If you were to walk through the back door into our mudroom, you would be greeted by a row of deep red onions dangling from green stems, strung across the room like a row of purple Chinese lanterns.
If you were to continue upstairs, into our office, you’d find some usual office-y things (computer, desk, bookshelf), but you would also see a box of fluffy golden chicks gathering under the red glow of a heat lamp, as well as a bucket of pear cider sitting beside a jar of red wine, both in the throes of fermentation.
Before that, before even getting to the back door of the house, you’d have to walk by eight garden beds, several still overflowing with kale, celery, tomatoes (all kinds!), cabbage, squash. The zucchini, green beans, sugar peas, and broccoli have all been torn up by now, their lodgings cleared for a winter crop of beets, lettuce, carrots, onions, and yet more kale, cabbage, and broccoli.
Skirting the garden beds you’ll find a chicken run that extends from a coop in a L-shape along the back fence. Grape vines, now fruit-free, wind themselves through the fence of the run, and, inside, three hens loiter under towering sunflowers, waiting for falling seeds.
Under the edge of our roof, flanking each side of our patio, sit two large barrels that drink the runoff from the gutters; these barrels become engorged in the rainy Oregon winter, and then, in the dry summer, quench the thirst of the garden.
All of this fecundity occurs in the back part of our suburban lot. Much as we’d like to, my husband and I don’t live in the country. We’re suburban homesteaders, working with what we’ve got, often to the perplexity of our neighbors.
I say, “we,” but that really isn’t fair. Aside from occasionally helping with the harvest, collecting eggs, or locking the chicken coop at night, I have done nothing to make all this happen. My husband, Michael, grows the vegetables, raises the chickens, collects the rainwater, brews the cider, cooks the meals, bakes the bread – he even makes our lavender-scented soap – and, since the school year began last week and I returned to full-time work, he does this all while being the primary caretaker of our nine month-old son.
And yet, despite all he contributes to quite literally keeping his family fed and happy, to many Michael does not count as a “provider.” Or, at least, he doesn’t fit what seems to have become the widespread definition of the term.
I grew up in an evangelical Christian subculture that was cocooned, thanks to geography, within the LDS (Mormon) subculture. In this nesting doll of conservative religions, “provider” was shorthand for the God-ordained duty of the man to work outside the home and make money to support his family. The woman, in contrast, was meant to burrow into domesticity and learn the sacred arts of homemaking. She could work hard in the house – cooking, cleaning, laundering, and feeding and clothing and caring for the children – yet her work did not fall under the canopy of “provision.” She could be a mother, a wife, a homemaker, but not a provider. She might make the bread, but the one who wins it, he “provides.”
I still catch myself assuming that this shorthand is limited to the circles of my upbringing – but now I have come to understand that this is simply not true. The connotative meaning of the word provider is fairly universal in contemporary America, even in the broader, more secular culture that ostensibly has less rigid gender roles.
Take Walter White, my favorite television anti-hero. (Because, let’s be honest, everything I am thinking about these days has some connection to Breaking Bad.) Even the scientific, nonreligious Mr. White roots his identity in this moneymaking notion of provision; his desire to provide for his family in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis drives him to earn the big bucks cooking methamphetamine.
I remember one particular scene from a third-season episode, in which Walter begins to suspect that his meth-cooking ventures might actually cost him his family. Gus Fring, his kingpin boss, knows exactly how to manipulate Walt away from his self-doubt, when he says: “What does a man do, Walter? A man provides for his family. … When you have children, you always have family. They will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man, a man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated or respected or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.”
This exchange, which proves effective and lures Walt deeper into the drug world, demonstrates the power of the provider label, and also how it is a fundamentally gendered term. Walt’s terrifying (and riveting) characterization is an extreme but potent example of how our cultural ideals and expectations of men are tangled up with post-industrialist, capitalist values.
There is plenty of irony at work here. If Michael, earned a paycheck by cooking professionally for strangers as a chef, instead of cooking for his family for free, he would be seen as a provider. Similarly, if our income stemmed from his green-thumbed work, he could be considered a farmer instead of a mere gardener. The implication is clear: when domestic work is professionalized, only then can it be seen as masculine.
It is no doubt because of these gendered ideals that, when people inquire about Michael’s situation, I catch myself wanting to use terms like “farmer” and “homesteader” rather than the inert “stay-at-home dad,” which makes it sound like Michael just sort of lounges around the couch all day, never leaving the house. Even the acronym, SAHD, is a total downer. Most of these inquirers respond positively to the fact that he is a primary caregiver, but their follow-up questions – “Does he like doing that?” “Does he plan to go back to work soon?” – carry the assumption that, as a man, being at home must feel like an odd fit, a step down.
I recently had a friend remark that men receive undue praise for completing domestic tasks, and I agree with him in part. It is still too often an unexpected surprise when a man stands up to clear the plates at a dinner party instead of his female partner. But something shifts, I think, when that domestic work becomes full-time and completely supersedes a career beyond the home – thus pushing the man beyond the traditional sphere of provision.
This is not to knock the breadwinners, of course – that happens to be my shtick these days. I’m well aware that my paycheck bankrolls Michael’s backyard homesteading efforts. The work I do is important, and it’s good that our culture recognizes that. The problem is that the work Michael does – which is also the full-time work of millions of women and increasing numbers of men – is viewed as less important, and for those men who choose to do it instead of pursuing a career, it’s seen as compromising their masculinity.
And yet, despite this baggage, I like the word provider. There is something raw and weighty about it, something that captures the essential significance of parenthood. The fundamental role of any parent is to provide for his or her children, whether than means earning an income or growing and preparing food or washing a load of rank diapers. I want to keep the word provider, but somehow detach it from its gendered, monetary roots. I want to reclaim it, to crack it open and fill it with new, expansive meaning that extends beyond the capitalist model connecting manhood to moneymaking and devaluing work traditionally done by women.
Ultimately, despite our cultural conflation of manliness and earning power, both breadwinning and breadmaking are inseparable gestures of provision. The money I earn? Michael makes it count. Michael turns the straw-money into edible, life-giving gold. And this, perhaps, is provision in its purest form.
[This article originally appeared at The Good Men Project.]
Lately, as you know, I’ve been thinking, reading, and writing about sexual violence against men and boys. I came across a disturbing case of sexual assault from Norwood, Colorado — a case with unsettling echoes of Steubenville — and this motivated me to begin researching the phenomenon of victim-blaming. Why are so many rape victims, male and female, blamed for what happens to them? I read probably about a dozen studies (thank you, university library system!) and wrote a piece for The Atlantic about my interesting, and somewhat surprising, findings.
Before I jump into that article, on a completely unrelated matter, I’ve decided to go offline for a couple of weeks starting tomorrow (except for Netflix watch instantly — I’m not a total Spartan). You know that feeling you get when you’ve been sitting in a hot tub for too long, and you no longer feel relaxed and toasty, but more like you’re being slowly cooked alive? Well, that’s what the internet does to me every once in awhile, and I need to go dive into the cold pool of offline reality for a bit to recharge.
So, happy reading — and I’ll see you on the other side…!
Last year, a small American town began to cannibalize its own after a group of high school student athletes sexually assaulted an incapacitated classmate. In the aftermath, rather than rallying around the young victim, townspeople rushed to downplay the attack and defend the perpetrators instead.
In February 2012, three high school wrestlers from the tiny town of Norwood ambushed a 13-year-old boy on a school bus, restrained him with duct tape, and anally raped him with a pencil. The victim’s father, who was also the high school principal, notified the superintendent and school board immediately, but aside from a one-day suspension, there were no repercussions for the perpetrators (two of whom were sons of the head wrestling coach, who also happened to be president of the school board). Despite Colorado’s mandatory reporting laws, the police were not notified until the principal reported the incident himself after a month of inaction on the part of town and school officials.
In the wake of the boys’ arrests on charges ranging from kidnapping to sexual assault, the seventh-grade victim was blamed and bullied by his peers at school and on social media. Rather than cracking down on this harassment, some parents encouraged it, including the mother of an accused boy who made and distributed t-shirts that proclaimed alliance with the teenaged attackers.
Many Norwood citizens ostracized the victim and called for his father’s resignation, incensed that the principal had reported what, to them, was a benign schoolboy prank. The assailants, all charged as juveniles, pled guilty to misdemeanors and received varying sentences of probation, community service, and cash restitution. The victim and his family were arguably punished more severely. After months of harassment, they were ultimately driven out of Norwood altogether and relocated to another community.
In Quaker-speak, we have something called a “concern,” which is basically a deep-felt divine prompting to attend to a particular need. Although I’ve long felt a general sense of “concern” about injustices related to gender and sexuality, when I wrote that article about Don Draper being raped, I thought it would be a small foray for me into the issue of sexual violence against males. My main goal was to raise awareness and perhaps motivate others to speak out on their behalf.
But I can’t seem to look away. This issue of boys being sexually assaulted and shamed into silence is increasingly feeling like a “concern.” Writing that article opened a Pandora’s box for me, a box full of horrifying statistics and heartbreaking accounts of abuse. Most of the people who responded to me personally after the article came out were male survivors. Many of expressed variations of the same thing: no one is really talking about this. No one sees this. No one cares.
One survivor sent me a link to this Oprah episode from 2010, available online, which focuses on the stories of men who were abused as children. The entire audience in this episode consists of male survivors, one of whom was the man who sent me the link — 200 men in all, each holding a picture of their childhood selves, the faces of beautiful little boys whose lives were horrifically changed. Or, as one survivor puts it, whose souls were stolen as children.
I dare you to watch the episode and not weep. I was crying within the first few minutes, just seeing all those men gathered, holding the pictures, publically telling the world what they’ve lived through.
The episode tells several of these men’s stories in graphic detail – of course there isn’t time to tell every story, but just seeing their faces is incredibly moving. Even a glimpse, the camera passing by, reveals a shadow of the pain they have endured and are enduring. I’d been immersing myself in stats and data, but now I was able to see those numbers come alive in the faces and bodies and stories of actual people.
Oprah mentions her own shock at encountering the disturbing statistic that 1 in 6 men were sexually abused as children. I’m well familiar with the oft-quoted statistic that 1 in 4 women have experienced rape or attempted rape, but until I started looking in this topic, I had never come across the 1 in 6 figure about boys who are sexually abused. If you’re having trouble believing the number, you can read more about the supporting studies here – there’s a good chance it’s an underestimate, actually, because research indicates that men are less likely to disclose experiences of sexual abuse than women.
And that’s what is haunting me right now. The silence.
Some of these men were abused for years, throughout their entire childhood, and their parents had no idea. Some, even, were abused by one parent right under the nose of the other parent, which is even more sickening.
It’s hard not to be consumed by fear once you have a child; the menu of nightmarish things that could happen is a long one – but right near the top of that list of horrors is having my son be sexually abused and then shamed into silence. I know that I can’t be physically with my son at every moment during his entire childhood and adolescence, but what can I do to teach him to speak out if he is harmed, and to never ever ever blame himself if someone assaults him?
My mom recently told me a story about my brother – this doesn’t involve any sort of sexual abuse, just to be clear, but it does connect to this discussion in a way. My brother, who was maybe ten or so, was walking home alone from an oboe lesson past a house just down the block with a psychedelic van parked in front. The funky, colorful van intrigued my brother, so he paused to look at it for a moment before continuing down the street toward home – when a guy pulled up and started yelling at him for messing with his van. This guy was scary. He shouted a slew of expletives and explicit death threats at my brother, who, remember, was just a little kid.
After my brother got home and told my mom what happened, she decided to take him to the police station to file a report (my brother specifically remembers the thrill of being able to say the ACTUAL f-bomb five times for the police officer, with mom’s approval). The cops talked to the guy, who never bothered my brother again and actually apologized to him. This is the part of the story I find interesting: my mom said that she chose to take my brother to the cops mainly because she thought it was an opportunity to teach him the importance of speaking out in the face of any abuse, whether verbal or otherwise.
I realize this event is not in the same realm as sexual abuse, not even close, and I’m not intending to lump them together. But, for me, the story does shed a little light on this question about empowering children to talk about any violence they experience, preferably with a trusted authority figure. And it also highlights the importance of listening to children when they do speak up. That part is crucial, as research shows that children are often viewed as unreliable witnesses and disbelieved when they report abuse. I’m proud of my mom for taking my brother seriously and intentionally using that moment to empower him (and letting him justifiably say the f-word repeatedly).
Many feminists have written, particularly in the wake of Steubenville, of the need to teach boys the importance of consent. I agree – but I think we must begin by teaching them the importance of their own consent, and the sacredness of their own bodies, and to empower them to speak out if anyone, anyone, ever violates that.
There are many powerful voices out there advocating for women and girls who have experienced sexual violence – and I applaud them. I am so grateful for them. But who is speaking out for the boys? Not as many, it seems, but perhaps the tide is turning.
The eerie hush surrounding this societal wound is gradually being broken, I think. I hope. In my own research, I’ve seen a sudden spike in studies on sexual violence against men and boys since about 2006 onward. Several of those studies were conducted by this team of psychologists, who repeatedly remark on the dearth of research on this issue. And, of course, the Oprah episode is another indication that more men are coming forward, and more people are listening.
But we have a long way to go.
The gender myths that contribute specifically to the silence of male victims remain largely intact: namely, that men are the strong, invulnerable, stoic ones, the ones who can’t be hurt – or, if they are hurt, they must somehow be complicit in their own abuse.
We contribute to the shaming and silencing of male victims by perpetuating harmful attitudes about the invincibility of boys and men. Boys don’t cry. Boys will be boys. Man up. The lie that men can never appear weak without compromising their masculinity is insidious, dehumanizing, and needs to be challenged.
And it is being challenged, in an important way, by men telling their stories. I am moved by these survivors who directly confront myths about what it means to be a “Real Man,” simply by being real men, human beings with inborn capacities for both strength and vulnerability. They show the courage it takes to speak out, especially in such a public way. There was no weakness in that crowd of faces; there was strength and honesty, and daring openness – bravery of the highest kind.
But their voices shouldn’t be the only ones calling for more awareness, more research, and more resources for male victims. I am not an abuse survivor, or a man, but my life happens to be overrun with tiny males. I have a son and four nephews – their bodies and souls are beyond precious to me. Now that know these stories, these statistics, I can’t ignore this problem.
Maybe if I write, others will, too. Maybe we can expand our societal conversation about sexual violence to have a dual focus on both sexes. Men and women, boys and girls – none of us live in complete isolation from one another. Our lives are entangled. Our fates are intertwined. Our pain pools together.
Let’s empower our children, especially our boys, to speak out. And let’s listen when they do.
I’m over at The Atlantic today, writing about the invisibility of female-on-male rape.
In an episode of Mad Men last month, a prostitute named Aimee has sex with a teenaged Don Draper (née Dick Whitman) after nursing him through a nasty chest cold. Actually, let me rephrase: Aimee doesn’t just have sex with young Dick Whitman–she rapes him.
Throughout most of the episode, Aimee serves as a surrogate mother for Dick; she lets him recuperate in her bed and offers him rest, comforting words, spoonfuls of warm broth. However, in their penultimate scene together, Aimee’s maternal kindness turns oddly predatory. She approaches her bed where Dick is lying weakly, fever newly broken, and asks, “Don’t you want to know what all the fuss is about? “No,” Dick replies forcefully, averting his eyes and hugging the blankets tightly against his chest as she reaches under the covers to touch him. “Stop it,” he says, clearly uncomfortable, even afraid. But Aimee doesn’t stop.
To me, this interaction was an unambiguous depiction of rape–and not simply statutory rape. Dick is in a physically weakened state and repeatedly makes it clear that he does not want Aimee to touch him sexually, much less “take his cherry.” As a child of the ’80s, I was raised on a healthy diet of “No Means No.” Rape isn’t just something that happens at gunpoint with a strange man in a dark alley; rape, essentially speaking, is being subjected to sex without consent. And Dick clearly did not consent.
A recent Pew Research analysis revealed that 40% of U.S. households now have a female breadwinner. As you can see, Lou Dobbs and Friends over at Fox News don’t take this news well:
At first, I felt a little offended by the clip. After all, I am a woman and the breadwinner of my family. But then I realized that they say absolutely nothing about me or my family situation at all. For them, there seem to be only two kinds of families: a nuclear family with a male breadwinner, which is inherently healthy and stable, and dysfunctional families with impoverished single mothers and absent fathers. (You should also watch Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, of all people, take these guys to task on that point, in this epically awesome smackdown.)
The “analysis” of Dobbs and his buddies completely bypasses the salient point, clearly articulated in the PEW findings, that the “breadwinner moms” are made up of two very different groups: “5.1 million (37%) are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, and 8.6 million (63%) are single mothers.” The jumbled, fallacy-ridden exchange skates over that distinction straight into apocalypse land, where the family is disintegrating, children are endangered, and men (or at least their balls) are nowhere to be found. There is no room whatsoever in their discussion for a man who chooses to be underemployed or forego employment altogether to be more present at home, because their notion of familial health depends upon a narrow, capitalist conception of masculinity: a man is someone who takes care of his family by making money.
Such assumptions about masculinity are rife in the Fox News clip – men have a “natural” or God-given role to protect, provide, be dominant, etc., and that is interpreted in exclusively economic terms; the definition of the Protector/Provider has become synonymous with earning a paycheck outside the home. Yet these talking heads seem oblivious that what they are defending as the “natural state” of humankind (nuclear family + male breadwinner) is a relatively modern, post-industrial invention.
Their high-pitched anxiety is not about what women are doing, but what men aren’t doing. In the world of Lou Dobbs and Erick Erickson there seems to be no space for families or men who choose to “lean out” of the workplace and into the home, who resist the contemporary American myth of material wealth and happiness as correlative.
I’d like to add another talking man-head to the conversation — one perhaps worth listening to — who sees the domestic sphere radically different than Dobbs et al: Wendell Berry. Just this week, I read his essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” – an essay that ambitiously tackles a range of Big Ideas, from technology to capitalism to the sexual revolution. He raises enough fodder for twenty blog posts, easily, but I want to discuss the section in which he advocates the need for men and women to revalue the domestic sphere:
“There are, however, still some married couples who understand themselves as belonging to their marriage, to each other, and to their children. … This sort of marriage usually has at its heart a household that is to some extent productive. The couple, that is, makes around itself a household economy that involves the work of both wife and husband, that gives them a measure of economic independence and self-employment, a measure of freedom, as well as a common ground and a common satisfaction. Such a household economy may employ the disciplines and skills of housewifery [or house-husbandry!] of carpentry and other trades of building and maintenance, of gardening and other branches of subsistence agriculture, and even of woodlot management and wood-cutting. It may also involve a “cottage industry” of some kind, such as a small literary enterprise. […]
I know that I am in dangerous territory, and so I had better be plain: what I have to say about marriage and household I mean to apply to men as much as to women. I do not believe that there is anything better to do than to make one’s marriage and household, whether one is a man or a woman. I do not believe that “employment outside the home” is as valuable or important or satisfying as employment at home, for either men or women. It is clear to me from my experience as a teacher, for example, that children need an ordinary daily association with both parents. They need to see their parents at work; they need, at first, to play at the work they see their parents doing, and then they need to work with their parents. It does not matter so much that this working together should be what is called “quality time,” but it matters a great deal that the work done should have the dignity of economic value.”
Berry is describing a fundamental shift in values here, where domesticity becomes central, rather than tangential, to the identity of both men and women, and the work of home-making and child-rearing is given comparable “dignity” to outside work that rakes in the dough. Of course many people, myself included, find their job outside the home to be very meaningful and satisfying, but I agree with Berry that employment within the home is significantly undervalued in our society, and that needs to change.
In my reading of Berry, it doesn’t matter who makes the money; the money is not ear-marked as “his” or “hers.” The prominence of the “breadwinner” role is displaced by what one might call the “breadmakers,” husbands and wives who both work to make their home stable, loving, productive — whether or not they are also employed beyond the home.
A couple of days ago, Michael and I began talking about the possibility of him continuing to be a stay-at-home dad. We were sitting outside on our back patio, steaks on the grill, baby wiggling on a blanket on the grass, a light wind blowing through with the promise of summer. It was an idyllic moment, and I happened to be paying attention – enough to feel overwhelmingly grateful.
Then, a thought occurred to me: if Michael and I were both working full-time, this moment wouldn’t be happening. He probably wouldn’t be home yet, and I’d be throwing something easy and boring together for dinner (my culinary skills are stunted at best). We’d have only a small window of time together before putting the baby down for the night. The fresh greens on my plate and the abundant backyard garden around us wouldn’t exist, because Michael wouldn’t have time to maintain them. Our life would be significantly different than it is now and has been for months.
It has always been the plan for Michael to start applying for teaching jobs again and go back to work in the fall. But suddenly I feel the need to ask, why? Why mess with something that seems to be working for us?
Of course, it’s not easy to shirk societal values. It’s scary to choose the option that gives us minimal savings, less financial security, less status. And it’s certainly Michael who is making the more subversive choice, who will have to routinely and awkwardly field the question, “So, what do you do?” The myths about masculinity so apparent in the Fox clip are arguably more intact than cultural myths about femininity. We’re accustomed to the mother who works outside the home, but not the father who chooses to work only within it – a reality acknowledged by the Pew Research findings:
While the vast majority of Americans (79%) reject the idea that women should return to their traditional roles, the new Pew Research survey finds that the public still sees mothers and fathers in a different light when it comes to evaluating the best work-family balance for children. About half (51%) of survey respondents say that children are better off if a mother is home and doesn’t hold a job, while just 8% say the same about a father.
Of course, Michael and I are privileged in the sense that living on one income is a viable option for us. According to the Pew Study, the median family income of married female breadwinners is $80,000 annually; I make just over half of that, but that is still enough to get by on, if we choose to live simply and forego middle class luxuries like eating out, going on vacation, owning a second car, and buying new clothes, cable TV, magazine subscriptions, etc.
I know that Michael and I aren’t the only ones wrestling with these decisions. I have many friends who are choosing to “lean out” – and some of them are men. My friend who sent me the Fox News clip, John Meindersee II, recently made the choice to work part-time in the service industry in order to be more present to his family and to invest in his “cottage industry” of designing board game apps. No doubt he could be making more money working full-time in the financial sector, where he’s worked before, but he and his wife, Caity, are deliberately choosing to live by a different set of values.
And just yesterday, coincidentally, one of my favorite bloggers, Deja Earley, wrote about her family’s decision to leave her husband’s job behind and relocate across the country in order to pursue a more flexible, family-centered vision of The Good Life – even though this puts them in a more precarious position financially.
We are all new parents, we all have small babies, and we are all circling around the same questions: How to be more present to our children and loved ones? How to make a home? How to live a full life?
So maybe the talking heads are right. Maybe the social order is being undermined – not because there are more female breadwinners, but because some young families are abandoning the paradigm of the breadwinner altogether. And maybe that’s a good thing.