Originally posted on Viz: magazine
My eyes were watering and my throat was choking up.
I didn’t want to cry in front of the other boys. But they probably already heard the sob in my voice when I told Jeffrey to “sh-sh-sh-shut, be quiet!”
I was eight years old. Jeffrey was ten. He just said he was going to have sex with my mom. I didn’t really know what sex was (it meant kissing naked, right?) but I knew this was bad. It felt bad. It felt so bad that even the other boys here on the basketball court were unsure if they should laugh. They were waiting to see how it would play out.
“Your mom’s Chinese right? I’m gonna get me some chow mein,” Jeffrey said.
“She’s F-f-f-filipino.” I don’t know why I answered.
“Even better I’m gonna get some, um, Philippine rush,” Jeffrey said and made a lewd gesture.
This was 1997. WWF pro wrestlers had recently made the crotch chop a popular move among young boys in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, though not all of us really knew what it meant.
“Who got the keys to my Phillipine rush?” Jeffrey said, botching Beenie Man’s summer hit at my expense.
“You sh-sh-shut up” I said again. I knew it was a futile effort. I had already shown weakness.
Jeffrey laughed. “You know what I like better than Chinese food? Filipeeny food” he said and began humping the air.
My parents always told me to walk away from confrontations, to tell a grown up. I would have preferred to do that. Jeffrey was a head taller than me and I had never been in a fight. But something deep inside me said that to walk away would be Wrong with a capital W.
“Filipeeny, Filipeeny…” Jeffrey continued humping.
I was more afraid than angry. Afraid because I knew I had to do something. Deep inside me I felt that if I walked away from this confrontation it would hurt way worse than than a punch in the nose. It would hurt my soul.
“Filipeeny, Filipeeny…” Jeffrey gestured an air penis with his hand.
I walked up to him.
“Who got the keys to my Phillipine…”
The next thing I know Jeffrey is holding a big red welt on his cheek. Apparently I had picked up the basketball and smashed it in his face. Now we both were trying to hold back tears. We both ran in opposite directions to cry in the safety of our homes.
In standing up for myself I felt a strange new sensation that I had never felt before. It didn’t feel “good” necessarily. But on some primal level it felt “right.” I felt powerful. Though it would be many years before I thought in such terms, it was the first time I had the visceral experience of feeling like a man.
That incident stands, twenty-two years ago, as the only act of violence I’ve ever initiated in my life. I’ve looked back on it often thinking about that feeling and what it meant. Why did violence feel so right?
There’s a lot of discussion now about the “toxicity” of masculinity in terms of aggression, ranging from explicit physical violence to ‘microaggressions’ of personality. But suppressing aggression in men doesn’t solve the problem — it actually causes further harm in themselves and sometimes others.
The best thing for both men and society is for men to understand their capacity for aggression.
Men aren’t designed to necessarily be violent. Aggression is but one expression of the primal male impulse that I’ll label as the masculine instinct.
The masculine instinct is to overcome an opposing force.
In the incident I described above, I was not looking for a fight to prove myself. I didn’t care about something as abstract as “masculinity.” But there was loud feeling deep in my primal subconscious that said “you have to take action here.”
I’m not saying my action of violence was right. With my current adult mind I certainly wouldn’t have acted differently. But my action did validate the instinct. It felt ‘right’ because of thousands of generations of male programming that said “when threatened you must respond.”
Now that of course isn’t limited to biological males. In the animal kingdom, mothers defending their offspring actually exhibit the most ruthlessly violent behavior. But ‘baseline aggression’ has a higher correlation with men.
Violence in popular media probably does support the violent instinct in men, but the whole reason that violence is condoned in most media in the 21st century, is that for millennia aggressive men tended to be better at survival.
To understand this seeming error in male design, it helps to understand why men exist in the first place.
The common understanding of sexual evolution in 30 seconds:
In the beginning there was only asexual species. They reproduced by replicating themselves, which meant the offspring could at best, be a slight mutation of the parent. Parasites put pressure on some species to evolve into more complex species. Some parasites also evolved forcing further evolution. (This is commonly known as The Red Queen theory.)
At a certain point in evolution it became effective for some species to reproduce by combining the best genetic data of two different parents. This meant the offspring could take the best of each parent and be even better at resisting parasites. Such species divided into two sexes: Those with large gametes (sex cells) could be fertilized (female), and those with small motile gametes that could fertilize the female eggs (male).
Some sexual species developed sexual dimorphism, meaning the males and females were structurally much different (like gorillas.) Other species exhibit little to no dimorphism, meaning males and female look the same excluding their genitals (like chimpanzees). As function follows form, greater dimorphism means greater specialization in survival roles.
Humans exhibit some sexual dimorphism (i.e. typically larger, higher muscle mass to total mass ratio in men.) The male sex hormone, testosterone, correlates with male morphic traits and aggressive behavior. Exogenous testosterone is a banned substance in most sports because it enhanced performance in physical competition.
To survive in the wild meant battling the forces of nature. Men needed to be able to hunt food, build shelter, defend the clan from predators and rival humans. A man who could overcome opposing forces was more useful to the group. He was more likely ensure survival and produce offspring.
In our post-agricultural world, most men no longer need any such capacity for violence. We defer that function to the military and law enforcement. There is rarely is justified reason for a civilian male to express violence.
But that doesn’t mean the instinct itself is wrong. It just needs to find the right expression.
Healthy expression means contributing to group well-being.
The hammer. The knife. Electricity. All are tools that can be used constructively or destructively.
The masculine drive to conquer is no different. It just needs to find healthy expression.
Part of what drove me to write this article was witnessing a lot of the shaming around the male instinct lately. Recent cultural discussion has been great for calling out negative expressions of the male instinct, but to shame the instinct itself is to abandon all male virtue.
The same instinct to kill an intruder is the same instinct to assemble furniture is the same instinct to try to open that impossible jar of pickles for a woman while risking the humiliation of failure. (Never happened to me, I swear.)
When a man feels that his abilities are well-used and well-appreciated, a primal part of his psyche activates that tells him, “Hey, you are serving your function as a human. Good job.” His inner nature rewards him with a sense of purpose, higher self-esteem, and confidence.
I know that me hitting Jeffrey didn’t actually contribute to survival. My mother wasn’t actually in any danger. But my emotions didn’t know that. While it probably wasn’t the best expression of my instinct, I still received a psychological reward. If I didn’t stand up to the opposition, it would have weighed on my psyche years later.
Because if I didn’t get it out, it would have found its way out.
Suppressed instincts pervert into destructive behavior.
If not expressed somehow, the instinct remains. Like a compressed spring, it creates inner tension without release. He will feel like his inner knife needs to cut something. His inner hammer needs to bash something.
Many men get to uncoil their spring through catharsis. It might be watching contact sports or action movies, consuming stories about achieving power or self-actualization. It might even through ‘anti-violent’ social justice causes. If you look at what a person chooses for entertainment, you can see what their subconscious wants to live out.
But for some men, pastimes are not enough to relieve the pressure. Sometimes the instinct has been suppressed for so many years that the only relief can be found in acting out.
In my years of coaching men, I’ve found many guys daydream about glory even more than sex. Fantasies about fighting and defeating a justifiable “bad guy” often signal that he lacks a sense of purposeful masculinity. The men I coach are possibly a more imaginative sample of the population, but I would guess that the men who commit atrocities experience a similar phase of powerlessness.
It starts with a hit to the self-esteem.
Nature is not an equal-opportunity employer. If you contribute to the furtherment of life, you are rewarded with more “aliveness.” If you don’t, you lose “aliveness.” This is true for all people (and lifeforms). You use it, or you lose it.
Concretely, this means a man without function gets depressed. If he hasn’t overcome a challenge lately he feels defeated by default. The easiest way for an insecure man to stop feeling defeat is to dominate a weaker target.
Nature did not design men to necessarily rape and pillage. But that is one way to use the instinctive ax we are born with. It might not be ideal expression to violate others, but at least it relieves the internal pressure.
In my work as a counselor, men have reached out to me for various pain points: social anxiety, sexual dysfunctions, relationship issues, even chronic fatigue. Almost always we find the “problem” is actually a symptom of suppressed instincts. When that comes to light, these men often are afraid of what their instincts will have them do.
“I get that I need to express myself,” he’ll say, “but what if my instincts end up hurting someone?”
Valid concern. Unmitigated instincts can cause harm. So we start with gradual ways to relieve the pressure that don’t cause harm (i.e. Hitting a punching bag instead of punching your boss in the face; Or asking out a crush instead of trying to impose sexual desires on random women.) Then after some pressure is relieved, it’s usually easier to find a constructive expression of that power.
A guy who hasn’t found healthy expression of his instincts can feel like he’s holding back a monster. But people actually need that monster. Like when Edward Scissorhands learned to cut hair, the dangerous parts of a man are actually his gifts to the world.
The world needs men in power.
That might seem like a wild statement with 2017’s ousting of men who have abused their positions of power. But following the above logic, such men were overcompensating for their subjective lack of actual power.
During the height of some of the sexual misconduct scandals last year, I was coaching a twenty-two-year-old man on attracting women. He was relatively handsome, charming, and a virgin. He was convinced that he was somehow putting off women due to “internalized misogyny.” He recounted a story to me about a woman who went home with him, then left angry all of a sudden.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “I was so polite and respectful of her boundaries the whole time.”
“Yeah, it sounds like she was waiting for you to take charge,” I said.
“Oh no,” he said in an offended tone. “I’d never do that. I’m a feminist.”
Palm to forehead.
Eventually, he realized that his unwillingness to make bold moves was not only frustrating to him, it was denying women what they wanted too. In their case, sex and connection. He was actually hurting their feelings by not ravishing them. That doesn’t mean overstepping boundaries, it means being bold enough to explore within them. Because he refused to leave his comfort zone (where he was neither accepted nor rejected), all parties suffered.
Many expressions of the male instinct for power can be harmful. But to make men powerless doesn’t benefit anyone. Impotent men end up being self-destructive, and sometimes externalize their frustration on others. The most dangerous thing in the world is a sexually frustrated man.
Leadership, fatherhood, and productivity are all expressions of the same masculine instinct to “take care of business.” It can be easy to get on a conscious high horse and label male tendencies as immature. But if we do that, we’ll miss out on all the healthy expressions of masculinity too.
Only until recently in human civilization have men actually needed to consider what was “healthy expression.” For most of post-agricultural male-dominated society (what some would call the patriarchy), a man’s instincts were kept in check only by other men. You took what you wanted for yourself until a badder man or group of men stopped you. Virtue was upheld by iron and blood.
Advances in news media have paradoxically allowed us to return an ancient policing mechanism: social approval. In small tribes, men had to act right because bad behavior resulted in ostracization. Nowadays social media connects huge populations to police people as a tribe.
But social media is flawed in that untrue ideas are easy to be validated. (Viz: “fake news”.) The idea that men need to be passive for others to feel safe is the opposite of the truth. Having an “open heart” is important. But it’s useless without red blood in your veins.
The best thing we can do for men and society is to encourage men to find purposeful expressions of their power. Men need it. And for as long as men exist, all other humans need it too.
That said, I didn’t really need to hit Jeffrey with the basketball…
If I was in my power at that age, he would have never have messed with me in the first place. He picked on me because I seemed like an easy target. I don’t blame him. He was acting out nature’s challenge to the weak to use it or lose it.
I haven’t seen Jeffrey since the crotch chop went out of style. But if I ever do I’ll thank him for giving me a chance to play out my male instinct. Violence is rarely the answer. But the truth is that instinct that can lead to violence also leads to the highest virtues of masculinity.
And I’m willing to fight about that.