I have a pair of friends, Courtney and Fred, who were once in a polyamorous relationship with another man named Alen. This was my first introduction to the world of multiple partners and I found their arrangement very inspiring. Never before had I been told it was okay to love more than one person at a time and that each love for those people would be unique. From their interaction my own views on romantic relationships was forever shifted. I dabbled in polyamory for a time, and have great respect for those I find who make it work, even though I no longer seek that kind of arrangement. Eventually Courtney, Allen and Fred’s relationship shifted and dissolved but they remain very close friends’ years later. However every now and then when Courtney was upset with Fred for whatever reason she frequently tell our mutual male friends lurid details of their previous foray into a threesome relationship. One of her favorite stories was how Fred was often the ‘bottom’ or receiver in the two men’s sexual encounters, often to the horror of the listeners. This struck me as incredibly personal and a very strange the first few times I heard her craft this story. Until one instance she divulged this information to our friend Jack, who like myself had heard the story multiple times and at this moment became fed up with it.
“I don’t understand why you keep telling me this. Fred is my friend! And I don’t want to have sex with him. And even if I did, I wouldn’t think less of him because that is what he likes. It’s like you are trying to embarrass him by telling us this, like you are trying to tell me he is less of a man because of that stuff. I don’t care, Fred is my friend.”
It was at this moment that I realized the full extent of what Courtney was trying to gain by telling and retelling this story when she became angry with Fred. By casting Fred as a receiver in that interaction and purposely telling that story the Fred’s male friends, she was seeking to embarrass and call Fred’s worth as a “man” into question. It seemed to me that she was trying to encourage judgment and labeling our friend when he had done something to displease her. This cycle of behavior appalled me, but also sparked the thoughts which became this piece of writing. Here I wish to explore the way in which we use words specifically to belittle or discredit young men and then I want to propose an exercise to examine these types of judgments we may have adopted.
We use words to create our reality. From the time we begin learning languages as toddlers we use them to decode an unfamiliar world around us. Words give the world a texture, resonance and meaning. The first three years of life are critical periods from a speech and language perspective. It has been documented that without proper stimulation at these stages language becomes very difficult for an individual to learn. It is at this time we grasp our first impression of what it means to be an individual; we begin to learn the labels for our surroundings.We begin to form a picture of self during this time, what it means to be a separate being from our parents and the sensations we feel. This is also around the time children will begin to identify male and female distinctions and it is at this time we begin to imprint appropriate behavior for each gender.There is a trend I have noticed in which we use derogatory words to imprint cultural norms and mores upon people. And I believe this begins in very early childhood in the way we begin to distinguish what is expected of each gender.
For example if a young girl trips and begins to cry her caretaker will immediately pick her up and begin to soothe her. This continues until the fear response stops and the young girl stops crying. When a young boy encounters this same situation however I often see a response from caretakers to be very different.The caretaker doesn’t immediately offer physical comfort to the boy and instead tells him that he is fine. Neither of these reactions to the child falling is inherently incorrect, but I think it is something very interesting which continues into our later life. Those first impressions about the world around us and what is expected begin right there; boys are encouraged at a very young age to not respond to physical or emotional pain.I have heard adults remark that a young boy was a ‘sissy’ or a ‘crybaby’ if he showed a strong preference of spending his time with his mother rather than his father, or if the child expressed an interest in a type of play that wasn’t designated for boys when referring to a child who was three years old. I have heard a father tell his son of five years to ‘man up’ when the child began to cry while the family was on an outing. Both of these sentiments struck me as incredibly sad. The same behavior in girls is not often remarked upon nor is it seen as a negative mark upon her personality if she displays emotionality or neediness on occasion. So why is there a drastically different set of rules for young boys? This is the very place we begin to instill the acceptable differences between the male and female emotional responses. This is where we tell young men that they are supposed to be stoic and reserved. We shame them with derogatory words which are analogous to behaviors we encourage in women. And i wonder if this is because crying or showing weakness is perceived to be something exclusively for women; who are ipso facto considered weak.
And this is where my anecdote about my friends Courtney and Fred comes into play. I began to observe and take note of similar types of stories and the language used in the situations around me. When my friends expressed disinterest in a man because his occupation as a nurse, I inquired as to why. Her response was that his choice of profession was “women’s work” and if they were in public together she perceived that others would perceive him as “less of a man” and that she felt her femininity was called into question. It seems that if a man expresses an interest in a perceived feminine activity or profession he faces ridicule. Most insulting things you can say to men have to do with stripping them of their masculinity and giving them a feminine title. Again and again we run into this idea that there is something wrong with being homosexual, specifically the receiving partner in a homosexual encounter. Why? Is this because the most insulting thing you can compare a man to is a woman? Is there some sort of inherent limitation in simply being female? I think that is a very odd message to send into the world. This common occurrence of belittling a man by suggesting he is feminine I think must give men some really strange beliefs about women. And conversely gives women some strange ideas about masculinity. Not only by suggesting that somehow being feminine is universally weak, but that somehow a man can lose his status and slip into some strange pseudo female status. None of which is true.
You have lost your ‘man card’.
Why don’t you man up?
Why don’t you grow a pair?
All of this because it is shameful for men to be like women? I think we must completely rethink the way we think about the words we use, and how we use them against each other. Sexism is not something that affects solely those of the female persuasion. Sexism hurts all of us. The feminist and men’s rights movements should be working together to create an equal world where we do not shove each other into assumed roles of nonsense. Just because we face different difficulties doesn’t mean than those on the other end do not have equally complicated paths to walk.
I would like to encourage you to think outside the box a bit, and practice awareness in your daily interactions with people. Do you begin to use some of these phrases in your daily encounters with people? What beliefs do you encounter about the roles of men and women? Examine the thoughts you have about sexuality, about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. Where did these ideas come from? What are some assumptions you find within your mind? And most importantly how are these ideas helpful to the growth of you as a person? Firstly I challenge you for one day to try and be aware of the times you attach a judgment to another person, especially in times of stress. Notice the things you become judgmental or defensive about. And when you notice these thoughts do not scold yourself for having them, simply let the thought pass on. See if after practicing this for a day you notice a change in your mind space. Does it feel less cluttered? Do you feel less pressure releasing the judgments that come up surrounding people? In removing the judgments from others we often begin to notice the times we label ourselves harshly as well. I encourage you that when this begins to happen you do the same exercise, notice the thoughts, but do not rebuke yourself for having them. Show compassion for yourself and others and slowly your pattern of thinking will begin to change. We will not be so quick to deal out harsh conclusions of those around us, because I believe you will begin to see we are all very similar. And if we turn that high powered perception we use to craft those unnecessary, derogatory phrases we use to attack the character of others upon ourselves, I think we will find those words to be erroneous.
Instead of using words to label and deconstruct people, for one day I want you to practice using words to inspire others. Give someone a compliment, tell your partner you appreciate them, or let someone know how much their hard work means to you. How does this feel different from using words in a derogatory manner? Do you encounter anxiety or resistance to this particular exercise? How do you feel when approaching people to say something kind to them? How does your perception change after you have done this activity?