Book review – The Will to Change

The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

By Bell Hooks


The Will to Change by Bell Hooks was an important book for me. During the past few months I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about gender equality, feminism, love, sexuality and masculinity. This book helped me tremendously on this path.

The book starts by recognising the existence of male suffering and its sad consequences on society. Hooks provides practical advice to help us men out of this suffering. By doing so, the author becomes a model for her own thesis: in order to end patriarchy and change society for the better, men and women need to work together. Men must be willing to change and learn the art of love, and women must accompany them on this difficult journey.

This review tries to be a summary of The Will to Change, based around six key topics that are logically related to one another.

1. The need to end Patriarchy

The central concept of The Will to Change is patriarchy. Here is Hooks’ definition:

Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.

The strength of Hooks’ thinking lies in recognising males as victims of patriarchy:

To indoctrinate boys into the rules of patriarchy, we force them to feel pain and to deny their feelings.

The logical way to stop male pain is then to end patriarchy:

To end male pain, to respond effectively to male crisis, we have to name the problem. We have to both acknowledge that the problem is patriarchy and work to end patriarchy.

Patriarchy is the single most life-threatening social disease assaulting the male body and spirit in our nation.

Ending patriarchy would increase the well being of our society as a whole:

Life has shown me that any time a single male dares to transgress patriarchal boundaries in order to love, the lives of women, men, and children are fundamentally changed for the better.

2. Men’s longing for love and psychic self-mutilation

The following quotes explain how men’s suffering originates from forced acts of “psychic self-mutilation”. This was a hard but instructive read for me as I could easily relate my personal experiences. Hooks knows that we men must first identify and understand our pain in order to address it.

The reality is that men are hurting and that the whole culture responds to them by saying, “Please do not tell us what you feel”.

The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves.

Asked to give up the true self in order to realise the patriarchal ideal, boys learn self-betrayal early and are rewarded for these acts of soul murder.

When males are required to wear the mask of a false self, their capacity to live fully and freely is severely diminished. They cannot experience joy and they can never truly love.

The truth we do not tell is that men are longing for love.

Forbidden to express their longing for love, men suffer and find shelter in addictions:

Even though they have been socialised to create and maintain false selves, most men remember the true self that once existed. And it is that memory of loss, — coupled with rage at the world, which encouraged the surrender of the self — that engenders depression. This suffering […] leads many men to addiction […].

Men victims of patriarchy develop two common addictions. Personally, I went through both of them for many years, at various level, without being aware of it.

Addiction to work (workaholism)

The following quote about workaholism was quite enlightening for me:

Workaholism is the most common addiction in men because it is usually rewarded and not taken seriously as detrimental to their emotional well-being.

Hooks uses a insights on workaholism borrowed from Zukav and Francis (authors of The Heart of the Soul: Emotional Awareness): 

Zukav and Francis describe workaholism as a flight from emotions: “It is a drug that is as effective as the most powerful anaesthetic… workaholism is a deep sleep. It is a self-induced trance that temporarily keeps painful emotions away from your awareness.”

Hooks explicits the inherent contradiction of workaholism:

If the intention behind the work is to seek recognition and power […] then you are setting yourself apart from others as a way of trying to feel connected to them.

– Dean Ornish, Love and Survival

This thinking on workaholism helped me to validate a recent learning: work should always be part of life, and never life itself.

Addiction to sex

Realising how men’s addiction to sex works and its consequences helped me understand how anger and violence can germinate within men’s mind and end up hurting others (especially women) psychologically and/or physically. On a personal plan, it helped me understand the contradictions I was facing and the mistakes I did when interacting with women in the context of actual or would-be romantic relationships:

Sex, then, becomes for most men a way of self solacing. It is not about connecting to someone else, but rather about releasing their own pain.

Hooks gives an insightful note about how linguistics tells a lot about male’s alienated conception of sex. Quoting Robert Jensen:

To fuck a woman is to have sex with her. To fuck someone in another context… means to hurt or cheat a person. […] That we live in a world in which people continue to use the same word for sex and violence, and then resist the notion that sex is routinely violent and claim to be outraged when sex becomes overtly violent, is testament to the power of patriarchy.

The next quote helped me to better differentiate what I would call healthy or responsible pornography compared to the type of pornography I feel guilty about watching: patriarchal pornography:

Often men use perverse sexual fantasy (particularly the consumption of patriarchal pornography) as a hiding place for depression and grief.

Finally, hooks hints at an alternative way that can be followed by men:

While masses of men continue to use patriarchal sex and pornography to numb themselves, many men are weary of numbing and are trying to find a way to reclaim selfhood.

3. Learning the art of loving

Men are longing for love. But “Men cannot love if they are not taught the art of loving”. But what is love? Hooks gives the following definition:

Working with men who wanted to know love, I have advised them to think about it as a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust.

Learning the art of loving requires an active attitude by men. Our society must make time for this activity:

Working men must make time to get in touch with their emotional selves if they are to become men of feeling.

In order to know love, men must go beyond the barriers of patriarchy:

Love cannot coexist with domination.

Men need to find an alternative way of thinking and living their sexuality:

Many men fear  learning to love because they cannot imagine a sexuality beyond the patriarchal model.

“In loving sexual intimacy, sexual partners are not interchangeable. They are unique in their histories, aptitudes, struggles, and joys. they know each other and care for each other. […] They use physical intimacy to deepen their emotional intimacy. […] They are committed to growing together.”

– Zukav and Francis

Hooks insists on the fact that men shouldn’t be afraid to engage in the quest for love by fear of not pleasing to women:

Men are on the path to love when they chose to become emotionally aware. […] Women want men to be more emotionally aware.

4. Healing men’s wound by the practice of integrity

Hooks explains that “the practice of intimacy is healing“:

“When we love someone and feel loved by them, somehow along the way our suffering subsides, our deepest wounds begin healing, our hearts start to feel safe enough to be vulnerable and open a little wider. We begin experiencing our own emotions and the feelings of those around us.”

– Dean Ornish, Love and Survival

The following quote shows the responsibility of women partners in helping or preventing men from healing:

“To heal, men must learn to feel again. They must learn to break the silence, to speak the pain. Often men, to speak the pain, first turn to the women in their lives and are refused a hearing.

Hooks uses the concept of integrity to show how men can heal the wound caused by the splitting of their soul:

This wound in the male spirit, caused by learned acts of splitting, disassociation and disconnection, can only be healed by the practice of integrity.

Hooks borrows a definition of integrity:

Integrity means being whole, unbroken, undivided. It describes a person who has united the different parts of his or her personality, so that there is no longer a split in the soul.

– Rabbi Harold Kushner, Living a life that matters

I found the next quote helpful to give us ideas about many areas in which we can try and grow our integrity by working on reducing our obsession with sex:

Obsession with sex can be healed when we reclaim all the essential aspects of the human experience that we have learned to manage without: our affinity for one another, caring connections with people of all ages and backgrounds and genders, sensual enjoyments of our bodies, passionate self-expression, exhilarating desire, tender love for ourselves and for another, vulnerability, help with our difficulties, gentle rest, getting and staying close with may people in many kinds of relationships.

– Bearman, Why Men Are So Obsessed With Sex

This last powerful quote is my favorite:

A culture of healing that empowers males to change is in the making. Healing does not take place in isolation. Men who love and men who long to love know this. We need to stand by them, with open hearts and open arms. We need to stand ready to hold them, offering love that can shelter their wounded spirits as they seek to find their way home, as they exercise the will to change.

5. Feminist masculinity

One of the first revolutionary acts of visionary feminism must be to restore maleness and masculinity as an ethical biological category divorced from the dominator model.

In my understanding, feminist masculinity is the new ideal of maleness that needs to be celebrated so that man can become who they are outside of the patriarchal model.

Here are three quotes about feminist masculinity. I found the first one particularly instructive:

Feminist masculinity presupposes that it is enough for males to be to have value, that they do not have to “do”, to “perform”, to be affirmed and loved.

Feminist masculinity defines strength as one’s capacity to be responsible for self and others.

Feminist masculinity would have as its chief constituents integrity, self-love, emotional awareness, assertiveness, and relational skill, including the capacity to be empathic, autonomous and connected. 

6. Reimagine family as a place for resistance

What can we do as individuals to help undermining the fundamentals of patriarchy? Hooks gives a clear answer:

Since we have yet to end patriarchal culture, our struggles to end domination must begin where we live, in the communities we call home.

If we are to create a culture in which all men can learn to love, we must first reimagine family in all its diverse forms as a place of resistance.

To create the culture that will enable boys to love, we must see the family as having as its primary function the giving of love.

As we’ve seen in part two, boys are assaulted by patriarchy since their youngest age. Hooks gives extra advice about how to help our boys:

Progressive parents who strive to be vigilant about the mass media their boys have access to must constantly intervene and offer teachings to counter the patriarchal pedagogy that is deemed “normal”.

To truly protect and honour the emotional lives of boys we must challenge patriarchal culture. And until that culture changes, we must create the subcultures, the sanctuaries where boys can learn to be who they are uniquely, without being forced to conform to patriarchal masculine visions.

Caring fathers with bold strength and integrity shield the open, tender hearts of their sons, protecting them from patriarchy’s hardhearted assaults. 

Let’s finish this review with this quote full of hope for men ready to exercise the will to change:

Ultimately the men who choose against violence, against death, do so because they want to live fully and well, because they want to know love. These are men who are true heroes, the men whose lives we need to know about, honour, and remember.

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