Punishing gender variant masculinity

Perhaps the central concept of Christian patriarchy is that everyone has their “proper place” in power structures, whether in marriage, family, the church, or society.  This is true for men as well as women; women are taught that they have to be submissive, and men are taught that they have to dominate.  Men who aren’t “masculine” in this way are seen as refusing to accept their proper place at the top of the sex/gender hierarchy – and therefore refusing to be “real men” and choosing instead to be like women, i.e., “effeminate.”  Under Christian patriarchy, male “effeminacy” -  meaning any kind of non-normative gender expression in males – is something that needs to be constantly guarded against, strictly policed, and severely punished.

In certain ways I think gender nonconforming males pose even more of a challenge to Christian patriarchy than “unsubmissive” or otherwise noncomforming females.  Under complementarianism, it’s definitely a sin for a woman to want to be in a position of authority over a man – but at the same time, it’s cast as an understandable desire.  As they see it, who wouldn’t want to be entitled to unquestioned submission and obedience?  Of course women would want to “usurp” the authority of the male role.  As extreme complementarian Mark Driscoll puts it, “Men want to be men . . . and women do, too.” [1]

Complementarians have even incorporated the idea that women want to be men into their theology of sin.  Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem both teach, for example, that God’s curse on Eve that her “desire will be for [her] husband” actually means that Eve – representing all women – “would [wrongfully] desire to rule over her husband (contrary to God’s created design) . . . woman would be inclined now to usurp the man’s rightful place of authority over her.” [2]

So called effeminacy in men, by comparison, is not merely considered sinful; it’s both totally incomprehensible and a fundamental challenge to claims of masculine superiority.  If masculinity is truly defined by having and exercising authority, and femininity is truly defined by submission to authority, there’s no reason why a man would want to act like a woman: “Men want to be men.”  So the mere existence of males who behave in ways coded as effeminate is a direct threat to Christian patriarchy.

This is why complementarians are so obsessed with “raising boys to be men” and “teaching men to be men.”  Complementarianism places tremendous pressure on males to conform to patriarchal norms of masculinity.  Both boys and men receive constant and intense coaching in “manliness.”  Further, they are subjected to close scrutiny of their gender expression and risk serious consequences for any behavior, mannerism, or interest deemed insufficiently masculine.

Males who violate patriarchal gender norms face various kinds of punishment for their behavior, forms of negative reinforcement used to force compliance with these norms.  Gender variant men face, just for starters,

- family and social disapproval
- ridicule and contempt (verbal and emotional abuse) from family, peers, teachers, etc.
- psychological and spiritual abuse in the form of teachings that construct God as a patriarchal, gender normative male, that present gender variance as rebellion against God, and threaten divine anger and punishment in response
- threats of physical violence and often actual physical abuse both at home and in other contexts.

Sexual molestation and abuse both in and outside the home is also a very common experience of gender variant men.  And it’s also important to keep in mind that gender variant/nonconforming people of all genders are victims of most and often all of these forms of abuse.

These punishments for gender variance communicate, often without explicit words, to men and boys: If you decide to act like a woman, we’ll punish you until you learn to act like a real man.  In the next post I’ll talk about some concrete examples of how threats of violence and actual violence are used to discipline gender expression and punish gender variance.


[1] This Isn’t “Separate but Equal’

[2] Summaries of the Complementarian and Egalitarian Positions

7 Comments

  1. Your post is really spot-on. In simplistic terms, everything “male” is “good” and everything “female” “bad.” I grew up with the belief that women wanting to domineer over men was the curse as well – as my mother worded it, “Feminists don’t know that they’re doing exactly what the Bible says they’re going to do!” This kind of Christianity is about power, and then men involved believe that ultimate power is the ultimate thing to obtain. They can’t conceive of the benefits of being “feminine” because the only thing that matters is that power dynamic. And since power and control are entertwined, hat a man would say, “I don’t want this” and thereby be relinquishing that power scares them because it throws off the control system – all of a sudden their natural, “innate” “biological” power and dominance looks merely tyrannical and chosen.

    You were exactly right that women deviating is seen as normal – sinful, but normal. But men, it is seen as something going wrong – something screwed up inside them, because it’s not normal, it’s going against their beliefs that all these “masculine” traits are inherent in men.

    • All of a sudden their natural, “innate” “biological” power and dominance looks merely tyrannical and chosen.

      I hadn’t thought of it in these terms exactly, but this is an excellent point.

  2. “As they see it, who wouldn’t want to be entitled to unquestioned submission and obedience?”

    I guess I had thought there was at least some head-in-the-sand pretending that women would want and accept their position as submissive and obediant. This post, like a lot of them, is just stomach churning in what it reveals about the abuse these “religious leaders” are subjecting people to.

    On an unrelated note, it is another first-rate post that I will be forwarding on to others. Thanks for all of your hard work on this.

    • Yea, they’re pretty clear on the idea that women are just itching to overthrow or undermine their rightful leaders. It’s pretty sick.

      eta: Come to think of it, given what they consider to be “good leadership” by husbands, it probably *is* true that married complementarian women are desperate to undermine their husbands’ “leadership” – but where we would see that as a desire for equal status in marriage, these folks see it as a desire to dominate men the way men are supposed to dominate women. So yea, sick stuff.

      And thanks for the encouragement! I appreciate it.

  3. Wow. Thank-you so much for taking the time to post this. I am coming out of a fundamental Christian cult, (of course they describe it as This Present Move of God and view the ‘denominations’ as deviant).
    This rings so true. I have been wondering why in our conservative culture, women are scorned and feared and lesbians more so, but homosexual men are the biggest threat of all. The ‘deviant’ females can be laughed at and ignored, but the non conforming males are attacked outright.

    This issue is frustrating for me because my mother and several brothers are getting deeper into the complementarianism culture and so view me as rebellious and sinful for questioning it. The one brother who also questions headship/submission goes to ridiculous and even dangerous lengths to prove his manhood to the rest of the world.

    • Thanks for commenting and welcome to the blog!

      This issue is frustrating for me because my mother and several brothers are getting deeper into the complementarianism culture and so view me as rebellious and sinful for questioning it. The one brother who also questions headship/submission goes to ridiculous and even dangerous lengths to prove his manhood to the rest of the world.

      One of the really dangerous things about complementarian teaching is the idea that it’s such a fundamental doctrine that it can never be questioned. I once heard a pastor say that next to “the gospel itself,” “biblical” gender roles were the most important part of Christianity. I was pretty astounded by that. Never mind the fact that Jesus said barely anything about gender roles . . .

      I’m sorry about your brother. This is another one of the ways these definitions of masculinity hurt men. They encourage violent and self-destructive behavior in men.

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