In a man’s world, perceptions of masculinity cause many to suffer

  • 2011-04-27
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

Arturas Tereskinas has successfully defended a doctoral thesis at Harvard University, attaining his doctoral degree in Social Sciences. Currently he is a professor at Kaunas Vytautas Magnus University and Vilnius University. Instead of basking in the indulgences of the academic life, he is a well-pronounced academic upstart and a freethinker outside the box, vociferously challenging the steady social, political and cultural set-up in a conservative Lithuania. He has been known for his monographs - Body marks: sexuality, identity and space in Lithuanian Culture, and Imperfect Communities: Identity, Discourse and Nation in the Seventeenth-Century Grand Duchy of Lithuania - questioning mainstream doctrines. His articles on subjects of sexuality, gender, nationalism and popular culture have been published in the United States, Sweden, the Netherlands, Ukraine, Hungary and elsewhere. His scientific interests include male and masculinity studies, as well as research into popular culture, sexuality and homosexuality. His recently published book Men’s world: men and masculinity of wound in Lithuania has prompted a stir in various academic circles and caught the public’s attention. The Baltic Times sat down with Arturas for this interview.

As of late, gender research in Lithuania has been effectively limited to the studies of women and feminism. Why do you believe it is important to study masculinity? Are men an endangered species? The whole notion of masculinity studies may conjure up images of masculine protests against women’s studies and feminism.
Masculinity has been a scientific target abroad for a while. For example, in the United States, men’s studies emerged in the late 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, nearly simultaneously as women’s studies. However, while women’s studies were gaining speed, men became targets of scientific research only in the late 1990s. Men’s and masculinity studies are important as much as women’s studies are, as both genders deal with issues arising from gender perception. Masculinity and femininity, the way we perceive the genders today, restrict us a lot as persons, and raise much pain and suffering. We still live in a world wherein we can suffer because of our gender. For example, those [men] who do not meet the accepted masculinity standards are often humiliated and abused in our society. I have in mind those alternative masculinity scenarios, like bisexuals, homosexuals and effeminate heterosexuals. It is evident that Lithuanian men encounter many problems that put in danger their wellbeing. Statistically, Lithuanian men’s suicide numbers are five times higher than women’s, setting a similar statistical ratio, in disfavor of men, when it comes to alcoholism, drug addiction and, most evident, crime. This has to raise serious concerns from our research and social policy strategists.

As you know, Women Occupancy and Information Centers have been running for a while in Lithuania. Should similar men’s issue-oriented establishments be founded in Lithuania as well? Are they not a hip trend now?
Well, a few Men’s Centers do already operate in several Lithuanian cities. For example, in Vilnius and Kaunas. However, to my knowledge, these centers focus on the psychological and legal aspects that men deal with. Disappointingly, their activities do not reach out to the other men’s stratums. Sadly, even in the institutions created to help men, women are employed - men do not get involved in solving their own issues.

How can you describe Lithuanian men? What factors affect most of their behavior and position in society?
It is not easy to speak of all Lithuanian men, as they, belonging to different social and age groups, differ a lot. However, if I was to discern some characteristics attributive to all Lithuanian men, I would point out that [men] are overwhelmingly conservative and cowardly in trying to adapt to the existing norms of behavior. Often it is a man who is not secure with his masculinity, therefore, emphatically stressing his authority and physical force, as well as self-destructiveness and inclination for ungrounded risk. Though 20 years have passed since the restoration of independence, it is hard to discern any more substantial changes in men’s and women’s behavior. We do cling on the traditional old models determining masculinity - defining a ‘real man’ as someone who is physically strong, authoritative, earns big money and someone who is able to support his family, sexually capable and, of course, heterosexual. To this image has our shaky economic and social situation contributed a lot, as well as the high echelon authorities’ despising of the average Joe, and the high level of corruption. I can say, in a joking manner, that in Lithuania a drunk and law-transgressing man is most appreciated.

Is Lithuanian masculinity somehow different in the European context?
Lithuanian masculinity is special in the sense that the Soviet system has considerably stamped it, relating the norm of a ‘real man’ to a physically and mentally strong heroic Soviet worker. Essentially, the norm matched the portrait of Western masculinity, encompassing such characteristics as men’s heterosexuality, economic independence, and capability to maintain family, physical power, rationality and emotional composure. When our independence was restored, new era businessmen and politicians - the dominating social groups – ‘took over’ the masculinity norms. Therefore, in that sense, we do not differ much from our close and farther neighbors; maybe we are just more self-destructive and expose the above-ascribed masculinity too much.

You use the words “masculinity of wound” in your book title. What does it mean?
Briefly speaking, the ‘masculinity of wound’ means traumatized and wounded masculinity. The men that I speak about in my book not only feel being humiliated because of their gender, but their masculinity itself makes them suffer and feel powerless, and desperate. From my research, men of lower social status, workers especially, elderly men, bisexual and homosexual men - all the men who cannot meet the aforementioned duties of the traditional masculinity - are particularly wounded.

Men on paternity leave still make media headlines in Lithuania. Are such men still an exception, or a part of a developing social trend?
The entire Western Europe differs a lot when it comes to gender equality. The majority of Southern European countries are very conservative in gender relations. In that facet, Scandinavian countries have advanced the most. The last years’ surveys and research show definitely that, in terms of child care and division of the perceived home duties, Lithuania remains as one of the most conservative countries in Europe. Well, I have to admit that more and more Lithuanian men get involved with their children’s care, however, largely it is perceived as a woman’s duty, or even her responsibility. The men on paternity leave do risk their masculinity.

Your perceptions of gender equality and, particularly, masculinity, I have to admit, are out of the box, or even upstartish. Do you not put your solace or physical safety with the book at risk in macho Lithuania?
I want my views to reach out to as many wide circles of the public as possible. I do not think that those who dislike my field of research ever read this kind of book. I have not received any direct physical threats so far. However, I have been criticized a lot for my views. My Western academic experience and employment of modern social and cultural theories analyzing the phenomena of gender equality and sexuality seem unacceptable to many.

You also speak about a so-far-little-covered subject - elderly men’s sexuality in your book. What did your research show?
Unfortunately, retired men in Lithuania, most often, are seen as sexless, as illness and shortage-plagued creatures, which do not care about sex at all. The research shows that Lithuania is a very ageist country, wherein an elderly person is often misappreciated, made invisible, or erased from public. In particular, this could be said of elderly men who are not rich and influential. The worst thing is that many elderly men who took part in my research accept the negative perception. It falls heavily on the men, as they usually have to deal with the loss of two traditional masculinity pillars – the opportunity of being a family supporter and a capable sexual partner. Interestingly, the latter seems to be of major concern, as most 60-75-year-old men in the research claimed that they are still active sexually.

What is the perception of masculinity in Lithuanian media? Has it changed over the 20 years of independence?
If I was to speak of gender relationships, masculinity and femininity portraits in the Lithuanian media, I would say it is rather different. In that sense, over 20 years, the media has advanced much more than women and men themselves. We can find not only the traditional man in the national media, but also samples of the ‘new’ man - parallel to the emotionally inexpressive and hyper-masculine traditional man we can also see a man who is emotionally-charged and childcare-oriented. This is the man who is not afraid to show his weaknesses and vulnerability, who shares his emotions and experiences with his wife or partner. In the media, nowadays we see more alternative masculinity models that are being incarnated by men of different social statuses, ethnicities, races and sexual orientations. However, to my mind, these virtual men’s models do not take root in reality yet.

What can you say about Lithuania’s first man, PM Andrius Kubilius, in your masculinity analysis? Is he macho?
Emotionally, he is very inexpressive; in short, [he] corresponds to the characteristics of the cornered-up traditional man. Differently from other traditional men, he, however, does not know how to indulge the authority and power he has. Sometimes, seeing him in press conferences, I can hardly fight the feeling that he perceives the absurdity of the power, as well as the fact that the burden of it is too heavy for him. From observations, he forms quite a contradictive impression, suggesting he may feel better away from political power and public life, maybe being in somebody’s shadow. Men’s studies experts apply a certain term to this kind of man – a representative of complicit masculinity. These kinds of men are not violent, always perform well their duties as fathers and husbands; usually they are sensitive to their wives or partners; however, they tend to hide themselves behind hyper-masculine-type men.

As you know, the Lithuanian president and Seimas Speaker are women. What does it mean to you? Are the traditional men giving up their positions?
Well, we have three outstanding women on top. Let us not forget the minister of the Ministry of Finance, who is also a woman, Ingrida Simonyte. Perhaps the majority rejoices over this fact; however, one should not forget that they employ the worst models of men’s behavior in Lithuanian politics. I would hardly be mistaken if I said none of them care about gender equality or issues like that in their agendas. Their high-profile capacities do not change anything in the traditional Lithuanian gender system, which remains very patriarchal – built on a man’s authority, power and constraint.

In your book, you speak bluntly and outspokenly about another gut-wrenching topic to many: male homosexuality in Lithuania. Why is the issue important to you? How do you fight off the accusations that your men’s research is not as much about the scientific facets as much as about preaching the homosexual ideology?
Only little-educated people can see my research that way. In men’s studies, homosexuality is being regarded as an expression of alternative or subordinated masculinity. This subject interests me in many facets, however, mostly for the reason that I have always been keen on the problems of the so-called social exclusion and marginalized social groups. I reckon that homosexual men fall into that category in Lithuania, as they constantly experience social, psychological, cultural and even physical oppression, and society’s ostracism.
How do you see Lithuanian men, let us say, 50 years from now?
I am not a fortune teller, so it is hard to predict. The last twenty years have shown that changes in gender perception and behavior do take place very slowly. It is possible that the society’s approach towards the issues will not have changed much. If I was an idealist, I would say that, in 50 years, the issue of gender will not be very important, as we will live in a unisex society, wherein nobody cares whether you are a man, woman, straight, gay or transsexual.