The Quagmire of Masculinity
By Robert Jensen
Published in Counterpunch · October, 2007
I am having dinner on a Thursday night in a restaurant in New York’s Greenwich Village with two friends I’m working with on a documentary on pornography. We’ve had a long day and are happy to unwind. Near the end of our meal, I’m increasingly aware of the rising volume from a nearby table, where three college-age men and a woman are talking and laughing just a bit too loudly. As it becomes harder to shut out their conversation, it becomes clear that much of the talk is about sex. The alpha male of the group (who is the boyfriend of the woman) is holding forth to the other two men about how to maneuver women into bed, including tips on the use of alcohol and a little bit of force when necessary.
As my friends and I get up to leave, I catch the eye of the woman, inquiring silently whether her situation would be improved if we stopped by the table and said something to the men. I read, or more likely misread, her expression as an invitation to do so. I trail behind my friends and stop at the table, trying to suggest — in light-hearted fashion that isn’t too confrontational — that their conversation was not only inappropriate in a public place but unacceptable anywhere. The men don’t take the critique well, and the discussion heats up a bit.
Finally, the alpha male makes a move to settle things by going for what he presumes to be the ultimate insult: “All I know,” he says, smirking, “is that I’m going home with her (pointing to his girlfriend) and you’re leaving with two guys.”
I respond: “Please don’t take this personally, but I just don’t find you sexually attractive. I’m sure there will be a man who someday will, but it’s just not happening for me.”
He accuses me of being gay. I accept the label and respond by telling him that, as a gay man, I can see into him and recognize him as gay as well. Not a smart move on my part, it turns out.
I quickly realize that things aren’t likely to end happily, and I make my way to the door. One of his buddies follows me and, just as I’m leaving, says, “It’s time for you to get the hell out of here.” My hand is on the first of two exit doors, pushing it open. I say to him, “Where does it look like I’m going?” He grabs me and reiterates the command to leave. I reflexively push back. “Listen son,” I start to say, reacting like an old guy to the 25 years between us. He’s bigger than me but drunk. As I push back, he starts to fall. I head for the second door just about the time my friends have come back to pull me out if necessary. As I’m walking on the sidewalk outside, the other two young men have joined their friend in the doorway, cursing me with instructions not to come back, advice I fully intend to take. My friends hustle me away, walking quickly to get clear of the place just in case the men decide to follow. One of my friends, Robert Wosnitzer, explains that he grew up around guys like that. “Those are the kind of guys who carry baseball bats in the trunks of their cars,” he says. “You have to be careful. They like this. They like to fight.”
Once we’re out of range, Robert and Miguel Picker turn to me and, appropriately, explain why I had better not pull such a stunt again. They count the four stupid men in that encounter: The alpha male, his two buddies, and me. They are right, of course. The fact that I wasn’t as crude and violent as the other three hardly absolves me. I had taken an unnecessary risk, putting others in a situation where they may have had to fight or be hurt, and I had done it out of the same macho posturing. Once engaged, I refused to back down, even though there was nothing positive that could come of the encounter and a real risk.
The next day I fly to an academic conference. I am still somewhat shaken by the previous night, not so much by the potential for violence (though I’m not a particularly physically courageous person) but by my own misjudgment and the lessons in that for me. It’s not what I learned about the world the previous night that upset me, but what I learned about myself.
So, I’m looking forward to a low-key interaction with other academics, who are usually pretty harmless. At the end of that evening I’m in the hotel bar with one female and two male professors. We all seem to be of similar intellectual and political leanings, and the conversation finds its way to contemporary progressive political movements, especially the antiwar movement. I offer an analysis of the state of organizing in the United States, which one of the men takes issue with. I respond to his critique, and all of a sudden the conversation kicks into overdrive. He comes back to my points even harder, getting visibly upset. He turns the discussion from an argument about issues to an attack on me, suggesting that I lacked his experience and knowledge (he’s about a decade older).
With the previous night’s conflict on my mind, I back off a bit, responding to his arguments but trying to lower the intensity; I am not in the mood for a fight, even verbally. He presses forward even more forcefully. At this point, the other two people at the table are visibly uncomfortable. I move to end the conversation, suggesting that some of our disagreements couldn’t be resolved, that we were both arguing based on our hunches about complex processes, and that perhaps there was no point in pushing it. At this point, I don’t care about winning the argument and want to end an exchange that is uncomfortable to the others for no good reason — no baseball bats are going to come out in this encounter, but no one is learning anything from this. He pushes one more time, implicitly demanding that I surrender to his greater knowledge and insight. One of the others finds it intolerable and leaves, and the tension finally dissipates. The conversation returns to a lower level, but it’s impossible to go back, and we quickly go our separate ways.
Sunday morning I’m on a plane heading home. Across the aisle from me is a man most easily described as a stereotypical computer nerd, in appearance and activity. He opens his laptop once we hit our cruising altitude and is buried in it the rest of the flight until the female flight attendant comes by during our descent to remind him to turn off his electronic device which might interfere with the plane’s navigational equipment. He ignores the first warning. She comes by again with a polite second warning, which he also ignores. Finally, it’s three strikes and he’s out. She stands over him and explains — politely, but with an edge in her voice that says “enough screwing around, buddy” — that he must shut off the computer. I’m chuckling at the scene, until I see that he’s angry. After the experience of the past couple of days, I’m not eager to be in the middle of another public expression of male dominance.
He looks up at her, his facial muscles tightening, appearing ready to tell her off, but he wisely holds his tongue. She holds her ground, and he finally backs off and powers down the laptop. Once she’s convinced he’s turned it off, she moves on. He sits, quiet but clearly struggling to control his rage. When she is out of hearing range, he looks over at me and, just loud enough for me but no one else to hear, mutters, “Bitch.” A trace of a smile comes to his lips, and he turns away from me before I can respond. In his mind, he has won. A woman had been in a position of some small authority over him and had forced him to obey her command. But, in the end, she’s just a bitch, and he’s still a man.
Masculinity in three acts: Attempts at dominance through (1) force and humiliation, (2) words and argument, and (3) raw insults. Three episodes about the ways masculinity does men in, neatly played out during one long weekend. By the time I get home, I am tired. I am sad. It feels like there are few ways out.
But there is, of course, a way out. It’s called feminism. It offers men a way to understand the nature of this toxic conception of who we are.
Feminism is a gift to men, if we are smart enough to accept it.