“Were you drunk when you seemed so hopeful before? Have you gone to sleep and woken up green and pale in fear of this idea? From now on this is what I’ll think of your love. Are you afraid to act the way you desire? Will you take the crown you want so badly, or will you live as a coward, always saying “I can’t” after you say “I want to”? You’re like the poor cat in the old story.”
“Please, stop! I dare to do only what is proper for a man to do. He who dares to do more is not a man at all.”
“If you weren’t a man, then what kind of animal were you when you first told me you wanted to do this? When you dared to do it, that’s when you were a man. […] I have suckled a baby, and I know how sweet it is to love the baby at my breast. But even as the baby was smiling up at me, I would have plucked my nipple out of its mouth and smashed its brains out against a wall if I had sworn to do that the same way you have sworn to do this.”
Thanks to everyone for coming, thank you to the SFU advocacy for men and boys society for arranging this event, and thank you Theryn for recommending the topic for this presentation.
I’m not sure whether I’ve ever been handed a more thorny topic to explore and discuss, but I’m going to do my best to keep it clean, level-headed and rational.
I know Theryn had sauce for gooses and ganders in mind when she suggested this topic to me, and I can’t really blame her. Toxic Masculinity is such a commonly discussed (and abused) discussion topic, it barely rates a raised eyebrow when it comes up in conversation.
On the other hand, Toxic Femininity is a taboo subject. It’s been so taboo for so long, I could probably convince some ordinary people that it’s a brand new idea that has never before been conceived of, let alone discussed and explored.
Most of the people who talk about Toxic Femininity are called misogynists. Most of those who discuss toxic masculinity call themselves feminists.
So. How would your average feminist define toxic masculinity? I’m almost positive that, despite how feminist rhetoric comes across, no feminist would define it as the notion that all masculine traits are harmful to men or others.
They would instead define it as a complex of harmful ideals, expectations and behaviors intrinsic to masculinity and supported by culture, that are encapsulated in the phrase “patriarchy hurts men too”. To quote the website “geek feminism”, which was the first google hit when I searched “toxic masculinity 101”: A set of socially constructed attitudes that describe the masculine gender role as violent, unemotional, sexually aggressive, and so forth.
Now, geek feminism is an interesting website in the number and degree of its contradictions. Let’s look at some of their examples of these socially constructed attitudes:
First on the list: The pervasive idea of male-female interactions as competition, not cooperation.
Now I don’t know about you (and no, I’m not a traditionalist), but the basis of traditional gender roles has always been one of complementarianism, not competition. Division of labor and roles was considered as essential in marriage as it is on a football team, because that’s what traditional family was: a team. The majority of both men and women in traditional societies, in our past and today in other parts of the world, tend to share this outlook. Husbands and wives are encouraged to embrace different, but equally important, roles precisely so that male-female interactions are cooperative rather than competitive.
Love, honor and obey vs love honor and cherish. And oh, how the feminists of yesteryear railed against that one difference. The admonition that women obey their husbands was considered demeaning, subjugating and oppressive. But let’s look at the other side of the equation, through Ephesians 5:25:
“Husbands, love your wives, as The Messiah also loves his church and gave himself up for her sake.” In other words, he should be prepared to die for her, to sacrifice himself for her benefit.
For centuries, these complementary roles of men and women were taken as a given.
Then, in 1848, a group of angry, mostly privileged, mostly upper middle class white women descended on the town of Seneca Falls in New York and produced a list of grievances essentially declaring war between men and women. In it they described the history of humanity to be one of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman. In response to this growing trend, female anti-suffragettes writing to the Illinois legislature in 1909 had this to say:
“It is our fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons who represent us at the ballot-box.
Our fathers and our brothers love us; our husbands are our choice and one with us; our sons
are what we make them. We are content that they represent us in the corn-field; on the
battle-field, and at the ballot-box, and we them in the school room, at the fireside, and at the
Of course, such an attitude of cooperation rather than competition requires a woman’s respect and affection for, and her trust in, the men in her life, an ethic of care and reciprocity by men toward women, and a spirit of mutual human destiny, whereby it is understood that any harm to a woman will be felt as a harm to the men in her life, and any harm to a man will likewise be suffered by the women in his life. In 1909, no less than in 1848, this was the attitude of the overwhelming majority of both women and men.
And what did that view boil down to? The sexes are not in competition. The sexes are meant to cooperate, each with each, in their own way. The Declaration of Sentiments, out of Seneca Falls, was the opening salvo in what has become 165 years of gender warfare.
Yet somehow, in 2015, feminists are claiming that a competitive view of gender relations is a traditional, patriarchal norm?
Next on the list of “geek feminism’s” examples of toxic masculinity: The pervasive idea that men cannot truly understand women, and vice versa--and following, that no true companionship can be had between different sexes.
I have one word for you: “mansplaining.” Or how about this: “you have no idea what it’s like to be a woman. Check your male privilege.” I hear this kind of thing from feminists all the time.
I also hear lots of talk about women’s common lived experience, sisterhood, and women’s ways of knowing… from feminists. I hear lots of talk about women being able to bring something different to the table regarding politics or corporate boards or questions of ethics and policy, as if men cannot be trusted to understand where women are coming from in terms of being capable of representing their interests. Can you guess from whom?
Moving on: The idea that a Real Man cannot be a victim of abuse, or that talking about it is shameful.
I could take this time to cite dozens, perhaps hundreds, of examples of feminist scholars who have for decades minimized or concealed altogether the prevalence of male victims of intimate partner violence. I could take this time to explain how noted feminist sexual violence expert Mary Koss excluded male victims of female sexual coercion by definition during her tenure as consultant with the CDC. I could show you screen shots of thousands of comments I’ve read by feminists (and others) insisting that female on male abuse is infinitesimally rare, and if it isn’t, well, it’s “just different” because it’s not as bad, or not as potentially lethal, or not as systemic, or not as institutionalized or not as supported by patriarchy, or just “because reasons”. I could tell you how Erin Pizzey was forced to flee her home and her country by a concerted decade-long harassment campaign by feminists, all for daring to say that women are sometimes violent too, and men are sometimes victims, and how the mere idea of that inflamed militant feminists to the point of bomb and death threats. I could detail the travails of Murray Straus and his brave colleagues who were the first to publish research demonstrating gender symmetry in intimate partner violence, and name what group it was that put them through the gamut of abuse, shunning, blacklisting, threats, false accusations and career sabotage, but I don’t think you need me to.
It seems to me that within feminism’s paradigm, men, cannot be considered real victims of abuse, or at least cannot be victims deserving equal consideration and concern, and that talking about it is not just shameful in feminist circles, but punishable. And if you challenge their attitudes in any real way, well, you’re probably going to get called a whiny, crybaby loser who lives in his mother’s basement and can’t get laid. That is: not a real man.
Men are just like that: the expectation that Real Men are keenly interested in sex, want to have sex, and are ready to have sex most if not all times
And here, I am just going to quote feminist Mary Koss’s justification for excluding forced envelopment from the category of rape in the CDC’s research:
“Although men may sometimes sexually penetrate women when ambivalent about their own desires…”
Ambivalent about their own desires? Sounds a lot like she’s saying, “well, they wanted it, they just didn’t realize they wanted it, but they pretty much wanted it…”
“Though not reinforced much in fictional media, in real life it is widely expected that a man would abandon his pregnant girlfriend, and is incapable and/or unwilling to take responsibility.”
This is an interesting one, given that the primary function of traditional marriage has always been to accurately identify the fathers of children, and hold those fathers responsible, financially and practically, for the support and wellbeing of those children and their mothers.
Shotgun weddings. He’ll do his duty by her.
Then there’s the fact that our entire legal and bureaucratic structure around men and family is poised to assign and enforce paternal responsibility. Even on men who did not consent to become fathers—and, appallingly, even on men who did not consent to the sex that made them into fathers, such as one 14 year old boy in the US who was raped by a 35 year old woman (a crime for which she served two years in prison) and then forced to her pay child support out of his paper route.
The hard and statistically supported truth is that non-custodial mothers, though less numerous overall, are more likely than non-custodial fathers to be in arrears on child support, are more likely to refuse to pay it altogether, and are at the same time much less likely to be jailed for failing to pay.
And the judges and legislators responsible for all of it? Mostly men, progressive or conservative, enforcing traditionally masculine responsibilities on other men. I don’t know if you all remember Obama’s father’s day address a few years ago, where he chastised black fathers for being deadbeats? I’m only surprised he wasn’t wearing his “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt while doing it.
The masculinity men expect from each other, and have for millennia, is one that rigidly reinforces paternal responsibility.
If it is assumed that men will try to cheese out on that responsibility, it is certainly not allowed. Not by society, not by other men, and certainly not within patriarchal traditions. In fact, Legal Paternal Surrender—the right of a man to refuse the obligations of parenthood if he didn’t consent to be a father—is one of the most heatedly opposed policy changes suggested by men’s advocates. It’s opposed by the vast majority of both traditional conservatives and progressive feminists.
Meanwhile, there are hundreds of thousands of fathers across the west who are financially supporting their children while simultaneously being denied reasonable access to them by their mothers with the tacit support of lackadaisical, apathetic family courts.
And what does the largest feminist organization in the US, the national organization for women, have to say about father’s rights groups?
That they are an abuser’s lobby, campaigning for more effective paternal custody and access rights not out of love for their children, or a sense of responsibility to provide them with nurturance and and support, but out of a desire to abuse and harass their estranged female partners, or to get out of paying child support.
Sounds like toxic masculinity to me.
Meanwhile, a 2008 study out of Indiana University reported:
“Contrary to stereotypes about sexual performance and masculinity, men interviewed in a large international study reported that being seen as honorable, self-reliant and respected was more important to their idea of masculinity than being seen as attractive, sexually active or successful with women.
“Regardless of age or nationality, the men more frequently ranked good health, harmonious family life and good relationships with their wife or partner as more important to their quality of life than material, self-fulfilling or purely sexual concerns.”
I seem to be seeing a pattern here.
But you know, I want to go a layer or three deeper than feminists tend to in my discussion of toxic gender norms, because clearly, as I outlined above, these ladies haven’t really thought it all through.
After all, if they oppose toxic masculinity because “patriarchy hurts men too”, and want to change and challenge the attitudes that lead to it, they probably wouldn’t be among the worst offenders when it comes to enforcing, endorsing and normalizing them, would they? I mean think about it. Even Fox News will admit that fathers get a shit deal in family court, and too often lose meaningful relationships with their children for no good reason. It’s only feminists who claim that men fighting for their right to remain fathers to their children are probably violent abusers, or are only attempting to avoid their proper (financial) paternal responsibility by faking a greater interest in a day to day caring role.
So, down we go, into the mess of things. Going a little deeper, the causes become simpler, even as the outcomes become more diverse.
What feminists claim are expectations that real men should be violent, unemotional and sexually aggressive, we will look at in other terms.
Men are expected to be competent actors. Violence is a form of action. Sexual aggression (or, on the less extreme section of the spectrum, sexual proceptivity) is a form of action. And emotional mastery, despite what feminists will tell you about women’s greater emotional intelligence, is a form of competence.
I would suggest to everyone here when you go home tonight, to do a search on Youtube. A good search term would be “everyday heroes” or “real life heroes”. There are several compilations out there, all of people doing things, big or small, risky or just thoughtful, to help out people they don’t even know. In one scene I recall, a elderly woman is standing in a blizzard waiting to cross a busy street in Eastern Europe. A man stops his car in the middle of the road to block traffic, turns on his flashers, gets out and helps her to the other side. In another scene, a man waiting for the subway passes out and falls onto the tracks. Dozens of women on the platform start frantically trying to flag down the train, but it’s a man who jumps down onto the tracks. And it’s another man who helps to pull the unconscious fellow and the other guy back up before the train comes. In another scene, a motorcyclist is pinned under a burning car. Mostly male bystanders rush in and push the vehicle off of him and pull him to safety. In another, a truck is stalled on some railway tracks, and a man pushes the vehicle to safety, only narrowly avoiding being hit by the train himself.
It’s quite amazing, really, when you think about it.
And one thing you will notice while watching these videos. Almost without exception, time after time after time after time, it is men doing these things.
Every one of those men took action, and they were able to do so because they had mastery over their emotions. They set aside, intentionally or otherwise, their panic, their doubt, their fear, their anxiety, their own desires or needs, and in many cases their safety, and they acted in the service of a greater good.
That is the essence of masculine identity in all cultures, through all times. The ability to master one’s own fears and doubts and take action, whether it’s to track down an outlaw, murder a rival, avenge a loved one, run into a burning building or leap into a river in flood to save a stranger, stand fast on a battlefield, take responsibility for a female partner’s wellbeing.
Or even transform his own rape into a notch on his belt.
I’m going to use the example of an 11 year old boy who was recently raped by his then 20 year old babysitter. The perpetrator had been sexually involved with the boy’s father, and knew the boy’s age. Somehow, she managed to convince the judge that she believed this boy was 15.
And somehow, somehow, the father’s testimony that his son was “sex mad” and saw the incident as a notch on his belt was given more weight than the boy’s testimony that he did not enjoy the experience because he knew it was wrong.
The woman was given a suspended sentence. Yes, no jail time. She has to register as a sex offender, but only for 7 years, and her probationary supervision and restrictions will only last for two years.
Her defence attorney had this to say: she was vulnerable and had a hard upbringing, spending two years in hospital with leukaemia between the ages of five and seven. The judge added that she was very immature, reducing the age difference in terms of relative levels of emotional development.
So the conclusions in this case are as follows:
- the boy essentially wanted it, and was not harmed by it (even though by his own testimony he did not enjoy it and believed it was wrong)
- the woman was at the mercy of her own emotions which she could not be expected to control, because the circumstances of her life had been difficult
- the boy managed to convince her that he was not 11 but 15, despite the fact that she knew he was 11, and so he brought it on himself
- men commenting on this case are much more likely than women to say “I only wish I was that kid” or “lucky bastard” or any number of other sentiments that erase the fact that he was a victim of something he did not choose or want
There are very few cases where the difference between the assumptions and expectations of masculinity and femininity are more clear than this one.
Masculine identity centers almost entirely around perceptions of agency (one's own perceptions, and the perceptions of others).
Feminine identity, on the other hand, is much more capable of assuming "object" status (and please let me be clear. I’m not using the word “object” in the sense of dehumanization. There's a very good paper that essentially discredits the idea that objectification necessarily = dehumanization, and I can provide the links if anyone wants them after we’re done).
For the purpose of this talk, I am going by these basic definitions:
Agents make things happen. Objects have things happen to them.
A great deal of our cultural discourse around men and women (including a huge amount of feminist discourse) is about the things men DO to women and the things women SUFFER at the hands of men, reinforcing men's status as agents and women's status as objects.
Admitting that you have been victimized, that something has happened to you that you did not want, choose or cause in any way whatsoever, is much easier for women than it is for men, and much easier for others to accept and acknowledge regarding women than men, because it does not conflict with the cultural or inner perception of what is Woman.
A woman can be a victim and still be perceived as a woman. A man cannot be a victim and remain a man in the eyes of others and often even himself.
This is particularly true regarding the ways men are vulnerable *because they are men*. I can’t even convey to you the number of times I’ve managed to convince a man that yes, males are the majority of victims of violence, and that yes, no matter the gender of the perpetrator, violence is more likely to be perpetrated on a male than a female, and that yes, this pattern begins before age 1, when parents start hitting their sons 2 to 3 times as often as they hit their daughters…. only to have that man stick to his guns and insist that violence is a bigger problem for women, and that society doesn’t take it seriously enough. That the VAWA and the thousands of beds in shelters and the mandatory arrest policies and all the rest of don’t go far enough to deal with the problem of violence against women. And they will often say this moments after they have conceded that violence is a larger, more ubiquitous problem for men, and even when they have accepted that women are as likely to be violent with men as men are to be violent with women.
If toxic masculinity is exemplified by the assumption that men cannot be Real Men if they are victims, then toxic femininity is the assumption that women are uniquely victims, and that their identity as women is partially defined by their victimhood. Their victimhood at the hands of men, at the hands of patriarchy, at the hands of the beauty industry, at the hands of rape culture, male privilege, toxic masculinity and institutionalized sexism. It is the assumption that the multitudes of studies demonstrating that they are often not unique victims—that men are equally likely to be victims of sexual and physical violence, sexist assumptions, negative stereotypes and rigid gender expectations imposed on them by all of society, including progressives and feminists—that these studies are wrong or false or “problematic”.
I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I have actually convinced a black man that “driving while black” is actually “driving while black and male”, and that it would probably never happen to his mother or sister, only to have him insist less than a minute later that his maleness is not a factor in his experiences of being targeted by police, and that he’s never felt discriminated against for being a man, and that black women still have it worse.
Anything to not be seen as a victim, or a potential victim, because you are MALE, because THAT, my friends, means that you are not an agent, and therefore not a real man. It is women who are acted upon. It is women who are objects who do not act, but rather endure the acts of others. If WOMEN are the victim class, then a man who admits to being a victim cannot remain a man.
And when it comes to interactions with the opposite sex, this tendency is even greater, because of that pesky notion that women don't actually do things, but instead have things done to them, while men are the ultimate cause of things happening.
What could undermine a man's sense of agency, which is so central to his cultural identity, more effectively than being raped by an "object"? Much better to treat that rape like a notch on your belt, and pretend to revel in the high fives.
You can see this in relation to physical violence too. A man hits a woman? There's no excuse that can ever justify it. There is nothing she could possibly have DONE to deserve it. A woman hits a man? "I wonder what he DID to deserve that? I bet he was cheating on her... Maybe he was getting fresh with her..." All of these actions we will attribute to him in our own thoughts, kind of automatically, that will transform her action into a *re*action to some initial action on his part. Our instant assumption is that her violence was provoked, or self-defensive, or even due to some other thing outside of her control, like PMS or a mental disorder or whatever, because we will resist seeing her as an agent in whom a desire to act can can be originated and then taken.
And our assumption regarding the victimized man is that he chose or caused what happened in some way (or at the very least, he could taken some action and stopped it from happening). He remains the agent in the scenario.
So let’s go back and see what we can discern of toxic femininity in some of Geek Feminism’s list of toxically masculine norms, shall we?
First up: The pervasive idea of male-female interactions as competition, not cooperation.
What has feminism been but the demand by a minority of women to do away with male-female cooperation and redefine men and women as opposing teams? Redefine marriage as an institution designed to exploit women for men’s benefit? Redefine the sexes as if they were nations at war. The first inklings of this mindset can be found in the Declaration of Sentiments, and they linger even now in feminism’s constant lament about wage gaps and the lack of female representation in STEM or on corporate boards.
This assumption is not a patriarchal norm. It’s a feminist one. It’s not toxic masculinity, it’s toxic femininity.
Or this one: “Though not reinforced much in fictional media, in real life it is widely expected that a man would abandon his pregnant girlfriend, and is incapable and/or unwilling to take responsibility.”
Traditional masculinity has been constructed largely to hold men responsible for the children they help create. In fact, it was part of what could be considered to be a tradition of masculine honor, socially constructed and institutionally reinforced by males themselves. If there are any feminists in the audience, I would like to ask you: do you agree with legally enforced child support? Do you think men should be held legally financially responsible for children they didn’t agree to create because they gave their consent to the obligations of parenthood when they had sex?
More than this: what about women? “If she didn’t want kids, she should have kept her legs together.” Is that acceptable or appropriate to say? Then why is it acceptable or appropriate for people, including many, many feminists I’ve talked to, to say, “he made his choice when they had sex.”?
For women, largely due to feminist advocacy, sex and reproduction have been decoupled. While there is such a thing as an accidental pregnancy, there is no such thing as an accidental birth, nor accidental motherhood, since even after birth women have a de jure and de facto right to walk away from that obligation. Motherhood is not the result of an accident, and it’s certainly not something men do to women through the massive patriarchal power of their ejaculations—not in this day and age. It’s the result of a series of unilateral decisions on the part of any given woman. No woman in the west is forced to consent to becoming a mother just because she had sex.
Yet feminism has only further codified the patriarchal norm that men should be held responsible for the children they help create, despite the fact that nowadays women hold unilateral power of decision over whether or not they themselves will become a parent.
When I talk about Legal Paternal Surrender, the impression I get from feminists is that a man’s single decision and action—to ejaculate—is to them as powerful, if not more powerful, than a woman’s entire gamut of autonomous reproductive decisions.
He “got” her pregnant. And the baby? Well, the baby just “happened”.
Again, we force men into the role of active agent who can affect those around them, and women into the role of passive object at the mercy of outside forces. And if an abortion is more difficult or costly to obtain than a haircut? Well, she’s the victim of that, too, isn’t she?
We assign him agency even when he doesn’t have it, and hold him responsible, yet for all her power, she is still the victim.
So. Here we kind of come full circle. If much of “toxic masculinity” is based on the assumption that men are agents, much of “toxic femininity” is based on the assumption that women are objects who are acted upon, and therefore unique victims.
And this is where things get sticky, because as Warren Farrell once said, “men’s greatest weakness is their facade of strength, and women’s greatest strength is their facade of weakness.”
So why? Why would this be? Why do we see men and women in these ways? Why do men avoid being perceived as victims (at least in terms of being victims AS MEN), while women increasingly seem to revel in an identity steeped in how they are acted upon?
Well, in my opinion, it’s for the same reason societies have always gone out of their way to preserve women and children, often at the cost of men’s lives.
A feminist recently posed the question in the comments section of another feminist’s video: why are women cold all the time? Why does the air conditioning make me shiver while my husband feels just fine?
The answer is, because for the most intense period of human evolution—the pleistocene, or ice age—a period where a half dozen other bipedal hominid species went extinct, women shared their immediate environment, including its hazards and comforts, with their much more vulnerable children. Women can survive the cold as readily as any man, but they are more sensitive to it because their children could not. Being sensitive to the cold meant that women were alerted to the risk of it to their children, who were more vulnerable to it. That increased the chances of survival for their children.
On the flip side, men were expected to venture far afield in all types of weather to bring in food. For men during that period, being insensitive to the cold increased the chances of survival for their children.
This is just how men and women evolved. We evolved in tandem. We evolved in roles that reflected a division of labor.
And that brings us back around to Lady Macbeth.
The bit of Shakespeare I quoted in the beginning is an archetypical literary example of toxic femininity. A woman, hungry for power and status above her own, goads her husband to murder the king. She goads him by undermining his masculinity. She goads him through shame. She goads him by revoking his man card. And at the end, she goads him by telling him she’s more of a man than he is, more honorable in her promises, and more willing to sacrifice something dear to her to preserve that honor.
Shakespeare knew men and women at least this well, though I have often wondered if his view of lady Macbeth was a little rosy. Later in the play, driven mad by guilt over her role in the murder of King Duncan, she commits suicide. I have always wondered if a fan-fiction alternate ending might have been more realistic—one where she feels no guilt, and where, standing in a field of dead, her own husband among them she attaches herself to the nearest powerful man and regales him with stories of how Macbeth was a cruel and vicious husband with no love in his heart.
Why would I think Lady Macbeth would do this? Because she can, yo.