Thinking about the Health Costs Many Men Pay for Some Men’s Masculine Privilege

Washington & Lee University Professor of Politics and Director of Women’s and Gender Studies Robin M. LeBlanc comments on health dangers of gender norms. She can be reached at


In October, on the undergraduate campus, a big poster outside our snack bar insisted that we must not let cancer get to “second base.” Some campus women found the poster offensive. Cancer is a problem because it can kill a person, one observed, not because it destroys access to a sexual pleasure.

I am not without sympathy for the point. But every year in October, as the pink ribbons fly and the gender scholars bemoan the fact that we are driven to calling breasts “ta-tas” in order to draw attention to a real disease, I am thinking about something else: prostate cancer.

Prostate cancer awareness month is in September, but I bet you missed it. You probably didn’t see blue ribbons around your workplace or big posters urging you to protect the “penetrator” from a killer. According to the American Cancer Foundation, while, during their lifetimes, 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer, 1 in 7 men will get prostate cancer. Nonetheless, the National Institutes of Health reports spending less than half the money researching prostate cancer than it spends researching breast cancer.

About 10 years ago, a friend of mine was diagnosed with prostate cancer. As I tried to support him through treatment and its aftermath, I learned that masculine privilege sometimes comes at a very dear price. The treatment option recommended in his case, radical prostatectomy, an increasingly common approach to treating the disease, requires a major surgery in which the urethra must be severed and reattached. Aside from possibility of unexpected problems as a result of invasive surgery, incontinence and erectile dysfunction are not uncommon side-effects.

And yet there really is no Angelina Jolie of prostate cancer. On Mother’s Day the Major League Baseball Players swing pink bats; on Father’s Day, the players, who are all potentially at risk for prostate cancer, may wear blue wrist bands, but they don’t color their bats.

Recently, I had a screening mammogram, and afterwards the technician offered me a little pink packet with stickers and pens and a pad of paper. When my friend visited the urologist following his cancer treatment, he told me he noticed that the doctor was cautious in discussing what his patients might be experiencing, asking them, for example, how “the other function” was going rather than asking them directly if they had problems getting erections.

Being a friend to a man who survived it, I learned that prostate cancer patients work a secret underground, quietly finding each other out and whispering words of empathy or support, or what little they know about their medical options to each other while promising to protect their identities from others in their workplaces and communities. On my campus, women who have survived breast cancer are lauded openly as heroes.

Something is wrong here, and the nature of the problem is gender politics. To be clear, I’m not saying men are suffering from simple gender discrimination. Rather, many men confronting a terrible disease are paying an enormous cost to sustain the mystical source of society’s privileging of some other men. We don’t want to talk openly about men’s sexuality. We don’t want to put the penis on a level with the breasts or the vagina as an unstable and sometimes traitorous part of a man’s self. We don’t want to confront the fact that Achilles’ “heel” was more likely his crotch.

My female colleagues shake their heads at the thought that the danger of breast cancer can be reduced to an effort to protect “second base.” They think it’s wrong to imply that it’s all about sex. I wonder.

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