Healthy Masculinity in Toxic Shock
In the wake of the sexual abuse revelations in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Washington DC and pretty much everywhere else, there seems to be a seismic shift going on.
The writing was already on the wall when Uber unceremoniously dumped Travis Kalanick to mitigate alarm over the increasing damage his tech bro misogyny was doing to the brand ever since Susan Fowler published her explosive reflection on her year at the ride sharing behemoth. The floodgates opened when neither Harvey Weinstein’s money nor lawyers were able to contain the rage.
A #MeToo campaign launched ten years ago by Tarana Burke caught fire on Twitter has had a powerful impact by illuminating the scope of the problem in a way that dry — yet devastating — statistics have not. There is a powerful wave of increasingly loud and determined women and their allies demanding — and getting — accountability in ways that we haven’t seen before and that were unimaginable not that long ago. And like any cultural shift, those who benefited from the status quo are fighting tooth and nail to discredit the accusers.
In our cathartic desire to remedy the situation and make perpetrators accountable, we also have to ensure we don’t allow a mob mentality rush to judgement on flimsy evidence, or let an occasional false accusation, to be used as ammunition to derail this moment. Just as we can’t expect exisiting conversations about race, appropriation and privilege to magically disappear nor allow them to fracture this galvanizing movement. It’s all but guaranteed that those with the most to lose are already weaponizing these anomalies. Or engineering deliberate attempts to stick a spoke in the wheel of this momentum by exploiting the fissures.
Aside from the plethora of articles in right wing media seeking to blame the phenomenon on liberals, warning that this kind of social warrior environment is the very thing that got Donald Trump elected, even mainstream media outlets are publishing articles suggesting men are looking back at their past behavior, wondering if they did something inappropriate and waiting for the shoe to drop.
Some of my male friends — mainly straight — who aren’t abusers, and haven’t sexually assaulted or predated on others, still find themselves either confused about what is and isn’t appropriate anymore, or give voice to that confusion by minimizing what is happening right now by making light of it. Similar sentiments we saw when Mary Kay Letourneau’s sexual relationship with her 12 year old student was viewed as a lucky triumph rather than statutory rape. (No doubt, the same men who would have reacted very differently had it been their 12 year old son coming home to announce he had been doing more than just banter with the coach in the locker room showers.)
The current President got away with his predatory behavior — including sexual assault allegations by various women and a rape claim by his ex-wife (even though she later walked it back) — by attributing it to “locker room” banter.
Locker room banter is really just another term for objectification of women, which is supposedly rendered harmless by it not happening in her presence. One of the less examined but equally cringe-worthy facets to the “Grab ’em by the pussy” tape was the degree to which Trump’s braggadocio was aimed at impressing Billy Bush rather than directed at actor Arianne Zucker. All she got was sweaty palms and Tic Tac breath along with exclusion from an inside joke that was evidently more pathetic than funny.
“I’d love to tap that bitch” is only tangentially relevant to the woman to whom the sentiment is being directed, but is far more about the speaker attempting to preen. Showing off his heterosexuality, virility and prowess among his peers in order to win their admiration and respect or simply assert his manhood.
The same applies to the catcall whistler on a construction site. That whistle has far more to do with impressing the guys next to him with his red-blooded heterosexuality than admiration for the unfortunate woman’s ass.
Gay men are equally guilty of objectifying other men in the same way for similar reasons. Although there are different venues that cater to insatiable male libidos. Even in a bathhouse setting, where men have gone deliberately with a single minded objective to enjoy relatively anonymous sex — and are walking around in just a towel surrounded by other men seeking the same — there is still an etiquette that is expected, and lines that can be crossed. Even in that situation, a man’s mere presence there is not an invitation for another man to grab and take whatever he wants without a respectful negotiation first.
I have also on occasion found myself in a position where a man thinks it okay to just jack off in front of me, despite every subtle or not-so-subtle cue I have given to warn him away from me (including sharp swats to the overly aggressive or tone deaf), but have dismissed such behavior away because invariably it has taken place at a bathhouse where there’s a certain expectation or likelihood of men ignoring or misreading cues.
It’s less acceptable, but no less prevalent, in a gay bar, where some men think it okay to grab another man’s ass, or grope his crotch, just because they happen to be in a gay bar.
While the dynamics in a bathhouse, sex club or even gay bar are still important in understanding sex, power and consent, they are markedly different from what we’ve learnt about most of the men that have been exposed for their conduct over the last few months.
I know that among most of my straight friends (since I was there with them), locker room banter was just about the only sex education we received. (There was even less education or role modeling for gay men back then, and unfortunately, this is often the case still today, but that too is a different conversation for another time.)
If examined from that perspective, sexual interaction with women was never understood in terms of what a woman wanted, but rather in terms of how far a guy could get, or how much he could get away with, before she was uncomfortable enough to put on the brakes.
What we are witnessing today is the final straw that women were hit with by the election of Donald Trump. The idea that a man could be caught bragging about his serial predatory behavior on video tape, treat his female opponent with the vilest, misogynistic disregard and still become President, was a bridge too far. What should have happened to Donald Trump is what has happened to Harvey Weinstein.
In order for this reckoning to have longevity, and truly transform the culture that enables unadulterated male privilege, we have to look honestly at where the mindset begins, and acknowledge that what we have dismissed as mere locker room banter is not nearly as harmless as we like to imagine. Just like the frat bro culture emanating from America’s colleges, it’s where the seeds of male privilege and entitlement are sown. The lessons we teach our sons are replicated in the same locker rooms among their peers.
The idea that men with power feel justified in taking whatever they want speaks to a level of entitlement that begins by supposedly harmless locker room banter that objectifies women to begin with.
Even the men condemning Alabama senate candidate, Roy Moore, in the wake of sexual abuse allegations against a minor are steeped in a misogynistic bent that props men up as saviors and protectors of their womenfolk. A violation of their property. How often are men told to imagine these acts against their wives or sisters in order to drive home the point because violence and degradation against the bodies of autonomous individual women isn’t abhorrent enough? Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump threw his support behind Roy Moore, opting to view his multiple accusers as liars as he did his own.
Comedian Louis CK, one of the latest to cop to the accusations against him, apologized, stating he took advantage of women because he didn’t realize how damaging it was because he had “asked” first and didn’t think about the predicament he was putting them in because “my position allowed me not to think about it.”
But the real question is why have we allowed his position to enable that degree of entitlement? To what extent do we glorify the cult of celebrity that a man sincerely and genuinely feels it okay for him to yank out his penis and masturbate without regard for the predicament of the women to whom he is exposing himself to, and just as importantly, without fear of repercussions from the community to which he belongs.
Kevin Spacey’s ill-timed coming out in the wake of sexual assault allegations against him by actor Anthony Rapp when the latter was fourteen, (followed by a string of additional accusations) speaks as much to the repressed sexuality that results in being closeted to begin with, as it does the dynamics of entitlement and privilege.
For gay men, the closet itself is a variation — if not unfortunate result — of locker room banter dynamics, where asserting one’s heterosexuality is confused with displaying masculinity.
The President’s son, Eric Trump, revealed the disconnect when he suggested “sometimes when guys are together they get carried away, and sometimes that’s what happens when alpha personalities are in the same presence.” Caricaturing the locker room like his father did, and attributing the bragging of sexual prowess to alpha male jockeying rather than recognizing it for what it is — a mask for insecurity and inadequacy.
The term Toxic Masculinity is being used to describe what we are witnessing at the moment, which is unfortunate, because exerting power over women to subjugate, harm, disempower or reduce them to objects is not a form of masculinity at all, but rather a case of Toxic Insecurity.
The extent to which assigning this particular label to the problem ignores the same power dynamics among lesbians who prey on or abuse younger women that have nothing to do with masculinity or femininity. But have everything to do with conduct and power. Even if the preponderance of evidence right now points overwhelmingly to heterosexual men as culprits.
Plenty of us, straight and gay alike, grew up being sexually educated and bantering in locker rooms and yet are perfectly capable of appreciating and respecting women as equal. Yet we still have to rethink the notion of locker room banter as a harmless boys will be boys socialization, and rather explore the darker lessons it teaches our sons and the degree to which we ourselves accept objectification of women as a meaningful or accurate measure of our masculinity.
We are witnessing the stress testing of patriarchy. Outdated gender binarism, with a narrow understanding of masculinity and femininity are also part of the problem. Many gay men who were bullied or witnessed bullying from the closet leveraged hypermasculinity as a survival mechanism to keep it at bay or to hide. All too often, unfortunately, adopting and exhibiting the same sexism and misogyny derived from a locker room education.
We have an obligation to address the root causes of the endemic sexual harassment, abuse and violence we are witnessing today if we are to change it.
It’s high time to teach our sons and daughters from an early age that all people, regardless of gender or identity, deserve their respect and that means being wise to what lessons they’re learning in locker rooms or are being subject to by, and among, their peers. To teach our children that language and behavior that degrades and humiliates others is abhorrent and unacceptable. So that calling out perpetrators is not an act of bravery, but a responsibility, for which they will be rewarded and supported and believed.
It’s important to differentiate natural masculinity from toxic insecurity and not confuse the two. Embodying stereotypically feminine traits, such as vulnerability and empathy, as reflective of a healthy masculinity that informs a man’s conduct, as opposed to ill-conceived conquest metrics that reward false bravado borne of insecurity and inadequacy, and are misattributed to masculinity. Distinguishing the propensity to protect women as if they are owned property from standing up for and defending women because they warrant and deserve respect as equals.
At the same time, as much as it is critical for men to do a lot more listening than anything else at this juncture, they still have every right to feel okay about expressing inherent traits of physical strength and primal male sexuality without being demonized for it. Or demasculinized, and made to feel their mere existence represents a threat. Otherwise it is unrealistic to expect anything other than resentfulness and defensiveness, neither of which are particularly helpful.
To the extent locker rooms remain among the primary venues that introduce children to both the vocabulary and concepts of sex and intimacy, along with consent and permission, now is the time to take more responsibility for shaping the conversations happening there.
Sure, locker rooms will continue to exist and men are socialized instinctively to preen, strut, exaggerate and show off to establish pecking orders. But that doesn’t mean we can’t change the indicators. So even the old fashioned notch-on-the-belt or mark-on-the-tie typically used to brag about conquests is understood as less impressive and more immature if only viewed as a game of numbers. Rather lauding, valuing and even aspiring to an ability to conduct, or simply appreciate, a mutually rewarding and consensual intimacy. So the response to a one night stand, achieved by failing to stop after being told no, is derision and scorn (or a punch in the face) rather than a congratulatory slap on the back.
It is in their interests — and those of communities as a whole — to better equip our kids to grow into secure, confident adults who understand their value isn’t derived from devaluing or subjugating someone else. So that locker room banter is no longer viewed as an excuse for misogyny or worse, but rather as one of the best places for eradicating it.
This essay is part of an ongoing online conversation between Tanya Domi and Clinton Fein on The Art of Engagement.