John Stoltenberg's "Refusing to Be a Man" should be entitled "Becoming a Man." Most of us know that the price of conventional manhood is painfully high, but to have this sum accounted for, dollar by dollar, is extraordinary, and that's what Stoltenberg does.
In discussing the creation of cultural masculinity and male identity, he writes: "It is a measure of how much sex-class determines 'who we fundamentally are' that for us as men to disavow the interests of our sex-class makes us feel we disappear. Tangible membership in the sex-class men is our primary means to identity. It's a familiar story: You grow up to become a boy and you are terrorized into acting like a boy and you are rewarded for being a boy and you learn to dissociate from your mother by adopting a whole range of fears and hatreds of women and you learn what you need to learn to be accepted in the company of other men. Women shore up this identity; we look to women to affirm this identity. But we get the identity from other men; it is other men we look to as the arbiters of sex-class identity, the identity that gets inside of us, an identity so close to who we think we are that letting go of it scares us to death."
Indeed, it is a familiar story driven home to us via thousands of novels, plays, films and shows on television. What is not familiar is a careful analysis of how and why this process of male identification exists and how it affects and distorts men's most intimate capacities. For a man to question conventional masculinity is an affront to those millions of men who desperately desire never to confront the issue. Why is being one of the boys so paramount that a boy begins by betraying his mother and then every other woman who comes into his life? Masculinity is a negative definition: that which is not female. This is not a healthy psychological position, as illness, homicide and suicide statistics for men in America prove with dismal effectiveness. How can one construct a life around repudiation?
Stoltenberg rips even further into this process of male identity by focusing on the penis itself, that humble anatomical feature which on felicitous occasion becomes something larger than its sleeping self. Unfortunately, Stoltenberg has no sense of humor about the penis, something most women observe about most men. To center an identity around such exposed flesh not only is not healthy, it's truly fragile.
Humor or not, he does develop a fascinating theory about the experience young boys have with involuntary erections generated through fear/violence. By the time a young male experiences these erections, he knows it is better to be male than female and he realizes that the penis is prized in our society. Stoltenberg draws the following conclusion: "At some point in his life, if he is developing 'normally,' he learns a physical and emotional association between this dread and his 'desire'; this is the point when, perhaps irrevocably, his gender anxiety and his reflex reactions become linked: In relation to other people's bodies, he experiences acutely his anxiety about his identification with authentic maleness . . . He eventually learns to desire such erections because he experiences them as resolution of his gender anxiety, at least temporarily . . . "
From this beginning of fear and dissociation from the female with intense focus on the penis, the author connects "resolution" behavior to pornography, rape and the role of violence, real or implied, in heterosexual relationships. If Stoltenberg's reach sometimes exceeds his grasp in these connections, he still is to be applauded for attempting to make them.
His line about pornography ought to be written as graffiti on public bathroom walls: "Pornography tells lies about women. But pornography tells the truth about men." You shall have to read this book to understand how he arrives at that statement, and read the book you should. It will not be a comfortable experience.
The tone of the book is discomforting. Stoltenberg bears the guilt for all men's sins committed against all women. Your reviewer is aware of those sins (a rape is committed every three minutes in our nation), yet I can take no pleasure in this kind of guilt. I don't ask that any man feel guilty about the weight of historical aggression against my gender. I just ask that men stop it, individually and as a class. This is Stoltenberg's point, but he can't make it without anguish. Perhaps that is a necessary stage in the personal growth toward becoming a new man.
Where I take issue with this remarkable book is in its unremitting portrait of women as victims. Nowhere is there a recognition of female power. True, miserably true, this power scarcely is reflected in our political or economic life.
The exclusion of women and women's concerns is self-defeating. For instance, myself and other women in Hollywood can and would deliver millions of dollars of profit to the film industry if we could make films and television shows about the lives of real women . The fear of identifying with women's lives apparently is so rampant among the men controlling film and television that they would prefer to forgo this profit. Their argument, however, is centered on profit, i.e. women's films have limited appeal. This is a charming notion, since women make up 52% of our population. The twin to this silliness is that those of us who are women must spend valuable energy in overcoming these prejudices, energy far better spent in the creation of the film itself.
While women are organizing within their professions and politically, the gains are hard-fought and ever in danger of being stolen away, reproductive control being a case in point.
Despite all that, women have power. The strongest man will feel fear in the face of a woman of extraordinary beauty, or standing in front of Margaret Thatcher. I would feel fear in front of Margaret Thatcher. Nor is there a woman reading this review who in her heart of hearts does not believe she can get the better of any man unless it involves muscular abilities. The rejoicing when women "defeat" men should not be discounted. It is a staple of luncheon and locker-room conversations, conversations to which Stoltenberg is not privy precisely because he is a man. He may let women off the hook; I will not.
Women's complicity in a sex-class system which is destructive to all is not negligible. Granted, they have been raised a certain way to comply with the system, but they can, and many do, rebel. What I don't understand is why so may women are content to stay within the boundaries of this sex-class system to then devote their lives to sabotaging men. Not only do they devote their lives to it, they positively enjoy it. They have objectified men and refused to identify with men even as men have done the same to them. The fact that their hostility is not acted out with physical violence may lessen its "vileness," but only by degree. Two wrongs don't make a right. (I know, three will get you back on the freeway.)
The struggle for personhood is therefore not just the struggle of men to break free from the stranglehold of culturally imposed "male" behavior or for women to simply break free from male supremacy. It is an interlocking struggle of women and men to allow one another the time and the space to not just break free from a sex-class system but to flourish as true individuals. We need not devolve into blaming "the opposite sex" for our individual and collective woes. We need not be strangers to our authentic selves, an estrangement so awesome that lifetimes have been consumed by the ravages of self-hate.
It seems to this reviewer that the struggle for the future is one of equitable heterosexuality, a sharing of individuals, individuals so secure in their selfhood that their gender is an informative but not controlling facet of their identity. Stoltenberg has made a brave foray into this future. This reviewer would like to relieve him of his guilt and promise him that such a future would be roaring great fun.