Write me: rjn@richardjnewman.com
Notes Towards a Discussion of Male Self-Hatred
In Kayak Morn­ing, Roger Rosen­blatt writes:

The lit­er­a­ture involv­ing fathers and daugh­ters runs to near­ly one thou­sand titles. I Googled. The Tem­pest. King Lear. Emma. The May­or of Cast­er­bridge. Wash­ing­ton Square. Daugh­ters have a pow­er over fathers, who are usu­al­ly por­trayed as aloof or mad. The father depends on his daugh­ter and he is often iso­lat­ed with her—the two of them part­nered against the world. It is a good choice for writ­ers, this pair­ing. It may be the ide­al male-female rela­tion­ship in that, with romance out of the pic­ture, the idea of father and daugh­ter has only to do with feel­ings and thoughts…. A girl may speak the truth to her father, who may speak the truth to her. He anchors her. She anchors him.

Rosenblatt’s book explores his grief at the untime­ly death of his own daugh­ter, Amy, and this pas­sage, in the form of a short-hand lit­er­ary analy­sis, mourns the rela­tion­ship he had with her—one that, for him, was clear­ly about a kind of truth-telling that only hap­pens between men and women when the pos­si­bil­i­ty of romance does not exist. Rosenblatt’s grief is his own, and I would not pre­sume to sug­gest that his rela­tion­ship with his daugh­ter was any­thing oth­er than what he says it was. His asser­tion, how­ev­er, that the father-daugh­ter pair­ing is a “good choice for writ­ers” because it allows us to deal with issues between the sex­es sole­ly in terms of feel­ings and thoughts, with­out the messi­ness of romance, gave me seri­ous pause. It’s not that I think he has mis­char­ac­ter­ized the father-daugh­ter rela­tion­ships in the works that he cites—it’s been long enough since I read any of them that I sim­ply do not remember—but rather that, in a male dom­i­nant cul­ture, and we still live in such a cul­ture whether we like it or not, the father-daugh­ter rela­tion­ship is nev­er only about feel­ings and thoughts. The daughter’s body and how she uses it—in sex, in marriage—and how that reflects on the father as a man, on his rep­u­ta­tion and the rep­u­ta­tion of his fam­i­ly, is always already con­test­ed ground.

♦◊♦

I doubt most peo­ple in the Unit­ed States see the father-daugh­ter rela­tion­ship explic­it­ly in these terms any more, though the cus­tom of giv­ing a bride away on her wed­ding day is an echo of it. Still, it’s impor­tant to remem­ber that there are immi­grant sub­cul­tures in this country—and think, also, of the Chris­t­ian insti­tu­tion of puri­ty balls—where it is still a father’s duty to man­age his daughter’s sex­u­al­i­ty, at least until she is appro­pri­ate­ly mar­ried. In my own life, where fathers have been con­spic­u­ous­ly absent, these atti­tudes have man­i­fest­ed them­selves most obvi­ous­ly in the assump­tions peo­ple make about my rela­tion­ship with my sis­ters. Or, more specif­i­cal­ly, what they imag­ine my rela­tion­ship with my sis­ters should have been like when we were younger. I am think­ing specif­i­cal­ly of how most peo­ple react when I tell them about the time I walked in on one of my sis­ters, who was six­teen at the time and should have been in school at the time—she is six years younger than I am—in fla­grante delic­to with her boyfriend.

I did not care that she was hav­ing sex, but the cir­cum­stances in my fam­i­ly at the time meant that I did need to con­front her about play­ing hooky. So I closed the door and asked her and her boyfriend to get dressed and come out into the liv­ing room. I wait­ed for a cou­ple of min­utes, but noth­ing hap­pened. I knocked again, receiv­ing this time a muf­fled reply from my sis­ter, as if she were sick in bed and my knock­ing had roused her from sleep. I opened the door and there she was, alone, with the blan­ket pulled up around her neck. “Where is he?” I asked.

Where is who?”

Michael. I saw him.”

Michael? No. No one else is here.” Her voice cracked as if she had a hor­ri­ble sore throat.

Come on. Don’t bull­shit me. I know what I saw.” I start­ed to look around the room and even­tu­al­ly opened her clos­et, where I found Michael try­ing des­per­ate­ly to dis­ap­pear behind the clothes that were hang­ing there. It was hard not to laugh at him, but I didn’t. I just asked again for them to come out into the liv­ing room. When they did, I told Michael to go home, that my sis­ter and I had to talk, and I will nev­er for­get the look of sur­prised relief and grat­i­tude on his face when he real­ized that I was not going to beat him up. He even asked me, “You mean you’re not going to beat me up?” That made me laugh out loud. I told him no, why would I. He said thank you and he left.

More often than not, the peo­ple to whom I tell this sto­ry, and it doesn’t seem to mat­ter how old or young they are, are as sur­prised as Michael was that I sim­ply let him leave. When I ask them why—since the idea of beat­ing him up nev­er even occurred to me—they always give the same answer: She was your lit­tle sis­ter. It was your job to pro­tect her. And if I ask them what they think she need­ed pro­tec­tion from, they tell me, From guys “like that,” by which they mean, of course, exploitive, sex­u­al oppor­tunists who tal­ly the women they have sex with by mak­ing notch­es in their bed­posts and brag­ging about it to all their friends. But why should I have assumed that Michael—a decent guy, a guy I liked, a guy my sis­ter clear­ly trusted—was “like that?” Okay, so maybe you didn’t have to beat him up, but you should at least have put the fear of God into him, just to keep him hon­est.

Hon­est about what? I ask.

Well, they say, you wouldn’t want your sis­ter to get a rep­u­ta­tion, would you? You wouldn’t want him, or any­one he told, to think your sis­ter was just giv­ing it away, right? And most, but not all, leave the next ques­tion unasked: You wouldn’t want your sis­ter to think it was okay to give it away, would you? Clear­ly, it was not her boyfriend from whom my sis­ter and her rep­u­ta­tion real­ly need­ed pro­tec­tion.

But there you have it: Because I was her old­er broth­er, these peo­ple seem to think, my sister’s emerg­ing sex­u­al­i­ty was my prob­lem, not out of con­cern for her health and safety—and even then it real­ly wouldn’t have been my problem—but because if I did not keep a watch­ful eye on her she might have unde­served­ly acquired the rep­u­ta­tion of or, worse, actu­al­ly become, a “slut.”

The peo­ple with whom I have these con­ver­sa­tions usu­al­ly try to avoid using that word, because they are afraid it will offend me. Or, to be more pre­cise, because they are afraid I will sud­den­ly feel the need to defend my sister’s “hon­or,” even after all these years. Yet it’s not real­ly, or at least not only, my sister’s “hon­or” that they think I should be wor­ried about. Inevitably, when we get to the point in the con­ver­sa­tion where they real­ize that they’re not going to change my mind, that I tru­ly do not think there was any­thing wrong with my sis­ter hav­ing sex, they get down to where the brass tacks real­ly are. What kind of a broth­er were you, any­way? What they mean, of course, is What kind of a man are you?, and their log­ic is not so dif­fer­ent, real­ly, from the fathers and broth­ers who mur­der their daugh­ters and sis­ters in so-called “hon­or killings”—and, just to be clear, there is noth­ing hon­or­able about them—because even the hint of female sex­u­al impro­pri­ety is a stain on her and her family’s rep­u­ta­tion that only her death will remove. Grant­ed, no one has ever sug­gest­ed that I should have killed my sis­ter, but they clear­ly think I should have seen the fact that she didn’t “keep her legs closed” as a threat not just to her, but to myself as well.

Unlike the log­ic that seems to hold in so-called “hon­or killings,” how­ev­er, where the exis­ten­tial threat to fam­i­ly (read: male) hon­or is embod­ied by the woman, the threat in this case—at least as per­ceived by the peo­ple I have these con­ver­sa­tions with—was embod­ied by my sister’s boyfriend. His “suc­cess” in hav­ing sex with my sis­ter, in get­ting around the pro­tec­tion they tell me I should have been pro­vid­ing for her, is clear­ly some­thing they see as a stain on my hon­or that only some form of vio­lence against him would have removed. The fact that I chose not to com­mit that vio­lence, or even to threat­en it, is bewil­der­ing to them. How could I have let Michael get away with some­thing so seri­ous?

♦◊♦

I real­ize I am being reduc­tive here. In fact, the threat to male hon­or in cas­es like this comes from both the man and the woman, which is why the male part­ners of women mur­dered by their fam­i­lies in so-called “hon­or killings” are also often killed or beat­en; and I have com­plete­ly left out of this essay the ways in which women—mothers, aunts, sis­ters, cousins—are expect­ed to pre­serve this male hon­or by polic­ing oth­er women’s sex lives. It’s not that the lay­ers of com­plex­i­ty here are not worth writ­ing about. Rather, it’s that these lay­ers of com­plex­i­ty tend to obscure the rela­tion­ship between the men whose job it is to demon­strate their man­hood by pro­tect­ing their family’s hon­or (in this case, me) and those whose job it is to prove them­selves as men by doing what­ev­er they can to get around that pro­tec­tion (my sister’s boyfriend).

Leave aside, for exam­ple, the fact that there real­ly are guys “like that” and that it is pos­si­ble for an old­er broth­er to sniff this out about his younger sister’s boyfriend before she does, and con­sid­er the con­ver­sa­tion I might have had with my sis­ter in order to get her to stay away from Michael. You don’t under­stand what guys are like, my part in this dis­cus­sion would go—and it’s a part we have seen played in movies and TV shows over and over again by count­less broth­ers or fathers, cousins or friends—but I do under­stand, and I am telling you that when it comes to sex you shouldn’t be so trust­ing. Some­times the man who speaks these lines will explain what he means in more detail and some­times he will not. In each case, how­ev­er, he is ask­ing the woman to whom he is speak­ing to rec­og­nize that, because he is a man, he is more of an author­i­ty on men and male sex­u­al­i­ty than she is. More­over, in doing so, whether he real­izes it or not, he is admit­ting that this author­i­ty comes from the fact that, even if he him­self is not “like that,” he nonethe­less has first-hand knowl­edge of the truth behind the assump­tion that most men are. After all, in this way of see­ing the world, being “like that” is part of what being a man is all about, and so it is inescapably part of every man, even if he con­scious­ly lives his life in oppo­si­tion to it.

There is, in oth­er words, a kind of self-hatred oper­at­ing here. Had I tried to pro­tect my sis­ter in the way I have just described, or even if I’d resort­ed to the vio­lence so many peo­ple seem to think I should have used, I would also have been try­ing to pro­tect her from a ver­sion of myself, or at least from the kind of man I knew I was sup­posed to be if I’d fol­lowed the tra­di­tion­al, stereo­typ­i­cal man­hood script. To put it anoth­er way, what­ev­er beat­ing Michael up would have meant to him and my sis­ter, it would also have been a denial of my own com­plic­i­ty in that script’s def­i­n­i­tion of get­ting sex from women as proof of man­hood. So, if you under­stand this sto­ry not from the per­spec­tive of my rela­tion­ship with my sis­ter, but rather of my rela­tion­ship with Michael, it becomes a nar­ra­tive that is less about the sex­u­al dou­ble standard—though it is of course also about that—than it is about men’s inter­nal expe­ri­ence of man­hood and mas­culin­i­ty as an iden­ti­ty divid­ed against itself. On one side is the man we are (tra­di­tion­al­ly, stereo­typ­i­cal­ly) giv­en per­mis­sion to be with women who are not our moth­ers, sis­ters or daugh­ters; on the oth­er, the man whose man­hood depends on pro­tect­ing our moth­ers, sis­ters and daugh­ters from what that per­mis­sion means to all the oth­er men who are not us. To be both those men at the same time, in an inte­grat­ed way, seems to me impossible—which rais­es the ques­tion of what forms mas­culin­i­ty might take if it were tru­ly unmoored from a notion of man­hood that requires us to hate a part of who we are.

 

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