Gender is baked into humanity and has forever been a topic of introspection and debate. Personally, it’s not something I consciously think about often even though it informs my social and personal identity in many respects. I most often consider the topic in response to topics I see other people talking about. I wanted to boil down some of my thoughts on the topic of masculinity.

First thing’s first

When it comes to judging other people, I say this about masculinity: “Don’t tell anyone else how to be a man.” None of us have some objective truth about the subject. No matter what trait you think truly exemplifies masculinity, some really awesome person out there defies it and remains really awesome.

This is not to say you shouldn’t share how you feel about your own masculinity or even traits you happen to admire in others. You just don’t have any real authority to tell others they are or are not manly outside of your personal preferences. Nor should you worry about people who try to judge your manliness, they are full of crap.

Another thing to keep in mind is that this article deals in generalities. Everyone is an individual who may or may not be well described by the generalities and stereotypes I’ll be addressing. Discussing a broad topic almost always puts you in the position of making generalizations. I’ll try to keep the language clear on this, but please keep in mind I feel everyone is entitled to make of themselves whatever they like.

I’m intentionally only addressing men in this essay, but suffice to say, I think much the same way about femininity and women.

Biological bias

By and large, men and women have marked biological differences. More is the same than is different, but the differences, in aggregate, are real, and significant enough it has shaped human societies markedly. While our modern lives de-emphasize these differences, they certainly still exist and inform our sense of self and how we see others.

There is great variation within men of course. Some play into every stereotype we might imagine, while others defy those stereotypes. Nonetheless, the common experience for most men will be one where these stereotypes play at least some part, and they are not entirely constructs of society, their roots are in the individual and collective human experience with the phenomena of sex and gender.

I’ll also say the biology is likely more complicated than a simple X or Y equation. There are a lot of subtle aspects to gender identification and ideation. Despite that, I think all that complexity is nonetheless measured against a kind of common experience baseline, which while not set in stone, derives from normative standards which are driven by commonality in the human genome.

Bias codified in social norms

We, humans, are prone to thinking shortcuts, and one of the most pernicious is turning a generalized bias into a codified standard, and then assigning it moral weight. We see that men are generally stronger and more aggressive so we decide that all men must be strong and aggressive or be considered “bad”. We start to see anything that doesn’t fit the “average” as being wrong, and when something is wrong in society, we try to make rules or take actions to “fix” it.

Thus is born all manner of bigotry, racism, and social disharmony. There is more to it than that of course, there are also motivations of power and insecurity that play into setting up these kinds of social norms. As you can probably tell, I really hate turning natural bias into social norms. I’m fine with recognizing a natural bias, but I don’t think any individual in society should be judged by it.

But what about preferences aggregated?

Here is where my ethos runs into some icebergs. I think people should be allowed their personal feelings and preferences, especially when it comes to something like choosing a romantic partner or pairing. Who am I to say someone shouldn’t be attracted to big, strong, aggressive guys? If that’s what you like, then that is what you like. If you like skinny, graceful, quiet guys, that’s fine too. Basically, like what you like!

That said, if women, on average, like a certain look for men, then naturally, any men not fitting that appearance or personality are going to feel disadvantaged in finding a pairing. This becomes a very real source of insecurity and loss for those who don’t fit the general social view of an attractive man. They really are suffering in a real way, even without a codified social standard being enforced on anyone.

Here is where I think there is wiggle room, which is to say, people should be allowed their preferences, but there should also be efforts to push back on them. The key is to keep the work and language positive here. Use language that clearly expresses preference such as “I like”, “I’m into” etc… and try to avoid language that sounds like an objective judgment. Highlighting the views of those who are contrary to the average is also a great way to help people feel valued and respected.

If you want to see what I consider manly virtues, their dark sides, and a little advice on cultivating these virtues; you can read about it here.

What about “toxic masculinity”?

Like any new piece of language, this term is loaded with different meanings depending on who you ask. I look at it in a fairly literal sense. Toxic masculinity is when the traits we often associate with men become directly damaging to other people.

A person who is covered in muscles has a thick beard and loves to compete to show his prowess is not toxic. He’s not doing any harm to anyone. A guy who hits his wife, leers at other women, and laughs at anyone weaker than himself is very toxic indeed; he’s making life miserable for others. Being proud of your attributes and showing them off can be a bit brash, but it’s not really doing harm, it’s being happy with yourself. Using your strength and aggression to dominate or intimidate other people is harmful to them.

Basically, it’s not the traits of masculinity that are toxic, it’s what you do with them that can be toxic. And on the flip side, we could say that using the traits of masculinity to actively help others could be called “heroic masculinity”, something I personally aspire to.

Masculinity and insecurity

Nearly all people like to feel safe and secure. Traits such as strength and courage, which are associated with masculinity, have an intrinsic value in making us feel safe and secure when we possess them or feel like we possess them. Life is full of conflict of one kind or another and if we feel insecure it’s going to wear on our day in and day out.

A lot of time, money, and effort is invested by men all around the world trying to achieve a feeling of security in their identity as men, both to alleviate anxiety and to secure sex and prosperity. There are vast industries designed to take advantage of this insecurity by offering “easy” solutions that sound appealing but are ultimately just a con job.

Personally, the approach I recommend is this. First, establish some concrete goals in your life that you want to achieve, (and write them down). Next, think about how you could realistically achieve these goals. That can involve some brainstorming, consulting with others you trust, or research on the topic. Write those plans down as well. Then set about, step by step, putting into action the means you have devised. Keep an eye on what is actually working to achieve your goals and what isn’t so you can adjust and refine your strategy.

Ultimately, success at achieving your goals is what will build your confidence, and in turn, give you a sense of security, and in turn, make you feel more manly. When you feel confident and successful, whatever your goals, others will start to see you that way, and better yet, you won’t be as dependent on anyone’s opinion for how you feel about yourself.

If you want to read about how I feel about my own masculinity; this article is for you.

Masculine Sexuality

The world of human sexuality is not easily summarized, especially not by yours truly. That said, reproduction and sex are obviously integral to the sexes. Ostensibly the reason we have a biological gender is to facilitate the creation and raising of offspring. We may individually challenge these notions, but they remain the baseline we measure ourselves against.

So for a great many men, there is a strong desire to have sex and we often measure our sense of masculinity by our success in that arena. At the core is simply to have fulfilling sex and satisfy our innate drive to do so. Baring children is also a part of this, but I think it features a lot less than you might expect given that’s what actually keeps the human species going. The raising of children features prominently in social mores surrounding sexuality, but less so with male desire itself.

Like in other areas of life, while we value others’ perceptions of our manliness, I think that meeting an internal definition of success is more essential to self-worth. If we see ourselves as sexually successful, we tend to posture less and have less need to publicly advertise ourselves as sexually desirable.

Yet sex is where we most have to appeal to someone else’s sense of masculinity. If you are looking for a sex partner, you want to demonstrate your desirability, and ultimately, that means you need to appeal to someone else’s ideal. You are essentially entering the marketplace of masculinity. This can be especially confusing as there are many strategies, many preferences, and it’s a topic that is only discussed in limited circumstances.

I think one of the biggest challenges with male sexuality centers on violence. Men, being larger, stronger, and more aggressive on average, have always posed a real danger to women. While most men are not rapists, there are more than enough such that the vast majority of women have experienced sexual harassment. This colors all male sexuality as potentially threatening, creating fear in women as well as in men when looking for sex. Complicating this somewhat is that aggression is a masculine trait that many women can find attractive provided it doesn’t pose a personal threat.

Men should never sexually assault or threaten women, or anyone else, in any circumstance.

So the challenge is to figure out how to advertise your availability and interest without being threatening, inappropriate, or imposing. That’s far from the only challenge men face in the area of sexuality, but it’s one I think men should consider carefully and work harder at cultivating good techniques for.

A Manly Finish

Ultimately, I think it’s best for people to find out what kind of many they want to be and which they are suited to be. Letting the broad society define what you should be or demanding others fit your idea of masculinity just brings misery all around. Masculinity is worth celebrating and it’s worth being wary of because masculine ideals can be turned to good or ill in equal measure. It’s up to men to make the best of what they have, doing good for themselves and others.


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