As part of my graduate Programme I have a two week silent meditation retreat every semester. Here are the events of my first. As soon as I arrived, I immediately became enchanted with our coordinator. She is a lovely person, identifying as a woman, and trained as a contemplative psychotherapist. I began writing anonymous poems to her, leaving them in her envelope. In my mind, this was some grand romantic gesture. When it came to my attention that another of my fellow students had been confronted by the directors, asking him if he had been the one writing these letters, it finally became apparent that I had to take accountability for what I was doing. I asked the coordinator if I could have a word, I apologised and told her that the notes were from me. I said that I was sorry if I had made her feel uncomfortable, to which she told me that, yes, I had indeed made her feel very uncomfortable.
What I was not expecting was for this to open in me a deep-seated, core wound. One of inadequacy, always looking for a partner to validate me, without yet knowing how to validate myself. The night before I came clean, so to speak, my mind raced with all possible outcomes of doing so; none good. Would I be immediately expelled (it was made very clear at the onset that student-staff relations were forbidden)? Should I really be in this particularly intensive programme? I expected to be punished; demonized by the staff and directors for causing such harm. Instead, what I received was an immense sense of love from all parties involved, which made me look at my own feeling of punishment. I felt I deserved to be punished, and was in fact creating this self-aggression all on my own.
In hindsight, I was not unconscious of the possible harm this all could be causing, and yet I went ahead and did it anyway. Thusly, I played into another of my privileges; of being a dominant man, and doing whatever I felt like, no matter the outcome. Here is where impact versus intent comes into the picture. The two are often incompatible. We often look only at our intent, while we like to pretend there could be no opposing impact our actions may be causing.
Although my intent may not have been one of malice, but one of attempted connection, the impact was still one of hurting another; the exact opposite of my intent, in fact. Yet, there it was.
For the purposes of this article, I would like to start by saying that I identify as a cis-gender, hetero-normative man. As such, I am speaking from my own privileged location. I use a gender-binary in these stories and, apart from this disclaimer, I do not make any mention of non-binary or queer identities. This, in itself, is yet another form of kyriarchal oppression.
“Is it okay for me to flirt with you?” I wrote to a friend. A long pause. Days without contact. Then I received this message, “Asking if you can flirt with me, is such a big no. I had no idea how to respond. I really get offended and uncomfortable when guys immediately ask that.”
This was such an amazing wake up call for me.
We can, all of us – and likely often do – sexualise many of our relationships. Sexual energy is, after all, even psychologically seen as an incredibly powerful force driving all of our decisions and, hence, lives. This facet of our psychological lives is especially relevant for men to be more conscious of, particularly the ways in which we men unconsciously act out oppressive behaviors; because of the system of critical, toxic masculinity we all live in (toxic masculinity may be somewhat self-explanatory. Critical masculinity is the concept that normative masculine identity constructs have become so toxic that they are actually in a state of critical condition). These behaviours implicitly create uncomfortability and only further oppression when relating to anyone not a part of the dominant population (read: men).
We men are naturally allowed (read: systemically and socially constructed) to play the role of the aggressor. My point being that simply going along with culturally normative masculinity constructs is in fact acting out micro-aggressions against those we sexualise, whether we mean to or not.
My experience above tells a story about a man attempting to be both respectful (by verbally asking for consent, instead of just going and doing whatever the fuck I want) while also trying to show a personal interest in this person; i.e. making a bid for connection.
You see, we are constantly making bids in order to connect with others (we actually make hundreds of unconscious bids every minute). The question is whether we can do so without adding more socially constructed, hurtful, even violent behaviours to the mix. Otherwise, we only add to the cycle and perpetuation of male dominance.
What I missed, what I couldn’t see, was that I was still playing into my implicit bias toward women, allowed and often validated to sexualise any relationship I saw fit.
This was a perfect example of a micro-aggression, really. Were it not for my friend saying so, I probably would have continued down this way; thinking that my actions were somehow more justifiable – because I wasn’t acting explicitly like the average critical, sexist, misogynist man – when in reality I was only acting this way implicitly. Just as bad.
I was, in essence, using a subtler form of male privilege – an ability we men have; to look the part of the ally, to seem like we are making a difference, making a real change, without really doing anything of the sort; without making any vast – or even minimal – shifts in our actual, lived experience, not to mention those we relate to without such privileges (read: most people).
I like to call this subtler form of aggression allied bypass. And it speaks to the way we are able (nay, asked, in many cases) to do nothing, while being glorified for doing everything.
I recently attended my school’s production of The Vagina Monologues. It was a wonderful show, as it always is. This year the directors ended the night with a very powerful addition, in which the actors spoke about how it was not their job to help men change their ways; it was the responsibility of the men themselves. They asked men to no longer be silent, but to stand up. One man in the front row did just that. He stood, raising his fist in the air, as if to say emphatically that “Yes,” he was one of those men. The man turned, then, looking over the crowd. He yelled with enthusiasm, “Stand up for your women!” Slowly, as prairie dogs who, with the admonition of their alpha-male warrior, poke their heads out of the safety of their holes might, more and more men stood. It was a powerful moment, one where almost anything seemed possible.
I did not stand. Although I felt the nature of this act, by these men, was one that had been shared, even asked, by those on-stage, my mind was awash with the complexities of allyship.
Allied bypass is no simple construct. The men who stood that night may very well be some of the most consciously aware, socially responsible, men around. It was, however, a fair example of how allyship may be used to bypass the shadow-side that every man (man, as defined by anyone socialised and raised as such) must face; that of their own implicit prejudices. On that night, I imagined the men of the audience having felt great about their decision to “stand up” for women. They may have felt scared or unsure at first, but that feeling probably dissipated with the applause and overwhelming sense of happiness that ensued. These men had stood for women, so they were making a real change in the narrative of patriarchal, hyper-masculinity… right?
Perhaps. Definitely perhaps. But my concern was with the theory of precarious manhood, which points out that normative masculine identity constructs are inherently fragile, and so often need validation. Examples of this in action are when men in groups become more and more hyper-masculine so as to prove their own masculinity (the proving of such “masculinity” usually means the suppression of any other identity). I remember reading an article describing allied bypass within academia. The author was referring to it as “enlightened sexism,” because he kept seeing male professors teaching feminist and gender studies, and being miraculously admired for their expertise and knowledge in the field.
We can sidestep the issue (whatever the issue is), and the uncomfortability of taking any real stock in our developed prejudices and biases, by using this already pre-designed privilege men were born into.
But allyship itself cannot be the issue. The issue is, then, that in order for us to keep from bypassing any personal discomfort, we actually need to be willing to experience that discomfort. Standing up in an auditorium full of accepting, open-minded adults may very well have been a frightening prospect for many, but not doing so did not threaten the identities these men were raised with; having constructed their very personalities around. That’s scary stuff.
No matter how we slice it – we are all living in a patriarchal, critically-masculine culture, one that raises up a masculinity quite precarious, but must do so by actively suppressing any traits that might be construed as feminine or other.
So, where does this leave me? I don’t write these stories as a way to demonise myself or all men, but as a way to hopefully show that I can do more; that we can do better. The first step in deconstructing critical, toxic masculinities is becoming aware of how we have been socialised to perpetuate this violent cycle of oppression. And I am afraid to say, if our enquiries into how we men act does not threaten our very identity of who we think we are, then we are not trudging down the path toward authentic manhood. The next step toward actively changing this narrative is taking responsibility and ownership for the ways we ourselves continue the cycle.
On a date, do you forego explicit, verbal consent – even if you KNOW there is A LOT of implicit consent between the two (or maybe more than two; I like the term constellation) of you – because of the notion that asking permission just isn’t sexy or manly enough? What would happen if you made the decision to ask permission before doing ANYTHING – physical or otherwise – with a potential partner, and actually stuck to that principle? How do you think you would feel about being said “No” to? If you’re saying to yourself, “If they said no, then the answer would be no, and I would be fine with that! This is stupid.” then what is stopping you from taking on this seemingly innocuous practice? Enquire into what comes up for you after having read these last few sentences. How uncomfortable do you feel? Are you angry at me? Are you still sure that asking permission isn’t attractive? I have news for you, consent CAN be sexy (just trust me on this one)! But what if your potential partner agrees that it isn’t sexy? What if asking permission means you lose validation from them?
There is a likelihood that they may not have had the space in the past to actually stop, and enquire for themselves as to whether this is actually something they want. If it is something they want, then great. Wonderful. Chances are they will still want whatever it is you were offering. But what if it IS NOT something they want? What if the normative values so many of us have been taught (“I need to be a man. I need to take what I want, and that will be manly of me”) in fact continue to hurt others and only advance rape culture (read: critical, toxic masculinity)?
We can attempt to lean in to our discomfort, and that can be much more powerfully therapeutic than seeking only solace and validation. But, most importantly, doing so will save others. Doing so will begin to crack the facade. Doing so will start to make a difference. It may only be a start, but we need to start somewhere. So let us start with ourselves.