A Question of Manliness: What is the Role?

I distinctly remember a conversation I had with a guy friend when I was in college wherein I asked him why guys weren’t asking me out. He replied, simply, that I intimidate men. In that instant, I felt lost – I felt like I could do nothing to change my fate. Asking guys out was something I just wasn’t supposed to do as a woman, so how in the world was I going to get boys to ask me out if I intimidated them?

My 2014 self looks back at my 2008 self and scoffs. The obvious solution is not to worry about the men I supposedly intimidate, but to respond to the men who are unafraid of strong, smart women. But so deeply embedded was I in purity culture that this obvious solution never occurred to me. I had been trained to think of a man’s fear of my brain as a bad thing – as a referendum on who I am as a human being. And men, likewise, had been warned away from “headstrong,” “contentious” women. Women like me.

During this time when I believed in gender roles as part and parcel of purity culture, I found myself inspired by books like Wild At Heart and Captivating, books that explained the role of the man as pursuer and the woman’s role as pursued. They are the hunter; we are the hunted.

The implications of such theology for women are obvious – seeing yourself as “prey” creates a warped sense of one’s self and agency when it comes to relationships, making connection with other human beings harder. But something I started considering as I delved deeper in to studying the “manosphere” was this – the burden placed upon men is nearly as bad.

Being pushed and pulled into a special box and role is bad for anyone. For women, it feeds into centuries of oppression and forces us to see ourselves as less than human, without agency or autonomy. For men, it feeds into an invisible power dynamic, creating opportunities for sinfulness and gracelessness. For men who do not fit the mold, it creates expectations that are burdensome and unhealthy.

These burdens are by no means equal, but they are both concerning, and it is only by overturning the system of privilege and oppression that we will leave all people free to pursue their own sense of self.

But what is this role that men are called to? According to numerous Christian purity books, there are a few bullet points we can agree on:

  • Man is the head of the household – if not the breadwinner, he is the spiritual head and leader
  • Man is the pursuer in heterosexual relationships (because non-cisgender, non-heterosexual relationships don’t exist in purity culture).
  • Man is to have courage, to act as the protector of his woman
  • Man should be soft enough to be a good father
  • Man should earn enough money to support his children through college
  • Men must sacrifice themselves for women, even if the woman doesn’t ask for it, because it is noble and what men are called to do

But simultaneously, we learn that:

  • Men are weak animals who cannot control themselves around a bare shoulder
  • Men are unable to stop themselves from raping women if the woman has acted in a tempting manner
  • Men have little to no control over their thought lives and therefore must be coddled by women dressing modestly
  • Men are easily led astray by jezebel women with bad intent and have almost no ability to think for themselves when they have a woody
  • Men do not know how to talk to women about what they want to experience in a sexual encounter

Like women, men suffer from conflicting expectations and burdens when it comes to the confused mess that is purity culture. They are simultaneously the spiritual leaders and subject to every whim of their (assumed heterosexual) biology. They are simultaneously taught that sexual thoughts are inescapable and animalistic, but that they should have preternatural strength in resisting the arousal. They are simultaneously a major threat to the women in their lives and their only protection.

These untenable, conflicting burdens make it very hard for men to figure out who they are, what they actually want, and what it means to be a man of God. What’s worse is that they are not taught how to engage with their sexuality in a healthy manner, always assumed to be on the verge of raping and pillaging like our old stories of Vikings. This warps the male sense of self.

Donald Miller (yes, that Donald Miller) once described in a since-deleted blog post that a man should cuddle his wife with a baseball bat behind his back. What Miller meant was that men need to be both comforting and protective. What Miller actually said is an apt metaphor for the weird, conflicting ideas that men are placed under within purity culture. Men are pushed into these untenable positions of being told they are uncontrollably sexual and then asked to control themselves – often by asking women to comply to strict modesty and purity standards to prevent this uncontrollable sexual desire from rising up like a dragon waking after a long sleep.

But if you continually tell someone that they are not really in control of themselves, that men will push and prod and be focused on only one thing, you really shouldn’t be surprised when men develop a warped view of sexuality in which they don’t respect their partner because “that’s just how men are.” So much of the gender stereotyping we have comes from this self-fulfilling prophecy – you tell men, over and over, what men are “like,” and they will eventually become that.

And Christian purity culture, far from pushing for respect, fails to realize that men are human beings who experience varying levels of sexual desire, just as women are humans with varying levels of sexual desire. Evangelical culture instead baptizes and demonizes the male libido, separating sexual drive from any sense of self and control – creating the very monsters it tells men they are.

Once, when I was dating a man back in Chicago, we were making out on the couch and he paused and told me, “You need to tell me when to stop because I’m a man and I’ll just keep going.” Everything, for him, came back to his gender. He’s a man, so he won’t know how to stop himself, he won’t be able to stay monogamous, etc etc (needless to say, I ended things). His gender, confirmed by stereotypes about men told both by purity culture and popular culture, became a ready excuse for actions he didn’t want to own up to, for decisions he made.

That is the type of man purity culture creates. Perfectly nice, but perfectly unable to take responsibility for his own actions and decisions.

In the next couple of weeks, we’ll examine specific statements from purity advocates that reinforce these ideas of men and delve deeper into what these ideas mean for the culture at large.

[Photo credit: Jesse Romaneix Gosselin, via Creative Commons]