Originally Published February 1989
The 1980s were tough times for men. This essay examined men's feelings in a new era of sexual relations.
My friend Dick is a psychologist. I tell him Playboy has asked me to write about men's hearts. "That's a tough assignment," Dick says. "You have the majority of the population against you."
"The majority against me? Why?"
"The majority of the population is women," Dick says.
Dick has written books on feminism. He's knowledgeable about the politics of the women's movement. The politics can be pretty brutal. But I'm wondering if anything about mens' hearts goes beyond politics. If anything more fundamental can be said.
I am staying with a family in a thatched hut in a Tari village in New Guinea. I expect I will live among people in a state of primitive bliss. Instead, the husband and wife fight long into the night. The baby screams. The other children look worried.
One day the wife chops off her little finger. In New Guinea, this is a serious female protest against the way things are going.
I find the husband, Hebru, stomping around outside the house. He's wearing a grass skirt, feathers around his neck, a bone in his nose, bright yellow paint on his face. He kicks the dirt for a while. "I don't understand that woman," he says in Pidgin, shaking his head. "I don't understand what she wants."
Well, I could have told him. Hebru is about to marry a third wife, and this woman, his second wife, is unhappy about it. It's perfectly clear to me. Yet according to Tari custom, Hebru is entitled to as many wives as he can support. If he has enough pigs to pay the brideprice, he is entitled to take another wife.
So from Hebru's standpoint, his second wife Rose has no business complaining this way, acting badly, cutting off her finger. She is behaving outrageously. But she's doing it anyway.
So there we are, standing outside in the morning sun, two guys kicking the dirt and commiserating over a traditional guys' problem.
She isn't doing what she's supposed to do.
She's mad for no reason.
She's unreasonable. She's impossible.
Men and women don't understand each other. They never have, throughout recorded history. They still don't. It may be worthwhile to consider the possibility that they never will. The battle of the sexes may be a permanent condition.
If so, how can it be anyone's fault?
At a conference in Aspen, Betty Friedan argues that women are more moral than men. She receives a standing ovation from men and women alike. I refuse to stand. And seeing the men applauding and smiling, I think: If a man came to this conference and gave a speech in which he said that men were inherently more moral than women, the women would stone him to death.
So why are these men standing and applauding?
What's happened to men, anyway?
There is no question that men feel under attack, and psychologically beaten down. All sorts of horrible qualities are attributed to us: we are unemotional, we are brutal, we are violent, we are uncaring. We're lousy lays. We don't know how to do it. We don't know how to find that clit. We don't know how to satisfy our mates.
We've been hearing this for more than twenty years. There are young men who have grown up in America who have heard nothing else.
I am 45, old enough to remember a world before television, and a world before feminism. Even in the quaint, simpler world of the 1950's, there was plenty of conflict between the sexes. A typical Sunday afternoon would find the men outside by the barbecue drinking beer, and the women inside the kitchen drinking coffee. And before long, each sex would be complaining about the other.
As a kid, free to wander from one group to the other, I quickly realized that the complaints were identical. The women were inside saying, "Men are such children, they're so helpless" while in the men were outside saying, "Women are so helpless, they're children."
Each group bitched about the other in these simplistic terms. Everyone got their complaints aired before a sympathetic audience, and then everyone went home with their mates, feeling much better. Nobody really believed it.
But thirty years later, it seems as if the 50's stereotypic view of men has been accepted in many quarters as literally true. The bookstores are full of books about how men hate women, refuse to grow up, and are unemotional, unloving, violent. Television is full of men like Alan Alda and Phil Donohue who show by their enlightened example that ordinary men are insensitive, indifferent, incapable of committment.
There's some truth to all this, but there's also some exaggeration.
Many studies are shamefully unscientific; many spokespersons have a personal axe to grind; and much of the rhetoric simply doesn't match the facts. To take a single example, every good study of domestic violence concludes that women engage in it as often as men. This isn't widely discussed: few men want to be known as a wife-beater, but even fewer want to be known as wife-beaten. It's one of the places where the much-criticized macho male image collides with the facts. Rhetoric is simpler than reality.
But meanwhile, here are men, finding they must defend themselves against the rhetoric: that men are inarticulate and won't express their emotions, men don't listen, men are unwilling to commit.
It's gotten so bad that when Betty Friedan says men are morally inferior, all the men stand up and applaud her.
Let's consider these complaints again.
Are men inarticulate? Sure, sometimes. Expressing deep feelings is difficult, especially if you've been told — as most males have, even in our postmodern age — that to express your feelings is unmanly.
But I don't really see women able to express their feelings any better. Women like to talk about feelings, as men like to talk about football and computers. But when it comes to talking about your own feelings, I find that women suddenly stumble. In the workplace, around the dinner table, on that big date, I am not aware that a woman has an easier time expressing the hard truths: that her feelings are hurt, or something made her feel bad, or that she feels weak or sad or inadequate.
I don't see women powering through their psychotherapy faster than men, because they have easier access to their feelings.
I don't see lesbian relationships going more smoothly than heterosexual relationships.
I don't see friendships between women going more smoothly than friendships between men. Plenty of female friendships collapse into nastiness and rancor.
In short, I don't see any real evidence that women handle their feelings better than men: most child abuse occurs in single-parent families headed by women.
And so, I think the stereotype of the inarticulate, emotionally unexpressive male is simply untrue. The truth is that expressing a deep feeling of hurt or fear or inadequacy — or love — is difficult for anybody, male or female.
It's said that men don't know how to listen, either. But here's my friend Lois, seated beside me at a dinner party, asking what she should do in Stockholm, when she goes there next week on business. She's flattering me, treating me as the big travel expert.
But when I start to answer, Lois turns away, and asks another man another flattering question. I am giving my answer to the back of her neck.
Now, Lois doesn't mean to insult me. She's just excited to be at the dinner party, and she wants to be sociable and lively, to keep that conversational ball rolling. So she's firing off questions left and right, and she isn't even pretending to listen to the answers.
Lois's behavior is an exaggeration of a well-documented reality. Studies show that in social situations, women ask questions of men far more often than men ask women. It's a way of interacting. Flatter their egos. Keep 'em talking.
But as I see it, Lois isn't being sociable at all. She is making herself the center of attention by insincere behavior. She's a conversational cocktease. I find her behavior hurtful and demeaning.
And later on, when we're alone, if she wants to tell me how men don't listen, she's got a big problem.
Of course, it's in intimate situations that listening is most critical — when the other person is saying something you don't want to hear, don't want to deal with. But at these difficult times, are men especially deficient?
Notice at work, or in some other non-intimate setting, how often you must explain again what you mean, to male and female co-workers alike. Notice how often ideas get scrambled, and even inverted.
Communication is difficult under the best of circumstances. It's difficult even when nobody is angry, or hurt, or threatened. It's just plain difficult.
I don't find women have any special gift here, either.
Men won't make commitments? Let's face it: commitment is hard for anybody. Watch a person in a store buying a shirt. "Oh, I don't know...is it me? ...I'm not sure I like the color...but the styling is...it seems a little tight in the shoulders..." On and on, for some lousy shirt that they'll discard in a year.
It's harder if you're choosing your college major. Or a paint color for the apartment . Or a new car. Or a job. Or a mate.
The more important the decision, the more difficult it is to make. The more tension that surrounds it. The longer it takes.
When I was young in the '50's, all the women were eager to get married and all the men were eager to stay single. That dynamic has changed, perhaps even reversed. But the point is, it was always a dynamic. There was always tension and disagreement. Let's get married. Not now. Then when? I don't know. I'm just not ready to settle down.
One of the great ironies today is that women who aren't ready to settle down are doing a good thing: pursuing their careers and fulfilling themselves. Whereas men in the same situation are doing a bad thing: they're unwilling to commit.
In the end, complaints about men all seem to come down to the issue of intimacy. Men aren't intimate. They don't know how. They're uncomfortable with it, they avoid it at all costs.
A woman I lived with used to discuss our personal troubles with her girlfriends. Whenever I'd see these girlfriends, I was uncomfortable because I knew my wife had told them all sorts of intimate things.
I mentioned this to my friend Elaine, a corporate psychological consultant. I said I felt betrayed by the fact that my girlfriend went outside our relationship in this way. I said in my experience, men didn't discuss their relationships in that sort of detail with other men.
"Of course not," Elaine said. "Men aren't intimate."
Evidently Elaine wasn't listening, because I wasn't talking about men, I was talking about me. Second, Elaine was giving me a stereotypic reply, and a rather unthinking one, considering that she was a psychologist. And third, Elaine was newly divorced, thirty-nine years old, and living with an eighteen year-old surfer studmuffin. So offhand I'd say she was avoiding intimacy like the plague. Which is fine — in the battle of the sexes, we all need some R & R.
But where did she get the idea that it's the men who aren't intimate? How could she say it so confidently, as if it were a truth universally acknowledged?
A statistician of the sexes would draw a Venn diagram with two overlapping circles. According to any trait, men clustered in one circle, women clustered in another.
But the circles overlap.
We all know this is true.
Even in the simplest aspects of sexual dimorphism — like the fact that men have more muscle mass for a given body weight — the sexes overlap. What man has never cast an uneasy glance at the woman pumping iron next to him in the gym? Trying to casually add up the weight she's lifting. And how many reps is she doing?
The fact is that there are aggressive women and passive men, physical women and verbal men, career-oriented women and home-oriented men.
It may be true that most men differ from most woman in some statistical way. But we don't have relationships with "most men" or "most women." We have relationships with individual men and women. And when we apply the group stereotype to an individual, we are guilty of prejudice.
It's no longer acceptable to talk about shiftless blacks, mincing gays, or drunken Irishmen. Why is it still acceptable to talk about intimacy-avoiding men?
Most of the men I know want to please women, to be friends with women, to get along with women. Most of the men I know want sex and love and caring relationships in their lives. And there is among us an unstated recognition that on some level, we need our relationships with women more than women need us. We are biologically frail: more male infants die in the first year of life; we don't live as long as women; and we fare less well living alone. We don't need statistics to remind us. We know in our guts, and our hearts.
How did we get to be defined as intimacy-avoiders? It doesn't make sense, except as a prejudice.
When I look at people, I see individual human beings struggling to find love and fulfillment, using the skills that they have, overcoming the drawbacks that they have. Each individual human being has some behavior that he or she can do easily, almost without thinking, and other behavior he or she can accomplish only with painful effort.
From this individual standpoint, gender doesn't seem very important. It's a detail, like where you were born. I can't say "All men are this way" any more than I can say "All Chicagoans are this way."
Generalizations won't hold up.
On the other hand, intimate relationships are hard.
Communicating with another person is hard.
Getting along with another person is hard.
Trusting another person is hard.
Frankly, the most convenient thing is to live alone. Then you can do whatever you want. No conflicting schedules, no competing careers, no restraints, no different ideas, no annoying other person to put up with.
But the thing is, then you're alone.
These days, men and women can live comfortably as singles, and 25% of the adult population now chooses to do so. There's plenty of fast food, plenty of take-out, plenty of services catering to singles. It's a convenient way of life.
But if you don't want to live alone, you'll have to put up with another person. And that other person just isn't going to be the person you want them to be.
At least, not all the time.
That's just the way it is.
So how can it be anybody's fault?
Fault-finding through male stereotyping has some unpleasant aspects that should be mentioned. The first is this: if you can adopt the position that you're inherently skilled in some aspect of relationship — say, intimacy — and the other person is inherently deficient, then you have an unbeatable position of power. The other person is always on the defensive. He will always have his hands full trying to prove he isn't the way you say he is.
This is a control dynamic.
The second is this: if both men and women have trouble expressing real intimacy, then both men and women experience tension in this area. A convenient way to get rid of that tension is to blame it on the other person. Everything would be fine if he'd just talk, or listen, or make a commitment.
This is a scapegoat dynamic.
The third is this: if you treat another person as a stereotype, he will feel it, and sooner or later he will pay you back.
This is a revenge dynamic.
The fourth is this: if you treat another person as a stereotype, you will miss a great deal of delight and richness in your association with him.
This is a tragic dynamic.
My friend Bill is an artist whose wife has just given birth to a son. Several of us go over to his house to see the new baby. "This is what it looks like when the baby's head starts to come out," he says, grabbing a piece of fruit, pushing it through his cupped hands. "It looks just like this." He is excited, animated. He tells all about the birth. "It's a miracle," he says, his eyes misting. "It's a goddamned miracle."
An awkward silence falls over the table. We all look at our dinner plates. Bill is a tough guy, an unemotional guy, a guy wrapped up in his work and his career.
Bill is crying.
Some people say having a baby has changed Bill, but I don't think so. As far as I can tell, Bill is the same person he always was. He's still a tough guy and he's still wrapped up in his work. But like everybody in the world, Bill has another side. And here he is crying over the birth of his child, revealed for a moment as a more complex person than he's usually assumed to be.
The older I get, the more impressed I am by the importance of human diversity. We're all so different — and a good thing, too. We need all kinds of people. We need people who can express their emotions (actors, for example) and people who can control their emotions (surgeons, for example); we need people who are doers and pushers, people who make things happen. We also need people who are reflective, caring and intuitive. We need people who are interested in things, and people who are interested in people.
We need all the traditional opposites: artists and critics, coaches and players, bosses and underlings. Male and female.
And somehow, we've just got to get along.
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