The sinister, subtle side to men ‘having a laugh’.
Male bonding is mostly seen as an important, positive step for most men. But some ‘fitting-in’ types of bonding are subtle and ruinous and can damage men over their whole lives. So-called alpha males whose sense of entitlement gives them the belief they are a superior species use their power coercively to separate the herd and subdue the responses of ‘ordinary’ men and co-opt them to marginalise other groups of men in our society.
It is a grab for power and influence at the top of the heap that can start innocently enough with men “having a laugh” and can go on to shaming and attempting to force other men to deny their vulnerabilities and true, caring natures in their bid to fit in with the group.
It starts as a joke
Early in their lives some men attempt to direct the bonding process by using homophobic teasing and mocking. It starts as a joke. Taking their cues from a condoning, complicit society at large, they mock men who show any form of vulnerability, weakness or feminine traits and mannerisms. In the process impressionable young men desperately deny their softer natures in a bid to be respected and included in the group, They are easy prey.
The mockers’ aim is to prove they are ‘truly masculine men’. Any man who does not fit, or want to fit society’s dominant myths of masculinity is an easy target and runs the risk of jokes, jibes sneers and ostracism from his peers.
Henry, one of the men I interviewed, told me that sharing vulnerabilities amongst men was “this big hush hush — ‘Oh no, men don’t talk about those things’.”
This kind of bonding has long term, often tragic, consequences. Men have to hide their authentic selves, pretend they are someone they are not, and put on a mask of toughness and control that can lead to unhappy relationships with both men and with women. Such suppression can lead to life-long physical and mental health problems.
How does this joking culture operate?
The rules are that the men must conform to this joking culture by exchanging hurts and insults. They must prove that they can take whatever is ‘dished out’. This process of ‘hardening up’ means they must deny their emotional needs and squash caring responses. The jokes include derogatory terms such as ‘nancy’, ‘homo’ or ‘fag’. Or jokes could include stereotypical physical gay gestures, or use exaggerated gay accents whilst calling men something degrading like ‘fairy’.
The aim is to look down upon and vilify the slightest smell of vulnerability, weakness or femininity with the purpose of imposing rigid boundaries between ‘real men’ and ‘non-men’.
Man to man they don’t actually feel any degree of trust or safety amongst each other when it comes to emotional needs. The only reassurance they try to give each other is that their behaviours mean they can claim ‘legitimate masculine status’. But these aggressive, so-called male bonding rituals are erroneous and extremely shaky being based on fear of their own inadequacies, insecurities and potential exposure. They are, nevertheless, handed their ’legitimacy’ by a civil society entrenched with lingering attitudes, language and laws that uphold masculine rights as a given.
The prize truly worthy of manhood, however, eludes them
Gender socialisation in our society pressures boys and men towards presenting themselves as tough men, hard men. Men who play hard physical sports, men who are in control of themselves and their lives, men who are willing to use violence, and men who are willing to binge drink alcohol to prove they can take it. The media very often portrays these men as heroes and winners who are successful at work and successful at anything they choose to do in life.
The daily news however is littered with stories of pressure and unhappiness that crashes the myth and script many men have written for themselves and the belief they are all powerful and impregnable. In reality they lead a life bereft of emotional safety, and shake in their boots fearing their deep down true humanity and caring might ooze out with all of its vulnerabilities and sense of powerlessness, fears and insecurities.
Homophobic joking culture is a toxic culture
The reason taunting and playing around with homophobic jokes continues, is that our society still defines homosexuality as having low social status. It’s a stigmatised social category toward the bottom of the heap.
The act of hierarchical jockeying for position amongst certain groups of men relies on rigid black and white stereotypes to perpetuate the myths. But it builds a toxic atmosphere. These toxic atmospheres that boys and men share, live and breathe, lurk in the media, schoolyard, on the sports field, in the workplace, and at the pub. These types of atmospheres breed an ignorant picture of masculinity that society still heavily endorses and encourages. In our media dominated world and symbiotic vested commercial interests, sellers of products provide a fantasy backdrop of life peddling their own views and fictional, distorted role models aplenty. The propaganda of manhood is complete and largely unquestioned.
While many men play along with these toxic rules and fantasies, many do so unwittingly or unwillingly. But, having invested so much of themselves in their peer group, many are afraid of being ostracised so they subjugate their true selves and needs, continuing to suffer while taking part in the homophobic teasing culture and taking on the mantle of a fantastical view of manhood.
I interviewed Anthony who told me that many men do not want to open “themselves up to ridicule and harassment because the guy who starts telling things about himself tends to be the butt of a lot of jokes.”
The men who play along with the homophobic joking culture, and the like, do so for a variety of reasons. Some do so to fill the need for closeness without getting too intimate. Perhaps most importantly, a need to belong, fit in and feel accepted. They learn that this joking culture provides a basis for gaining acceptance and status as ‘real men’. That is, heterosexual men.
Unfortunately this type of male bonding entails oppressive effects such as shaming each other and suffocating an individual sense of self — all because of the social stigma of being thought of as gay.
But the “having a laugh” journey to manhood doesn’t stop there
There is the sexist flow on — the jokes about women. The taunts about the missus controlling your life. The notion of being “under the thumb” of the controller who stops you doing things with your mates, stops you going to the footy, or the pub, with your mates. And the joke is nuanced toward portraying you as ‘feminine’ and weak if you don’t stand man to man with your mates against the tyranny of she who would control your every move. “We men have to stick together, have to dominate and show her who is boss.” Otherwise the fear is you will be soft, not a real man.
In our patriarchal society the pressure to conform is immense
Healthy competitive arenas such as work, school and sport are often subverted by a cultural counter-current of arrogant ‘me-first-ism’ in the race to the top and mockery of the ‘lesser thans’.
James told me that he was involved in this kind of culture at school. He said, “The cost was that you sort of lost a bit of individuality. Like, it became, sort of lost a little bit of sense of self, because you’re taking on their beliefs and their opinions. Maybe to be in the popular group, you may become a follower of the group rather than having your own independent thought, and maybe it could’ve been a cost where you might’ve been dragged in where you’ve got to toe the party line, you’ve gotta really follow the consensus of the group and you lose a little bit of your own individual thinking.”
The tragic consequences of suffocating their authentic self
The toxic impact of homophobic insults shames gay men who are subordinated and stigmatised at every turn. Gay men, also, develop strategies to cope – for example some men may deny their homosexuality in an attempt to conform to the dominant heterosexual culture of masculinity.
For heterosexual men not wanting to attract an underserved gay label from their peer group there is a tragic long term impact caused by them shutting down half their humanity for the sake of being a ‘real man’. This stance negatively effects mental health and their ability to ever reveal their true selves. All these men find it extremely difficult to be intimate in a healthy way with a life partner and their families.
Women who see men’s emotional potential and put in huge efforts to encourage men to open up and embrace their full humanity and flourish in the marriage and partnership are often thwarted. The incessant defence men are forced to use against showing vulnerability causes major problems in relationships.
The tragedy is, by closing the door on feelings, men who try to live up to those socially and media perverted masculine codes may eventually explode into violence, or rage. Or they may coercively control their partners in an attempt to keep a lid on themselves having to feel or express any form of love, care, empathy or other form of emotion they have learned to suppress over the years.
It’s a closed door that can, and often does, burst open leading some men to suffocate their female partner’s expression, or literally put his hands around her throat and suffocate her until her eyes roll back.
It might only be then that men who have strangled their own ability to ‘feel’, might begin to get the help and support they need to be able to reclaim the humanity they have suppressed for so long.
It takes courage to reveal the inner man and break free of the myths and stereotypes
Paradoxically, courage is a highly regarded masculine quality. Yet men who hide in these toxic masculine cultures, too often lack the courage to move towards freeing themselves from the unhealthy group dynamics and media spins that railroad male bonding and distort loving, caring relationships.
Too many men have grown up in a shame culture of masculinities, and too many partners – men, women, children and families have suffered the abuse and destructive consequences.
Men I interviewed who had harmed their female partners, said that even though they acted as if they were bonded with longstanding heterosexual male friends, in reality they did not ever feel enough sense of safety or trust to be able to reach out to their men friends to get the help and support they craved.
The courage to reveal and change
Some men are pushed to it by the courts, some by their families and friends, others by desperation and suicidal thoughts, some by their own growing and maturity — or inner realisation that things are not right — and they could be.
Unfortunately there are still not enough services or encouragement to support men who crave the opportunity to change. Men who have come to me for such support arrived in a desperate state but very quickly those men felt safe to open up and allow themselves to live by their own values that they had locked away for so long. If you are one of these men reading this blog, it is possible to heal and move forward to a life where you can breathe freely.