In the past couple of weeks, a friend (who is gay) told me that two people asked him if I was gay. It appears that the common thread is that I am considered sensitive. I guess, more sensitive than one would expect a straight male to be. (more on this later) I didn’t have a knee-jerk “Hell no! I’m a women-lovin’ straight male.” reaction. Instead, I was curious to get to the root of the issue — Sensitive men. Funnily enough, I’ve been thinking about writing this blog piece for quite some time. If nothing else, I can credit a couple people asking, indirectly, if I was gay for prodding me to get these thoughts out of my head.
For the better part of a year, or so, I’ve been thinking about gender roles. I’ve tried to explore why I get so annoyed when a guy is put down for being sensitive. The term, sensitive, is so used generically, that one is left to think that men are not supposed to express or display even a modicum of sensitivity. We’re supposed to be hard. The flaw with that line of thinking is that it suggests that sensitivity is weakness. That it makes you, somehow, less of a man. Well…I’m calling bullshit on that!
I would argue that a sensitive man is actually a strong individual. A sensitive man is someone with enough security and confidence in himself that being sensitive, compassionate, or even vulnerable, is not a threat. Far too often, I hear the expression, “You’re too sensitive.” This expression is directed at both men and women. I think when it’s said to a woman, it is an attempt to silence her emotions and not deal with issues. When it’s said to man, it’s meant to deride the guy for caring. He’s being soft. Going all Ralph Tresvant. Acting like a little bitch (the bedroom scene from Super Bad comes to mind). Oh…he’s acting gay.
I think it’s too convenient to label gay men as sensitive, because it plays on a stereotype of (all) gay men as sensitive and effeminate. I have been around, or seen, plenty of gay guys that are far from what I would deem sensitive. In fact, many gay guys are just that…guys. They can be dicks just like the next guy. I almost think it’s funny that a gay guy would question whether I was gay because I’m sensitive. I, honestly, think he was using that as a cover to play out what was in his head…but that’s another story.
Anyway, I feel like I am drifting a bit here. Maybe I am venting a bit because I have had more than a few rough patches in my life when I was derided for being sensitive. I think it’s worth clarifying that when I speak of sensitive, I’m talking about actually taking an interest in others, being willing to listen more than talk, be empathic, and not have sex running through my head when interacting with a woman. As with anything else, I’m sure there are limits. I’m not talking about people who fall to pieces. That’s the extreme side of sensitivity. Hypersensitivity? I do know. I really don’t want to put a label on it. I had a good friend once get on me about using the expression “You’re overreacting!” She averred that everyone is entitled to his or her own reaction to things, and it’s not for me to define it. So, I won’t try to draw a line around what I deem to be overly-sensitive, because that would be contradictory and defeat the very point of this post.
Look up the definition of sensitive in Merriam Webster. While the string of definitions won’t probably surprise you, I think it’s very telling to look at the synonyms and antonyms.
Synonyms: delicate, fine, keen, perceptive, quick, acute, sharp.
Antonyms: insusceptible, invulnerable, unexposed, unsusceptible.
I am sure there are times when people should be unsusceptible or invulnerable. However, I think in day-to-day interactions with people, being acute, perceptive, quick, sharp, or even delicate, is a more appealing and useful personality trait.
I honestly think the way most of us have been conditioned, from childhood, to look at gender roles is the culprit. Girls play with dolls and tea sets. Boys eat boogers and throw rocks. Girls wear pink…boys don’t. If that line, even remotely, is crossed, boys are admonished to “stop acting like a girl.” It starts early. The funny thing is, girls get conditioned with this bullshit, too. Though I’m not going into any depth about how all this affects women, it doesn’t mean I am not aware. I’m just taking time to expand on something I can speak on from personal experience.
For instance, though I don’t recall what lead up the encounter, something bad happened to me while I was in college. I went over to the dorm room of a woman I was interested in, and confided in her. As we talked, I became more upset and eventually started to cry. I don’t remember everything about the exchange, because what stands out is what happened the next day. I walked into the student center and sat down with some friends. It didn’t take long before one of them giggled and did a little “boo hoo” thing. I asked what that was about, and one of guys said, “Yeah, I heard you were over in ___’s room crying like a little bitch.” Ugh! I was a little mortified, but, quite honestly, I was more upset with the woman that sat with me as I unraveled. I wasn’t upset, so much, that she shared that I cried in her room. No, I was more upset by the way she clearly characterized the whole thing. You see, guys are not supposed to cry. We aren’t expected to care enough to even reach that point. When we do cry or express concern, it’s supposed to be masculine. Cry, but only three tears and you wipe them from your eyes in a manly way. Don’t even think about sobbing.
Of course, crying and sobbing are at one end of the sensitivity spectrum. The other, more benign, end is simply talking, listening, and sharing feelings. I saw a Tweet a few weeks back by a woman. She said (paraphrasing), “I can’t stand sensitive dudes. If I wanted to sit around and talk about my feelings I would’ve called one of my girl friends. MAN UP!” The first thought that ran through my head is that this woman young, and she is going to get exactly what she asked for in a partner — a hard, insensitive man. Then, when the guy treats her like shit, she will be complaining that the guy didn’t care and didn’t tend to her needs. I see a lot of couples that go along with this rigid role-playing. The guys go hang out with their guy friends — ironically talking to them about personal stuff, often griping about what they’re not getting from their significant others. The conversations will get clipped, though, if a guy is veering too far down a path paved with emotions and feelings. Meanwhile, the women talk to their girlfriends about their feelings, dreams and desires — both met and, often, unmet. All the while, the two are going through the motions in the relationship. Does that mean the two don’t truly love each other? No. Most do love each other, but I can’t help but think about how much deeper that love would be if they eliminated the gender role buffers. So many couples don’t really know what’s going on, emotionally, with their significant others. Don’t get me wrong here. There are plenty of times when I hit the point where I feel like there’s just too much talking. However, when it comes to trying to get to the core of what’s going on with my wife, my son, my family members or friends, I need to listen and explore.
Ok, I could, honestly, write about this for a long time; but I will bring this to a close. I am sure there will be some that will see this post and scream, “Man up!!” That’s ok. I have been slowly moving to a place where I am more confident and comfortable with just being who I am.
In my mind, there is something perfectly normal about a non-self righteous, sensitive straight man.
If there was any doubt that the definition of masculinity is being questioned, one only needed to tune into the Superbowl last week.
I apologize if this post is wandering. I doubt this will be the last time I address this issue; but with the recent airing of the Superbowl ads, I wanted to get these thoughts out of my head. As always, I welcome your thoughts and feedback. I would like to get reaction from both men and women. (Though, something tells me I will only hear from women.)
I was listening to NPR on the way into work this morning — primarily because my $%*@! Zune keeps acting up. (Breathe) Anyway, I tuned in near the beginning of a piece about the burgeoning new paradigm of women making more money than their significant others, and the attendant issues with this reality. Perhaps in tandem, there is also an article in today’s New York Times on the same topic.
As I listened the piece, and subsequently read the Times article, I started to think about how this is such a non-issue for me. Of course, I had to think if I could say for sure that I felt this way because, to date, I have always made more money than my significant other and/or spouse. I didn’t have to travel far to reach the answer. No…I honestly don’t care.
What came next were some thoughts about the different sides of this issue. My knee-jerk reaction was thinking that a lot of these guys belly aching about feeling emasculated need to get over themselves. I have long since tired of the centuries-old edict that a man must make more — read “provide” — than his significant other. (Of course I couldn’t help but take a mental sidebar to ponder about how gay male couples handle this dilemma.) However, being a man, and spending a good amount of time over the years around other men, I can understand the pressure to be the provider.
On the flip side of the gender coin, though, I’ve heard more than my share of women add the “he must make more than me” caveat when describing an ideal mate, or supplying the justification for why they had to pass on a decent prospective mate. Further, I’ve known and heard a substantial number of women, of all races, bemoan that they are having a hard time finding a mate because “there are no good men out there.” That is often code for, “that fool works at Target.”
Let me be honest and real here. While I am sure many people have legitimate life experiences that make them reticent to 1) attempt to date a more economically-successful woman; or 2) date a man who earns less; I think there’s something else at play here. I think at the root of this is a simple matter of control. Let me attempt to break this down, from my perspective, based on gender lines.
Listen to the NPR piece. Read the NY Times article. Have an honest talk with male friends and they will tell you that they don’t want a woman trying to boss them around. They don’t want to feel emasculated. I fear that a lot of this is merely projection. We, as men, have been brought up to feel that we need to lead and provide. Even our parents would reinforce this construct. “Man up!” “Be a man!” The upside of this constant admonishment is that a lot of men are very aggressive, in terms of their careers. We are dogged by the little voice that urges us to make that money. Climb that ladder. Make that money. Get a higher position. Make that money. Though many of us want to shout “Stop the world! I want to get off!” we keep toiling away trying to make…that…money.
I have more a few friends who got tripped up, on their own accord, pursuing the women they loved because they felt their finances were not in order. What the…? Now, in fairness, I think it’s responsible to think about your financial condition, generally. Further, if you’re planning to have kids in the near future, it’s a smart to engage in some financial planning. That’s not really what gets me to head-scratching. It’s the wholesale notion that they cannot enter into a relationship until they have all their “ducks in a row.” Some of this can be chalked up to commitment issues, but most of the time it’s because we have been pounded since a young age to make that money. No man is supposed to have a woman taking care of him. Right?
Now, my female friends escape some culpability in this funky dynamic in which we found ourselves. Women were right there as the boys were taught to be providers. I would conjecture that that notion of man as provider gets reinforced into a woman’s psyche just as much as it does into ours. What’s particularly interesting is the duality, if I can call it that, of expectations from women who aggressively pursue their careers. By duality, I mean, the same women who (rightfully) expect to advance and be paid accordingly, have an expectation that their significant other or spouse will/should out earn them. I get the idea of wanting someone who “complements” you, but enough all ready with income litmus tests. Otherwise, the notion of someone complementing you is reduced to one thing…make that money!
Again, I feel strongly that an issue of control is at play, because generally the person who makes the larger salary tends to control the relationship dynamic. The person who makes less tends to be somewhat beholden to the larger salary earner–be it the man or the woman. Sure, sure…we can all pull out examples of egalitarian relationships; but, be honest, how many relationships can you point to where the person who makes less money is the more dominant person when it comes to financial decisions?
There was a guy in the NPR piece who shared that he didn’t feel he could interject in conversations about money because he earned less than his wife. I heard two things in that. One, he ceded control to his wife because he believes in the “(s)he who has the money has the power.” Further, between the lines, I could hear regret and resentment that he didn’t hold that position or role in the family.
I hear women say, “he can’t handle it,” referring to their significant others having issues with them being the larger wage earner. I won’t attempt to waive that away, because there’s plenty of truth in that statement; however, there’s a back story here. There are some women who make more than their mate, and like a lot of men, will constantly remind their partner of that fact–whether in implicit or explicit ways. Irrespective of how much sugar was coated on the statement, being reminded that you’re the lesser because your paycheck is small is a bitter pill to swallow.
I didn’t write this piece to tear anyone down or to stir the pot. I am simply releasing something that I actually think about often. As my wife gains notoriety and her income increases (make that money baby!), I am fully prepared to support her and do everything I can to see that she meets exceeds her goals. I couldn’t care less if she makes ten times more than me, because I didn’t marry her for money. Add to that, my dream is to go full-time with my photography and writing, which will, at least initially, produce less income than I currently make. My wife is all on board for that. There is no threat to my masculinity. She holds no design to reign over me. Maybe I’m just a new age kind of guy, but my manhood is not defined by the ratio of my income to that of my wife’s. In fact, I’ve got issues with this whole “manhood” paradigm and gender roles, generally, but I’ll write about that in another piece.
What do you think about this issue? I would love if I could get some real candid comments and conversation about this topic.