Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Problem with Being Male

It happened again last week. Male sexual misbehavior made the cover of Time Magazine. We have seen this before. This time the topic was rape on college campuses. We have seen similar news items about sports teams, coaches, movie celebrities, military personnel,  and clergy.  Sometimes it involves taking advantage of women in subordinate roles, sometimes it is child abuse, but all too often it is a specifically male problem of men mishandling their sexual drives.

Why is there such a seemingly prevalent problem with men’s sex drives? Is it a problem born of nature? When one observes the natural world, one sees that the drive toward life is flagrantly abundant, scattering millions of seeds and eggs throughout the environment so that a fraction of those life forms will make it to maturity, with the rest serving as food and fodder. Life is also incredibly tenacious, with trees clinging to rocky mountaintops, bacteria growing in superheated lava flows beneath the ocean, and desert tadpole shrimp whose eggs can survive through decades of drought until rains come to the dry landscape. The drive toward life is seemingly relentless and nature seemingly strives to fill every available bit of habitable space with some form of life. We human beings are the inheritors of a drive for life that seems to be as large as the universe and is at least as large as the world itself.

Look around and you will see that we are part of a grand and glorious enterprise, this marvelous thing called life that is occurring within this grand thing called the universe. A problem seems to arise with human consciousness regarding the sexual drive – we are not quite sure how to handle the strong and primal drive of life that is embedded within us. We seem to have a combination of noble, higher aspirations while remaining subject to a flagrant propagation instinct. It is as though the drive for life is too large to rest comfortably within an individual. 

Modern Fables and Ancient Myths

African elephant in musth
The fables we tell speak of our uncontrollable urges. For example, the writers of the science fiction series Star Trek developed the Vulcan concept of pon-farr in which the sexual drive periodically completely overcomes the otherwise rational and logical Vulcan psyche. We also see it in nature as when a bull elephant in musth (even the ordinarily docile and domesticated Indian elephant) becomes dangerous, unpredictable and destructive. Michael Dowd, in his book, Thank God for Evolution, says that we modern humans live with miss-matched instincts. He points out that instincts which served our ancestors well in allowing them to survive as a species in eons past can become destructive in our modern society. The problem of how to handle the sexual drive seems to be a particularly male problem.

The initiation rites of primitive tribes observed by anthropologists today might give us a clue that ancient cultures had as much trouble reigning in adolescent drives as modern society does.  Tribal rituals guide adolescent boys into manhood. Those rituals can often be harsh, making sure that young boys entering manhood understand their responsibilities to the tribe as well as the proper use of their sexuality. Today with the numerous problems we hear about regarding sexual predators in society, one wonders if perhaps we need a return to harsh initiation rites to drive it home to men that they have a duty with regard to sexual drives. There is the responsibility to consider the well-being of another. In issues of rape, professionals will tell you that it is not just about sex – it is an act of violence. Robert Bly, the poet who became associated with the Men's Movement back in the 1990s, believes that what is missing on our society is a proper initiation of young men with older men as wise mentors. His best-selling book, Iron John: A Book about Men, elaborates his view of how men can reconnect by regaining the ancient wisdom of earlier times. (You can read a review of the book here. To read an interview with Robert Bly in which he discusses the problem of male violence in society, go here.) 

Indiscretions of Trusted Leaders

It is particularly distressing when we hear about people being abused and young lives shattered by the sexual misconduct of adults, usually men. Most men, one would hope, understand the sexual drive and that one must accommodate that drive to rules that make our society work and also protect the vulnerable. On the other hand, in addition to those rules of expected behavior, there are also industries of pornography, prostitution and human trafficking that appeal to and accommodate the darker side of the male sexual drive. Moreover, we see trusted men in authority taking advantage of women and molesting children. After reeling for several years from accounts of priests abusing children, there has been in the news recently renewed discussion of allegations regarding abusive behavior by filmmaker Woody Allen as well as a history of sexual misconduct by respected Mennonite theologian John Yoder.

Too often, we have looked the other way or refused to acknowledge the damage resulting from the sexual misbehavior of men in power. When these incidents become known, then the problems become even more complicated.   For example, I now have difficulty even thinking of watching Woody Allen's movie, Annie Hall, which was seen as a classic commentary on our society with both comedic and sociological insight. In the same way, the U.S. Catholic Bishops' groundbreaking pastoral letters from the 1980s concerning peace and economic justice that were such inspiring prophetic documents cannot escape the taint that those same bishops who were making such profound statements of social justice were also protecting pedophile priests. Likewise, the late John Yoder, whose work did so much to validate a pacifist theology for peace, cannot be viewed the same way in light of evidence of his unwanted sexual advances on women.

Calling them Out

It is past time to start holding people accountable for sexual abuse. There is no place for excuses such as “boys will be boys,” or “everyone has their sexual needs.” When we look the other way, people get hurt and we also do a disservice to the larger community. Where can we find the answer to this "male problem?" I do not claim to have the complete answer, nor can we expect a simple solution, but we must acknowledge that the problem lies for the most part in the male of the species. We must also admit that men in power are significant contributors to the problem. As a man, it is not a pleasant thing for me to admit that men are causing such problems. It is a discomforting thing, which may be why we are not talking about the problem enough. I know many men (most men I know, in fact) who conduct themselves decently and appropriately. The fact remains, however, that we have a male problem that needs to be addressed. We can write about it in science fiction tales, but we need to acknowledge it in our midst as well.  Perhaps we men need to speak more loudly to our peers about what behaviors are out of bounds. Perhaps our culture needs healthier ways to guide and "initiate" our young men into the world.  I have no simple answer to offer here. I welcome any comments from readers about how you see the problem or how you think the problem should be addressed.  How can we better guide our young people and hold adults accountable? We owe it to our children, our society, and our future to find a way to rein in our damaging behaviors.   

Photo of African bull elephant by Yathin S Krishnappa
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


  1. Thanks, Charlie. Thoughtful. I think there’s a difference between what happens between truly consenting adults and what happens when someone uses power to achieve gratification—most especially via a child. I’m not sure that this problem is larger now than ever in our society or elsewhere, but I suspect it is, thanks at least in part to the web. This very day USA Today reports the arrest of 70 men (and one woman) for marketing child porn, part of what officials say is a huge problem. Even if a child porn consumer would never directly abuse a child is beside the point: By consuming, he is complicit in production and therefore in child abuse by others.

    As to remedy . . . well, just how broadly will we define the pathology? Modern American culture is a complex tapestry, each thread connected to many others. Bottom line, I wonder what we now stand for other than the most immediate gratification possible. George Will, the “conservative” commentator, once complained in print about CFL light bulbs because they didn’t turn on and shine instantly. Where did self-denial and self-sacrifice go? Not just into the Swiss bank accounts of the hyper-rich, I'm afraid. When you objectify everything and everyone outside your own skin then the weak—even children—are easily exploited.--John Northrop

    1. Good points, John -- thank you for your comments.


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