Symptoms of Toxic Masculinity

It is not my fault that I was threatened and borderline stalked by a male student in my academic division. I was not asking for it. In fact, I did everything in my power to ward off his aggressive advances. I used the words, "No" and "Stop" too many times to be at fault for leading him on or asking for it.

The recent #MeToo movement on social media, though an incredible tool for displaying the sheer populace of self-disclosing women who have been affected by rape and sexual harassment culture, is incomplete in engaging the entire culture in erasing the rape from rape culture. #MeToo still begs the question:

Why are women to blame for the actions of their male perpetrators? Why are questions always posed to the victim, assuming it was solely her own decisions that led to her rape? How much were you drinking? What were you wearing? Why did you wear that perfume?

As long as women are the ones to answer for the wrongful actions of men, as long as women are perpetually burdened with the onus not only to work through the emotional baggage, but also to solve this problem, fixing our existing rape culture will never truly happen. It will only allow men to slip further into the background, away from the responsibility of the choices they have made to violate a woman (or multiple women's) boundaries and safety in ways that implicate shame, self-devaluation, and many other psychological reactions, rather than to come forward and fess up for their wrongdoings and the consequences of these choices.

Why? Because our experiences are the symptom of a generally male problem.

Why aren't men asked these questions? Why don't we ask men, How much were you drinking? Why did you follow her down a dark alley? Why did you rape her? 

These questions force the subject of active voice, instead of our typically passive approach to rape culture. When we talk about women as the subject of rape, instead of the direct object of the true subject's action, we let men off the hook. In the words of Jackson Katz:

We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls...So you can see how the use of the passive voice has a political effect. [It] shifts the focus off of men and boys and onto girls and women...Men aren't even a part of it!

Sadly, this is all too true of the language we use to construct rape culture. Too often are women blamed for a male problem. It is the rapist's problem that he felt the need to exercise his power over his victim to rape her and feel more powerful (or whatever his intrinsic motivation might have been for acting out the rape). Similarly, it is not the prostitute's fault that she is enslaved to the system, it is the fault of the men that put her body in demand for their own conquest.

What our rape culture comes down to is the male issue of toxic hyper-masculinity, where power, dominance, competition, the suppression of emotions, ego, and brute strength play a major role in encouraging harmful behavior not only towards women but towards others in general. When there is a perceived threat to the system of masculinity (e.g., insecurity), the fight or flight response pops up and these socially-taught values kick into overdrive. With a lack of emotional intelligence (aka apathy), people are less likely to see the emotional consequences of their actions. My friend, Scott Lahn, wrote this enlightening article from his male perspective on cat-calling women that we could all learn from. The result is a toxic cycle of insecurity-induced harm that leads to ingrained behaviors, all because of the subtle and not-so-subtle messages we receive about what masculinity looks like. But the truth is, masculinity looks like being empathetic, listening, crying...all those things our society classically labels as emasculated.

So. What can we do?

  1. Take Ownership

    Let's please stop blaming the victims and shift the responsibility to those who have made the choices to sexually harass, stalk, abuse, or rape women. If you are a victim, it's not your fault, what you were wearing, or if you were "asking for it" or not. If you have acted against a woman's boundaries, I encourage you to look inside yourself and evaluate what exactly prompted that. Was it fear of not being masculine enough? What happened to you that led you to make the choices you made? (Note: If you answer saying something about what she did or was wearing, you're doing the exercise wrong.) After completing an honest evaluation of what happened, consider telling someone about it. AA isn't wrong when it says that the first step to fixing something is acknowledging the problem. A lot can heal when you take ownership for your actions.
     
  2. Seek Understanding

    No matter what side you're on, processing these things is extremely helpful. Painful, yes, but vastly helpful to understanding what's at work beneath the surface, to parsing out the lies about who you are from the absolute truth that you are a wonderful, cherished person. You may have made bad decisions, you might have been violated, but you are not bad. (Thinking you're bad is a symptom of shame; see any work by Brené Brown for this.)

    It should also be noted that, despite the oftentimes traumatic effects of rape, abuse, or sexual harassment, your story can be beneficial for helping others heal. Mike Foster says something along the lines of "It's our broken stories that can be redeemed to help others heal along the way" in his workbook Wonderlife. My most shameful stories have actually been the ones to bring the most insight to empathizing with others, to walking alongside them in their times of extreme hurt and self-doubt.
     
  3. Be an Ally

    This article about sums it up.
     
  4. Speak Up

    When it comes to rape culture, we (especially women) remain silent in the face of harm. Because there exists a system of slut shaming - and shaming in general - surrounding the misfortunes of rape and assault victims. But we can create a stronger system of support for our fellow women when we speak out and bring injustices to light, for darkness cannot exist when exposed to the light of our truth, spoken in boldness. The more we come together in loving support of those whose boundaries and basic human rights have been violated, the more progress we can make in correcting the billions of wrongs that have insidiously worked their way into the underlying workings of our culture. Let's critique those societal notions and create a culture in which those affected come forward with confidence, rather than remaining silent in shame for fear of their lives or futures.
     
  5. Pursue Justice

    Let's not let this #MeToo movement slip by as we become distracted by all the noise in the world. Let's always be vigilant, correcting injustices and harmful attitudes where they are seen, providing safe spaces for affected people to open up in confidentiality, coming closer to a world where women don't have to fear for their lives and safety on a daily basis.

I've remained silent on my experience with sexual harassment for nearly four years, and it is time that I take a step forward to speak for the women who feel they have no voice. I believe it is time for all of us to speak up, to put an end to blaming the symptoms and victims of toxic masculinity rather than cultivating dialogue around the true disease of the attitudes and beliefs that lead people to acting with disrespect.

 

For more, I recommend visiting The Representation Project website for how to take action and watching Miss Representation and The Mask You Live In, documentaries created by TRP on women's and men's gender stereotypes, respectively, available for streaming on Netflix.


Note: I am aware that many men are also survivors of sexual assault, and that needs to be addressed. However, for the purposes of this post, I am focusing on women victims and male perpetrators. I also understand that not all males have violated women; there are a ton of great guys out there!