When Fathers Unlearn Toxic Masculinity, It Helps the Whole Family

by Natalie Kiser

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Welcome to Better Sex With Dr. Lexx, a monthly column where sex therapist, educator and consultant Dr. Lexx Brown-James shares expertise, advice and wisdom about sex, relationships and more. Approaching education about sex as a life-long endeavor — “from womb to tomb” — Dr. Lexx (AKA The #CouplesClinician) is your guide to the shame-free, medically accurate, inclusive and comprehensive conversations for you, your partner and your whole family. 

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We are coming to the end of Movember — which is a time to remind us about issues specifically regarding men. As a person who works with lovers, I often have to give men permission to navigate their relationships differently than they were taught. This is true for romantic, platonic, and familial relationships. Too often our patriarchal society robs men of the right to express their emotions, the ability to be curious or even wrong, and experience pleasure outside of the intercourse. And unfortunately, men who become fathers are often at a deficit when trying to interrupt the trans-generational trauma that persists. 

Thankfully, we have fathers who are willing to change the narrative and I am fortunate enough to be able to interview one. Enter Dr. Jordan Shapiro, a best-selling author who is “teaching dads how to embrace the joys of fathering while guiding toward an image of manliness for the modern world.” In this interview, we discuss why men need feminism and how it can help break the cycles of toxic masculinity to better men’s health and their relationships. 

I’m grateful we have authors and educators like Shapiro who are challenging those very notions by creating space for fathers to debunk these myths and pass down healing. His book Father Figure is available everywhere. Jordan asks, if possible, support your local bookstore or visit his website to find the copy nearest you. If you want to learn more about Jordan and his work you can follow him on social at @jordosh.  

Dr. Lexx Brown-James: Movember is a time for a focus on men’s health and wellness. In your book Father Figure: How to be a Feminist Dad you talk about varying aspects of fatherhood as a biological and stepparent. What need did you see for men that made you write this book? 

Dr. Jordan Shapiro: As our cultural understanding of gender is become clearer—i.e. less dependent on old stereotypes, problematic assumptions, and blurry science—many men are struggling to make sense of their identities. They don’t know how to imagine themselves without the familiar signifiers of patriarchal privilege and entitlement. They feel destabilized. Ultimately, that’s a big mental health issue. So, I wanted to help fathers think about how they can embody this so-called masculine role without reinforcing binary, misogynist, homo- and transphobic notions of gender. When I started writing, I was focused on cis-het dads, but by the time I finished—and learned a lot more about feminist and queer theories—the manuscript became all-inclusive. It’s for anyone who identifies as “dad.” And also, for anyone who has ever had a dad. I’ve been amazed at how many people have told me that it has changed the way they think about the men in their lives.  

Dr. Lexx Brown-James: What was your sex education like and how has that informed your parenting? 

Dr. Jordan Shapiro: I grew up in a household that was very open about discussing sex. But also, kind of “vanilla.” So, my parents get points for eliminating old-school shame and guilt around sex and bodies. That’s impressive for the time in which they were raising me. But now I try to take it a step further. I do my best to avoid normalizing any specific idea of what sex means. The obvious example is that I try to not speak in heteronormative colloquialisms. But there’s more to it. I need to be willing to answer their questions about the things that most parents think you shouldn’t talk about with kids. For example, last night at the dinner table I was discussing foot fetishes with my teenagers. I said, “It’s not my thing, I don’t really get it, but I’m also not gonna kink-shame anyone.”

Dr. Lexx Brown-James: What was the biggest thing you had to unlearn to be a feminist dad? 

Dr. Jordan Shapiro: That’s a hard question because I’m still working on it. So much of our cultural socialization teaches men to be patriarchal—which literally means “rule by the father.” I’m constantly catching myself reproduce domineering and authoritative attitudes that I always took for granted as part of what it means to be a dad. Sometimes it’s easy to course correct, sometimes my ego gets in the way. There’s a lot of ordinary adolescent parent/child conflict in my household, we’ve got four teenagers here. And I’m only human. Sometimes it’s hard to take a necessary breath and not fall back into the most familiar patters of “father knows best.” But I keep trying, and I think I unlearn a little more every day.

Dr. Lexx Brown-James: What do you think being a feminist dad has done to benefit your family? 

Dr. Jordan Shapiro: Well, that depends on how you think about it. Anytime I write a book, it’s an extremely arduous and emotionally challenging process. I’m not entirely sure my writer’s-mania is good for my family. But I do think that the conclusions I drew from writing Father Figure were good for the family. When we’re trying to undo veiled cultural assumptions, the kind of stuff that reinforces prejudice and manifests as micro-aggressions, it’s really a matter of having the vocabulary and frameworks to identify troublesome attitudes, mindsets, and behaviors. I’m way better at that now. I recognize things that never occurred to me before and I can speak clearly about them. That empowers me to guide my kids in ways that are more attuned to their specific, personal needs—ways that don’t inadvertently communicate limiting messages about parental approval or disapproval. In our culture, it’s so normal to utter comments that are unintentionally racist or sexist or homophobic—it happens on TV and in podcasts, it’s everywhere—and parents need to be especially mindful that the subtle things we do and say aren’t sending the wrong messages about what our kids should consider to be normal or proper.

Dr. Lexx Brown-James: What message do you have for men who struggle with the idea of being a feminist and that feel it threatens to take away masculinity? 

Dr. Jordan Shapiro: I like to say, “man up to feminism!” It’s an ironic joke because it uses the competitive aspirational language of toxic masculinity. There’s no such thing as “manning up” to anything, there’s no such thing as being “man enough,” and you can’t “act like a man.” These phrases all imply an ideal version of essential masculinity that men should try to measure up to. Not only does that put individuals into constrictive boxes, it also perpetuates gender essentialism, which is one of the biggest factors leading to sex and/or gender-based prejudice, oppression, and exploitation.

Why? Because in the world of American aspirational manhood, anything that’s NOT white-cis-hetero-masculinity is feminized, with the presumption that there’s something innately bad or lesser-than about being a woman. And that’s one of the big reasons why so many men struggle with the idea of feminism, they think it makes them “girly,” and therefore weakens their stance in some giant imaginary wrestling match for the ultimate alpha-male status.  

My message would be: remember that “smash the patriarchy” does not mean “down with men.” Feminism is in everyone’s best interest. In fact, you could argue it’s really “up with men.” After all, research shows that gender equality leads to greater well-being for everyone. And patriarchy makes men die younger.

You can check out Father Figure at your favorite local bookstore and follow Dr. Shapiro (@jordosh) for more of his work.

Before you go, read up on the types of orgasms you probably didn’t know existed: 

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