If you take a cursory look around, it seems like manhood is being redefined. The push could be in response to the abuses revealed by the #MeToo movement, or perhaps it’s a reaction to our "Pussy Grabber in Chief," or maybe it’s just that millennials don’t want to be like their parents. Either way, what we’re seeing right now is a lot deeper than rappers wearing skirts or bros embracing skincare. In many corners of culture, there are substantive conversations going on about what it means to be a man—ethically and morally—and how decent people can divest themselves from the aspects of manhood they disagree with.
These conversations often grapple with “toxic masculinity,” a slippery term that has evolved a bit since it was first introduced by the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement of the 80s. These days, the phrase has been embraced by fourth wave feminists and allies like The Good Men Project, who define it as a, “narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status, and aggression.” This unhealthy form of masculinity has been cited as the reason for everything noxious, from school shootings and climate change to racism and bullying.
Conservative critics of the term bemoan its use because they believe it unfairly implicates all men and worry that those who use it are waging a subversive war on masculinity as a whole. Of course, most think-piece writers, activists, and academics who employ toxic masculinity go out of their way to clarify that their intention is not to castigate all representations of manhood—just to reform the bad, Trump-y parts. As Salon’s Amanda Marcotte pointed out, “The modifier ‘toxic’ inherently suggests that there are forms of masculinity that are not toxic.”
So, I was surprised and intrigued when I came across the powerful ideas of John Stoltenberg, whose theories kind of epitomize the fears of paranoid conservatives and undercut the more tepid critiques of machismo made by my fellow SJWs. In the past, the prominent feminist scholar has openly equated the idea of “healthy masculinity” with the oxymoron of “healthy cancer.” This is because he sees manhood as an identity built entirely out of oppression. He contends that the parts of manhood that we view as non-toxic don’t actually have a designated gender—and describing these actions or qualities as masculine just reflects our disdain for women. His emotive 1993 book The End of Manhood highlights his personal struggles trying to live up to the restrictive norms of manhood while guiding readers on how to drop the mask of manhood so that we can be free to give and receive love.
Stoltenberg was married to Andrea Dworkin, the deceased radical feminist whose polemic writing on patriarchy advanced incendiary and thought-provoking ideas that forced people to see oppression in places they often ignore. So it makes sense that his concepts on manhood would be pretty provocative. But having read his work, I was surprised by how much I related to his ideas and saw myself in his analysis. From the street and the workplace to the bedroom and the kitchen table, he always manages to find the persistent and pernicious dichotomy at the core of manhood that causes us to hurt others and ourselves.
Though John’s been talking about rejecting the entire construct of manhood for decades, his work seems especially relevant and radical right now. So I called him up to get more insight into his theories, the current dialogue around toxic masculinity, and what it's like to live without the mask of manhood.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
VICE: What does manhood mean to you?
John Stoltenberg: Manhood is a contested identity. It arises in combat. Kids who are assigned male at birth learn through playground fights and so forth to see the world through the prism of winners and losers. The one who wins is the one who walks away with the manhood and the one who loses is the one who is made invisible and is feminized.
In this winner/loser dynamic, does it always end with one of the two subjects emasculated?
There's an alternative. These two combatants can bond against a third party. You can see this in the relationship between the constructs of manhood and race. Every time a white person disses a black person, they're acting out the manhood structure of saving face from another white man's violence by targeting a third party. You can see this happening institutionally, globally… It's all the same story of a gender identity that doesn't exist except by putting down somebody.
I’m comfortable viewing race as a construct, but seeing manhood in that way is new for me. If manhood is a construct, what about its perceived essential qualities? There are some masculine characteristics that most people would consider to be pretty positive—like offering protection or being a provider.
One important distinction we need to make is between a gender identity of manhood that only exists by putting somebody down and a moral identity that is genderless. When someone does the things you mentioned, you could say, “That's being a good man.” But I would simply say that's just being a good person.
In your daily life, do you still find yourself attached to the construct of manhood and embrace the winner/loser, owner/owned point-of-view?
I'm sure. But I’m not some kind of coiled spring that can be easily set off. When I get into pissing matches and cockfights, I keep reminding myself that they don't get me anywhere. These confrontations particularly happen in work situations where I suddenly realize that somebody I'm interacting with feels they have to one-up me in public in a way that they wouldn’t in private.
If you find yourself in a confrontation and you opt out of the construct of manhood, you’re going to be seen as the “loser” by your peers. How does one become comfortable with that?
It comes with living without the manhood mask, allowing your core being and sense of self to get stronger. When you do this, you become a moral decision maker. The more time you spend in that zone, the more resilient you become to the tests that attempt to provoke your manhood-proving reflex and cause you to use violence instead of communication.
Violence is something people often associate with terms like “toxic masculinity.” How does the framework of toxic masculinity square up with the way you see manhood?
I don't use the term “toxic masculinity.” One of the problems with it is that it implies that there's some better manhood out there, that there's a good manhood and a bad manhood. I think as a communication, that is not really clarifying to anybody. It just exacerbates that kind of one-upmanship mentality, like, “Oh, I'm a better man than that kind of man.” And that better-than/worse-than is a real trap.
Your point of view is rooted in behavior—how do aesthetics and representation fit into your ideas about manhood?
Manhood, as I’ve outlined it, is a dangerous framework. But I'm not talking about interests like fixing cars or shopping in the men's department of Gap. My point is to see through all that. These gender signals are not actions. Someone can be big, burly, and gruff-voiced but still not wear the mask of manhood. With that in mind, we can take a lesson from the trans community about character continuity. If someone is transitioning from male to a trans woman, it is the core self that makes the passage from one vessel to the next. Our character is divorced from our gender.
While manhood has its drawbacks, it still benefits people assigned male at birth financially, sexually, culturally… Why would they opt to give that up?
Objectively speaking, manhood confers on the winners enormous privilege and power. But these spoils trickle down selectively, predominantly to white men—men of color, not so much. Also, the habit of living behind the manhood mask is stifling, making it hard for people to connect with themselves and others. Once manhood-proving has become second nature, the prospect of living without it out feels like annihilation. But living without the mask doesn't mean people can't follow their bliss and have a good life. Those things are not off limits just because you're living out of a sense of human integrity.
We’re in the midst of the #MeToo movement, which is sort of demanding that men conduct themselves with more integrity. But again, under the current state of things, men seem to get what they want. Why should people who identify as men try to take off the mask and decry sexual assault?
If a man is sexually harassing women in the workplace, it's not only an unsafe workplace for her, it's a compromised workplace for the male co-workers who are not sexual harassers. When a man at the top is granting favors in exchange for sexual access, it poisons the meritocracy of the workplace. When that’s going on, the power dynamic in the workplace is hazardous to more people than just the particular people who are sexually targeted. That's one of the reasons it is in the interest of people assigned male at birth to be allies of the #MeToo movement.
You were a part of the radical feminist movement in the 80s. Right now, we’re in an age where “sex positivity” is very en vogue. How do you see this current moment in history and its thinkers and activists?
I lived with Andrea Dworkin for 31 years, and she was often mischaracterized as being anti-sex. She hated all of the male supremacist behaviors that prove manhood and victimize and terrorize women. But to be a righteous opponent of that is not to be anti-sex. It is actually, in its own way, pro-sex because it's trying to clear away from sex the violence that makes it a danger zone. So I think “sex-positive,” “sex-negative” are such misnomers. It's a horrible way of talking about radical feminism. That said, I think that young women and young feminists today are trying to negotiate a world that radical feminism couldn't really make better. Sexual violence against women has not tapered off. So, I watch with a lot of sympathy. I'm not happy with the world radical feminists left for the youth.
I know there's a lot that you could say about Andrea. But how pivotal was she in helping you think about your own manhood?
Her impact on me was huge. It happened with her first book. There's a part where she's talking about how we're a multi-sex species—that male and female are not discrete, that there's no such thing as a man and a woman. For me, that was hugely liberating because I had been struggling all my life at that point. It was a breakthrough for me because up to that point I had been feeling that I would never measure up as a man. Her writing gave me a kind of core understanding that expresses itself in a lot of things I wrote and in how I lived.
What do you think the next phase is for men? How do we get closer to this place where people can just live as individuals and not have to continuously perform or keep up the charade of manhood?
I haven't seen men's political organizing particularly take this on. There's pro-feminism organizing, but much of it is still trying to cling to a notion of masculinity that engages in a different brand of cockfighting. I think we’ll see actual change in the way individuals attend to these transactional dynamics in their personal lives—in their intimate relationships, in their work lives, in their parenting lives. Testimonials of these individual experiences is really important. That's not a lot, I know. But I think there's a kind of consciousness that can come out when people are speaking their truth.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Wilbert Cooper on Instagram.