As a body-conscious gay man and fitness enthusiast, I am ever-aware of the desire to get bigger. Bigger is better, right? At the Recreational Sports Facility, the weight room population is heavily skewed toward men focused on bulking up, while away from the weights, at group exercise classes and in the annex, predominantly women focus on calisthenics and more general fitness.
So why do men fixate on size? Size is power, and with our heft we can dominate. As men, we shun vulnerability as unmasculine, and big, firm muscles are our superhero body armor. The man of steel is a man of hard, raw material, with an inner life like that of an engine (Gubernator, anyone?). But strength is not simply the large muscle groups that are seen, but also the small muscle groups that balance. As martial arts, gymnastics and other sports demonstrate, there are paths to strength and power that are far more graceful, but that is not the American masculine ideal.
Am I preaching to the choir here? Berkeley is not exactly a hive of muscle bros and toxic masculinity. While we aren’t known as a school of fraternity beefcakes, here men find other ways to disproportionately throw their weight around. If UC Berkeley is one of the finest gymnasiums of the mind, it has its intellectual equivalent of the muscle bro. And physical domination and social domination are inseparable.
We can see how this gendered power manifests. We continue to learn of professors harassing and assaulting women, relying on their academic standing for impunity. Many of the intellectual environments and leadership positions on the campus continue to be male-dominated. Men continue to dominate many of Berkeley’s liberal and left-wing organizations as well. As a young activist witnessing such organization in Chicago in the 2000s, I came to the conclusion very quickly that socialist and other left groups would remain at the margins as long as they remained populated by domineering, straight, white men. We all know the ranty Berkeley type.
And now, at the national level, in the most grand display of male privilege, we all watch transfixed as this gender scuffle plays out in the Senate chambers. There, the most powerful men’s voices — the entire Republican Senate judiciary panel consists only of men — seem to ironically trump the process of justice. In that environment, Kavanaugh’s masculine infallibility must be protected at all costs.
Chills went down my spine last week when I heard the words spoken by sexual assault survivor Ana María Archila. She confronted Sen. Jeff Flake just before his momentous surprise decision to recommend an FBI investigation into the Ford allegations. She asked, “Do you think that (Kavanaugh) is able to hold the pain of this country and repair it? That is the work of justice.”
For too long, the U.S. has left it to women to hold the space for pain and trauma, or perhaps more often not allowed them a space at all. Now, #MeToo demands that men rise to the challenge of making room for the voices of survivors. We have taken the time to hear Ford’s testimony, but what kind of space will we as a nation hold now? Will we dismiss her story and ram the nominee through? Or will we use it as a moment of reflection on rape culture and have a renewed conversation about sexual consent? Will we elevate somebody who allegedly used their male privilege to dominate with their body or the women who dare to challenge that privilege?
Many of us are hearing for the first time, on social media, from our female and gender-nonconforming friends about their stories of assault. Maybe the reason we hadn’t heard their stories until now is that there are very few contexts in society where revealing trauma is safe, supported or “appropriate,” especially for those who face further violence and marginalization when they tell their stories.
The male Georgetown Prep and Yale University classmates who have spoken out in support of Kavanaugh’s accusers are a good start, but men must do more than speak out. We must scrutinize our own behavior and values. We must not only listen to survivors but uphold them and create space for their stories to transform and heal. And this requires a different kind of masculinity than that to which the U.S. is accustomed.
In an attempt to moderate the masculine-tilted environment in the RSF weight room, large posters were hung on the wall last year with various employees’ quotes offering nontraditional conceptions of masculinity. One of them reads, “Masculinity, to me, means having compassion for others.”
I often wonder how men are receiving that message. What kind of strength and power are we cultivating when we train our bodies and minds, and in service to what values? Are we just inflating our outer muscles, or are we strengthening our inner muscles? Are we simply putting on armor, or are we taking enough time to stretch, to be pliant and flexible? What kind of men are we trying to become?
When you see that guy in the weight room annex at the RSF doing handstands, that’s me… Trying to turn masculinity on its head.