How can #MeToo address toxic masculinity?
“Have you heard?”
My roommate asks me this just as I walk through my creaking dorm room door, before I even have the chance to heave my backpack off. It could have been any day in October or any day since.
Have I heard about James Franco?
No, but has she heard about Aziz Ansari?
We rehash tired, but still fairly genuine, lines of disappointment, as we are so used to doing in this post-Weinstein era. We rehash, but often without renewed anger; such stories of sexual misconduct are not new to us; we know the sexual assault epidemic personally. The stories of sexual harassment and assault I’ve heard from nearly every woman I know on campus vary in terms of exact details but provoke all too similar emotions. Some of my best friendships here at Colby College were born from nights filled with the domino effect of post-assault panic attacks and subsequent caretaking.
My own assault during the fall of my first year of college left me angry. Being forced to sit through two classes with my perpetrator the following spring shook my very values. You see, my perpetrator is an activist. He takes every anthropology class offered about revolutions and human rights. He attends events on sexual violence prevention. It was not a violent rape; I called it a “bad hook-up” for months before I realized what happened was sexually coercive. When it happened, I felt like all of my friends were hooking up, but I had never even taken off my bra in front of a man before. He knew that. I did not know how to speak up and say no louder and sharper and, really, I did not know how to separate my desires from my expectations. It was cultural coercion, too.
At the time, I did not know how to understand his coercive behavior and believe my experience and my own trauma. I worried humanizing him would delegitimize my own experience and found myself paralyzed by the daily dilemma of choosing which of our experiences to validate. Where I once held steadfast to the theory that radical love and forgiveness were better than punishment and rage, in the dining halls, in my Title IX meetings, and especially in those classes with him my first-year spring, I would often recall that he had three other Title IX complaints against him and feel angry.
During my sophomore year, however, I had lengthy discussions with femme friends that opened my eyes to where my perpetrator’s coercive behavior had come from — despite his supposed dedication to activism. My friends and I began to talk more about how even the so-called “good” men on campus — men who publicly condemned toxic masculinity — would still speak over women in sexual violence prevention meetings, constantly mansplain everything from rape culture to the wage gap, and, in some cases, romantically pursue women long after they told them to stop. I realized that some of my closest male friends — men who proclaimed to have a healthy understanding of masculinity — were actually emotionally manipulative, and in fact used their self-proclaimed titles of “good” men as evidence for why their habits of manspreading or slyly belittling Hillary Clinton couldn’t possibly be sexist. I began to see the real ways the intent of these men did not align with the impact of their actions, but didn’t know what to do about it.
For the past two and a half years, I have been working with Professor Mark Tappan and fellow student researchers on the Colby Healthy Masculinities Project. This work involves identifying men who embody healthy masculinity and trying to understand how they developed that mindset. This work has helped me see the way my perpetrator is a product of a system that encourages toxic masculinity — or the way that men are raised to be stoic and aggressive, and to ensure their dominance over women at any cost. I now understand that even for men like my perpetrator — men who want to and even try to resist unhealthy masculinity — it’s often difficult to do so. This reality is perhaps most evident when it comes to sex; sex between men and women is particularly complicated and messy because the different levels of power men and women have in our society is complicated and messy.
Just as my initial coping mechanism post-assault was to demonize my perpetrator and eschew nuance in the name of healing, I worry that perhaps that has been our wider cultural approach. It’s great that we have begun to hold perpetrators accountable, but the way in which we have done so adheres to a logic that men exist in an uncomplicated binary: those who are good and those who are bad, and only bad men rape. If we can get rid of Weinstein, Moore, Lauer, Spacey, Franco, then, we reason, we’ll be safe. But when we finally understand that it is more than just a few bad apples committing these atrocious crimes, when we acknowledge how systemic, ingrained toxic masculinity comes into play, what do we do? When we see that even our loved ones can be complicit in upholding male dominance, what do we do?
We should be speaking up, and the current reckoning we’re witnessing and participating in should be happening. Anger and a reordering of power structures are necessary, good parts of this battle. But we must also process the nuances of misogyny and toxic masculinity. I believe we have to acknowledge that all men are affected by and act out male dominance in a variety of ways every day. Instead of criminalizing individual "bad" men, maybe we can make space to accept that men were raised in a culture that systemically normalizes sexual coercion and devalues women’s voices. Being raised in this culture means that many men will act along these lines not because they are evil, but because this is what they have been taught to do. They will fail us.
But perhaps we can accept this failure. Maybe we can acknowledge that the process of unlearning male dominance cannot reasonably be one free of failure. The cultural need to see gender performed “correctly” encourages the masculine hierarchy, but dismissing notions of perfection and seeing failure as an opportunity for growth may encourage a cultural shift toward systematic change.
To be clear, we cannot excuse men when they fail. Accepting that men will fail does not mean allowing them to forgo accountability. In fact, it asks them to be accountable for their failure rather than defensive about it.
We must process that our friends, family, and heroes may be complicit in a system that hurts us. We must accept all of this and push men to be better if we ever want them to succeed.
More articles by Category: Feminism, Gender-based violence
More articles by Tag: Rape, Sexualized violence