by Susan Rosenthal
Relationship conflicts are a universal source of pain and confusion. I frequently counsel couples in distress where the woman is angry and the man is depressed. The woman cannot understand why the man won’t fix the problems in the relationship. The man feels inadequate. Nothing he does is good enough. The woman cannot understand how any man could feel inadequate, because men are supposed to be superior beings. In her mind, he has simply stopped caring about her.
The vulnerability of men is one of society’s best-kept secrets. Men are expected to provide and protect and solve all problems. They aren’t supposed to feel needy, vulnerable or inadequate like women. Yet, in some ways, men are more vulnerable than women.
As early as five years of age, males are more likely than females to kill themselves. This difference increases through life. By age 22, men are six times more likely and by age 85 fifteen times more likely to kill themselves. When a relationship breaks up, the man is 11 times more likely than the woman to commit suicide.
Capitalism demands that men be tough to compete and endure hardship, while denying them the emotional support necessary for genuine inner strength.
To "toughen" males, society directs an astonishing level of violence against them. The most sensitive parts of their bodies are singled out for attack. Parents are pressured to circumcise infant sons in the first week of life, a traumatic procedure that is commonly performed without anesthetic. The same surgery done on female infants (removing the skin around the clitoris) is illegal in North America and generally condemned as cruel and mutilating.
More than 13 percent of boys have experienced assaults directed at their genitals, and 10 percent of boys have been kicked in the groin before junior high school. Boys subjected to physical violence are prohibited from expressing pain. In films, a man being kicked in the groin is typically presented as comical, despite the excruciating pain of such trauma.
Laughing at someone’s pain is a sign of dissociation, and both girls and boys learn to deny male vulnerability from an early age. One woman found herself laughing while reading a description of a woman battering her husband until she realized that, if the roles were reversed, she would be "screaming bloody murder."
Sexist stereotypes depict real men as strong and powerful, not victims. To be a victim is to be without power, like a woman, and the most important thing for a man is to not be a woman.
Taunts like "Don’t be a cry-baby" and "Don’t be a girl" shame boys for feeling scared or hurt. The expectation that even very young boys should be tough causes them to be separated from their mothers much earlier than girls. While sons need their fathers’ affection, fathers consider it their duty to toughen their sons to help them succeed in life. Fathers have learned to suppress their emotions, and they expect their sons to do the same.
While men are discouraged from expressing "women’s" emotions (hurt, need, fear), anger is seen as a manly emotion because of its power. Consequently, boys learn to respond with anger, even rage, when they feel vulnerable or detect vulnerability in other males. Homophobic bullying is a common way for boys and men to bolster their masculine identity.
During school initiation rituals, violence against male students is condoned as "character building." At Columbine High School, site of the 1999 shooting massacre, sports initiation rituals included senior wrestlers twisting the nipples of newcomers until they turned purple and older tennis players slamming hard volleys into the backsides of younger ones.
Sports train young men to hurt others, and to risk being hurt, in order to win. When a head-injury prevention video was developed for hockey players aged nine to ten, 22 of 34 minor-league coaches refused to show the video because they thought it would "make players think they will hurt other players on the ice" and "decrease competitive success in the game."
Recreational play is transformed into war-games where there is no gain without pain, preferably the other guy’s pain. More than one young athlete has been killed or permanently crippled by assaults committed in the course of "the game."
Crushing expectations combine with a lack of emotional support to create an inner despair that many men cannot communicate in words. Instead, they withdraw from intimate relationships, drink to excess, strike out in rage and kill themselves.
Much has been written about how the female role is profitable for capitalism. Women provide unpaid labor in the home to raise the next generation, and they are paid lower wages outside the home.
The male role also serves capitalism. Huge profits flow from shaming male workers to compete to produce more, to accept oppressive conditions ("only wimps complain"), and to serve as cannon fodder for imperial wars.
For more on this subject, read POWER and Powerlessness, Chapter 7, "Burden the Family." Available at www.powerandpowerlessness.com
Information on the sexual abuse of males can be found at http://www.canadiancrc.com/female_sexual_predators_awareness.htm