I first met Michael Kimmel in the early 1980s, when we moved in the same profeminist men’s movement circles. We were both starting out in our writing careers, trying to reckon with what feminist women were saying and trying to reconcile it with how we understood ourselves as men. I think it’s fair to say that we were each trying to take feminism on board and make practical sense of it in how we lived. We shared a belief in the emerging principle that men in general and we in particular should be accountable to the women in our lives. Moreover, for Michael, me, and other men who were then going very public espousing our views about men and feminism, there was an understanding that we needed to be accountable to feminist women in both the talk we talked and the walk we walked.
The reason I remember this clearly is because there came a point in the mid 1980s when Michael and I had a difference of opinion about which feminist women to be accountable to. At the time we were two of several hundred members of the nascent National Organization for Men Against Sexism, and we were both in its Task Force on Pornography. I was also publicly allied with feminist efforts to pass local anti-pornography civil rights ordinances drafted by Andrea Dworkin (with whom I lived) and her colleague Catharine MacKinnon. In one of our NOMAS task force meetings, Michael made clear that he sided with feminists who opposed the civil rights ordinance. This was a disagreement that ran deep within feminism as a whole and Michael and I were not likely to resolve it, so we kind of had no choice but to agree to disagree about it between ourselves.
I tell this little story because to live as a man accountable to women not only politically but personally in real life can be complicated, but that does not mean he should not try. And in order to figure out how to be accountable — as I was to understand later in my own life and writing — he will need to hone his own moral compass.
Like others who were unaware of Michael’s rumored sexual harassment of women students in his capacity as professor of sociology and gender studies at Stony Brook University, I learned about it when the news broke in The Chronicle of Higher Education. What made the news more incomprehensible than a typical #MeToo revelation was that Michael is an internationally renowned expert on masculinity from a profeminist viewpoint — meaning he is not an apologist for the antifeminist, proudly misogynist men’s rights movement and has in fact critiqued it.
A friend who is a feminist academic tweeted that Michael “has had a reputation for soliciting grad students for sex since the 1980s at least, which has always caused me to view his scholarship skeptically.” If what the whisper network has been saying about Michael is true, several troubling questions leap to mind: What was he thinking? How could he not know better? And, perhaps most vexing: Who is he?
I was reminded of these questions when I read in a young woman’s blog post about Michael’s reputed conduct:
I’ve spent the past few days grappling with disappointment, anger, and the fact that someone can do good, while doing harm at the same time.
I was also reminded of these questions because in circumstances of my own ethical failing, they have been asked of me.
Here is where the narrative of Michael Kimmel’s (and my) moral lapses intersects the subject that he and I have been writing about for decades: the social construction and theorizing of masculinities (as Michael would say) or of manhood (as I would say). Because a theory of gender that could explain why even good men behave badly would come in awfully handy right now.
In my book The End of Manhood, I took up that challenge. I wrote it to understand a disconcerting behavior pattern I had observed in myself and others:
Why do men often act as if they were split in two, and why do even “good” men display behavior that hurts others? Why are “good” men sometimes so completely unreliable morally? Why do we sometimes act as if we have lost our values moorings, lost sight of our beacon convictions, lost hold of our sense of self? What is going on in us? Why do we evidence such wanton behavioral swings — such unpredictable splits in who we are?
The book goes on to posit two different and distinct identities, either of which someone raised to be a man can choose to inhabit: A gender identity (“manhood,” meaning among other things that one believes oneself to a real man) and a moral identity (“selfhood,” meaning among other things that one believes oneself as real a human as other humans are real to oneself).
Beginning with my first book, Refusing to Be a Man, I’ve been trying to problematize the conviction or belief that one is a bona fide member of the sex class men. This notion might seem unremarkable until you look at how people raised to be a man tend to act when their membership in that sex class is impugned. Once one’s sense of self is firmly invested in the aspirational identity manhood — which is basically how most assigned-male-at-birth children are raised — one can be triggered by an insult to one’s manhood to do just about anything, however heinous (at one end of the manhood-proving continuum) or simply disrespectful of another human being (at the other).
The trip-wire fragility of this identity seemed to me intractable. Modifying the meaning of masculinity fails to get at the underlying problem, which is the inculcated dread of not really being a man — meaning that even if one has conceptualized a so-called healthy masculinity for oneself, one’s buttons can still be pushed if, under the right provocative circumstances, one’s fundamental membership in the sex class men is challenged. And what one then must do to reassert one’s manhood must be at someone else’s expense or else it doesn’t do the trick.
That’s what led me to hypothesize in The End of Manhood an alternative sense of self, an actual selfhood, a conception of oneself as a moral decision maker who sometimes does the right thing and sometimes screws up but who owns what one has done and learns from it, in a constancy of reflective consciousness that I named one’s moral identity. I believe this constancy of selfhood is not gendered but is experienced as centering because it frees one from the anxiety of having one’s manhood always in jeopardy.
The surprising thing I discovered, based in no small measure on some serious soul-searching, is that the two identities manhood and selfhood cannot be inhabited at the same time. One can switch back and forth between them, but they are fundamentally contradictory. They cancel each other out.
This theory of the relation of gender to ethics has generally been given short shrift in the academic field of men and masculinities studies where Michael’s work has been foundational. Partly as a consequence, the field has yielded little practical and preventive theorizing about why men rape, sexually harass, batter, and so on. It rarely goes beyond: there go men behaving badly again. The manhood these men are thereby trying to ascertain is never fully interrogated because the interrogators themselves have a stake in it: they too have a vested interest in feeling like bona fide members of the sex class men by whatever means necessary. Thus among self-identified profeminist men, including academics in the field, one can hear a lot of virtue signaling, a lot of smug deploring of other men’s offenses, a lot of subtextual cock-fighting with the men who are not like us because they behaved badly and we are woke.
This Michael Kimmel moment kind of topples that house of cards and shreds that sanctimony. Here is someone who has amassed a career’s worth of insights about men but appears to have had a blind spot about his own core self.
The truth is, that blind spot is Everyman’s. It flares up whenever we are beholden to achieving, proving, and sustaining the myth of manhood instead of paying our full attention to the humanity in ourselves and those around us, the ungendered selfhood that connects us.
Though selfhood and manhood are dichotomous and the choice between them is ever present, there actually are a lot of people raised to be a man who act out of their moral identity as a matter of habit, without giving it much thought. That’s just how they be who they be, toward other people in their lives. We think of them as good men, but really they’re just good people. When you get right down to it, good people are not being good to affirm their gender; they’re being good to affirm their and others’ humanity.
This is no time for holier-than-thou tut-tutting about another man’s disgrace. This is a time to radically retheorize the ethical construction of manhood and its antidote selfhood.
John Stoltenberg, author of Refusing to Be a Man, The End of Manhood, and the novel GONERZ, is a trans-inclusive radical feminist, theater reviewer, and communications consultant based in Washington, DC. He tweets @JohnStoltenberg.