Men, we have an empathy problem

© Dave DuBay

Rape is funny. Rape can be downright hilarious — when it happens to men. We laugh at prison rape jokes. But people who joke about women getting raped are rightly denounced as sexist creeps. Yet, if you include prison rape, American men are raped as often as (or more than) women.

It’s obviously sexist when people are insensitive to women, hence the focus on men not being empathetic enough. But having empathy for men requires men to show their vulnerability. And here’s a double bind: it’s “toxic masculinity” for men to hide their vulnerability, but men who show their vulnerability may be met with “ironic” hashtags like #WhatAboutTehMenz, #MasculinitySoFragile, or #MaleTears.

It’s not that men shouldn’t show their vulnerability, it’s that they should do so skillfully. After all, a man who can’t protect himself — emotionally or physically — can’t protect women or children. He’s seen as useless.

A zero sum game

Empathy is often seen as zero sum — showing more empathy for men feels like less empathy for women. We witnessed an outpouring of international concern in 2014 when Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls. But very little attention was paid to the 10,000 boys Boko Haram kidnapped, or the boys they killed by burning them alive.

This zero sum perception is also why we ignore the 1 in 10 men who experience severe domestic violence. And why the Global Gender Gap Index distorts male privilege by ignoring disadvantages men face.

But for macho men, guys who need empathy are pussies. And some feminists mock concern for men as “himpathy,” even sometimes complaining about “unpaid emotional labor” provided to men. In other words, he clumsily revealed his vulnerability to her, made himself look weak, and lost her respect.

What’s a guy to do?

For good emotional health, men need someone they can show their vulnerability to. A key question is: Is this someone I should trust?

People having to earn your trust prevents you from being at their mercy. And it keeps sight of the fact that it’s still your responsibility to solve your own problems, even if you need support.

Don’t play the victim. Remember that you don’t control what happens to you, but you do control how you respond. Do so with dignity.

Stoicism done right is a virtue, not a vice. Don’t expect society to equalize empathy for men and women. But society can tell the truth about why we are less empathetic toward men — it’s at odds with expecting men to accept their expendability in emergencies or times of war.

There’s little concern over 9 out of 10 workplace deaths being male because we expect men to risk their lives to provide us with the comforts of modern society. But we can encourage society to restore the respect for men who take these risks.

This is especially true for national security. Hillary Clinton’s statement that women “have always been the primary victims of war” would have been more honest had she noted that while over 95% of combat deaths are male, civilian deaths are disproportionately women and children.

Threading the needle

With both conservative and progressive disincentives for men to show their vulnerability, men must find creative ways to thread the needle.

Don’t show your cards when first getting to know someone. Observe and take note of how they treat other people. Are they empathetic to some people or in some situations, but not others? If you don’t think someone has your back, then keep that person at an emotional distance.

Start small. If you think you can trust someone, then reveal a small vulnerability. If the response isn’t positive then stop there. If it is positive, then reveal a slightly greater vulnerability. Stop when you’ve reached the zenith.

Further, learn to control your defensiveness. Even if someone is unsupportive, teach yourself to react stoically. Remind yourself that you don’t need this person — you are only emotionally dependent on them if you choose to be. If you can’t put your irritation aside, then you’re too dependent on their approval.

And remind yourself that this person’s lack of concern is a strategy to hide their vulnerability. But don’t confront them with that — it’s not your issue to solve.

Just some random guy.