What Chaucer Can Teach Us About ‘The War On Men’

A much-needed men’s revolution will first require a re-imagining of our social structure, says Lynn Beisner.

One afternoon, I was in our university’s library, struggling to read Chaucer in the original Old English. A book on a nearby shelf caught my eye, and out of curiosity and a desperation to avoid any more of the Canterbury Tales, I picked it up. I wish I could remember the author or the title because the story told the perfect parable for understanding The War on Men.

The book told the true story of a woman in the mid-20th century who married into the aristocracy. The fly in the ointment of their otherwise fairytale love-story was that her husband could not maintain an erection long enough to consummate their marriage. At first, they lived in denial, refusing to admit or discuss the problem. They might have continued that way indefinitely if he had not been in desperate need of an heir. So he sought the help of one of the best physicians of his time.

The doctor advised the husband that his problems with erectile dysfunction were not caused by his penis or his head, but by his wife’s head and vagina. At that point, doctors seemed convinced that women’s responsiveness and the moisture of their vaginas drew out men’s virility. Therefore, any lapse in male virility could be cured by treating the wife’s frigidity and vaginal dysfunction. The doctor advised the husband to check his wife into a sanatorium where she received vaginal oil treatments several times a day and psychoanalysis to cure her frigidity. Of course, her months of treatment did not cure him. But rather than question the prescribed course of treatment, he blamed the failure on the particular sanatorium and sent her to several others before he finally left her for a younger woman.

I was reminded of that story and of the idea of a woman drawing out her husband’s virility by Suzanne Venker’s article on the Fox News site “The War on Men” in which she blames the problems faced by modern men on women. In essence, she makes the same case as the flapper-era doctors: Men are not able to perform because we as women are not drawing out their virility.

It is tempting to stop there, to say that blaming feminists for the struggles men face today is as obviously wrong and patently ridiculous as trying to cure a man’s erectile dysfunction by injecting oil into his wife’s vagina and psychoanalyzing her. It is tempting to dismiss Venker, men’s right’s activists, and even women with feminist leanings, like Lisa Hickey, who writes that many men feel despised by women.

But we cannot ignore the fact that men are facing a crisis. As our own Nicole Rodger has pointed out: “Venker’s diagnosis is right, even if her prescription is horribly wrong.” In other words, men today are not unlike the impotent aristocrat: They have very real and painful problems that are not being solved because they have misidentified the source of the problem.

Ironically, I think that the very book I was trying to avoid that day can offer us remarkable insight into understanding modern men’s crisis. In the prologue of the Wife of Bath, Chaucer makes the rather startling statement that the chief desire of every woman is to rule over her husband. I am aware that there have been more feminist critiques of this part of Chaucer than there are calories in deep fried mac ‘n cheese. But I have a different take.

I believe it’s possible that Chaucer and Venker do not hate or want to repress women. In other words, their affliction is not misogyny but a lack of imagination.

In Chaucer’s age, I doubt that the word egalitarianism was even used, let alone a concept that was considered with any seriousness. Hierarchies were unquestioned. Kings ruled countries by Divine Right, and patriarchs ruled families by the same religious authority. The very concept of egalitarianism would have been as foreign and as disconcerting to Chaucer as anarchy is to us. Chaucer’s ability to imagine gender relationships was limited by the structure of the society he lived in.

What Chaucer was observing was that women did not want to be dominated by their husbands. But in Chaucer’s imagination, the only other option was for women to rule over men. So, if women did not wish to be dominated, they must therefore want to dominate.

About half of Americans have a worldview that limits their imaginations in the same way Chaucher’s limited him. They are authoritarians, and for them, the world is divided into the dominated and the dominator. We use the term “zero-sum game” when we talk about the relationship between men and women. But I am not sure that it adequately describes the mindset of people for whom there are only two roles: the dominated and dominator. The logical assumption is that if men are sliding down, it must be an artifact of women rising or deliberately caused by women pushing men down. Just like Chaucer, they seem unable to even conceive of a world  in which both men and women can thrive and be equals.

Nicole Rodgers is right. Men need a revolution. But a Men’s Revolution will require that we imagine a different social structure. To do that, we need to see our social structure for what it has become.

I had a professor years ago who did a great job of describing the social structure in which we now live a few years before this new social structure came into being. He was defending his belief that gender discrimination was the source of the pay disparity between men and women when he said something that in retrospect feels almost like a prophecy: “We live in a capitalist country. If corporations could hire women to do the exact same work for less money, don’t you think they would fire all the men and hire women? It wouldn’t matter if women needed time off because of childcare needs. They could just convert everyone to part-time status or call them contractors, then they could just call in another woman when the first left. It would be perfect since all of the employees would be part-time, and then they would not need to give them paid time off or any other benefits. Imagine how much money they could make if they started hiring women to do men’s jobs.”

The Men’s Revolution, which is desperately needed by everyone, begins when we start imagining a new social structure. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech expanded the vision of millions of Americans whose imaginations had been previously limited by their social structure.

I imagine a nation in which healthcare, time off, and a living wage are a human right. I imagine a nation in which children of all family structures are valued and parents are supported. I imagine a nation where we are judged by the content of our character, not by the contents of our wallets or our underwear.

Lynn Beisner is the pseudonym for a mother, a writer, a feminist, and an academic living somewhere East of the Mississippi. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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