Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Social Construction of Male Submission

Anthropologist Margaret Mead’s idea [1] that femininity and masculinity are not innate but are based upon social and cultural conditions has surely been one of the most powerful developments on the intellectual horizon in recent decades. It gives a path of explanation for much that seems inexplicable; it has the power to liberate us from some of our own most enigmatic values; it allows us to observe things in other societies that were simply overlooked before. It is an idea that has generated voluminous amounts of scientific investigation into and theories about the development of femininity and masculinity. Think of the great number and variety of theories that have been produced in modern times to explain gender identification, most notably Freud’s psychoanalytic theory [2], Kohlberg’s cognitive-developmental theory [3], and Mischel’s modeling theory. [4] The commonality in all of these theories is that there is a two-part process is involved. In the first part, a child becomes aware that she or he is female or male. In the second part, the child comes to know what being female or male means in terms of femininity or masculinity.

Mead’s most important and striking claim is its recurrent underlying thesis, different gender-related traits, temperaments, roles and identities are not inextricably tied to biological sex. While there may be small sex differences in temperament at birth (and the evidence on this is not conclusive), there is far more variability within each sex group (Spence and Helmreich 1978) [5]. Further, the pressures of socialization and learning far outweigh the impact of possible innate sex differences in temperament. All of the theories that have been produced in modern times to explain gender identification I propose are an abject failure when it comes to accurately explaining the submissive male. On the surface male submissiveness seems an aberration.

Let me risk oversimplification and divide the theories that have been proposed into three major categories; I will call them the psychoanalytic theories, the cognitive-developmental theories, and the learning theories. The psychoanalytic theories cast male submissives as freaks of nature. Arrested maturation, unresolved oedipal complexes, and the like all depict male submission as something that in each individual case should not have happened; male submission occurs because a fundamental psychic development that normally does occur, in this case, for some reason did not. Psychoanalytic theories in general fail to command my assent because they fail to take into consideration things like a weak father may cause gender confusion in a son because he fails to counterbalance the mother's influence, or the same weak father may cause strong male identification in the son by way of compensation. It so often seems that one and the same cause can produce quite contrary results and this I see as the major flaw of psychoanalytic theory in explaining the development of male submission. As in psychoanalytic theory, the cognitive-developmental theories suggest there are critical events that have a lasting effect on gender identity development, but they are cognitive rather than psychosexual in origin. Unlike psychoanalytic theories the development of a gender identity comes before rather than follows from identification with the same-sex parent. Once a child's gender identity becomes established, the self is then motivated to display gender-congruent attitudes and behaviors, well before same-sex modeling takes hold. Same-sex modeling simply moves the process along. The cognitive-developmental theory identifies two crucial stages of gender identity development: 1) acquiring a fixed gender identity, and 2) establishing gender identity constancy, and goes on to state that once the child reaches the second critical phase of gender constancy this is the child's recognition of her or his gender and her or his behavior will not change despite changes in outward appearance or age, but will be consistent with her or his established gender identification. So again, male submission is reduced to an oddity, and nothing more than gender identification confusion, which should not have occurred by did simply because some fundamental normal process of development that normally does occur, for some reason did not. The most social of the theories of gender identity development are the learning theories. Briefly these theories state that it is the social environment of the child, such as parents and teachers that shape the gender identity of a child. Here, the parent or teacher instructs the child on femininity and masculinity directly through rewards and punishments, or indirectly through acting as models that are imitated. Direct rewards or punishments are often given for outward appearance as in what to wear (girls in dresses and boys in pants), object choice such as toy preferences (dolls for girl and trucks for boys), and behavior (passivity and dependence in girls and aggressiveness and independence in boys). Through rewards and punishments, children learn appropriate appearance and behavior. My quarrel with both of these is that they, again relegate male submission to the idea of abnormal or unnatural development.

Let us for a moment consider the Aristotelian view that “nature does nothing without a purpose.” In other words things happen as they do in nature as fulfillment of a normal, natural process, not as the result of accident or error. To put it in Aristotelian language, male submission is not produced from when efficient causality fails to push in the direction that final causality seems to pull. Perhaps the error that all have made in attempting the theorize how gender identification occurs, is that they begin from too narrow and general a base, by limiting the choices of gender identification to only two normative, natural possibilities; female and male, which are themselves based simply on whether the person under consideration is born with a vagina or a penis.

Consider for a moment sexual orientation. We know (despite the fact that here again conclusive and consistent explanation for why it is so is lacking) in reality there exists heterosexual females and males, lesbian females and gay males, bi-sexual females and males, and some might even argue, asexual females and males. So here under the broad categories of female and male, we find no less than four different sexual orientations. Is it then such a stretch to conceptualize the idea that there exists also within the same broad categories, female and male, the possibility that dominant females and dominant males, as well as submissive females and submissive males can exist, not as some result of arrested or abnormal development but simply other normative sexual categories in the form of social constructs. And these categories exist because nature intended that they do so. Can we not see the possibility of diverse categories existing in humanity, rather than having only two acceptable or “normal” gender classifications, female and male, based almost solely upon a person’s genitalia. Both Mead in 1935 and Spence and Helmreich in 1978, I think effectively made the case for the existence of great variability and diversity within each sex group and should cause people to rethink the nature of femininity and masculinity. Having a penis and a strong self-identifying masculine identity, should not preclude submissive males from displaying what society has arbitrarily defined as “feminine” traits (passive, cooperative, expressive, and submissive), or be limited to only displaying what society considers “masculine” temperament (active, competitive, instrumental, and dominant). Every human being is unique and should be able to manifest any or all of those personality traits without being made to feel they are abnormal or aberrant or made to question their gender identification.

It wasn’t so many years ago that homosexuality was frowned upon by society in general and seen in the same terms as being abnormal, aberrant behavior. Mostly as a result of activism on the part of courageous gays and lesbians, modern society in recent years has become more enlightened and less critical of a person’s sexual orientation. Perhaps it is time for submissive males to be accorded the same kind of respect and acceptance. The same argument of course also applies to dominant females. Why should a person be expected by society to fit into a category in which they feel unsuited and uncomfortable? Now that kind of thinking is what in my opinion is abnormal and aberrant.


[1] Mead, Margaret. 1935. Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. New York: Dell.
[2] Freud, Sigmund. 1927. Some Psychological Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 8: 133-142.
[3] Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1966. A Cognitive-Developmental Analysis of Children's Sex-Role Concepts and Attitudes. In Eleanor E. Maccoby (Ed.), The Development of Sex Differences. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
[4] Mischel, Walter. 1966. A Social-Learning View of Sex Differences in Behavior. Pp. 56-81 in Eleanor E. Maccoby (Ed.), The Development of Sex Differences. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
[5] Spence, Janet T. and Robert L. Helmreich. 1978. Masculinity and Femininity: Their Psychological Dimensions, Correlates, and Antecedents. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Artwork Credit: Pierre Farel

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