“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” – The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution
These words were written by a group of angry and frightened men in 1791 to enshrine in law their right to protect themselves from perceived tyranny by using lethal force. Today, every time we face another societal wave of grief over the senseless loss of life due to the easy access people have to guns in the United States, it reverberates in my ear:
“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state…”
In these words, freedom and violence were linked as a consequential pair and presented as an ethical norm. What is more, when they were written, these words codified a right exclusive to white men with financial means . The Second Amendment was literally a declaration of rights to justify white masculinized violence. Today, the NRA lobbies the government every day for guns that are bigger, more powerful, higher volume, longer range, and they use the Second Amendment as a protective defense for a macho gun culture that would be adolescent if it weren’t so deeply tragic.
It is hard to tell which might have come first: the projection of virility issues on firearms or firearms projecting virility issues on how men in the United States see their embodiment. I do know however, that the combination of guns and ideas about how maleness is embodied has left us swimming in a lethal brew that easily conflates male potency with violence. One look at the number of women (and men) who corroborate stories of rampant male sexual assault (the United States ranks among the highest numbers of rape per capita in the world ) alongside the epidemic of gun-based terrorism in this country and it is difficult not to consider a connection.
One problem is that men in the US don’t talk about their penises, something I’ve learned from my own experience growing up in a male identified body with biologically male genitalia. As an adult, I’ve taught sexuality education to youth and studied the impact of sexuality on faith and politics, and it is clear that boys are given a specific rhetoric of shame about their genitals that is tragically entwined with ideas about power. There is little to no counter narrative to this message and the result is that the shame carves a space for defensiveness and self-styled myths about what is sexually right and wrong. So, despite men handling them several times a day for a variety of reasons including function and fun, penises are rarely spoken about, never truly understood and most often the subject of performative mockery. Everything from the casual crotch grab to eating a phallus-ized banana becomes part of the act. We can joke about penises (thanks a lot Amy Schumer), but we can’t actually discuss them and what they are capable of both positive and negative. Despite being external organs, the profound mystery of the penis is more pervasive than we are willing to culturally admit and undoubtedly more dangerous than we realize.
Negative penis/masculinity narratives are prolific. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the grossly racialized stereotypes of male sexuality in the United States. In these pathetic exercises, black boys are burdened with the assumption of over-sized and threatening ‘Mandingo’ status; Latino men are a disposable ‘walk on the wild-side’; Asian boys are entirely de-masculinized and relegated to a sexual scrap heap, and so on. Meanwhile, all of this unfolds in the shadow of white masculinity as the definitive shining American cultural norm. Yet when white masculinity is directly linked to violence we are trained to socially accept, endorse or excuse it as “boys being boys” and never, ever allowed to call it terrorism…although it most definitely is. Personally damaging, false and impossible to realize just like the black stereotype, the white heroic myth of masculinity, becomes the idealized standard of every savior image projected in the US, and is a cornerstone of how we expect to see figures of authority including our modern day “well regulated militia”, the police. If you consider all of these gendered, sexualized and racialized cultural elements together, the acquittal of white officers for killing unarmed black men and the labeling of non-white terrorists as “animals” takes on an entirely new significance.
For me, fixing the Second Amendment, isn’t just about guns. It is about de-commissioning the tools that prop up toxic male embodiment and the excuses that enable an almost exclusively white male entitlement to violence. Gun violence, sexual violence, economic violence, environmental violence are all parts of a culture, fed by a racialized capitalism that cultivates a male embodiment whose only purpose is to dominate and take without being questioned; to relentlessly penetrate everything it encounters with fear and intimidation.
The project of American manhood swinging between rape fantasy porn and a constitutional entitlement to hold the power of life and death in one’s right hand, has made us “dick dumb.” In this increasingly winners versus losers society, we don’t talk about penises and because we allow ignorance to feed our unspoken fears, too many men are empowered to wantonly misuse their penises and the cultural leverage that is associated with having them regardless of racial or ethnic identity. Our legal system underscores the misconception that we must live in a world where the only route toward security and freedom is through violence and the penis becomes every man’s most handy surrogate weapon of defense always locked and loaded.
But our government has no tyrant king and does not represent the voice of only one race or class of people. We are not colonial oppressors trying to fend off slave revolts or Indian uprisings. Our states no longer require private militia and all aspects of our law enforcement and armed forces are no longer entirely male. We do not live in a society of duels and honor killings and we are finally willing to recognize that a marriage vow doesn’t include consent to assault. Gender statistics on mass shootings are a clear indication that gun violence in the United States is a male problem…just like rape. If we are to find an antidote to all toxic masculinity, we need to begin by de-weaponizing male embodiment. This means the careful dismantling of all the language and social structures that equate the power of masculinity and the penis with lethal force.
We will never fix the fatal flaw of the Second Amendment until we disband the not-so-well-regulated militia in men’s pants.
Every cry from a child is hunger.
Not just for a hole in the belly,
but for emptiness, lack or abandonment.
Hunger names what we feel
as uncomfortable or raw.
There is hunger for being held…being loved,
and hunger for just being paid attention to.
Every hunger has a sound.
The hunger of pain,
when emptiness is left by safety
stolen from our bodies…
a spank, a fall, a needle,
all the unfamiliar sensations leaving holes in
a newborn sense of world
where there was no abandonment
no stings or burns,
only fullness…safe and alive.
The cry of circumcision is hunger.
A full-throated mortal terror
of being torn
for religion, society, medicine
“for your own good”…for good.
Every male who is cut
carries the phantom ache of this hunger
in sensations he will never know.
The scar he handles is a reminder
of the trade that was made with his flesh:
trust in the world, for someone else’s “div-anity”.
You, cut male child
are told to fill your role.
Penetrate the world with your most wounded self
Through deeds, seeds, desires, passions.
Do as you are told, ignore your basic hunger.
While every day longing for fullness, rarely feeling safe,
forever unable to recall being wholly functional or alive.