The Arena of Masculinity

By Brian Pronger

Sumerhill Press

The title of this books is somewhat misleading.

The work does not focus particularly on sport. There is some examination of gay men in recreational sport, and of the homoerotic attractions and possibilities of that involvement and of the locker room. But there is no deep examination of sports in this society, its symbolic importance, its relation to gay men, or its importance as a means of social control and of reinforcing societal identity.

Rather, Pronger tries to deal with the questions of homosexuality and society in general, and herein lies much of the book’s weakness. Much of this material has been dealt with before, and what we are getting here is not particularly new. The book is less than 300 pages long, and the theories and concepts that Pronger is trying to grapple with cannot all be dealt with in that space. As a result, much is glossed over or ignored.

Nor is the material that is dealt with problem-free. Pronger’s main theory is that male homosexuality (lesbians are not dealt with) is a repudiation of the gender order by which society gives straight men control. Pronger insists throughout that this order manifests itself in the oppression of women, and that gay men are not part of that oppression.

This ignores several things. First, gay men are certainly no innately non-sexist, and being a gay man does not, as Pronger would have it, automatically lead to an understanding of the oppression of women. The reverse case, that the feminist movement has had such problems accepting lesbians, shows that oppressions are not interchangeable.

There are also some lines about women and their oppression that are fairly disturbing. For example, writing about domestic violence, in the face of constant evidence to the contrary, Pronger claims “this practice is falling into disrepute, as is evidenced by its frequent exposure in the press and the development of new laws to curtail violence in the home.”

Second, Pronger pretty much ignores the fact that this gender myth” is not based solely on sexism and homophobia, but incorporates racism, classism, agism and prejudice against the poor and the disabled. Masculinity is based on power, and just because a man is gay does not mean he does not seek power over those in other oppressed categories. Alternatively, just because a man is heterosexual does not mean he can’t be oppressed for his colour or his class.

Pronger talks about homosexuality as attacking this gender myth, but he also talks about the attraction of masculinity for many gay men. Many of the men he talks to say they are attracted only to men who exhibit masculine characteristics. Pronger uses examples of masculine/homo-erotic sex to support his attack on gender, but contradicts his earlier claims that homosexual acts are distinct from homosexual identities.

Pronger says this attraction is merely an example of the “paradox” of homosexuality, but, while this may be true of the man attracted, one wonders why the other man wants to appear so masculine. Pronger may be right that the man would not want power over women, but fails to convince that gay men cannot seek power in other ways.

There are also irritating glitches in writing. Pronger has an annoying habit of dropping names, especially of German philosophers. The mention of these usually serves to do nothing but impress us with Pronger’s intellect.

The writing also frequently takes off on highly pretentious tangents; for example, comparing eroticism to the versatility of a piano.

There’s value in this book. It may make some men think when next they play sports or enter a locker room. But, as an examination of gay life and of its links to sports, it’s highly flawed.