Masculinity Under Siege

From Christopher Street magazine, Issue 209, January 1994.

by John Stoltenberg
Published 1993, Dutton, 311 pp.
1998, hardcover reprint edition, Replica Books

Review by Stephen H. Miller

Once, I'm told, as Vito Russo and a group of friends disembarked from the Fire Island ferry, someone yelled out, "Here come the 'girls.'"

"We're not 'girls,'" Vito shot back. "We're men who fuck men."

This story about Vito (whose death from AIDS, together with the deaths of so many activists during the '80s, eliminated a generation of gay-male leadership), puts front and center a question gay men have danced around but never adequately confronted: Just what does "manhood" mean in a gay context?

The ambiguity of gay men's relationship to manhood isn't hard to understand, since so many of us grew up in a homophobic world that told us, repeatedly, that we're less than men. Add to the mix feminism's often strident assault on maleness as the root of all evil and it's inevitable gay men's assessment of their own manhood would be conflicted -- ranging from the all-out rejection of masculinity to its exaggerated, worshipful embrace.

John Stoltenberg, in "The End of Manhood: A Book for Men of Conscience," takes the former position, and boy does he take it. "The male sex is an abstract fiction. Penises exist. The male sex does not," writes the author, who goes on to laud "the radical feminist critique of gender" which has made possible "an epochal insight into sexuality and personal identity."

And what does this insight consist of? "Manhood is a personal and social hoax that exists only through interpersonal and social injustice," for one. "You can only inhabit the manhood 'I' in the act of addressing someone as 'You who are less than me.'" Still with me?

At the root of his argument, Stoltenberg postulates a fundamental dichotomy - that the social construct of "manhood" cannot possibly co-exist with what he terms authentic "selfhood." He rejects the notion that manhood can be in any way revised or redeemed through "revisioning" or "remythologizing" - one of many missives aimed at poet Robert Bly, author of the best-selling book "Iron John" and a leader of the "mythopoetic" stream of the men's movement. "That project is utterly futile, and we all have to give it up," he decrees. Manhood as an identity, in short, is driven by feelings of sexual possession and ownership. It presupposes endless competition to prove one's manhood in relation to others - a zero-sum game predicated on violence, intimidation and humiliation.

If this sounds familiar, it will come as no surprise to learn that Stoltenberg dedicates his book to Andrea Dworkin. In fact, Stoltenberg, who describes himself as "a radical profeminist" writer and lecturer (he is also the co-founder of Men Against Pornography), has shared a Park Slope apartment with Dworkin for years. Dworkin, of course, is a leading anti-porn theorist whose books contend that heterosexual intercourse is essentially a euphemism for rape.

It is widely reported that Dworkin is a lesbian and Stoltenberg a gay man. Nowhere in this book, at any rate, does Stoltenberg define himself. But since the essence of the work is that identity should not be gender-specific, this really isn't unexpected. He writes, "There is no circumscribed set of sexual feelings that are definitionally 'male.' The presence of a penis does not correlate with the definitional presumption [of maleness, as socially defined] in any meaningful way."

When he does talk about sex, Stoltenberg argues for abandoning the "manhood mode" since it's an inherently predatory identity. "Many penised humans attempt sexual relations in manhood mode as if meaningful consent can occur," he writes, arguing, of course, that it can't. "By definition the transaction must include someone's being treated as closer to nobody, otherwise no one gets closer to manhood."

Elsewhere, he writes, "Some humans born with 'male' sexual anatomy have realized that their preferred experience of coitus is an embrace, not a stab. For them, the subjective feeling that one is violating another person's body is simply emotionally impossible." To paraphrase, male lust = violation.

While a good deal of the book is devoted to a critique of sexuality in "manhood mode," just what sexuality consists of in "selfhood mode" for "penised humans" is left rather fuzzy, although at one point Stoltenberg contends, among other possibilities, "There can be orgasm without penile erection and ejaculation." Multiple orgasms, in fact. Elsewhere he recommends "choosing...not to fixate on fucking." And, of course, as an anti-pornography crusader, he warns against inappropriate visual stimulations that objectify and dehumanize.

Finally, in a virtuoso denial of any natural, underlying distinctions between the sexes (remember, "'the male sex' is a political and ethical construction"), Stoltenberg minimizes the physiological differences between a penis and a clitoris, blaming sex researchers for using "arbitrary criteria [to] fudge human experience in order to make 'scientific' distinctions between 'female and male categories' of human sexuality."

Such arguments give credence to much-maligned Camille Paglia's otherwise arch contention, in her book "Sex, Art, and American Culture," that "What feminists are asking is for men to be castrated, to make eunuchs out of them." Paglia, in sharp contrast, finds sex "a turbulent power that we are not in control of; it's a dark force. ... It's the dark realm of the night." Stoltenberg's rejection of sex's uncontrollable, Dionysian nature, his contempt of raw, aggressive, combustible masculinity, leave the impression his brave, new unisex world would be about as passion-filled as an afternoon nap.

It would be comforting to dismiss Stoltenberg as an extremist and an aberration, but (and it's a sad comment on contemporary feminism), that isn't so. In an article entitled "Feminism's Identity Crisis" in The Atlantic, Wendy Kaminer writes that only five years ago Dworkin and fellow anti-porn/anti-manhood feminist Catharine MacKinnon were leaders of a feminist fringe. "Today," reports Kaminer, "owing partly to the excess of multiculturalism and the exaltation of victimization, they're leaders in the feminist mainstream."

To understand how Stoltenberg fits into this current feminist mission, his attacks on Robert Bly are revealing. For instance, he creates a satire about the testimony of Coach "Irony" John (get it?) before a National Commission on Manhood and has his parody proclaim: "Where I come from, the Great State of Athletic Prowess, you learn there's a right way to fuck and a wrong way to fuck. The right way is when you have somebody beneath you. The wrong way is when you don't [Laughter]."

In an adoring blurb for the book, Gloria Steinem writes, "I hope Robert Bly reads `The End of Manhood' and discovers the real men's movement away from masculinity and toward full humanity." But Bly's "Iron John� is a work of brilliance, an exploration of the lost sense of the masculine soul, which is both protective and emotionally centered, and a call for men to overcome the habit of not talking together about their lives, their grief, their woundedness (much of which results from being inadequately fathered, by fathers who were inadequately fathered).

But feminist Bly-bashing has a larger agenda - to discredit the new wave of Bly-inspired male-bonding at the heart of the mythopoetic men's movement (which is seen as a threat to the so-called feminist men's movement - really a male-deprecating adjunct to the women's movement). Many feminists feel there's just got to be a sinister, anti-women slant to what goes on during those men-only retreats in the woods.

I suspect, in fact, most of Stoltenberg's readers will be feminist women looking for still another work validating their contempt for men (a special prologue has thoughtfully been included for women readers). But it's too easy to simply dismiss him. Like other manifestations of political correctness born of academic feminism, the absolutist denigration of masculinity as a concept is gaining ground. What's perplexing about all this is not so much radical feminism's war against male sexuality, in toto, but the fervor with which so many guilt-ridden gay men buy into it.

Historically, though, there are reasons, and a big one is called AIDS. The community of masculine-affirmative "clones," the sexual outlaws who redefined and celebrated gay male sexuality in the '70s, has been decimated. Lesbian feminists, having achieved a dominant role in the women's movement, rushed in to fill the cultural void - despite the fact that lesbianism and gay male sexuality have vastly different behavioral patterns and psychological dynamics.

The result: no real movement exists for gay men to focus on gay-male issues, while the "lesbian and gay movement" has assimilated some of the worst ideology of feminist male-bashing (often camouflaged as gay-white-male-bashing, to ensure political correctness).

Nowadays, there is a virtual absence of the kind of gay-male space that could facilitate deeper explorations of gay manhood and gay-male bonding (much as women-only space has done for lesbians). The anti-manhood view has been so thoroughly assimilated that no one questions lesbian-only political and social groups, while gay male groups would be viewed as an anti-women conspiracy. One example: In New York, lesbians seeking to commune with women while escaping to the country can join Hikin' Dykes. Men have the option of camping with Sundance, which is a male and female group, but there's no gay-male specific organization to combine male-bonding and rural recreation.)

Gay men contribute to the National Center for Lesbian Rights and cheer the actions of the Lesbian Avengers; there is no National Center for Gay Male Rights to focus exclusively on gay-male issues such as defending the right to child visitation (or custody) when a former spouse, backed by homophobic courts, says no. There is no gay-male direct action group. It would be deemed sexist and exclusionary.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, having abandoned its former policy of alternating between male and female executive directors, just appointed its third consecutive female head. "Diversity training" throughout the movement attacks the "male perspective" as a vestige of patriarchy and extols nonhierarchical, consensus-based (and often completely unworkable and nonproductive) organizational structures. (By the way, it's high time someone pointed out that demanding "consensus" is seldom a sign of democracy.)

Gay sexuality may have taken the worst hit of all from the new Zeitgeist. The Advocate magazine has banished nearly all vestiges of male sexuality from its pages. The celebration of gay eros, once so central to gay liberation, is now deemed politically incorrect by publications for "the lesbian and gay community." In fact, we've returned to the point at which the erotic, instead of being savored as a fully integrated aspect of gayness, is permissible only if segregated from all other areas of gay life (as in sex clubs or porn publications).

Even here, some lesbian feminists will not tolerate an autonomous gay-male space, and many gay men are all too willing to acquiesce without any sense of what's being lost. Witness the requirement that Mr. Leather contests simultaneously anoint Ms. Leather titleholders, or (on the admittedly extreme verge) attempts in the '80s to turn J.O. clubs into "jack- and jill-off" clubs. No wonder gay men have no sense of what gay masculinity could be.

All this is further evidence of the descent of the women's movement into sexist chauvinism of the worst sort, comparable to nationalism or white supremacism. If you think the analogy overheated, look into the Michigan's Womyn's Music Festival rounding up and expelling male-to-female transsexuals who attempted to attend. The festival's organizers determined that, due to the transsexuals' patriarchal socialization, their "male energy" polluted the gathering. (Interestingly, this may reflect the schism between feminists who see maleness as a pernicious essence and those who, like Stoltenberg, view manhood as a social construct that, while deeply rooted, can eventually be weeded out of society.)

Of course, the issue is complicated by the fact that "manhood" is often equated in straight society with anti-gay machismo. But while male homosexuality is grounded in a complex interplay of active and receptive, yin and yang, gay men are still men - including male gender-benders. Leaving aside male transsexuals, who feel they are essentially women (are you listening, Michigan Womyn's Music Festival?), most drag queens delight in the complex interplay of masculine and feminine. It's what makes them so special. Without that vital, underlying masculine component, drag queens would each be just "one of the girls," which assuredly they are not.

Liberated gay manhood - free, multifaceted, but unquestionably (and proudly) male - could contribute to revising and liberating masculinity for all men (per Bly), just as lesbians played a central role in women's liberation struggles. But this transformation will never happen if (per Stoltenberg) men are instructed that the path to nirvana lies in a rejection of all that is uniquely valuable - and vital - within the masculine archetype. What a pity if misguided feminist women and their male compatriots, alienated from the potential within their own manhood, continue to prevent such a renewal.

by Warren Farrell, Ph.D
1993, Simon & Schuster, 446 pp.

Review by Stephen H. Miller

Don't expect Gloria Steinem to write an admiring jacket blurb for The Myth of Male Power, although author Warren Farrell was the only man elected three times to the board of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in New York City and, as such, was once Steinem's close comrade. The reason: Farrell is an apostate who abandoned the cause, finding that feminism took a wrong turn away from equality and toward an ideology of female victimization driven by male-bashing.

Farrell's book is chock-a-block with documentation challenging much of the accepted wisdom about alleged male privilege, including, for example:

  • Income disparity: "The U.S. Census Bureau finds that women who are heads of households have a net worth that is 141 percent of the net worth of men who are heads of households," income figures for married women are lower because many choose not to work full time;
  • Health funding: "Why does breast cancer receive over 600 percent more funding than prostate cancer [even though men are] almost as likely to die from prostate cancer as women from breast cancer?";
  • Life expectancy: "In 1920 women in the United States lived one year longer than men. Today women live seven years longer");
  • The work obligation gap: "When all child care, all housework, all work outside the home, commuting and gardening were added together, husbands did 53 percent of the total work, wives 47 percent."

Farrell, who doesn't ignore gay issues, traces the roots of homophobia to the fact that gay men were viewed as refusing to provide an economic security blanket for women. "Do we actually care less about the lives of men who are unwilling to reproduce and to protect? Our initial lack of attention to AIDS - until it became apparent that heterosexuals were also at risk - makes our attitude quite transparent."

Yes, I'm sure in some cases Farrell overstates his case, but all told the book is an overdue tonic for knee-jerk nostrums about male predation and female victimization.

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