As a straight, cis-gender, able-bodied, Christian, Anglo, middle-class, adolescent white boy, I learned lots of specific, unspoken “rules.” These rules required that if I wanted a relationship with a girl, I needed to stay in school, get a job, buy a car, take her out to dinner, buy her flowers…generally fulfill the societies expectations to “provide and protect” and the “systems” expectations to participate fully in a pyramid of power that marginalizes women, people of color, queer folks, non-Christians, poor folks, people with disabilities, and others. My ability to accomplish all these things, I was learned, gave me value and my life a purpose and meaning. The rules came from all around me: t.v., friends, culture, my church, school parents, etc.. I probably made some up myself once I had the idea! As an adult, the rules became ingrained and habituated and I stepped right into line. I pursued a career that would allow me to climb some vague “ladder of success.” This meant a livelihood and social status but, underneath, my deeper motivation was to increase my chances of being attractive to, and connecting with, women!
As a younger man, I was confused by what I was hearing from smart, powerful women about male power and patriarchy. Because of this desire for relationships with women, for me, as an individual boy, raised in the hierarchy of “man-school,” I experienced girls/women as having all the power. It felt, therefore, that women dominated me! I’ve come to realize over time that I was not the only straight cisgender boy having this experience. But part of my man-school learning was this: this feeling should never be spoken about since the portrayal of myself as an “Alpha” male, or as close as I could approximate that image, was the key to my success!
Researchers have found that males, in general, tend to interact and think in hierarchical ways (Heim, 2013). In the straight world then, it is a common experience to have an individual experiences of being dominated by women and that this experience must be suppressed. To admit this for a young male, would be tantamount to “giving all your power away” and, thereby, losing all hope of climbing the social ladder and successfully connecting with women.
As I became compelled by the need to keep this secret hidden…I overcompensated, in an attempt to garner the attention of, and matter to, members of the opposite sex. My interest focused on finding value in “doing” rather than deserving this value by simply “being” (a value women seemed to me to have). This incongruency meant that I spent much of my younger life experiencing myself as an “imposter”: clearly I didn’t matter much because I didn’t make a lot of money and wasn’t high on that pyramid of success.
As a young, straight male, I was so desperate to perfect this guise of mattering and importance and in order to connect to women, that I felt the need to do “whatever it took.” While I recognize this in my own life, I have also realized there is an historical, gendered legacy in this desperation.
In “A People’s History of the United States,” Howard Zinn details much of the history of the dynamics of those in power related to class, gender, race, culture, sexual orientation, etc. This is a history (or “herstory”) many of us did not learn in school. And yet, what was missing for me in Zinn’s seminal work was the “why?”
I have found this deeper historical dimension within my own body. As a white man, I have felt drawn to consider what I would have done if I had lived 150 years ago? As one example, depending on where I lived in what is now the United States, there may have been pressure, opportunity, and encouragement for me to participate, at some level, in the annihilation of indigenous people. If it meant I could acquire land and social standing and, therefore, gain access to relationships with women, what would I have done?
What financial and status benefits would I have gained if I had participated in the enslavement of African people related to my ability to have and maintain relationships with women? What would I have chosen?
As I consider these kinds of questions, it has been a natural progression to wonder how these issues play out today in my life, my community, and my world. Because slavery is now “outlawed,” I may be tempted to pretend that issues of white supremacy and social justice are increasingly irrelevant. Yet, the loss of voting rights for large numbers of incarcerated Black men has replaced the need for Jim Crow laws in our modern era. How does this benefit me as a straight, white man? While I may not have personally participated in the annihilation of indigenous people, how have I “enjoyed” the benefits of my ancestor’s actions: the making and breaking over 500 treaties with Native tribes (2)?
I have been hard on myself at times and gotten mired in guilt. I’ve blamed others and sought to get them to “get it” and “be sensitive” like me! And yet, my interest here is to understand my own motivations. I want to be informed by this perspective, make choices that serve me, that acknowledge my impact across our differences of race, class, gender, disability, religion, culture, and thereby, more effectively stand in solidarity across our differences.
I have come to recognize with profound grief, this dichotomy: how my desire for relationships with women has supported a money-making system that, while it doesn’t have to be, marginalize people of color, women, and others–both in the past and today. I have had to grapple with my fear of what I might lose if I refuse to participate in these aspects of this system? Access to food and shelter, basic survival needs, immediately come into question! Then there’s the comfort of the middle class…an occasional vacation, adequate clothes, dental care. But beneath that, for me, was always this fear that I would lose my attractiveness and ability to connect to a woman…my raison d’être.
Through these reflections, I’m growing clearer around my masculine identity: humbled and empowered…but not interested in “powering over.” No longer do I work to make money out of fear or a neediness for women. I can work as an expression of non-violent solidarity with all of me, those I’m close to, my community, and my world. Women can be, of course, a powerful and amazing force. And I want healthy, honest intimate relationships with women—as a father, a son, a brother, and a partner. But I’m learning that if I’m to deserve this approval, I have to earn my own approval, first and foremost…I have to be “sexy” to me. And this means I want to, I can, and I will, ‘step up to the plate’ of my own inspiration, wholeness, tender compassion, ferocious boundaries, and noble brilliance. I can let these aspects of me unfold and catch fire and attract all the money and wealth I need and want with profound gratitude. I’m learning how all this work gets done inside me and from this, I give all I can to creating just and thriving communities, organizations, and a planet where no one stands alone.