Why Are Men Not Allowed to Be Vulnerable in Public?

Rare moment of man seen vulnerable in a public. Glasses off, head in his hands, man is on his knees in an empty pew.
photo by Samuel Martins

To talk about the needs, suffering or pain of men within public view is to invite a reaction of harsh criticism from all sides of the political spectrum. If talking about the needs of men meant their’s supersede the needs of women, deny the importance of equality that feminism brings us all, or dare to justify a man’s abuse of power, critique would be warranted. Other criticisms say men are under attack and believe talking openly about the vulnerability is part of an agenda to feminize masculinity. But none of that is what it means to talk honestly about the challenges men go through with increasing sobriety, empathy, and maturity.

The privileges and consequences of (mostly white) male patriarchy have emotionally stunted, oppressed and trapped men within a set of cultural ideals they did not choose. Toxic masculinity was passed on – often harshly, from older generations onto impressionable young boys longing for any kind of masculine attention and identity. Acknowledging this doesn’t excuse toxic and abusive behavior. It only further illuminates what we already intuitively know: every pain has a source. Neither does it deny men have benefited from their position in society. Nor does it somehow compare men’s suffering to women and minorities or minimize the injustices committed against them. It reveals how men, too, suffer at the hand of these maladaptive cultural gender expectations and norms.

Men, themselves, are oppressed under the weight of patriarchal expectations and aspirations.

Our culture doesn’t allow us to talk about such things publicly – not because of some alt-right conspiracy or feminist political agenda, but because everything in our personal being and complex human systems resist change. Every part of the larger cultural system will inadvertently attack anything that threatens the status quo, even if they share the same goals for reform. It’s an unconscious (and maybe even biological) reaction to keep the stability of our survival steady. All change is a disruption to this stability. This puts all of us on the same side. Change is difficult for all of us, even if we want it.

So I tread lightly addressing this topic, yet feel I must keep moving forward. I believe change in this area is important.

The first step towards widespread change is to give these topics more space and acceptance in our public discourse.

We must acknowledge men need exclusive spaces for men to experience healing vulnerability with one another.

Just like it’s important for women, children, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community and religious minorities to have their own exclusive spaces where it’s safe to be open, vulnerable and build connections with one another. These spaces are not hidden from the public, but they aren’t exactly “for the public” either. They are space reserved for each people group. Men need similar publicly visible but still private spaces too.

Everybody needs to know communities like this exist so we don’t inadvertently marginalize the people within them, and so we come to their aid if any of them are intentionally targeted for marginalization. Everybody also needs to know we all can’t be included inside these spaces. They each are exclusive for a purpose and that purpose is undermined without the dignity and privacy necessary to build trust and safety.

Now if we think men don’t need or deserve such spaces because they’ve long held the positions of power, we miss what’s hiding in plain sight. The message men receive loud and clear is: to find your identify as a man, you must dominate others or be dominated yourself.

This means any form of vulnerability from men will not be tolerated. It is beaten out of them – sometimes literally. Vulnerabilities are exploited as weakness and used against them. In order to survive within this system, most men learn to hide those tender and inflamed spots from others, and even themselves. The weaker ones are abused, and the stronger ones rarely grow up. So if our collective response to men asking for private space to experience and explore their own vulnerability is to deny, attack or criticize them for it — it only reinforces this culture of toxic masculinity. Men are not allowed to be vulnerable anywhere. It proves this destructive narrative of male power domination goes far deeper than we can admit, even for the people who are on the same side of actively trying to change it.

Safe and exclusive spaces allow men to experience bravery with honesty, to be clumsy, feel powerlessness, discover healing and find a deeper strength that protects vulnerability, instead of exploiting it.

For the average American male, vulnerability is awkward, uncomfortable, embarrassing and shamefully emasculating. Vulnerability threatens to expose the trauma almost all men share and have not yet worked through. When we allow and support more private spaces for men to gather together, we give men the courage to face their trauma with increasing intention, honesty and grace.

Here is a window into one of these exclusive spaces for men.

This music video by Elderbrook can be viscerally uncomfortable for some which illustrates exactly what we’re talking about here. It shows why men need private spaces that are public enough you can look through the window once and awhile, but private enough only men (by inclusive self-identification) can be in the room. For the men who witness or experience something like this, it can be profoundly healing. Communication is connection.

Men can only grow if we allow them their own private spaces to risk something real, to feel foolish but not be mocked, to be encouraged to find their own strength and offer to support other men.

There is no competition, no one trying to one-up the other guy, and no power plays of domination. There is only a collaborative effort between men of all sorts of different shapes and sizes.

There’s more.

This little video gives men a vision for friendship, vulnerability and intimacy that isn’t sexualized. It’s a shock to the system because sexualized intimacy is usually the only brand of intimacy our culture sells men. On top of that, masculine sexuality is often packaged with power over their partners and as a tool for the domination of their peers. This fear of being dominated by another man is the source of almost all homophobia. Fear and insecurity keeps so many men from ever knowing this kind of vitality, connection, and bravery. So of course most of us men are emotionally underdeveloped! We need more practice experiencing ourselves as capable, competent, and emotionally healthy — integrated and differentiated. We can’t crack the wall of toxic masculinity if we don’t have the appropriate space for those walls to come down and for men to open up.

Please remember if men start developing more of these spaces, it’s not to take anything away from everyone else. It’s just for men to grow up.

My hope is more men, women and everyone else will support the growth and development of these privately experienced but publicly known sacred spaces for men. Just as men will need to offer the same respect and support for all other groups and subgroups of people to develop similar spaces of their own. This is how a new holistic masculinity can heal and grow past the trauma we know as toxic masculinity.

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