Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Ending the 'Ordinary' Abuse of Young Men and Boys

by Charles Knight 
This article was published 13 May 2014 by Cognoscenti, the opinion blog of NPR affiliate WBUR in Boston. The original version can be found at

I was late that day on my way to the lunch room in high school. The hallway was almost empty. A couple of older boys called me over to where they stood to one side. Suddenly eight other boys emerged from a nearby stairwell and grabbed my arms and legs. Despite my desperate struggle, they overwhelmed me. With my head restrained by many hands, one of the boys, his mouth coated in bright red lipstick, forced his lips to mine and, then for the finishing touch, inserted his tongue. The assembled gang chanted “You know you like it!” followed by “Fag, Fag, Fag…”

The assault didn’t last long, and when it was over I was left alone, very alone, with my anger, my hurt and my humiliation. I was young — only 14 — but I knew two truths: 1) to be singled out as a “fag” by other boys was a deeply shameful thing and 2) there was no adult I could safely go to for comfort or any kind of support.

Fifty years later I can report there are changes for the better. Women organizing and the struggles of LBGTQ communities are responsible for much of the progress. One local institution that was helpful to me is Close to Home, a Dorchester community organization which works for the prevention and healing of domestic violence and sexual abuse. I signed up for a writing workshop they sponsored, seeking to refine some journaling I had begun about the high school incident.

As I worked on successive drafts I realized that the incident — and the intense feelings it unleashed — had presented me with a rather profound life choice. I could seek protection from more humiliation and abuse by learning the skills of cruelty and domination, or I could ally myself with others in the struggle against social cruelty and structures of domination.

When the writing group performed our monologues for the community several of the performances recounted incidents of rape. Working in this ensemble for weeks, I learned so well the pain and spirited resilience of these women. I felt humbled and grateful when they assured me that they wanted my story told along with theirs.

The author pictured around the time of the assault, circa 1960. (Courtesy)
The author pictured around the time of the assault, circa 1961. (Courtesy)

I came to understand my experience as an example of an “ordinary” sort of gender abuse. Issues of social position and identity are highly charged for boys in middle and high school. Some boys take on the role of enforcing gender conformity, in part because of their own insecurity about masculinity. Gender conformity enforcement by peers is always part of the experience of growing up for boys — the incident in which I had a role was just one variant. Most boys are not chosen, as I was that day, to play the part of the designated deviant. Most boys are either bystanders or gang members. Still, we all receive the same lesson: conform to narrow gender performance rules or face humiliation and, very often, violent repression. It doesn’t take long for boys to get this message. This is how deeply internalized structures of dominance and oppression get passed on from generation to generation.

Feminists and scholars of gender have long pointed to the function of homophobia in regulating the behavior of men and boys. Protection of LGBTQ youth from commonplace abuse in schools also benefits “straight” children, serving to protect them from gender conformity assault. Today boys and girls are beginning to have more freedom to grow into varied expressions of masculinity and femininity.

For boys and men this “liberation” has been a long time coming.  Pioneering pro-feminist scholars and activists including Michael Kimmel, Harry Brod and John Stoltenberg began work on masculinities in the 1970s. In 1975 male students in a women’s studies class in Knoxville, Tennessee organized the first National Conference on Men and Masculinity. During the following decade men and women founded organizations across America explicitly to challenge men’s violence against women. Many of these organizations also offered space for men to explore how they can change their experience of gender and their relationships with the men and women in their lives.

Today men are organizing around the world. In 2009 activists gathered in the first Global Symposium on Engaging Men and Boys in Gender Equality held in Rio de Janeiro and subsequently launched Men Engage, a network of hundreds of organizations in communities around the world. And in 2013 the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities was founded at Stony Brook University. The Center will bring together researchers, practitioners and activists in conversation and collaboration with the intent of enhancing projects involving men and boys.

A half century after I suffered, alone, from peer enforcement of gender conformity, I see good reason for hope that soon this sort of abuse will no longer be an ordinary part of boys’ lives. With increasing confidence I look forward to boys enjoying the freedom to grow into men better able to find satisfying relationships with their chosen loved ones as well as with diverse people in their communities.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Sexist Practice in White House Approval of Counter-terrorism Strikes

Is President Obama’s practice sexist when he sorts residents of Pakistan into “enemy combatants” or “civilians” before ordering the CIA to fire a Hellfire missile at a truck or compound many thousands of miles away?  A friend doubts my recent claim made on Facebook that it is.  Perhaps he is correct.  After I posted my comment on Facebook I had my own doubts.

I was reacting to this sentence in the New York Times article “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will," 29 May 2012: 
Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

The context for this statement is, as the article says, “Mr. Obama … at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill[-ing]." The article further elaborates:
If the agency [CIA] did not have a 'near certainty' that a strike would result in zero civilian deaths, Mr. Obama wanted to decide personally whether to go ahead... This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinary low collateral deaths.  In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama's trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes.
Facebook encourages snap judgments and opinions in the structure of it “thumbs up” likes and it limited space for comments.  After reading the Times article I had strong feelings about it which included a gut or intuitive sense that the policy was sexist.  I believe intuitive reactions are of real value,  especially when alerting us to problems.  At the same time they may prove mistaken or misleading when subject to careful analysis.  So let me attempt some of the latter.

Is Obama's practice in approving remote attack targets sexist (probably unconsciously)?

Let's start with the Miriam Webster definition of sexism:

1: prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially: discrimination against women.

2: behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.

The applicable definition in this case is #1 “discrimination based on sex”, but in this case it is discrimination against males.  How so?

As I said above, my response was triggered by the “counting of all military-age males in the strike zone as combatants.”  This is the radical presumption on the part of the White House that made me feel it was sexist.  While a reasonable presumption might be that many, even a majority, of the military-age males in the strike zone might in some relevant sense be combatants allied with the targeted al Qaeda member, some significant portion will certainly not be.  This is especially true when the target is a residential compound in contrast to a truck believed to be carrying armed combatants.

I had immediately thought that:  there but for the grace of God am I a seventeen year-old produce delivery boy in the kitchen of an apparently prosperous man (who I have likely never met and nor would I know anything of his political affiliations) when the compound I am standing in is blown to pieces and my life suddenly ended.  By what possible course of moral logic is it permissible that the White House many thousands of miles away takes my life because of a presumption that male equals combatant?

Then by the logic of “shoot first and ask questions later” some White House official pronounces that if it is proven posthumously that I am “innocent” I will be added to a category named “regrettable collateral victims of a necessary counter-terrorist operation.”  But, I would receive this posthumous dignity only if some powerful voice in the media or elsewhere is discourteous enough to make a stink about it.

So let’s review this in regards to sexism.  In the case of the hypothetical boy I am identifying with above, he is subject to discrimination by virtue of his sex and the happenstance of his proximity to targeted combatants.  In other words, his social role (combatant) is assigned according to his sex.  That is precisely the definition of sexism.

In further regards to sexism I note, that while this was not addressed in the article,  any women (and their children) who are killed in the bombing, when their unfortunate presence is acknowledged, will be categorized as regretted, but necessary, collateral victims by virtue of their co-habitation with the male targets.  It should be noted that quite a few women have died in these attacks.
This seems all too close to the late U.S. and English law of coverture in which: marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage." [William Blackstone. Commentaries on the Laws of England]
 Thus once the White House passes the threshold of deciding that it is permissible to bomb residences in the targeting of al Qaeda members, women and children are in effect thrown back into coverture status, even if there is posthumous regret for their demise proffered by the attacker.

Yes, it seems this White House policy is sexist.  And no, it doesn’t matter that White House sexism mirrors that of al Qaeda.  It may be true that those who make war often follow their enemies to hell, but we should resist that temptation with all due fortitude.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Open Letter to An American Woman

by Kevin Powell
Photos of Kevin

an excerpt from Kevin Powell's 10th and latest book, "Open Letters to America" (Soft Skull).

The regular thread in my conversations with women who are domestic violence survivors is their low self-esteem, a feeling that this man, this male partner, somehow validates their lives, their being, even as this partner seeks to control or end their lives. When we talk about “domestic violence” against women and girls, I would submit that it is more than the actual laying of hands. We’ve got to extend the conversation to the invisible “hits” they take every single day of their lives, especially if they are undereducated women, or poor women, or women of color. So many women have never heard of terms like “feminist” or “womanist,” will never read the writings of bell hooks, Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, or Alice Walker. Quite the contrary, most women do exactly what the women in my own family do: make it happen from day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year, by whatever means they can create for themselves.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

male (but not female) testosterone fluctuates in response to winning or losing dominance contests

Researchers at Duke University and the University of Michigan examined the testosterone levels of students around the time of the 2008 presidential election. Men who voted for John McCain exhibited significant decreases in testosterone upon learning that he lost, whereas the testosterone levels of men who supported Barack Obama were stable. This effect remained even after controlling for political values, intensity of support, alcohol consumption, and social environment. Meanwhile, despite having political feelings similar to men, women exhibited no significant difference in testosterone levels regardless of which candidate they supported. These findings are consistent with earlier research showing that male testosterone fluctuates in response to winning or losing dominance contests.

Stanton, S. et al., “Dominance, Politics, and Physiology: Voters’ Testosterone Changes on the Night of the 2008 United States Presidential Election,” PLoS ONE (October 2009).

summary from the Boston Globe, 15 November 2009.


This study leads me to think of several possibilities:

1. What is the emotional feedback for males that varying levels of testosterone produce? Do males seek dominance contests because of the testosterone effect? Has this been studied? Is there literature on this?

2. I'd like to see more of this sort of study around sports contests. In my self-observation about sports I have come to believe that I 'invest' myself emotionally in the contest. For instance, some years I choose to invest in one team or another in the World Series and other years I choose to "care less." When I do invest myself emotionally in a team I notice that I tend to either feel elated with a win or depressed by a loss. Sometimes I try to talk myself out of the feelings (especially the depressed ones associated to a loss) by telling myself that "it really makes not a wit of difference who wins this game", but my rational self only helps my mood so much. Again, do males tend to seek the dominance contest in the "big game" because we need the testosterone kick? Are we testosterone boost seekers?

3. Is this study a bit of evidence for the proposition that females might be more steady rational leaders around contested issues, such as affairs of state that have the potential for warfare? Are females less likely to enter into dominance contests for what they promise emotionally/chemically? I don't think we have enough evidence yet to confirm this hypothesis, but this study (and others?) are a start.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

She’s just not that into it

by Kevin Lewis | October 4, 2009 | The Boston Globe

It goes without saying that men are aggressive. But that’s exactly the problem, according to psychologists. They asked men and women to imagine various conflict scenarios and found that men systematically overestimate the prevalence and social approval of aggression, even while having mixed feelings about it themselves. Moreover, men assumed that women viewed aggression as more attractive than women actually viewed it, and, indeed, the number of fights that men reported being in was correlated with how much they thought women approved aggression. In addition to increasing the risk of conflict, there was evidence that men’s misperceptions about aggression may take a psychological toll, in the form of lower self-esteem and alienation from peers.

Vandello, J. et al., “Men’s Misperceptions about the Acceptability and Attractiveness of Aggression,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

She’s just not that into it - The Boston Globe

Sunday, September 27, 2009

MAY I SUGGEST (lyrics)

Copyright © Susan Werner

May I suggest
May I suggest to you
May I suggest this is the best part of your life
May I suggest
This time is blessed for you
This time is blessed and shining almost blinding bright
Just turn your head
And you'll begin to see
The thousand reasons that were just beyond your sight
The reasons why
Why I suggest to you
Why I suggest this is the best part of your life

There is a world
That's been addressed to you
Addressed to you, intended only for your eyes
A secret world
Like a treasure chest to you
Of private scenes and brilliant dreams that mesmerise
A lover's trusting smile
A tiny baby's hands
The million stars that fill the turning sky at night
Oh I suggest
Oh I suggest to you
Oh I suggest this is the best part of your life

There is a hope
That's been expressed in you
The hope of seven generations, maybe more
And this is the faith
That they invest in you
It's that you'll do one better than was done before
Inside you know
Inside you understand
Inside you know what's yours to finally set right
And I suggest
And I suggest to you
And I suggest this is the best part of your life

This is a song
Comes from the west to you
Comes from the west, comes from the slowly setting sun
With a request
With a request of you
To see how very short the endless days will run
And when they're gone
And when the dark descends
Oh we'd give anything for one more hour of light

And I suggest this is the best part of your life