Wrestling With Manhood

 

In the classic video game The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the hero Link starts his adventure as a boy, but partway through his journey, he finds the legendary Master Sword. When he goes to draw the blade from its pedestal, he finds himself transported forward in time by seven years, when he’s the man worthy of wielding such a weapon. I’d played this game as a child, and I think I always sort of assumed that’s how becoming an adult worked, that a day would come when I’d go to sleep a boy and wake up a man. But that never happened, and thus for all of my adult life, I’ve struggled to understand what it means for me to be a man.

Growing up, there were a few key things I learned about manhood, things I was taught directly or indirectly—much of it through cultural osmosis. I was taught that men are competent, providers and protectors, and that they’re big and strong. (Of course, there are also adult males who used their competence and strength for selfish ends that harm others instead of helping them; but they’re not Real Men, they’re Monsters and they deserve to be locked up or destroyed.) Men were collected, in control of their emotions—except when they weren’t, like when they got angry about bad people doing bad things, or maybe something in sports. They don’t cry unless it’s especially sad, like a loved one dying. Men like sports, cars, and guns. And then there are the complications with male sexuality: men like sexy women (with strict definitions for what makes a woman “sexy”), but slutty women are bad. Men are always interested in sex, but they also need to be in control, but they also can’t control themselves. Men are either the strong person who wins a woman from the world somehow, or they’re the creepy pervert or violent rapist (maybe both).

Most critical of all, I was taught that masculinity is something you have to earn. A failure to do so made you a woman: a ton of our language is heavily gendered. Having testicles (the balls) represents courage and gumption. Lacking courage is therefore being a woman because you lack the balls. Men are called sissies or pussies for failing to “be a man” properly—again, language that implies femininity. Of course, this all slanders women in the worst way, too. The other option is to remain a boy: what else is meant by “man up” or the pejorative “manchild”? All of this is most encapsulated in the concept of The Man Card. For example, my dad would joke about how it’d cost him his Man Card if he asked for directions; after all, men are competent (they know where they’re going) and independent (they don’t need help), so asking for directions is feminine, and thus docks you Man Points. Come to think of it, I’m not actually sure how you earn your Man Card. Do you have to put in time at the gym or something?

Growing up, I didn’t know any men who really had the same hobbies I developed. I love LEGOs and video games, both of which have historically been classified as toys and thus for children. I basically had no men in my life who modeled a kind of masculinity I could identify with. I kept expecting to wake up some day and be someone entirely different—into working out, cars, and sports. I kept expecting I’d somehow become my father, but I never did. Unlike Link’s experience in Ocarina of Time, I didn’t suddenly become an adult, unable to use many of the things I’d acquired as a child (or, to tack more closely to reality, uninterested in the things I’d been passionate about as a child). I got older, more mature in many ways, but I never passed into manhood as I’ve understood it.

Men are big and strong, but I’m not (I’m 5’6”, maybe 5’7” if you’re feeling generous, and I’m not particularly strong). I have negative desire to get into a physical altercation; I’m fairly sure I’d be terrible at physically protecting someone. I don’t care for sports (except for some e-sports, but alas, those don’t count because they have no place in the models of masculinity I grew up with). I’m not particularly into cars or driving. I don’t feel like I have traditional male interests, I have “boy” interests. In short, I do not reflect the models of manhood I was shown growing up, and that leaves me feeling like I’m still a boy somehow.

But why should I care? Why is “being a man” (whatever that culturally means) important? If it were for my own self, then I wouldn’t care: I’m fine with being me, the version of an adult male that I am, and I don’t need to feel like I can identify as A Man for my own sake. Rather, I care because of how I anticipate (whether rightly or wrongly) how it affects how others see me. Put another way, society has very negative things to say about adult males who don’t earn their Man Card. This is the source of my consternation over this particular side of the issue.

However, there is also the matter of sexuality. This is a rather confused topic, and I think it’s because society simultaneously uses two somewhat conflicting views of the relationship between men and women: the predator-prey relationship and the victor-trophy relationship. These ideas may not be explicitly stated often (though the phrase “trophy wife” comes to mind, at least for the latter), but they create somewhat paradoxical ideas that cause frustration for me as a man, while also—I can’t imagine this not being so—creating a very confusing and frustrating set of social expectations for women.

In the predator-prey relationship, men are seen as predators: strong, aggressive, hunters. Men are socially rewarded for having had sex with a lot of women (i.e. being a successful predator), and they’re seen as having nigh-uncontrollable sexual urges and desires. This can easily lead to what we usually mean by “sexual predators”—rapists, harassers, and the like—but it doesn’t have to. I think it does lead to negative views of homosexual men, who are seen as predators of predators; it’s therefore only natural for them to be hunted down. Women, as prey, need to act like prey: they need to avoid sexual relationships. This drives female bodily modesty norms, and it leads to women who are bad prey (because they’ve had a lot of sexual relationships) being socially punished. It contributes to victim blaming rape survivors, and it overall punishes women who are seen as being “too easy.” (Another way to conceive of this relationship is as competitor-prize, where women are prizes for men to win; in this context, a prize that’s “too easy” to win isn’t valuable—this encourages women to play “hard to get” and rewards men for having sex with such women, who are seen as challenging prizes to obtain.) It also makes things especially difficult for men who’ve been sexually abused by women; after all, prey doesn’t hunt predators, now does it?

In contrast, the victor-trophy relationship sees men as virtuous, the “knight in shining armor” who gallantly accomplishes the great feat. As these men are sexually faithful to their One True Love, they don’t have sex with a lot of women. Instead, they’re driven and accomplished, and their reward from…whatever it is that rewards them…is a wife. This wife is a trophy, a prize, an object. She needs to be beautiful and desirable so that she is a worthy prize—in this case, the bodily modesty norms of the predator-prey relationship impede her role as a trophy. As prey, a woman is supposed to be unappealing to men to avoid getting “hunted down,” but as a trophy, a woman is to be highly appealing and desirable, so that by her desirability, she demonstrates the virtue and valor of the man who was worthy of winning her. But what of the single man? Such men are failures, and the proof is their singleness. After all, if they weren’t loser failures, they’d have won themselves a wife already, right? Of course, this also punishes women who don’t adhere to society’s beauty standards, whatever those may be.

Neither of these are good models for a sexual relationship if you ask me. I don’t want prey to conquer or a trophy to possess; I want a friend, playmate, lover, and companion. Writing this has made me realize how much I’ve internalized these two models as the only routes toward finding a wife. Either you have to go out and claim her (predator-prey) or you have to be sufficiently successful, at which point she’ll just appear (victor-trophy). I believe I need to avoid the former approach so that it does not consume me, and I don’t intellectually believe in the latter. Nevertheless, it is clear to me that a part of me does believe these are true, as evidenced by the tensions I feel within me. In particular, the victor-trophy model only contributes to my feelings of failure, as it encourages me to see my singleness as yet more evidence that I am a failure.

Another problem that comes out of this is that the type of woman I’m interested in isn’t what society promotes. I want a cute leading lady; I’d describe her as strong, cute, playful, sexual, and confident. I describe myself as having a supporter personality, so I want someone I can partner with in life who can charge ahead toward our goals. At the same time, I’m attracted to cuteness and softness, which contrasts with a lot of society’s beauty standards. I don’t like long fingernails, high heel shoes (stilettoes are hideous), prominent cheekbones, or contrasty makeup (for example, bright red lips are typically unappealing to me). There’s more I could say here, both about what I’m attracted to and what I want from a sex life, but writing about either feels weird. Writing about the former feels objectifying, while the latter feels like “Too Much Information” territory, plus, as I’m a virgin, it’s entirely hypothetical. Like, sure, I know what sounds appealing to me, but one thing making games has taught me is that just because an idea sounds enjoyable doesn’t mean it actually is.

However, I find myself reflecting…why should what I write be dictated by culture? If I want to obey the call I feel from God to be vulnerable, then I cannot let social taboos cause me to hide myself. And so consider this your warning: for this paragraph, I shall be open, probably uncomfortably so, if not for you, than at least for me. I think I want to ease in by starting in a relatively comfortable place and build up from there. To start, I do want to marry a geeky woman, one who also enjoys video games and Magic: The Gathering. I want us to have stuff to talk about! I’d love to have plenty of things we both like, but also for us to be able to introduce each other to things. I also have nudist leanings, and I would like for her to share in those as well. Relatedly, my favorite artistic subject is the nude human body (and, in fact, I’d be thrilled to marry a woman who’d done nude modelling), and I would want a woman who is not jealous of that, but rather, would also enjoy the same art I do. On a vaguely related note, I do have a desire to share the love of Christ with sex workers (which requires going into their spaces, just as Jesus modeled); I’d love to partner in that with the woman I marry somehow, though I haven’t the foggiest on how to actually do this. It’d be great if she had some ideas! Changing gears, I love hugs and snuggles and want a wife who loves them, too. Lots of hugs, snuggling, caresses, and kisses sounds delightful. Of course, I am looking forward to having sex with her and figuring out what positions we enjoy. I like the idea of giving a try to sex in the shower and in nature. I look forward to performing cunnilingus, though receiving fellatio doesn’t really sound all that interesting to me. I want to add that I find anal sex repulsive and have negative interest in it, and I find it baffling how some people apparently consider it to be superior to or more desirable than vaginal sex. Moving on from that, I really like the idea of casually caressing her vulva and desire a wife who’d like that. In general, female pleasure is one of my major turn-ons. As for physical appearance, one thing I’ve observed is that when I’m evaluating attractiveness, the “score” I give (this is all very abstract) is about half based on her body and the other half is based on her face, which I find interesting. I wish I could say what makes a face attractive to me, unfortunately, I’ve not been able to narrow that down very well. I do know a lot of make-up (especially things like dark eyeshadow) can make a face less attractive to me, though I’ve touched on that some already. As for body, I prefer a pear-shaped figure. Like, figure is ultimately more important to me than weight. I have found that thinness can make up for a figure I find less attractive to some extent, but it can only do so much in this regard (also I think there absolutely is a too-thin). I like more medium-sized breasts, around a B-D cup range, and I actually find breasts start to get less attractive to me as they get bigger. I have a slight preference for dark or orange (a.k.a. redhead), straight hair, and I like it to frame the face. Speaking of hair, I generally don’t like pubic hair on women, but mostly because I think vulvas are cute and awesome and I don’t like them to be hidden, so that sentiment on pubic hair is a bit of an oversimplification. Of course, hair styling is extremely malleable, which brings me to another important point here: physical attractiveness cannot be reduced to body parts because behavior—how a woman holds and conducts herself—is a contributing factor, and a way for her personality to come out through her body. Also, attractiveness is composed of more than just physical attraction, and if the chemistry is good, attraction should continue to grow over time. So while I do want to find the woman I marry physically attractive, there is a good bit of range here, and personality, chemistry, and overlapping interests are significant aspects to overall attractiveness, which in aggregate makes them more important than physical attractiveness to me. A few final things to round this out: For whatever reason, a woman being Japanese (I mean culturally here) is an automatic bonus to her attractiveness, I do want kids, and I don’t want any pets.

I, uh…don’t have a great idea for a segue from that, but what I want to talk about next is just the experience of sexuality. A complication to keep in mind, and this is something I’ve only realized somewhat recently after having some conversations about this, is that no one taught me how to manage my sexuality. I did receive some instruction about some behaviors, but no one talked to teenage me about attraction or how to respond to it, and those aforementioned conversations lead me to believe that this is common, and so boys are left to fend for themselves. Perhaps they can connect with a good mentor, but I’m sure many find their way to pornography while seeking answers to their questions, while others attempt to gain first-hand experience. Of course, there are many unwritten rules around all of this stuff, and when a boy (or man) breaks one of these rules in ignorance, the corrective measure society employs is most often mockery, which leads to feelings of shame. I’m keenly aware of this, though mostly subconsciously, which has led to some hesitancy—I don’t want to accidentally do something that’ll get me negatively labeled (creep, pervert, harasser, etc.). That means I do feel a sense of risk in being open and honest here, since it does feel like a violation of the unspoken rules around male sexuality.

With all of that in mind, I do want to share my memories of the development of my sexuality. To really break this down (and explain what I mean), when I was a teenager (or thereabouts; it has been a while since then), I developed an attraction to…well, put most correctly, a collection of traits, things like face shape, body shape, genitals, voice, and so on (I already discussed this in some detail above); in short, the collection of things that comprise what I find to be sexually attractive. I do want to note that there are different types of attraction! Notably, there are things that make someone attractive to me as a friend; these apply to both men and women and lead to a desire to form a friendship with such people. This can potentially lead to the development of affection (if I get to actually know the person), which I like to express through things like hugs. I think it’s important to recognize that sexual attraction is a specific type of attraction, not the only kind of attraction.

I think it’s useful to think of sexual attraction as a subroutine that’s constantly running, usually in the subconscious (at least, this is my experience). In other words, for a long time now, there has been a part of my brain that is always evaluating women to determine how sexually attractive I find them (regardless of whether I want this to be happening or not). This evaluation is complex, and includes elements of presentation, voice, personality, interests and so on: it uses whatever information is available, so a woman I know nothing about beyond her appearance is evaluated on that alone—this tends to be the starting point, but it’s important to remember that this evaluation is also not static and will update as new information becomes available. So, for example, if I initially find a woman physically attractive, then she pulls out a cigarette and lights up, I’ll still find her physically attractive, but her overall attractiveness will drop considerably. As I said, I can’t stop this evaluation from happening, it’s an automatic, continuous process. However, all it’s really doing is providing me with information, and it’s up to me to decide what to do with that information. This includes emotional information: seeing someone I find attractive is pleasurable in a way, while someone I find unattractive does result in feelings of revulsion (that is, the opposite of an interest in developing a relationship with that person; note that nonphysical attributes are significantly more important here overall, so I can still find someone physically attractive and have no interest due to chemistry reasons—attraction is overall a complicated thing). Again, it’s up to me to decide what I want to do with the information this subroutine is providing me. As my desire is to treat women as the fellow human beings that they are, I generally just stick the information in a mental file (I can’t delete it) and do my best to not let it influence me much (I can’t avoid influence entirely). I am curious to know if others experience something similar!

A key thing I’ve had to learn about handling this sexual attraction subroutine—and I’d say that it is God who taught me this—is how to identify and avoid lust. The first thing to know is that the pleasure derived from the attraction subroutine is not lust. Rather, lust is taking an evaluation of “attractive!” and running with it: of imagining sexual behavior with that person. This is dangerous for several reasons. The first is that it’s objectifying because it turns the person into a tool for sating one’s own pleasures. It’s also a problem because it lives in the imagination, not reality. There are a lot of problems with living in the imagination, including a great deal of unrealism, but also of the creation of rules that seem solid and immutable, but in reality, they’re just made up and we’ve collectively decided to live by them.

Speaking of imaginary rules, the taboos around talking about sex and sexuality create a lot of problems. In particular, the Internet has taught me (actually, people sharing of themselves and their experiences on the Internet) that if you want a satisfying sex life (which I do want), then you need to not be sexually incompatible with your partner. Being able to attend to the other’s sexual desires is important for interest, arousal, and a sustainable relationship that both find fulfilling. The problem is, social taboos against discussing sexuality make it hard to figure this stuff out for one’s self, not to mention the much greater challenge that arises with trying to identify sexual compatibility with a potential partner. Especially when a culture believes in sexual monogamy, it seems deeply important (at least to me) to ensure that when people are getting married, they’re not sexually incompatible, and they’re willing to put in the work to figure out how to be sexually appealing and satisfying to each other.

A big struggle I’ve had with both my gender and my sexuality is feeling like I’m a late bloomer, to the point of sometimes feeling like I’ll never bloom. American culture is obsessed with early bloomers, with those who’ve achieved great things at a relatively young age, and not being such a person makes me feel left behind or like a failure. Indeed, a core challenge of mine is that I feel the heavy weight of the Loser and Failure labels of society; after all, that’s what they call an adult male still living with his parents, who loves the things of his childhood (especially video games, which I do!), who is a virgin, and who doesn’t have a “proper” job. He isn’t a Man, at least not according to how I understand society to have defined Manhood. I also just feel the weight of time. I’m 35 as I write this (a number that seems larger than it should be, quite frankly; and I have every reason to expect the disconnect between how old I feel I ought to be and how old I actually am to continue increasing), and as I think I’ve made clear here, I do want a wife and children. However, I also recognize that however much temporal pressure I feel at my age, it must be so much worse for women. Society would tell me that the solution to solve my singleness problem is either to go out and get her (predator-prey model) or achieve some big accomplishment so as to win her (victor-trophy model), but God tells me to wait patiently on Him and be faithful to His calling (a divine partnership). Neither of us is a prize for the other to win, and I trust in God that, whenever our relationship begins, it will not be too late.

I’ve found writing this both interesting and useful. As I ruminate on it, something I wrote at the beginning (this has been quite a long process!) stands out to me: “But why should I care? Why is ‘being a man’ (whatever that culturally means) important? If it were for my own self, then I wouldn’t care: I’m fine with being me, the version of an adult male that I am, and I don’t need to feel like I can identify as A Man for my own sake. Rather, I care because of how I anticipate (whether rightly or wrongly) how it affects how others see me.” My social identity—my identity as understood as part of a social setting or community, in contrast to my own self-conceptualization—is important to me because I feel an intense need for social safety: I fear being kicked out of my communities a great deal and try to guard against that by being a people pleaser. In short, I assume expectations of others, then put pressure on myself to meet those assumed expectations in the desperate hope that doing so will keep me socially safe (that is, avoiding ostracization). This is all very subconscious, which is why writing about it is so helpful to me: doing so dredges it up from the depths of my subconscious and into my conscious mind, where it can be exposed to sunlight.

I’m realizing that I feel like the most significant parts of my social identity are gender and vocation, but it strikes me as quite possible that this is because those are the parts of my social identity about which I feel the most insecure. As I’ve rather exhaustively explored, I have a hard time conceiving of myself as a man in this social-identity way because who I am does not align with what I’ve been taught a man is like, despite the fact that my self-identity is comfortably male. The challenge isn’t being comfortable with myself, but rather, it’s to shed the assumptions I’m imposing upon others—in other words, to not feel like I have to somehow earn my Man Card, which is ultimately a specific, narrow form of masculinity. Because these expectations are driven from subconscious fears, the first step to addressing them is to, as I’ve done here, examine them. Ultimately, however, I need to release these assumed expectations of others, but doing so requires me to be in a place of security. Simply put, I need a community in which I can feel secure as my full self, where the performative and superficial social identity can melt away, leaving my true self remaining. The catch is that, to get this kind of community, I need to first risk rejection by letting others see the real me, and that’s scary, but by writing and sharing these thoughts, I’m taking the first steps to confront those fears.

Thank you for reading.

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