In this age of open discussion about the penises of a supreme court justice and the nation’s president, perhaps it’s no surprise that people as freely try to draw parallels between a man’s behaviors and the size of his penis.
Many of us have seen—and perhaps had—a similar response to seeing images of a man swaggering around in Starbucks with an AR-15 slung over his back: “Oh, look at that loser, he must be compensating for something, ha ha.” If you’ve spent time on social media, you’ll see plenty of people who have this reflexive snarky response. It reduces the target to a penis that’s “too small,” instead of grappling with the ominous and dangerous social pressures and thinking that drive the behavior.
What these people, many of whom who likely view themselves as “progressives,” don’t seem to realize is that their sexist mockery draws from the same toxic well poisoning the minds of people who carry a semi-automatic to buy overpriced coffee.
Instead of reflexive jeering, we should be working on an antidote to this poison, directly addressing the causes of toxic masculinity overload and ways to drain it from our society.
The first step is to acknowledge that a fear of rejection and a need for acceptance—by social groups, romantic interests, people in power—is the main ingredient. Toting a huge gun or indulging in knee-jerk mockery of penis size all reflect this fear in different ways. A man carrying a ballistic weapon openly in a coffee shop isn’t doing that because he’s afraid of the people in the store. He’s doing it to claim bragging rights for his in-group, the people he expects will backslap him and say “bro” approvingly when he describes his adventure. Positive responses that pour in from like-minded strangers on social media, if someone posts about his antics, are even better. The negative responses? Those just reinforce his affiliation with the group that approves.
Speaking of social media, I occasionally hear from men who are not, shall we say, fans of my writing about masculinity—critiques that they invariably express using sexist terms. I do not like to magnify the voices of people who throw around such slurs, so I don’t publicly respond to their comments. But I will share them occasionally on Facebook, with settings such that only friends can see them. A gal’s gotta have an outlet.
Almost invariably, some of the people who comment—who are, I add, there to bemoan the toxic anger and sexist attacks—will mention something about the critic’s penis size and how his behavior suggests compensation for having a smaller-than-average one. They will also frequently anathematize the fellow, reducing him to a vulgar epithet for a body part. In doing so, they are letting me and everyone on these comment threads know that they deplore this sexist behavior. As much as I truly appreciate their support (I do!), it’s inescapable that their comments are sexist, too. I’ve fallen into this language trap, as well, so I work on trying to avoid it.
The motivations and underlying factors are similar for the gunslingers and the size slaggers: a signal of support and for approval, poisoned by the seeping influence of toxic masculinity. Understanding these motivations and consciously avoiding these sexist traps is one antidote to that poison.
The second step is working to change these rules of acceptance and reduce the accompanying fear of rejection. Like all effective communication around change, the messaging must come from trusted voices within our social circles and from the blessed younger generations rewriting the rules about what masculinity looks like.
The Western version of swaggering masculinity takes its cues from what the American Psychology Association (APA) calls “masculinity ideology.” In this construct, expressing masculinity means rejecting any accoutrements or behaviors that might suggest femininity or “weakness,” both of which are vague concepts that could use some sociocultural repositioning. Masculinity ideology also calls on its practitioners to show a willingness to take risks and evince a propensity to violence, both of which, interestingly enough, also could be construed as weaknesses.
In 2018, after yet another U.S. school shooting, comedian and actor Michael Ian Black wrote a lament about the toxicity of this ideology, the poison of “toxic masculinity,” which I think of as “impossible masculinity.” He wrote: “There has to be a way to expand what it means to be a man without losing our masculinity. I don’t know how we open ourselves to the rich complexity of our manhood.”
There is a way.
We dispense with the fearful voices in this society, those who reinforce the idea that achieving impossible masculinity is the grand prize trophy for being a “real” man. We can join the growing numbers of people who, like the APA, recognize not just a single masculinity, but an array of masculinities.
These new versions of masculinity are bursting through the weak points in the rigid, Westernized iteration. The real secret for someone wondering who he is or who he should become in the context of masculinity isn’t buried in Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, manifested in Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark or delineated in an Esquire profile of a single middle-class white boy. A boy or young man doesn’t need to follow a predetermined path to finally receive his Certificate of Manhood at the end of the road. There are many ways to be “masculine,” so much so that perhaps the term itself should be packaged up and boxed away, and some fresher array of nouns adopted in its place.
An important final step in the antidote mix against impossible masculinity is to stop conflating human beings with their genitalia. We use slang terms for penises to slur men whose behavior is, in fact, a performance of this very masculine ideology society imposes on them: violent, risk-taking, “powerful” and not feminine. Reducing their behavior to “compensation” for the size of their penises is an easy out, a gambit that lets us look away from the forces that drive these men to perform like this for their in-crowd.
Their audience openly embraces these dictates of masculinity ideology and explicitly celebrates and approves them. The progressives who attribute the behavior to low self-esteem about the penis are more slyly using those dictates to embrace the same ideology. They are reducing to a penis the complex social forces and decision points that drive these men to believe and behave as they do. This conflation of the person with the body part has never worked out well for society, whether as a Freudian-inspired take that mothers were treating their babies as phalluses or the eternal interest in the fate of a penis detached from a man guilty of partner violence, rather than in the fate and mental health of the abused partner.
We need to look to the whole person, not the pelvic region, and use what we have north of that area to dismantle these moldy conceptualizations of masculinity. Penis size doesn’t matter, and it’s not the measure of the man.