Hunting for Flesh, Hunting for Identity: Why Men Hunt

A while ago I promised a series of posts on hunting. After putting some thought into the matter, and trying to decide the most productive angle into the topic, I found myself unable to escape the looming specter of testosterone. Sorry if this is painfully obvious but I see no other way to begin: hunting is inseparable from manhood.

Sure, women hunt. But for 99 percent of humanity’s existence it was the necessary job of men to acquire meat. Chances are good that patriarchy as a social arrangement developed directly out of this responsibility. With the onset of animal domestication about 10,000 years ago, the connection between men and meat only intensified. The entire idea of what it meant to be a man, at least in western cultures, came to center not only on the ability to drag flesh to the home fire, but to raise animals at home, to husband them and harvest their flesh. Any man who failed at either of these tasks saw his masculinity seriously imperiled, much as if he were sexually impotent. The experience of running out of meat could be a humiliating experience, a sharp source of ridicule. Men without meat were men who failed to perform.

Occasionally, the relationship between hunting animals and domesticating animals became temporarily complicated. A case in point is early America. On the one hand, hunting briefly fell out of favor, primarily because it was a practice that white settlers didn’t necessarily want to share with Native Americans, whom they deemed utterly savage. On the other hand, there was no way around the fact that, every now and then, even the most responsible husbandman needed to grab his rifle, duck into the woods, and hunt for food. This was a settlement society. Nonetheless, if the association between hunting and manhood temporarily weakened in the eighteenth century (due to the cultural importance of domestication), it roared back with a vengeance in the nineteenth. Western migrants, intoxicated on the spirit of Manifest Destiny, revived and solidified the bond between manhood and hunting, deeming them the combined epitome of not just a mere man, but a frontiersman.

This wasn’t to last. Today there’s no immediate physical need for men to hunt. The frontier is not only the stuff of legend (and myth), but it’s been replaced by strip malls and grocery stores–venues where women do most of the “hunting.” And therein lies the crisis. Men are in a genuine bind, one not to be taken lightly (or mocked).Throughout the history of humanity men have been responsible for venturing outside the home–be it the pasture or the woods (or high seas)–and dragging home the main course. This activity was essential to the masculine identity, so much so that we hinged nothing less than our reputation as real men upon the acquisition of animal flesh. Now consider the situation today. At least in the developed world, there’s currently no need for anyone to hunt. Multinational corporations domesticate our animals for us. Women (or restaurants) dominate the task of bringing food to our table. Men golf.

Men thus hunt not to survive, but to preserve an antiquated sense of what it means to be a man. They hunt because the weight of two-hundred thousand years of tradition is hard to shake. They hunt because our culture–in so many ways so advanced and so enlightened–has yet to promote the idea that it’s extremely attractive for a man to love and nurture animals.





About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

6 Responses to Hunting for Flesh, Hunting for Identity: Why Men Hunt

  1. Interesting anthropological analysis James.

    Sadly, The Beet-Eating Heeb lives in a state (PA) where first day of deer-hunting season is such a big event that many public schools are closed.

  2. Carolle says:

    Very well said McWilliams, very well said.

  3. Gena says:

    Beautiful, James. Linking to this article today.

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  5. BlessUsAll says:

    “Mr. President, when are you going to get over this infantile need you have to kill animals?”
    ~ John Muir, posing a question to Theodore Roosevelt when the two camped out at Yosemite National Park in 1903 (quoted in The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, Ken Burns © 2009)

  6. Provoked says:

    “…it’s extremely attractive for a man to love and nurture animals.” Yes – Yes! It most certainly is! I don’t know if one can truly be a whole “man” without? Seems the best part of his being would be vacant and hollow – Not a “complete” man at all!

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