hater. I am fully cognizant of the fact that the "men's rights" movement no more represents the average male than the "feminazis" (those "feminists" who see a woman's choice to be a wife and mother as a betrayal of her "sisters") represent the average female. Like the "feminazis", the "men's rights" advocates who get the most press are the hardliners. The extremists. So this is not intended as a slam against men.

My research led me to a speech given by author Susan Faludi, a feminist who wrote a book on why men are in crisis today. She addressed what most people seem to think is the problem: the issue of control (men had/have it and don't want to share it) and testosterone (men can't help but seek control— a sort of universal "alpha male" syndrome.) This loss of control plus the "hardwiring" provided by testosterone, according to mainstream media, is why there were so many men involved in things like Tailhook, the scandal at the Citadel, the Spur Posse and Columbine. (That is, when men lose control, they try to regain it by getting rid of the "competition", even using violence if necessary.) But Ms. Faludi didn't want to base her conclusions on these "fringes" of masculinity— the ones who cracked under the pressure that most men handle quite well. So she sought out what she called "the more mainstream fathers from the post-World War II generation", choosing (in part) the workers from McDonnell Douglas, 30,000 of whom were laid off during the 1990's. Ms. Faludi comments that men "spoke endlessly to me about the loss of what their paycheck bought, the three-bedroom split ranch homes, the Jacuzzi out back, the five-week family vacation."

Excuse me? These are "mainstream men"? Since when? I don't know a whole lot of people who have a Jacuzzi out back and take five week family vacations— and I'm not just talking during the 1990's— I'm talking about from 1960 through the present. And I don't believe that I know anyone who could afford to take a five week family vacation— then or now. Except perhaps those few relatives of mine that never had children. But even then, they worked such long hours at their job that they didn't have time to take a vacation! The median income in the US during 2001 for all households (according to Census Bureau figures) was under $43,000. These guys had to be making more than the median in order to afford to pay the mortgage on a three-bedroom split level with Jacuzzi and still save up enough for their five week family vacation!

My dad was what I would consider a mainstream male— he worked long hours (sometimes two jobs) to support his family, we lived from paycheck to paycheck and our vacations were often visits to family out of state. When my parents saved for big vacations, they saved for years in order to be able to take the kids with them. All but two vacations that I remember (that weren't to visit relatives) were within a few hours drive of our home. We'd stay for a couple days in a motel and then head back home. Or we'd go camping— real camping, not in a bunkhouse of some resort. Our clothes were bought at K-mart from the clearance racks or we made them or wore hand-me-downs. One year, I remember my mother made my two sisters and me matching dresses for Easter from old drapes. We bought new cars when we needed them, not every year or two. We had one television, not one in every room.

But I'm getting off-track. My point is that the workers at McDonnell Douglas weren't really "mainstream" males: they were mostly white middle/upper class workers. Back to the crisis of the American male in modern society. Ms. Faludi concluded that the main cause for the crisis among modern males is that men feel betrayed by their society, by their fathers, by their employers, by their wives, by their religions. Something about this really didn't sit right with me. And then it came to me: betrayal occurs when promises are broken, which means that men felt they had been "promised" (by whom is not entirely clear) that if they worked hard and remained loyal, they'd have a nice, neat little world in which they were kings of their own castles. In other words, there would be a continuation of the status quo.

The status quo in America immediately after WWII included very limited career choices for women, blatant and legal discrimination against blacks, very little educational opportunities from women or other minorities, virtually no discussion or recognition of the GLBT community, an implicit understanding that things like domestic violence and child abuse were simply not talked about, the legal right of men to rape their wives with impunity, institutionalized violation of the first amendment through mandatory school prayer, lack of reproductive choices for women....In other words, a world where men were king at the expense of everyone else around them. This was the promise, from my understanding of Ms. Faludi's speech, that men felt they were given by their fathers, by tradition, by society in general.

Then the civil rights movement and the women's lib movement and gay rights got started and by the late '60s, the first two were in full swing. White males almost exclusively held the reins of power until that point in time. But WWII had shown women that they could do the work men did— during the war, when the McDonnel Douglas plant was staffed by 90% women, they had record production rates. Women wanted more options than working as a secretary, a teacher, a nurse, a waitress, a store clerk or staying home and being a wife and mother. (There's nothing wrong with any of these choices— the issue was that the options were limited.) Blacks and women started to demand some control of those reins— and men (or more precisely, the white men in power both in business and in politics) fought to maintain complete control because they felt they had been promised that control by the white males who had control before them. If they gave up that control, they would be slowly stripped of power and privilege— power and privilege they had grown to like. That they didn't want to lose.

So in time, they put together groups that protested the lack of not only "men's rights" but of "white pride". They ask questions like, "Why is it okay to have a Miss Black America but not a Miss White America?" The answer to that is because until blacks and other minorities fought to get equal rights (and are still fighting for that matter), the Miss USA pageant was (albeit unofficially) a Miss White USA pageant. The same line of reasoning follows the issue of men's rights: men don't need laws granting them equal rights— they have all the rights now because they made the laws that gave them those rights without giving them to women and blacks and other minorities. The rest of us are still trying to catch up with the white male in terms of what rights we have. But those in power have slick propaganda machines and lots of money. They hide behind religion (like the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family) and patriotism, suggesting that anyone who opposes their plans is opposing all that America stands for. And there is just enough truth in their arguments to make most people say "Hey, maybe they have something there."

Today, thanks to this slick propaganda, many white males— and not just those in power— feel that programs like affirmative action are just another betrayal and are emasculating them by telling them they are worth less than women or minorities. The problem is that we have two choices: to have affirmative action or to not have affirmative action. To NOT have affirmative action, given the number of "good ol' boys" who are still in control of the business word and politics in general, means that the discrimination, while illegal on paper, will be largely ignored when it continues (which is why— when you get to the root of it— affirmative action was created in the first place: anti-discrimination laws were not working.) With affirmative action, we have the occasional white male being discriminated against. In either case, there will be discrimination— therefore you pick the scenario that protects the most people. The lesser of two evils is to keep affirmative action until the rest of society voluntarily stops discriminating against women, blacks and other minorities— a society in which not only does the white male still control most of the business and political power but now is being told that they should feel betrayed by society and women and their parents and their employers.

So rather than work for a solution, the vast majority of men I have spoken to about issues like affirmative action do nothing but complain about how unfair it is that they're being discriminated against (even though most of them haven't personally experienced discrimination.) Yes, it is unfair. I freely admit that. I also admit that two wrongs don't make a right. But that adage really doesn't apply in this situation because contrary to what many men seem to think (ie, that the system is only now becoming wrong because they are being discriminated against), the truth is that the system is still wrong— but it's less wrong with affirmative action than it was before affirmative action. Rather than use this opportunity to learn, to say, "Man, it really sucks being discriminated against unfairly! I guess I can understand why women and blacks and other minorities are angry and even bitter. I'm going to do what I can to change the policies of discrimination in business and politics", many men point to this propaganda and say "I have a right to feel betrayed!" These men seem to be unable to see that what went "wrong" with the system didn't start with affirmative action or liberation of blacks, women or gays. What went "wrong" with the system was the original promise that gave men (particulary white men) the impression they were entitled to control of the lives of everyone else. If men were betrayed, it was by the patriarchal system handed down to them by generation after generation of their forefathers.

The good news is that the solution is easy: learn from what they're experiencing so they can help change the paternalistic system that, while it seemed to promise the world, actually insured their ultimate unhappiness. To come to see that real power asks nothing of others and everything of ourselves. To understand that true liberation comes not when we're free to do what we want, but when we allow others to be free to do what they want.

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