Contributing Editor Matt McGorry edits the Playboy Symposium

The Playboy Symposium on Power, Presented By Matt McGorry

The actor curates four essays on masculinity, sex and gender for our Summer 2019 issue

Growing up, I didn’t think much about my gender and the effect it had on my life. How things have changed: As I sit here writing this just after turning 33, I’m able to look back and see the many ways who I am has been shaped by what was expected of me, as a boy and then as a man. A lifetime of striving to fit into society’s expectations of manhood had stripped me of so much of my humanity that I couldn’t even recognize it at the time. I signed a bad contract. And now I’m lighting that shit on fire.

Until five years ago, I’d never read the fine print of this contract. I signed it, like most of us do, without considering the negative impact of everything deemed “just the way things are.” Unfortunately, people following patterns they see as the norm have been the cause of many of the world’s greatest injustices. Going with the flow can grant us power and social standing, but at what cost to ourselves and others?

It didn’t take long for me to realize that having 17.5-inch arms and an almost 600-pound dead lift caused people to look at me in a way that made me feel powerful—not just physically but socially as well. In a culture that teaches men to be dominant, I found myself building a body and a persona that would demand respect by being “better” than others. I did this often at the expense of my humanity and integrity. For all the time many of us men spend trying to be “good enough” or “better than,” when was the last time we saw a man apply the same effort to becoming more honest and compassionate? At the root of these extraordinary human qualities is the ability to be vulnerable, a quality too often seen as weak and “unmanly,” something most of us are taught to avoid at all costs. Going against the grain can be costly, but not nearly as costly as slowly bludgeoning our own humanity into submission.

We all know the rules in the bold-type section of the male contract. I, like many of you, had learned them so well that they just felt natural. Being respectful of women doesn’t necessarily give us the same social power as hooking up as often as possible and then feeling the affirmation of the head nods we get when telling other guys about it. Like most boys, I was taught we should get as far as girls would let us. I was taught our worth depended on our ability to deliver. Not knowing about sex, not being confident about it and not wanting it were never options.

And so, in making our sexual relationships a determinant of our social value, we learned to dehumanize women to fulfill what was expected of us. Many of us lied to our friends about getting to third base, boasted about whom we’d hooked up with and never actually asked for permission to go further. We didn’t ask because we didn’t want to be seen as unsure, or perhaps because we didn’t know or didn’t care how hard it is for most women to have to say no. Our expectations of women and our own drive to “conquer” led us to give them the culturally recognizable labels of “tease” and “prude” when they didn’t do what we wanted. And then we would shame them by calling them “sluts” and “hos” for doing the same things boys and men did—things that made us “players” and “pimps.”
Reclaiming my humanity is dependent on resisting societal pressures that tell me to conform to the status quo.
Once I began to recognize the double standards of sexism, I entered the fight for gender equity, thinking I was doing it for women. I soon realized I was doing it for myself and other men. The roles we’re expected to play based on our gender are damaging to everyone. Patriarchy is a social system of male domination that harms women and those who identify as gender nonconforming. But it also hurts men: It forces our allegiance to a system that will never allow us to be truly free, that insists we remain dominant and in control. The contract requires that we cut off and numb integral parts of ourselves so we’re incapable of fully knowing and expressing our emotions, or of being whole. How can we have integrity and be true to our values if we’re expected to uphold our end of this oppressive bargain?

I’ve succeeded in many of the ways men in our culture are taught to aspire to. I’ve had success in my career as an actor, earning fame and a decent paycheck. I was a nationally ranked powerlifter. And yet I was left with profound insecurity and a sense of emptiness. How could it be any other way when my self-worth relied on having to prove myself over and over again?

Mutual liberation was the antidote to my despair. I wholeheartedly believe that when we’re our best selves, we fight for what is right even when we know we’ll get pushback. Courage and integrity require this of us. I have gone through a reorientation of my heart and soul, and I know that the work of growing to understand myself better, and to effect positive change, will never be complete. Reclaiming my humanity is dependent on resisting societal pressures that tell me to conform to the status quo, that tell me to be silent about injustice and to normalize oppression, hate and even my own deep-seated biases.
Take a moment to picture the “all-American man.” If you’re like most people, you visualize someone who looks like me: a straight, white, cisgender man with a “strong build.” Over time, I learned how this default image had impacted my life and given me false confidence in my ability to be objective. If, while growing up, I never had to think much about what it meant to be a man, I certainly didn’t think much about what it meant to be white. When we’re in the dominant group, we rarely have to examine how our identities impact our survival, the way LGBTQ people, women, people of color, poor people and disabled people do.

In order for us to stand a chance at claiming our full humanity and embodying an expansive and inclusive worldview, we must be willing to go out of our way. We’ve grown up in a culture that teaches us to devalue the perspectives of the most marginalized. I did this for most of my life without even realizing it. But if we’re ever to create a world where everyone is truly valued, safe and free, we must learn to listen to the voices from the farthest margins. We must assume the same, if not higher, levels of competency and objectivity in those who don’t fit the image of the “all-American man.”

It is my honor to bring in four leaders whose voices, perspectives and brilliance need to be heard. By listening, with open hearts and open minds, we will grow to better understand others, the world we live in and, ultimately, ourselves.

In the words of one of my sheroes, Angela Davis, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”

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