I understand—I really do—why a lot of people raised to be a man are seeking a gendered sense of self that is separate and distinct from all that has been called out lately as toxic masculinity. These days a penised person* would have to be really clueless not to notice all the manhood-proving behaviors that have been critiqued as hazardous to well-being (one’s own and others’). However much that penised person accepts the mounting critique of standard-issue masculinity, he might reasonably be wondering what manhood-authenticating behaviors are exempt from it: What are the ways to “act like a man” that definitively keep one from being confused with “men behaving badly”? Or, put more personally: What exactly does one do nowadays to inhabit a male-positive gendered identity that feels—and is—worthy of respect (by oneself and others)?
At the same time—as if in an alternate universe—there are legions of people raised to be a man who have been exposed to the criticism of masculinity but are rejecting and resisting the critique with all their might, almost at a cellular level, the way a body’s immune system generates antibodies to fend off an invading infection. For these penised people, criticism of any masculinity is experienced as an attack on all masculinity. Simmering resentment, eruptive anger, and backlash are but a few symptoms of their abreaction. What’s going on inside—where they feel their authentic “This is who I am”—is a life-and-death struggle against what they perceive portends personal annihilation.
For the sake of clarity, I’ll name these two characterizations Reformers and Conservers. Of course these are not the only segments of the penised population. But I’m going to assume they are both prominent enough that most readers will recognize them in broad outline. And I’m going to assume, further, that most readers place some sort of valuation on these two personas. One is better than the other,most readers are probably thinking. One is Good Guy and one is Bad Guy. And no matter whether you believe that Reformers are the real good guys or Conservers are the real good guys, what will likely be on your mind is that one does a superior job of “doing masculinity” while the other does an inferior job.
Notice how the better-than/worse-than categorization scheme comes mentally into play? It kicks in like a habit whenever one’s acculturated higher cortex is presented with any question having to do with manhood. The brain has been conditioned since childhood to perceive the social gender identity manhood through a lens of better than/worse than. It’s how we all learned to experience the identity, and it’s how we all know to recognize “who’s the man there.” It’s also how some of us embody credible manhood if and when we can, and it’s what all of us try to keep safe from if and when we can’t. Because this interior superior/inferior typology is intractably linked to interactional cognition of the gender identity manhood, it’s no wonder that neither Resisters nor Conservers get round to thinking about the template very critically.
But we must do that. We actually must. Our lives depend upon it.
For reasons implicit in my opening paragraph about Reformers, the notion of “healthy masculinity” has caught on in many circles the past few years. People convene about it, organize and workshop about it, tweet and blog about it, and in general work conscientiously at making the concept mean something viable and valuable that will fill an emptiness in Reformers’ lives—the yawning void left when, beginning a few decades ago, “He acts just like a man” began to shift from laudatory to derogatory.
Conservers, of course, don’t think there’s anything unwell about masculinity at all. And they definitely believe that masculinity ought not be impugned—as, in truth, it is—by the expression “healthy masculinity.” Imagine how a patient in a cancer ward would feel if a newly enlightened roommate began rejoicing about having healthy cancer. Probably offended. Maybe pissed off. Similarly a Conserver will never be persuaded that the masculinity he aspires to and embodies is unhealthy, or an affliction of some sort. Instead, the Conserver will regard the innuendo of “healthy masculinity” as itself a form of life-threatening attack.
Now, call me crazy, but I don’t see much long-term promise in talking only to Reformers or only to Conservers. And I certainly see no advantage in sending a message—“healthy masculinity”—that is sure to exacerbate the gender anxiety of anyone who doesn’t believe that subscribing to analog masculinity somehow makes a person sick. Shutting off communications with Conservers from the get-go by talking of “healthy and unhealthy masculinity” is at best vain and counterproductive and at worst inflammatory. Numerically Conservers represent a lot of penised people; they probably represent more than Reformers, who are still a minority inside the Conserver-dominant culture. But besides being a triggering turnoff to Conservers, there’s an even bigger problem with talking of “healthy masculinity”: It’s based on a well-meaning but ultimately faulty premise. It’s not the right fix for the problem. It’s actually a “cure” that reinvigorates a “disease.”
Many folks of goodwill want whatever’s wrong with the social gender identity manhood to be fixed comprehensively. Their hope is that the fix will avert all those male-gender-identity flare-ups that are well known to cause collateral damage. They want to live in a world where there is no need to be afraid of someone simply because they were born penised and socialized to be a man. In short, they want more harmony among human beings than we are presently accustomed to on the planet.
But here’s the rub: Any movement or campaign to remedy manhood cannot itself replicate the better-than/lesser-than oneupsmanship upon which—inside everyone’s head—manhood is definitionally predicated. Every time our acculturated brains want to identify certain penised people who are “doing masculinity” superiorly, we are reactivating the same mental scripts that were imprinted in us when we watched, or participated in, our earliest mano-a-mano fights. Someone was the victor. Someone was the loser. That was the way we learned the meaning of “manhood.” And that winner/loser, dominant/subordinate definitional prototype does not just vanish into thin air.
Instead we have to figure out a way to retrain brains, and reframe what the problem is precisely. To explain what I mean, I’m going to digress a bit and talk about what’s known as bystander-intervention training.
Basically bystander-intervention training is a program to equip penised people with communication skills, empathy, emotional intelligence, relational tactics, and a sense of personal agency to intervene when they see another penised person about to commit a sexual assault. Bystander-intervention training is widely regarded as one of the most effective means of primary sexual-assault prevention in social situations such as bars and parties where there are likely to be observers.
A big part of the program is teaching trainees (who tend to be Reformers) how to address one or several other penised people (often but not always Conservers) in a way that will effectively interrupt a probable assault-in-progress, create an exit option for a probable victim, and—here’s the tricky part—not precipitate a cockfight with the probable perp.
There are many worthy aspects of bystander-intervention training but the one I want to focus on is this: It is practice acting out of one’s moral agency without trying to prove one’s manhood. This is a discipline that is learnable, replicable, and rememberable. One reason a trainee knows the discipline is important is that he knows darn well what will happen if he does try to prove his manhood in such a situation: The contretemps will turn to combat of one sort or another, because the very act of trying to demonstrate one’s own manhood vis-à-vis another penised person will fuel the other person’s manhood-demonstrating responses (which are fired up already, as evidenced by the sexual-assault-in-progress).
And when a trainee overcomes his own anticipatory dread of what might happen to him if he intervenes—when in real life he actually does step up and say or do something that interrupts what might have ended harmfully—he learns another powerful lesson: “I did that. I said that. I stopped that.” Put another way: “I acted out of my own moral agency and I can take personal responsibility for the consequence of that action.”
Of course, those words are not literally what runs through the ex-bystander’s mind. But there’s a distinct experience captured in that moment. It’s the experience of acting out of one’s conscience and being who one is.
I submit that when we connect the dots of moments like that—real-time instances of embodied ethics and accountability—a new picture of the problem will emerge alongside a new recognition of the solution.
Learning how to act out of one’s moral agency with consistency—how to tap into one’s capacity for ethical choice-making in a way that other people can come to expect one to do—is not a gendered behavior (it doesn’t come with any particular plumbing), nor is it a gendering behavior (it doesn’t make someone more anything except more human).
Ever notice how frequently the words “Real men don’t…” appear in male-pattern-violence** prevention campaigns? “Real men don’t buy girls.” “Real men don’t hit women.” “Real men don’t rape.” The list goes on. “Real men don’t…” has become a Reformers’ mantra. (No pun intended.)
But there are three problems with “Real men don’t…” The first is that the trope conceals and obscures the actual dynamic between manhood-proving and male-pattern violence. Men rape in order to experience themselves as real men. Men hit women in order to show they are the man there. Men buy prostituted women and children in order to get off like a real man—the payoff promised and promoted by pornography. (And that’s the functional purpose of the so-called money shot: to show a penised person ejaculating in circumstances that authenticate him as a real man.)
The second problem with “Real men don’t…” follows from the first: It is a meaningless message to the audience it is intended to reach. Announcing that “real men” don’t commit male-pattern violence is utterly unpersuasive to anyone for whom doing male-pattern violence makes him feel like a “real man.”
And the third problem with “Real men don’t…” is that while it preaches to the Reformer choir, it sends an unhelpful message. It keeps moral choice-making locked into gender identity rather than allowing it to express moral identity. It keeps “who I am here and now” inside the straightjacket of “I am nobody if not a man.” Moreover, by evoking the construct real manhood, “Real men don’t…” retriggers and reifies the anxiety that pervaded every penised person’s upbringing: “Am I a real-enough boy?” “Am I real-enough man?” “How can I convince myself and others?”
That last problem with “Real men don’t…” points to the fundamental problem with the idea of “healthy masculinity.” Talk about “healthy masculinity” sounds good—at least to the ears of Reformers and people who wish to love them. It offers individual respite from the incessant headlines about men’s crimes against women and other men; it functions as a feel-good exemption from being implicated. It helps one belong to a tribe of other “healthy masculinity” devotees—a comfortable camaraderie in which one can feel safe from all those perilous challenges to one’s manhood elsewhere.
And yet the idea of “healthy masculinity” does not liberate conscience from gender. “Healthy masculinity” keeps conscience gendered. And it’s not.
hroughout history, there were people who did not want women to vote. Women would work, they would pay taxes, they would technically be considered citizens... but voting was for men. In America, when the right to vote was extended to include all races, all social positions, and all incomes, women were still not included. It didn't matter if a man was illiterate, had been to jail, or if he was the town drunk. He could vote, and a woman, no matter who she was, could not.
Women suffragists (suffragettes) began campaigning in democratic countries all over the world to change this, starting in the mid-19th century. Their campaigns were largely peaceful and dignified... at least by 21st century standards. But by 19th century standards, these women were abhorrent and indecent, making fools of themselves by demanding to be treated like men.
One of the most notable things about the arguments put forth by the anti-suffragette movement was how weak its position was. Anti-suffragette arguments relied heavily onemotional manipulation and downright hateful nastiness. Humor was a much-used weapon against suffragettes. They were easy to depict as embittered old maids, brutal scolds, and cigar-smoking transvestites.
August 18 will mark the 93rd anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed American women the right to vote. In commemoration, we present a selection of anti-suffragette cartoons. And for an even more entertaining look at the fight for women's suffrage, watch the fantastic educational tribute to both suffragettes and Lady Gaga, Bad Romance, by Soomo Publishing.
(To save you the squinting, this reads: "The Ducking — Stool and a nice deep pool were our fore-fathers plan for a scold, and could I have my way, each Suffragette to-day, Should 'take the chair' and find the water cold.")
If recent legislation passed in Arkansas and North Dakota is allowed to stand, it will be harder for women to get an abortion in those states than it was in New England in 1650. Legislators in Little Rock and Bismarck have passed new restrictions that ban abortions according to when a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can occur as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Federal judges have blocked the new restrictions until legal challenges to their constitutionality are settled. But the six-week deadline contrasts starkly with early American abortion law, where the procedure was legal until “quickening”—the first time a mother feels the baby kick, which can happen anywhere from 14 weeks to 26 weeks into pregnancy.
Abortion was not just legal—it was a safe, condoned, and practiced procedure in colonial America and common enough to appear in the legal and medical records of the period. Official abortion laws did not appear on the books in the United States until 1821, and abortion before quickening did not become illegal until the 1860s. If a woman living in New England in the 17th or 18th centuries wanted an abortion, no legal, social, or religious force would have stopped her.
That, however, is not the way the anti-abortion movement likes to paint the history of abortion in the United States. Anti-abortion organizations such as the National Right to Life spin a narrative in which legal abortion is a historical anomaly and an unnatural consequence of modern America’s loose moral standards. On the National Right to Life’s website, for example, a page titled “Abortion History Timeline” describes “a few rogue doctors and midwives” performing abortions in early America, only “as far back as the 1850s.” In reality, trusted midwives and medical practitioners performed abortions from the beginning of American colonial life and throughout world history. Fox News also falsifies American abortion history on its website. On a page titled “Fast Facts: History of U.S. Abortion Laws,” it claims that abortion in the American colonies “was ruled a misdemeanor if performed prior to quickening.”
Other anti-abortion groups such as the Family Research Council claim that abortion could not have had “foundation in the text of the Constitution”—overlooking the fact that when the Constitution was written, abortion was legal until quickening.Americans United for Life makes the same mistake on its website, misconstruing a quote from Thomas Jefferson—“The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government”—as being anti-abortion. Americans United for Life also describes itself on its website as working to “restore a culture of life.” Of course, when the founding fathers met in a sweltering hall in Pennsylvania to declare independence, such a culture was not even a twinkle in their eyes.
Puritans, sex, and legal abortion
To many people, the facts about abortion’s legality in early America can be surprising. This is partly thanks to the American imagination, which paints the Puritans—the first English settlers on American soil to focus on creating communities and families—as strict, foreboding people, incapable of joy or laughter, let alone sexual pleasure. This popular perception is drawn partly from books such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which portrays Puritan society as deeply religious, dark, and unforgiving. It is hard for modern Americans to believe that a society as pious and austere as the Puritans’ New England—the cultural and legal parent of much of early American communal life—tolerated a controversial procedure such as abortion.
In reality, the Puritans were much more lighthearted than is commonly thought, and in some ways, they were quite progressive when it came to sexual conduct. Puritans believed that marital sex for pleasure was important and that marriage was a contract of love, not just economics. Although premarital and extramarital sexual relationships were illegal, they were so common that enforcement was never very strict. The legal documents of the time are rampant with recorded “sexual offenses,” and the percentage of firstborn children born early or completely out of wedlock hovered at around 40 percent during the colonial era. Since the Puritans believed that one could be godly without children and that life began when a mother felt her baby kick, their strict religious code had no need to outlaw abortion before quickening.
The Puritans brought their laws on abortion from merry old England, where the procedure was also legal until quickening. Although the Puritans changed much of England’s legal system when they established their “city upon a hill,” they kept abortion as a part of Puritan family life, allowing women to choose when and if they would become mothers—whether for the first time or the fifth time.
Colonial women procured prequickening abortions mainly with the help of other women in their communities; skilled midwives knew which herbs could cause a woman to abort, and early American medical books even gave instructions for “suppressing the courses,” or inducing an abortion. Much of what we know about abortion in 18th-century America comes from the case of Sarah Grosvenor, a young woman who died from a late-term surgical abortion in Connecticut in 1742. Surgical abortions were rare and dangerous; most abortions in this period were induced by herbal abortifacients. Sarah’s case entered the legal record after the doctor who performed her abortion was brought to court for murdering the young woman and her unborn child—the abortion was illegal since it took place after quickening. Cornelia Hughes Dayton, however, an early American historian who has researched the case extensively, points out that when Sarah first tried to abort her child by “taking the trade”—ingesting herbal abortifacients—the women of her community were not surprised by her actions. They were familiar with abortion and were not troubled by its ethical implications.
The campaign to criminalize abortion
Acceptance of early-term abortion changed during the 19th century as Victorian sensibilities took hold.By 1910 abortion—except in cases to save the mother’s life—was a criminal procedure in every state except Kentucky, where the courts declared the procedure to be judicially illegal. The new restrictions on abortion were caused by many factors, including changing social, class, and family dynamics in the early 19th century. Americans in the Victorian era thought abortion was a problem brought on by upper-class white women, who were choosing to start their families later and limit their size. Increased female independence was also perceived as a threat to male power and patriarchy, especially as Victorian women increasingly volunteered outside the home for religious and charitable causes.
During the mid-19th century, American physicians also began to battle “irregular” doctors, such as homeopaths and midwives, in an attempt to assert the authority and legitimacy of male-dominated scientific medicine. To tackle these irregular doctors, the “scientific” physicians attacked legal abortion because it was midwives and other “unscientific” medical practitioners who safely performed the procedure. White men were also concerned by shifting ethnic and racial dynamics in the United States, worrying that the low birthrate of the white upper class would lead to racial inferiors and un-American immigrants overrunning the country.
Together, a coalition of male doctors backed by the American Medical Association, the Catholic Church, and sensationalist newspapers began to campaign for the criminalization of abortion.By the turn of the century, this coalition had largely succeeded in limiting women’s medical choices. According to Carroll Smith-Rosenberg in her book Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America, restricting abortion was one way that male physicians could “assert clear authority” over their female patients.The Victorian anti-abortion movement portrayed women who terminated their pregnancies as unnatural and selfish, undermining the expected, patriotic, and godly role of the American woman—that of wife and mother.
After abortion was made a criminal offense at the close of the Victorian era, it would not become legal again until 1973, when the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling declared that all women had the right to terminate a pregnancy until the fetus was viable outside the womb. The decision came after years of legal, political, and religious advocacy on behalf of women and their reproductive health and rights. In the roughly 100 years when abortion was illegal in the United States, women suffered and died from botched abortions, with as many as5,000 women dying every year in the decades leading up to the ruling. After Roe v. Wade, deaths and hospitalizations resulting from unsafe abortions effectively ended in this country. When abortion was legal in early America, it was considered at least as safe as delivering a child at term, and today abortion is considered an extremely safe procedure. But when a woman’s right to an abortion is restricted, the operation turns risky: Today approximately 68,000 women around the world die each year from unsafe abortions.
The case for contraception
The notion that contraception, like abortion, is a relatively new phenomenon is also wildly distorted. Since ancient times women and men have been using a variety of contraceptive methods beyond abstinence, and the pill is the only type of birth control that was not available until recent decades. Contraceptive methods historically include everything from “pulling out” to diaphragms and condoms. Distribution of and public education about birth control was legal in the United States until 1873, when the infamous Comstock Act was passed.
The act, which declared that information about birth control was “obscene,” grew out of sentiments similar to those that spurred the anti-abortion movement. It also led 24 states to pass similar restrictions; collectively, the federal and state restrictions were known as Comstock laws. Margaret Sanger, the well-known crusader for birth control and founder of what is now called Planned Parenthood, was arrested for violating Comstock laws while attempting to educate desperate women about how they could better control their own bodies and their families by using contraception.
It was not until 1965 that the last Comstock laws left standing in the United States were ruled unconstitutional. In Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court ruled that married women in every state had the right to access birth control. But unmarried women had to wait until the 1972 Supreme Court ruling in Eisenstadt v. Baird to gain the same right.
Painting the past, protecting the future
Abortion and contraception are not new. They are not a product of modernity or rising secularism or a reflection of the downfall of the traditional family. Throughout history, women and their partners have chosen to limit their families for the sake of their health, happiness, and economic viability. Men and women frequently made these choices without the guilty association of sin; whether abortion and contraception were legal often had nothing to do with a society’s piety. Instead, the legal status of abortion was tied to a society’s outlook regarding sex and gender, with religion giving a moral high ground to either side of the argument.
Many people imagine our history in a way that is more fantasy than reality, assigning values and morals that they wish contemporary society possessed to our nation’s founders. But imagining quaint and pious scenes does not make them true. The Scarlet Letter’s bleak and unforgiving portrayal of Puritan sexuality is more a reflection of the Victorian sexual standards of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s era than the sexual values of his ancestors’ days. In reality, female sexuality in the Puritan and colonial period was in many ways more liberated than in Hawthorne’s days; it was only years later that chastity became the prized virtue of the American woman.
Today, when anti-abortion groups proclaim their version of history and discuss the founders or rogue doctors, they are imposing their own moral vision on an unhistorical past. The anti-abortion movement’s imagined reality—in which colonial Americans believed that life began at conception, championed the rights of the “unborn,” and prevented female sexual freedom—is just plain wrong, regardless of the true ethical questions surrounding abortion. Sexual values surrounding abortion and birth control have changed with time and cultures, a historical truth that everyone on the political spectrum must recognize. If an honest discussion about abortion and birth control is to take place, we must appreciate their progressive place in our history and make sure we are not moving backwards in time.
Ranana Dine is an intern with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.
To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact: