by John Stoltenberg

This is written to men – but so that women can overhear every word. It discloses some things about intimate personal relationships that men are never really encouraged to understand, and that women are not supposed to know about at all.

A man’s internal conflicts can disrupt love and justice in male/female relationships.

Most people raised to be a man find it difficult to be consistently present in a real-life relationship with someone raised to be a woman. The reason is quite simple: he can’t focus on being with her because he is mentally busy with so many other hims. He is measuring himself against other men. He is comparing his manhood with theirs. He is valuing their judgment on his manhood more than he values her. His mental circuits are so overloaded defending his manhood act to other men that he can’t even perceive her. Of course he also loses sight of himself.

Problems in interpersonal relations between men and women often express and reflect such hidden social dynamics. These dynamics may be between a man and men he has known or between a man and men he imagines. The dynamics are hidden because they take place “outside of the relationship” – which means outside the woman’s range of perception. But also, the dynamics are hidden because they are going on in a man’s head in ways that he has decided to keep from her – and therefore from himself.

These mental tape loops are the direct result of what happens whenever men challenge each other. Take, for instance, a typical contest between two men, where one precipitated the spat by impugning the sufficiency of the other’s so-called manhood. Literally or figuratively, the gauntlet has been thrown down, the challenged matched, and a conflict now looms. In any such mano-a-mano faceoff, there can be three (and only three) resolutions:

1. The first man loses – he is somehow humiliated or hurt by the second. 2. The second man loses – he is somehow humiliated or hurt by the first. 3. They both agree to pick on someone else. The two men end up in a subtle social truce, a tacit treaty that must have a third party – someone they both agree has a relatively inferior manhood act or someone who is simply female. Love and justice between a man and a woman do not stand a chance when other men’s manhood matters more. When a man has decided to love manhood most of all, there are predictable consequences in all his relationships with women. Any woman he relates to is set up to be a potential “third party.” Any woman who believes she is his “partner” in life may actually be a sitting duck for some put-down or betrayal that he may “inadvertently” or “unpredictably” commit owing to his prior allegiance to other men’s manhood.

The chart below illustrates the stark contrast between these loyalties in some typical situations between a man and a woman who know each other intimately. The first column represents the stream-of-consciousness of someone who is struggling toward action that will make clear to the woman he loves that she matters more to him than what other men may think of his manhood. The second column represents what might be called a stream-of-unconsciousness – someone shrugging off loyalty to his partner in favor of allegiance to the gender judgment of other men.

When a man is alone with a woman, there may actually be various other men present – figuratively speaking – in the mind of the person raised to be a man. He may carry with him vivid memories of individual masked men, he may remember their names, he may recall a particular humiliation he experienced in their eyes. Or he may imagine what they would say or think about him, because he knows well enough how masked men judge manhood so he can predict with a high degree of accuracy what condemnation may befall him – especially if he regards the woman he is relating to as more real than the manhood of the men in his mind. How else does a man know he’s “the man there,” after all? Only other men are the final arbiters of that. And to fail their judgment is to be nobody at all The surest way to mollify their judgment: treat a woman as nobody instead.

Even if a man manages his behavior so as not to express the full force of these mental pacts with other men, his actions may seem conflicted, not quite convincing, not done with credible conviction. His mental allegiance to the terms of a manhood treaty may prevent his being fully present in even his apparently “decent” behavior toward a woman. She may vaguely sense this emotional dissonance, this absence or ambivalence. He may too – but not recognize its source in the hidden dynamics between men that are structurally indispensable for there to be manhood.

Sometimes these dynamics are not hidden at all, of course. They become blatant frequently, as when a man makes a joke at a woman’s expense in order to entertain male colleagues or when a man shows off to other men his sexual orientation by leering at a woman’s body.

But even when these dynamics remain hidden within a man’s mind, they are not subtle, and they are not nuances. They are key to the social codification of manhood. Each time they are replayed, they prompt the behavior that underpins belief in the personal possibility of being a real man.

For some people raised to be a man, however, there is a way out of this “manhood sham.” You can learn to recognize these dynamics and keep the effects of those dynamics from impinging on your romantic attachments. For those who choose to live as a man of conscience, the challenge of loving a woman means deciding to ignore what other men might think – because the core of one’s being must love justice more than manhood.

The way to feel better about yourself as a self is to live conscientiously as an ally of everyone’s selfhood – including your own. It means becoming personally and politically committed to ending all interpersonal injustice and all social policies enacted to make manhood seem true.

Decoding and deconstructing manhood, thus, also means acknowledging – in conscience – that one is a recovering misogynist. For anyone raised to be a man, the life of loving justice does not begin before that point.*


“There’s a serious disagreement between us, and we have to talk it through further to understand each other fully. Maybe she’s right. Maybe I’m right. Maybe neither of us is, exactly. But there’s no way we can know without really talking and listening.

“She did something that made me very angry, but before I do anything else, I need to be careful to establish that she and I both have the same understanding about what it was she did – so I don’t go off over nothing. Then, I need to check whether my feeling is actually anger. Maybe it’s hurt. Maybe it’s panic. Maybe I just had a flashback to someone who made me feel invisible once. Whatever went wrong between us won’t be helped if I rant and rage as if she’s of no account to me. There won’t be any us then.”

“I did something that made her very angry, and if I can only manage to get past all this defensiveness I’m feeling in the face of her angry accusation, I may be able to hear what she’s telling me about what she felt when I did it, and I may be able to hear in her anger her pain and disappointment that I let her down. Do I need to make apologies and amends right here and now and try to set myself right in the eyes of us both?”

“I broke a promise to her and she doesn’t know. So now I’ve got to tell her. I owe her that much at least. And I can’t stand being in a position where I’m lying to her. It makes me feel like I’m lying to myself, like I’m a complete phony and our relationship is a sham. It’s going to be difficult admitting I broke the promise I made – but not as difficult as it will be to sustain a lie. Ugh, I hate it when I mess up like this. But there’s no point in disconnecting from her further. She matters to me.”

“There’s a serious disagreement between us, and I have to show her who’s boss. If I don’t, other men will think she has authority over me. I must make her agree with me.”

“She did something that made me very angry, and she knows just how I get. I explode. Instantly, I seize the right to rage just like other men. I feel their fury throbbing through me, their anger channeling through me, their implicit threat of violence deflected toward a woman, not targeted at me.”

“I did something that made her very angry, and I don’t give a damn. She can complain all she wants, I don’t care. If she wants to fuss and fume at me, so what? I’ll tune her out. I’ll ignore her, act like she’s nobody to me. She’ll get over it. Besides, how could I hold up my head among my buddies if it got around that I was pussy-whipped?”

“I broke a promise to her and she doesn’t know. Everything will be OK if she doesn’t find out. She made me promise, anyway. I just went along to avoid an argument. A promise is a promise, of course, but only if it’s a real one – only if you really make a deal with someone of substance, where it’s like you come to the bargaining table and make a sort of contract and you give your good name. Like between two buddies. Now, that’s a promise. That’s where you expect both parties to keep their word. But between a man and a woman? Not nearly as important. It’s just an emotional thing.