What Makes a Man?

By Sara Lipton

“WHAT was he thinking?” That’s the question columnists, talking heads and my (mostly female) friends have been asking about Representative Anthony D. Weiner of New York, who announced Thursday that he would resign, just over a week after admitting he’d sent sexually explicit photographs and messages to women over the Internet.

Sadly, that question has been asked of a dizzying number of unfaithful men in recent memory: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Mark Sanford, John Ensign, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton … the list goes on and on.

The conventional answer is that when it comes to sex, a certain kind of man, no matter how intelligent, doesn’t think at all; he just acts. Somehow a need for sexual conquest, female adulation and illicit and risky liaisons seems to go along with drive, ambition and confidence in the “alpha male.” And even if we denounce him and hound him from office, we tend to accept the idea that power accentuates the lusty nature of men.

This conception of masculinity is relatively new, however. For most of Western history, the primary and most valued characteristic of manhood was self-mastery. Late antique and Roman writers, like Plutarch, lauded men for their ability to resist sexual temptation and control bodily desire through force of will and intellect. Too much sex was thought to weaken men: a late-15th-century poem mocks an otherwise respectable but overly sexually active burgess who has “wasted and spent” his “substance” until there is “naught left but empty skin and bone.”

Rampant sexuality was something men were supposed to grow out of: in medieval political theory, young male bodies were used as symbols of badly run kingdoms. A man who indulged in excessive eating, drinking, sleeping or sex — who failed to “rule himself” — was considered unfit to rule his household, much less a polity.

Far from seeming “manly,” aggressive sexuality was associated with women. In contrast to the Victorian view of women that is still influential today, ancient and medieval writers described women as consumed by lust and sexual desire. In 1433, officials in Florence charged with regulating women’s dress and behavior sought “to restrain the barbarous and irrepressible bestiality of women who, not mindful of the weakness of their nature, forgetting that they are subject to their husbands, and transforming their perverse sense into a reprobate and diabolical nature, force their husbands with their honeyed poison to submit to them.”

Because of this association of sexuality with femaleness, men who failed to control their sexual urges or were susceptible to feminine attractions found their masculinity challenged. Marc Antony was roundly mocked as having been “softened and effeminized” by his desire for Cleopatra. When the king and war hero Pedro II of Aragon spent the night before a battle not in prayer or council but in bed with a woman, he was labeled effeminate.

Few of us would wish to revive these notions or endorse medieval misogyny. But in the face of recent revelations about the reckless and self-indulgent sexual conduct of so many of our elected officials, it may be worth recalling that sexual restraint rather than sexual prowess was once the measure of a man.

How and why have we moved so far from this ideal? Why do so many powerful men take sexual risks that destroy their families and careers? Contemporary worship of youth is one explanation: rather than shunning the idea of childishness, many adults, male and female, now spend much of their time clinging to an illusory and endless adolescence. The ability to be a “player” well into middle age thus becomes a point of pride, rather than shame, for the modern man. Perhaps the erosion of men’s exclusive status as breadwinners and heads of households also figures in: when one no longer “rules the household,” there may be less motivation for or satisfaction in “ruling oneself.”

But in the face of recent headlines I find myself less inclined to analyze or excuse current mores than to echo medieval ones. The critics of Pedro II of Aragon would have turned Arnold Schwarzenegger’s own words against him and his kind: Who are the girlie men now?

This New York Times article originally appeared, here.


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10 Responses to What Makes a Man?

  1. I really enjoyed this clever commentary on a topic that has been of much conversation around the watercooler.

    It also reminded of the documentary, An Unreasonable Man, I saw about Ralph Nader and how General Motors tried to discredit him in various ways by even resorting to hiring prostitutes to catch him in a compromising situation. Well, Nader didn’t fall for it and as a result a historic shift in responsibility for auto safety took place.

  2. madan gopal das

    I couldn’t help but be amused at the lack of balance our greater culture as well as our “devotee” counter-culture exhibit in regard to these two poles of sexual restraint or sexual conquest. The author points out the downfalls of our modern alpha-male sexual exploits, while describing an alternative historical perspective of sexual restraint amidst misogynist culture. As pointed out, there are numerous examples of sensational sexual exploits and subsequent downfall of leaders that people hoped to be shining examples. On the other hand our own devotee history evidently took on this historical ideal of restraint, along with the misogyny, while still accomplishing some impressive sexual exploits amongst powerful leaders.
    Seems to me that the progressive devotees are looking for, aspiring for something in the middle; sexual restraint amongst alpha-males and/or alpha-females, coupled with a rejection of the old misogynist blame-game that women are 9 times as lusty and the cause of all the sexual problems of men.

    Hopefully alpha-devotees are growing wiser over the years; getting in touch with our roots in a culture of wisdom while also demonstrating a modern outlook and taking responsibility for our own shortcomings.

  3. Narada-kunda dasi

    Nice comments… Indeed, how rare it is to find an introspective individual honest enough to trace their attachments and aversions to their own mind, instead of projecting them into the outside world…

  4. The “alpha-male/female” defense doesn’t really excuse the behavior. This type of idea is certainly popular enough though. Genetics is used as a defense for every possible kind of human degradation; murder, war, racism, marital infidelity, etc. The core of the argument is really that there is no free will.

    • Atma: That is a good point. But don’t you think there is no free will in choosing to be a homosexual or hetrosexual or is there a free will? It is not even easy to define free will. Does it mean given the same internal mind/body states and external input from the environment, you will make a different decision each time. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/ This website discusses in detail the complex issues involved here.

      Now, I don’t think in any case there is an excuse. When there is sufficient information from outside that you will be punished for wrong behavior, your decision will be changed regardless of the fact that free will exists or not.

    • Bhagavad-gita 3.33
      sadrisam ceshtate svasyah
      prakriter jnanavan api
      prakritim yanti bhutani
      nigrahah kim karishyati
      Even a man of knowledge acts according to his own nature, for everyone follows the nature he has acquired from the three modes. What can repression accomplish?

      Such observations are not used as an excuse for inappropriate behavior – they merely place it in a frame of reference.

  5. Thanks for the link Gaura Vijay. That is informative.
    From what I have read in a book by Alfie Kohn, The Brighter Side of Human Nature: Altruism and Kindness in Everyday Life, the idea that genetic influences are causing specific behaviors such as infidelity is not well supported by the scientific data. Although there may be correlations. However, such ideas are something that the media has latched on to and emphasize to a much greater degree than environmental influences.
    As far as I understand there is not one answer to the sexual orientation. I’m sure you know more than I do about that.

    But isn’t our nature a result of our choices as well? It is our karma.

    • Atma: genetics are not the only factor. Environment is a big factor as well. In any case, all humans are genetically so similar that discriminating on the basis of race, orientation and gender is kind of unbecoming. This fact is demonstrated by seeing how African American people also can perform as well as other races if given a similar environment. After all, according according to modern evolutionary findings, first humans came from Africa. Obviously, then http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wko_kMyljVU the discrimination on the basis of race holds no water. Paradoxically, initially science had studies supporting eugenics, but modern findings overturned the idea of race difference.

  6. In today’s world, everyone has so many ideas about everything. It seems like it is in vogue to have a personal point of view.

    On the other hand, Krishna Consciousness is so nice, because it puts everything into perspective. We’re not these bodies, but we feel like we are, and we’re forced to follow the dictates of the mind and senses.

    Srila Rupa Goswami Prabhupada says that the tongue, the belly, the genitals, the mind, anger, and words are like pushing machines, and the goal of life is to be go-swami (master of the senses) and not go-dasa (servant of the senses).

    Being master of the senses is not about becoming a stone. Being a real master of the senses is about having so much love for Krishna that one spontaneously has no other desire than to utilizes all of one’s faculties in Krishna’s loving service. Simple. For such a person, the thought of sense gratification is repulsive.

    This may be old hat for some people. But the goal of human life is to re-awaken our dormant love for Krishna so that we can go back home, back to Krishna Loka. Even a neophyte who practices Krishna Consciousness sincerely is protected from maya’s endless invitations.

    The title should be “What makes a human?” The difference between a human being and an animal is that the human being can understand that the purpose of life is self-realization. Those who do not hold this perspective are animals. That’s what my guru said.

    Therefore why so many questions? Alpha this? Alpha that? Social views? Conventions? No! No! No! “Who am I?” “Why am I suffering?” “How do I cultivate love for Krishna?” “What are the stages and symptoms of spiritual advancement?” “How do I measure up?”

    At any moment, my life in this body will be finished. Am I ready for that?

    Someone may say, “What’s with this guy? Why is he so up tight? Why can’t he relax? We’re just kickin around some ideas.”

    Maybe your’re right. But me, I was 25 when I got initiated. All of a sudden, bam!, I’m 68. And I know I’m not a pure devotee yet. And death is standing behind me, grinning. Don’t let that happen to you.

    Hare Krishna! Ishan das

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