[Image description: Arnold Schwarzenegger as a young body-builder posing and flexing against an abstract cyan and forest green background]
Gendered spaces are everywhere. In our patriarchal society masculinity is “default”, and lots of spaces are already masculine-only. These spaces are cesspools of machoism and competition. Because masculinity is fragile, it constantly needs re-upping: men must regularly reassert their masculinity to prove it to their peers.
That’s not what I’m advocating—I’m advocating explicitly masculine-only spaces where men and mascs reflect on their masculinity, their relationship to [their] gender, their privilege/s, and their relationships to femmes and femininity: an anti-gentleman’s club. Men need a space (temporary or permanent) to critically examine gender amongst themselves, so women and femmes don’t need to constantly debunk the “female privilege” of having creepy men buy them drinks at the bar.
Because masculinity is default and femininity is Other, masculinity only needs to define itself against that which it isn’t. Whereas femininity has stand-alone characteristics, masculinity only has any meaning when it’s compared to it’s “opposite”: masculinity is “strong” (not weak like femininity), “rational” (not irrational), “capable” (not incapable). All of these dichotomies are rooted in misogyny, and men are obviously not more strong, rational, or capable than women. Femininity, though, has defining characteristics which don’t have reference to masculinity: emotional awareness/articulation, creative communication, and sensitivity (to others, to social environments, to the self).
Perhaps some characteristics of masculinity which are its alone are: fragile, repressed, and completely nebulous. Then again, gender more broadly is nebulous too; without misogyny and patriarchy (or reductive arguments about “biological sex”), what is gender? A humble attempt at definition:
Gender is an identity, a set of cultural archetypes/roles, and an aesthetic. It is not tied to bodies or pronouns or names, though these things are assigned gender. It is self-determined and dynamic and fluid. It is context-dependent and does not exist in a vacuum.
Last month I went to a men-only discussion on gender and masculinity in London. It was the first such event that I had ever seen or heard of. There were six men there, including me (someone who has an uneasy relationship with my identity as a “man”, but this discussion was quite binary).
I was amazed at how basic it was, and how gingerly these men were examining their masculinity. Is it about sex? Their role within their romantic relationships? Their clothes? Their gestures and the way they take up public space? There was a fearful but strong desire, common to most of them, to be seen as sexual objects; to relinquish the “obligations” of sexual agency. I pointed out that their envy of women’s constant objectification was misplaced, that women are not selectively lusted after by people they choose but are always under public scrutiny with the threat of violence for not graciously accepting sexual harassment. The men conceded, but their desire to be “feminine” (as they misunderstood it) remained. These men desperately wanted permission to be passive, and to stop posturing for other men.
It was clear that since these men had the privilege of ignoring basic concepts about gender, this was the first time they had actively thought about it. When I would interject with, “but women can do that too”, or “biology isn’t dimorphic”, they were receptive but surprised. They’d simply never needed to seriously consider their gender or their masculine privileges before. This was compounded by their whiteness, and their able bodies, and their class privileges. In the same way that white people need to be more vocal about their white privilege (whilst not-speaking over POC, crucially), men and mascs should be actively interrogating their genders and their associated privileges. This will, hopefully, help them empathize with women and femmes.
Men are pitiful and need an explicit invitation to examine their masculinity and gender identity. The need for feminine safe spaces—spaces away from men—is unquestionably greater than the need for masculine-only spaces, but men having an environment to reflect upon their masculinity, rather than just reassert it, is crucial toward fostering masculine gender awareness. Rather than excluding women and femmes, the point of masc-only spaces would be to give men and mascs the opportunity to explore issues of gender which are too basic to have in feminist discussions. This is not the responsibility of women and femmes: this should be a project by and for men. Feminism doesn’t need male allies; but if men want to be a part of the future, they need to get up to speed.