Why Masculinity Needs To Be The Next Big Conversation In The #MeToo Movement

#MeToo has encouraged women to finally break their silence on abuse and harassment. But this conversation holds an opportunity for men, too — to start talking about how the rules of manhood are holding them back.

Toxic masculinity - several men in silhouette on a light blue background

Photo, Roberto Caruso.

I’ve spent the past three years embedded in the worlds of boys — a rather unexpected place for a middle-aged lesbian, who came of age in the Third Wave feminist, Riot Grrrl 1990s, to have found herself. Researching and reporting my forthcoming book on modern boyhood and masculinity was a project both professional and personal. I’m the mother of a now teenaged son, a swaggering, sports-and-video-game-loving boy who ranks high on the bro-scale, and who is also impossibly tender and affectionate. Just as my friends who are parents of girls grew anxious over their daughters’ princess obsessions and a world that blunted their strength and ambition, I worried about the messages my son and other boys received about their worth and value as men. Sociologists often use the metaphor of “the man box” to describe the social rules of masculinity: In order to be a “real man,” a guy has to be stoic, aggressive, financially successful, sexually rapacious, physically courageous, muscle-bound, risk-taking, tough and in control.

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What I learned by spending months talking to men, young men and boys, is that many of them are, indeed, struggling. Girls and women spent the past several decades catching up and, in some cases, lapping boys and men in post-secondary education and professional fields, and are now finding their way towards financial, social and sexual independence. But while we’ve focused on advancing opportunities for girls, we’ve overlooked some alarming stats about boys. Young men are more likely to have been diagnosed with conditions like ADHD and autism, which can lead to challenges in school. They are also less likely to ask for help, which can amplify those issues. According to a new Chatelaine survey on masculinity, 45 percent of men ages 25-29 reported often feeling lonely. Studies have found that men are much more likely than women to commit acts of violence, but are also frequently victims themselves of serious physical assaults at the hands of other men, and they are more likely to have a weapon used against them. In extreme cases of violence, such as terrorist attacks and increasingly frequent mass shootings, it’s almost inevitably troubled, angry men who are the perpetrators.

Many have argued that men are naturally inclined to violence and that they are wired for aggression. But just as compelling is research into how the rules of masculinity foster this behaviour. Researchers have found that men who most strongly exhibit conventional masculine traits, or who are most anxious about their masculinity, are more likely to behave in ways that hurt themselves and others: more likely to have unprotected sex, to binge drink, to sexually harass women, to bully other men through homophobic slurs. Men who are heavily masculine-identified have the highest male status — and they are also more likely to exhibit the signs of depression.

Now, when the word “masculinity” is frequently preceded by “toxic,” and “male” is often followed by “privilege,” men have a tricky relationship to the status quo, one that has become infinitely more complex in recent months with the rise of the #MeToo movement. The flood of accounts of women’s humiliation and hurt at the hands of men, and the rage that has accompanied them, is both cathartic and disruptive — understandably so. What’s been revealed is not only the ubiquity of sexual violence, but the way gendered power dynamics continue to hold women back on every front – professionally, financially, psychologically, and in ways we may not have articulated yet.

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Some men have been re-assessing their past behaviour, and wondering how they’d been so clueless about the experiences of half the population. Some have aimed to distance themselves: Sure, there are bad guys out there, but I’m not one of them. Many don’t know how to be part of the solution or are afraid of appearing foolish or monstrous for even trying to engage. What if they say or do the wrong thing?

Some are threatened by the suggestion that their power and success are unearned and ought to be more fairly shared. Still others have denounced these multiple and multiplying accounts of rape, domestic violence, child abuse and fundamental systemic inequities as a “witch hunt.” The most pressing concern for them is not the millennia-long erosion of women’s safety and autonomy, but what this all means for men. Hasn’t this gone too far? Isn’t this all beginning to sound like male-bashing? What about the lives/careers/reputations of men who are falsely accused?

There are a lot of men, of course, who aren’t and who don’t feel privileged, or who don’t recognize themselves in the traditional definitions of masculinity. Working-class and poor men are shut out of economic opportunities that would allow them to be financially secure. Gay men, trans men and straight men who are gentler in their demeanor experience bullying and violence for not being “man enough.” Men of colour are subjected to racial bias and discrimination. Police disproportionately confront black and indigenous men, security officers at airports pull brown skinned, bearded and turbaned men aside for questioning. Teachers and school administrators are more likely to punish black, indigenous and other racialized boys with harsher penalties.

All of us, men and women, can recognize the very real ways in which men and boys are hurting without casting those struggles at odds with those of women and girls — or worse seeing men’s suffering as more valid and urgent. Men’s and boys’ suffering is in some ways the result of sexism and misogyny, too. Take everything associated with femaleness, like vulnerability, passion, nurturance and creativity, and determine it to be weak and without value, and you cut men and boys off from life-affirming aspects of their humanity. Tell men and boys that they’re owed women and girls’ attention and admiration, their bodies, their labour, and their obedience, and you erode men and boys’ capacity to have equal, loving and meaningful connection.

So, of course, the #MeToo movement and what it’s asking of men is hard. For the first time, there have been widespread repercussions: men have lost their jobs, workplace rules have been scrutinized, sexualized customs that had been taken for granted are being reconsidered. And in the early months of 2018, the momentum hasn’t slowed, as it often has before, but rather gathered speed and force. As journalist Laurie Penny recently put it, “I know that the climate is, for once, less than merciful to men. I know that men are scared. I also know that this could not have happened any other way… This would have been easier to avoid if we had not made it so very normal for men to be emotionally castrated, so very routine for them to expect women to shoulder all of the burden of emotional work in society.”

Not surprisingly, there’s a counter-force to #MeToo, that’s also gaining momentum: a backlash that encompasses men’s rights activists, reactionary talking heads and shock jocks, angry internet trolls, sulky gamers and pick-up artists, anti-PC libertarians, and men and women who prefer traditional gender roles and expectations. As I write this, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by provocative YouTube celebrity Jordan B. Peterson, is the number-one ranked non-fiction book on Amazon.com, and it sits at the top of The Globe and Mail’s bestseller list. The psychologist and University of Toronto professor, who is about to embark on a 12-city North American tour, catapulted to fame for his culture-warrior stances on hot-button issues such as gender-neutral pronouns (he refuses to use them) and white privilege (he considers the notion “a Marxist lie”). But, in particular, it’s his stern, quit-yer-whining-and-grow-the-hell-up, tough-love advice that’s struck a chord in his core fan base, a group he estimates is 90 percent young and male.

Amidst this noisy backlash to #MeToo, it’s easy to miss important work that’s happening to examine the core assumptions, systemic framework and countless negative effects of the “man box” worldview. It’s crucial we don’t. Over the past three years, I’ve met coaches, teachers, social workers, mentors and activists who are talking to each other about gender-based violence and inequality, and who are aiming to expand the definition of masculinity and manliness. They understand the stakes of this work not just for women and girls, but for themselves as well. These are men who want sustaining connections with one another, and more honest and equitable relationships with women and girls. They recognize that toxic masculinity is not only men’s problem to fix, but a problem for men’s well-being, too.

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One man who mentors teenage boys in Calgary told me that young men sincerely want to talk about issues such as sex, consent and power but have few venues where they feel safe to do so, where they can ask embarrassing questions and express their fears and anxieties. If we don’t find positive outlets for them to explore these issues, he says, they will turn to the only other place available to them – internet forums where these feelings are often hardened into women-bashing.

We have seen some important public examples of change, however. Like the evolution of #MeToo from public awareness to political action, lobbying for legislative change, for policies that create fairer, safer workplaces. There are also personal examples of accountability and forgiveness. Not that long ago, a comedian and writer named Megan Ganz called out her former boss Dan Harmon (the creator of the TV series Community) for having relentlessly harassed her. The scenario was a common one: He hit on her at work, singling her out for praise, but after she repeatedly him turned down and told him he made her uncomfortable (in addition to being her boss, he also had a girlfriend), he began to bully and belittle her.

After #MeToo went viral, Ganz bravely addressed Harmon’s behaviour on Twitter and Harmon bravely responded. In an unflinching account on his podcast, he acknowledged that he had pursued her and then punished her after she rejected his advances. He admitted he didn’t see women as equals and couldn’t see beyond his own desire and ego. “I just didn’t hear [her feelings and discomfort],” he said, “because it didn’t profit me to hear it, and this was, after all, happening to me, right?” Then he apologized. Ganz said she felt relief, tweeting, “it is a masterclass in How to Apologize. He’s not rationalizing or justifying or making excuses. He doesn’t just vaguely acknowledge some general wrongdoing in the past. He gives a full account.”

There’s much to celebrate in the example set by Ganz and Harmon, mainly that if we can talk to one another with respect, empathy and honesty, we can move forward. This moment has been framed as a gender war, but it doesn’t have to be a stand-off. Men should be engaged in the work of gender equality because it’s a decent and just thing to do. But they also stand to gain from challenging the darker aspects of masculinity. For too long women and girls have been forced to keep silent about sexual violence. Now that they’re talking, men have to decide what they’re going to do without the protection of that silence. Will they lash out with fear and confusion? Will they choose to retreat? Or will they courageously join the conversation?

Rachel Giese’s forthcoming book, Boys: What It Means To Become A Man (HarperCollins Canada), will be available on May 1.