Tom Digby on Militarism, Sexuality, and Romance

In a post on how men can be better feminist allies, Emma Cueto advises men to avoid the temptation to put men’s issues first. She sums up the problem of “toxic masculinity” by noting, “is not fun for anyone and often limits men’s choices in terms of interests or self-expression, and it means that many men are never really given the tools to properly deal with their own emotions.”  She goes on to say that men are not sexually assaulted at the same rate as women, are not victims of domestic violence as often as women, are not victims of pay disparities or sexual discrimination as often as women, and aren’t confronted by laws designed to control their bodies. She is right on all counts, but Tom Digby’s book, Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance , helps show why it is impossible to separate culturally programmed masculinity from sexual assault, reproductive regulation, domestic violence, and job discrimination and why feminists must deal with how sexism affects both men and women simultaneously.

His thesis is that militaristic societies establish values and goals that require men to cut off their feelings of care for others and for themselves, see women’s freedom as a threat, and rely on violence to solve their problems. In order to achieve military objectives, subject both boys and girls with intense cultural programming from birth to encourage strength in boys and passivity in girls. With this thesis, he flips the script from what many assume: that men are violent and cut off from their feelings by biological programming. Early in the book, he offers two pieces of evidence that this assumption is faulty. First, men and women in some societies do not show the differences that are so prevalent in militaristic societies. Second, he shows that men often fight against their own biology to retain the appearance of stoicism. Indeed, almost all men have been cruelly taunted for their failure to maintain their composure (choking back tears) even before reaching adolescence. If biology prevented boys from crying, no one would have to keeping telling boys not to cry. The conditioning is relentless and severe.

War dependent societies must maintain ample supplies of expendable men as well as childbearing women who will provide future generations of warriors. This requires shutting down empathy in men, glorifying risk and violence, and valuing women according to sexual availability and passivity. To the extent that maintaining near constant war was the goal, this model worked for centuries, but things have changed. I wish I could say we are no longer reliant on war, but that is sadly not driving the change. Digby points out that while war is still with us, the need for individual warriors who do one-on-one combat, relying on brute strength, has greatly diminished. Combat is now highly mechanized, and what physical differences may exist between men and women often offer no benefit to either side or may even give an advantage to women (he notes the case of jet fighters).

As a result, most men do not experience direct combat, or any kind of combat, in their lives. Our warriors must find other outlets for their masculinity. They may do it through aggressive sports, war games such as paintball, or even through violent video games. Digby points out that while women may be attracted to warriors, the guy who dominates video games doesn’t get quite the accolades of war combatants.

Another change is the material relationship between men and women. In the past, women were materially dependent on men and would comply with men’s wishes in order to avoid poverty. As women have entered the workforce, many are now the primary wage earners for their families. As women earn college degrees and professional credentials at higher rates than men, it is inevitable that men will become increasingly dependent on women for material support. These social changes leave our masculine warrior with an identity crisis. One option is for him to change his identity, which requires becoming more dependent and empathetic. This would be to become more “feminine” (a horror to the warrior). Or, the second option is for him to become more strident and militant, which may account for increased attacks against feminism and women these days.

When we observe the vitriol in attacks against feminist women online, graphic violence against women in video games and movies, and actual physical brutality and murder of women, it is easy to see the desperation of the warriors who refuse to go down without a fight. The fact that their opponents wish them no real harm seems to be of no consolation. It took me awhile to read this book because I assumed I would agree with it, and I did. I already knew that men were programmed to cut off their empathy, to expect women to be passive, to have the greatest disdain for “feminine” men, and so on. This book does bring a new analysis to these facts, though. It gives a new understanding of how things have gotten where they are and how they may be different.

I have only one minor quibble with one claim in the book. In chapter two, Digby quotes Sandra Bartky to explain the transactional nature of heterosexual relationships. He quotes Bartky as saying, “He shows his love for her by bringing home the bacon, she by securing for him a certain quality of nurturance and concern.” The claim is that men are emotionally unavailable or unsuited for empathy and emotional nurturance. On the other hand, women are expected to provide comfort and emotional support for men. I do think it is true that men are more likely to seek emotional support from women than from men, but I do not think this transaction is so readily accepted in heterosexual relationships.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking to both men and women in grief. Many men are so conditioned to “be strong” that they will never ask for support from the women in their lives for fear of appearing weak. Also, many feel they must suppress their emotional needs for the good of the family. Because they succeed in appearing strong, the women around them believe they are strong and do not need emotional support. As a result, men too often face grief and depression in complete isolation. When they finally crumble under the pressure, many will say, “I had no idea things were so bad.” This may help explain why men commit suicide at higher rates than women. Sadly, I’ve heard too many women say that they, also, do not feel supported by other women. Increasingly, at least in the United States, I feel grief is becoming a solitary activity for both men and women.

I hope we can all begin to support one another by offering each other protection, emotional support, material support, and just human kindness.

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
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