“When I was eight I made a pie from scratch, with fruit from our backyard, for my grandfather, my father’s father, and we took it to my granddad, my dad drove me there. My grandfather he took it, and was very quiet for a second, smelled it, said it smelled really good but he said ‘thank you sweetie.’ He was trying to be supportive but that was never language he used with my male cousins, that’s how he spoke to my female cousins… it was very indirect, but that’s when I began to understand there were male and female roles.
Seven months ago, I moved into a new space. This space came with a gorgeous black lab and two men in their thirties. Upon discussing my new living arrangements with people, they often had a head-tilt reaction. What could a 23-year old woman possibly be doing living with two men.
In a world where parents have to hear stories about their daughters being cat-called on the street and are left having to compare a woman’s virginity to some treasure chest that needs to be buried deep, I understand the rationalization behind the concerned head movements.
However, I can’t help but wonder why men think certain behaviors are okay and why is it that when a young woman outlines her non-traditional living situation she is met with concern for safety, thoughts about whether sex will become an issue, and that infamous head-tilt that begs for answers to questions that might be rude to ask.
My take is that men are not born men. Like everyone else, they were once little infants ready to absorb ideals, morals, lessons, and whatever else life has to offer. As they grow into manhood, boys receive messages, and before we know it they become versions of what society (family, friends, classmates, media) tells them they should be.
Meet Tony Morales, Sally, and Mark Freeman, my roommates. They aren’t normally this geeked out, we recently had a Back to the Future themed party to celebrate Tony’s birthday (actually, that is pretty geeky). Let’s take a look at what kind of men they were socialized to be as boys…
Being a man
Tony: Being a man is an extension of a being a good person. I was always taught that as a man you have to be the head of the family, respect your partner, be a provider, and a good example for those around you.
Mark: To me, it’s very individual, but there are some social pressures and social values on what it is to be a man. The social pressures of what are considered typical male traits, values, abilities–it’s still socialized that men win the resources, men go out and get the better paying jobs, men support their family.
It seems that though Tony grew up in Jinotepe, Nicaragua, where family values are more traditional, and Mark in South East Portland, Oregon, where his parents followed a hybrid family model, they both have grown up to understand that men should be the primary bread-winner and head of the family.
Tony’s boyhood shoes
Unlike Mark, who grew up with both his mother and father present in the home, Tony did not.
Tony: My mom and my sisters were great examples, my dad passed when I was 12. I grew up with my three sisters, mom, and grandma in Nicaragua which is a family oriented society. I think all of that is a unique way to grow up.
However, Tony did not spend his entire childhood in Nicaragua. His family emigrated to the United States early in his life because of the revolution. Before Tony’s father passed, he spent a lot of time at work. Although he was away from his wife and children, Mr. Morales always made sure they knew how much he loved them.
Tony: Last time I was in Nicaragua for Christmas, my mom pulled out some letters. When my dad was traveling outside for work, he took the time to write to her and tell her how much he missed her and the kids. He had to make the sacrifice to be away from us, but he took the time to let us know he wished he could be with us.
Mr. Morales had a masters in chemical engineering, but in times of war and economic hardship, those things cease to matter. Despite the sacrifices he had to make to keep his family safe, he left a lasting impression on young Tony. Mr. Morales showed Tony what it means to be a man, to love one’s family, and how to be a good person. What is most striking about the relationship Tony had with his father is how young he was when Mr. Morales was killed in their home during an invasion, but also how much of him Tony still holds on to. Although, Mr. Morales wasn’t there to have father-son conversations with Tony when he began to wonder about the opposite sex, Tony’s memories of his father were a reference and remain so.
Tony: My parents had the philosophy to not go to bed angry, to always communicate if they were fighting and try to end up laughing instead.
When I continued to probe about where else he looked for inspiration when he felt an attraction to the opposite sex, Tony referenced media.
Tony: That was tough, I mostly kept it all internal. I tried talking to my friends but found that they were a bit more macho. My best friend between the ages of 12 and 18, who most people would confide these things in, was female. I also relied on the example of my mom and dad, and romantic comedies.
He laughed, commenting on how sad it was that he turned to romantic comedies for love advice, but that virtual realm affirmed Tony’s respect for women.
Tony: When I was in that stage of development and thinking of women [as potential partners], my example was my mom who was pretty much a single mother raising four kids, going to work full-time, taking care of the house, taking care of us, putting my family through college and school and everything. I always saw a great amount of strength in her, so growing up, I was always attracted to strong women.
Tony never saw a women as something to be conquered.
Tony: I wouldn’t say conquer though I like strong women, so I like a challenge. I like the chase, it’s not a conquering–it’s more like this person is worth the effort.
Mark’s boyhood shoes
Mark: I grew up in a household where both of my parents were working and contributing in very equal but also very different ways. The household chores were still primarily done by my mother, but my dad would cook and that was a rarity amongst our friends.
In his Oregon town it was not uncommon for Mark to be around other young boys who engaged in fights, hunting, and playing in the mud.
Unlike Tony, Mark was fortunate to have his father around. Mark describes Mr. Freeman as a masculine man who hunts, got into fights in his prime, and was the main breadwinner, although his mother also worked. Mark also remembers his father cooking delicious meals in the kitchen and lending a hand when he could. However, Mark learned a pivotal lesson about masculinity from his grandfather.
Mark: When I was eight I made a pie from scratch, with fruit from our backyard, for my grandfather, my father’s father, and we took it to my granddad, my dad drove me there. My grandfather he took it, and was very quiet for a second, smelled it, said it smelled really good but he said ‘thank you sweetie.’ He was trying to be supportive but that was never language he used with my male cousins, that’s how he spoke to my female cousins… it was very indirect, but that’s when I began to understand there were male and female roles.
That exchange with his grandfather has stayed with Mark, because it was the point in his formative years when he learned that there were things that boys do and things that girls do. Fortunately, Mark excelled at what he was supposed to do as a boy; “playing sports and doing all those gross things like playing in mud,” so he didn’t remain too occupied with the thought. However, there is one formative experience that Mark held onto for many years. At age 14, a girl asked him out…
Mark: My response to her in that exact moment was ‘maybe, let me talk to my mom,’ that’s not a classic male response.
When Mark went on to ask his mother, she said that he was not ready to date. There was no further discussion or talk. Mark struggled with that for awhile especially because his friends were exploring with dating.
Mark: I was a really emotional kid and it was good for my mom to at that point say, ‘I don’t think you’re ready,’ but it really hurt to hear that even though I understood.
Who were Mark and Tony socialized to be
From the stories shared, it’s understood that Mark and Tony were both socialized to be the kind of man who knows his role in the home, provides for his family, listens, sees more in a woman than a sexual body, and is open to respectfully exploring the boundaries of normalcy.
It is important to point out that both Mark and Tony had strong women who contributed to their growth as men. Their model of what a man is supposed to be was influenced by their fathers, but when it came to getting answers to questions about how to treat a woman, the women in their lives held the chalk to the board.
As I rounded up my conversations with both men, I asked them what came to mind when they thought of the phrase, Men become what we socialize boys to be, and this is what they shared…
Tony: I do agree, not just boys or men, but people in general absorb a lot of what society puts in front of them when they’re growing up. You absorb so much information and that’s why good role models, I think, are very important… It’s sad to see that there are not many good role models and that kinda also inspired me to join the Big Brother Big Sister Club so I can be there for anyone who doesn’t have someone to look up to as a male figure.
Mark: That’s heavy man, I like that. I have thought a lot about part of this. That is, I recognized in my dad a conflict where he very much is masculine in those traditional senses and very much can be macho and very patriarchal in some negative ways, but also in some positive ways. He always seemed to be frustrated that he had to take on certain roles. I was always aware of his disappointment in having to make certain decisions, quote-on-quote as a man should, versus being able to allow his partner be able to handle certain responsibilities and still maintain his manhood.
As I grew up and became whatever a man is, I started to say ‘hey, you know what, there is more fluidity to this than people think there is,’ and my dad was confused and frustrated about the lack of power he felt to flex whatever his manhood was. Maybe I have the freedom to explore what being a man means for me, and I am bumping to a lot of men this way and a lot of women this way.
Tony: The fact that I grew up surrounded by women, I understand that I might be on the edges of what is normal. There has to be a balance, I’m a little bit toward the sensitive side.
Living with Mark and Tony these last seven months, I have learned a great deal about being kind, listening, and living in community with men. It is important that I point out that they are two pretty awesome human beings, and represent a small sample size. I do believe that they have both grown to be respectful men because of how they were brought up, so that proves my reflection to be correct in this scenario. However, I have not spoken to enough men from varied backgrounds about their boyhood experiences to draw a conclusion that it is correct that all Men become what we socialize boys to be.
It would also be unfair to say that those who do the head-tilt have unfounded concerns. After all, we do live in a society where women are sexualized and abused, but it is important to recognize that all men weren’t socialized the same way as boys.
As a woman with men in her life who I admire and love, I hope to socialize them to understand that it is normal to be sensitive and kind, and that it is normal to have a woman walk into your life and want to offer her a relationship or connection that doesn’t include sex though it may. The fact that I feel the need to write that sentence shows that our society is speaking loud messages to young boys and men that lead them to believe otherwise. If someday, I am blessed with young boys, I hope to raise them with the same level of respect and fluidity that I have found in Tony and Mark.
Author’s Note: This post raises a lot of complex questions that I could not possibly answer in one blog. It honors two men who respect women and understand that we have more to offer than our bodies. There are still important questions left to answer about why men over-step their bounds and cat-call or do far worse.