If you’ve been paying attention to the news, it’s been a hell of a week for talking about sex and toxic masculinity. Of course, if you’ve been paying attention, it’s not entirely unreasonable that you may have been spending time flipping all the tables.
Between teachers raping students, rapists getting off light and an ongoing culture of sexual assault, it’s been an ugly week in the news. That’s why today, we’re going to be talking about toxic masculinity.
It’s a topic I return to frequently because one of the ongoing themes at my blog is the topic of what it means to be a man and how to be a better man, and quite frankly, toxic ideas about manhood continue to be a massive millstone around the necks of men as a whole. These toxic ideas around masculinity, sex and gender are damaging everybody, men and women alike, and contributing to the plague of rape and sexual assaults we’re seeing in our schools and college campuses.
The Difference Between Toxic Masculinity and Being A Man
One of the things that comes up frequently when we talk about toxic masculinity are the various wags who demand to know why we’re labeling all men as being toxic, evil or otherwise malignant. That, in and of itself, is the problem in a nutshell: for many people, the toxic ideas of masculinity are synonymous with being a man. The problem isn’t about gender, genitalia or identity, it’s about what we allow to be the definition of what it means to “be a man”.
Toxic masculinity is a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits – which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual – are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away.
Sex, in particular, is an important part of “being a man”. Sexual conquests (and believe me, that word is chosen deliberately) are part of how men establish and reaffirm their manhood. The need to “get” sex is all-encompassing because the more of it you have, the higher “status” you have as a man.
You’ll notice how often sex and sexlessness comes up as an insult when a man wants to insult another man. “Mangina” and “pussy” are about implying that someone has no balls and thus no manhood; they may as well be women. “Beta” and “white knight” are also common, with the connotations that someone is unable to get laid in the first place. “White knight”, in particular, is levied at men who stand up for women – the implication being that they’re only doing so because they think that this might end up with them being rewarded with sex. “Cuck”, the latest in the long line of “ha ha, you’re not a man” insults from various asshats, takes it another step further: you’re so emasculated that you watch other men (especially black men – a vein of racist imagery rich in all kinds of toxic ideas about masculinity) take sexual advantage of what is supposedly “your” property.
Getting your dick wet becomes a way of chasing away the image of being effete or unmanly. As Detroit Lions linebacker Deandre Levy said so well in his piece on consent and sexual assault: “It’s truly astounding how many awful things that occur in this world because men are afraid of appearing weak.”
And so, the “boys will be boys” attitude towards sex contributes not just to toxic masculinity but to the fallout from letting toxic masculinity thrive. We let the damage done by toxic masculinity contribute to a culture where rape and sexual assault are tacitly or explicitly permitted – even encouraged.
Case in point: the case of Stanford University swimmer and convicted rapist Brock Allan Turner.
“Just 20 Minutes of Action…”
The facts in the case of Brock Turner’s rape of a young woman are fairly straightforward. On January 18th, two Stanford grad students riding their bicycles in the early morning discovered Turner laying on top of and thrusting on an unconscious and unresponsive woman behind the dumpster at a Kappa Alpha party. The cyclists tackled Turner as he attempted to flee and held him until the police arrived. The victim – who had a blood-alcohol level three times over the legal limit – didn’t regain consciousness until three hours later, after she’d been taken to the hospital. It was then that she was told that she’d been raped; she had no memory of the assault or anything between being at the party and waking up on a gurney.
The fact that Turner was found guilty was a minor miracle all on it’s own; less 7% of reported rapes lead to an arrest and less than 2% of arrested rapists are convicted or see a day in jail. From that point on, the story played out in an almost distressingly familiar fashion. Despite a jury finding Turner guilty of multiple felonies, including assault with the intent to commit rape of an intoxicated person and penetration with a foreign object, the judge sentenced him to six months in a county jail, plus probation. The judge’s reasoning? Because “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him”.
Let those words sink in for a second. Let them roll around in your head. Instead of serving six years for multiple felony counts, he’s sentenced to six months, of which he may serve only three. Because he was such a promising young man. Does that phrase sound familiar? It should. It’s one that comes up frequently when young men have been arrested for rape, the hand-wringing of just how much a rape conviction might hurt these men. The Steubenville rapists had “promising futures” taken away from them. Daniel Holtzclaw was “once promising” too. The rapes that they committed are things that apparently “happened” to them and isn’t this awful. Even Brock Turner’s father lamented how much Brock been affected by this…
“That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.”
If there were ever a clearer indication of how toxic masculinity warps men, I’m having a hard time finding one. To the judge and to his father, Brock is the victim here; the fact that he raped an unconscious woman is seen as being an unfortunate speedbump in part of an otherwise promising life. There’s no talk of accepting responsibility, no indication that Turner feels remorse for having raped a woman (rather than for being known as a rapist). His rape of his victim is seen as his “getting some action”, while the responsibility is being deflected onto “binge drinking” and “sexual promiscuity”, as though beers grabbed Brock by the back of the neck, frog-marched him out to the dumpster, pulled down his pants and forcibly shoved his penis into a woman lying unresponsive in the dirt.
That 20 minutes of “action”.
But the issue is more than just Turner or his raping one woman – it’s the belief that men want and should get sex by any means necessary.
Toxic Masculinity, Hypermasculinity and The Campus Rape Epidemic
In a disturbing coincidence, a study of college students at a southeastern university found that over half the athletes and more than a third of the non-athletes at one university had committed sexually coercive acts that met the legal definition of rape. Among the many acts that the students confessed to were:
- I insisted on sex when my partner did not want to (but did not use physical force)
- I used threats to make my partner have oral or anal sex
- I made my partner have sex without a condom (no force)
- I insisted my partner have oral or anal sex (but did not use physical force)
One significant finding was the correlation of the acceptance of rape myths; the more that a person believed that, say, if a woman who is raped was drunk, she was at least partially responsible, the more likely the individual was likely to use coercive tactics in trying to get her to give in and get some “action”.
Athletes in particular tend to be submerged in hypermasculine culture and the tropes of toxic masculinity, and tended to not only have higher belief in rape myths but were more likely to use coercion, threats or force to get their way. Violence and unchecked aggression is lauded while anything seen as “feminine” is to be ground out – by force, if necessary. Since sex is seen as a form of power and status in a culture where they are told that they are entitled to that power, then women get dehumanized. Consent, when it was even brought up, was secondary to the goal of getting what they want. In fact, another study of 923 athletes found that they frequently weren’t entirely sure how to recognize consent. Of the athletes studied, over two thirds agreed that “if you have already started kissing, it is okay to take it to the next level unless you get a definite ‘no'” or “that it’s okay to assume the woman is willing to have sex if she does not say anything when the man announces he is getting a condom.”
When these attitudes about aggression and hypermasculinity are encouraged, the idea that men are not only entitled to sex but that how they get it is unimportant. It becomes about how sex glorifies them – so much so that there can be competitions as to who can get more. With attitudes like these in place, ideas about consent or concern for the women’s mutual interest in sex tends to fall to the wayside.
But just as toxic masculinity leads to a culture where rape is acceptable (especially if you don’t actively use the r-word), it leads to a culture where we don’t recognize that men can be victims as well.
The Rape That Wasn’t
Alexandra Vera, a middle-school teacher in Texas, was having an affair with a young man. It had started off with some crude flirting – he tried to contact her on her Instagram account, which she refused – but soon her resistance crumbled. She gave him her phone number, accepted an invitation to hang out. When they met up, they drove around and kissed in her car. Their relationship quickly became sexual – they were having sex almost every day, and she became pregnant. There was just one catch.
Vera’s lover was a 13 year old boy. Her student, in fact. And after Child Protective Services began an investigation of her relationship with the boy, she was soon charged with continual sexual abuse of a minor.
What’s significant about this, however, is the fact that nobody is willing to call it rape. Every news story and headline follow the same pattern: Vera “had a sexual relationship” with a student. She was accused of “having sex with” her student. Words you don’t see associated with her in those headlines? Rape. Sexual abuse. Molestation.
Why? Well, let’s be honest: because it was a female teacher having sex with a 13 year old boy. And because Alexandra Vera looks like this:
Not surprisingly, comment after comment about this story follows the same pattern: “hot for teacher”, “I wish I could go back to high-school”, “lucky son of a bitch”, etc. And why shouldn’t people celebrate his luck? He’s a horny 13 year old, living the dream! Sure, it’s a crime, but hey, what 13 year old didn’t dream about boning his hot teacher?
We’re willing to cut him slack because he’s a 13 year old boy. If this were a 13 year old girl, we’d be having a very different conversation right now, with correspondingly different headlines.
Yeah, 13 year old boys are frequently horny. 13 year old boys, in the throes of puberty, frequently fantasize about sex with any number of people – celebrities, teachers, babysitters, etc. But there are reasons why we have age of consent laws, and that’s because children rarely have any idea what the fuck they’re doing. The fact that they may want something with their heart, soul and gonads doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to actually achieve them. They certainly don’t have the life experience or the maturity – hell, even the brain development – to handle an adult relationship, doubly so with someone who is not only nearly twice their age but in a position of authority over them.
And let’s be honest for a second: would we even be questioning that this were a crime if Vera looked like this?
Vera’s victim was in the position of being a father before he had even left the eighth grade. No matter how badly he wanted to bust a nut, he was in no position to handle the responsibilities or consequences that come with sex. And Vera, despite being 11 years his senior, is clearly not a person of responsibility or good judgement herself… something he might recognize were he older. She is a grown woman who by her own words, couldn’t resist the “charms” of somebody who had barely outgrown playing Yokai Watch.
But no matter how hot she may be, Vera raped a child. While not every victim of sexual assault or molestation will behave the same way – there are women out there who have been abused or assaulted who brush it off as “no big deal” – the fact is that these tropes of toxic masculinity mean that we’re unwilling to acknowledge his abuse. That unwillingness to call sexual abuse for what it is means that other victims have similarly difficult times coming forward, admitting that they’d been abused or getting the help that they need.
The Path To De-Toxifying Toxic Masculinity
With all this in mind, we’re forced to ask just how we can start fixing men and repairing the damage done by toxic masculine ideals. And the answer is to speak up. The answer is to push back. The answer is to take responsibility. The answer is education.
Our attitudes towards sex, towards consent and towards rape are defined by mistaken ideas and misaimed education. The popular idea of a rapist is still the “stranger from the bushes” rather than someone the victim knows, The image we have of rape is that rape looks like a fight or a struggle. We still believe that rape victims are almost exclusively women, that it has to be reported to be “valid” (7 in 10 rape victims never come forward to the police) or that a rape victim is in some or any way responsible for her own victimization. We still allow the myth of “gray rape” to define coerced sex or rapes that don’t line up with the popular stereotype and exaggerate the dangers of falsified charges of rape, diminishing the impact it has on the victims and survivors and adding yet another layer of doubt that discourages victims from coming forward.
Similarly, men need to be given the responsibility of reclaiming manhood from those who see sexual assault as no big deal. As has been pointed out many times over, women are taught that the responsibility is on them to avoid getting raped (often with tactics where the implied message is to seem less vulnerable so the rapist will target someone else). Men are almost never taught to not rape; it’s assumed by other men that we’re going to. Even in the current bullshit laws against transgender rights, the dominant narrative is that all men are latent sexual predators who will go to absurd lengths to attack women if given half a chance.
We need actual lessons that differentiate a lack of consent, coerced consent and teaching a standard of enthusiastic consent. That consent can be withdrawn at any time, what healthy sexual relationships look like and that nothing obligates a person to have sex with someone else. We need to teach that manhood isn’t tied to sex, that men can be victims of sexual assault and abuse and not view them as being weak for not fighting harder or “lucky” for having been raped by a woman. We need to not dismiss or deflect responsibility for rape onto external factors – not binge drinking, not “hookup culture”, not sexual promiscuity.
We need more men to step up and be counted. We need more men to call out others for their shitty behavior, to refuse to let sexual assault be “get some action”, to intervene when we see harassment or assaults going down regardless of the gender of the victim.
And we need to develop some empathy. To quit wringing our hands about the fate of the poor, poor rapists and concern ourselves more with the ones who’ve been raped. And to that end, I want to cap this with a link to the powerful, heartbreaking statement that Brock Turner’s victim read to him in court.
We can be better. We need to be better.