Interesting Times: What is Male?





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“It’s a man’s world,” as my mother often said. Men have superior physical strength and mainly go after—and get—power and wealth. They like to intimidate women and lesser men. They organize themselves in pecking orders with a king (or, as we now put it, an “alpha male”) at the top. They kill for food, for territory, for power, out of punishment. They are reckless with their own lives, and many die young in wars, mechanical inventions, feuds, exploration, speeds, impatience. If nature is behind it, evidently most men are dispensable, and only a few are essential for continuing the species. Presumably competition selects the few. Their competition, their various endeavors, are more important to them than love, children, and the stuff of women’s biological life. Sexuality is more important as an aspect of power and immediate gratification. Though self-destructive, they may be essential to group survival and the survival of the species.

As a male, you are primed for achievement, for pleasure, for power over others. There is nothing like the freedom given by nature and society to a handsome, young, intelligent man, except for the fact that every other male wants to take it away from him. Male life is full of violence and carelessness in literal and metaphoric forms. Men’s compensation for losing—as many must—is to enjoy their superiority over women, lesser fellow men, and Nature itself. Dogs, even, are terrific for this purpose.

I once asked my psychiatrist, who had it tougher—men or women? She was an elderly Jewish lady, the prestigious head of the outpatient mental clinic at Belleview in New York. She thought about it for a minute and then replied: “Men.” I don’t know what she meant exactly, but I understood. Maybe as a Freudian, she thought of the unpredictability of male sexual response. I might have thought of the constant responsibility of always being in charge, the fear of failure and humiliation.

Would I have really preferred being a man? Most women prefer not being in charge. There have been few queens or female heads of states not just because of discrimination, but because few wanted to go there. In my experience, there are few female heads of department in universities because many don’t want to do it. I didn’t, as I said, for health reasons, which was true. Other women had their own valid reasons for not doing it, too. It seems to me that on the whole women don’t want to rule overtly and don’t want the headache of ruling. They have looked around and decided that mostly it’s not worth it. They’ve decided that secondary status is not that bad.

In fact, many men want to be more like women than men, which has often been a mystery to me. In the ideological battle over the causes of homosexuality, liberals insist on nature and genes, while conservatives argue for nurture, such as social factors. Given the large gay percentage of the population (two to twenty percent of the population, depending whom you read) it is obvious that biological and socio/psychological elements are both involved. Not many men literally and physically want to become women as transsexuals, but some do. There are many fewer women who are lesbians, or they are less visible.

Why do so many men want to be like women? Granted that human sexuality is amorphous, ambiguous, and the new term “polysexual” describes it, nature still divides us biologically into men and women. In my envy of the social and biological freedom of boys, did I miss something about the destiny of women?

Extreme situations sometimes help to clarify what goes on. I once had a brilliant student, Anne Cassidy, who wrote a paper on the Aztec Stone of Tizoc. This large cylindrical stone is carved with the image of fifteen pairs of figures, one pair of which has the ruler Tizoc holding by the hair a conquered warrior, who is symbolically or in fact the ruler of a particular town. She argued that the violent subject matter was rendered almost like a gentle dance of power and submission between victor and victim. She suggested that the image could be explained by the writings of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose best known book is Venus in Furs (1870) on the relationship of sadism and masochism. The basic idea is that masochism is the easier for most people, men or women, because it means relinquishing power and its attendant responsibility to the sadist. The masochist is thereby innocent and blameless. Paradoxically, sadism is a tougher role because it is the acceptance of responsibility and guilt over life and death. (Nineteenth century European thinkers had amazing insight into human psychology we may not necessarily want to face, as is evident also in the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Edgar Allen Poe.)

I found this to be an interesting psychological hypothesis, and it reminded me of a somewhat well-known story of the French thinker George Bataille in the 1920s. Bataille was a librarian in Paris, who fantasized about violence, such as Aztec sacrifices. He was so interested in the subject that he wanted to perform an actual sacrificial ritual in Paris. Several persons offered themselves as willing victims, but it was cancelled because it proved impossible to find someone to do the killing. According to this story, people are more willing to be masochistic victims than sadists.

In another anecdote, I knew a woman who enjoyed playing the role of dominatrix in sexual games with men. She told me that the men she encountered complained that a good (tough) dominatrix was hard to find. Powerful men, it seems, like to be whipped by domineering women, so as to give up and reverse their power and responsibility and enjoy victimhood in erotic play. Of course, only for a little while. (Some recent evidence of this was when the all-powerful would-be U.S. president, Donald Trump, enjoyed being “spanked” by the porn star Stormy Daniels.)

I may have wanted freedom and the right to achieve, but evidently I did not want the responsibility of power that goes along with the masculine profile. Many men don’t want it either. It is not easy to determine what is naturally male and female—or what should be male and female.

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