Q&A: joseph gelfer, the five stages of masculinity

Joseph Gelfer is a researcher in the field of men and masculinity. Here we discuss his model, The Five Stages of Masculinity. Each of the stages he describes distinguishes a different manifestation of masculinity, and a different level of consciousness. Gelfer states that the first stage, unconscious masculinity, is experienced by most people and is the most problematic. The stages progress through to stage 5; it is at this stage, which Gelfer states as being experienced by very few people, where masculinity is essentially eliminated. Here’s the overview where you can find out what stage of masculinity you’re at.

Q: You studied theology at university and your thesis was Numen, old men : contemporary masculine spiritualities and the problem of patriarchy. Is this when you first questioned masculinity? Can you talk through some of the factors that made you question it?

A: Yes, I studied theology as an undergraduate student. When I returned for postgraduate study I looked back and considered what kinds of theology I found most interesting as an undergraduate. These were feminist theology, black theology, queer theology and liberation theology. The commonality among all these theologies is a focus on identity. As an ostensibly straight white man, an interesting theology based on identity sounded quite elusive (or, alternatively, ALL theology is based on this identity). So my original plan was to find and analyse some exciting theology based on the identity of straight men.

Q: What is the relationship between masculinity and theology? What has your research divulged?

A: My plan to find this exciting theology based on the identity of straight men did not go very well. In short, it doesn’t exist, either in historical or contemporary contexts. So I spent a number of years showing how nearly all forms of theology and spirituality explicitly connected with male identity were patriarchal. And of course, feminist theology has been telling us for years that the underlying structure of religion is patriarchal even when it does not refer explicitly to men.

Q: During your research, what were some of the most prominent ideas and figures that influenced you to write the masculinity tool?

A: My current work on The Five Stages of Masculinity is a response to the fact that I find most work around gender to be kind of boring. There was a great flurry of activity around masculinity studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and we also had queer theory happening at that point. And then there is very little indeed. The Five Stages of Masculinity is my attempt to open up beyond feminism and queer theory, to find other ways of thinking about both identity and politics.

Q: How do you apply your teachings to your everyday life? And how can others do the same? Is it as simple as being aware of these general stages of masculinity and understanding how they relate to your own life?

A: It depends what you want to achieve. If your intention is to just live mindfully, then yes, you need to simply be aware of the stages and how you might be operating at different stages regarding different issues. Ideally then also do some personal development on those parts of your life that might still be working at lower stages. But it gets more interesting when you work with other people. If you are a Stage 4 social worker, for example, with Stage 2 clients, you should have a much better ability to connect with where they are coming from than simply telling them they are wrong: move into Stage 2 and take them by the hand, rather than shouting at them from Stage 4.

Q: After the environment, you state that masculinity is arguably the most detrimental to our civilisation, what are some of the less obvious factors that make this true, the factors others are less likely to be aware of?

A: Well, first connect masculinity with the environment. We know that men are less likely to believe in climate change, less likely to lead environmentally friendly lifestyles, less likely to be vegetarian or vegan. Traditional masculinity damages the environment, end of story. You could look at economics and capitalism and suggest that a similar form of domination derived from traditional masculinity is driving those problems, let alone war and violence.

Q: Pre-individuation, the primordial state before personal identity; before the notion of masculinity was created, where do you think this idea of masculinity stems from? How did it develop? Was it inevitable?

A: Let’s split gender from sex for a moment, so retreat from what is masculine to what is male. We cannot ignore the fact that certain male traits repeat across the animal kingdom. When I look out of my window at my chickens I see the males behaving one way and all the females another. I am not inclined to deny biology, but nor do I want to be bound by it. I suspect what we have going on here is a mash of those biological male traits, combined with the development of human consciousness, combined with social and cultural expectations. These are very complex things to untangle, even if you have a great level of self-awareness, so it’s no surprise that most of us don’t even bother to interrogate it.

Q: You refer to masculinity as plural; can you talk us through this? Is masculinity different across all cultures and classes?

A: Certainly. Masculinity shifts depending on where and when you are. It can even look different but still be traditional. For example, Louis XIV was all curly hair, frilly shirts and high heels. But he still embodied traditional masculinity and the ideology of patriarchy. This is why we should be very careful today when we see masculinity that “looks” different: just because some dude is wearing makeup or glitter doesn’t necessarily mean he is thinking differently.

Q: I’m really interested in stage 5, the place we have yet to explore, could you elaborate on ‘post-individuation’ and the concept of Atman and an identity beyond masculinity? Do you think this is relevant to femininity, this idea of reaching transcendence?

A: Firstly, I strongly recommend people walk through the previous stages before thinking much about Stage 5, as it can feel somewhat counter-intuitive. At Stage 5 I claim that masculinity does not exist, or that it exists only as a consensual hallucination which nevertheless has many real effects. In other words, masculinity is an illusion that we all get stuck in. Same for femininity: at Stage 5 is does not exist. For me, post-individuation is a space that is as pristine as the self before social intervention, but also informed by what we have learned through social intervention: it is uncontaminated by the conditioning we all receive from day one. I refer to concepts such as Atman because we’re looking here at the ultimate concept of the self, which may even be that there is no self. As an aside, I think gender studies is going to be blown out of the water when we finally develop an understanding of how consciousness works and potentially get evidence that the whole idea of the self is a trick to keep us alive.

Q: How achievable do you think this is? And how do you imagine society to function?

A: First, the Stage 5 understanding that masculinity does not exist is a thinking experiment that is relatively simple to accept. If you were happy to live as a hermit it would also be relatively simple to live a Stage 5 life. But most of us live in society, which is predominantly Stage 1 to 3. This requires “descending” to those stages on a daily basis in order to speak the same language as everyone else, and to share the same frames of reference. This movement between what you know to be true, and having to live in the illusion: that’s challenging.