We talk a lot about gender rules and how they influence the lives of women. How we are expected to believe that there is a certain way that a woman should look and behave to be a woman. This unreachable, unattainable, perfect femininity. Thin, beautiful, sophisticated, sexually experienced but not too much or too little of it, charm and grace, style. We know when to talk and when not to talk. Our relationships define us. Our friendships highlight us. Our hobbies help shape who will will become.
We talk a lot about gender rules and women and how they harm women but we don’t talk about how these same things can harm men. And do harm men.
The other day I was reading a post about a guy who might have been sixteen or seventeen. He was having trouble in his relationship because he felt like he was unable to make his girlfriend have her orgasm before he had his. He felt that this was a great failure of his and that he wasn’t actually having sex because his goals weren’t being met.
One gender rule for men that is particularly pervasive is performance. Performance of all kinds. They need to perform well at work and climb the ladder to achieve professional success. They need to perform well in the bedroom, somehow vigorously stimulating their partner with their penis without ejaculating themselves. They need to perform well as a man, always acting masculine, proving to themselves, their family, and their friends, and they are who they appear to be, as to not cause any concern.
This performance causes men to feel like something is wrong with them. If they show emotion, they worry that they aren’t strong enough. They might think they are weak, or broken, falling apart. They may hide their depression, bottle it up, and become angry instead. Anger is an appropriate emotion for a man to express, after all. This performance may cause men to feel as though they have erectile dysfunction. Young men with super healthy bodies, judging the way that they work, because they can’t work in this unbelievable way. This performance might cause men to lose friendships. They are unable to tell their male friends how they feel about them. They are unable to express caring or love. They don’t want to be seen as “pussies” or effeminate. Yet worse, they don’t want to be seen as gay. For the gay man, this is a much longer post.
We don’t talk about the performance men put on even though many men would not take on these stories as their reality. Men want to have friends they can be close to. They want to have intimate relationships with women. They want to love, and be loved. They want to have sex without the pressure to succeed. They want intimacy and desire. They want to work and enjoy their work, but they don’t necessarily want to feel pressured to be the best all of the time. Not all men want to be super muscular versions of themselves, and even if they do, they certainly are affected by that image in the same way women are affected by thin petit women in the media.
The problem is, men are so highly rewarded for being this image of masculinity. The same way that women are rewarded for being the image of femininity. Equally, they are burned when they do not fit into this image. When they stray from it. When they try to be themselves. When they make mistakes.
It’s important to view gender equality and the breakdown of gender norms as a problem of both men and women because it’s a problem of both men and women. It influences how we see ourselves, and how we interact with one another. And it definitely influences our happiness.