issue 175 - September 1987
High time men changed
No man can be called a genuine supporter of
women's rights unless he is prepared to change his own
behaviour. Rosalind Coward offers a feminist view.
Many men view themselves as wholly sympathetic to feminism. Some of them even go as far as to call themselves 'feminist'. But they find it easier to support women's rights in general than to accept that those traits of their own character which are characteristically masculine are a problem for women.
Men's attitudes to sex and to women's bodies, the fear of possible violence from men, characteristic male emotional responses - these are all factors which colour women's everyday experience of the world but which do not derive from any direct economic oppression. And many of these problems are just as present in the behaviour of sympathetic men as in men hostile to the whole idea of feminism.
On the surface there appear to have been quite radical changes in male behaviour. There is more hesitancy about disregarding women on the basis of their appearance and less obsession with sexual stereotypes. Even out and out anti-feminists are slightly embarrassed about women being made to take full responsibility for domestic chores. Men's involvement with the birth and care of their children and the extreme tenderness which this generates is no longer a source of shame but suitable material for public display. And many men abhor the public and private violence of other men, or bewail the aggressive and competitive atmosphere in male work environments. But despite these apparent advances there remains a vast acreage of unreconstructed 'masculinity' which limits the changes that women can achieve on their own.
Perhaps the most striking area is in characteristic male attitudes towards social relations. They can function in ad-hoc football teams, in spontaneous drinking sessions, in work meetings, with apparent camaraderie. Yet more intimate and personal social relations come with much more difficulty. These relationships are almost invariably mediated through women. I no longer think it is a good sign if a man tells me how much he prefers women as friends because of the depth a woman can offer him. I now see this much more as an element in my oppression as a woman, generated by men splitting off their emotions - seeking out men for one kind of strangely impersonal bonding and women for the hard work of intimate and sustained personal friendship. This split ultimately leaves women out of the camaraderie of work and the streets and contains her instead in the individual, and extremely hard, labour of a close and supportive emotional relationship.
The exploitation of women's position in all this becomes much more visible in stable couples or families. In these living arrangements it is almost invariably women who take responsibility for relationships. I continue to be stunned, for example, when women who have married into families take over responsibility for birthday cards and presents and for initiating social gatherings. Surely no one could be blind to the secretarial role which women are performing here, maintaining men's ritualized points of contact with people, without men having to lift a finger? And of course these 'trivial' instances are only the surface manifestation of something much more serious, which is that women continue to feel connected to others, and responsible for others. So that when it comes to a situation of real need and dependency - when there are young children or when relatives fall ill - it is women, not men, who have to be there.
Something else which is part of women's everyday experience but is rarely talked about is how awkward and uncommunicative men often are - unless pried open by a willing interlocutor. It is hard to tell whether men do regard themselves as the pearl in a tightly closed oyster shell or whether they are aware of their shortcomings. From women's point of view it sometimes just doesn't seem worth the effort.
This lack of communication does have a more dangerous side. For the evidence seems to be that men's domestic violence against women is often occasioned by anger which has no verbal outlet The classic scenario for domestic violence is a man describing himself as having been taunted and out-argued 'beyond endurance'. What it points to is a hopeless disjuncture between the sexes. Women seem driven on by men's lack of communication; we probe, sometimes taunt, and try to receive reassurance or satisfaction. Men seem unable, or unwilling, to communicate, taking the easy option (which also exploits women's relative physical weakness) to hit their way out.
If you also consider that sexual crime, as well as violent crime, is almost exclusively committed by men, it adds up to a pretty depressing picture. Yet very few men will accept their implication in this. How many men, for example, will cross to the opposite side of the road at night to make it clear that they are not following a woman? Instead they are anxious to drive a wedge between themselves, who have 'difficulty with expressing their emotions', and the real criminals. They are not willing to accept that masculine aggression is a general social problem for women, whether it is in the form of an unknown attack or domestic violence. And they do not seem prepared to take responsibility for the fact that this violence is sanctioned publicly in male-directed entertainment.
I do not, however, take the view that women are simply the innocent victims of men's aggression. I believe instead that something somewhere is very seriously wrong in our society's notions about 'masculinity' and 'femininity'. It is clear that a wedge is driven between boys and girls from the earliest age. Girls are encouraged to communicate and be sociable; they are affirmed in their interest in literal and emotional nurturing. Boys are encouraged in play which is not about communication but about managed competition, they are affirmed in their expression of aggression. There is a serious loss for both sexes in these routes, even if men ultimately acquire a position of social dominance. Men not only lose contact with that part of themselves which wants to take care but they also find it difficult to ask for care. They become set on paths of isolation, defended from each other and emotionally dependent on women (and increasingly resentful about this as the years go by).
If you accept, as I do, that all children, regardless of sex, are born with a capacity for activity and passivity, aggression, hate and love, then the rigidity of gender division which dominates child care seems like the mark of an obsession. It hints at a preoccupation with the idea that sex should be about opposites, passivity matched with activity, strength matched with weakness, emotional distance matched with emotional closeness. And what this preoccupation suggests to me is fear of homosexuality, a fear of sexual closeness between what is the same. This fear seems to be confirmed by the way heterosexual men so violently disavow attractions to one another, claiming that men's bodies are repellent and that emotional intensity is impossible with another man.
This doesn't mean that all men should instantly turn to homosexuality, although one can't help feeling it would be an enlightening and improving time if they did. But it does seem important that men take individual responsibility for transforming the way in which they inhabit their masculine responses.
Women have had to learn the painful fact that certain forms of 'feminine' behaviour are part of our problem. We haven't been able to mobilize around women's issues without trying to break some of the subjective limitations set by our own 'feminine' responses. Feminist routes through this particular problem have been numerous - consciousness raising, assertion training, individual psychotherapy. All of these are attempts to understand and change the attitudes and feelings which militate against ourselves. It is important that we come to view 'femininity' and 'masculinity' as equal problems - part of the same problem in fact. And we need to realize that social and political changes cannot happen unless individuals are at some point willing to let go of their own power.
Rosalind Coward is the author of Female Desire: Women's Sexuality Today. She is now making a living as a freelance journalist.