Let me start by laying my cards out and saying why I’m writing this. I was assigned male at birth. I was raised a feminist boy in the late 60s, early 70s. I have a strong and assertive mother. I have a minor in Women’s Studies, I’m trans, and non binary (since I was 19). I’ve held to feminist principles all my life and plan to continue. I have a strong partnership with a woman. I make strong friendships mostly with women. I don’t expect cookies or sex or even affection for anything I do in the name of feminism. I do feminism because it’s the right call and the way to the future. I’m writing this because I was talking with my partner about it this morning, and it occurred to me that I haven’t seen anyone write about this yet, especially not men, because there’s a wall of silence around it, still, even amid all the accusations and firings, so I’ll talk about it and see if it gets any traction.
So. Toxic masculinity (and harasser and assaulter culture): You’re soaking in it. Literally soaking in it. Awash, soaked, inundated, flush, overflowing, deluged, immersed, engulfed, glutted, flooded, overrun. Maybe it’s the more intense for me because I am always living and existing in defiance of it. Maybe I get unconsciously and subconsciously more policed because I am resisting and pushing against it. Maybe it’s my imagination. Maybe I’m getting intentionally gaslit. Probably a little bit of everything.
Let me first say that all the men (at least those of my generation – I’m Gen X, going on 50) who are now saying they never saw harassment, they never harassed, they never were abusive: they’re lying. Or taking liberties with the truth and their history. Every single one of us was at least at one time taken aside by a strong, older, powerful guy, and given The Talk (I got it 4 times that I can remember, probably, in sum, more than that), which consisted of lessons in how to comport ourselves and what to expect while on a date, while courting, while pursuing a person to be intimate with. I wasn’t growing up in a conservative state, either. I was born in Southern California, and raised in both Southern and Northern California.
We were encouraged by these mentors to practice and “be confident”, which was short for demand time and attention from mostly women, with respect to this style of courtship. We were encouraged to assume our advances were wanted. To assume we were desired and desirable. To assume women and girls, looking for a strong, authoritative leader, would set aside their own projects and priorities for just an inkling or a glimmer of attention from us. We were encouraged to assume we were the prize. We were desired. We were the focus of attention. We were told we should do this demanding and pursuing as much as possible. We were told if we wanted something or someone we should take it, and apologize later. We were encouraged to consider consent optional. We were encouraged to consider as many (women) as possible sexual targets as we conceivably could. We were encouraged to abstract marriage and other partnership vows and to make peace with the idea that in order to claim and hold space and territory for ourselves and our success, those vows should be optional while we pursued as many sex partners as possible.
We further had it demonstrated to us that talking about these topics, letting it be known that these talks and priorities were being cultivated and encouraged in us was “career limiting” (fireable/no promotions). We had it carefully explained to us that women couldn’t be trusted. That we shouldn’t share this information or culture with them. That this had to be in the man’s world only.
We have porn of it. All these weird kinky porn fantasies that are getting mainstreamed on the free porn portals (and I get that this is a self-reinforcing feedback loop – these stories we tell ourselves and the monetary dynamic that keeps them going), about sex with realtors, with our sisters, with our mothers, with our clergy, with our sisters’ best friends, with our friends, with our aunts and uncles, with our secretaries, our plumbers, our pizza delivery women, with everyone in our sphere of social influence, they reinforce that idea. That our (valid) sexual territory is every possible eligible partner we know or do business with. I write this knowing that of course there are people able to differentiate sexual fantasy and porn from reality. But there are those who aren’t, too.
Toxic masculinity, and the toxic men who raised us were rife, constant, terrible. It was every potential guy. There were, sure, a few dudes who, like us, were questioning this whole line of thinking, who trusted women and who didn’t think this was the right call or the right approach to life to be this presumptive, this exploitative. And we had some leeway to gather and cultivate a new way of thinking and behaving and doing.
But I knew or knew of or heard about dozens of men throughout my life who thought and spoke like this. (I’ve talked as openly as possible about every one I know of now.) In the great majority. These toxic men were raised to look at the world exploitatively. And they were raising others. Giving The Talk to others. They were raised to look at the world and women as objects and resources. They were raised to take the fullest advantage of everything, and to blame their acts of exploitation on the victims themselves. “It’s their fault for letting themselves be taken advantage of.” This kind of thinking pervades colonialism and capitalism. It pervades white privilege. It pervades the life and experience of all men.
It is absolutely safest to assume with any strange man (and probably all men you know) that if they can get away with something exploitative, it will cross their minds to try. Because that’s the road to success, they would argue, if caught and challenged. And I’m not saying every man you know is (by behavior) toxic. But I’m saying we all got exposed to it. We all have impulsive thoughts that follow it, even if we never take action on those thoughts.
These toxic men (and I know these impulsive, aggressive thoughts cross my mind too – but I always suppress them and find something more productive to do with my time) still, obviously, exist. They’re afraid, for sure, of finally being held, ineffably, almost, to a real cultural and ethical standard that they always thought would be ignorable and imaginary or stay, at least, in the women’s world they never understood. But they’re still going to try to get away with it. If undiscovered, unaccused, they’re going to try to keep moving forward with exploitation and coercion. Unless we teach them, somehow, that they’re not following the right path.
I’m not arguing here for gentleness. I think the time for civilized debate is long past. I think we should be as forceful with our messages and our influence about toxic masculinity as we possibly can. We should make a huge impact. We should leave toxic men licking their wounds for a long time to come, and we shouldn’t tolerate this kind of behavior in the future. I think our reaction and judgement should be swift and immoderate. I think we should insist toxic men learn that they’re not welcome in our civilized society. I think we should all reclaim The Talk and it should be the right and just Talk, and not some grand sexist, chauvinist fantasy world that only (toxic) men cultivate and pass on.
The Talk should be about respect, consent, ethics, and real, mutual, affection. We should teach our men to be self-reliant in love. We should teach our men to be kind and respectful. We should teach our men to seek consent and mutual interest. We should teach our men to be gracious. To take no for an answer. To move on, without great anguish or resentment, to greener pastures. To truly take care of everyone, out of agape, not self-interest, not looking for some kind of payout. To let affection and love develop without need for coercion and exploitation.