From the beginning
Anyone who has read very much of what I’ve written here will know that I’m not a big fan of the prevailing gender roles for men. I consider them to be a prime reason why men suffer from so many mental health issues – and an major reason why men don’t seek help for mental health issues sooner and more often. This post explores how gender roles set me back three decades in the journey to finding myself.
Socialization is simply the sum total of processes and people that teach a child how to be a member of society. Primarily, socialization is accomplished through the family. School and church also played a heavy role in my socialization. My family life varied through degrees of neglect punctuated by abuse. That meant “being a man” meant taking care of myself when no one else would and being able to withstand whatever punishment was thrown at me. In the 1970s, schools weren’t big on special services, but I was good enough at academics (and sometimes at athletics) that my odd behaviors were overlooked. We cycled through a series of uber-conservative churches – the kind where women are supposed to wear dresses and a minimum of make-up/jewelry and men keep their hair short and their voice soft, with a hint of authoritative threat.
Because television and movies were rare in my life, I missed out on the messages from those medium. However, I made up for it through voracious reading – and my favorite type of book was heroic fiction of any genre (science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance…). I identified heavily with the outcast hero who stands against society and evil to stand victorious: Conan, John Carter, Sherlock Holmes, the Hardy boys, Tom Swift, Thomas Covenant, Frodo Baggins, William Tell Sackett, Dan Frontier, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, Jim Lassiter (Riders of the Purple Sage) – men of action who were quick to stand up in a fight, no matter the odds. This heavily colored my idea of what it meant to be a man. How could it not? These are, after all, archetypes for masculinity in our culture. The names are damn near interchangeable. The details vary, but they stick to the tried and true hero schtick.
My teenage years were spent in semi-seclusion. We lived in West Texas, nearly a mile from our nearest neighbor (which happened to be a couple in their 70s). I saw people my age at school. Once I was able to drive, I developed some close friendships with other guys my age, but a farming accident and death left us all reeling. I don’t know if the others have regular contact with each other, but I haven’t seen or heard from any of them in years (not even on Facebook). Since I had moved around to a dozen (literally) small towns, I was constantly the outsider. I fell in love hard, and there was a window for it to bloom, but the only way I knew how to get a girl (from my books) was to rescue her from danger. There was simply no danger around, so I watched her end up with someone else.
I spent six years in the Navy. I wasn’t the roughest and toughest son-of-a-bitch, but I was badass enough to be both respected and feared. Truth be told, I was a bit of a bully, but I got the job done when others couldn’t. I turned into one of my literary heroes, in some respects – to think was to act and I would endure anything, pushing myself harder and farther than anyone around me. I raced to the brink of emotional collapse and beyond. It was my first lesson that heroics are better left for books, but it would take many more hard lessons before I began to question the masculine mythos I had grown up worshiping.
If you go back and read the books that I grew up reading and closely examine the romantic subplots; then you’ll notice that the heroes always get the girl, but they are always beaten and bruised by the time they get there. There is an implicit link between masculine sexuality and suffering – though the suffering was never at the hands of the love interest. The important thing, for me, was that this link was as attractive as any other part of heroic fiction.
Like most teens, I was fairly self-unaware. I never noticed this linkage between pain and sex/love, and therefore I never understood that this linkage is a primary part of how I experience romantic love. In my adolescent fantasies, I would fend off attackers with my fists just to get a single kiss from my latest crush. Or I would rage against the unfairness of society, fighting an entirely different kind of battle, to unite with love across boundaries of class and race. The important thing was that I ended up suffering in some manner, and the love and affection of my desired woman was the reward for that.
Even more importantly, this was not something I ever thought of consciously. It is only in retrospect that I can so clearly see what I was all along: submissive and masochistic. It wasn’t until the internet came along in my thirties that I discovered BDSM, and then it was discovered through MaleDom porn. After a period of denial, I embraced my desire for BDSM. I even started a few BDSM-based relationships with submissive women.
Anyone who hangs around BDSM folks for a while will hear the term “topping from the bottom” referring to a person who takes a submissive role while trying to direct their partner. It’s like a car telling a traffic cop when to wave his hand. For obvious reasons, this irritates Dominants and results in no small amount of derision from submissives. Well, I entered BDSM as a Dominant who was actually “bottoming from the top.” I arranged things so that what happened was exactly what my submissive partner wanted.
This is not simply “staying within boundaries.” That is, as far as I’m concerned, a basic requirement for any and every healthy BDSM relationship. Mistress Delila has never violated a single boundary with me. She has, however, withheld something I wanted at a particular time. I might want a spanking, as an example, but if she isn’t feeling it at the moment, it doesn’t happen. This is exactly how both of us want things. It is what D/s means to us. When I was playing Dominant, it didn’t really matter what I wanted – even if I didn’t want to do something, we did it.
It felt good, however. I got to associate my sexuality with suffering and pleasure. It filled all of the social mores I’d learned about men being in charge and being the one who…well, the one who metes out punishment. The problem was that it was exhausting because I was constantly feeding someone else’s needs and never really getting what I needed back.
It was a process for me to realize what was wrong. It took time. In the process, I ruined a marriage. Understand, I didn’t have to just question if I was dominant; I had to question everything I knew about masculinity – and if I was, in fact, really masculine at all. In the midst of this, I fell into a heavy spiral of depression. It was hell.
I came through it, though. And I came through with a much better understanding of who I am. I am, in fact, a pretty masculine fellow. I like being a man. I also enjoy and need a romantic partner who is both a woman and dominant over me. I need someone who will enjoy hurting me. I need someone who will push me to the point of tears and then hold me and take pleasure in every tremble of my body. I need to trust someone so fully that I can let go of everything the rest of the world wants of me and simply be a lump of clay to be molded to meet her needs. (This someone, for the record, is Mistress Delila – duh!)
Obviously, I have wants and needs and desires of my own. I have fantasies. I’m not an empty-headed buffoon who simply yes-ma’am’s his way through life. What I am is secure in the knowledge that I am ultimately safe with my lover – She will meet all of my emotional and physical needs if I simply focus on giving Her what She needs and wants. This is, in my mid-forties, the most wonderful relationship I’ve ever had. I feel loved and treasured and desired as I never have because Mistress Delila isn’t interacting with the masculine facade I built to pleasure our damned-to-hell-and-back culture. She is interacting with me as I truly am. Because I am more truly myself with Her, I can love and accept love as I never have been able to before.
This is why I hate the gender-based messages that our culture straight-jackets us with. Playing that gender role image cost me three decades of life that I can never get back. Don’t get me wrong – there was a lot of good in those years that I wouldn’t change. But if I could have lived authentically through those years – if I’d just realized that it was possible to be both submissive and masculine – I would not have forced two women to suffer through a marriage to a man who couldn’t understand and accept himself.
Incidentally, I know that a lot – a whole lot – of women struggle with similar issues because of the gender-based restrictions society places on them. There are, however, a lot of voices calling that for what it is and forcing society to give women more space to develop in whatever direction their soul leads. As Gloria Steinem said, “We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons… but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.” I’m trying to find that courage, and to lend a bit to other men, too.