What Men Have Lost in Relation to Women

This piece appeared in newspapers in late March, 2024.


The old movies I watch provide a glimpse into earlier times– and in particular, into relations between men and women. The old power dynamic between the sexes, these movies show, greatly favored men:

• Men had more status than women;
• It was “a man’s world,” run by men;
• It was completely appropriate for a man to wolf-whistle when a good-looking woman walked by;
• Men forcing kisses onto women was acceptable, even a sign of manliness. (Even heroes in the movies did it.)

Of course, such patterns weren’t confined to movies. The world I grew up in had those patterns of male dominance built into them.

The harshest thing a football coach could call players, was “girls.” (Having been taught that “throwing like a girl” was an insult, I was amazed when, as an adult, I saw a woman softball third-baseman rifle a throw to first.) When women became news anchors, it took some adjustment in how people understood “authoritative.”

A lot has shifted since that earlier era.

• At every step of sexual intimacy, a new ethic says, consent is required. (Movie heroes no longer force their kisses.)
• Women, who formerly needed their husbands to co-sign for them now control money, run businesses.
• More women than men now get college degrees. (And this in an era where the earnings gap between the college-educated and the non-college workers in the American economy has grown. Which suggests that all those men lacking college education will be in an inferior position, economically, to many women with college degrees.)

Some women, in some segments of American society, are choosing to live without a man, because they can’t find a man that offers something she needs.

All this implies a painful loss for many men who have grown up expecting that being male will confer higher status, and a dominant say over many things, and then find themselves instead in this changed world which gives them lower status and less power.

(A world, for example, where “Me, too!” has become an established part of the culture, where men can be punished for behaving with women the way so many men – including Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump – have behaved.)

It is not surprising that some men have reacted to the pain of that loss – being denied the gratifications they expected — with hostility toward the women who have gained the power and status that men have lost.

Responding to that loss in a constructive way is difficult, but not impossible. The cultural changes can lead to better outcomes than were offered by the old gratifications of male-dominance.

Although domination has its gratifications, the failure to grant women the full respect and equality they are entitled to diminishes the possibilities of intimate relationship.

(How full can the relationship be when it’s seen in terms consistent with a hero who might say, like many movie heroes, “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that!”?)

The challenge has been to learn a new pattern of relationship– one where men and women recognize and respect each other in equal measure, where genuine encounter takes place, and the two become mates in a more complete way than when one was made subordinate to the other.

The old arrangements also imposed burdens on men. Any relationship will be incomplete in which the man followed the old rule that men don’t show vulnerability. Because vulnerability is an inescapable and fundamental part of the human condition, hiding that vulnerability – and hiding the important feelings and needs that go with it – means sacrificing intimacy.

American men – taught that heroes are “the strong, silent type” – paid a price.

But change at that level – from a man expecting to be in control to one ready to go with the flow of a relationship between whole human beings – is hard to achieve. It requires a change in one’s emotional posture, an opening of the heart.

The difficulty of that challenge may help explain one of the political developments of our times: polls show that a lot of “white males without college education” have aligned themselves with Donald Trump, a man whom everyone has heard bragging about sexually assaulting women, and who has now been found by a jury of average Americans to have raped, with his fingers, a decent woman.

Perhaps Trump is a hero to a lot of young men — angry about being denied the dominance they expected – not in spite of but because of Trump’s (criminal) way of asserting male dominance. Misogyny in the Trump Party is perhaps to be understood as revenge against women.

The division of the human world into male and female is quite fundamental, and the relationship between husbands and wives is a huge part of people’s lives. It is not surprising, then, that a disturbance in that dimension – a cultural change more challenging than individuals or the culture can easily manage – would have profound repercussions.

Like, for example, bolstering the angry and violent Force of Fascism, which is threatening right now to destroy and replace American Democracy. Pain and rage always degrade the spirit of the human world, and are always useful to fascistic forces.

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