Celtic Riverside – The Online Journal of James Keenan

Make a Man Out of You

My childhood involved a clear notion of masculinity – one that you might summarise as chivalry. Hold doors for women, open the car door to help women in and out, offer your jacket, stand when they approach or leave the table, pay for everything, win their hearts with displays of ability/success (manliness), and, above all, protect the delicate beauties from the harms of the world.

That view of masculinity did include the idea that I could romantically/sexually conquer as many women as possible (provided I did it honestly and gentlemanly), but I rejected that aspect of it. We’ll come to that later.

I was also hammered into stoicism. Despite crying, my father would often have an offer of “something to cry about” if I didn’t stop. I never saw him cry. If the man ever got sick or hurt, I didn’t know about it. He got up, went to work, came home, took care of stuff like the lawn and finances, watched sports, and coached my brothers and I.

This is not to portray him as the overbearing sort. My father did have a temper at times and I outright feared his disapproval, but the man is a teddy bear. I never doubted that he loved me and was proud of me. He did want me to be a warrior on the field, but we achieved that through his patience in teaching me the game – not just the “how to play” aspects but also the strategy, the mental aspects of the game. Sure, your dad might have taught you to swing a bat and hit the ball – my dad was teaching me at an early age to expect the off-speed pitch in certain counts and read defensive alignments.

I’m an intellectual who loves sports. That my father opened this Sun-Tzu approach to the game for me where I was constantly analysing and out-thinking opponents made the game.

It’s also why I watch baseball to this day. You might think it’s boring watching the pitcher throw a ball, then take several seconds as he and the batter re-adjust their gloves for the next pitch. I see a symphony of strategy unfolding. Fielders shift positions. Battery deciding on the new sequence of pitches. A batter trying to think ahead of that and get the right pitch to hit. You might see a boring physical contest. I see a chess match. My father did that.

He’s a great man and I could not have a better father. This is not about a man’s man abusing his son into traditional masculinity. This is about how the notion of traditional masculinity occurred anyway.

Men do certain activities. They wear certain clothes. They act a certain way. Family reinforced that. My friends reinforced that. Teammates and other coaches reinforced that. My toys reinforced that. Teachers and school reinforced that. Church reinforced that. Television, movies, music, and video games reinforced that.

I liked women, earlier than my friends it seemed. The boys, at least outwardly, thought the girls had cooties – that age. I thought, “They’re so soft and pretty. They smell great. They seem to value reading and learning. They are kind.”

The boys liked to play rough and get dirty. We constantly smelled like a locker room. Did you ever play soccer? You know that smell a gym bag gets with the cleats and socks after soccer? That’s the smell I just associated with guys in general. It has an odd charm to it and it still inspires a sense of camaraderie in me, but still…ew, right?

And the girls needed evidence of my value. The girls already had value – they were pretty and kind. You wanted to be involved with that. Now I had to prove my value. One did that by besting the other guys on the athletic field or being the smartest one in the classroom (I was okay at the former, brilliant at the latter). They needed a man to rescue them from life.

Superman was always saving Lois Lane. Spiderman saved MJ (except that one time). James Bond was forever rescuing women. Indiana Jones saved Marion. The guys saved Leia. (“But Leia…” Yeah, shut up, we’ll get there – I know these are terrible examples. There’s a point to this piece ūüėõ )

Oh, and when I was a kid Batman inexplicably saved Vicki Vale. Then let her into the Batcave. Well, Alfred did. That and the Prince-heavy soundtrack were weird decisions in an otherwise classic movie. Selina Kyle is a way better character than Vicki. But I digress.

There was of course the first. Adorable brunette, lovely brown eyes, incredibly sweet, kind, and smart, too. Her friend asked me if I liked her, and of course I did. She liked me, too. Did I, like, like like her? Absolutely. Her friend told her and then let me know that she like liked me, too. We became a thing – and by “thing” I mean we went to one another’s birthday parties and eventually the school dances. We held hands. It was adorable.

At the school dances, we were the default couple for slow songs. I hung out with friends during the fast songs because I couldn’t dance, but then when it slowed down we found each other immediately. An annoying girl in my class always wanted to dance, and I say annoying because it insulted me that anyone thought I was dancing with anyone other than my girlfriend.

It terrified me. I put my hands on her hips, she locked her fingers around the back of my neck – arm’s length apart because, you know, propriety. Forget sexually inexperienced, I was sexually illiterate at that point. I was aware that vaginas existed and were part of this whole intimacy thing that occurred between men and women. I knew my hands were dangerously close to her as we danced, and if I moved my hands further away I would be too close to her butt. It was exhilarating, but it felt offensive for me, a boy, to be putting my hands anywhere near this beautiful young woman.

Dances happened once a month, and over time she grew patiently impatient with my distance. One night, at the height of Titanic popularity to “My Heart Will Go On”, she pulled herself into my body. Her entire arms wrapped around my neck now. My hands were on her back and I could feel her heart racing. I felt it beating against my chest. I knew for a fact my heart was racing and I was pretty sure I was dying (in the best way). I pleaded with my body not to start sweating nervously.

A few months later, we “broke up” because we never did anything together. She was maturing and ready to date. I was terrified and unable to provide that. Dates would lead to making out and…other stuff. She was right to break up with me, but it broke my heart.

From that day forward, I only danced casually with someone once, and that was with great hesitation. Dancing was only for romantic partners. To this day I don’t like hugging most people (unless we have an established relationship of some kind) and I despise massages. “My Heart Will Go On” is still “our song”. A lot of stuff got locked in place during that period.

The year after we broke up an incident occurred in the hallway before a class. We routinely lined up next to the lockers outside the classroom door to wait for the teacher to welcome us, and while waiting something happened. I’m not sure what because I missed everything prior to the point where a male classmate, a heavyset boy, much taller than most of us, grabbed her throat in anger and pushed her against the lockers.

I was barely 4 feet tall, and about 70 lbs (a size that I maintained through high school – I graduated around 5 feet tall and a mere 85 lbs). I couldn’t move this guy if I ran full speed and threw myself into him. Hell, while still holding her with one hand he could have snapped me in two with the other.

I stood and protested angrily with the other students until he let go. She stood teary-eyed holding her neck in pain. The anger smouldered inside me. Anger at him for doing it because no reason could have existed for doing what he did. Anger at my own pathetic lack of response. What sort of man was I to stand by and let that happen? Maybe he kicks my ass and maybe he doesn’t let her go, but you still go throw that punch, right?

That was 7th grade. The next 5 years was a period of total frustration. I was, for all intents and purposes, involuntarily celibate. Sex still terrified me, but I did want a girlfriend and could not seem to make that happen. High school was an endless series of halfhearted crushes on one girl and then another.

Though exceptions did exist. I had a co-worker at the restaurant where I worked. Two grades and a little more than a year older than me, and she looked after me. With the break-up story behind me and the death of my great grandfather (that I discussed recently), I lost my confidence and settled into a mild depression. My coworker was always building me back up, even taking me by my shoulders and pushing them back – chest out, head up.

I fell hard for her, but I think I was mostly her “little brother” at work. She definitely liked me, but romantically had no idea that I existed. She is part of my Lean Out story from before, the one to whom I confessed my love with a letter during a trip to Washington – probably my worst moment as a man. Brief recap if you don’t want to read that entire piece: I was in DC visiting the Smithsonian and, while there, thought, “Hey, I bet her address is on Facebook. I’ll just swing by her apartment building unannounced and drop off this letter”.

The aftermath was better than I expected, because no sooner had I left the building than did I start to get sick. Not about confessing how I felt, mind you, I had to do that to avoid regret. I felt bad for stalking her residence and showing up unannounced. Yes, the information was public and, yes, I did not visit her. I had the presence of mind to leave the note with their front desk to give to her. I knew anything more was crossing a line.

When she texted me a short while later I was already on the road back north. She was not angry that I had done it, but confused that I would make such a confession and not be present for a reaction. If I had already left DC, what was I hoping to achieve with the note? I knew she would reject me. Hell, she might have been dating someone at the time. I only wanted her to know. Part of me thought I would never hear from her again.

A few months later that was true. She unfriended me on social media, and after the apartment incident I resolved not to look up her social media account. That was not an invitation to send a fresh friend request. She moved on and now I had to as well.

I developed a strong crush on another classmate freshman year that lasted throughout high school (one that I do regret having never confessed – again, I knew in my core that she would politely reject me and I could not bear that).

Senior year I met my first official girlfriend, and after several weeks of analysing to gauge her interest and prying at everyone except her I discovered that she had a crush on me. My first girlfriend came about only because ol’ Sherlock here was able to confirm rejection would not occur. No leap of faith.

She was the woman who took me through most of my firsts. She kissed me (several weeks into dating, quite tired, I’m sure, of waiting for me to make a move). She initiated fooling around with me and eventually having sex.

I lacked confidence the entire time. Remember how big I said I was during high school? I knew, without any actual evidence, that I had a small penis. I knew I had no sexual experience (the evidence for that was obvious). My girlfriend reassured me, but of course she did. She was my girlfriend. I pried at our mutual friends to see if she had said anything to them, but they had nothing (or were sworn to secrecy). I was still pathetic and had no real value – it was only a matter of time before she left me for someone better. The only way to avoid that was to give her everything she wanted and spend as much time with her as I could. Every waking hour.

About 10 months later I had burned out to the point that I broke up with her. Online at 3am via instant messenger. I hadn’t even thought it through that much. We were arguing and I was burnt out, so out came an impulsive, “Maybe let’s just not date anymore”. She protested (both at the idea and the method). I doubled down with my ego instead of listening. (Best thing to happen in the end – she met her current boyfriend the next day and we went on to become best friends).

For several years I dated rarely and engaged physically even less. The few relationships I had came in the form of women aggressively pursuing me. Most were sweet and aware that I lacked the confidence to make the first move. A few were overtly sexual – girls who found me attractive and, I think, got off on how nervous I was about sexuality and enjoyed the domination.

Same story in every case. We would go out a few times, eventually making out or having sex. I was excited by the novelty of the new relationship until the moment after we were done.

I felt empty and bored, like I wanted to be alone. Not only did I hate that I felt that way, but also came the waves of guilt about what that meant for her. “This wasn’t about sex. I thought she was fun and cute. I wanted this to be something. But now that we’ve had sex I want to be single again. She’s going to think this was all a ploy to have sex.”

I’m done.

I broke up with my last girlfriend at 21 and went the next 7 years without sex, without a kiss, without a date. I remembered the middle school dances to “My Heart Will Go On”. I was still a romantic and I wanted something¬†that special. No woman had business getting that close to me unless I was seriously interested because no woman deserved to have me waste her time otherwise.

Friends and colleagues knew of it to some degree. They encouraged me to put myself out there and some teased me a bit about my prudishness. It was no secret to some of them that specific women had an interest in me. I recall one business project down South – we all knew one of the client staff had a keen interest in me, but I was leaving so no way could it be anything more than hooking up during that trip. I left the whole thing alone.

Sometimes I accidentally engaged with women without giving it much thought, sometimes charming them and sometimes, I’m sure, crossing a line I did not want to cross.

For example, I was once sitting at a Starbucks in a hotel lobby having breakfast, just myself, the male barista, and eventually an attractive businesswoman. A younger woman, much younger than myself, walked through the lobby and the barista threw a “Hey” and a knowing nod in her direction – being the wingman to draw my attention to the pretty girl.

I was oblivious.

Eventually, the businesswoman called him out with a laugh, asking, “Did you just give him ‘the nod’?” The barista laughed back and as I snapped to attention he finally offered the direct, “She’s pretty cute, eh?”

“That’s a kid. She looks like she’s in high school. I’m not interested in anything frivolous. I’d want to go out with a woman who is confident and mature, knows what she wants and what she likes. Someone more like her,” I said, gesturing to the businesswoman and returning to my newspaper.

Car came and took me away for the day. When I returned to the hotel the next morning, the barista informed me that my comments had gone over quite well. I left before she approach me, and she had returned later in the day to see if I had come back yet.

“That’s cool,” I said, and went back to my room. I went to a woman’s apartment in DC to leave a note saying, “I secretly love you”, I’m not about to tear through a hotel looking for this woman I don’t know because she was cute. That’s so over the line of appropriate conduct I’m not even sure why you’re providing me this information, barista bro.

He meant well, but he upset me. That was one of the first twinges I noticed. The anger from the 7th grade hallway. The girl I liked pinned to the locker by her neck. My powerlessness to do anything about it.

The expectation that stuff like that was going to happen. The growing awareness that people were more inclined to tell women how to avoid those situations than to tell men not to create those situations. The new awareness, courtesy of the women in my life, of the sorts of messages they received through their online dating profile. Sexually aggressive messages. Dick pics. Perfect gentlemen who turned into monsters over the course of four messages because they had not yet responded. The need to invent boyfriends (or spouses) to deter the interest of men. Being groped at clubs by total strangers.

I was not a white knight, riding above all of this behaviour and looking down at lesser men. This was my world. I became more and more aware of my role in it, became angrier and angrier about the lack of anything being done about it.

Why hadn’t I realised what I had done sooner and changed? Why was I still not doing anything to stop¬†them from doing these things?

Why was Lois Lane so forking useless? Superman was all-powerful – why did we need this other reporter who constantly needed rescue? Why wasn’t she a killer journalist who went to the rough places and dug up the tough stories? (Thank you, Amy Adams)

At least MJ did some fighting in some of the stories, and she was a high school student. James Bond was an unconscionable jackass in many of the films. No means no, dude. Hitting women and getting to yes¬†eventually is not consent.¬†Marion Ravenwood was capable of kicking ass, and kind of did more for that story than Indy. At least she introduced the medallion. Most of the plot happens with or without Indy’s presence – he just slowed the Nazi’s suicide march into an entertaining two hour action story.

Princess Leia stood up to Tarkin and Vader. She blasted their way out of the prison cells. She helped rescue Han and killed Jabba. Leia, like Carrie Fisher, kicked ass and took no crap. Han Solo cornered her on the Falcon and repeatedly ignored her No signals until he got a kiss. That rapscallion Рsuch a romantic.

You know who I did like as a kid? Belle. Sure, she was a gorgeous young girl, but, more importantly, she was a nerd who liked to learn and everyone saw her as an outcast for it. Did not care. She was endlessly kind, too, even when Gaston and Beast were irretrievably awful – but she never took any crap from them.

Also awesome? The March sisters in “Little Women”, and all of the Jane Austen heroines. And Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series, for the same reasons I loved Belle.

My notion of women began to shift drastically, and with that my notion of masculinity began to shift. I could be strong, love sports, drink beer – do all the “manly” crap. That was not masculinity though. That was just characteristics and hobbies. Women could like them, too. Men could hate them. None of it really had anything to do with gender other than society suggested, “Men do this and women do that”.

Then along came Emma Watson. You know, live-action Hermione. And Belle. And now one of the March sisters. And she invited me to be #HeForShe and laid out a specific framework for how I could direct that anger at my powerlessness and failure as a man to address all of the crap the women in my life experienced.

It brought me to Twitter, where I encountered so many wonderful voices, men and women alike, speaking up against these things – confronting their past failings and what needed to be done to move forward.

Not once, ever, has it threatened me as a man or my sense of masculinity. I absolutely challenged (and destroyed) the notion that “This is what a man is, and anything less than this is not a man”. The sort of¬†toxic attitude towards masculinity that leads to the very abuses in question.

If you are utterly convinced that feminism, PC culture, liberalism, or the Democrats are out to attack men and undermine masculinity – I don’t know what to do or say for you. It isn’t true. No one gives a damn. I want to watch baseball on the weekend and have some whiskey? Cool. I want to lift weights and bulk up a little? Cool. I see beautiful women and think, “Man, she is sexy.” Cool. All of those “manly” things are fine with everyone.

You have to like sports and drink alcohol? Not cool. You have to be able to bench press at least your own body weight and be able to beat up other guys? Not cool. You have to tell every woman you find attractive how you’d have sex with them? Not forking cool, dude.

Most of the men in question are so insecure about themselves that if a gay man approached them the way they approach women it would likely end with some sort of, “Get that gay shit out of here” and threat of violence. Gayness isn’t manly. That’s different. Men force their straight sexuality on women.

Maybe this will help – what if I admit that we do have a biologic basis for your behaviour? Darwinism and all that jazz? The strongest survive. Men have to protect the tribe and the women are the nurturers in the tribe? Men get sexually aroused by women and feel inspired to spread their seed wherever they can – the strongest men will because women will give in to those men and therefore the species gets stronger. It’s all science!

Except that everything you describe is a base drive. It’s primitive and we have the ability to reason way beyond that level. It’s great that you can lift a Volvo by yourself, dude. I’m sure that comes in handy at the T-Mobile store.

Smart is the new strong – this is the intelligence age. This Neanderthal way of clubbing women to drag back to the cave and tribal warfare to survive is no longer palatable to most of society because we have no need for it.

“I can kick your ass if you want to take this outside.”

That does impress some women. Many women don’t care though, and at least a portion actively detest that attitude. That you threaten it and then assume it endears you to any woman you want is the problem.

That some of you, as one Twitter friend phrased it, view women as vending machines into which you deposit kindness coins until sex falls out is also despicable. If you believe that anything entitles you to someone else’s time, attention, or (certainly) body then you are the sort of person practising the sort of masculinity that one considers toxic. It’s not a debatable point because it is not about you – it’s about how that behaviour affects the target.

“I’m not bothering anyone.”

Yeah, you don’t get to make that call. The people who feel bothered do. The women who have said for generations, “I don’t feel safe,” “It’s scary,” “I wanted to say ‘no’ but I was afraid of what he might do,” and further variations on that deserve their peace and more and more people are going to stand up for that peace. All you have to do is not be an asshole towards other people.

Keep your hands off people who don’t want to be touched. Definitely keep your penis away from anyone who doesn’t want to be touched, and do not send unsolicited pictures of it to them. It’s not harmless fun – it’s flat out traumatising to some.

Understand (and this is a harder part) that sometimes the consent is not actually consent because while you may not mean any harm some of the other guys do. Some guys who are perfect gentlemen become complete monsters the minute a woman rejects them, and women will make up excuses or even say “Yes” if they feel that is the safest way¬†out of the situation. That context matters. Make sure she understands that she can reject you without consequence and¬†if she says or indicates no in any way, respect that and stop pursuing it.

“Sometimes women play coy or hard to get.”

That’s on her. If her coy Nos result in enough men losing interest, she’ll learn to stop doing it just as women have learned to invent boyfriends to avoid men hitting on them.

And any woman who likes a man will provide opportunity for that man to pursue her. Even the coy women. Women are not uninterested in men until a man shows her how great he is. Women like us just as we like them. They get aroused by men like we get aroused by them. They yearn for certain guys to make a move and don’t make it impossible for them to do so.

Put the dumbbells down, pick up a book, stop thinking with your penis, and start using your brain – it will all work out for you. Women will go on dates and hook up with you. They will sleep with you. You don’t need “game” or alpha-male nonsense to meet a great woman. You need not to be a jackass and respect her as a human being – not as a woman, like it’s some other species, but as a fellow human.

Being strong enough and confident enough to be kind and respect others – that’s real men. The strongest men don’t need gimmicks. They don’t need to announce how strong or tough they are to others. They do not go looking for trouble to demonstrate how strong or tough they are. They simply are with the confidence that they can handle life as it happens.

Stop taking swings at others because you disagree. Stop talking trash to see if the other guy will back down first like a gorilla. It antagonises other men whose egos won’t let them back down and puts off everyone else who finds it pointless in modern society.

Focus on being the guy who has his life so together that other people want to¬†be you, not¬†beat you. Focus on being the guy that women want, need to have in their life because it’s genuinely as safe and respectful as it is strong. Be humble enough to listen when others call out mistakes in that behaviour and endeavour to do better, not lash out about snowflakes and liberals emasculating who you are – what man strong in character do you know who would ever let that sort of thing emasculate them?

It’s not strength. I cannot stress that enough. It’s insecurity. Your masculinity is not under threat, your¬†idea of masculinity, a version of masculinity to which¬†no one naturally subscribes, is what is under threat. It’s a socially imposed expectation that only does damage in the modern world. We aren’t cavemen, and we aren’t making a go of it in the wilderness. Cooperation breeds success and we need leaders strong in character to run the show. Leaders who can manage their emotions as well as their thoughts (and no, that rage that is you suppressing your other emotions is not the sort of management I mean). Leaders who pull out the best in everyone – that is the best men can get and what we need from the modern man.

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