I started life as a boy. Most of my guy friends did too. And like any kid, from the Arctic to the South Pole, we were wholly immersed, even baptized into a white hot universe where, physicists will confirm, literally anything can happen.
So, one summer day, on the first day of swimming lessons at the “Y”, as they herded about twenty of us eight or nine years old boys, all ribs and shoulder-blades, towards the deep end of the pool, a little voice told me this wasn’t going to turn out well. So we’re all standing there, trying not to pick our noses, feeling smaller than ants and trying hard not to scurry, but the swim instructors are looking for a target. Out of about 2 dozen frightened gazelles, they are looking for the loner, the outcast to make an example of. After an invitation to get wet garnered no response, to my horror, a pair of male swim instructors, merchant seamen if you ask me, grabbed the nearest kid, Michael, a shy and pensive boy, and tossed him like a sack of rocks into what he must have thought would be his personal inferno, to toughen him up, no doubt, and to scare the hell out of the rest of us.
Wow, I thought, it’s true: anything can happen. The panic was so decisive that within 2 seconds there wasn’t a dry gazelle anywhere. In my scramble to avoid humiliation, I dove into the deep end, not the last time I would do that, and did my best to look like I was drowning.
Underneath the drama, though, I was surprised at how the warm water supported me without intension or strength. Any tumbled 8 year old heart would jump for joy at the possibility of power without force. … that in the white hot furnace of the universe, we have everything we need; the universe has never been about power; it has always been about provision.
A lot of men blame women for their powerlessness and vulnerability. To listen to these apologists for men acting badly you’d think it was women who do the lion share of the industrial polluting, raping, and killing around here. Even if the 90’s icon, Warren Farrell, 72, (The Myth of Male Power) was the darling of the men’s rights movement in the nineties, he still struggles with feelings of powerlessness today. In an interview with Mother Jones Magazine (MJ, 1/15, p.23) Farrell cast men as the underdogs in the war for dominance, when he suggests that women have an unfair advantage.
“It has not been effectively communicated how powerless men feel around the beautiful women’s body”.
As if women should quit having “beautiful bodies” to convenience his inability to relate to women properly. It’s scary to think that such a pathetic admission forms the essential dogma not only of rapists, but of many men’s right’s groups as well (Not All!). More importantly, Farrell speaks only to the superficial means, aggression and dominance, that men everywhere have employed for millennia to keep them in power, failing altogether to fathom the deeper origins of men’s thirst for power.
In The Myth of Male Power, Farrell counts on a blizzard of “right-brained” statistics to justify his contention that men have very little power relative to women. His observation that male power is a myth is right on, but not for the reasons he gives us. I wrote about the natural vulnerability of male fetuses and boys in several essays: A Day Late and a Dollar Short, Hormones, Violence, and Culture, and Why Women Rule, among others. In brief, my research points to an egg and chicken problem: untoward stressors along the male developmental pathway, from conception to puberty and beyond, produces males that are subtly, and obviously less fit with respect to their neurobiology and psychology. Completing the vicious cycle, extreme social pressure brought to bear on young boys produces men more likely to be violent, die young, be emotionally brittle, and abuse others. Tragically, from the point of view of historical trauma, shaming and abuse have the power to produce men (and women) who transmit more shame and abuse to their children, and over vast swaths of history.
This contradicts Farrell’s earlier contention that power is having control over one’s life. Clearly, no one has much control over the big events and fundamental circumstances of their lives. But Farrell organizes much of his discussion of male power, or the lack of it, around questions that all men are interested in: sex and money. He complains that women have the power to define love (pg. 43), but they also have the power to turn men into sexual and financial slaves (pg. 36). Women, he says, have sexual power over men because she can cry “rape” whenever she likes (pg. 319). He commiserates over her claim that she can be in legitimate conflict over a decision to be intimate (yes) and then change her mind at the last minute (no). Even worse, he laments her power to reject him altogether (pg. 320).
Farrell’s statistics could lead one believe that women should feel lucky because men kill each other more often than they kill women (pg. 214). He goes on to complain that the wheels of divorce justice crush men because the “ex” and the kids usually get the house after a divorce, while the man gets a mortgage and child support payments. (I don’t think Farrell takes into consideration that most of these laws were authored by men pg. 59). In what must be some kind of ultimate expression of cluelessness, Farrell says it is a man’s job to be a women’s bodyguard. He shakes his head the following morning, grousing about the expense, like dinner and the gas he used to pick her up… (pg. 230) and he didn’t even get laid… This is where I had to take a break reading. Holy cow!
Farrell and many men’s rights groups have failed to set out on their own inner explorations. They have failed to ask the question they are so good at asking about their broken down cars – Why isn’t this working? – What’s really going on here? – Are women really responsible for my feelings of powerlessness? It’s pretty clear that those who feel powerless have the greatest need for power, and The Myth of Male Power is a good illustration of this struggle. It was a best seller in 1993, yet as I read it I realized that Farrell was just making excuses, taking refuge in that childhood redoubt, “but mommy, she did it too!” e.g. citing female world leaders who have killed just as many men as male leaders have. Maybe it’s true, but it’s illogical to equate female world leaders with the rest of womankind. Frankly, it tells us more about men’s hysterical need for power than about any topsy-turvy justice.
Men are in conflict, that’s for sure. Even if a man can’t acknowledge it, or come to terms with it, he is usually convinced that women are the keys to his inner struggles, if they would only behave. It may look like a power play, but men are desperate. They want to be heard, to be cared for unconditionally, as we all do. They did not receive unconditional love as boys because our warrior-crazed culture was too busy toughening them up. Yet, women are also the focus of men’s rights groups which aggressively promote an anti-feminist, misogynistic agenda. Many of these groups regard Farrell’s work on gender and power as seminal. Consider the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM), A Voice for Men, Red Pill, Pick Up Artists, Anti-Slut Defense, to name just a few.
Men have a need for all kinds of (conventional) power because they think they have so little: gender and race power, social and financial power, horse power, brain power, and fire power, to say nothing of muscular power and job power. Women need power too. But when a woman isn’t psychologically or physically engaged with a male-oppressive-gender-state, she often moves beyond her oppression-adopted shadow and becomes the greatest threat to male supremacy that men can imagine: a woman in touch with her own power.
Like men, women are a diverse group with different talents and abilities. They wield enormous power as teachers and leaders, artists and doctors, engineers and mentors. Whatever their path through life, the ability to create life is shared by all women; whether they choose to have children or not. Fundamentally, a woman’s power is coupled with an implicit, but tangible, contract with the Earth.
Throughout the Paleolithic periods (2.6 mya-10,000 BCE), when hominid populations were quite small, a woman’s reproductive capacity and Earth’s abundance were both likely revered (as we see in the enormous numbers of ancient Venus statues). However, with domestication of crops in the Neolithic period (10,000-2500 BCE), the population exploded. Her role as giver of life (and leader) came to be less revered, because it less relevant. And so together, the status of the woman and the Earth’s were diminished.
Even so, to borrow a phrase from Karl Marx: because women literally create future consumers, women ultimately control the means of production, even today. Should the population decrease, consumption will fall, and so will the dangerous notion that economic growth can be sustained indefinitely. Women have always had the power to create life, and men have had a problem with it for the last several millennia. The battle over reproductive rights goes on because a warrior culture works to suppress, reframe, if not erase, the feminine influence.
Many thousands of years after the Venus statues made their debut, Christianity formed itself around a wad of men greedy for the kind of power-over that Farrell still hankers for today. I suspect that these early church leaders were jealous and even fearful of women’s mysterious powers of life; we can see this in the violent backlash against women during the Inquisition, and the publication of works like the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches). More importantly though, because women renewed society with new members, they would naturally wield considerable power in shaping what society would find valuable. But the church fathers cut that possibility short by coupling a woman’s power with sin. After thousands of years of character assassination, the s0-called inferiority of women (and superiority of men) entered the cultural lexicon. From the mother of the human race to whore, the patriarchal church went a long way towards crushing the divine feminine, one of humankind’s most important resources.
Oppressing and crushing women, and men who are like her, requires special skills. In fact, the problem requires an entire, incredibly invasive organization called patriarchy to keep her quiet. The common man-tools of patriarchal oppression are those taken from the cultural scripts of stoicism, homophobia, aggression, and misogyny. Together, they work to deny the Earth and humankind the very diversity and freedoms we all need to be fully alive. Despite the out-of-step and cruel nature of such qualities, despite the endless wars that men wage, and despite the enormous numbers of young men and unknown potential we push into the hole, cultures still think they need to define men by how well they quietly suffer, or take abuse.
Thankfully, there is a tremendous gray scale variation in how any man might display so-called masculine qualities, giving us an enormously diverse population of men. Who says diversity is bad? I, for instance, might rank (if max score is 20) an unadmirable “3” on the stoic scale, a “0” on homophobia, I’d give myself a “2” for aggression, and a “0” on misogyny. The more extreme a man is on my hypothetical (and unscientific) scale; the higher the score, the more brittle, or less fit he is. And not a surprise, the less protected he is likely to have been as a boy. The point is, the idea of an emotionally healthy racist or queer hater is nonsense.
What does it mean to be “less fit”? It is not a condemnation, misandry, or a statement about an individual’s value. It does suggest, though, that men are generally not a good fit for the roles we have given them. Even so, no one’s personality or character is defined by four qualities alone (stoicism, homophobia, aggression and misogyny). Our lives and how we came to be are far too complex and wondrous for that, but in my early struggles to define what “a man” meant to me, I found a reliable calculus: that masculine strategies, resulting from stress are organized around fear and the ability to control fear in others. We can find evidence for this everywhere: from ordinary advertising and media, to parenting practices, propaganda, torture, and war.
Through a bad burn when I was four, betrayal, suicide, cruelty, and most-damaging, father neglect, I learned that others (mostly men) are unreliable and even dangerous. To depend on them too much was risking chaos and disappointment, maybe even death. I don’t think this is an uncommon epiphany among unprotected boys and men. Being unprotected forms a deep emptiness inside us. Sometimes referred to as a Narcissistic wound, it creates the isolating sense that no one can take care of me better than me. It speaks to an over-reliance on self that produces the rugged individualist, the-pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps kinda guy. Once pensive, sensitive boys who weren’t allowed to show emotion, or express their uniqueness now rage at, or hide from the system they think has locked them out. Billions of boys who could never get the boots on without pinching, let alone find the straps, learned the lessons everyday. Don’t talk about your feelings (a condition known as alexithymia), and protect trust; trust is too precious a thing to gamble with. As men, we buried trust, altruism, compassion, and justice like the treasures they are, and instead sought high risk, frequently cruel behaviors, killing each other by the hundreds everyday. Who would be surprised that boys who were forced to walk through abuse and neglect alone will, as men, come to regard power and control as the way home.
From the point of view of the human condition, attempting to be in control is based on fear and suspicion, and almost always involves trying to control others too. It’s an untrusting and unpredictable hand that operates from a position of subjective powerlessness. A subjective sense of powerlessness is almost always rooted within early trust breaking that created an intolerable vulnerability, leaving the child powerless to protect himself. For instance, a boy who is brave enough to confide to his mother that his father is molesting him is too often, like girls, enjoined to be quiet about it, or worse, called a sissy and a liar. Like his powerless mother, (because a woman who feels her power would not betray her child) he is made subjectively powerless by his mother by preventing him from protecting himself. When a child has been abused, neglected, or disrespected it’s understandable that some will come to believe that HE is the only one who can safely take care of himself. Indeed, over reliance on self is often seen in the adult who was not protected from abuse or toxic stress as a boy. And often, they in turn, come to abuse themselves or others. For Steven Wineman (Power-Under; Trauma and Non-violent Social Change 2003)…
the phenomena of subjective powerlessness accounts for our awareness of being victimized or harmed, but also of the brutal, and generally unconscious ways men strike back, or rage against those he perceive to be the harmers or oppressors.
In brief, the more subjectively powerless a man perceives himself to be, the more dangerous he is.
Ironically, being in possession of the power to control is no guarantee of being powerful. Besides, the idea of controlling is a dubious proposition at best. It promotes an inelegant, non-collaborative, Ptolemaic (earth-centered) view of the universe, entirely out of step with Earth’s master intention to foster life. Any recovering addict will tell you that control is an illusion; it does not imply mastery.
More important than mastery is the sense of ease that emerges naturally from boys who were given the extra care they require. There are still many who caution against “molly-coddling” boys; but the benefits of avoiding boyhood toughening and shaming altogether, and of meeting his fundamental needs instead, will manifest positively on a global level. We can predict how unconditional love and protection, starting with being wanted at conception, versus conditional love and neglect will impact the boy. Furthermore, we can visualize the trajectory those conceptions and lives might take.
I personally believe that the universe I know of began with the primeval explosion called the “Big Bang”. I can imagine the unfolding, over time, of galaxies, planets, and sometimes life.
We can scarcely imagine any explosion more primeval and terrible than the Big Bang, yet, when the universe came into being, possibility also came into being; the possibility of galaxies, of planets, and trees and daffodils evolving; the probability of love and red wing blackbirds evolving; of life exploding into a reality that is implicitly linked with diversity. Babies too are bundles of probabilities and the Big Bang of their births are felt deeply by many on Earth. When a child is unwanted or unprotected, especially a boy child, his potential, or the probability that he will be allowed to develop optimally, will be less.
In closing, while writing The Unprotected, the screaming, spoken lyrics of a Jim Morrison song, Horse Latitudes, kept coming up for me. My experience of such desperate poetry seems, metaphorically, parallel with the experiences of billions of boys. While I doubt Warren Farrell, and his supporters, would describe it as such, perhaps we might all agree that men are in trouble, men are at an enormous disadvantage. Like Morrison’s horses, abandoned to an endless expanse of seething ocean, the fate of too many of our boys are sealed by an incomprehensible monster, practically oceanic in its reach, a monster called patriarchy.
The UnProtected © Robert Hartman 2015
When the still sea conspires in armor
And her sullen and aborted currents breed tiny monsters.
True sailing is dead.
An awkward instant and the first animal is jettisoned.
Legs furiously pumping,
Their stiff green gallop,
And heads bob up…
In mute nostril agony
Carefully refined and
Horse Latitudes © Jim Morrison, 1967, Strange Days album.