This is a question we are going to have to answer soon. The stories of Harvey Weinstein’s decades long campaign of sexual predation will be seen as a watershed moment. We either begin to ask this question or we doom further individuals and future generations to the pain and horror of sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape and nothing resembling justice. It’s also worth asking whether the election of Donald Trump, in spite of the now infamous Access Hollywood tape and dozens of allegations of sexual assault and at least one formal rape allegation, is the actual moment that women who had been victimized sexually by men decided they were no longer going to stay silent.
Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Bill Clinton, Adam Venit, Russell Simmons, Louis CK, Kevin Spacey, Danny Masterson, and James Toback, Donald Trump, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, NPR Chairman Roger Lamay, and editor Michael Oreskes . When we consider the #MeToo campaign, it becomes clear this is also not just the realm of the fabulously wealthy and/or powerful. It isn’t specific to a political ideology. It isn’t specific to an industry. It seems to be specific in only one way, it’s an epidemic in the way men view the expression of power in relation to sex and/or gender.
There seems to be little appetite for any discussion of what exactly about the way we teach and relate masculinity, what it is, and what it becomes means for society as a whole, despite the continued revelations of sexually predatory behavior by what amounts to hundreds of thousands of men as a result of the #MeToo campaign.
Less still is the appetite to understand that masculinity is the conecting tissue between the revelations of the #MeToo campaign and many of our most vexing problems. Every time a mass shooting event happens, the topic of gun control comes up, even as mass shootings are a small percentage of the overall gun deaths. There’s no discussion about the fact that masculinity is the connecting factor between mass shootings and other forms of gun crime as they are all, again, overwhelmingly committed by men. Even those who don’t immediately turn to gun control turn to “mental illness,” but the reality there points in the same direction. There is no comparison between mental illness and instances of violence in women. A study published in 2013 showed women are 40% more likely to be diagnosed with mental illness. If “mental illness” were the issue at hand where violence were concerned, why aren’t women committing 40% more violent crime?
The reality of the #MeToo campaign and the reality of violent crime in general should be enough for us to have some desire to step back, take a hard look at what about masculinity is contributing to these problems, but it doesn’t seem to be.
What if we add in the facts about suicide in men, and that they are increasing at an alarming rate? How about we even attempt to parse through the data related to accidental death, and how they relate to risk taking behavior, something also favored overwhelmingly by men, and whether or not the reporting on accidental death is missing what should probably be counted as suicides because the chosen method of suicide isn’t typical, but is instead a behavior that when engaged in irresponsibly is all but putting a gun in one’s mouth? Now think about the fact that accidental death includes being killed by someone. Who is most likely to kill a man? Another man.
We’re not there, and we’re probably not going to get there soon, but I’m there and I’m going to begin laying out an argument for the idea that what we are currently operating with related to our concept or concepts of masculinity are a public health epidemic. The theory I’m beginning to research is essentially that what we’ve been diagnosing as separate issues, actually exist on a spectrum that is connected by masculinity. From childhood bullying and “locker room” culture, to hazing, to catcalls on the street, to the likes of Bill Cosby and all the way over to Ted Bundy, what we’re looking at is a spectrum of related behaviors that are in large part mens responses to masculinity and the trauma it creates, reinforces and then in turn perpetrates.
It isn’t a leap of logic or even much hyperbole to call people like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, James Toback, Bill Clinton or Danny Masterson monsters. These are people who have engaged in a cycle of predatory behavior, and at least in Weinstein, Trump, Cosby, Toback and Clinton, that behavior follows a pattern. These are serial predators, hunting their fellow human beings. It is monstrous. It’s behavior not at all unlike that which we see in serial killers, the difference being that in these cases, luckily for everyone, any connection to a sexual excitement through murder seems absent. Where they differ from serial killers is that these men also relied on their status and power as part of that pattern of behavior. Weinstein, Cosby, Trump, Toback and Clinton have all used their status and position as well as their wealth to silence their victims for extended periods of time. As far as we know, serial killers don’t tend to end up in positions of power and wealth of that variety. Anonymity favors the murderer, where status and power apparently favors the rapist.
These are the most extreme examples though. What about the rest of the behavior being addressed by women all over the world at this point in history where they’ve decided they have had enough? One can’t interface with this reality and honestly believe the behaviors they’re addressing that isn’t outright criminal is not still wrong and deeply damaging to the people who are on the receiving end of it. What do we do with or about the people who essentially qualify as creepy jerks and assholes who are putting women in situations where they don’t feel safe, all the time?
Essentially, we have to come to terms with the fact that as a society, we may just be creating monsters, and we have to deal with that, post haste. Just dealing with the monsters though, making sure that the Weinstein’s of the world are dealt some form of justice, whether it’s being stripped of their power and wealth and/or being prosecuted, that’s not enough really. All of that is the response to a man who has already become and demonstrated his ability to be a monster. We need to start looking at how to stop making them. Additionally, it’s going to mean we need to start taking a hard look at the fact that in the course of women coming out about the varieties of sexual assault, harassment and rape they’ve endured, there are many, many other behaviors men engage in with regularity that are harmful and wrong, but may not necessarily be criminal or be at the level that its public revelation will ruin their lives.
Punishment or some form of amends is a necessary part of giving victims justice. As someone who has been a victim of sexual assault though, I can tell you punishment didn’t and wouldn’t make me whole or give me peace. It may have helped to give me less of a feeling of worthlessness in the eyes of the world, as having been valued enough to deserve justice, but it was never even a possibility as my own shame, like so many other victims, kept me from reporting the full extent of what I experienced. Punishment has never been proven to be an effective tool for prevention though. Any criminal justice reform advocate can tell you this, and the research is all there to show that despite our societies proclivity for preferring punishment, and despite the political rhetoric that suggests anything other than punishment is both “soft” (think about how that word connects to masculinity) and disrespectful to victims, punishment is not effective at reshaping behavior in the long term. The push for punishment currently has many voices, as well it should, and those people who have committed these acts should be punished, reprimanded and/or forced to take some compensatory action. It’s not the conversation I want to focus on though, as punishment is necessarily reactive, and not proactive.
We need to also have a conversation about prevention and reclamation. To leave the entirety of the conversation as a subject of punishment or “all men are terrible/complicit” is to essentially accept that we will forever be living in a culture and society where we have abandoned the idea that significant portions of our population, especially when we consider that it’s not just women who are harmed by this concept of masculinity we have, are going to be victims and essentially as the walking wounded for good portions of their own lives and in all of our lives. If you haven’t yet caught on, where men are concerned, when they are the victims of this, they are exponentially more likely to victimize others, in large part because of the concepts of masculinity that were behind their victimization in the first place. It’s a cycle of violence, control, repression and dominance.
We need to stop that cycle, and we need to stop creating monsters, and I think the two things are one in the same. That is the theory I’m just beginning to work on researching now. It will probably change somewhat as I continue, but at this point, I believe it’s fundamentally sound, not only from my own experience, but also in the experience I’ve heard and seen from other men.
How we stop that cycle is essentially by redefining masculinity. Identify the ideas we have about masculinity that are producing harm, and replace them with ideas that are healthy and foster respect, community and connection. Then it’s a question of what this man, the man who has a healthy, respect and community enhancing masculinity looks like. Not necessarily in relation to his physical appearance, but what do his actions look like in relation to himself and the people around him? How do we begin to shape a concept of masculinity that is about decency, cooperation, collaboration and community that doesn’t hinge of enforcement through power, violence, competition and dominance?
As if that’s not absolutely daunting enough, there is an equally hard, but important part, we’re going to need women to get on board with this as well. I refer to “concepts of masculinity” often and not “men” for a specific reason. It’s not just men who have toxic ideas about and concepts of masculinity. The unfortunate truth is that even the most “woke” among us has been raised from the youngest of ages in this society which not only favors men systematically, but also in that it indoctrinates all of us with these so often, extremely toxic ideas about masculinity. This is going to mean that as much as women want the men in their lives to be there to call out their male friends, family and coworkers when they are obviously spewing something that shows their toxic attitudes about women, women are going to have to start doing the same where the other women in their lives are concerned related to their attitudes toward men. “Man up” and “Be a man” and all of it’s inherently connected sentiments are going to have to disappear from our collective lexicon. That doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface either. Even if it is only a small minority (which it may or may not be), it’s hard to overstate the importance men place on women who uphold these concepts of masculinity.
It’s going to be a topic that has far reaching consequences, as I believe that when we boil it all down, masculinity has shaped the way we understand the relationship to the use of power, and to begin to look at what it’s going to take to redefine it, it’s going throw more things into question about our current culture and society than it upholds. Consider that if our entire relationship to the use of power has been established by men, operating under and fundamentally formed by this toxic concept of masculinity, what does it mean to elect women whose relationship to the use of power is essentially the same because they would never get elected or even be recognized by the political establishment in a way that would allow them to win an election, if they weren’t interested in demonstrating the use of power in the way masculinity has dictated throughout Western history? Men are fundamentally shaped by the concept of masculinity, and men have been the ones to wield power, establish the laws and norms that have shaped Western society. Reshaping masculinity will also, inherently, reshape society.
How do we move this conversation from almost being entirely about “Don’t do ____, because that is shit,” to “These are the things that are good and healthy, and this is what we want to be encouraging and teaching about being male/men/masculine”? We aren’t in a place where a majority of our population, men or women, are going to be willing or even able to discard gender as a whole, so we need to start to offer something in replacement of what it is we’re trying to get rid of. In our haste to create more equality among the genders, we’ve begun scooping away the foundation of what traditional masculinity has been, without offering a better alternative, and that in part is leading to other significant problems, like the rise of the Alt-Right, and a fascistic strain of more virulence and dedication than we have seen in American politics in a very long time. Without something better to turn to, we have millions of people (both men and women), grabbing onto the traditionalist views of gender and masculinity, which favors a fascistic view of the world and also lends itself easily to stoking exactly the fears they are reacting to in turning toward fascism. From a existential standpoint, we need to begin to offer an alternative. We can not continue to have the greatest portion or percentage of the conversation about gender and masculinity be “All men suck/are complicit.” It’s ineffective at changing behavior, obviously, because it doesn’t offer an alternative, and it’s also going to cause many people who could be reached by just presenting them another option to hold tight to these toxic ideas because something to go on is better than nothing to go on where attempting to create/hold a sense of identity within a larger society is concerned. There has to be a proactive conversation about, “This is what we as a society believe is valuable behavior,” and that conversation has to come from enough introspection that means we can be relatively sure we’re not just reinforcing these same toxic ideas.
I’m not an academic, but I am going to attempt to be as rigorous in my research as possible, and will attempt to reach out to some academics who specialize in sociology and gender as I write what I hope is going to be a book. I hope that some will take pity on me and correct me should I fail to see some glaring flaws etc. Where I think I can bring something unique to this project is that I am a survivor of both sexual assault and of this deeply unhealthy concept of masculinity, and I’ve worked very, very hard for a long time to heal and to attempt to extricate myself from that web. In that, I think I can bring an unusual prospective and I hope, I’ll be able to get other men to talk to me. I plan on doing as many interviews as I can, involving the range of topics that I think masculinity centers on. Being what it is, something that is taught to us, I hope these men will talk to me about their perspective on these things, as well as their fathers and grandfathers. I know that in my own life, I can see the seeds for both a healthier way of understanding myself and that same toxic concept of masculinity were laid by my father and grandfathers. I hope to include many of these in the book as well.
I don’t think there is any efficacy in not being able to demonstrate to men that this concept of masculinity we’ve been raised with is harmful to us, and everyone around us, and I hope that I can make it clear that my interest isn’t in talking down to anyone, but in offering a hand up and out of these deeply self destructive tendencies, behaviors and ideas. Really, it’s on us to figure out how we survive and begin to thrive instead of becoming or continuing to be the creeps, jerks or monsters.