Monday, November 5, 2007

Do Men Need to be Tamed?

I finally just got the latest issue of Sunstone in the mail. For some reason, Minneapolis is the last state in the Union to get Sunstone subscriptions. This issue is devoted to "Women's Voices." I eventually want to comment in a different post on Holly Welker's piece, "Clean Shaven: No More Beards," which is a critique of mixed-orientation marriage, and which aims very particular criticism at our own Mr. Fob. But before I comment on that piece, I wanted to address a very different piece, with very different implications by Tracie A. Lamb, "Why Do We Need Each Other? A Personal Search for God's Odd Juxtaposing of Male and Female."

Lamb begins her essay by talking about how as a girl and as a maturing young woman she was afraid of men. She feared and disliked men because, in a word, they were emotionally retarded, crude beasts. They mocked her and made fun of her and they sexually objectified her (an uncle actually felt her up, though she called him on it and nipped any further sexual abuse in the bud). She gradually overcame her fear of men as she came to accept the notion that men are fundamentally different from women because of biology. She gained insight into her relationships with men from a book, Michael Gurian's A Fine Young Man, and from various articles on biology and gender. The fact that adolescent men have as much as 20 times the amount of testosterone "surging" through their bloodstreams as women accounts for their aggressive and sexually promiscuous behavior. As she came to understand men, she realized she pitied them and decided that in fact it was women's task to civilize the beast and help men make themselves productive members of society through familial commitments. Women, she said, cannot abdicate this civilizing role by leaving the home, or the rest of society falls to pieces.

Now I'll start by saying this is not a new argument. It is, in effect, a twenty-first-century restatement of an argument that first came into being in the Victorian age, at the time when the industrialization of western societies was provoking concern that traditional social structures and familial roles were falling apart. I'll let others debate the particular merits of this argument and its premises. But I was intrigued by the thesis that men and women are essentially different species. Because if true, it seems to me that based on the evidence she offered in support of this argument, it is no less reasonable to argue that gay men and straight men are as alien to each other and as much different species from each other as women are from men.

Based on my personal experience, and the experience of many, many gay men I've come to know over the years, we just don't behave like straight men in any sense that makes it reasonable to generalize about us in the same category. I'll offer some of my own experience growing up, and let other gay men pipe in if they feel they can relate.

As a boy child, I did not own (or want) typical boy toys. I had no interest in cars, trucks, speed racers, etc. I despised war-toys: G.I. Joe disgusted me; I hated and refused to play with toy soldiers of any kind. (That might have been a function of some of the graphic images of war I saw on T.V. growing up in the Vietnam era.) On the other hand, I liked dolls, and played frequently with my sisters' Barbies (even when they complained bitterly to my parents). Obviously I never got my own set of Barbies.

When no one was around the house, I played "dress up" with my mom's clothes and make-up. I once got severely scolded when my dad arrived home from work to find me prancing about on the front lawn, poking holes in the sod with my mom's high heels.

A favorite game I used to play with my younger brother was "Mr. Bear" and "Mr. Rabbit." I was Mr. Rabbit, he was Mr. Bear. The game consisted of Mr. Rabbit preparing cakes and rolls, and then inviting Mr. Bear over for tea. Then Mr. Bear would reciprocate.

I hated competitive sports, and avoided them like the plague. I will never forget getting severely scolded by my parents when the neighborhood boys tried to recruit me into a game of touch football, and I just ran home rather than subject myself to that. Whenever the T.V. channel got turned to sports, I usually withdrew -- to my room to read a book or to the kitchen with the women folk.

I tended to be a sensitive and introspective boy. I both laughed and cried often. I was artistic and I loved books. I excelled at school, despite being taunted by other boys. I was pretty much tortured by my peers in Junior High; my mother talks about how I came home from school every day in tears during my first year in high school. I befriended those I felt were outcasts. I established close friendships with girls as well as boys.

My comfortableness with my own emotions also uniquely equipped me for religion. I was aware of the Holy Spirit speaking to me at the age of eight, at which time I acquired a testimony and began to frequently bear it in Sacrament meeting. My relationship with the Church would be another essay, but suffice it to say, the Church played a central role in my life from the time of my baptism on. I was not afraid of being viewed as "different" at school because of my spirituality. There were not many other Mormons in my school in upstate New York, but my observation was that the few there were tended to keep a low profile about their religion, and tried to blend in with their peers. I did not. I was openly Mormon, gave Books of Mormon to my friends and teachers, and spoke openly about my beliefs and values in classes.

I could go on, but I think I've made my point. How many other gay boys are there out there -- from many different religious backgrounds, not just Mormon -- who grew up quiet, sensitive and spiritual, artistic or bookish, uninterested in typical boyish interests and pursuits? We were not the playground bullies, we were the playground victims. We were not the classroom-challenged, the rebels, the bad boys wanting to sow our wild oats, we were the Sunday School teacher's pets, the angelic kids, the good boys who self-consciously set an example for the rest. We didn't need women to civilize us, we were the vanguard of civilization among our sex, willing allies of the womenfolk in their desperate attempts to tame their unruly men.

Which brings us to the question of sex and marriage. According to Lamb, women and the Church work together in harmony to civilize men. Women use men's sexual attraction as bait to reel men into a life of familial responsibility. The Church uses a regimented and hierarchical priesthood organization to give men the structure, discipline, and role-models they need in order to become adequate providers for their families.

But wait! Sexual attraction and connubial bliss may be the reasons why straight men marry straight women. And straight men may become civilized in the bargain. But the cart is before the horse in the case of gay men who marry women. Gay men marry women in spite of the fact that they are not attracted to women at all. Gay men do not marry women in order to become more civilized, they marry women because they already have a highly developed sense of civic, familial and spiritual responsibility. They marry out of a sense of duty, and a highly self-sacrificial sense of duty at that.

The problem for straight men in our society has always been to convince them to buy a stake in civilization. Lamb in her essay suggests that institutions such as the Boy Scouts, organized sports, and the military, and -- in the LDS Church, the Priesthood -- help to reward men for investing in society with camaraderie and social status. Upholding strict sexual morality and allowing sexual expression only within the confines of marriage is a tool for ensuring that dangerous male sexuality is kept in check.

I would argue that the problem for gay men has always been the opposite. We love and are attracted to and always (covertly) become the mainstay of every homosocial male organization that aims to uplift and civilize men. (My book is about how we did that in the case of one such "civilizing" organization, the Young Men's Christian Association.) Our problem is not that we are insufficiently attracted to civilizing influences, the problem is that civilization despises us, tortures us and excommunicates us the moment they realize we are gay. Gay social anomy -- promiscuity, chemical abuse, suicide -- is the product of homophobia, not of our gayness.

For those of us who choose marriage or celibacy, the challenge, I believe, is to provide sufficient emotional, psychological and social support to help deal with the pain and the challenge of living without the kind of sexual intimacy human beings naturally long for. For the rest of us, having been excommunicated from civilization, we need to develop non-homophobic role-models, structures and social support to help channel and discipline our sexuality into stable, committed relationships, to nurture our spirituality, and to empower us to use our time and resources in the service of the common good.

11 comments:

GeckoMan said...

John,
I find it amazing that you could describe my boyhood experience so aptly! I totally went through what you did as well.

So when is it that we gay boys cross the line from the model of social acceptability to that which is socially reprehensible? Maybe it's when society expects the testosterone to kick in, and the beast to be tamed, and we only have longing eyes for the beast that is not us. Obviously, there is a lot going on in us before sexual attraction comes fully into play. However, once that drive begins, it seems like gays sometimes travel in reverse order, from sensitive and structured civility to a beast that wants no taming from female hands.

Abelard Enigma said...

Is Lamb a lesbian? Just curious. I haven't read the article; but, in your review you used words like 'feared', 'disliked', and 'pitied', but never words like 'admired', or 'respected' in describing her view of men. I get the sense that she views men as a necessary evil.

Although, the notion that men and women are a different species is intriguing; although, I don't necessarily agree that gay men and straight men are also different species - perhaps different sub-species; but, we do have our shared commonalities with straight men as well.

For example, I'm sure all of us gay Mormon's have some stereotypical gay attributes; but, how many are stereotypical gay male to the core? I've never liked sports, I've always been more interested in artistic endeavors, I've always abhorred violence. But, I also have some stereotypical straight male attributes. For example, I enjoy going to Home Depot and Lowes - power tools make me all wiggly.

Gay social anomy -- promiscuity, chemical abuse, suicide -- is the product of homophobia, not of our gayness.

This is touching on an area I've been thinking a lot about recently. Sexual promiscuity, drugs, hedonistic lifestyle, etc. is certainly the image that many have of gay people - particularly the religious right. But, if you are continually telling a group of people that god hates them and they are going to hell then what else can you really expect? I'm starting to view the stereotypical gay lifestyle to be a product of religious bigotry - it's almost like a self fulfilling prophecy. They have created the very monster they love to hate.

What I think the problem is that the rest of us do a poor job at setting the record straight. I'm sure there are some gay men who fit the sterotypical gay lifestyle mold; but, I believe that they are a small minority. And, it's not a phenomena unique to gay men - there are also heterosexuals (both male and female) who live a sexual promiscuous hedonistic lifestyle. But, they seem to get a free pass - because they aren't gay. I find this particularly interesting since there are significantly more scriptural passages condemning heterosexual immoral acts than there are homosexual acts. If people were really condemning sin out of a sense of duty to god, shouldn't their activities be proportional to the amount of condemnation in the scriptures? Shouldn't they be picketing Hooters restaurants rather than gay pride parades?

J G-W said...

Geckoman - Obviously the capacity for refinement versus barbarism exists within every human being -- male and female, gay and straight. I'm not sure I believe a single world of Sis. Lamb's argument. Nor am I sure I actually believe a single word of what I've written here either. Sweeping generalizations like the ones I've indulged here are always true and false in equal measure.

Having said that (I really had to get that off my chest!!!)... If our premise is that women tame men by virtue of men's sexual attraction to them, then we must accept point blank that women play no role whatsoever in taming gay men -- either the variety that marry women or the variety that don't. Gay men must necessarily become civilized either because they themselves are internally motivated to do so, or because of their love for other men. To the extent that women play a role in helping to civilize gay men, they do so on the basis of shared interests other than sex -- such as, in the case of gay men who marry, bearing and rearing children; or, in the case of gay men who don't, as allies in movements working for social justice.

J G-W said...

Abelard - My shortened summary obviously cut out many nuances of Sis. Lamb's argument, and perhaps made her views sound a bit more negative than they really are. (She is decidedly NOT, by the way, a lesbian.) It's an essay worth reading in its entirety, if you have access to Sunstone.

I could write another whole essay on gay male promiscuity. In fact, perhaps I will. But suffice it to say here that I view it as one of the most damaging consequences of homophobia. Lasting commitments between individuals who love one another provide real, tangible benefits to the individuals themselves and to the communities in which those individuals reside. As a matter of basic public policy, it makes no sense to me whatsoever to deny gay men and lesbians the right to marry. And even less sense to deny us the right to marry and then in the next breath condemn us for being promiscuous. For Heaven's sake, let's stop the madness.

Lacking social or ecclesiastical support from the straight world for sobriety, self-love, and commitment among same-sex-oriented individuals, we need to build those support networks ourselves and become role models for the next generation.

MoHoHawaii said...

My straight-arrow brother is two years older than I am, and my parents got in the habit of giving us presents in pairs. For example, when he got a guitar I got a ukelele. I guess they thought the big brother/little brother stuff was cute, like some people think about twins.

Anyway, one year my brother got a G.I. Joe 'action figure'. I got one too.

I loved my G.I. Joe. In fact, I can remember specific fantasies about what I wanted that little plastic figure to do to and for me.

I never once made him fight in a war.

Beck said...

Men DO benefit from women! Women DO bring a stabilizing influence in the lives of men (both straight, and in my case gay). Though this post was full of generalities as you noted, (and I like Gecko can testify to the truth of you mimicking my childhood years) there is some truth there.

I know that I am more stable, more family-oriented, more altruistic, more tempered, even more spiritual, because of my marriage to my wife. Could I have such stability and character-building changes in my life if I were married to a man? Probably. Commitment to another who makes us better for being committed to them seems to be what matters.

J G-W said...

Beck - Yes, that was my impression reading this essay. It is love that stabilizes and civilizes us, that helps us develop emotional maturity and commitment, not the gender of the person we love.

GeckoMan said...

John, thanks for playing along with my silly generalities, and then deftly setting the record straight. I agree with you that sexual attraction to women has little to do with civilizing us to marriage, home and family. (I was more domestic than my wife at the onset of marriage and still am.) Yet I concede to Beck, that once married, my wife has exerted goodly influence upon me to be loyal and committed. However, I think it must be said that I and my other gay brothers who follow a genuine course of religiosity and family life, as married or partnered, do so for one grand reason: we love the Lord. It's that simple.

J G-W said...

Well, as I said, all generalities have some truth. But we must also acknowledge that they distort the truth.

I've been thinking about Beck's comment for the last day or so, and I agree. I have learned so much from the women in my life, and I can only imagine how vastly different my own domestic arrangement would be (and how different my life would be) if a woman were present.

Still, one of the things Lamb suggests in her article is that men are not so competent at managing or talking about their emotions, and that they get emotional competence from relating to women. However, I've had women friends comment to me about how in touch I am (and how in touch other gay men they have known are) with our emotional sides. I think this is one reason why gay men are often the best friends of women.

Another "stereotype" that seems to have some truth is that when gay men date women, women often feel as if they've found their ideal partner -- a man who shares common interests, a man who is sensitive and easy to relate to. (And a man who does not pressure them sexually!!) Unfortunately for the women, the gay men are usually content to keep the relationship strictly at a friendship level (unless they feel pressured to marry). I had this experience when I was dating. The last woman I dated, I was the third gay man she had dated, the third gay man to come out to her. She was so upset when I came out, and told her I could not date her any more. I think she was starting to wonder if she was a gay magnet. But I think it is true that women are often attracted to gay men because of their emotional competence.

When my partner and I had our wedding ceremony, my grandma attended. Bless her heart, one of the questions she asked was, "Which one of you is the man, and which one of you is the woman?"

Our answer: "We both are both, Grandma. Sometimes I'm the man, sometimes I'm the woman. Sometimes he's the man, sometimes he's the woman."

And here's why that answer is true: because in order for any relationship to work, there are certain competencies that each partner has to achieve -- emotional, financial, spiritual, intellectual, physical. In our culture, women tend to have certain competencies (stereotypically, nurturing and emotion) and men tend to have other competencies (stereotypically, physicality and intellect). Then in marriage they help each other balance.

In a same-sex relationship, the same is true. But Gay men often bring a set of skills to the table of a relationship that, frankly, straight men are often sorely lacking in. We are able to achieve certain kinds of balance even without necessarily having a woman in the household. If those balances aren't achieved, I suspect no relationship can really last.

Mr. Fob said...

I'll have to read Lamb's essay. I'm always resistant to notions of inherent difference between men and women, and I'd have to say I feel the same about notions of inherent differences between straight men and gay men--though I've been known to profess those ideas myself, both consciously and unconsciously. I believe the differences that do exist in both cases--the points where the stereotypes are true--have a lot more to do with social constructions than genetic or eternal predispositions.

This is all getting me to my point, which is that I appreciate yours and Beck's point that ultimately it is being in a committed relationship, regardless of the genders or sexualities involved, that tames the beastly attributes existent in all people.

J G-W said...

Mr. Fob - Yeah, as I admitted above, talking in terms of stereotypes bugs me. At the same time, I can say that anecdotally, I seem to know more men than woman who choke when it comes to dealing with their emotions, and who seem to benefit from hierarchy and structure. (And also note that gay men generally don't seem to follow that pattern of manhood.) So I was intrigued by what she had to say.

Also, I'm interested in her notion of "fairness," the idea that fairness does not necessarily have to do with everybody having the same things, but everybody having what they need.

But read the essay. I'd be interested to hear what you think...