Childhood Masculinity

Over at little light’s place, there has been a bit of a row over the notion of boyhood masculinity being connected to violence. I don’t have any problems with little light’s post. I think it’s beautiful, to the point, and contains a world of truth. Other people vehemently disagree.

I had a pretty awful experience with masculinity during my childhood. I’m a trans woman, so that should come as no surprise. I was more feminine than a lot of male children and because of that I suffered miserably. My tormentors were predominantly boys. That’s where my experiences coincide with many trans women’s childhood experiences.

Unlike many trans women, however, I experienced my childhood as a boy, a weird sort of boy, but a boy nevertheless. Many trans women identify as girls early in their childhood (elementary school or earlier). I did not. For the first ten years of my life, I didn’t question my body’s nature. In spite of the abuse, I was OK with being a boy. Having a male body didn’t seem strange, uncomfortable or disorienting. Being a boy, in and of itself wasn’t a horrible, alien experience. It was my male peers’ response to my persona that made the whole experience an exercise in misery. I certainly envied girls for certain aspects of their lives, but I never thought I was anything other than a boy.

My gender identity remained male until around the age of 10. At that point, it started to shift to female. At some point after my tenth birthday, I started to develop an awareness that my body wasn’t quite right for me. It was a slow process that took place over the next seven years of my life. As time progressed, I become more and more aware that I felt a need to be female. It frightened me, confused me, and embarrassed me. I did my darndest to resist the changes taking place in my psyche. I spent the last five years of my boyhood doing my utmost to conform to masculinity.

That all changed when I turned 17. I stopped fighting the changes that had taken place in my psyche and stared to identify as female. At that point, I relaxed and simply let go of the need to conform to masculinity. Until that crucial year of my life, I had played the role of boy as best I could.

The whole point of this story is to illustrate that I experienced the bulk of my childhood as a boy. Even from the ages of 10 through 17, I still operated on the assumption that I was a boy—albeit a weird damaged boy, but still a boy nevertheless. Since I did not think of myself as a girl until I was 17, I experienced masculinity in ways that resemble cissexual boys’ experiences. While I experienced abuse as a feminine male child, my experiences with masculinity are different from those trans women who identified as girls at an early age. Because I identified as a boy, I suspect that I internalized the expectations of masculinity more deeply than they did.

This leaves me in a very strange place. I am a woman who has an insider’s experience with the masculinity of boys. I lived it, in the flesh. I experienced it from the inside. What I learned from my experiences of childhood does not form a very flattering portrayal of boys.

In May of 2006, I posted a summary of my experiences with boyhood masculinity in a comment thread at Feministe. (Back then, I posted under the handle of StacyM.) Here is an excerpt from that post:

There is so much that can be changed in the social sphere that can effect positive change in male behavior. Our culture encourages—even mandates—that young males define themselves in terms of sexual prowess and dominance over others. Images of this version of masculinity abound everywhere: in movies, books, video games, and music. These images are modeled by family members, older siblings, teachers, and friends.

The pressure is there from the youngest years, “Do I measure up, or am I a sissy, a wimp, a wuss?” One struggles for dominance among other boys through constant verbal sparing or the threat of physical assault. Failing to measure up to a certain standard of masculinity in the presence of other males results in painful taunting, social ostracism, and sometimes, physical assault. One learns to define one’s sense of self via dominance and control of one’s peers.

As one grows into adolescence, misogyny becomes the common currency of masculinity. Sharing misogynistic humor serves as a popular means of entertainment and bonding. Talking about girls’ and women’s body parts as though they were cuts of meat also serves a similar role. To be a virgin is to be inadequate, unmanly, emasculated. You pretend to have had sexual conquests even if you and many of your peers have secretly never dated. Three beliefs are reinforced from adolescence onward: sex makes a man powerful, the primary goal of intimate relationships is sex, and women exist to serve these goals.

This is a limited sample of the culture I grew up in. I lived it, breathed it and was damaged by it. It existed before I got there and it continues to exist now that I am long removed. Though I never did anything as horrible as sexually assault someone, I certainly participated in my fair share of games of dominance and misogynistic discussions. Out of fear for my own safety, a desire to be one of the boys, and a quest for social prestige, I conformed to the rules and played the game. I did my part in reproducing and passing on the warped culture that young males share.

There is so much that can change in the social environment that young boys grow up in: better role modeling by adult men, changes in the representations of males in the media, teaching non-violent conflict resolution in schools, and actively discouraging children’s tendency to single out others for ridicule. Prejudice of all kinds (including, but not limited to misogyny) and the damage that they wrought can be frankly and openly addressed from the youngest grades onward.

However, instituting these changes would actually require motivation on the part of those who control most of society’s resources: adult men (particularly white adult men). Those who hold positions of power don’t often feel motivated to change in ways that benefit their subordinates. In spite of the emotional damage that male socialization does to boys and men, that socialization centers on training males in how to amass power, work with power, and function within structures of power. Giving up that kind of training carries with it the implication of giving up power—whether this means giving up power over women or over anyone else lower down in the social strata. It carries with it the stigma of somehow becoming like those who live beneath you.

My feelings about masculinity haven’t changed very much since then. My childhood experiences brought me to see a clear link between striving for dominance and being masculine. Dominance is linked with one’s very identity as a male. If you can’t compete, you’re crap. You are branded as a sissy, a looser, a nobody, a weakling, a woman, or a fag.

The thing is, the quest for dominance generally involves an application of force, and that in turn leads to employing violence. Sometimes this violence employs physical force. Sometimes it employs social forces. Regardless, it’s still violence.

So, do I see a link between masculinity and violence? You bet I do.

I do not think that boys and men are by their natures, evil. I do think that we socialize boys in ways that inculcate the potential to engage in very destructive behaviors. I believe that many men do escape these ways of being. Unfortunately, many do not. Those are the guys I worry about.

If you want a prime example of the kind of destruction these patterns of being bring forth, think of our last president. Think of the war we are mired in. Think of the destruction of entire countries. Think of hundreds of thousands of maimed and dead people.

This is a problem. Call it an unfair stereotype of men and boys, if you will. Call it misandry. Call it feminist hogwash. You can call it anything you want, but denying it won’t make it vanish from existence. It’s there even if you pretend it isn’t… and so is the damage that is wrought.


~ by timberwraith on April 5, 2009.

2 Responses to “Childhood Masculinity”

  1. Wow. That’s a powerful concept, one that I think I agree with, though I’m too stunned right now with all the implications to really examine how I feel about it. Regardless, I know I’ll be thinking about it for quite some time, and trying to figure ways to change the culture my boys grow up in, even if all I can affect is the culture within the house.

    Thank you.

  2. Thanks for your feedback, kitrona.

    As a child, if I had known that masculinity was being defined by my peers and by my father in incredibly unhealthy ways, I think that would have made a world of difference. If I had both a father and a mother who recognized this, so much the better.

    Even so, peer pressure is an incredibly difficult thing to resist. Sometimes all an adult can do is let a child know they are facing unrealistic, hurtful expectations and hope that this message is remembered and embraced when the appropriate moment arrives.

    It’s wonderful that you are trying to think of ways of being supportive for your sons. The point I should also have made in my post is that contemporary definitions of masculinity can be incredibly hurtful to all boys—not just boys who are destined to grow into women. Such training can cut a person off from his emotions and generate mistrust of everyone around him: his friends, his family, everyone. To be competitive and dominant, one must build walls, deny weakness, suppress emotions, and shut others out. It’s a terrible price to pay in the quest of being “one of the boys.” It not only creates men who harm others, but it also creates men who harm themselves.

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