I can make you a man, too, (Not) the Charles Atlas way.
The title above refers to a famous series of fitness and bodybuilding advertisements from the 1940's & 50's. The not so subtle suggestion in these ads, and many male-targeted ads and products since, is that masculine identity primarily about being strong, about having power, often masculinity is seen as something literally embodied. But that's not the case; masculine identity is so very much more than what can be seen, about so much more than expressions of power and dominance. And it cannot be bought from the back of a magazine. It is not the working and developing of the body that is important in terms of male identity, but rather the process of developing a healthy and respectful sense of masculine identity. That process is what I'd like to write a little bit about. In particular about how masculine and sexual identities are formed and developed. From the outset I can tell you this is going to be a bit tricky - because personal identity is (obviously) personal, and variable. I can't really tell you, (nor, for that matter, can anyone else) tell you that A+B+C will make you a better person, or that D+E is a "good" masculinity. That's stuff you've got to work out for yourselves. Having said that you have to work it out for yourself, that doesn't mean that there aren’t a whole lot of people out there trying to tell you in various ways what your masculinity should be and what it is to be a man.
Having said that, I'm going to spend a fair bit of time in the next couple of hundred words making various suggestions and judgments as to what I think a healthy and positive understanding and expression of masculinity and masculine sexuality can be. That's OK though, because I think a big part of the challenge, for all people in all things, is to work out, from all the numerous sources and people telling you what your sexuality or masculinity "should" be, who to listen to and who to keep at arm's length (or even further). Popularly and traditionally these role models are family of some sort, or sporting coaches, teachers, community figures, etc. Broadly speaking when someone says "male role model" or “mentor” I (and I doubt I'm alone here) tend to think of individuals with personal relationships with younger men, and a role with some influence or authority. I think that these, actual and personal relationships are the most influential in terms of shaping ideas about masculine identity, but "masculine role model" encompasses so much more than this quite small sphere of personal influence; celebrities and other highly visible public figures are an obvious and hugely important example. These public figures are highly problematic, as more often than not, the coverage and representation of their masculinity is negative, harmful and disrespectful.
In my experience, when someone in your life, or something you see, or read, (or whatever) makes you feel good about your sense of self, your masculinity, or your sexuality, these are the people and resources you want around you. And not just make you feel good or comfortable about your masculine identity, but listens to you and respects what you have to say. One other thing that I think is really important about understanding what it means to be a man, is not to only value the opinions of other men. I think this bit is really important, and can’t stress it enough. (I thought about putting it in ALL CAPS, but I didn’t, so pay attention to this bit). I’m not saying this because women are excluded from articulating what masculinity is, or that their views are less valid (or indeed less problematic) – but because in terms of people who are important in forming understandings of masculinity, women tend to be overlooked (it’s all football coaches and uncles, remember). Some of my most valuable learnings and experiences about my own masculinity have come from women around me, from listening to and engaging with women, and most importantly, respecting their opinions as to what is important in masculinity. Just because women may not live a masculine identity, doesn’t mean that what they think about masculinity and male sexuality isn’t as important (and I’d say, often more important) than what other guys have to say.
Another big revelation for me in terms of my masculinity and sexuality was to come to the realisation that my masculinity and my sexual identity are not the same as yours. And that's OK. For men and women, there is a HUGE amount of cultural and social pressure to conform to a particular understanding of gender identity, and indeed a sexual identity. In my own experiences, the pressure to 'fit' a particular model of masculine expression is particularly strong, especially because to a large extent, ideas of manhood and masculine expression don't allow for an extensive emotional vocabulary. Working outside the common and stereotypical framework of male emotional expression (which often amounts to a simple equation of emotion/vulnerability = weakness = unmasculine) can be hard, your choices and actions are often more visible, and (sadly I think) unusual. It requires a good sense of self, or self-confidence to visibly articulate a masculinity that does not conform to the norm. And for me at least, a large part of developing a sense of masculinity was not just the value judgments and choices I made, but rather the (somewhat) public and visible acting upon those choices. I guess what I'm saying here can be summarized with, "Walking the Walk being just as important as talking the talk"
While I've mainly been talking about masculinity and masculine identity here, what I've said applies just as much to developing sexuality, and healthy sexual expression. And because sometimes it can be difficult to talk to others openly about sexual identity, expression and practices (Yet another demonstration of how limiting traditional understandings of masculinity can be in terms of allowing emotional expression) a lot of our information and formative concepts as to what constitutes sexual identity and expression, comes from broader culture and society. To me (and hopefully to any reader who gives Scarleteen more than a passing glance), popular culture as a dominant force in the creation of any ones sexual identity is a really worrying thing, for many reasons. I’ll only talk about one real example for now, but as far as examples go it’s a biggie. Pornography, is pretty prevalent in many parts of the world (certainly where I am in Australia). I’m not just talking about the availability of actual pornographic material (which, to anyone with the internet, is freely accessible), but also the cultural and social influence of pornography; the style and language of mainstream pornography is on TV, print media, etc. While I'd normally be all for a highly visible language of sexual expression, the type of sexuality epitomised by mainstream pornography has its problem, and I don't believe that it promotes an understanding of healthy, equal sexuality or sexual expression. Mainstream porn culture (which shouldn't be seen as representative of all pornography, by any means) all too often shows sexual practices and sexuality in general which is not based on mutual pleasure or desire, which denigrate women, is privileges heterosexuality and is far removed from the reality of actual sexual practices. Aside from all else that is problematic with the prevalence of these attitudes, this sort of porn, and the sexuality performed within it, should not be seen as the norm, to which your personal sexuality should be compared against or modelled upon.
So, that's (in a long-winded and rambling kinda way) what I think about what they call in the movies "becoming a man" - I hope it was instructive in some way. If I had to sum it up in 25 words or less: Listen to people who make you feel comfortable about yourself, and you don't have to do or believe something just because others do.
This piece also appears at my personal blog Critical Masculinities, which mainly consists of me writing about what masculinities mean in culture and society.