Psychology Has a New Approach to Building Healthier Men

The Atlantic: A controversial set of guidelines aims to help men grapple with “traditional masculinity.”

This week, the American Psychological Association, the country’s largest professional organization of psychologists, did something for men that it’s done for many other demographic groups in the past: It introduced a set of detailed guidelines for clinicians who treat men and boys. The 10 guidelines make suggestions on how to encourage fathers to engage with their kids, how to address problems that disproportionately affect men, like suicide and substance abuse, and how to steer men toward healthy behaviors. The guidelines’ development began in 2005, and has included input from more than 200 physicians and researchers.

ON GROWING UP A BOY IN AMERICA

Although numerous experiences in other cultures and languages had important impacts on how I perceive the world, the greatest influences on me occurred during two specific periods. The first was my upbringing as a child in a German-American family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I learned what is expected of a proper male in America.  The second episode was an extended period of field research among the Teduray people, deep in a southern Philippine rainforest, where I came to see clearly that many of the profoundly toxic role patterns I had been socialized into in the 1930s and 1940s into were, in fact, not universal.

* * * 

I grew up in a five-person household, in which I was the only child. My mother’s parents lived with us until they died, having lost much of their means in the Great Depression. We were all “krauts”; my grandparents were named Meyer, Wagner, Kaiser, and Schlegel. We were middle-class; my father was an engineer, my mother was a librarian, and both had excellent educations. My grandmother had been sent to Germany to study in a conservatory of music, and my grandfather was the district manager for western Pennsylvania of Anheuser-Busch. We had all the advantages of our status, and we had all of the prejudices. 

As their only child, my parents and grandparents wanted me to grow up right and become a successful adult. Almost all our friends and neighbors agreed with them about what that meant. An overarching concern was that I learn to be a “real boy,” so that I would become a “real man,” ready and able to take my place in the male-dominated mainstream, and to think and behave as real men do.

This involved many things, of course, but central was that I have rigidly controlled emotions and no effeminate sensitivity or weakness in the face of pain. My family and my playmates conditioned me, as early as I can remember, that I must never be a “sissy," which translated as acting like a girl by showing pain, fear, or vulnerability. However much I hurt, inside or out, I must never be a “crybaby"; girls cry, and  boys do not. If I did not want to be ridiculed, put down, and possibly even hurt by other boys, I had to act like a real boy. That did not only refer to playing with trucks and guns; it included putting girls down by treating them as lesser beings, not associating or playing too freely with them, and inwardly isolating myself from them. It further included demeaning and feeling superior to other boys who were not male enough, who cried, were overly sensitive, or did not sufficiently denigrate girls. None of these operating instructions were explicit; they were the “vibes” all around me.

My concern that other boys would assault me physically, as well as verbally, if I did not meet the expectation of my role, was not an idle worry. I witnessed such incidents repeatedly. I heard recently a man say that, in his experience, boys were taught that they were predators and girls were prey, but if we did not conform to the rules, then we would become prey as well.

On numerous occasions, my father whipped me — accompanied by stern warnings not to be weak or sissified — when he or my mother felt I was playing too much with girls or not being tough and stoic enough among my male friends. Such unmanly behavior, they said, would make me into a sissy, and lose all hope for approval and companionship of the real — the normal — guys. Naturally, all this had a huge effect on how I related to both males and females, and how I viewed such relationships — not just as a child, but as I grew into an adult.

First, there were a number of very specific and clear notions about how I should deal with the opposite sex. The American preoccupation with gender began with my birth. I have no doubt — after all, I had two sons myself — that the first question on everybody’s mind, the moment I was born, was whether I was a boy or a girl, as though that were something of the greatest significance. Then, as a toddler, I was taught — in countless direct and indirect ways — that boys and girls cannot have the same interests or toys, because we have utterly different personalities and characteristics. Importantly, we boys have very different destinies in life than girls. It was always clear that being male was far superior to being female. Deep in my heart, I knew that, as a boy, I was in the best gender; as white, I was in the best race; and, as an American, I was in the best country on earth. None of those facts were debatable — they were simply the nature of things, the way the world was put together.

And those were not all the "self-evident realities" about sexuality which I grew up with. I was taught — not directly, and often without words — that only within heterosexual marriage was it acceptable for my penis to be used for pleasure. Many people in America today have been liberated from that bit of “knowledge," and may find it hard to believe that I — and everyone else I grew up around — "knew" that sex was only proper in marriage. Of course, we boys soon enough also "knew" that — what’s proper be damned! — we would never be real men if we could not talk some girl out of believing that eternal truth, and into having sex with us. 

Moreover, when we did have sex, we had to do it right. My adolescent friends made it clear that being good in bed was crucial. They would regale us with lurid, boastful, accounts of sex they had had with their girlfriends — almost certainly describing fantasies, not actual experiences — saying things like: “She said I was really good,” and “she told me I was a much better lover than her previous boyfriend.” There was nothing about what it was that pleased these girls, or what they might want from the coupling. I learned no more from my chums than I did from my parents about the wants and needs of women. But, I was convinced that it was all-important to be “good” at sex, long before I had much real picture of what having sex was like. In that respect, it was similar to my fear of being called a “fag.” I had no notion of what that word even referred to; I just knew it was a terrible thing to be. As I grew older, anxiety about these matters hung over my life like a dark cloud. 

At first — with precious little information and virtually no support — I began to be obsessed about kissing, and about doing that right. Before long, my preoccupation with kissing turned into one about "getting laid," and how to do that properly. Sex with a woman — according to all that I had heard from my folks at home and my chums at school —  would unquestionably be the greatest and most exciting triumph of my young life. Touted by all my friends and the media of the day as life's greatest ecstasy, it would also definitively identify me as one of the guys, even, perhaps, as a "stud." But I must not do it wrong — whatever that means — and I must not fall behind my peers in getting there. In my maturing consciousness, sex was a deadly serious business, which had nothing much to do with love or, for that matter, even playfulness. Sex was win or lose, success or failure — a competitive necessity and a performative challenge.

Furthermore, the rules of the game rendered the sex partner I yearned for so frantically little more than a means to satisfy my physical needs. That was "the way it was," and, with little helpful information — and nothing yet to share and brag about with the guys — I had to figure out the sexual aspects of my life alone. For many years, they were anything but joyous; they were frustrating beyond description. 

Not because I had a huge number of lovers; I had no one worthy of the name until I was married. It was because the whole time I was in high school, all I achieved with the girls I dated was endless hours of kissing in the back of automobiles, until I thought my lips would go numb. My family had moved to Southern California in 1943, and — at least, in my social class and neighborhood at that time —  we boys divided all our potential dates into the "good girls" (who wouldn't) and the "bad girls" (who would). The principle was clear to all of us: young men married the good girls, and slept with the bad girls. Well, Lord knows, I tried — but I never managed to find one of those bad girls.

When I met my wife-to-be, Audrey, in 1957, and soon thereafter married, I began at once treating her as an object. She was a good girl that had married me, and now I could have regular sex. Above all, as my wife, she would always be on hand to show me — through sex and many other acts of affirmation — that I was okay. I saw none of this as particularly selfish. Like many other men of my background, it was what I assumed marriage was all about.

In addition, by then I had come to realize that she could do good things for me other than just in bed; she was interesting to talk to about books, politics, and world affairs, and she was fun to hang out with. So, I made innumerable demands of Audrey, and, having no information on what they might be, I paid little attention to her needs, wants, or comforts. I not only took her away from her small Wisconsin hometown without a second thought; indeed, I took her all the way to the rural Philippines, because that is where my career seemed to beckon. There, my job required me to be away from home almost half of each week, while she was left to cope on her own with an unfamiliar culture, a home with no running water or electricity and almost no other amenities, outlaw bands, rural markets, and two tiny children. I just took for granted that she would accept all this, cheerfully and without complaint. 

In practice, she was frequently sullen, distant, petulant, and counter-suggestive, and, on occasion, would confront me about how I was relating to her, saying angrily that she felt used. But, even then, I would not get her point. Still seeing her life as essentially all about me, I would panic. What if she were to leave me — who would take care of all my sexual and other needs? Who, then, would validate me as a man, and give me constant approval? Awful shame, guilt, frustration, fright, and fear of abandonment would well up within me, and I would feel like a failure, assuming that I had proven — by inferior performance as a husband and lover — that I was useless as a man, and the very loser that I had been secretly afraid of being, ever since those days on the playground. 

Whenever this happened, I felt defensive and unreasonably attacked by Audrey — as a woman, she was supposed to be supportive. From her female role training, Audrey seemed to understand marriage was basically about romance and being taken care of. But, she got very little regard for such things from me. They were just not factors in my understanding of men, women, or marriage.

By the time of my research at Figel, Audrey and I had been together for a decade, and had built up a considerable amount of tension in our relationship. It is now evident to me that our cultural role expectations had set us up to be less than whole people to each other. We both wanted to have abundant good will toward the other, but what we did was treat each other in quietly inhumane ways.

Not surprisingly, this situation showed itself most dramatically in our sexual relations. Although never described or recognized as such, I had been systematically taught to be “a thing in need of a thing.” I very seldom had much concern for what Audrey’s needs might be, whether she was in the mood for intercourse, was reaching climax, or was even having much pleasure. Such things were simply not my focus. We never discussed any of this — another symptom of our upbringing — but I did not actually enjoy the whole business, she hated it, and it left us both mired in hopelessness. 

And yet, I did it. I lived out all those self-absorbed, inconsiderate attitudes, in spite of faintly sensing that there should have been more delight for us both, and that humans must surely be intended to live more kindly lives. For better or worse, all those patterns seemed to be the nature of existence. I had no clue how to be genuinely loving to women, not even to Audrey, a fine person who had joined her life to mine, had gamely gone to distant and difficult places with me, and had borne us two fine boys. I could not revolt, because, as I understood the world, other men would think me strange, even a fag, and would make me pay too fearsome a price. Besides, to what different arrangement could I turn?

The specific notions concerning what real men do and do not do also had a powerful influence on how I dealt with other men. We felt isolated and distrustful, wary of each other as potential rivals, even enemies, as much as potential friends. There were boundaries that could not be breached. We could not admit making mistakes or being vulnerable; we could never show our emotions or deep feelings; we could not talk about intimate matters that went beyond cars or sports; and all touching or other physical contact — however trivial — was strictly taboo. All my friends conformed to these unspoken rules, and never challenged them any more than I did.

Was this the ultimate payoff of the American male role, as I had learned it? As a man, I could have social privilege and access to power, but at the cost of emotional and physical disconnection from other men, and perpetual anxiety about the one committed and valued relationship I had with a woman. Living like that must have been torture for Audrey, and it was a nightmare for me. At that time, I assumed this was as good as things got. I had never known, seen, or heard of any other possibility.

* * * 

Then, one of the pivotal experiences of my life occurred, and I had a huge awakening that laid the foundations for my values and attitudes ever since.

In the mid-1960s, as part of a doctoral program in anthropology at the University of Chicago, I spent almost two years doing field research among the Teduray people in a southern Philippine rainforest —  and  I was totally astonished by their understanding of the world and how to live in it. I have described their vision of the good life and the good society in detail in my 1998 book, Wisdom from a Rainforest: The Spiritual Journey of an Anthropologist. Here I will briefly state some of its characteristics that are salient to all I have been saying. 

Figel, the Teduray community where I lived, learned the language, and asked countless questions, was typical of the forest Teduray. Figel neighborhood consisted of seven nearby hamlets, which regularly worked together in their subsistence and ritual activities. It was about a fourteen-hour hike from the nearest road, a tough trek that involved wading repeatedly across a shallow, but wide and fast-flowing, river.

One of the signature activities of an anthropologist investigating another culture is learning to grasp the “reality” in which the people live. Unlike the naïve assumption of virtually everyone, everywhere, all humans do not regard themselves as part of an identical universe. Each culture has its own conception of what the world is like and how we should live in such a world, understandings which participants in the culture assume to be true for all humans. But, what “everyone knows to be true" in their society are not the simple facts of life everywhere on the planet; beliefs about what is real and what is common sense differ greatly.

I very quickly saw that the Teduray picture of the world and their concepts and values concerning proper living contrasted starkly with my cultural heritage at almost every turn. I had expected to find a different take on reality among these people; that was an integral part of my training as an anthropologist. But, I had no idea how different it would be — or how amazing, beautiful, and appealing it would seem to me.

The core elements in their view of reality all stemmed from being radically egalitarian. Teduray believed all beings were completely equal and due equal respect — men and women, even plants and animals. This conviction showed up in innumerable ways. The language they spoke, for instance, was completely without gender markings: pronouns were not marked as masculine or feminine; a single term denoted both “husband” and “wife”; people were addressed by a short phrase that named their first born child, whether a boy or girl. Men did the heavy physical work in their cultivation system, such as cutting down the big trees, while women weeded, but nobody valued felling trees as a higher work than weeding. Otherwise, all social statuses were open equally to women and men, however prestigious: shamans, legal sages, healers. Those who played such roles were widely appreciated and honored, but were given no particular compensation for their work, nor any other symbol of status like a larger house. Moreover, those who had to commit a violent act against a plant or animal — cut rice stalks for harvest, or kill a wild pig for food — invariably addressed an oral apology to its associated spirit, expressing their respect and gratitude for their victim, along with a statement of how tragic it was that such things were necessary for survival.

This pervasive opposition to any sort of hierarchical ranking extended to rejecting all exercise of coercive power or institutionalizing it into any of their social forms or activities; they considered all such things merely a tool of ranking. In like manner, they wanted no part of any kind of violence, which, in their eyes, was a tool of power, in service to ranking. 

It followed from their egalitarian world-view that people should always cooperate; they thought competition was inhumane and wrong-headed. Not only that, all folks were taught to actively care for each other. The most fundamental obligation of Teduray morality was to help anyone — in any way possible, and whenever possible — and they were very conscientious about doing this.

I experienced this commitment to proactive kindness every day I was among them, beginning almost immediately the moment I arrived. A Teduray friend, whom I knew from my earlier stay in a nearby community outside the forest, recommended Figel as an ideal site for my research, and guided me there. When we arrived after the long, hard walk, he told the community that I was a good fellow, who wanted to stay with them for a fairly long time in order to write a book about their way of life. They knew nothing else about me, or why I would want to do such a thing. They were even apprehensive that I might have some hidden motive, such as convert them, or prepare the way for the coming of loggers or miners. But, they agreed without hesitation to welcome me and help me in any way they could. They gave me and my two assistants a couple of small empty houses to live in, offered to feed me and my two assistants everyday, and even took the initiative to dig a toilet pit that they knew would be more comfortable for me to use than the adjoining fields.

A compelling urge to help us in every way they could proved characteristic of these people throughout our stay. Women and men sat with me for hours answering, with astonishing patience, my endless questions about things that were utterly obvious and unremarkable to them. On one occasion, Mo-Sew — one of the community’s shamans — observed that I never inquired about their spirituality. He was correct; although the Teduray lived in a world that was shot through with spirits, I had intentionally avoided the topic of religion for the first year and a half, out of concern I might revive fears that I was there to make Christians of them. So, Mo-Sew offered to teach me and my two assistants about this central aspect of their world. We gathered in his hut for most of each day for the next two weeks, and, when this “seminar” was over, I had hundreds of note cards full of information and a pretty fair working knowledge of the Teduray cosmos. Mo-Sew was not an idle man; he had as much work to do every day as everyone else. But, he had devoted two full weeks to giving me a hand, simply because he saw it was something I would find helpful.

Another act of overwhelming compassion stands in my memory as, perhaps, the most emblematic case of the Teduray willingness to go to any lengths to be helpful. 

Audrey and my two small boys had not gone with me into the forest, as their presence would have been unacceptably intrusive on the daily routines and lives of the people, that it would have obscured all I wanted to observe. So, we had built a small, simple house on the farm of a good friend, near where we had lived before. But, after I had been in Figel for quite a long time, and was home for a short respite with my family, my six-year-old son, Len, asked if he could go back with me for a short stay in Figel. Audrey and I felt that I was well enough established there to know he would be okay, and we agreed. 

Since we had to walk many hours into the forest from the coast, and ford a deep and swift river more than a dozen times along the trail, some Teduray men  helped us by carrying Lenny on their shoulders most of the way. That was a considerable effort in itself, but the real story has to do with their carrying him back out later.

We arrived at Figel rather late at night, and Len and I went right to bed on my sleeping mat. During the night, it became clear that Lenny had a high fever, and was very ill. Also, during that night, it rained hard and long. In the morning, Lenny was worse, unable to control his bladder or bowels. I was frantic. At dawn, several men gathered outside my hut and, after discussing the matter for a few moments, told me they would carry Lenny out to the coast, where there was “my kind of doctor.” 

It was an incredible offer. Like all Figel Teduray, those men had no notion of germs, nor of what my kind of doctor even did. They believed that Lenny’s illness came from his having somehow angered a spirit, and had, at once, asked their shaman go into the spirit world to arrange a cure. But, they also knew that I desperately wanted my son to be seen by a Western-style doctor, and were willing to risk their lives to do that for us. It really did mean risking their lives, because the sudden heavy rains during the night had swollen the river and made it totally uncrossable. They never tried to go to the coast when the river was so high. To do it, they had to  fashion a stretcher out of a sarong and bamboo poles, and then carefully carry it, as they torturously made their way along the sides of the river, clinging to roots and branches of shrubs, with the now deadly river raging just below them. I went along to comfort my sick and frightened son. It took over twenty hours, but they got Lenny safely to medical help. 

I will never forget that day and night, and I will never forget the gift that they had given me and my boy, by risking their lives for something they felt was medically irrelevant, but which would mean a lot to me and Lenny. It was a pure gift, of life and of themselves.

In short, I was living among people for whom everyone and everything were connected and equal in value and dignity — all humans, all spirits, all species — and hence life was to be lived with a spirit of partnership, mutual help and interdependence. To Teduray, this was entirely natural, even obvious. They lived in an abundant world, but one that no one could tackle alone. It required cooperation, sensitivity to others, and constant readiness to be helpful. That was how all beings were intended to live.

Because of these values, Figel children were reared to take their place in a society marked by cooperation, kindness and civility in most of its interactions, values that were deeply rooted in their understanding of the good life and the good society. The Teduray knew perfectly well that all they abhorred — ranking, power, violence, competition — were rampant among the groups outside the forest, but they said of them “it is no way to live.” 

I want to stress that the Teduray were not flawless. Like all people everywhere, their actions sometimes fell short of their intentions. Occasionally anger spilled over into insult, assault and even murder; people all too often eloped with other people's spouses, an act Teduray believed to be morally wrong and to threaten bloodshed. They were not at all perfect — Rousseau’s “noble savages” — too good to be true. But they took their values with great seriousness and worked hard at them, and the resulting quality of life among them was stunningly gracious. The normal, day-to-day quality of their life truly was characterized by a degree of generosity and caring that I found astonishing. Not being ranked into any sort of hierarchy, and not struggling to outdo each other socially, politically or economically, took away that adversarial sharp edge which competition seems inevitably to insert between people everywhere, and, in its place, established a beguiling sense of interdependence, empathy, and mutual respect and aid.

Dwelling amidst such a conception of reality, and among people who constantly scanned the world for how they could be helpful, was a life-changing experience for me. As the months went by, I felt more and more compelled to ask whether their vision of the good society might indeed be a much healthier way to live.

* * *

As for male-female relationships, from numerous interviews and casual conversations, and by watching Teduray men interact with women, I could see that everyone appeared to find clear joy in sex. It was judged to be a good and valued thing, a delight for everyone who engaged in it, and something that people discussed openly. Their primary concern about sexual activity was that it be mutually desirable and caring, and partners were expected to show mutual care for each other’s dignity and well-being. There was no double standard, because women were not property, to be owned, controlled or exchanged by men. What was good for men was good for women. Both could initiate sexual activity, and both had to follow the same rules. The feelings of each partner were to be respected, and lovers were expected to help each other realize their desires. If sex — whether in or out of marriage — was not strictly consensual, it was grievously immoral and legally actionable as rape. 

The Teduray were not indifferent to marriage, but sexual intercourse was not as tightly identified with love and commitment as it is with most of us Americans. Although married people were morally obliged to be faithful to each other, in practice, they were not always so, and eloping with other people’s spouse was sufficiently common that it accounted for a large part of the work of their legal system. The principal issue and focus in such cases was not “wrong sex,” but maintaining a stable context for all children. Marriages were, in fact, not very stable, though the problem was not framed as sexual promiscuity, but as a social fact that called for great legal skill to be sure that — when the old marriages were dissolved and the new ones created — the children were well settled in a proper home.

I could have totally missed the immense significance of these facets of Teduray thinking and ethics. I arrived in Figel wearing the opaque glasses of my own unconscious American socialization and conditioning. I had never before run into an understanding of sexual matters like the Teduray one, because I had never before encountered a society where people looked upon each other as cooperative equals.  Men enjoyed sex, but they did not obsess about it, and they certainly did not treat women as objects. They would have immediately — and vehemently — seen such behavior as no way to live.

One especially striking example of Teduray cultural beliefs and values  concerning sexuality was their casual assumption that all people were free to choose the gender they would like to be. With no notion of male superiority, there were no gender politics and men had no turf to defend. If you were born a boy, but would rather be a girl, no problem; just think, dress, and act like a girl and you are one! Not like one, but agenuine girl. I could easily have missed how radically different their thought about this was from what I knew in America, had an extraordinary incident not opened my eyes.

The Figel people loved music and made many of their own instruments. One of them was a bamboo zither that, in the hands of someone adept at it, had a charming harp-like sound. One evening, as I listened to a neighbor woman playing her zither, I commented on how lovely it was. She told me that I should hear Ukà play, because she was the best among all the Teduray. Ukà lived several mountain crests away, but, soon after she was informed that I wanted to hear her play, in true Teduray fashion, she hiked to Figel and spent several days with us, performing beautifully every evening. 

One night, as she was playing, I asked the fellow next to me why Ukà did not use a name based on that  of her oldest child, as adults normally did. He replied that she could not marry or have children, because she was a mentefuwaley libun. I had not heard that phrase before, but it was perfectly clear, and translates as “one-who-became-a-woman.” I said, “Oh, so she is really a man,” and he immediately responded, “No, she is a genuine woman.” I was familiar with the word for “real” or “genuine,” but it confused me here; how did it accord with her havingbecome a woman. Remember that this whole conversation was in Teduray, and there were no pronouns like “he” or “she.” I kept asking in various ways whether Ukà was born a boy or a girl, ultimately posing the trump card question that I assumed would clear up the puzzle: “Look, does she have a penis?” He said, with some disbelief at my inability to see what was patently obvious, “Of course, she has a penis, she is one-who-became-a-woman.

I finally began to comprehend that these people regarded gender in a totally different way than anyone I had ever known. Further conversations about this with numerous men and women taught me that, in the Teduray mind, what made you really male or female was the social role you chose to play — how you dressed, how you wore your hair, what you did all day, everything that expressed the gender you wanted to think of yourself as being. In one such discussion, I was asked whether we had people who decided to be the other sex in America. I said, “Well, we have people who dress like the other gender, and we have men and women who think they should be the other, but, frankly, most Americans tend to think of such folks as bad, and give them a very hard time.” I can still hear his reply, “Why? Why are you people so cruel?” 

From then on, I knew that this was another area where our different cultures did not merely give us different languages, customs, and ways of settling disputes — they gave us different realities to inhabit.

* * *

Ever since being in Figel, I have thought seriously about the way the Teduray lived together, and I have tried to bring their values to bear on my relations to other people. It has not been an easy or comfortable task, because it has challenged so much of what I internalized in growing up, values I no longer reckoned as inherent in human life everywhere, but based on our particular cultural conventions. This insight launched within me an unsettling desire to fundamentally change how I operated.

I began pondering this many an evening, sitting at my homemade desk in Figel. As impressions and memories of the day's conversations and observations stared up at me from my field notebooks and 3x5 cards, my mind would drift away from the personalities and events recorded there, and fasten on the stark contrasts they were revealing with my own upbringing in a society. I was increasingly coming to agree that much of what we do is no way to live.

I could perceive with new clarity that I had been systematically initiated as a child into a visceral sense of superiority to women and, in later life, gays. That many of the seeds of American gender ranking, coercive power relations, and competition were built into my head and heart when I was a small boy. I recognized how our notions about gender and sex were drenched with assumptions about male dominance. Such “truths” began to appear to me to be patent lies that had been unmasked. Realizing that there could be another way excited me. I reflected on how the penalties for wandering, even slightly, outside of my role had felt more frightening than I could handle, how I had been systematically disconnected from girls and my fellow males. It was dazzling to me that I never saw observed or heard a hint of any Teduray person, young or old, even considering — let alone obsessing about — being a "real man" or a "real woman.”

A transformation began within me in Figel, as I watched children grow and learn values and patterns of living that were much healthier than mine had been, and as I contemplated how adults construed their interpersonal relationships. I was not put off by their occasional failures; I was beguiled by their fundamental orientations. With every passing month in Figel, the American Exceptionalism that I had grown up with — that our society is the best of all possible worlds and a beacon to the world — seemed progressively in doubt, at least in the arena of human relations. In my moments of solitary reflection in my Figel hut, I discovered that I wanted a life like theirs for myself. I do not mean I considered “going native,” or moving to a rural farm or an isolated rainforest. I saw that if my values were to change for the better, my life would also have to change in some fundamental ways, and that was scary. All I had known before then was one approach to being a man, and the consequences of bucking that approach. I started considering very seriously, that paying some social costs to have what the Teduray have might well be worth doing.

Real, honest-to-goodness change is probably harder for people to face and accept than it is for them to do. I could not discuss these rather unsettling matters with my two Teduray field assistants, or with any of the wise old Figel men; my experience was too foreign to them, too distant and surreal. Nor, on my interludes out of the forest with my family, could I talk to Audrey in any depth about the uneasiness creeping into my consciousness; she simply did not want to discuss the matter. Perhaps, all these new thoughts — about American role conditioning, gender ranking, and male dominance being arbitrary cultural values — were too close to the bone for her. So I mulled over them all alone, increasingly determined to try to live differently from then on, and relate in a more healthy way to other people. I wanted to be a different kind of man, teacher, husband, father, and friend. I wanted no more to reflexively exercise rank, interpersonal coercive power, or any sort of violence, including emotional or bureaucratic forms.

It has been a slow learning curve for me, and required constant attention and recommitment, but I believe deeply in the effort. In my personal and professional life, I have made many attempts to live in a fundamentally different way. 

* * *

A big part of my “new and improved” stance was to relate differently with women, especially Audrey. I never again wanted to think of her as an object in any aspect of life, existing to provide me with an easier and more delightful life, irrespective of the cost to her. This necessitated recalibrating every facet of my accustomed behavior, and it was a constant challenge — old habits are persistent, and Audrey and I had settled into many traditional patterns that had to be faced and broken. Finding new ones was not easy for either of us. For example, I had no training in how to help with housework; my mother had always assumed that to be women’s work, and unmanly for a boy. Whenever I made a stab at learning to vacuum the floor, take out the garbage, or do the dishes, Audrey generally resisted; she too had been brought up to think of that as her turf. She would criticize my efforts relentlessly, even though she complained often to me and others that I was no help to her. When the women’s movement came into our lives, I was, in some ways, more open to it than she was. 

We both desperately wanted a different kind of sex life together, as I described earlier, but again were in uncharted waters.  Like many couples in those years, we were conflicted and frustrated. We worked at improving things, and had some small victories, but values and behaviors internalized early are very persistent, even when they are understood as culturally determined. But, the effort to change — both in and out of bed — made us feel a lot more human.

My efforts to retool my sensibilities about male-male relations had more tangible success. As early as my late teens, when I was in the Navy, I had some purely social, positive, encounters with gay men, that freed me from much of the homophobia in my upbringing. Since then, I have friendships with LGBT people of all stripes. Just as I strive to eliminate violence, power-plays, and competition from all aspects of my thinking and acting, I have come to despise homophobia with the same fervor that I despise racism or anti-Semitism. Hatred, fear, and cruelty toward gay people are obviously no way to live.

In addition, my time in Figel had made it unmistakable that anti-gay prejudice had greater costs than just overt homophobia. It had instilled a fear of closeness with other men; made us worry that we might actually be, at some level, gay, and just did not know it. It had rendered us frightened that we may be perceived as “queer,” as — in my father’s words — a “sissy,” a box that not only stifles and keeps us from enjoying close male friendships, it causes incalculable cruelty and pain to others, and the contrast to Teduray openness is breathtaking.

They had no such concerns, so I too could break free of them. I could learn to trust other men, to share sensitive feelings, to touch without erotic implications. We could enjoy each other’s companionship rather than assume we are locked into unrelenting competition. Today, I rejoice that I am no longer afraid to cry or show vulnerability, and feel more human because of that, too. I now cherish many close friendships with other men, in ways I once thought impossible. I am straight, but do not fret for a moment over how my sexuality may come across to anyone else.

* * *

It is now clear to me that the American male role I had learned not only objectifies and enforces sexist power relationships with women, it works against many of us having authentic closeness with either gender. I am not alone; a social system that defines women as sexual objects for men to exploit, and which labels some men and women as “homosexual," then unleashes fear and humiliation on them, is being gradually unmasked as the inhumane regime it is. Many of us are learning to ask, as my Teduray friend asked me: Why do we do it? Why are we so cruel? We do it, of course — many of us — because of the toxic cultural dance of status, domination, violence and fear we are taught by our families and our peers as children.

I now believe that every one of us could, like Teduray, have the sexual and loving relationships which suit our physical nature, our desires, and our code of morality, as long as they are consensual and respectful of other persons. More than that, we could all — across the whole spectrum of human life — be liberated from the horror of being objectified or objectifying, brutalizing or brutalized. The capacity in every one of us for affection, closeness, erotic pleasure, and committed, joyous and loving relationships, could be freed from oppressive cultural shackles. Like Teduray, we could honor each other and be honored for who we are, not for who others think we are supposed to be. 

I do not have many ideas of how this different view of manhood would best be taught. It would seem that sex education — where our culture will allow it — might put energy into that, in addition to the more physical “facts of life” and prevention of unwanted pregnancy, but what form that would take I do not know. Certainly, at home a great deal could be modeled and discussed that would help. Audrey and I tried to create a environment for our sons which was loving, accepting and helpful, and both boys did turn out to be all three.

Freedom from destructive internalized rules and values around matters of gender, sex and sexuality, around love and caring, around real connection and community with each other would be life-giving and wonderful. It would, importantly, reduce the chronic, pervasive, performance anxiety that surrounded, not just sex, but all of the male experience. In many ways, nagging worries about being a real man and being seen as one, about doing everything right, about being good in the eyes of woman and men— all in the absence of genuine information — was the most characteristic feature of male life. It was a game, I believe, we were doomed to fail at, because we were never taught what good performance meant, and freedom from that would be true liberation.

It has been for me.

I have tried earnestly to resist the symbols and attitudes associated with high status — differential forms of address and dress, areas of special privilege, and authoritarian ways of relating and behaving — however customary. 

I have tried earnestly to feel my feelings and express them with both the women and fellow men in my life.

I have tried earnestly to be aware of what I can learn from my students, and not just what I can teach them. 

I have tried earnestly to give serious scholarly attention to issues of American social and political thinking, to the rampant violence in our life and world, to the prejudices that make existence so difficult for many Americans, and to the causes and effects of economic inequality. 

I have tried earnestly to offer, wherever possible, my time, talents, and what disposable treasure I control to make life around me a bit better. I vote, write letters and checks, and volunteer for tasks and roles that might make some difference in my work and social arenas.

And, when everything looks hopeless to me, I have tried earnestly not to become cynical about the big picture, and to at least make life a bit more gracious and positive in my immediate circle of friends, neighbors, and associates. As I had witnessed, with such admiration, how the Teduray scanned the world for ways to be helpful, so too I have tried to do the same. 

I have tried earnestly to do what I can — in the phrase I often use to articulate my goal — to make islands of sanity in a world gone mad.

Frankly, I still have persistent blindspots. I have had far more frustrations that I have had accomplishments. And I have been defeated much more often than I have succeeded. But, I have no regrets, and believe the struggle to be worth the candle. I know the efforts have positively enriched my life, and I am deeply grateful to the Teduray for having set me on this path. Just as I saw how the people of Figel failed, over and over, to always embody their gracious and kindly notion of how to live, I too have made terribly uneven progress and countless failures. But, like them, I do my best.

And so it was that, bit by bit, what began as a graduate school fieldwork requirement, a social science exercise, became for me something far more serious and deeply personal — not merely about writing a dissertation, or having a marvelous cross-cultural adventure, but of waking up to a thorough rethinking of my whole existence as one who grew up a boy in America.


About Stu Schlegel

Stu Schlegel was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1932). After graduating from Harvard School (North Hollywood, CA, 1950), he served in the Navy (1950-54), during which time he lived with a Japanese family near Tokyo, whenever his ship was not busy shooting at Koreans. He graduated from UCLA in history (1957), then worked for almost a year as a volunteer at an Episcopal mission in a headhunter village in the northern Philippines. He received an M.A from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (Berkeley, CA, 1960) and was priest-in-charge of the Mission of St. Francis of Assisi in rural Mindanao (Philippines, 1960-63), where he also founded St. Francis High School, the first academic high school in that area. He received a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago (1969), following two years of field research among the Teduray rainforest people of southwestern Mindanao —one of the great, transformative experiences of his life.

Long active in community peace and justice programs, Stu retired in 1987 from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he had been a Fellow of Merrill College and Professor of Anthropology and Southeast Asian studies for some twenty years. He was the author of numerous books and scholarly articles in several languages, mostly concerning the Teduray rainforest people of the southern Philippines. In 1973-4, under the auspices of the Ford Foundation, he established the Social Science Research Training Center in Aceh, Sumatra, to teach field research methodology to Indonesian provincial university social scientists. In 2002, he was honored by the Philippine Anthropological Association for his lifetime of Philippine research. 

He retired in 1992 from St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Los Gatos, where he had been rector since 1984. A long-time activist and advocate of ending the death penalty, in the early 2000s Stu worked with the United Farm Workers effort to unionize the strawberry workers in Santa Cruz County.

In 1994 and 1995, Stu took parts I and II of the Breakthrough Men’s Community workshop, another transformative experience, which not only has enriched his life ever since and made him a better husband, father, and friend, but gave him insights and concepts to describe the reflections in his essay, “On Being Born a Boy in America.” 

He currently lives in a retirement community in Santa Cruz, where he continues to write and lecture.