Throughout human history, men have raised houses and barns, constructed bridges, built nations, structured democracies, mined resources, made tools, innovated solutions, improved technology, and created the world we live in with all its comforts and advancements. This is not to devalue women’s contributions, but historically men have contributed, in particular, the majority of the above. They did this because it was their prescribed role. It was part of their duty as men.
Comedians joke that everything men have accomplished has been done with the goal of impressing women, but I think there is a grain of truth to this. Up until very recently, and to a large extent today, men’s task has been to provide for their wives (and any unmarried female family members) and keep them safe. They have built walls, dug ditches, toiled in mines, and gone to war, all to defend and put food in the mouths of the women whose well-being was entrusted to them, who were allowed to stay in the safety of their homes (in eras when the outside world was by no means safe) and toil there instead. The popular narrative depicts women throughout history as servants to men, but even if that’s true, through most ages and most places, men have also been slaves to women’s needs and wants, their value measured by their labour and ability to meet the needs of their wives, mothers, sisters, and children, often at great personal risk.
Today this expectation is reflected in the way we treat the poor and unemployed: women without jobs are not questioned, even when they have families, even in an era when a single income is rarely enough to support a household. They are stay-at-home moms with their own brand of credibility, or they receive empathy for the struggle of finding work in a rough economy. Men who are not employed are called deadbeats, accused of laziness or apathy, their worth, again, measured by what they can provide. Women who are unable to provide for their families have access to countless assistance programs: government housing, heating assistance, grants, WIC, and so on, many of which are specifically geared toward women. Our empathy for them and their needs has been codified into law. Though men sometimes have access to these services too, you don’t hear of many women who go to jail for their inability to pay for their children’s needs. Men’s expectation of being the bread winner is likewise codified into law. Failing to pay child support is a felony offense punishable by jail time, effectively punishing a man’s inability to materially support his family (even from a distance) with the revocation of his human rights. This is one of the few cases in our modern society in which poverty can result in imprisonment.
Indeed, a man’s value is measured by his material worth to his family, and by his worth to women. And this is apparent in the way men and women pursue dating and relationships. A man is expected to make the first move, in a way that is both charming and direct, but not too forward, or else he’ll be perceived as creepy or rude. If he is outwardly disappointed by rejection, he is accused by women of coercion or entitlement, and by other men considered pathetic. If the woman accepts his offer, he must plan the date, and it should be creative, clever, and show that he has been listening to the things that interest her. On the date, he should be funny and engaging. He must impress and entertain her, lest she direct her attention toward any of her other interested suitors. And goodness knows he’s to foot the bill. Women, conversely, are expected to show up.
Women complain that they get too much attention from men. Their love and approval is valued so highly that they are tired of being asked for it. Women are so used to being highly valued that they view it as an insult. Ugh, another man thinks I’m awesome. Gross.
Men, on the other hand, complain of rejection, of being undervalued and unappreciated. Men compete over women because the measure of a man is in his ability to appeal to women. Feminists will argue that this objectifies women by commoditizing them and their sexuality, but I interpret it differently. The way I see it, this practice overvalues women. It objectifies men, as beings who are only worthy of respect when they have a woman’s approval.
Add all this to the popular narrative that men oppress, harass, assault, sexually objectify, and have unilateral advantages over women, and you’ve got a recipe for confusion and depression. In many circles, men are perceived as harming women just by existing. In more moderate circles, men in sexual or romantic positions are feared as potential predators and demonized as scoundrels, their sexuality perceived as inherently disrespectful or crass. Thus the necessary methods they employ to pursue their prescribed source of validation, women’s love and respect, are decried as disrespectful impropriety, even when they aren’t. The same behaviour can be labeled as charming or as sexual harassment, depending on whether or not the man in question is sexually attractive to the woman doing the defining. He can be daring and romantic, bumbling and pathetic, or crude and presumptuous, again, depending on how he’s received, and all is subject to the judgment of onlooking men and women alike. Men are judged for not earning the attention of women, and they are judged for trying to earn it.
Men built the world we live in, put their bodies, mental health, and lives on the line, are expected to be the last out of a burning building or off a sinking ship, and base their very self-worth on their ability to appeal to, protect, provide for, and if necessary sacrifice for women. And yet feminism and popular culture have the nerve to not only ask them what they’ve done for women lately, but cast them as the villains of the story, the mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplashes who enjoy plotting against us and benefiting at our expense.
But men aren’t Snidely Whiplashes. They are socialized strongly and (many theories suggest) evolved psychologically to care about women. Caring what women want and feel is part of their prescribed purpose, a fundamental piece of the gender role puzzle that so many think is designed to step all over women. So you’ve got an entire well-meaning population (most of whom have done nothing wrong, let alone harass, assault, or oppress anyone) absorbing this message and feeling evil for existing, ashamed of their gender, ashamed of their sexuality, afraid they’ll never find love when seeking it is such a complicated mine field of fine lines to navigate, or convinced they are undeserving of love in the first place.
Many don’t remember the Scott Aaronson debacle, when a young professor at MIT was brave enough to articulate this problem (albeit through a more feminist lens), and was subsequently shamed by the online feminist community for the implicit misogyny of being driven to depression and self-harm by the catch-22 of being valued based on your worth to women when it’s difficult to pursue or obtain it without breaking the complicated rules of propriety. This catch-22 was so distressing to him, that in an effort to rid himself of an urge that he felt was inherently disrespectful and harmful to women, he pursued chemical sterilization. And for this self-loathing and compulsive need to be anything but a misogynist, he was shamed as one.
I myself have spoken to countless other men who have found themselves suffering guilt, shame, depression, or self-loathing just like Aaronson. I have consoled men who felt guilty for asking women out, or for requesting sex from their significant others, men who were convinced that their sexuality was inherently harmful, heterosexual men suffering the same societally inflicted moralistic self-loathing as homosexuals unfortunate enough to grow up in fundamentalist Christian communities. I have spoken to men who were convinced that they were unlovable and worthless human beings because of a lack of luck or skill with romance, men who had resigned themselves to loneliness and blamed themselves. I’ve even spoken to a man in his last days of suicidal depression, citing this problem as the cause of his distress. He was disillusioned with the entire construct of love and dating, and yet still felt that something was horribly wrong with him for being unable to meet its impossible standards. I believe it to be no coincidence that men are four of every five suicides.
And yet when men try to address these concerns and others like them, they are shamed like Aaronson, or worse. Men who seek answers and solutions to this quagmire are called misogynists and rape apologists. They are ironically accused of entitlement and of viewing women as objects, for the crime of not wanting their worth to be measured in women’s approval. Men who convene to formally discuss this are slandered in the press and sent death threats in private. They feel the need to pay for extensive security for their safety. They are protested by women who shout over their talks and bang on pots and pans. They have fire alarms pulled on their events.
Do women want so badly for men to stop killing themselves? Perhaps we just can’t stand the idea of men realizing they don’t have to live their lives for us.