Conversations About Masculinity – Real ‘church’ is for Men

Napier CathedralI am a regular church goer.  A few years ago when I started to get serious about my commitment to becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister, I figured that a more frequent appearance than Christmas Eve was probably a good idea.

Going to church is not a big stretch for me.  I come from a fairly churchy family and was a regular until I was 13.  Even when I left at that tender age, I knew that I wanted to return some day.    But as an adult things have been different.  Before entering seminary, I often felt that I didn’t have the proper time on Sunday to go to Church, which made it difficult.  Even now, I’m writing this blog on a morning where I’ve had to make a choice between getting my school work done and being part of my church community.  I think many men struggle with this.  Work all week; ‘honey do’ list on Saturday…leaving Sunday as the one day that you can be unscheduled.  Of course Sunday options are limited: watch or play sports, read, shop, do more work (case in point)…or, as a last resort, go to church.  Most men choose the sedentary version of the first on this list (sports), making it ‘their time’ and even though most professional games (whether they be baseball, football or basketball) don’t begin until well after even the late church service has ended, there’s that thinly veiled excuse out there about not wanting to miss the game, which requires watching the pre-game and the pre-game pre show and of course you have to get as much rest as possible leading up to that, so really there is no time for church.

Bullshit.

Now, I am not at all writing this as some kind of holy roller, Bible thumping, hellfire and damnation preacher who wants to blame men for the downfall of religion in America.  No, really, organized religion is doing a good enough job of imploding itself without any help from men.  As I said, I am in seminary, but I’m studying in the Unitarian Universalist faith and for those of you who don’t know about UUs (as we call ourselves), this is as good as saying that I might (stress might) just decide to wear clothes to church and if I do choose out of my free will to be clothed, my garments will most likely include sandals and some form of fair trade hemp.  You see, among the Unitarian Universalist seven principles is the free and independent search for truth and meaning (although contrary to popular belief, most of us go to church clothed.)  We genuinely believe that everyone is welcome at the table…even if they don’t believe in a God, or a supreme being…or tables.  So, my reason for wagging my finger at men who don’t go to church and choose football instead is simply because a lot of men have walked away from the church experience for the reasons I listed before and in doing so, have left themselves out of something that is damaging men everywhere.  This absence of men in the pews supports a bizarre cultural stereotype that church and therefore spiritual connection is somehow only for girls.  And lets be clear here, I’m not talking about supporting the challenging and historically oppressive patriarchy that has come out of some traditions.  My point is that the real spiritual life of men and masculine identified people matters; in fact, it is more important now than it ever has been…hence the title of this piece, and we owe it to ourselves and the world around us not to ignore the spiritual and communal aspect of our humanness.

When I’m referring to “church” here I am definitely referring to small “c” church.  In fact, I also mean to include temple, mosque, prayer garden and any place that people gather or put themselves to engage in a spiritual experience.  But this dearth of men in what are traditionally shared spiritual experiences is most visible in Western Christian churches.  We are currently in an age when, in Western culture, increasing numbers of people have no church affiliation and a significant portion of those people are male identified.1  As a seminarian, I spend a lot of time reading about this and talking to people about why or why not they attend church.  Fairly consistently when I speak with men, they mention that their  mother always wanted them to do it growing up (guilt) or if they are married to a woman…their wife goes (she’s holding the place for both of you), but they aren’t interested and more than anything how they find it boring (no beer, smashing heads or cheerleaders.)

But I would conjecture that it is not so much church that is boring as what Western men have been trained to look for in church that is boring.  After working all week long when you are asked in your job to follow rules, or fulfill needs or meet deadlines, why would you go to a place that is going to tell you about more rules, make you feel guilty for the needs you haven’t met in others and put you on a schedule that makes you get up on the one morning when you can choose to stay asleep?  By these standards, church (still small ‘c’) is the antithesis of what Western men want to do with their free time.  I was just reviewing some more great statistics from the Pew Forum.  On the surface, the numbers tell the story where 59% of men in America identify as “Unaffiliated” where as only 41% of women identify as such.  Jehova’s Witnesses and the historically black church lead the way with the percentages of women who identify with these traditions outnumbering men by some 20%.2  But then in the same chart, we see Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu men outnumbering the women in their self identifying by nearly the same margin.  At first glance one might look to the prominence of men in each of these traditions to be the reason behind these numbers.  The male role in each of these non-Christian traditions is worthy of several dissertations let alone a Sunday morning blog post.  Plus, each of these non-Christian traditions maintains a certain amount of rigor in terms of practice (prayer rituals, rites of passage) and lifestyle (diet, clothing) which on the surface appears to be significantly more time consuming and restrictive than being asked to teach Sunday school once a week or simply put a dollar in the collection plate.  But at the same time, each of these traditions, and their many variants, also offer a more specific connection to cultural and racial identity.  It is certainly worth asking how this element plays into keeping men identifying as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu.

In the long run, what I’m really talking about is what I call capital ‘C’ Church.  It is bigger than any one tradition or organized group, though it includes and welcomes them all.  You might call it “spirit” another might call it something else all together.  Regardless of the word or language or tradition, this is a connection to one’s inner life; a connection to one’s community; a connection to one’s family and taking the time to embrace and acknowledge these; a connection to what it means in an authentic sense to be male identified and how it is neither a burden nor a privilege, but one of the many states of human being to be celebrated and cherished without hubris.  This ability to connect to the web of humanity, is something that can be beautifully experienced with others through ritual, or it can be experienced in solitude alone on a beach.  What matters is that this crucial part of what makes us, does not go un cultivated and under nourished.  We are even seeing Atheists in growing numbers, who are coming together to acknowledge the need and desire to enrich themselves through acknowledging their humanity.  Many of these “New Atheists” are indeed men, although in a recent series of Salon.com articles the prominence of men in Atheism is called into question as a symbol of patriarchal structures held over from other traditions3…again, another dissertation.

Ultimately, most American men are spiritually out of shape.  What they need to realize is that there are options for how to tone up the spiritual flab and yes, it might mean missing a football game or two.  By occasionally praying to something other than the Heisman Trophy, one might just find a deeper connection to and understanding of themselves, other men, masculine identified people and the women and children in their lives.  If you choose to go to church on Sunday morning, instead of going like a petulant brooding 12 year old, go like an adult who is looking to invest more deeply in the experience here on earth or in the next life or whatever will take you into your particular spiritual place.  Even if you don’t attend an organized formal service, or if you don’t do organized religion of any kind, it is important to find the time in your regular routine to check in with that part of yourself that’s not all about yourself.  Going to your particular ‘church’ and understanding ‘Church’ as it relates to your masculinity is as important as a prostate exam.  You might be uncomfortable at first, but after probing around, you will feel much more at ease knowing that you’ve really got a handle on what’s going on in there.

Footnotes

1. “Nones” on the Rise – PewResearch: Religion & Public Life Project, October 9 2012
2. Religious Landscape Survey – PewResearch: Religion & Life Project
3. 5 reasons there aren’t more women in Atheism – Salon.com, July 29 2013

Conversations About Masculinity – Starving Men

“When I was a little boy, there was a point at which my dad stopped kissing me and holding me.  He was very clear that I couldn’t do that anymore…it was time for me to be a man.  I was 9.” – Story from an anonymous man

Hands of the poor

How many men can tell this story?  I was reminded of recently hearing this from a colleague when reading Mark Greene’s article in The Good Men Project “The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer. We are hurting our boys and men.  More than any blunt force, or assault, or simple neglect…we are actively and systematically damaging our boys, men and male identified people.  We surround them with images of “manliness” that celebrate force and control and demonizes compliance and emotion. Above all, we are hurting them in one of the most basic ways possible; and we are doing it without laying a hand on them. Literally.

When I read about trauma in men, I realize that I am reading about something that is sometimes as hard to pin down as gender itself.  It may look simple on the surface, but like gender, trauma may have fairly easy to see external signifiers, while at the same time it also has very complex, personal and individual internalizations.  In some of the work happening around healthcare and public policy, people are looking at trauma as a major factor in contributing to the outcomes, or rather the poor outcomes for boys and men of color.  The language is turning to “trauma informed care” (See: The National Center for Trauma Informed Care) and “school based health centers” specializing in addressing trauma in a way that will at once allow young victims to get what they need (care and education) in a context that factors in those cultural elements that have most held them back.  This isn’t just about people of color however.  In the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study done in 2012 on Tarpon Springs, FL, the predominantly white population in this small Gulf Coast community benefited to learn about the links to adult challenges (diabetes, heart disease) that can have their origins in childhood trauma (ACEs Too High Blog.)  Trauma is real for everyone who experiences it and it has deep impact on their lives regardless of both race and gender.

However, there is one kind of trauma that men in America experience we should be exploring much more deeply.  It has no official name at this point and it is not as simple as pointing to a direct victimization or something that is clearly outside of our traditionally based realm of moral constructs.  It is imbedded in the other traumas that get primary attention.  This trauma is a sustained, cultural damage that we endorse as a society and therefore will need much greater effort to combat.  Starvation by touch or what I would call culturally imposed skin hunger.  By forbidding touch, particularly touch between males, men in our culture experience life in a world devoid of unconditional human contact.  They are in essence ‘starving’ for physical contact and most of them don’t even realize it.  In an earlier blog post (Conversations About Masculinity – part 1), I described how American men are taught to experience touch as an exchange and how this “commodification of touch” doesn’t allow most men to experience touch outside of the experience of sex, gender stereotypes and power dynamics.  The most extreme result is sometimes a complete absence of touch experienced in the male life.  There are numerous studies that point to what happens when infants are denied touch…how they fail to thrive and develop (here is a great article from Pediatrics & Child Health.)  But this need does not actually change through life, hence the popularity of massage therapy and other ways in which adults experience human contact for a price.  When we  are regularly denied the most common and essential life sustaining elements of existence (food, water, light) we experience trauma.  Studying anatomy and physiology, one learns a great deal about how the body can’t actually distinguish between types of stress; how in fact, on an emotional level, the body experiences a punch in the face the same way it experiences the loss of a job (outside of the possible broken bones and blood vessels.)  If the body then cannot make the distinction between these kinds of broad differences, then why would it be able to distinguish between the more subtle trauma experienced surviving sexual assault and when it is denied loving human contact?

Where Does the Trauma Show

The US Department of Veterans Affairs has a very impressive section on their website that explores trauma and stress in relation to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) On this landing page they list any number of signs of PTSD and we are familiar with most of them in the context of those who have experienced war (sleep disturbances, anxiety, extreme behavior, etc.) But looking at the list of emotional disturbances, presents a very surprising parallel:

  • Feeling nervous, helpless, fearful, sad
  • Feeling shocked, numb, and not able to feel love or joy
  • Avoiding people, places, and things related to the event
  • Being irritable or having outbursts of anger
  • Becoming easily upset or agitated
  • Blaming yourself or having negative views of oneself or the world
  • Distrust of others, getting into conflicts, being over-controlling
  • Being withdrawn, feeling rejected, or abandoned
  • Loss of intimacy or feeling detached

When we see the way in which men in America react to physical intimacy that is not connected to sex (this even goes for same gender loving men), many of these same reactions are present.  How many times do we see an angry reaction from a man who feels another man has gotten too physically close? How often to we see men avoid physical contact?  How easy is it to see men as being cold or numb to affection.  The comparison between how men react to being culturally denied touch and other types of trauma is easy and disturbing.

Some of the most obvious evidence of  trauma resulting from the demonization of touch in America is in the way men do express themselves physically.  The extremes to which some men will go so that they are not in physical contact with another man can be comical if not sad; whether it be a crowded subway or a party game.  If an embrace or a handshake with another man lasts “too long” the defense systems are deployed and the contact is broken, often accompanied by a verbal posturing to assert one’s non touch defined maleness (“I’m no homo”, etc.)  But paralleling the actions that are sometimes seen in those who suffer abuse, the reaction can be significantly beyond the perceived affront.  One could draw this kind of parallel between many different types of trauma (the child of the alcoholic who becomes an alcoholic/ the boy who is chronically denied platonic touch and becomes a rapist, etc.) Of course this is not science (yet) but it may be an indicator of one way that we can look at how the lack of touch for men, manifests as a trauma reaction in every day life.

Another indicator is language.  Men are taught to avoid language that points toward affectionate contact with one another. Men do not use words such as: caress, stroke, hold, embrace either with each other or in reference to each other.  These are words (if they are used at all) that are reserved for intimate sexual settings only.  This points to the most damaging indicator of gendered skin hunger creating a trauma response in American men: sexuality.  It is easy to look at abuse and rape as ways in which men are disconnected from authentic sexual relationships, but it is more difficult when we start to actually explore what men are seeking in their sexual relationships whether they be gay or straight.  Even just the vast preoccupation of our culture with sex contrasted with the body shaming that we engage in speaks volumes about a complete disconnect with how men are experiencing their physicality.

Regardless of scientific evidence, there is no denying that the touch languages expressed by most men in America do not come from healthy places of self-esteem or security in one’s masculinity.  Some may claim that as ‘animals’ men are compelled to prove themselves and display their dominance over one another and those around them, hence the reluctance to interact physically without challenging the other male(s).  But then what of the other ability of male animals to groom one another and sleep with and enjoy each other’s bodies as expressions of comfort and safety and belonging?

How we can fix it

If we can look at the effects of culturally imposed skin hunger as a real trauma then we must look at real trauma solutions to help men recover from it.  Creating safe spaces for men to explore touch with one another; redefining verbal and physical language; establishing a new set of criteria for acceptable physical expressions that are not based in narrow, 19th century stereotypes or 21st century media-types.  Men are exploring options through support groups and online conversations.  But still, the cultural standard is the “strong man” image; the stoic, independent and unflappable warrior.

As a black man in America, I am also aware that men of color are among the most guilty of perpetuating culturally imposed skin hunger.  The problem for men of color however is that changing this environment is dependent upon dismantling a concept of success built upon restrictive, heteronormative social mores.  This goes deeper and involves exploring the whole dynamic of masculinity as a survival mechanism in post colonial cultural structures.  I am convinced that the changes that have to happen with all men will need to occur both in the world surrounding us and inside of our hearts.  Through some of the work around trauma in general, getting stories out in the public without shaming men, exposing the human vulnerability of men may allow for a different external dialogue.  But getting into the hearts of men will be a much greater challenge.  This will have to come from nurturing better environments within families and communities and by letting go of fear based cultural norms.  In a world where people are actually starving for dietary nourishment, why would we let others go hungry for human contact when the solution doesn’t require either an act of Congress or a budget.  The only real cost involved in feeding American men what they most need is an open heart.

Websites on Trauma

http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/common-reactions-after-trauma.asp

http://www.nctsn.org/resources/audiences/parents-caregivers/what-is-cts/12-core-concepts

Articles on Touch (from Mark Greene at Good Men Project)

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201302/the-power-touch

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2865952/

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201010/why-have-we-lost-the-need-physical-touch

Conversations About Masculinity – 2

What do we want to be?

MacArthurIf people don’t think that race and gender justice are deeply connected, then they are living in a delusional world.  When I first got wind of the horrific burning of an 18 year old gender bending youth, Sasha Fleishman by a 16 year old (unnamed because he is a minor) on a city bus in Oakland, I was stunned and immediately went to the place that most of us go for our news these days…the internet.  But in doing a search for “Oakland youth burned on bus” I came up with, among other things, a site that is called ‘niggermania’ (I will not link to it here because I’d rather not drive traffic to it and who knows what kind of crazies are behind it.)  On this site, there were a lot of people who were very intent on making it clear that because the victim was white and because the perpetrator was black that this would somehow lead to the media not making as much of it as if the race roles were reversed.  There were a lot of mentions of Trayvon Martin and a lot of very sad and bigoted language all around.  I still marvel that my search brought this site up.  But rather than just being pissed off by the existence of this site, I had a good long think about it and realized that this perspective actually didn’t surprise me in any way; in fact it seemed eerily familiar.  Not because, all white Americans are bigots…that is far from the case.  Instead I realized that this was a sampling of the worst elements of the dominant culture invective played out in its most exaggerated and acid tone and as an American, I am accustomed to always hearing about race.  America is obsessed with race.  Regardless of the conversation, somehow, there is always a racial bent on it.  Ask any non-American and they will tell you so.

But that still doesn’t answer the fact that the bigots have been correct in how this story has not had the juggernaut press of other stories of late where black people have been the innocent victims of crimes of racial profiling.  As I see it, there is one reason and one reason only for this lack of coverage: gender.  The sad subtext of the media being more tacet on this story than on the others has a lot to do with a very subtle approval of the suppression and ‘turning a blind eye’ to issues of gender non-conformity.  It is a subtle affirmation, whether deliberate or not, of the act of the 16 year old saying in effect that they agree on a certain level that a boy who does not present socially as a boy is a bad thing.  More specifically, this silence sends the clear signal that when someone who is outside of the gender norm is victimized, it is somehow not as important as when someone who is racially profiled is victimized.  We see this time and again with the non reporting of transgender crimes either to the police or to the media.  Now admittedly, this is part apples and oranges.  The profiling cases we are currently seeing in national media all involve murder and this case is assault.  However, this current situation also involves a minor choosing to permanently disfigure someone and the resulting punishment treats the minor as an adult.  With all of the questions surrounding juvenile justice and the mass incarceration of people of color, there is a significant conversation that could be had here about the fate of this young man thanks to his own twisted decisions.  All of these stories have ghastly and tragic elements and each deserves to be heard by the public.  But we cannot dismiss the Oakland burning as some kind of child’s play gone wrong…’boys will be boys.’ This was a deliberate and gruesome act based on (by admission of the 16 year old) a hate bias against someone’s gender expression.  So where are the marches?  Where are the protests?

Nowhere, because as a culture, we don’t care.

I ask the question, “who do we want to be” in the conversation on manhood, because we have choices.  We have the choice to decide if we are going to be violent and abusive; we have the choice to decide if we are going to put up barriers; we have the choice to decide if we are going to look at someone and call them disgusting, or worthless, or less than us in someway.  We have choices.  But we don’t have a choice in how we express our gender.  This is a completely individual and for some a God given gift.  It is part of the fabric that makes each of us an individual.  Likewise, we also have no choice as to our race.  It is not something we can fix and fiddle after the fact, because, like our gender and gender expression, it came along before us and is defined by who we are.  In no circumstance, can I think of a situation where race trumps gender. Nor can I see a place where gender expression is more important than race.  We must invest in the search for a new language (literally and figuratively) to talk about these elements of our humanness  as part of our basic makeup and it is the struggle toward that language that makes this journey so difficult.  What do we want to be?  We want to be free and safe in both our gender and racial expression.  We want to be whole.

Because I am black, I am not a monster…but I can choose to do monstrous things.  Because I am gender queer, I am not a pervert…but I can choose to do perverted things.  You see, we are who we are, but we choose what we do with it.  The young man who burned Sasha Fleishman is not a monster because he is black (although ‘niggermania’ would have you think so) but he chose to do something monstrous.  Just as Sasha Fleishman is not a pervert for being a man in a skirt, although our media and culture would have us think so through their tacet response.  We have choices to make about our actions and we should be choosing actions that are grounded in love.  We cannot make choices about who we are and we shouldn’t confuse bigotries and biases for identities.  We can choose to be full of hatred, but you must remember that ultimately we are all made from love.

Conversations About Masculinity

Handshake-Bush-awkward-300x221Lately, I’ve been involved in a lot of conversations about what it means to be male.  Is it about biology or culture?  Is it about attitude or action? And on top of all that, as a minister in formation, I have to ask, what does faith say about this all?  Some of these conversations have been through my work with state policy advocacy around boys and men of color; other conversations have been with friends around the growing number of states that are allowing same sex marriage; still, other conversations have been in relation to the rights and needs of trans men and women and others who will benefit from ENDA and California’s bill AB 1266 (read: everyone.)  The feminist movement made it okay for us to question gender, sexual preference and orientation and frankly, the conversations about men really need to be including a lot more women…but that is another post!  Opening this door on the question of “male” has only led to more questions; basically it has led to the discovery of more doors.  Some lead to closets; some lead to corridors; some lead to basements with skeletons and some lead into the bright sunshine outdoors.

This post will be the first in a series where I will pose some of these questions in the hopes that some of my readers and colleagues will begin to formulate answers or possible directions in which we might go to achieve some kind of balance or maybe just a language that allows a conversation to begin.

Question #1 – What are we afraid of? (“Don’t touch me, dude!”)

I have long puzzled to myself, what are men afraid of…really?  This isn’t just as simple as the assumption that some gay men have where every straight guy is a gay man waiting to come out.  In fact, I would go as far to say that this sentiment is as damaging to the cause of realigning masculinity as straight men assuming that the only thing gay men want from them is sex.  In a paper last year, I presented how sexual expression between males is not inherently erotic.  Using the Biblical story of Jonathan and David in the second book of Samuel as my foundation, I make the case that sensual physicality is potentially part of every male relationship.  The physicality experienced by men can be intimate, but it is not automatically erotic.  In our culture today, however, we have been influenced by both misguided science (creation of the terms hetero/homo sexual was an anomaly of 19th century western science and its obsession with labeling things) and male dominance run rampant.

Unconditional Touch

Men in our culture are not taught to receive touch.  That is, men are not taught in our culture to receive touch without there being an exchange.  We are not taught about what I call ‘unconditional touch.’  Our current culture of male physicality reinforces the idea that “if someone is touching me…I must either do something or I have the obligation/right to do something in return.”  How often do we see men presented in comedy sketches where they get ‘a little too close’ and are defensively uncomfortable and have to reestablish their stereotyped masculine positions?  To us this is comedy, but really it is a tragedy.  In this transactional presentation of touch, the man assumes that every one who touches him, is doing so as part of an exchange: either sexual or positional (for dominance.) Example: a woman touching him = sexual communication (invitation/ expectation); a man touching him = challenge to dominance (sexual advance/ acknowledgement of boundaries/ threat.)  This is admittedly a simplification of some of what goes on, but we see this play out all the time in children and adults and it is repeatedly reinforced in our media.

I have seen this in my work as a massage therapist.  Most frequently, straight western men will want a female therapist.  Even though the massage relationship is professional, the underlying expectation presented in this situation is that touch = sex = opposite sex.  This also points to the reason that most straight western women want a female therapist.  They do not want to be presented with the transactional touch relationship of dealing with a male.  This same perversion of touch exists with same gender loving individuals.  The overwhelming majority of my male clients have been gay men.  Not necessarily because they expect a sexual exchange, but because their only context and their safest context for understanding touch has been in a sexual setting.

If men were allowed to experience touch without transactional obligations there might be more room for growth.  Both giving and receiving touch in this setting (without a transactional element) offers men the opportunity to express more authentic emotions, create deeper bonds and develop more genuine and loving relationships with themselves and their world around them.  When we look at two little boys playing together, they are physical.  They wrestle, they touch they cuddle and we consider this kind of interaction normal and endearing.  But at a certain point, rather than allowing the boy to grow with the sense that he can give and receive loving touch from a peer without obligation, we step in with adult expectations of gender norms and cultural restrictions and tell him that touch is only part of a specific set of rituals and can only be used as part of the exchange for sex.  There are many people who consider circumcision of boys to be a crime.  Despite my personal feelings about physical circumcision, I believe that much worse is the cultural circumcision that cuts boys off from the total experience of touch and physical interaction as a full and unconditional experience to be shared between loving people regardless of gender or gender expression.  This numbness is what disconnects men from themselves and from women and is quite possibly the foundation for our current crisis of objectification and rape.

(Coming Next: Question # 2 – Who do we want to be?)