When I was in high school, I played on my school’s illustrious soccer team. I think we managed to lose every single game in my freshman year, but we improved over time. By my senior year, we had compiled our best record in a decade in our division: 4-12, going 0-10 against teams actually in our division. Due to chronic lack of funding for both the school and its athletic programs, our inability to retain a coach for more than a year, and social pressure for our good athletes to play basketball or run track, we never really had much of a chance on the field. Luckily, because we had so few players (and even fewer goalies), I was never cut from the team, even though I probably should have been. For two years, I was basically the only goalie we had, so I played almost every game for both our varsity and junior-varsity teams (although most of the squad played both levels; we only had like 22 people to make up two separate teams).
I’m remembering my time on the Governors (yes, our mascot was a big floating top hat) today because of another post written by our good friend Thomas over at the Yes Means Yes blog about compulsory masculinity. This post isn’t new; he wrote it almost 9 months ago, but I found it fitting based on some conversations I had last week at SoJust’s awesome Connecting for Justice event. I was talking to some folks over at Arts Emerson, who are bringing the Tectonic Theater Company up to Boston to perform the Laramie Project, the show based on Laramie, Wisconsin, the town where Matthew Shephard was killed in 1998.
Compulsive heterosexuality, the term coined by Dr. C.J. Pascoe in his book Dude, You’re A Fag (which Thomas is reviewing in the above post), is the set of behaviors boys take to ward off gender policing. In the best possible light, these behaviors can be a way for boys to bond in a group, but in most cases, they are destructive actions used as a defense mechanism, to not get beaten up or thrown out of a peer group. As history like Matthew Shephard’s death show us, in many cases, compulsive heterosexuality isn’t just stupid actions from stupid boys - they are real-life defense mechanisms for a culture that will kill young people who violate gender norms.
Thomas makes a number of fantastic parallels between these compulsive behaviors and rape culture - if you tell boys that the only way to entirely safeguard against gender policing is to have sex with women, some of them will do anything they can to do what we’re telling them to do. This isn’t confusing; it’s just depressing.
This is making me think about my soccer team for one particularly depressing reason. My high school was a large public, inner-city school in a busted, burnt-out town with little going for it. New Haven was (and basically remains) a town crippled by poverty and disenfranchisement. I was exceptionally lucky to have the protective and financially secure family that I do; most of my classmates did not. Our team rarely got the necessary supplies to play. A good chunk of my teammates used rolled-up cardboard for shin guards; we shared jerseys because the school couldn’t afford to get enough for everyone. I donated both of my goalie shirts to the team, because when I was a senior, we didn’t have any more. Most of the team was black or Hispanic; and even though we never had any sort of disciplinary actions of any sort leveled against us at any time that I was playing there (in fact I think we were nominated for some sort of division-wide “fair play” award), some of the other teams we played specifically asked our coaches not to come near their ball-bags or benches. In one particularly memorable occasion, after we lost a tough but relatively good game, the other team only barely stopped to shake our hands, and ran off to their bus. The story I heard (although I could never confirm it) was that the other team’s players were scared of us, and wanted to get back to their bus while we were still on the field to make sure we didn’t steal any of their supplies.
Here’s the end result of this story: the players on my team were exactly the type of boys who were denied masculinity at pretty much every other turn. None of the conventional elements of male power were theirs - they had little money, they were not white, they have little sway with authority. The culture in which that team floated told those guys all the same things it tells every other guy about what it’s supposed to mean to be a man - power, money, responsibility (to some extent), and dominance - but then withheld all of those things from them.
One of the end results of that thinking back on that now? Excessive compulsive heterosexuality. If we couldn’t have money, or power in any other sense, at least we could satisfy the “I fucked women” component of masculinity. I don’t know if any of my teammates were actually gay or not, but I guarantee you that a good number of them (at age 14 and 15) were not having the sexual adventures they claimed in the locker room because I knew them outside of the team and knew what they were doing with their spare time. The stories of scoring with the ladies, the boasting, the bragging - none of that was particularly terrible, but it is strange to think now that this was the only type of activity that we could engage in that would bond us. A couple of the coaches even got in on it once or twice, I think mostly to try and calm down some of the more boisterous players. I didn’t brag too much myself, one because I was much more introverted then than I am now, but also because I wasn’t sexually active in high school and I was terrified that if I talked up my fictitious exploits too much, I would be found out as an impostor. I would lose whatever credibility I had on the team. My coach must have noticed that I didn’t join in too often in those boy-bonding activities, and during a particularly rowdy huddle said something to the effect of, “you know, the guys who never talk about it are the ones getting the most play.” At the time, it was a nice gesture from him and it did give me a couple of minutes of fame. But even his attempts to keep me from getting bullied or pushed around were compulsive heterosexuality.
I don’t want to confuse some of these bonding activities with more innocent bonding around or about sexuality. Teenagers will and should talk (and joke, and poke fun of) their sexuality as they explore it, and not all or even most discussions amongst them about sex is going to be a problem. The difference between that and compulsive heterosexuality is the othering it does, as usual, of women. In yet another facet of masculinity, I find that women are not people, they are a prop (so, to keep track now: they’ve been children, they’ve been trophies, and now they are props). They are the currency that boys, made insecure by a world that threatens them if they step out of the gender-conforming line, use to shore up those insecurities.
If we tell boys that the only way to prove that they are men is to fuck women, and then threaten them subtly with social sanctions or mild violence (or sometimes, you know, murder) if they don’t, what is the natural outcome of this equation?