Thursday, April 23, 2009

How Masculinity Harms Men and Those Around Them

A thought provoking post about masculinity and its harmful affects on society over at The Global Sociology Blog got me thinking about how much masculinity is a performance, and further, how that performance is more important than the real life consequences that manifest from masculine trends.

IRIN also has a sobering story that speaks to this issue, focusing on the risky sexual behaviors of men in Brazil, titled "Real men don't cry - or do they?" As is common across cultures world-wide, men expect one another to engage in varied risky behaviors of one upsmanship. The competitive and comparative male bonding can involve different types of physical violence, economic posturing, hyper sexuality, and among other forms of showmanship, fronts of independence.

These components of hegemonic masculinity are especially harmful to society because they tend to be entrenched in competition (not surprising since capitalism is competitive). The desire to be the top dog, alpha male, CEO, or however one wants to label masculine success, means stepping on someone else (male and/or female) to achieve that status. As expressed in the IRIN story, the adverse affects of masculinity are harming not only men themselves, but also those around them:

Men don't cry. Men take risks. Men don't ask for help. Men are strong. Men have many sexual partners. These stereotypes of masculinity are contributing to the spread of HIV throughout the world, experts warned at a recent symposium on men and boys.

"Among other things, these stereotypes affect access to health care, the expression of one's sexuality, access to sexual and reproductive health services, and vulnerability to HIV,” said Purmina Mane, the adjunct executive director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) at the First Global Symposium Engaging Men and Boys in Achieving Gender Equality, held recently in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.


Women talked about pregnancy, family planning, breast cancer and menopause, but never about sexual pleasure; men discussed sexual performance, sexual dysfunctions and sperm counts, but never contraceptive methods.

When this lack of knowledge is compounded by another macho stereotype – that seeking help is a sign of weakness – men’s health is at far higher risk.

In the case of HIV, men are known to use counselling and voluntary testing services much less frequently than women, and men also tend to begin antiretroviral treatment later.

"Late diagnosis and treatment means that many continue to practice unprotected sex, running the risk of reinfection and of unknowingly infecting their partners," said Mane.

These stereotypes also have consequences for women. Dumisani Rebombo, a technical counsellor in South Africa to the international reproductive health organization, EngenderHealth, recalled a patient he had counselled after a positive diagnosis.

"I asked him what his next steps would be, and asked him to bring his wife to the support group. He said he wasn’t going to reveal his status to his wife, nor was he going to use a condom, because he was a man and he’d find a way to deal with it."

The notion of a man’s strength and invincibility was one of the main risk factors for HIV infection, he commented.

Speaking from experience, I can say the years of socialization that boys and men go through in learning how to be "real" men are extremely difficult to break. The learning institutions - families, schools, sports teams, peers, media - are incredibly influential, and in turn, stimulating change is equally difficult.

I've come to believe that trying to make change on a broad level after males have reached high school is impractical. This is not to say such efforts should not take place, but they should be bolstering what's already been systemically taught. For too many adolescent males, it is already too late to turn around their perceptions of appropriate masculinity.

Teachers, coaches, family, and older youth (male and female) need to begin teaching boys from a much younger age that qualities such as inter-dependence, help seeking, and compassion are positive. Until larger generations of young men grow up learning that these qualities are positive (not necessarily masculine or feminine), the only way our society will cope with violence, poverty, and health disparities is through negligence, competitive capitalism, and more violence.

(Photo courtesy of IRIN)

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Movie Review: The Wrestler

For those of you who grew up watching professional wrestling, you probably know of the movie, The Wrestler, which came out earlier this year (DVD available today). The movie stars Mickey Rourke, who plays aged out professional wrestler, “Randy ‘The Ram,’” a man who knows one thing and one thing only – performing inside the squared circle. For his performance in the film, Rourke was nominated for an Oscar.

Outside of knowing how to slam his opponents to the canvas and pop the crowd, “Randy” holds no other sustainable occupational skills, largely because his identity is entrenched solely in pro wrestling. Despite having a serious heart condition and coming off surgery, “The Ram” looks to have a booming finale against his arch nemesis from yesteryear.

While professional wrestling is hardly equivalent to mixed martial arts (MMA), there is overlap in that the two industries offer fighting (one version scripted, the other version real) as a form of entertainment. And given the buzz that has recently ensconced the MMA blogosphere regarding Chuck Liddell’s apparent retirement, perhaps coming a bit too late, we can see further similarities, with performers hanging on too long in an enterprise that brutalizes the body.

The Wrestler also stars Marisa Tomei, playing “Cassidy,” who like “Randy ‘The Ram,’” struggles to uphold a career in a commodity-based industry that requires a youthful aesthetic appeal – stripping. Thus, “Cassidy” and “Randy” play off one another, coping with similar identity crises in different ways (Tomei was also nominated for an Oscar for her role).

More importantly, both "Randy 'The Ram'" and "Cassidy" live in hegemonic mascline environments that privilege and discriminate in very rigid terms. Consequently, the two characters find difficultly in escaping their unbending confines that perpetuate different types of violence inflicted upon men (physical) and women (sexual).

However, The Wrestler also exhibits a warped sense of camaraderie among men. It portrays a violent space where men attempt to support and protect one another, oddly enough, through the distribution of steroids, pain killers (including alcohol and recreational drugs), and a method of distributing pain to an extreme threshold so that comrades are not seriously injured, at least not in the short run. This all to put on a theatrical performance for predominantly male fans who crave varying levels of violence.

Critics who associate professional wrestling with MMA as a way of de-legitimizing the latter do not have adequate ground to stand on. Socially responsible and professional mixed martial artists take their sport seriously in the same ways as similar athletes from other sports, where mental and physical preparedness is taken to levels many cannot comprehend.

If anything, The Wrestler is a commentary on the commodification of human life – the degree to which humans commodify each other, allow themselves to be commodities and/or are manipulated as such, and where society dismisses the violent, commodified process so we may be entertained.

At a more abstract level, The Wrestler is not just about professional wrestling or simulated sport. It is a violent, but profound film about life and the limited occupational options many in society hold.

For an absolutely outstanding interview with the Director of The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky (you can listen to it or read the highlights), click HERE. For a look into Jackson Katz and Sut Jhally's superb academic analysis of professional wrestling's extreme patriarchal nature (which The Wrestler does not address), click here - Wrestling with Manhood: Boys, Bullies & Battering.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Homoerotic/phobic MMA

Quote of the piece: "Homophobia is like the first sign of a gay person..." Okay, actually the best lines begin at 2:40 of the piece, but look, the whole thing is solid.


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Friday, April 17, 2009

The Decriminalizing Drugs Dilemma

With violence over drug trafficking in Mexico receiving so much attention these days, debates are resurfacing about legalizing drugs as one answer to the problem. As William Bradley writes in the Huffington Post:

One way to cut the Mexican drug cartels down to size is to legalize drugs in America. After all, the end of Prohibition against liquor in the US was a huge setback for America's organized crime groups. Mexico's ambassador to the US suggested the legalization of marijuana last week. But Obama is not going to move to legalize marijuana, much less cocaine or heroin.

Some have argued that a widespread legalization of drugs would diminish the severe violence now prevalent in parts of Mexico, or the high levels of gang violence seen in the U.S. during the 1980s and 90s. By legalizing drugs, drug costs would drop substantially and lessen the violent drug trade, but in turn increase access to drug consumption, largely because of the reduced cost. There are some examples for comparison.

In the Netherlands, where marijuana use is very much decriminalized (at least for adults), drug violence is substantially lower, and marijuana use does not appear to serve as a gateway drug to harder drug use any more so than in the U.S., where marijuana is obviously not legal for the general public.

The danger lays in knowing that if hard drugs became as accessible as alcohol, or say marijuana, there would need to be policies enforced and institutions established equally across communities before legalization occurred. A robust infrastructure that supports drug prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation would need to be created not just in Beverly Hills and Manhattan, but also in South Central L.A. and Harlem.

When communities are burdened with poverty and lack viable pathways to higher education, employment, health care, and so on, increased access to drugs can have terrible ramifications. Afghanistan is an extreme example where all these problems now manifest simultaneously.

The country does not enforce drug laws. In fact opium sales contribute to over half of Afghanistan’s GDP, so there is de facto legalization. But because the country is fraught with so many problems, not only is drug production rampant, so is consumption. According to a 2-part NPR story on drug use in Afghanistan, 1 in 12 Afghanis abuse drugs, primarily because opium and heroin are relatively cheap ($1/day) and help them escape temporarily from the reality of life. From
Part 1:

The soaring rates of drug abuse are driven in part by Afghanistan's widespread unemployment and social upheaval under the Taliban and the U.S.-led war, begun in 2001. Another factor is the flood of returning Afghan refugees from Iran, many of whom became heroin addicts there.

And fueling it all is an overabundance of opium and heroin in Afghanistan, the world's largest cultivator of poppies in the world.

The addicts say that heroin is a cheap way to forget their miserable existence.

Part 2, we see that the country lacks an adequate infrastructure to help cope with the extensive drug abuse. Not surprisingly, cultural mores discourage female addicts from seeking help and rehabilitative organizations are less available for women.

Most female addicts in Afghanistan are not allowed by their husbands, fathers and brothers to leave the family home to seek hospital care. They must rely on weekly mobile clinics…

Afghan men have more drug treatment options. Some three dozen clinics and hospitals across the country cater to them.

The excessively punitive approach the United States now has in its war on drugs is obviously problematic. Prisons are packed with non-violent drug offenders; children are stripped of parents, and the financial costs are exorbitant (listen
HERE). Legalization of lower-end drugs, such as marijuana, is a possible option. Policy makers must know, however, that legalizing marijuana will result in drug traffickers taking greater measures to stimulate new markets of addicts for harder drugs that are still illegal.

As seen in the Afghanistan example, legalizing drugs is loaded with problems when the legalized drugs are hard drugs, and in particular for communities that lack resources. Given the extensive stratification that exists in the United States by way of class, gender, race, etc., we would be foolish to think that similar problems do not exist here now and could not expand if policy measures shift without accounting for all the details.

(Photo courtesy of NPR)

(Note, excellent related article: Portugal's drug decriminalization 'bizarrely underappreciated: Greenwald, by Rachel Oswald)

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Price Others Pay for Luxury: The Case of Dubai

I’m a bit late getting to this story, posted in The Independent by Johann Hari back on April 7, titled “The dark side of Dubai.” It’s long for an internet story, but it should be long. Hari provides an incredibly comprehensive overview of the numerous problems entrenched in the Middle East’s “Sin City” – gluttony, hideous forms of contract labor (essentially slavery), unmitigated environmental irresponsibility, racism, white collar crime…the list goes on.

As developing countries shift their industrial infrastructure, Dubai can be seen as the ultimate example of social recklessness.

Sahinal Monir, a slim 24-year-old from the deltas of Bangladesh. "To get you here, they tell you Dubai is heaven. Then you get here and realise it is hell," he says. Four years ago, an employment agent arrived in Sahinal's village in Southern Bangladesh. He told the men of the village that there was a place where they could earn 40,000 takka a month (£400) just for working nine-to-five on construction projects. It was a place where they would be given great accommodation, great food, and treated well. All they had to do was pay an up-front fee of 220,000 takka (£2,300) for the work visa – a fee they'd pay off in the first six months, easy. So Sahinal sold his family land, and took out a loan from the local lender, to head to this paradise.

What follows?

As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat – where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees – for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don't like it, the company told him, go home. "But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket," he said. "Well, then you'd better get to work," they replied.

The work is "the worst in the world," he says. "You have to carry 50kg bricks and blocks of cement in the worst heat imaginable ... This heat – it is like nothing else. You sweat so much you can't pee, not for days or weeks. It's like all the liquid comes out through your skin and you stink. You become dizzy and sick but you aren't allowed to stop, except for an hour in the afternoon. You know if you drop anything or slip, you could die. If you take time off sick, your wages are docked, and you are trapped here even longer."

Is he angry? He is quiet for a long time. "Here, nobody shows their anger. You can't. You get put in jail for a long time, then deported." Last year, some workers went on strike after they were not given their wages for four months. The Dubai police surrounded their camps with razor-wire and water-cannons and blasted them out and back to work.

Again, although the piece focuses heavily on this type of occupational exploitation, it covers a wide variety of other important issues. I could cut and paste more sections in here, but that would not do the story justice. If you have 15 minutes or so, check it out. It is a must read.

The only concern I had with the piece was an ethical one. It quotes individuals who, although their names may have been changed, could still be identified by the government. And as noted in the article, resistance to the capitalist project is met with extreme reprisals. I don’t suppose linking this article up on my little blog will add to that risk, but it is a risk to the confidential informants.

Last year, a good friend of mine suggested I apply for a faculty position in Dubai. At the time, I knew very little of area. Yikes.

(Photo courtesy of The Independent)

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

With Global Economic Crisis, Will Suicide Rates Spike in '09?

Emile Durkheim couldn't have called it much better.

As told in a video story in The Independent ("
Japan suicides rise with crisis"), completed and attempted suicides seem to be rising in Japan due to the global economic crisis. Actually, Japan has had elevated suicide rates relative to the rest of the world since WWII, but according to the story, in the 1990s when Japan was in economic recession, suicides rose 34%.

Seems they're rising again. Said one of the individuals profiled in the story:

In recent months, I've rescued 19 people. They were temporary workers that had lost their jobs, people so badly hit by the economic crisis that they had no other solution than to kill themselves. I've been patrolling here for five years now, and this year, I can only say the situation is serious.

Then I saw this today, also from The Independent ("
1,500 farmers commit mass suicide in India").

Over 1,500 farmers in an Indian state committed suicide after being driven to debt by crop failure, it was reported today.

It appears these suicides are coming off the heals of a combination of problems stimulated by greedy money lenders, governmental development, and likely climate change.

Bharatendu Prakash, from the Organic Farming Association of India, told the Press Association: "Farmers' suicides are increasing due to a vicious circle created by money lenders. They lure farmers to take money but when the crops fail, they are left with no option other than death."

Mr Prakash added that the government ought to take up the cause of the poor farmers just as they fight for a strong economy.

"Development should be for all. The government blames us for being against development. Forest area is depleting and dams are constructed without proper planning.

All this contributes to dipping water levels. Farmers should be taken into consideration when planning policies," he said.

There sure are lots of depressing examples for those sociology 101 courses.

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

MMA Does Not Get a Pass on Discrimination

(Posted previously on

It is getting increasingly difficult for me to support MMA. If it were not for the many great, often times hidden people I know within the sport, I would wash my hands of defending MMA and tear it apart.

Throughout my years as an adolescent and young adult, I have no idea how often I used the words “gay,” “fag,” “pussy,” “retard” and “bitch” in order to put others down, either in humorous or serious fashion, but admittedly, it was a lot. I used these words almost always with other males, generally in athletic, heteronormative contexts. I rarely questioned using them. Nor did most of my peers, nor some of my adult mentors. Using such language was very normalized.

As I progressed through college, I remained in a “jock” culture, hanging out with teammates and athletes from other sports, thereby maintaining my exposure to this patriarchal culture. However, I was also inspired by ethnic studies classes, and after taking a variety of courses in my major of Comparative Culture, I began realizing a few things.

First, minorities can wield power and discriminate (some disagree with this). Being an ethnic minority myself, I realized that by using discriminatory language, even if I did not intend to discriminate against women, the LGBTQ and special needs communities, I was perpetuating very casual, accepted forms of discrimination. Secondly, I learned that not all male athletes accept these discriminatory attitudes and behaviors. In fact, as I think back, there are quite a few of my male teammates who I recall never using such terms. Discriminatory pockets within athletic cultures can certainly shape individual behavior, but they do not have to determine it.

Thus, to hear an adult leader from a major athletic organization in present time use words, such as “faggot,” “bitch,” “retarded” and “pussy” to denigrate another does not just bother me. It leaves me completely perplexed and disheartened, wondering how this can even happen. UFC President, Dana White (pictured above), has his public personality that he likely projects in a way to reflect one image of mixed martial arts – probably the image that sells to the most fans. This in no way excuses the following comments he made, directed at writer, Loretta Hunt.

So I just heard that there was another absolutely retarded story written by Loretta Hunt…. And to write a story that says, “Oh and here’s a quote from a guy who wanted to remain anonymous because of fear of repercussions…” Shut the fuck up. Any fuckin’ guy that won’t put his name on it. First of all, whoever gave you that quote is a pussy and a fuckin’ faggot and a fuckin’ liar....

Hey Loretta, if you’re gonna write a story, you fuckin’ moron, at least make sure it’s fuckin’ true and you have some facts. And if you’re gonna put some fuckin’ quotes in there, get some quotes from some people who at least have the fuckin’ balls to put their fuckin’ name on it…. You fuckin’ dumb bitch...

White’s entire statement can be viewed/heard HERE, beginning at 4:29 of the YouTube video blog (oh, big surprise, it has since "been removed by the user." No problem, see video below; assist to Cage Potato).

Dana Whites Fight Night 18 video blog - Watch more

Imagine if Bud Selig (Major League Baseball Commissioner), Roger Goodell (National Football League Commissioner) or David Stern (National Basketball Association Commissioner) used similar terms to disparage others. Minority activists, politicians, major media outlets (including sports media), and sports sociologists would be up in arms calling for a public apology and major reform efforts for the sporting industry. Yet somehow, at least thus far, MMA has escaped any type of major scrutiny, even after the president of the world’s foremost MMA organization makes this statement.

Some may argue MMA is in its own niche, on the edge of sporting culture, that it deserves a pass, being an extreme combat sport. That is absolute hogwash. MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world. It is hugely popular in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Japan. Its popularity is growing rapidly across Mexico, Australia, the Philippines, Germany, and numerous other locales. And the UFC is leading the charge; it has a colossal public responsibility, as does any organization, irrespective of its reach.

Furthermore, arguing that White and the UFC should be given a pass because these terms are not intended to perpetuate sexism, homophobia, or discrimination against the intellectually disabled is flawed. Young people look to and emulate adults from a variety of sources in life (e.g., parents, peers, teachers, media); this is inevitable. When young males hear someone of White’s stature – the public leader of a hyper-masculine sporting institution – verbally abuse another using these words, it legitimizes those words. It legitimizes their use as acceptable slang. And it legitimizes their use for those who consciously intend to use them for discriminatory purposes.

These words legitimize the broader cultural notion that minorities are inferior and deserved of being ridiculed, even physically harmed. As stated by sports sociologist Michael Messner (2002), “…boys and men who reveal themselves as vulnerable are subsequently targeted as the symbolic ‘women,’ ‘pussies,’ and ‘faggots’ on athletic teams” (p. 35).

In turn minorities – in this case girls/women and those from the LGBTQ and intellectually disabled communities – must cope with being constantly ensconced by this language. They are forced to live in an atmosphere that authorizes the verbal and physical discrimination they face. Responsible citizens from any ethnic background would not accept institutional leaders or the average, everyday peer casually using the “N-word” or other racial epithets. But we smirk and waive it off when “fag,” “retard,” “bitch,” and so forth are spewed out within the world of mixed martial arts and other sports.

“It is up to adults to configure spaces that support youths’ variety of gender and sexual expressions. It is also up to adults to protect young people from the vicious teasing and harassment rampant in most modern high schools” (Pascoe, 2007, p. 173). Dana White is an adult. He and others in the mixed martial arts industry bear a responsibility beyond sport.

Messner, M.A. (2002). Taking the Field: Women and Men in Sports. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pascoe, C.J. (2007). Dude You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Update on 4/3/09 - the damage control - a minute of apology to gays and lesbians, nothing re: comments of misogyny or insults to intellectually disabled.

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