WHAT DO MEN WANT? A sequel to “What do Women Want?”
Rev. Kit Ketcham, PUUF, May 13, 2018
As the #MeToo wave swept across the globe and thousands, even millions of women came forward to reveal the incidents of harassment, assault, misogyny, and sexism that they had dealt with for much of their lives, I reached out to the women in our Fellowship to ask what their lives had been like.
Had they experienced the kinds of things that other women had dealt with? Would they like to talk about it? Several women came forward and we spent some good time talking about the ways actions by some men had affected our lives.
Our conversations were painful and revealing. And in a follow-up to the conversations, I asked them to answer the question “What do you as a woman want?” I spoke to you on that topic a couple of months ago and conveyed the essence of their wants and needs to you all.
It seemed only fair then to ask the men in our Fellowship a similar question: “what do men want?” And several men wrote back varying responses, which I will share with you this morning.
Since that time, I’ve done some reading about some of the dangerous things that some men want, particularly sexual violence, a want that is emerging in some of the neo-Nazi groups. There is a movement, in fact, among disaffected young men which could qualify as terrorism; it is the movement dubbed “InCel”.
How many of us have heard of InCel? InCel is a combination of two words: Involuntary Celibacy.
If asked the question “what do you want, angry young men?” many, perhaps most, men affiliated with InCel would answer “I want to get laid and nobody will have sex with me and I’m angry about it.”
In other words, these men believe that women owe them sexual favors and they are angry that nobody will sleep with them. This was apparently the reasoning of Alek Minassian, the young man who drove a cargo van into a crowd in Toronto recently, killing several women and injuring many others.
Here’s something published recently by the Southern Poverty Law Center:
Incels "have taken this moniker as almost a badge of honor for men who feel like women are not being the docile sex toys for them that they think they should be."
In other words, for incels, it's not just about sex. It's about the women supposedly withholding it. (The) organizations that attack or malign an entire class of people for their immutable characteristics. Incels like … Minassian target women in violent attacks because of what they see as the most immutable female characteristic of all: women's sexuality.
It cannot be women's job to pacify men who hate them because of their gender — just like it cannot be the job of people of color to (pacify) white supremacists. We began tracking male supremacy in 2012. In the wake of the 2016 election, we saw how essential male supremacist ideas were to the rise of the so-called "alt-right" and formally added male supremacist groups to our hate map the following year.
Now more than ever, it's clear that we ignore male supremacy at our peril.
Interesting, isn’t it? And scary, to think of what some men want. I wonder, too, how the murders of transwomen fit into this scenario.
Anger and depression are not uncommon among human beings who long for physical intimacy and don’t get it. I even heard a therapist, one time, say that he believed that sexual frustration was occasionally a cause of suicide in some vulnerable men. He did not offer evidence, simply stated his belief. I wonder how he views the InCel movement.
As a counselor in a suburban junior high in Colorado in the 90’s, I heard the stories of boys who had been sexually violated, forced to perform sex acts by threats of injury or even death, anally raped, sometimes romantically seduced by a teacher or other adult in power.
For boys, sexual violation is painful and humiliating, as it is for girls and women, but perhaps not completely similar. For boys in a patriarchal culture, the shame of being overpowered has a different effect, perhaps, than it has for girls.
Girls grow up with the understanding that they are less physically powerful than boys and must always be on the lookout in order to stay safe. I’ll bet the women here today grew up hearing the adage “boys only want one thing---sex—and you have to protect yourself from that.” Girls may develop into women with that underlying message of having less physical power than boys.
What is the message boys grow up with in a patriarchal culture? They learn that males are stronger, more powerful, more deserving of certain roles and responsibilities, more destined to have privilege than females in the same roles.
When these assumptions turn out to be short-circuited by a sexual assault or other overpowering and humiliating acts toward them, there’s confusion in hearing “boys are tough, boys mustn’t be like girls, boys don’t cry, boys are not vulnerable to the same things girls are” –and that message can be difficult to comprehend for a young boy who has been violated.
Females learn to use different strategies to stay safe than boys learn. Because of that learned fear of male aggression, women may lie to stay safe, to protect themselves from the possibility of injury or abandonment, for example. This is not a particularly healthy strategy, obviously, because it causes distrust between partners and is a difficult façade to maintain and will likely backfire.
What strategies do boys learn to deal with aggression? My experience with sexual assault victims, both young boys and adult men, is that it is hard for males with this experience to find a way to deal with the anger that arises out of the helplessness which is an outcome of humiliation and pain.
Boys and men I counseled were often angry and aggressive themselves, not allowing themselves to get close to peers, striking out physically, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, withdrawing, and often considering suicide. Many wondered if they were gay, if abused by a male. Many teenage boys who were seduced by older adults, both male and female, weren’t sure if they should feel flattered by the attention from a teacher or admired adult or devastated by being used for someone else’s gratification.
So the way boys become men often has some backstory, backstory which is sometimes humiliating and difficult to reveal. And underneath the visible behavior, just as with women, many men deal with memories of experiences that shape their behavior today.
And so it is on that note that I would like to turn to the responses I received from eight of our PUUF men in answer to the question “What do men want?” I also got responses from other male acquaintances and from my son Mike, during conversations while I was working on this sermon.
You’ll be glad to know that we have some wonderful guys in this congregation. They care about how they come across. They are concerned about how to show affection to platonic women friends and aware of the biological power differential as well as the cultural male supremacy reality active in our society. Some of them have also had some negative experiences which have shaped their lives.
Let me read to you some of their responses in a few different threads; their responses revealed some major themes. During my reading of them, I was strongly reminded of how often men’s and women’s thinking is quite different, even about the same question.
I found that the responses fell into three major categories: what men want in a relationship with a woman (platonic or romantic); what men want for all humankind in general; and what men want for themselves.
Let me paraphrase some of their answers to each category. In what they want in relationship to women, here’s what a few said:
“I want companionship, someone to talk to, someone to be mutually supportive and encouraging with, to share a pillow with, and to have enough solitude when I need it.”
Another said this: “I need clear signals about hugs and physical affection; I enjoy platonic affection but am not sure of the boundaries, so I tend to hang back.”
Others said these things: “I maintain business-like relationships with most women, because anything else is too easily misunderstood.” And “I think women need to bring overbearing men to account, that is, bring attention to misbehavior so that our society can overcome our instinctual reactions to our biological impulses.”
Another response: “I like women who are interesting, honest, responsible, who let me be myself, who listen before answering, and who are as considerate as I try to be.”
One man mentioned his hope that “testosterone-influenced, stupid behavior is on the wane because of growing understanding and awareness.” He wants to encourage women’s strength, their abilities, and their empowerment.
What did these men want for all humankind?
One mentioned health care and humane treatment for all who struggle with poverty, with housing, with violence, addiction, and mental illness.
Another man said “Men appear to want similar things to women: Respect, Honor, Stability, Love, Longevity, Good Health and good Humor…Violence, misogyny, cheating and attempts to control women’s rights have never been okay and still need to be strongly opposed… Real men recognize this as a way of improving life for all humankind…”
And yet another stated: “A cultural shift is definitely overdue… Each society must define the rules of behavior so that it can function smoothly and the #MeToo movement is helping to make this definition clear.”
What do men want for themselves? Here’s a summary of what they said: I want to be my real self and to have the freedom to change and grow at my own speed. I want companionship, I want peace of mind, I want a greater understanding of others, I want to be slow to anger and free from depression. I want to feel less awkward about casual affection and touch. I want to be recognized for what I have done, the sacrifices I have made, and I’d like appreciation from those I love.”
Women and men answered the same question in different ways. Women’s backstory has often had the shadow of mistreatment by men coloring what they want from men and from life in general. Men’s backstory often has a different shadow coloring what they want---sometimes it’s been discord and dysfunction in the home, sometimes it’s been abuse, sometimes it’s been an awareness of their male privilege---or a lack of awareness of the privilege of being male.
My son Mike, in a recent phone conversation in which I asked him to answer the question, hemmed and hawed a bit about what he wants in his relationships (I can understand that---he was talking to his mother, after all), but came out with a valuable statement: “I, as a straight white male, already have about as much of what I want as I can possibly get. I’m not missing out on much
----- because of my inborn privilege. Women, on the other hand, do not have that same privilege because of gender.”
What’s the takeaway from this question posed to both men and women, with some answers similar and some strikingly different because of the cultural milieu in which we live?
Here are my thoughts. As a minister, I care for both men and women in our Fellowship. So it is helpful for me to understand where each person I’m serving is coming from, what the backstory may be that shapes their life if they are struggling, no matter what their gender is.
And as a straight woman who has been single for the past 40 plus years, with a couple of long-term relationships interspersed with shorter experiences, I have gradually come to see how my backstory has shaped my life as I have made some bad and good choices.
Listening to the experiences recounted by my junior high students, both male and female, I am powerfully aware of the consequences of sexual violation at any age, but especially in childhood. And having been in friendships with good men and women who have told me about having been sexually assaulted in their early years or seduced by a teacher or other admired adult, I am also aware that those events have deeply affected their adult lives.
My students often came to me because their friends were worried that they were suicidal. Sometimes they came voluntarily; other times I’d ask them to come in. I had a set of questions I’d ask about their mindset and why they were thinking of suicide, and the most telling of all the questions was this one: Have you ever been sexually molested? There was such a high correlation between inappropriate sexual attention and feelings of low self-worth that it was nearly always predictable.
While my adult friends and parishioners might not be currently suicidal, many had considered it at one time. If seduced by a teacher or other admired adult into a pseudo-romantic relationship, they felt both flattered by the attention and yet manipulated for another’s sexual gratification. These were always relationships with a differing power status---teacher to student, supervisor to intern, boss to employee, adult to child.
As I’ve listened to both men’s and women’s perceptions about what they want and need, I’ve come to see that each gender—and likely all on the gender spectrum---expresses their wants through a somewhat different but related lens, the lens of privilege and power.
I have come to believe that a huge, almost unseeable feature of our cultural milieu is the invisible, pervasive layer of privilege and power that is bestowed almost automatically upon males and mostly denied to females. At the same time, females have power and privilege that males do not.
What powers do men have that most or all of women do not? The ones I thought of quickly were male privilege and physical strength.
What powers do women have that males do not? Into my mind pop certain sexual attributes and so-called “feminine wiles”, the flirtations that entice males to respond to females positively and perhaps help women meet their needs.
But what powers do men and women share in common? My own brainstorming produces this idea: each member of the human family can use the very real power of granting respect, honor, stability, love, and good humor (I’m quoting here from one man’s statement about what he wants for humankind). The power is in our willingness to grant these benefits to others.
It’s not commonly recognized as power, but truly, it is our human superpower.
Each gender has some strengths or attributes which can be used for or against the opposite gender. But each gender has the power and privilege of applying an antidote to our cultural milieu of patriarchy, not from a place of privilege or from sexual attraction, but out of a just and compassionate heart.
That potent antidote, it seems to me, is for each of us to GRANT to those in our lives (both male and female) Respect, Honor, Stability, Love, and Good Humor, not parceling these gifts out sparingly but generously. It’s our SUPERPOWER!
To overcome those “instinctual reactions to our biological impulses” males must consciously look past the biological stimuli to see the person not as a sexual being but as a human being equally deserving of respect and honor.
To overcome the temptation to use a flirtatious response to a man’s attention when it would be inappropriate, I have learned to fall back on my training to seek more understanding of the person in front of me, so as to maintain my self-respect and treat them as a person worthy of respect.
Our biology often tempts us to default toward a biological response. We don’t have to. And we will be a more just society when we are able to freely grant respect and honor and other such attributes to all persons without defaulting to our biological or old cultural impulses. May it be so!
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
HYMN# 354. “We Laugh, We Cry”
BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that each of us and each of our fellow human beings was born with inherent worth and dignity and that we have promised to affirm and promote this human attribute in our relationships. May we strive to treat each other with respect and honor, subverting the age-old paradigm of gender inequality. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.