A Bathing Beauty Contest for Men

It’s clear that women will continue to pursue the fight against inequality, harassment, and abuse, but it’s not yet clear that men will do their part in transforming gender relationships.  Many of us are readily convinced by the moral argument for equality.  Many comply with formal and informal rules of engagement that have been built slowly and with constant effort and struggle, over the last half century. Some of us even thrill to the feminist march towards freedom.

But mostly men’s sympathies don’t go deep enough.  Beneath the surface, there remains a wish to distance ourselves, a powerful urge to resist and even a rage that we have been put upon.  Take, for instance, the demonization of Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi by many of the most liberal men.  Implicitly, the same tendency to demonize is played out in countless households.  When pushed about their hostility to Clinton and Pelosi, men say it’s a generational thing—time for new leadership.   There’s some truth to that claim, but there’s another truth: It is hard for the men to admit or even to have access to how threatened and, subsequently, how furious we are with declining power in our homes, our workplaces, the political arena, and anywhere else that women lay claim to the legitimacy of their positions.

I believe that men need to dig deeper into the psychological foundation of their resistance in order to learn about and acknowledge their more primal fears.  It is only then that we will be able to turn around our own gender politics in the profound and trustworthy way that is necessary for cultural transformation.

There are moments when men do reach that deeper awareness.  Here’s a story about such a time.  As you’ll see, the story hinges on a male bathing beauty contest, which may seem to trivialize such important issues but, because it speaks to the archetypal way that men trivialize women, may bring home the message very clearly.

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The year is 1971.  The story begins with an Alternate Lifestyle Workshop that I had helped organize at a retreat center on Cape Cod.  In those days, many people thought to challenge the primacy the nuclear family which, among other things, held women in their traditional place. It also isolated children with just two adults.. More loving adults would make children more secure and free them from having to fulfill the stifling demands of overly concerned parents. These ‘pioneers’ built communes, formed extended families, nurtured networks of like-minded but unrelated people to share money, shelter, and the responsibilities of child rearing.

The first day was planned as a fair of sorts.  Each of the alternative lifestyle groups had a booth and everyone at the workshop could walk around and ask: “What’s it like to live in something like that?” The discussions were animated, the laughter contagious.  People had come to party as much as to learn.

Not everyone was pleased, though.  As evening neared, three women approached me, looking very serious…or was it angry?  I thought I recognized the oldest of the three. –  Betty Friedan!  The second was Gloria Steinem.  I didn’t recognize the third woman.  Individually and collectively the women were way above my status in life; and I felt the whole Second Wave of feminism rolling in on me.

With little prelude, they said that the workshops were not addressing the most basic alternative life style: women gaining equal power, in families and elsewhere.  “No matter how you reconfigure men, women, and children in communes and the like, there remains a fundamental inequality,” said the third woman, who I think turned out to be Letty Pogrebin, one of the founders of MS Magazine.

Who could argue with their declaration?  Before I had time to contemplate their contention, they made a proposal, which sounded, to my 29 year old ears, a little like a demand.

“We would like to take over this evening’s activities.”

As they continued, I grew embarrassed.  We had neglected gender issues in the workshop design.  I didn’t share my embarrassment.  There was a matter of dignity to retain.  I simply tried to keep my cool and said:  “Sure.”  I also made an executive decision, not to even ask my boss if we could change our agenda.  Wasn’t that the manly thing to do?

“I suppose we’ve been more exotic than realistic,” I said, trying to join the spirit of their proposal.  “What do you have in mind?”

“Leave it to us,” said Betty, who seemed to be in charge.

“I’d appreciate knowing some of what you’re doing,” I countered.  I did have responsibilities, after all.

“Fair enough, “ Betty continued. “We’ll be conducting a series of role plays to help everyone understand the power of male dominance in our society.”

I worried that the image of dominance might seem extreme to workshop participants and make them uncomfortable. I was well acquainted with role play and psychodrama.  They were psychotherapy techniques that helped people release and redirect long suppressed feelings.  But this wasn’t a group therapy meeting and I worried that matters could get out of hand.  Since my boss was nowhere to be found, though, I mostly listened, and then complied.

“I’m with you” I said, trying to sound like a co-conspirator in this revolutionary moment.

After everyone gathered that evening, Betty, Gloria, and Letty walked to the center of the room—they had insisted that there was no need for me to introduce them—to describe the evening.  Instantly, the three women had everyone’s ear.  For a bunch of experimental people, it seemed to me that the participants were very passive.

They began by describing a broad feminist agenda – fair enough, and nothing that these progressive individuals hadn’t heard before,  It was also mercifully brief.  Then they announced that they would be facilitating a series of activities that, in small ways, promoted that agenda, and launched into their program.  The first activity was an old fashioned Sadie Hawkins dance.  That was fun and made no one very nervous. Indeed, many women, and men too, seemed delighted by what some later said reminded them of elementary school.

The second exercise intensified matters.  The crowd was divided into groups of five for discussion of several key topics.  In each group, a woman was put in charge of leading the conversation, following prompts on note cards that had been distributed to her. The men were instructed simply to fall in with their group leaders’ “program” — no questions asked. The themes under discussion were framed as a series of questions, each of which proposed solutions to the longstanding dominance of men in all aspects of life: What if only women were now allowed to managed household finances?  What if women were responsible for initiating sex? What if, for the next 25 years, only women were allowed to run for political office? The discussion that followed produced some, but no unbearable, friction and some timid objections from the men.  I could sense the tension rising in the room, but we were still operating on a rational level and the feelings were manageable.

The next exercise had women lead the men through a series of callisthenic exercises.  “Do this!”  “Do that!”  “Jump!”  “Fall down!”  This activity went on for a while.  The idea was for men to experience grinding, repetitive powerlessness.  Discussion followed as the atmosphere heated up.

The final exercise was a male bathing beauty contest. The women in charge began by building a platform on which they would stand.  They wanted to be high above the male contestants.  Then they ordered the men to strip down to their underwear.  “Yes, everything but that one item off!”  At this point, all but a few of the men hesitated.  Some initially refused and stepped to the side, saying they hadn’t agreed to this when they had signed up for the retreat.  It seemed exploitative.  They didn’t like being pushed around.  Others slinked off; these guys were quiet and slightly embarrassed, disappearing into themselves. But in the end, all the men complied, many expressing to me later that it would have been even more cowardly to refuse.

I too considered staying out; I told myself that as one of the retreat organizers, I should. You never knew when my services—and a level head—might be required.  I didn’t announce this, I just stood to the side.  “Uh Uh,” said Gloria Steinem.  “Everyone participates.  You’re not exempt from social conditioning and you’re not exempt from learning.”  I couldn’t argue the point and joined in, despite my misgivings.

Each man was required to take the long walk from the beginning of the line towards and past the podium, where the women stood in judgment.  Some of their judgment was kind:  “Nice legs… good shoulders” and so forth.  Most of the comments were less kind.  “Ugh, what a hairy body… skinny ass… sunken chest… You need to get some exercise in… Is that the best you’ve got?”  Over time, the commentary grew cruder, louder, and more boisterous.  The women were having fun.  Each of us walked that long runway by ourselves.  We were lonely and frightened and angry—without a legitimate target for our anger.

The judges didn’t just hoot and holler.  They also rated each of us, from 10, which is the best, to 1, which is dismal.  As you might imagine, none of the men rated anything above about a 3, maybe a 4.  There were no passing grades.

That was hard.  But it was at least as hard when Betty Friedan announced that the men would have to talk openly about their feelings.  “What did it feel like to walk by us and be evaluated?  What did you think of your grades?  Do you know that this is how you treat us, more or less, every day?”  As we men spoke, the tone became more like confessing to crimes than confiding our insecurities.

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The workshop cracked the shell of civility.  That evening the men didn’t seem to need long lectures about inequality and its impact.  They felt it and, for a moment, they couldn’t run away. What they did with those lessons, I don’t know.  Time would tell and I’m sorry that I didn’t, with the perspective of time, have the opportunity to ask.

But now, more than 45 years later, I can distill a few lessons.  I think we could be alert to moments like this—they do arise—and take advantage of them. At such times, we can talk at a depth not always attainable in regular conversation.

In addition, we men can tell stories about times when the shell was broken and our feelings made available.  Maybe we can talk among small gatherings of just men, maybe we can dare to talk among men and women.  At such times, we can ask one another:  “How did you, how could you, how might you respond to these and other challenges to your manhood?” We can ask ourselves to skip our declarations of agreement and alliance with the feminist agenda.  What’s underneath the agreement?  How hard has it been to fall in with it, and how far do you still have to go to come to terms with it?  We need to speed our way.

 

 

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Feminism and Me: A Rapid 60 Year Review

The Me Too Movement, the latest wave of the feminist revolution, finds me, once again, a supporter and a slightly wary bystander.  It’s easy to cheer on the fight for equality and safety, but this is not a revolution that men like me experience at a distance.  We live and work with women.  We raise girls.  As with any fight, there are some bruising times with the most intimate people in our lives, even as we struggle to be on the right side of justice.

The dawn of the struggle for me came early.  I was a teenager when my mother decided she would go to work.  My father opposed her.  To me, his opposition seemed wrong, foolish, even stupid, and hard to even fathom until I looked more closely at how fragile his ego was.  I strongly supported my mother but, in some darker side of my psyche, I could identify with his fear of losing her love—who might she meet out there?—and his control of her once she was free.  Still, I vowed, even then, that I would never follow in his footsteps.

The struggle emerged again in force during the late 1960’s, when I was in graduate school, in the form of consciousness raising groups.  Women gathered to surface and discuss the many forms of their oppression in male-dominated societies.  Again I cheered, but I hated being singled out as a generic man, man the oppressor.  I hated anger directed at me, knowing some was legitimate, even as I wanted to explain how I was better than most.  During the next ten years or so, conversations among friends, colleagues, and public intellectuals kept the pot stirred.  Even while being on the side of justice, it was hard to relax around gender-based issues.

It was during that time, 1970 to be precise, that my daughter was born.  Unlike my current wife of forty plus years, my former wife was not drawn to the traditional mothering role. There was little in my early life to prepare me to be the parent most involved in her early years, to feed her and change her diapers, to walk with her late into the night to soothe her crying.  Nor, as time passed, to arrange my schedule and finances to pay for her child care.  I never thought to give up this role but it forced me to work less and, as I watched other men and their single-minded devotion to work, I did wonder if it would slow or stunt the development of my career.  Eventually, though, I came to love my role. I loved taking care of daughter, and I believed that it had taught me incalculable lessons about nurturing, dedication, discipline, and intimacy.

I thought that I had bought myself a pass, insulated myself from feminist criticism—even though I knew there was some truth to it, too.  I was a different kind of man, more like a woman.  But most women couldn’t see into my heart.  Most knew nothing of my parenting role.  For them, I was a man, maybe a nice man—a family therapist, after all—but a man, who liked to be the center of attention, who expected that society would treat him and his ambitions well.  I knew this.  I understood.  But it wasn’t fun.  And there was work to be done in active support of the revolution.

I could be what in modern parlance is called an “ally,” an outsider who sympathizes with the cause of diversity and equal justice.  Instead of just reacting to women, I decided to add my voice. So I wrote a long paper called “The Psycho-politics of Coupling,” though never published, enjoyed a good informal run in the Boston-Cambridge area.

I argued that, right along with social and political changes, the structure of intimate relationships was shifting dramatically, that women’s quest for equality would diminish men’s place—or, at least, that’s how men would feel about it.  They would be threatened by their loss of control and their loss of centrality.  In response they would lash out or, more commonly, pull away.  Instead of confronting the changing dynamic of power, men would grow interior and resentful. They would secretly nurse the impotence they felt in the face of the assault.  No matter their outward or stated values, there was no way to fully avoid this experience.  Women, even those who had been encouraged by men’s explicit statements of support, would feel betrayed, resentful, adding fuel to their original anger.  And it would be arduous negotiation for those couples who wanted to both heal the rift and rekindle the flame.

As with my efforts to father my daughter, I naively hoped that the paper would insulate me from feminist criticism, and it did, but not enough to avoid the bruising.  When one group of people seize the initiative, the other becomes reactive or at best, responsive.  Some men formed an early men’s movement that bifurcated in two opposing directions; the first affirmed a primitive, loin cloth-wearing masculinity, with drums and chants around the fire, and the second adopted an excessively passive, apologetic posture that belied the complexities of gender differences and the possible avenues for redefining them.  I could join neither, sought a middle way, and kept searching for ways to join hands as a partner in the feminist revolution.  I wasn’t always welcome.

Over the years, as is true of successful revolutions, there has been wave after wave of criticism and aspiration in the feminist revolution.  With each wave, men – including those like me — have had to find a way to take in and learn from the criticism, learn to be better partners, and at the same time, both nurse our wounds and define a just and sensible masculinity.  It has been easy to deal with the broad aspirations of the women’s movement.  Its values are wholly compatible for all of us who have supported equal rights for Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, and oppressed people of all kinds.  It has been harder to deal with the revolutions in our own homes, to manage our own defensive reactions, and to find ways to affirm the transformations.

 

 

 

 

Secrets

Secrets!  They are so much with us.  Every day they take up some portion of our minds.  We harbor, savor, reveal and revile them.  Sometimes they are quiet, sometimes they rumble around demanding too much attention.

There are little secrets like the fact that you weren’t really sick when you canceled a meeting you didn’t want to attend.  There are big secrets having to do with infidelity, incest, sexual and physical abuse, or cheating at school and work.  Like the fact that you have children or siblings that your family doesn’t know about. There are even shared secrets, things two people know but can’t share.  I have known many couples who each believe the relationship is boring or ending but they have never uttered those words.  And I know people who love one another deeply and keep just as silent.

It’s rare that we know exactly what to do with secrets. The other evening at dinner, a friend revealed a secret—not his own but someone else’s.  The two women at the table were upset.  It wasn’t his story to tell, they argued.  I wasn’t so upset because it didn’t denigrate and was unlikely to harm anyone.   But here’s the question: are there any rules about secrets?  None that are universal as far as I can tell.  And as a marital and family therapist for thirty years, I was asked for my advice all the time.

There are many ways that people have tried to puzzle out the value and the deficits of keeping secrets.  In general, we think that they are toxic and should find a way into the light of day, but some believe that they protect our feelings and our privacy in very comforting ways. They are safe harbors.

Let’s start with reasons to bring secrets into the light.  Here’s some typical advice from a family therapist, Evan Imber-Black. She tells us that “secrets can divide family members, permanently estranging them.  They can discourage individuals from sharing information with anyone outside the family, inhibiting formation of intimate relationships. They can freeze development at crucial points in life, preventing the growth of self and identity. They can lead to painful miscommunication within a family, causing unnecessary guilt and doubt.”  She goes on to say that “A person who seeks to undo the damage caused by family secrets must accept that revealing a secret is not a betrayal but a necessity.”

That’s a damning indictment and a powerful injunction but contemporary culture has for decades had a powerful bias towards revealing secrets.

Like most of you, there are experiences in my life that validate that bias.  Here’s one. It was 1968.  My father was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.  Though it was a common choice in those days, I have never been able to discern why my mother did not want to tell him that he was dying.  She said that he would do better believing that he could fight it.  There was some truth to her observation.  My father was a fighter; he believed that a concentrated mind could overcome almost any obstacle.  But he wasn’t the only person involved in his dying.  My brother and sister, his friends and family—all were sworn to silence, which means none of us got to talk with my father about the dying and about our relationships over the years.  We couldn’t reminisce or mourn together.  Somehow the prohibition even inhibited our ability to talk among ourselves.  We lay around the house in a stupor for weeks.  It was a very lonely time.

Our cultural preference for sharing of secrets is bolstered by scientific studies.  They say that secrets are bad for your health.  “People hiding traumatic secrets,” for example, “showed more incidents of hypertension, influenza, even cancer, while those who wrote about their secrets showed, through blood tests, enhanced immune systems.”

The culture of candor has had a number of powerful drivers.  Among them was the wave of openness that hit American shores during the sixties and seventies.  A second was the feminist movement, which contrasted the (intimate) way that women talked with one another to the (withholding) way that men did.  Third, the revelations of incest and sexual abuse, long shrouded in shame, were said to be liberating when brought to light.  A fourth driver was the gay and lesbian movement, which insisted that the secret closets they had been forced into were constricting, humiliating, and oppressive.  These were extraordinary and liberating movements in our cultural history.

But I don’t think that sharing secrets is always the best idea.  Too often, people say the cruelest things in the name of revealing secrets.  People also tell secrets without thinking about the consequences: how it will hurt others; how it will damage reputations; how it will spread.  Telling secrets is often a test: will you still love me if you know what I’m really like, what happened to me in the past, who I have associated with. What if this isn’t the best test of love.  What’s more, once out of the closet, secret are no longer within your control.

Here’s a story about the loss of control.  Friends of my Aunts had been happily married for forty years.  They did everything together.  They were best friends and lovers.  One day, the husband, believing that the marriage was so strong that it could tolerate almost any blow—and that, in the end, it would be strengthened by his honesty—revealed that, thirty years in the past, he had had a brief, “meaningless” affair.  Still it bothered him and created a slight barrier between them. He wanted to pull it down.  She quietly thanked him for sharing, thought about it for a day, and decided to dissolve the marriage.  He was stunned but he would be patient.  She would recover soon enough from the hurt and anger.  Divorce was unimaginable.  But no, she was resolved, and that was that.

Secrets are rarely shared for the other.  They are meant to relieve us of a burden, an anxiety, a fearful premonition.  They put a great, generally unrequested burden on those who receive the secrets.  I don’t believe that it is always self serving when people say that they must keep a secret to protect others.  There are, after all, many times that secrecy is necessary.  Think of the needs of resistance fighters, who do, in fact, protect comrades from vengeful dictators.  There are times within families when the potential for revenge for a revealed secret is simply too great. And, of course, there are many lesser reasons to keep things to yourself.

I believe that the culture that fosters the telling of secrets is also a culture that greatly emphasizes individual rights and individual feelings and de-emphasizes the experience of others.  Maybe more importantly, it downplays the importance of larger entities: families, communities, work groups.  Our desire to feel good ourselves should not, in my mind, always supersede the feelings or stability of others.

There are also positive reasons for keeping secrets.  Some think of secrets as a private treasure. “You need to know things the others don’t know. It’s what no one knows about you that allows you to know yourself.”  Don DeLillo.  For both individuals and whole societies, maintaining secrets provides a more orderly and dignified way of life.  “To hide feelings when you are near crying,” wrote Dejan Stojanovic, “ is the secret of dignity.”  Wellins Calcott that “Secrecy is the cement of friendship.” For still others, secrets provide a safe place, a private room where you are unobserved, and where you don’t have to maintain your public self.  “They do much to make you different.  On the inside where it counts.”

Personally, I treasure those moments when I can finally come clear, when I can share a secret and, by so doing, draw closer to the person who is listening.  And I treasure the privacy of my many small secrets.

If asked for advice about what to do, I’d say this.  Take great care in choosing who to tell your secrets to.  Can they handle them.  Will they appreciate the moment, the fear that preceded the sharing, the possibility of relief and joy in the telling.  Even before that, be clear about your purpose: why do you want to let the secret out; what goal do you have in mind; what negative consequences might arise—and can you handle them.  If you prepare in this way, if you make a real decision about whether to share or not, then you are likely to succeed.