We need to change the definition of masculinity so that it has nothing to do with harming anyone, least of all women.
Attention men: Women don’t owe us shit. Not attention, not praise, not a smile, and certainly not sex. In fact, as women are the life-givers of the species, it would seem that it’s us men who are forever indebted. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we need, as men, to be discussing our complicity in the sexist, patriarchal mode of our present society, and not for the sake of winning an argument on the internet or the favor of potential sex partners. We need to do this because the current definition of what it means to be a man simply is not working.
In high school, I had a football coach who would tell us that what makes a man isn’t his ZIP code or his car or how many women he’d slept with, but how he loves his fellow woman and man and how many people he helps. At 15 and 16 years old, my teammates and I thought that his “building men for others” mantra of love and respect was corny as hell. Yet, having come up in the Age Of Schwarzenegger, being twice that age now, I’m still trying to understand the real meaning of masculinity.
We are not often told that being compassionate or gentle has anything to do with being a man. Nor are we told that it is vital to our experience and to that of the women in our lives. Non-violent masculinity is not the norm in American society and others like it, yet striving for healthy ideals of manhood seems a far more workable approach than the current “stay the fuck out of our way!” harm-prevention model we currently task women with. But in fact, we’re conditioned to believe that it is a woman’s responsibility to make way for us, in boardrooms and in bedrooms, to stop tantalizing us with micro mini skirts, to smile for us, stop being so crazy/bitchy, and to stop “deserving” our shitty treatment so damn much.
I hardly make this argument with a clear conscience. In darker times, I have lied to women, lied about (having sex with) women, objectified and over-sexualized women, and watched more porn in my short life than is probably healthy. I can count in my mind the low number of male friends with whom I can have a reasonable discussion about sexism.
But those not with the program were cast off the HMS Friendship long ago. Because today, this is not the type of man I want to be. This is not the type of man I want to be around either. Being active on Twitter and other social media, however, has given me a much larger than necessary window into the mind of the sexist assholes who obviously walk and breathe beside me IRL, absolutely assured that there is nothing wrong with the way they view and interact with women.
The Internet has been a stronghold of the feminism antagonism “movement” to be sure, with one faction of men wrong-headedly believing that feminism of any flavor will lead to the subjugation of the male race. The other, though they most likely won’t admit it, seem to fear finding themselves obsolete in the face of feminism’s moonshot for equality for women. So-called Meninists, men’s rights advocates, gamergate losers, and trolls of all stripes are an embarrassment, but not of the type women can ignore, even if they try.
It is no revelation that the Internet is no place for women. Amanda Hess’s stellar piece for Pacific Standard was an eloquent and vivid appraisal of the horrifying environment of harassment and threats faced by women simply for existing in this virtual space. I recognize my privilege when it comes to actively participating in my passion, writing, in online spaces: Though I am a black man, and thus not sitting atop the unimpeachable alabaster dais of white male privilege, I have no delusions as to the amount of vile shit that would come my way for pieces like “Why I Fear The Police More Than Terrorists” were I a woman, especially a woman of color. Writer Roxane Gay made this point quite clearly in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, and to use her word, it’s “bullshit” that rape and death threats are in the toolkits of so many men for online debate and harassment.
Respect for bodily autonomy should be taught from a young age, and we’re already seeing that lack of respect play out in all corners of the web the way it does out in the world. Boys and men are not typically conditioned to seek consent from a woman in physically intimate situations, and something so seemingly binary (“yes” or “no”) has been contorted into “well, maybe she was asking for it? She was drunk and she came onto me and she was smiling. I don’t know, I thought she wanted it.” I recall Friendly Frankie (she asked us to call her that) and Ms. Rothman walking us through drug and sex ed respectively in elementary school, with our classes divided by gender. Yet, not once, then or throughout our formative years, did we get the “don’t rape” memo, nor were we really schooled on the interconnectivity of intoxicants and male sexual responsibility. Rather, we boys were socialized outside these one-off classes to establish dominance, over one another and especially over girls, and later, women.
Rolling Stone’s reportage SNAFU aside, having been in a frat for a year during my first college try, my initial reaction to the account of the UVA frat party rape was, “they did it.” (It bears mentioning that the house next to ours, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, was, almost jokingly, referred to as “Sexual Assault Expected.”) Yet of course, master-level numb-nuts and known floor-shitter Charles C. Johnson and his ilk were falling all over themselves to discredit and further humiliate the Rolling Stone story’s accuser, “Jackie.” Heinous though it may be, rape may be the only serious crime where the onus is on the victim to prove it happened. And that most rapes are perpetrated against women by men surely doesn’t have anything at all to do with that, right?
The Internet has been alight recently with the story of a Stanford kid getting caught mid-rape. While it’s great that he was both caught in the act and swiftly dealt with by the campus community (it was, in fact, men who stopped him), one cannot help but think of the near-Sisyphyean task his victim would’ve had in getting such help if he’d completed his deed. In a culture where the vast majority of such acts of sexual violence go unreported, us men can’t go patting ourselves on the back over a headline like this. The heart of the matter is, given unreported rapes, only 2 percent of rapists will serve time in prison. This is nothing short of a crisis and men have a responsibility to correct course.
Similarly, assorted street harassment videos from the past few months, their attendant controversies aside, shed light on the iron-clad nature of male entitlement. The belief that women exist solely as objects of our gaze, and hopefully, with the right pick-up maneuver or catcall, the objects of our attention, our grasp, our soon-to-be-realized fantasies, can be fatal. Detroit woman Mary Spears was gunned down by a harasser after she rejected his advances. Eliot Rodger was so bothered by women not being attracted to him that he went on a “retribution” rampage last year in his California college town, killing six people and injuring more than a dozen before dying of a self-inflicted gunshot.
Videos of gropers getting shamed, or teenaged online abusers getting narc’ed on to their moms are awesome and profound, but it shouldn’t even have to come to that. The patriarchy has deep roots, of course, but the responsibility of those living in a supposedly enlightened society is to not relive the bullshit of the past. Organizations such as Men Can Stop Rape give hope in an atmosphere of wanton threats by men on- and offline and little to no culpability. I don’t just want this world to be less horrible for my as yet unborn daughter. I want it to be better for all the daughters, present and future, all the women of the world. I am not so aloof as to think that an essay on the internet will be enough to turn the tide of patriarchy. Pragmatically speaking, this is more a call for evolution than revolution. Yet, if just one guy can come to understand that a change to who we are as men is long overdue, maybe he can pass it on to another man and so on and so on. There’s work to be done yet, and it’s on us, not them, to make the internet, the street, the subway, truly safe spaces for women.