The Cure for “Toxic” Masculinity Is Real Masculinity
Since the #MeToo phenomenon hit, I have started asking my female friends directly about their everyday experiences with men. For example, what proportion of men that they “meet” on a dating app send utterly inappropriate communications, and how often in everyday life does a guy disrespect them in a way that’s overtly or implicitly sexual?
While I am sure that my circle of male friends isn’t fully representative of the population of men at large, I was shocked to discover from my unscientific survey how many men have no clue about how to behave. Based on the combined responses of several women I trust, the number of men who say or do something offensive to a woman they don’t know on a dating app, almost right out of the gate, may be just shy of a majority. And many a young woman can, if you ask her, relate tales of men making inappropriate remarks, shouting out of a car window as she walks down the street, whipping out his genitalia after one too many drinks, or being opportunistically crude at a coffee shop, even as she sits there with a very young child. (These were all stories I was told.) For some young women, these things seem to happen on a more or less monthly basis.
My recent conversations with female friends about the matter has led me to this question: what the hell is wrong with these men, and why are there so many of them?
To me, this is not a question about sexual harassment. It’s a more fundamental one: an old-fashioned idea called manners. My female friends’ experiences with men have surprised me because they have to put up with a lot more, and a lot more often, than I could have expected based on the evidence available to me as a result of my interactions with other men.
Even though I have robust views about not calling gittish and crass people “predators” or those on the receiving end of rude behaviors “victims”, it must be horrible to have to put up with so much boorishness. I don’t think I’d have the patience for it.
How have we let this happen?
If you’re male and reading this with the same limited appreciation of the matter as I had before I started asking my female friends to list examples of ill-mannered, sexually-loaded behavior, you may be skeptical. I urge you, however, to do the same thing as I have done and ask a cross-section of your female friends to give you examples of their personal anecdotes of such behavior from the last few months. They may well provide more than you expect.
Thinking on all of this, and being appalled by bad manners anywhere for any reason, I have started considering what I, as a man, should be saying to other men, if anything, about this problem. My long-held opinion (stated elsewhere) that Western culture is suffering a crisis in masculinity may well find sympathy among many of those who have been fervent in driving the #MeToo phenomenon, but I suspect my prescription for solving this crisis may be more controversial: I believe we need more masculinity, not less, and we need it because what the Louis C.K.s and the Weinsteins of this world have been doing is not an expression of masculinity in its true sense at all.
I’d like to see us turning to these men and asking them in a very disappointed tone, as opposed to a dramatic and scandalized one, “How pathetic are you - and why?” Because that question in that tone conveys the important message that their behavior doesn’t make them more manly; it makes them less so.
Scientifically trained, I generally take care to get out of my own subjective way in my political articles, but this time, I’ll make an exception and happily admit that what follows is a subjective, almost intuitive suggestion offered in the hope of inviting constructive discussion.
The true masculine, or the “sacred masculine” if you prefer, is kind, honest, controlled, disciplined, heroic, protective, strong, rational, and even clever. Throwing out the baby of masculinity with the bathwater of disrespect is absolutely the last thing we need to be doing. Telling men that masculinity is inherently flawed or dangerous is to tell a lie born of misdiagnosis. The moral vacuum in which Weinstein and Franken and others of their ilk operate can only be filled by a celebratory masculinity that is held up as something to aspire to.
If there is such a thing as a spiritual law, none is more certain than, “What is focused on is made bigger,” so let us define that highest version of masculinity as an invitation to men – a north star, if you will, to guide them as they interact with others. That would enable those aspects of men that are gendered, sexual, and desirous to be integrated into the highest versions of who they are, rather than denied or pathologized only to be expressed in distorted ways that can, indeed, reasonably be called “toxic.”
Treating toxic masculinity with real masculinity and pointing to the difference between the two has the benefit of engaging the irrepressible male ego on the side of good - of aligning maleness with manners rather than against them.
Perhaps most importantly, a culturally normalized notion of proud and positive masculinity would allow mothers once again to be able to say to their sons, “This is how you treat a woman, and, in so doing, this is how to be a man.” Boys want to be men, so we can surely only improve them by appealing to that desire rather than suppressing it and thereby creating a vacuum to be filled by a distorted and hollow replacement.
Shocking as they are, it’s not all the male bad manners that astonished me most about the stories I’ve recently heard. It’s male stupidity. After all, if I were a man who wants any kind of sexual satisfaction or affirmation from a woman, and the most sophisticated play I had was to shout out of a car window, rub up against her on a train, or ask her if I can masturbate in front of her, then you’d hope that I’d eventually work out that my method isn’t all that effective. How deficient, one may ask, does a person have to be to be unable to assess the results of his actions against his goals, especially as the results (or lack thereof) repeat themselves over and over? Indeed, a need for sexual affirmation or activity that is so great that they would cause me to leave my manners at the front door should, even if I were a sociopath, motivate me to start collecting the data. (Rationality is supposed to be a “masculine trait” too, isn’t it?) How long, then, before the thought hits that being rude to every second woman that I find faintly attractive isn’t getting me what I want from them?
In reaction to that level of stupidity alone, I can’t help but feel that men should be asking other men, “What is this nonsense?”
That would be an approach to making better men that makes more of true masculinity, not less of it. It’s an approach that says to those who are toxic in their approaches to women, “That’s the opposite of masculinity. That’s what you do when you’re not a man. That’s what you do when you haven’t got the basics.”
I love the polarity that exists between the masculine and feminine. Long before #MeToo, I was writing that no one benefits when men can’t be men because masculinity itself has almost become taboo. Men who can’t be, and feel like, real men cannot give women the pleasure of feeling like real women.
I stand by all of that, but when I first wrote it, I was missing something: there are a bunch of men out there on dating apps and shouting out of car windows who actually are making women feel very much like women - but not the kind of women they want to feel like being. You could say, rather, that toxic male approaches are causing women to have a toxic experience of their own femininity. How dare we do that to something so exquisite and delicious?
So, my message to men who are disrespecting women is that you are making it harder for the rest of us. By giving women good reason to be wary of any kind of male approach, you’re making all the women out there skeptical of me and the decent examples of my gender. And I’m not ok with that.
But I also have a message for mothers. Mom, it’s okay to make your son a man. It’s okay to use that word. Only once you’ve used that word can you turn around and say, “This behavior isn’t masculine; it’s pathetic. And by the way, son, if you actually want to get with an attractive women, here’s how not to do it. Don’t disrespect her; don’t throw crude one-liners out of a car window, and don’t send a picture of your genitals to her on a dating app. If you want to get the attractive women, the smart women, the kind of women you’re going to enjoy – and you should – then why don’t you learn a little bit about them? Indeed, why don’t you learn a little bit about the difference between them and you?”
And that last piece is so important because I have a sense (and I could be wrong) that many people who have been pushing the #MeToo phenomenon hard are of the more third-wave-feminist persuasion, wanting to collapse that distinction between men and women. (It’s all socialization, they say.) But I’m suggesting that the exact opposite approach to solving the problem out of which #MeToo has arisen.
Why not tell our boys what’s great and beautiful about masculinity so that once we’ve built them up in what they are, they have no need to feel threatened or intimidated by learning about the feminine other – that other that will drive them through life in more ways than they will ever consciously realize? Let’s spend more time promoting models of positive masculinity than on telling guys, young and old, that, and why, we’re all awful. (We’re not.) Let’s talk up the good alpha-males: those who are comfortable in their masculinity – assertive while respectful, confident while polite, ambitious while kind. They exist in all areas of life. The next time you’re about to talk about Al Franken’s shenanigans, how about talking instead about one of those real men, who gets what he wants through respect? And draw the contrast between them explicitly.
Then, as we start celebrating healthy, robust masculinity, let’s not slip back into thinking that the problem we are trying to solve has anything much to do with sex. As Oscar Wilde famously said,
Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.
That applies here and now – albeit not in quite the way Wilde meant it.
The unacceptable sexual behaviors of men who exhibit toxic masculinity are rooted in something to do with power – but not primarily in the conscious exertion of sexual power over another. Rather, their disrespectful treatment of women for a sexual prize (which they invariably fail to win) is reflective of a lack of inner power as men which leaves them resorting to aggressive behavior and exploiting the immediate superficial and circumstantial power that exists by virtue of a professional relationship or particular social or economic context.
Men shouldn’t behave disrespectfully toward women not because there’s anything wrong with their sexuality, their desire, or their masculinity. No; they shouldn’t do it because no one should disrespect anyone, ever. Period. End of story.
We have to take care, then, that we don’t misdiagnose the disease just because it is more easily seen in certain situations than in others: disrespect from men is disproportionately observed in the sexual domain because the male sexual imperative is never really turned off, and it necessarily manifests in ways that are directly seen and experienced by women (assuming the men are straight).
Women, please help us good men police our own by talking up positive masculinity – the masculinity that you want more of. Celebrate the polarity between your femininity and the masculinity of the men you like. Tell us that it’s ok to be sexually assertive and thoroughly masculine – but only in the right context. And explain to us that that context always involves the prior establishment of mutual respect, a sense of safety, and trust. We are basic creatures. You, ladies, are gatekeepers. So let us know that respect and social competence will open that gate much more easily than will crude attempts to bash it down.
In short, don’t ask us not to be men. Ask us to be real men.