From a young age, we all learn to lie. Lying is a part of everyday life. We lie in insignificant daily encounters – substituting the truth for a pleasantry when asked how we’re doing – but more compellingly, we lie to avoid hurting others and being hurt, we lie to manipulate, and we lie to gain power. Power is always gendered, and consequently, so is lying.
Author John Stolnberg explores what it means to be a “real man” and the lies men tell themselves and others to perform idealised masculinity. Under patriarchy, men are oriented toward a false self that prioritises independence. Men are taught they should not cry or feel pain, they shouldn’t express feelings of loneliness or isolation, and they should be “tough,” thereby requiring men to mask and lie about their true feelings. Sociologists and therapists have documented how as men alienate themselves from their feelings it becomes easier for them to lie to others, not only because the lies they tell themselves divorce them from their feelings but also because masculinity under patriarchy requires men to see themselves as more powerful than women. Men are taught to do whatever it takes to maintain power and authority. Patriarchy tells us daily through movies, television, and diverse social media platforms that men of power can do whatever they want. It is this freedom that makes them men. Honesty is viewed as “soft” (read feminine) while the ability to lie inconsequentially is “hard” (read masculine). Such masculinised independence separates boys from men.
Similarly, as patriarchal masculinity divorces men from their selfhood, women who embrace patriarchal femininity (characterised by bell hooks as “the insistence that women should act as though they are weak, incapable of rational thought, dumb, silly…”) are also socialised to wear a mask, socialised to lie. As we understand that the values of men under patriarchy are usually the standards used to understand what is acceptable in society, condoning lying is a central component of patriarchal thinking. However, while those raised as men are taught to lie in order to perform idealised independence, those raised as women are taught to lie to facilitate connection.
Psychotherapist Harriet Lerner draws attention to the ways women are encouraged by sexist socialisation to pretend and manipulate. With shrewd insight, Lerner asks women to consider the lies they tell to please others and make them comfortable, particularly lies told to bolster men’s self-esteem. She claims women are socialised to lie about feelings they don’t have as a means to access power and security. Patriarchy upholds this call for deception, compelling women to present an idealised but inauthentic self to men, sometimes pretending to be emotionally vulnerable as a means to get what they want and/or deserve. Women are even conditioned to accept adult men’s lies as a means to maintain their connection to others. Often when women are honest about their pain caused by the lies men tell, they are accused by adult men of being overly sensitive, irrational, paranoid, a nag, etc.
In this way, bell hooks explains, “Men learn to lie as a way of obtaining power, and women not only do the same but they also lie as a way to pretend powerlessness.” Such dynamics extend into our most intimate and loving relationships. However, while many believe love can exist in a world where men dominate women and children, psychoanalyst Carl Jung counters, “where the will to power is paramount love will be lacking.” bell hooks continues, “Talk to any group of women about their relationships with men, no matter their race or class, and you will hear stories about the will to power, about the way men use lying, and that includes withholding information, as a way to control and subordinate.” bell hooks explains that under heterosexual patriarchy, men confessed to lying not only because they believed they could get away with it, citing a sexist belief that women were more gullible than men, but also because they believed their lies would be forgiven.
Thus, as childhood experiences and larger cultural contexts taught those raised as men to lie in order to gain power, those environments taught people raised as women to excuse and accept those lies, and subsequently lie about their own knowledge of people’s dishonesty or lie about their own feelings regarding a person’s deceptions in order to keep others feeling comfortable. Furthermore, the ‘independent form of manhood’ taught to boys results in a hindered ability to assume responsibility for causing another person pain, or in taking accountability for their lies.
That said, while most of us were raised in homes and environments that conditioned us into a gender binary, lying as an instrument of power requires us to look beyond the binary and consider how the power dynamics of lying play out among queer and gender-non-conforming individuals. Whether consciously or unconsciously, gender and sexual diverse people are taught to lie about the most banal and intimate aspects of their lives both as children and into adulthood as a means to access power and privilege, but also as a means of safety. They lie about which games/sports they want to play, what clothes they want to wear, whose hand they want to hold, etc. in order to make their parents comfortable, to protect themselves from emotional and physical abuse, to secure power and space within corporate and government settings, etc. Queerphobia reminds us through stories of isolation, acts of bullying, statistics of hate crimes, etc. the price some gender and sexual diverse people pay for honesty in heteronormative contexts.
Gender-non-conforming and non-heterosexual people around the world are forced to lie about their desires, identities, and practices to maintain political rights, social acceptance, and physical and psychological safety. Only in recent years have some openly queer and gender-nonconforming individuals within specific contexts and locations risen to public positions of power and influence, and still they are under-represented. They face constant resistance from multiple directions, and they are required to either hide many of the intimate details of their lives or be overly visible and used as a symbol.
On top of that, gendered dynamics dictate how we are rewarded and punished for our lies. The lies of cisgender heterosexual men often lead them to global power and influence (look at American politics) and the consequences for their damaging lies often go unpunished and forgiven (*cough* Donald Trump *cough*). On the flip side, the lies of women, gender-non-conforming individuals, and queer folk often serve to keep others comfortable and themselves safe. Let’s be honest, that’s bollocks! And while we can all agree there are moral differences between the lies/untruths we tell, bell hooks claims dishonesty will inevitably separate us from loving and equal relationships.
We all know we’re lying – it’s boring at best and toxic at worst. I’m sick of it. I want you to be honest with yourself and consider that you may be sick of it too. No matter who you are, the dishonest system that is patriarchal heteronormativity forces us all, including heterosexual cisgendered people, to lie about the diverse and complex realities of our desires and our lives.
It’s time for a little honesty.