The Problem With ‘Well-Meaning Men’: How the Collective Socialization of Manhood Results in The Objectification of Women
As conversations about gender equity and the objectification of women become more frequent and publicized, it is clear that taking steps toward equality—even general safety for women—will require work on the part of many entities: business leaders, politicians, journalists … and especially “well-meaning men.” In Breaking out of the Man Box (Skyhorse Publishing, 2016), Tony Porter identifies the well-meaning man as someone who thinks he supports and uplifts women but, in actuality, perpetuates the concept that women are useful solely as objects for male entertainment or pleasure. These men, as powerhouses in a male-dominated society, have a responsibility to call their fellow men to action, to begin to create a society in which women are valued for infinitely more qualities than their ability to satisfy the opposite gender. The fight for gender equality is one of the most significant struggles in the world today, and Tony Porter’s work to enlist men is an absolutely fundamental component. The following excerpt is from the chapter “Property and Sexual Objects.” Watch a clip of Tony Porter speaking at Bioneers 2016 at the end of this article.
In our male-dominated society, objectification of women is commonplace. Breaking down and analyzing objectification and the idea of women as property explains how men come to view women as being of less value. These ideas come from the man box where our socialization leads us to believe that the primary purpose of women (objects) is to support, serve, comfort, satisfy, and entertain men. We often place more value on a woman with more desirable physical features than we do on a woman with high-quality, intangible characteristics.
We should think critically about how we look at women and also how we use them to relax, relieve stress, and entertain ourselves as if they are commodities. Women have more to offer, despite what we have been trained to think and the constant messages we receive from pop culture and other social cues. Whether in the music and entertainment industry, corporate America, communities of faith, or on the street corner, women are treated by men as objects or mere body parts. This has become widely accepted and embraced by mainstream society. For instance, magazines, music videos, advertisements, and commercials exploit women and their bodies. Those images we see on a daily basis condition us to see body parts instead of human beings with opinions, emotions, thoughts, and ideas. Also, take a look at fashion trends for women. Mini-skirts, low-rise jeans, thongs (that show), push-up bras, halter tops, tight-fitting clothing, etc. are all meant to bring more attention to women’s body parts. Ironically, you can often find replicas in children’s clothing stores as well. In some of these stores you can purchase pants for a two-year-old girl with sayings like “cutie pie” or “honey” embroidered across the buttocks. Here we have clothing, supposedly suitable for an adult woman, made for a child. This goes to show how early body parts become the focal point on the body of a female. Also, keep in mind that the driving force behind many of these companies is a man, most likely a well-meaning man.
It is my belief that, like many other things in the United States, the concept of what is considered physically attractive originated with white men. There is a tremendous pressure on women to conform to this definition, as they assess themselves and try to adjust accordingly. At one time, a slender, whiteskinned woman with blonde hair, blue eyes, who was tall (but not too tall), and had medium-sized buttocks and breasts was regarded as beautiful. While today there are many variations of physical attractiveness for women, we still lean in that direction from time to time.
Cosmetic surgeons, makeup artists, and cosmetologists are employed to improve a woman’s outward appearance, so that she can compete with other women and meet the standard for attractiveness and appeal to men. On occasion, women have disagreed with me on this point by expressing that they do not visit the salon or wear makeup for men, but instead they do it for themselves. I most certainly respect their views. However, many other women have stated the opposite. They tell me, after contemplation, that they do it to please men.
Fortunately, society has evolved to some degree, as many of the norms established by men with reference to beauty are now more broad and inclusive—with a bold and energetic movement within the LGBT and gender-nonconforming communities adding to the inclusiveness. But what has not changed is the popularity reserved for women who conform.
Think about that woman who is rather conservative; she wears loose-fitting clothes so that you cannot see the shape of her body, does not show any cleavage or skin, chooses not to wear makeup, and keeps her hair in a modest style. Many men would call her plain and probably would not give her much attention. In fact, well-meaning men around the country have told me that they would likely isolate and make her invisible. Not because they want to be rude or mean but because she does not hold their attention.
Perhaps the conservative woman who plays down her sexuality feels liberated. Yet, there is a price for this freedom. Success in dating or meeting a husband or partner, and even securing a job, may be a challenge given the overwhelming investment in the objectification of women. The collective socialization of manhood teaches men, good and abusive, to consider a woman’s body parts before her humanity.
I can recall a time while living in upstate New York. In one corner of the yard, I would store some items that I was not quite ready to get rid of yet. In the pile were things like an old 14-foot Jon boat, lumber, bricks, and other junk. I could always count on Kendell to end up playing in that pile, having no interest in the open space that was much safer for him. The problem for my son then was his tendency to fall. Thus, he had scarred up knees and elbows. I used to tease him by blaming his clumsiness on the fact that his body was so slim, but his head was so big. I would tell him, “Kendell, you live on the ground.” We would both laugh about it. His scars really didn’t seem to bother either of us much. In fact, the man box teaches that men and scars are actually a good thing. Scars and wounds would mark Kendell as a warrior, brave and courageous, a real man. Conversely, the thought of my daughter having permanent scars scared me to death.
My daughter Jade followed Kendell around much of the time, as younger siblings do. But I was constantly telling her to stop mimicking Kendell because I did not want her to fall, hurt herself, or get scratched up like her brother. I remember the day I actually noticed that Jade was catching up to Kendell with the number of marks on her arms and legs. Despite all of my knowledge around sexism and objectification, my immediate thoughts had to do with her as a young woman and how unattractive she would be with those scarred up legs. I had broken my own daughter down into body parts, thinking of her appeal to men and how I should protect her from decreasing her chance to be considered attractive. This shows us how our male socialization is very deep-rooted, a challenge to undo even for men who are conscious of it. As it turns out, Jade has become a skilled softball player; she still loves to play in the dirt, slide into bases, and dive for balls. I love it.
While sitting in church one Sunday morning, Kendell started talking to some girls in the pew behind us. At first, there was nothing alarming about the situation since he was friendly with most of the kids in the church. But, what gave me cause for concern was the look in his eyes and the weird smile on his face as he focused on one particular girl. It took me a while to figure it out. I remembered hearing Jade teasing him just the other day, chanting, “Kendell likes Beatrice. Kendell likes Beatrice,” over and over again. It dawned on me, the day had come and it was unfolding right before my eyes. My son had crossed over from thinking girls were gross to being in awe and all sheepish around them. My wife Tammy and I noticed the change in Kendell’s behavior at the same time and she urged me to have “the talk” with Kendell. I said to her, “What talk, the boy is six years old.”
Of course, there is nothing wrong with boys liking girls, or girls liking boys, but what happens next is what scared me the most. Kendell was only six at that time, but my brain went into fast forward mode because I knew that the man box would soon be in full effect. He could go from having that innocent, boyish crush at six years old, fast forward ten years and he’s now sixteen years old. He’s standing in the school cafeteria with a bunch of his friends, when a new girl to the school, whom he hasn’t met, walks by the group. He then says to his friends things like, “I want to hit that,” “I want a piece of that,” or “Man, I’d like to tear that (expletive) up.”
Now I am and have always been very thoughtful about how I explain things to Kendell. I spend a great deal of time explaining and discussing with him the issues associated with manhood. But nevertheless with all that being said he is still influenced by other men and boys around him as well. Although I am a good father and I try to teach Kendell all the right things, over the years and still today I leave him to the supervision of other men in different capacities every day, from teachers to coaches, youth ministers, etc. Let’s face it, he also has a group of friends who all appear to be nice young men but have also been influenced by men.
When working with boys and young men I regularly inform them that most of what they know about being a man they learned from me, that I represent the generation of men that has come before them. That their foundation in what it means to be a man they have learned from us. While they may put a twenty-first-century spin on things, what they know about being a man, I taught them. And the truth of the matter is while I have taught them some wonderful things about being a man, there are some aspects of manhood that we have to rethink.
Well-meaning men teach boys and young men how to think, act, behave, and also how to treat women. I cannot shield Kendell from all those messages, which is why men should be more cognizant of what they say and do around young people. Our young men are watching and picking up man box messages along the way, whether it is in the schoolyard, classroom, basketball court, or other common places. Teachers, coaches, church members, Cub Scout leaders, uncles, men from the neighborhood, and others need to be socially responsible and realize the influence they have on the development of boys and young men in reference to how they view women, ourselves, and life in general.
I am passionate about my work for many reasons and one is my hope that the world will be a better place for my youngest daughter, Jade. She is a young, bright, energetic, athletic teenager. I advise men all the time to envision the world they would want to see for their daughters and other girls that they love and care about. It’s an interesting thought for most men to process. I usually follow that statement with a question: In that world, how do you want to see men acting and behaving? The immediate response from men is “respectful.” As they think about the question more I began to get responses such as: caring, nice, treat them equal, and so on. It is then that I say to the men, “Our responses to this question speak to the areas where we as men know we are falling short and could be doing much better.”
Working with colleges and universities around the country, somewhere along the line, I began to hear the term “fresh meat.” It took me back to my high school and college days, as well as back to the neighborhood when a new girl would move in. This definitely applied to first-year female students entering the college. So now I’m working with young men in college and I’m hearing the term “fresh meat.” I began the process of having critical conversations with young men from all levels of sports—youth league to professional—and all ages, from high school, college, and beyond.
When I asked these young men to deconstruct the term “fresh meat,” the responses ranged from “new,” “vulnerable,” or “pure” to “untouched” in the virgin sense of the word. They even said, “She may not be a virgin, but at least no one here has hit it yet.” I would also get responses such as “sexual object” or “something to be consumed and conquered.”
Then I asked these very same young men to fast forward twenty-five years and their daughters are sitting in this same room and we are having a conversation about “fresh meat.” This question usually promotes silence in the room. The young men who were chuckling just a minute earlier and having lively, sidebar conversations become silent. You can hear a pin drop. These young men, in this moment, transition mentally from young college men to fathers, and they immediately begin to process and view this issue differently.
The term “fresh meat” takes on a different meaning to them. Why? Well, for one, this might be the first time these young men had a group conversation challenging this aspect of the collective socialization of manhood, truly looking into the future and the world they would want to see for their daughters—and whether or not they are helping to create that world. As men we have been on remote control. Just doing things the way they have always been done without increasing our social conscience or critical thinking. So thinking of a woman in dehumanizing ways would not trigger an adverse reaction. But make that woman their daughter and the reaction increases one hundred fold immediately.
This is why men have to start peeling back the layers of the man box and think more critically. It’s only after men consider their own daughters on the receiving end of a term like “fresh meat” that our views, comments, and responses change. Then, none of the “new,” “pure,” or other dehumanizing adjectives are used. Suddenly, the previous responses don’t sound like they are describing a human being . . . because none of the previous responses are what we would want for our daughters.
The sad reality is that we as men quickly become aware that our socialization does not teach our sons and other boys to look out for women against male predators on college campuses. We become acutely aware that she is on her own. We as a result attempt to arm her with all of our knowledge of young men’s behavior, their slick and inappropriate moves, the way they may attempt to manipulate her, and so on. Due to the way we have been socialized as men, none of us can depend on any other man to intervene, and to do the righteous thing when it comes to our daughters. It’s a sad reality for us to process as men when thinking of our daughters. The truth of the matter is that women have been well aware of this reality and living with it all along.
My second-oldest daughter, Michelle (now grown up), is a graduate of Fordham University in the Bronx. Some years ago, a female colleague of mine used Michelle as an example when trying to get me to understand a point when I was in denial about my own sexism. We were discussing the objectification of women when I stated, “I don’t stare at women. I just take a little peep every now and then.” You know how sometimes you are about to say something that you know is stupid, but you can’t pull it back in time. It’s like your mouth is moving just a little faster than your brain; as the words are coming out of your mouth, you’re thinking, Stop! No! Don’t say that! Yet, your mouth is doing its own thing. Well, this was one of those moments. My colleague looked at me with disgust and then started to break it down for me. She called it, “A Day in the Life of Michelle.”
Michelle used to commute by bus and train from the Bronx to Manhattan each morning for school and work. As a working, first-year college student, her time was split between the predominantly male real estate company where she was employed and the college campus. Given Michelle’s busy schedule and commute—her time on the train, walk from the train to the office and then back, time at work, and the classes she took on campus—my colleague had me consider the number of men Michelle encountered on a daily basis. Based on her experienced estimation, my colleague believed that approximately 20 to 25 percent of the men did what I claimed to do, which was “just take a peep.” Other reactions to Michelle would run the gamut over the course of a day. The men would go from just looking and smiling to staring and undressing her with their eyes. Or, some factions of men would say “hello” while others would say “hey baby.” Then, there was the more inappropriate group of men who would actually shout out a sexually explicit comment. My colleague also gave me a parting point to ponder at the end of our conversation. She said, “ . . . and you know, Tony, most of the men who objectify Michelle are those we define as well-meaning men, and they are probably closer to your age than hers.” Putting my own daughter in that space definitely intensified my perspective.
For the most part, the objectification of women is a collective practice of men. We have to take a good, long look at how we have been socialized to treat women as objects. An object is a thing, not a person. Moreover, adding devaluation and thinking of women as property is a lethal combination, which creates a foundation from which violence against women and girls is built on. Regrettably, it’s not only my daughter who experiences this reality; it’s the daughters, wives, mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, partners, and other beloved women in the lives of well-meaning men. Try asking a woman you know about her day-to-day experience with men and objectification. Men may be surprised about what they will hear; however, men should also take into account how they are possibly doing the same things to other woman. I remember asking a woman friend, “Why don’t women talk more about the things that random men do and say?” Her response was, “Men can’t handle it.” When I really think about her answer, she is probably right. Just imagine your wife, girlfriend, or partner coming home from work; you are relaxing, watching a baseball game and she tells you about some guy down the block who was staring at her buttocks. So you get up, turn off the game, and go outside to deal with this guy. After all, he is looking at your woman. Let’s say you get into a little scuffle, win, and go back into the house feeling proud of yourself for defending your wife’s honor. Then, the next day she comes home and tells you the same thing. Again, you put down the remote and go outside to deal with the situation. You win again, but this time you limp home. By the time the third day rolls around, most men would be praying that their wives, girlfriends, or partners don’t tell them about anything else because of what they would be compelled to do. Women know this and they protect us from each other. They understand that male bravado of the man box would not allow for a peaceful resolution in most cases. Women keep many of these experiences to themselves for the safety of their partners, and in many cases to protect his notions of manhood. Furthermore, women have told me that if they were going to tell us about all of their experiences in reference to men and objectification, some of our best friends would be included.
When my son Kendell was twelve years old he was cutting the grass in front of the house. I was on my way home, about ten minutes from the house, when I got a phone call from him asking if he could go down the hill to Sharon’s house, a girl from his school. Kendell explained that a bunch of kids from his school were at Sharon’s house and he wanted to go down and hang out. I told him that he could go but he had to finish cutting the grass first; he agreed.
As I mentioned, I was only ten minutes away from the house when he called, so as I pulled into the driveway I saw Kendell standing at the lawnmower with about six of his friends. I looked at him and he looked at me.
“What’s up?” I asked him.
He said to me, “I don’t know Dad, they just came up the hill.”
“You know you’re cutting this grass.”
“I know Dad, I got it, cool out.”
I said to him, “I’m gonna cool out alright, you better get this grass cut.”
I then waved to all the kids and went inside the house.
What I have not mentioned is that all six of his friends were girls. I’m going to pause in sharing this story and let that sink in: Yes, all of Kendell’s friends were girls. So men, what do you think, when a man comes home and he sees his son hanging out with six girls, what goes through a man’s mind? What are some of the questions that a man has? Having had this conversation with thousands of men I am going to share some of their thoughts with you. My expectation is that at least some of you are having the same thoughts right now that they did.
First thought that comes to many men’s mind is “thumbs up” or “that’s my boy.” They admit that seeing their son with six girls makes them proud. For many men it shows that their son has sexual interest in girls and that girls like him, and that is a win-win situation.
Other men share that it might bring up concerns. When questioned about what concern it may bring up men admit that it may lead to questions about their son’s sexual identity. The question is usually simply stated as, “Is he gay?” They would proceed to ask their son, “What are you doing with all those girls?” or questions like, “Which one do you like?” What men have told me is that as long as he likes one of the girls, all is well. I then ask well what if he doesn’t like any of them and by chance he is not gay, what then? That question has the possibility of stumping men. They would ask their sons, “Which one do you like?” and their son would state, “I don’t like any of them, Dad, they’re just my friends.”
And the father would say, “Well what do you do with them?” and the son would respond, “We just hang out, Dad, they’re my friends.”
Dad would say, “Yeah, I get that but what do you do? What do you talk about?”
The message that our sons and other boys are getting from far too many men, actually good men, is that outside of sexual conquest boys should have limited interest in girls. The message to our boys was and continues to be today that you can have a girl or two as your friend, but more than that and your manhood as we define it is in question. When it comes to the man box, I believe that homophobia is the glue that keeps it together. We teach our sons and other boys to define manhood by distancing themselves from the experiences of women and girls; in order to effectively distance oneself you have to also truly develop a lack of interest. We then allow for limited interest, and that usually is reserved for sexual conquest. While I am sure there are various degrees of disagreement with me on this point, there is one reality to all of this that’s difficult to challenge. You take the average eighteen-year-old young man, good kid and all. You then take the average eighteen-year-old young woman, and his interest in her lessens when we take sexual conquest off the table. There are no absolutes to anything I’m saying in this book and that relates to this issue as well. I am not saying all eighteen-year-old boys; I’m not saying your son. What I am saying is that, far too often, this is the reality.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Breaking out of the Man Box by Tony Porter, published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2016.
Watch a video of Tony Porter speaking about “Breaking the Male Code” at Bioneers 2016 below, or listen to our podcast.