Dissecting America's misconception of masculinity

It's time we redefined what it is to be a man

(Image credit: (AP Photo/California DMV))

There is something in America that is constantly telling men and boys that their self-worth and status is determined by how effective they are at convincing women to have sex with them. Many men build this measure into their definition of masculinity. And it's dangerous, as evidenced by the tragic Isla Vista shootings in California over the holiday weekend, in which alleged killer Elliot Rodgers was apparently motivated to murder because of his failure to have sex with women.

This mindset of getting with as many women as possible to prove your manliness is endemic. We see it in the thriving Pick-Up Artist community and on Men's Rights Activist forums on the internet; we see it on billboards with people in bikinis (or less) promising you a better life (i.e. more sex and more women) if you just use this shaving cream; we see it on shows like Mad Men and How I Met Your Mother, where Don Draper and Barney Stinson are worshipped for their ability to effortlessly drop panties.

Why do we put up with this? Why is the idea of sexing up as many women as possible considered an acceptable definition of masculinity, when it's clearly so destructive to both men and women? Where did this idea come from in the first place, and why do so many people buy into it?

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In the West, it's hard to think of a historical period in which the double standard of "lots of sex for men, no sex for women" was not the norm. Men who failed on this measure were ostracized, just as women were when they were viewed as promiscuous. But, as author and former pick-up artist Mark Manson wrote on his blog, this is a twisted definition of masculinity.

The concept of the Alpha Male is completely arbitrary and gets horribly distorted in most pick up advice. It ends up being counter-productive and/or misogynist in many cases.When a guy has spent his entire life being 'beta,' magically transforming himself into an 'alpha' is much easier said than done. ...but there's a shortcut. And that's to objectify women.... unfortunately, the pick up industry's conception of 'Alpha' became equated with 'objectifying women' and soon thousands of men were sucked into it — typically men with the deepest anger issues. [Mark Manson]

Don Draper and Barney Stinson provide two pop culture examples of "alphas." On TV, these men's conquests and the consequences thereof are rarely seen or lived. In real life, if you equate objectifying women with being an alpha, and being an alpha with being a Masculine Man, women become the collateral damage in some quixotic quest toward the fulfillment of a vague definition of "manliness."

Now, I'm not going to psychoanalyze Elliot Rodger specifically; I didn't know him. But Manson told The Week that, broadly, the problem of defining masculinity in the way Rodger did is one encountered by many, many men. "There is a HUGE problem with men basing their masculine identities on validation from women," he wrote in an email. "Male entitlement hurts both sexes, it belittles both sexes. Just as women are worth more than their bodies, men are worth more than whatever their penis has been inserted into."

Here's a challenge: If you are a straight man, sit down and think about how you define masculinity. Does any of it involve your ability to find sexual success with women? If it does, why? Why does your self-worth hinge so dramatically on the sexual approval of others?

As a bearer of two X chromosomes, I shouldn't be so presumptuous as to tell men how to define themselves. But I will say this: I was the first female to be born into my father's family in five generations. I grew up surrounded by men — intelligent, highly successful men who embody so many positive qualities: hard work, ambition, and respect for those around them. From them, I learned that being a good man — or really, just a good person — involves self-awareness and confidence, but never should it involve belittling other people out of spite or frustration. You don't get to define yourself at the expense of someone else.

Confidence is hard to come by. Making yourself physically attractive to your preferred gender is an easy way to become confident, but it is fleeting and fickle. As a society, we need to find a way to tell the Elliot Rodgers of the world that dating and sex, while great, are not the answers to life's problems.

I don't have the solutions here. So many things need to change on a macro level: our media culture, our portrayal of women, our portrayal of men and men who get lots of women, our sex education, etc. But on a micro level, we can start discussing among ourselves how we treat both genders, and how they both deserve better.

Nick Offerman, who plays the ultra-outdoorsy, independent, anti-government, red meat-eating, wood-carving, short-spoken character Ron Swanson on NBC's Parks and Recreation, was once asked by Conan O'Brien about the rules for defining a man. Offerman said:

"Rule one, take a bite of steak. Rule two, wash it down with some whiskey, preferably single malt scotch. Rule three, find a socialist and punch him or her in the face. Rule four, handcraft a small wooden boat, out of cedar preferably. Rule five, make love to the partner of your choice, preferably someone who is accepting of your advances, and upon climax, withdraw your firearm and unload some rounds, laced with double entendre, into the night sky."

Offerman then paused, and said, "That's what people think I'm going to say. But what I would really say is just stand up for your principles and be loyal to your friends and family."

We need to start having a conversation about masculinity in America. Women's rights will not advance without it, and everyone's health, and perhaps their lives, depends on it.

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