The Science and Sexism of Man-Flu

I don’t remember when I first heard the expression “man-flu,” but it has been around a few years now. Generally, it expresses the view of many women that men whine and complain when felled by the flu, but women soldier on undaunted by a little thing like a flu virus. Even women who consider themselves feminists will trot out man-flu as evidence that women are stronger and more resilient than men.

After this went on for some time, men rejoiced when a study published in the American Journal of Physiology claimed that women’s stores of estrogen spared them the worst effects of flu and helped them fight off the virus. Men could stop apologizing for theirIMG_0398 suffering and just continue whining and demanding attention, because the man-flu was real after all.

But, of course, some researchers pushed back. An article in STAT in March 2017 boldly asserted that the scientific evidence for man-flu was overblown. If women have stronger immune responses, it said, they will have more severe symptoms, as it is the immune system that causes sneezing, coughing and other flu symptoms. More telling, though, is the final statement in the article. The article quoted immunologist Laura Haynes of the University of Connecticut, who said, “Maybe men just get whinier.”

“Whiny” is a rough scientific category to pin down, but in this case I guess “whiny” means a man expressing pain out of proportion to his suffering. For any study to determine whether men suffer from flu more than women, it would have to quantify and measure the subjective experiences of men from across the globe. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I am saying it has not been done.

Given the fact that we can’t actually know who suffers more from the flu and the fact that we actually don’t know who complains about it more (anecdotal evidence from women who just happen to live with men lacks a bit of rigor, I think you will agree), I propose to blame another culprit: patriarchy.

It just might be true that men seem to complain more because they are expected to never complain at all. Men are expected to be stoic and unaffected by pain and suffering. This may be at least one reason women take 50 percent more sick days than men. When men show any crack in their invulnerability, they are mocked by other men, by women, and even by feminists.

So, the term “man-flu” may just be another way of saying someone failed the test of the patriarchy to fulfill the demands of sacrificial masculinity. If you support gender equality, phrases such as “man-flu” and “man-up” can only hurt your cause.

Tom Digby on Militarism, Sexuality, and Romance

In a post on how men can be better feminist allies, Emma Cueto advises men to avoid the temptation to put men’s issues first. She sums up the problem of “toxic masculinity” by noting, “is not fun for anyone and often limits men’s choices in terms of interests or self-expression, and it means that many men are never really given the tools to properly deal with their own emotions.”  She goes on to say that men are not sexually assaulted at the same rate as women, are not victims of domestic violence as often as women, are not victims of pay disparities or sexual discrimination as often as women, and aren’t confronted by laws designed to control their bodies. She is right on all counts, but Tom Digby’s book, Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance , helps show why it is impossible to separate culturally programmed masculinity from sexual assault, reproductive regulation, domestic violence, and job discrimination and why feminists must deal with how sexism affects both men and women simultaneously.

His thesis is that militaristic societies establish values and goals that require men to cut off their feelings of care for others and for themselves, see women’s freedom as a threat, and rely on violence to solve their problems. In order to achieve military objectives, subject both boys and girls with intense cultural programming from birth to encourage strength in boys and passivity in girls. With this thesis, he flips the script from what many assume: that men are violent and cut off from their feelings by biological programming. Early in the book, he offers two pieces of evidence that this assumption is faulty. First, men and women in some societies do not show the differences that are so prevalent in militaristic societies. Second, he shows that men often fight against their own biology to retain the appearance of stoicism. Indeed, almost all men have been cruelly taunted for their failure to maintain their composure (choking back tears) even before reaching adolescence. If biology prevented boys from crying, no one would have to keeping telling boys not to cry. The conditioning is relentless and severe.

War dependent societies must maintain ample supplies of expendable men as well as childbearing women who will provide future generations of warriors. This requires shutting down empathy in men, glorifying risk and violence, and valuing women according to sexual availability and passivity. To the extent that maintaining near constant war was the goal, this model worked for centuries, but things have changed. I wish I could say we are no longer reliant on war, but that is sadly not driving the change. Digby points out that while war is still with us, the need for individual warriors who do one-on-one combat, relying on brute strength, has greatly diminished. Combat is now highly mechanized, and what physical differences may exist between men and women often offer no benefit to either side or may even give an advantage to women (he notes the case of jet fighters).

As a result, most men do not experience direct combat, or any kind of combat, in their lives. Our warriors must find other outlets for their masculinity. They may do it through aggressive sports, war games such as paintball, or even through violent video games. Digby points out that while women may be attracted to warriors, the guy who dominates video games doesn’t get quite the accolades of war combatants.

Another change is the material relationship between men and women. In the past, women were materially dependent on men and would comply with men’s wishes in order to avoid poverty. As women have entered the workforce, many are now the primary wage earners for their families. As women earn college degrees and professional credentials at higher rates than men, it is inevitable that men will become increasingly dependent on women for material support. These social changes leave our masculine warrior with an identity crisis. One option is for him to change his identity, which requires becoming more dependent and empathetic. This would be to become more “feminine” (a horror to the warrior). Or, the second option is for him to become more strident and militant, which may account for increased attacks against feminism and women these days.

When we observe the vitriol in attacks against feminist women online, graphic violence against women in video games and movies, and actual physical brutality and murder of women, it is easy to see the desperation of the warriors who refuse to go down without a fight. The fact that their opponents wish them no real harm seems to be of no consolation. It took me awhile to read this book because I assumed I would agree with it, and I did. I already knew that men were programmed to cut off their empathy, to expect women to be passive, to have the greatest disdain for “feminine” men, and so on. This book does bring a new analysis to these facts, though. It gives a new understanding of how things have gotten where they are and how they may be different.

I have only one minor quibble with one claim in the book. In chapter two, Digby quotes Sandra Bartky to explain the transactional nature of heterosexual relationships. He quotes Bartky as saying, “He shows his love for her by bringing home the bacon, she by securing for him a certain quality of nurturance and concern.” The claim is that men are emotionally unavailable or unsuited for empathy and emotional nurturance. On the other hand, women are expected to provide comfort and emotional support for men. I do think it is true that men are more likely to seek emotional support from women than from men, but I do not think this transaction is so readily accepted in heterosexual relationships.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking to both men and women in grief. Many men are so conditioned to “be strong” that they will never ask for support from the women in their lives for fear of appearing weak. Also, many feel they must suppress their emotional needs for the good of the family. Because they succeed in appearing strong, the women around them believe they are strong and do not need emotional support. As a result, men too often face grief and depression in complete isolation. When they finally crumble under the pressure, many will say, “I had no idea things were so bad.” This may help explain why men commit suicide at higher rates than women. Sadly, I’ve heard too many women say that they, also, do not feel supported by other women. Increasingly, at least in the United States, I feel grief is becoming a solitary activity for both men and women.

I hope we can all begin to support one another by offering each other protection, emotional support, material support, and just human kindness.

Why men don’t speak out against sexism and misogyny

When we feel ashamed or judged, we have several possible ways of responding. One IMG_0516method of dealing with shame is to defend yourself vigorously, to deny anything is wrong, and to attack those who might think differently. We can imagine the loud protests of Hamlet’s mother, though perhaps Hamlet’s attack on his mother is equally revealing. A second method, which is my preferred method, is to try to suppress it, hide it, and pretend it does not exist, and I think I have plenty of company with millions of people struggling with feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and a myriad of shortcomings. This kind of shame destroys you from the inside out. The third and most difficult method of dealing with shame is to acknowledge it, confront it, and try to resolve it in some way. When we meet individuals who can do this, we admire them, praise them, and exalt them, which is as it should be. Think of a former member of the KKK who becomes a civil rights leader, for example.

In the aftermath of Elliot Rodgers’ mass killing, pundits, analysts, feminists, psychologists, and just about everyone else has jumped to understand and explain what may cause someone to want to kill with such intensity and drive. It appears that Rodgers dealt with feelings of deep shame and inadequacy because he felt he failed as a man because he couldn’t convince women to have sex with him. Many men, even those who have had their share of sexual encounters, share his shame, but fewer question the assumptions that create that shame. Men are expected to be on a constant mission to prove themselves through sexual conquests, and most men internalize this to one degree or another in the same way that women internalize attitudes toward body image.

It isn’t surprising, then, that many men reacted defensively to discussions of sexist attitudes and their dire consequences. Who is going to say, “I see now that I’ve bought into a dangerous belief system. I see that my way of thinking leads to mass murder.”? Not many, which might explain the emotional and unrelated defenses of Glenn Beck, Seth Rogen, and all the men who reacted negatively to #yesallwomen. Beck went on a long tirade against the idea that sexual assault and harassment is prevalent and suggested that people are calling normal, consensual sex rape. Rogen responded to Ann Hornaday’s critique of media that depicts women as trophies by tweeting, ““How dare you imply that me getting girls in movies caused a lunatic to go on a rampage.”

These men want to make clear that they are not part of the problem. They recognize that their attitudes and maybe even their actions are now being criticized as part of the problem, and they are saying, “Hey, don’t point the finger at me.” They may also realize they have internalized the values that oppress and torture men. We may want to respond to #yesallwomen with #notallmen, but the fact is that all men, at least in my culture, are familiar with the beliefs and attitudes that shame men for “purity” and women for “sexual prowess.” We feel it deep in our bones, and it makes us uncomfortable.

In the next wave, many women wonder why more “enlightened” men don’t speak up and stand with them. To be fair, many men have shown the courage to do this, but doing so requires us all to look inside and examine what we may prefer to hide and suppress. You don’t have to be a rapist or a murderer to recognize common feelings or assumptions you may have or may have once had, and it can create a kind of soul-burning shame.

Few tasks in life are as difficult as confronting our own shame. The attitudes and beliefs that define us as men and women touch us at the core of our being. A thoughtful, honest, complex, and courageous discussion of how to liberate and protect men and women will be lengthy and arduous, but a better world is possible.

PS: And let’s have a discussion about access to guns as well.

For more on shame, see the work of Brené Brown.

 

Girls are raped; boys “lose their virginity” (unless it is to a man)

When women reveal that they first “had sex” at the age of 11, we call it rape, even if it was consensual, and rightly so. Often, these same women will go on to detail a life plagued by self-loathing, substance abuse, reckless behavior, and failed relationships. It may not be absolutely right to blame every single problem on these early sexual experiences (surely verbal abuse, physical abuse, and other factors play a role), but most of us agree that this is not the best way to become a healthy and satisfied sexual being. Having sex as a child is absolutely to be avoided.

Unless you are a boy and the person having sex with you is female. The latest in a long line of men bragging about their early sexual experiences is Josh Brolin, who says he “lost his virginity” when he was eleven to a girl named Greta. There is no mention of how old Greta was at the time. Men’s Journal also says that he stole cars and smoked heroin as a teen. His life follows a pattern we might associate with victims of child rape. He was most recently arrested on New Year’s Eve for public intoxication.

I certainly don’t know the facts regarding Brolin’s early experiences, and I don’t claim to know anything about him beyond what I’ve read in these reports, but I can’t understand why journalists can blithely report that a boy “lost his virginity” at the age of eleven. I can’t imagine anyone saying the same of a woman without at least mentioning the age of the person who had sex with the child or the possibility of child rape.

It is time to view sex with young boys in the same way we view sex with young girls.