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Best of November: What Does It Mean to Be a 'Real' Man?

The topic of 'manhood' is one that obviously has gotten people talking. That's why we're excited this article is featured in the 'Best of November'. Getting a conversation around gender norms and sexuality is absolutely wonderful for us. Think about it: your identity and self-love are essential to your sexual identity. Feeling confident and wonderful about you makes your partner feel sexy, too.

Many of the ladies at the office have agreed--we've all thought and talked about, 'real' men. We've talked about, 'real' men like we're not in control of our social norms. Most of us are more than familiar with gender stereotypes as they are applied to women. But we usually don't put too much thought into how men are stereotyped. What does it mean to be a, "real" man, anyway? Marc Ellis of Sexual Candor, inspired by Charlie Glickman, explores the social pressures of manhood and some inspiration for us to think of manhood with a grain of salt.

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The 'Act-Like-A-Man' Box

I was first exposed to the concept of the “act-like-a-man box” two years ago through an article by Charlie Glickman and a TED talk that I came across in the same month. While the term was new, the concept was not; as I had been living in that box from pre-adolescence to earlier that year when I took my first steps outside of it.

If you are not familiar with the “act-like-a-man box,” it’s a description of the narrow range in which masculinity is defined and the social pressure that men face to conform to it. As men, many of us find that we willingly stepped inside of that box, learning to perform masculinity to avoid the shame or fear of being labeled as less of a man, a homosexual, or a woman (and that linkage of misogyny and homophobia is another blog post to write). If you are new to the concept of the act-like-a-man box, take a few minutes to read Charlie Glickman’s, "Picking and Choosing from the 'Act Like a Man Box'" or The Performance of Masculinity who can explain it far better than myself, and listen to Tony Porter’s A Call to Men.

Before coming across the idea of the man box, I had been far more familiar with the gender stereotypes that are placed on women. Growing up in the 1970's we saw a clear distinction between male professions (doctor, lawyer, mechanic, etc.) and female professions (nurse, secretary, teacher). Girls were discouraged from playing sports or being seen as a ‘tomboy.’

Over the years, I have seen this largely change, with women now free to aspire to any profession, dress how they want, take on what were traditionally feminine or masculine behaviors, or even experiment sexually with another woman without being labeled for it. While I understand that women continue to face negative social pressures, such as slut-shaming, and gender discrimination in numerous ways; femininity can now be expressed in a fairly wide range, much more so than the rigidity that is masculinity.

Be a man

As a young boy I was told by my father that boys don’t cry, and he threatened me with violence when I did, as it is only through physical pain that there may be an excuse for tears. I was discouraged from showing emotion and learned quickly to hide it. Without having a word for it, I retreated into the man box. As I grew older I found more parts of myself that did not fit inside that box. My emotions were more complicated than a man’s should be, so they were hid from others. Sometimes I would cry from ‘feelings’, the tears wiped dry before they could be seen.

As I matured sexually, I had thoughts of sexual submission that spoke to a vulnerability I did not understand, so they were kept to masturbatory fantasy. Worse of all, in addition to my primary interest in women, I had thoughts of being sexual with a man. This is something that certainly did not belong in the box and was quickly repressed. When I began to have sex, I found that I desired a more varied sexual experience that extended to more than my penis, but was not able to communicate this as my request could be seen as unmanly. As Charlie Glickman points out, “since the logic of the box is an either/or, you’re either all the way in or you’re all the way out,” and I was determined to stay in.

The following image of the “Act-Like-a-Man” is from an article written by Paul Kivel and shows what is expected inside the man box (left and right sides of the gray box), what keeps man inside the box (the words and actions on either side of the grey), and in the center – the emotions a man is left with by being inside that box.

Repression and Shame

I spent most of my life living with this shame and repression around my emotions and sexuality. Had I been gay, I believe I would have been able to stand up for who I was.

But as a predominantly heterosexual man who looked the part, I shut down those problematic parts of myself instead. I married young, had children young, and focused on work, not dealing with the disconnect I felt between who I knew myself to be and how I allowed myself to be seen. This disconnect with my emotions, my desire for vulnerability, the intimacy it allows for, and the shame associated with sexual desires continued to grow. The repression was not working. Given time, desire grows stronger than shame. I felt isolated, confused, and grew resentful and angry. Keeping myself inside that box was damaging myself and destroying my marriage.

Stepping out of the box

It was my exposure to ‘sex-positive’ podcasts that cracked that box open. Specifically, it was Dan Savage’s podcast where I listened to hundreds of people leave their questions that I finally understood the tremendous diversity in who we are sexually, and the amazing commonality in our desire to hear that we are ‘normal’. I discovered that my problems were not unique. So many of us feel isolated, even when partnered; looking to be fulfilled and accepted for who we truly are.

Through a growing list of podcasts, I began to get in touch with what I wanted. As I worked to accept myself, I began to seek out advice on how to restore my marriage which has long suffered a break-down in communication. While I found advice on dealing with a spouse that did not communicate, where intimacy was lacking, and there was a desire for vulnerability and sexual satisfaction; nearly all of this advice was written for a woman.

After all of the work I did, to take these initial steps out of this box, I came close to retreating back inside when the advice I sought basically called me a woman for wanting intimacy, communication, and sexual satisfaction. Eventually I laughed this off and worked up the courage to take the biggest risk I felt I could take - to face extreme vulnerability, and put it all out there – to tell my wife what I wanted for myself and for us.

While this may have been the scariest thing I had done, it was also the most liberating. While the conversation and its immediate aftermath did not go great, it was far better than my worst fears imagined. Eventually we began talking about my needs for communication and intimacy, my sexual needs from her, and my interest in exploring bisexuality.

While I had long struggled with these desires, this was new to her and I had to be patient. Through these conversations, we set down this new path to open up to one another, to better understand our own needs and what we need from one another. While this is still a work in progress, the open and honest communication that came from these conversations brought us much closer than we had been in many years. Taking that risk was the best thing I ever did, and while I regret that I allowed myself to waste so many years defined by a box based on social pressure, I am grateful that I arrived at a place where I could be honest with myself and with my wife about who I am and what I need.

Marc Ellis overcame years of shame and repression to find acceptance and joy, embracing his sexuality and sharing it with his wife of 20 years. Together they are opening up to new experiences. Fascinated by the truths of sex and sexuality, Marc has been writing about his experiences with exploring bisexuality, kink, and ethical non-monogamy with the hope of helping others struggling with repressed desire. Marc blogs at and can be found at twitter @sexualcandor.
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