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Masculinity at Duke

notes from the past

One of the best text messages I’ve received this year came from my RA. He wrote my floor GroupMe, “Guys, I just want to emphasize bathroom cleanliness—someone is constantly urinating on the toilet seats.” 

I enjoyed it so much because it urgently needed to be said. And because before that message, I couldn’t figure out if everyone else just took it as an unavoidable fact of existence that there would be urine on the toilet seat in the men’s bathroom—now and forever. The problem has predictably persisted and the number of stalls hit in conjunction with the amount of urine makes it clear that a concerningly large contingency is at fault.

The most obvious read of the situation is that some guys (boys) are too lazy and too arrogant to bother lifting up the toilet seat. I think there’s more to it though. The seat is simply too easy to lift and failure too incessant for laziness and arrogance to tell the whole story. 

In contemplating this situation and two others from typical daily life at Duke, I’ve come to see common masculinity at Duke as troubled and indeed comical. I will leave quintessential ‘toxic masculinity’ aside, opting to explore the subtler—though no less pervasive—aspects of what I think characterizes masculinity here at Duke.

Back to the seat peeing, though, I have two explanations to offer that are at least as important as laziness and arrogance. First, men want to experience their power, and leaving the residue of their urine on toilet seats helps them achieve this. 

Whenever I notice the tell-tale signs of a peed-on toilet seat I imagine my predecessor looking down at the drops of yellow he has left behind and thinking smugly to himself, “Ha! Yes! I can affect the world! I claim space every time I pee!” In this way, peeing on the seat is the natural extension of the masculine tendency to sit in the most space-consumptive positions imaginable.

Second, men convince themselves of their fertility by peeing on the seats. I generally find the fear of fertility surprisingly ubiquitous and one of the most obvious indicators of the deep insecurity embedded within masculinity. So even if peeing on the seat seems an awfully circuitous way of convincing oneself of one’s fertility, we should not underestimate the insecure man.

Toilet seats are not the only places I’ve noticed Duke men taking up space. There is the other classic instance when a large-ish man begins walking forward in a crowded area while looking over his shoulder talking to his friend, embarking on a blind march into the crowd and forcing pedestrians to swerve sideways in their paths. I always want to bump into these guys (boys) and don’t, but more on that later. When I first saw this, I laughed to myself, shocked at their obliviousness to their own rudeness. I’ve decided, though, that they can’t be oblivious. Too many times they must have bumped into people or at least realized they almost did.

Again, instead of mere obliviousness, I think that these men are looking for roundabout ways to experience power. And what better way to do so than walking forward without looking on a sidewalk—and knowing that nothing bad will happen. Or, if a bump does occur, knowing that their physicality will protect them.

More subtly, but no less significantly, I suspect that they are also longing for a bump. There is a great scene in Notes From Underground where the unnamed male narrator tries and fails multiple times to bump shoulders with a socially-superior man who always hogs the sidewalk. And then, in a shocking act of courage, the narrator bumps into the man. After this crucial bump, the narrator is sent into self-described ecstasy and starts singing Italian arias, even though he bears the worst of the bump. My professor’s read of this scene is that it is the true sexual encounter of the novel, and I have to say that I’m convinced. Which leads me to see these men talking over their shoulder as they walk forward as similarly longing for a bump—and maybe a bump with a man! Which makes me wonder if a random sidewalk-bump this the only way for these men to have physical contact with another man? 

My final anecdote, following right in line, is the double dude moped rides where the man in the back refuses to hold onto the man in front. To my eye, this is first and foremost a major safety risk. Though I must admit that when I see this scene I always secretly hope that the man on the back of the scooter falls off as the two go around a tight corner. But anyways, being so averse to holding onto another man that you forgo your own personal comfort and safety can only indicate a troubled psyche. With few exceptions, someone who is actually “secure in their sexuality” would have no problem holding onto another person, regardless of gender. It must be that there is such a social or personal fear of seeming queer that men don’t make physical contact even with it makes absolute situational success. Either that or they are simply so unused to touching other men that they don’t know how to begin. It’s no wonder they are longing to bump into someone on the sidewalk as that would be a blameless way to initiate man-man contact, a mere “accident.”

My conclusion from thinking about all this is that many masc cis-men here at Duke have a lot to gain from some queer exploration! Let us review the desires indicated and how they might be aided by queer exploration. 

First—in terms of their ever-expanding desire for power—gay sexual encounters can help teach those seat-peers and walking-without-looking-ers to accept physical control from another and learn to let go of their constant need for power. To be fair, there is power in submission and non-masc and non-man people can obviously be sexually dominant, but the point stands. Second, and similarly, what better way to accept infertility than to enjoy sexuality without the remote possibility of impregnating someone. Thirdly, if a bump into another dude on the sidewalk would bring pleasure, imagine an actually honest expression of one’s sexual urges! And finally, some baseline contact touching other men would hopefully lead to being able to hold onto the person in front of you on a moped, a real win for safety at Duke.

Austin Smith is a Trinity first-year. His column, “notes from the past,” typically runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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