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Talking toxic masculinity

problematic people doing problematic things

The Duke Men’s Project has been getting a lot of press lately. Formed last year, the Duke Men’s Project “aims to create a space of brotherhood fellowship dedicated to interrogating male privilege and patriarchy as it exists in our lives, our campus and our society.” The goal is to develop a masculinity that is “inclusive, equitable and positive.” The Chronicle’s Editorial Board wrote that the project is “novel” and “critically important.” As the Board writes, “Women are forced to consider their role in society all the time—it is time for men now to do the same.”

I am lucky enough to know many of the men involved in the creation and maintenance of the Duke Men’s Project. I have watched them labor to build the group from the ground-up while working in close collaboration with groups already working to prevent sexual assault on campus, like the Women’s Center, Duke Support and We Are Here Duke. These men epitomize the kind of campus activism we should be proud of and encourage.

Fox News and the dozens of commentators on these articles, however, appear to have a different take. A recent Fox News article appears to question the existence of toxic masculinity and suggests the Men’s Project promotes the feminization of American men. Commenters on the Board’s article seethe over “feminazis,” their perception that conversations about toxic masculinity necessitate men’s castration and, my personal favorite, that men will now be forced to go buy tampons.

Oh, the inhumanity.

The visceral reaction to the Men’s Project is likely twofold; one, that people don’t understand the concept of toxic masculinity, and two, that they adamantly deny its existence. So what is toxic masculinity?

As one article notes, toxic masculinity is a system of “socially-constructed attitudes, mindsets and (yes) boundaries that tell men that there is only one possible way to embody their (also socially-constructed) gender, and tells women that they should be looking for (and submissive to) a violent, sex-obsessed, controlling, unfeeling, all-around-unresponsive person.” If you need a crash course in the difference between sex and gender, I recommend starting with Laci Green’s YouTube videos.

Toxic masculinity is obsessed with promoting male sexual prowess at the expense of women. It is what stifles men from showing emotion lest they be considered too girly; it stamps out any perceived sign of femininity. It is what labels men as players for having sex with many women but labels women as sluts and whores for doing the same.

At its worst, toxic masculinity results in extreme outbursts of violence. Many, if not most, rapists, batterers and murderers deny personal responsibility and shift the blame to something else as justification for their violence. Brock Turner, the infamous Stanford rapist, blamed alcohol and promiscuity for his violent rape of a woman behind a dumpster. He never once took responsibility or apologized to the victim. Likewise, the day Elliot Rodgers shot and killed six people at a California university, he uploaded a 137-page manifesto seething frustration over his lack of sexual prowess. He claimed to “deserve girls” more than other men, vowing, “If I can’t have you girls, I will destroy you.” Rodgers targeted an Alpha Phi sorority house only hours later. The connection between toxic masculinity and mass shootings, for instance, has been well-established.

These are certainly some extreme examples, and the harsh commentary on these articles likely stems from an indignation that toxic masculinity presumes that all men commit rape, murder and abuse women. That is not the case and could not be further from the truth.

In its most general form, toxic masculinity normalizes behavior like telling rape jokes and locker-room talk about women. It tacks manhood to the number of women a man can sleep with, how much money he makes and much, much more. Toxic masculinity creates a certain ideal of what a real man is, which harms men in addition to women. Toxic masculinity is what creates the perception that if you don’t abuse or hurt women, then you aren’t part of the problem.

While these kinds of everyday behavior don’t turn average men into perpetrators of violence, normalizing violence against women—even just through banter—creates an environment that allow men who are in fact perpetrators of violence to thrive. Brock Turner was certainly the villain, but people like his father who claimed Turner shouldn’t go to jail for “20 minutes of action,” and Turner’s friend who blamed the victim for the assault helped to create the conditions for Turner to perpetrate a violent assault and not think it was a big deal.

Simply not committing violence isn’t enough. We must also dismantle the language and systems that normalize violent behavior and blame victims of violence instead of holding perpetrators accountable. Most men don’t take a conversation about how a woman looks like a slut for wearing certain clothing to be an invitation to rape her. But for the few men who do, they are able rationalize their violence through the way our society demeans women. For the men who do choose to commit violence, they are surrounded by a culture that finds ways to justify that violence: she was too drunk, too slutty, too promiscuous.

When victims do come forward, our culture is quick to call them liars. There is a problem when college students think that 50 percent of reported rapes are false reports, when the real number is on par with other violent crimes, at about 2 to 8 percent.

The Duke Men’s Project realizes that men vowing not to commit violence isn’t enough. They recognize how conversations and jokes normalize interpersonal violence and thus creates an environment that allows rapists to thrive. They recognize how toxic masculinity damages men by denying their personhood unless they conform to rigid conceptions of what it means to be a man. They are doing the tough work of having these conversations, and now in the face of open hostility.

I and so many others applaud the members of Duke Men’s Project for their efforts, time and sacrifice. We need more men like them. Men willing to examine their flaws, form a coalition and strive to end toxic masculinity. One in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college. That ends only when men work to stop it.

Dana Raphael is a Trinity senior. Her column, "problematic people doing problematic things," runs on alternate Mondays.


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