Redefining Masculinity: Another Go

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Redefining Masculinity

The Good Man

Man head

Image by @Doug88888 via Flickr

Recently Paul Elam at AVfM challenged the staff of The Good Man Project to define the “Good Man” as an entity differing from a “Good Woman.” He wanted to know specific qualities unique to men. Three of them took up the challenge and according to Paul, they each failed There found nothing, no quality at all that was unique to men.

This is the very question that brought me to the men’s movement. I was in search of a modern definition of masculinity and what it means to be a man, specifically, how that differs from being a woman. Is there anything unique about men? I have made some strides in this area, but I too have failed. My best attempt thus far was recently posed in my series Redefining Masculinity. I conclude the thirds article in that series stating

“The general expectation that a man must not only earn his own way, but provide for and protect, and sacrifice himself others (society in general and women and children in particular) is unique to manhood. Women may freely choose to do these things, but are not looked down upon for choosing alternate lifestyles that require no such sacrifice on her behalf. This places an extreme burden upon men that is not placed upon women. It is certainly unfair and may be considered oppressive. The Zeta Male will reject the sacrifice as it pertains to others, but not to himself. The Zeta will require himself to earn his own way as he knows there will be no safety net as would be provided to women. Thus for a man to be a man, manhood requires a man not only to choose his own path according to his personal values, but it also requires that he earn his own way.” (Edited for typing errors.)

However, aside from the differing societal expectation for men and the safety nets provided for women, any woman may also choose her own path according to her personal values and earn her own way. Therefore it also fails to indicate anything inherently unique about men.

To answer this question one must first identify those human behaviors that are unique to the male of the species. Since men and women are more alike than different, every possible human behavior that can be performed by members of one sex can be performed by members of the other. That is every possible behavior except those concerning reproduction. Men cannot be mothers. Women cannot be fathers. These behaviors are unique to each sex.

This, of course, does not mean that there is not any crossover in responsibility and/or function, but each performs those responsibilities from a different perspective. This begins with mate selection, the act of reproduction, and the division of labor performed in child-rearing.

In the pre-industrial age these activities were defined more by biological functioning and ability than anything else. Women get pregnant, men don’t. Women can nurse young children, men can’t. Men on average grow bigger, stronger, faster, and have greater lung capacity and endurance than women. These simple facts, more than anything else, made it more suitable for women (rather than men) to remain in or near the home where they could care for young children. They also made it more suitable for men (rather than women) to leave the home to acquire basic necessities. In the modern era, technology has made it possible for each to assume large portions of the roles of the other in this regard. However, the basic differences in males and females remain, only the roles have changed.

These differences lead to the social contract of marriage, a contract which has been adopted by nearly every successful society in one way or another. This contract allowed the formation of the basic unit of human society; the family unit. It also delineated the roles of the two heads of the family and their responsibilities to themselves, each other, and their children. These roles were frequently codified in various societies at one time or another. Even when they were not codified, they generally were incorporated into cultural expectations, practices, and traditions. They also provided for smooth and orderly transfers of wealth, property, and power as well as providing for social safety nets for individual members of the society.

For instance, men were expected to marry and to provide the basic necessities for their wives and their offspring. Women were also expected to marry and produce offspring. These roles were complimentary and meant that the adult male, the adult female, and all children were provided for. The basic obligation of both men and women was to their offspring and future generations. Because of this, most societies developed a patrilineal system of heritage in which the sons inherited property from their fathers and in which daughters were handed over to their husbands’ families to be provided for. While the basic fairness of such systems could be argued, they were undoubtedly necessary for smooth transitions in societies at a time when biological limitations could not be overcome and basic resources were scarce.

With the onset of the industrial age basic resources have become increasingly plentiful and biological limitations can, for the most part, be overcome. However, the basic obligation to offspring and to future generations remains to ensure the survival of the species. But the need for rigid sex roles no longer exists to ensure survival. While the act of reproduction continues to require both a male and a female, only the female is required for gestation of the fetus. Once born, care of the infant can now be performed equally well by either sex. Further, technology and the evolution of society have made it possible for the female to produce sufficiently to provide for the care of her offspring and herself in the absence of the male. This makes the social contract of marriage obsolete as it has traditionally been executed. This has resulted in the disintegration of the traditional family unit and the dissolution of obligation of female to male as well as male to female, leaving the only remaining obligation as that of parent to child.

To this point I have shied away from discussion of the traditional male role as protector in favor of discussion of the male role as provider. It is now time to discuss the role of protector as it has applied to both men and women.

The larger physical size and greater physical ability of the human male combined with the greater vulnerability of the female (especially while pregnant) made him more suitable for the task of protecting himself and his family from threats to their physical well-being. The nearly unlimited reproductive capacity and inability to nurse young children of the male compared to the limited capacity of the female and her ability to nurse also made the male more expendable to the family unit than the female. Therefore it was only natural that the male take on the role of primary protector. The female also shared in this obligation, but typically as a last line of defense. As societies grew to include multiple families, the male obligation was expanded to include the protection of society as well.

The technological advancement that came with the industrial age has negated some, but not all of this difference, though it is likely to overcome it entirely at some point in the future. At present, however, the male remains better suited for the role of protector of society than the female. Thus the male obligation to society would appear to still exist. But does it? Perhaps a better question is, should it and should the female assume at least part of this obligation?

It is in this obligation (conferred by a natural sex role and biological difference) that the one measure of manhood as opposed to womanhood continues to exist. Via the biological difference in physical stature and ability between the male and the female, the male remains obliged to be the protector of society. The female has assumed no such obligation, though she may freely choose it or not.

Thus the one remaining sex role for the female is to give birth. The one remaining sex role for the male is to protect society. All other sex roles have been made obsolete by technology. They may now be defined as gender roles (socially, not biologically constructed) and can be maintained or discarded according to the values of any given society.

But the question is should the male continue to take on this role? In modern society the one remaining obligation for women is to produce the next generation. However, in many societies women are permitted to opt out of this obligation. Social convention, birth control, and legalized abortion each permit any individual woman to choose not to become a mother. In these modern societies motherhood is no longer viewed as the measure of a woman. In fact, womanhood appears to have no yardstick by which to measure it that makes it significantly different from manhood. One might say that womanhood no longer exists in these societies. It has become personhood. Any woman can be replaced by any man at any given time in the societies that have released women from their one remaining obligation. Of course for a society to do so would mean that over course of a generation, that society would cease to exist.

The results of this can already be seen in western societies where birth rates have dropped below replacement rates and immigrants are required to maintain population levels and economic strength. The consequence being that the society is slowly eroded and replaced over several generations.

Would a similar destructive process occur if a given society were to permit the male to abdicate his obligation as that society’s protector? Western societies have not yet permitted men this luxury, yet they have begun a process of vilification of traditional male sex roles that discourages men from fulfilling this obligation. The result has been the disintegration and erosion of societal values, culture, and tradition. The breakdown of the family as the foundation of society has met with tragic consequences. Fatherlessness has been associated with any number of societal ills. The recent instability of the economy may also be a symptom. While it could be argued that this may fall more under the purview of the provider role, it might also be argued that the role of provider is a sub-role of protector. Thus it would appear that should men abdicate their obligation as protectors, the result would be just as destructive to society as the abdication  of obligation by women as reproducers. It is doubtful that any society can survive the abdication of obligation of either role, let alone both.

But does the protection of society (or the family) require men to sacrifice life or limb? In modern society it certainly could, but should not. There are many ways to protect a society (or a family) and each of them allows a man to fulfill that role. In my latest definition of masculinity, I stated that this obligation “places an extreme burden upon men that is not placed upon women.” I also stated “manhood requires a man… to choose his own path according to his personal values…” I would now state that the man’s biological imperative to protect society is what differentiates manhood from womanhood; that he may not abdicate this obligation; but the way in which he chooses to fulfill this obligation should be consistent with his personal values and will ultimately define him as a man.

While a woman may choose this path, the biological imperative does not exist; therefore this choice may define her as a person, but not as a woman. Masculinity becomes personal according to this definition and its values and ideals vary according to the individual man. A single definition encompassing all of masculinity becomes impossible, but an individual definition remains necessary. There is no one masculinity, but many and each points the individual man in the direction to fulfill his biological imperative.


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  1. Real masculine men must be sensitive to identify the real femininity of women corresponding to their masculinity. Good men must be masculine and good women must be feminine.

  2. I’ll answer your question with a simple: no.

    This world contains actual INTERSEX people. I’m not talking about transvestites or cross dressers or anything like that. I mean people with ambiguous chromosome arrangements like xxy or or xyy. Some people have both an ovary and a testes. These people exist and do NOT fit into the so called “gender binary” that 99 percent of us do.

    The “group psychology” of men and women IS different :

    But the problem is that’s the psychological profile of “group women” and “group man” as a whole. There are individuals of each sex who have personality traits that are more associated with the other sex, such as courage in men being found in women or an attention to grooming being found in a man instead of a woman. Thus there are no personality traits that are entirely owned by one sex or the other. of course there are physiological differences on average, between men and women as well, but. once again, nothing absolute. Thus there are a *precious few* women who can pass an unmodified fire department test or hold to male standards of physical fitness in the army, just like a few double jointed males equal or exceed typical normal female flexibility.

    And let’s not even get into things where the social constructivists ARE right, such as about the arbitrariness of male and female dress styles, colors, etc.

    And of course women exert their influence, esp sexually on all males but the gay or asexual ones, and there’s no doubt that certain male traits such as confidence/dominance are selected for by most women , save for the 1 to 5 percent who are natural female sexual dominants.

    So I think in a way the quest is quixotic. If you want to go by tradition, at least western tradition, femininity is largely passive, whilst masculinity is “active”. However, the ultimate men, or heck, the ultimate people have always been the ones to follow their own dreams regardless of what other people think of them. So while I don’t believe there is an ultimate answer to this question, I do think men have to be able to define for and among themselves what a man is without undue concerns for the opinions of women.

  3. Reading farther, I see I jumped the gun a bit as you already covered much of that, though I do think the existence (and its not in the 1 in a million freak show levels either) of the intersexed rather throws the rest of your conclusions out to an extent.

    But I’ll stick to a rather simple conclusion based on one premise that I think we both agree on:
    A. Men tend to feel protective obligations and emotional attachments to their children and the mothers of their children.

    Does the current society adequately protect children or fathers from the whims of the mother to abort the child or move the child or otherwise interfere with the fathers rights as a parent or does it not?
    I think the answer is obvious to both you and me.
    This society is not worthy of male protection.

    • Clarence, you are correct stating that there are persons with characteristics of both sexes. They are probably more than one in a million and while they matter as human beings, their numbers are statisically insignificant. For all intents and purposes, the human species has two biological sexes, male and female. I don’t want to belittle intersex people, but they may or may not fit into either of the categories and are really relevent to this discussion which is about the biological difference between male and female and the roles for each that developed around those differences. The article is an attempt to define “masculine” as something seperate and distinct form “feminine.” My contentiion is that there is a qualitative difference between manhood and womanhood although men and women can and do exhibit the full range of human behavior.


  4. And like I said, TDOM, I think you will fail.

    The nuclear and extended family units are where the male protective instinct ( if such exists, I believe it does for most men) is strongest. Societies, tribes being the most basic example, are involved only if the man is able to and willing to abstract his protective instincts somewhat. I doubt many men feel protective about modern society: why should they when it destroys so many of them?

    So you are right about fatherhood and motherhood, men generally being the protectors within the family unit, and male and female parents teaching the offspring different things, but that’s the sum total limit of the natural difference, and unfortunately in some ways, our current societies enable us to ignore many of the biological limitations of the sexes so many people like to pretend there aren’t any at all.

    • From the beginning of civilization men have always generalized their protective instincts to protect their societies. I see no reason why this will not continue. Societies that exploit their men tend to crumble or are overthrown once enough men come to believe the society is no longer worthwhile. But those societies are replaced with new societies that the men are willing to protect. I believe that this is due to instinctual behavior that has repeated itself in cycles throughout history. Therefore the definition does not fail, the male remains defined by his contribution to society. That contribution does not necessarily have to include sacrifice (or risk) of life and limb (but may). There are many ways to contribute (protect) to society, especially in our more modern, technological world.

      I am planning to continue this series to discuss some of these issues in more depth. The role of provider/protector as opposed to nurturer/caregiver is high on the agenda.


  5. A poem by Kipling comes to mind:

    IF you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
    Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
    If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
    If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:

    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    ‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
    if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

  6. Again, the question arises (for me at least) which of the qualities here aren’t desired of ALL humans? Whic ones should women NOT aspire to? And which ones from above I should not encourage in my daughter?

    • The entire range of human behavior is open to both men and women (except for the obvous methods of reproduction). There is no reason why men and women should not aspire to any of it provided it holds value to the individual and to society. What I am getting at is that very difference in biological motivation and imperative that drives the difference between the masculine and the feminine and causes men and women to choose different paths.


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