Combating Toxic Masculinity

Guest Blogger: Daniel Eastman
The Avery Center

I have been involved in the anti-trafficking movement for several years, walking alongside survivors and those I lovingly refer to as “powerfrau” women leaders, along with some outstanding male allies as well. Over the course of this time, I have come to realize that when it comes to men getting involved in this issue, we still have a lot to learn. Often, men describe themselves in relation to other men – the “bad guys.” Men who want to get involved are good guys; men who are buyers are bad guys. The more I listen and learn about how to effectively engage men in this fight, the more I believe that this dichotomy is flawed. This movement is not about self-ascribed status related to good or bad; it is about informed versus uninformed. How do I know that? Because I was one until I became the other. There was a time when I went to “gentlemen’s clubs,” watched pornography, assumed the women wanted to be there, and thought no harm done. This, however, is an egregious misunderstanding of the commercial sex trade.

Often, we hear the argument to just let two adults do what they want. The problem with prostitution though is not sex, this is not about being on an anti-sex moral crusade. “Sex work” is not work, it is a form of gender-based violence. Most buyers are men, most victims are women and girls from at least one marginalized community. There is an inherent wealth and power imbalance in which those with buy access to those without, and from studies done by The Avery Center at any given time 50-80% of women in the sex trade would rather not be there. In a recent webinar on this topic, Peter Qualliotine from Modeling Equality argues that sexual activity should not be a condition of employment. He goes on to say:

“If quid pro quo sexual harassment creates harm in the workplace, then prostitution creates harm in the world. And it’s simply not okay to say don’t do this to that white, professional woman in the workplace but that youth with no options on the street, yeah that’s ok do it to her. If inequality is created by sexual exploitation in the workplace, prostitution creates inequality in the world.”

The typical attitude of masculinity is one of entitlement to sex and the subordination of women. Some may argue that prostitution serves the purpose of preventing men from raping other women. Think about what that statement says for a moment: that there is a certain class of women whose value lies in bearing the brunt of male violence through paid rape. Would we rather sacrifice some women to the altar of masculinity than address our concept of it? It also reinforces the thinking that sex is a male need, we are entitled to it, and women are the providers of it. These are alarming thoughts, and we need to create a new set of beliefs around men, sexuality, and women. To my knowledge, no man has ever died from not having sex, so we can deduce it is not a need. At the very least, we must agree that sex can only happen with active consent, otherwise it is assault. Therefore, sex is a privilege, not a right. At the same time, women need to be seen not as objects, providers, or servants, but as fully autonomous and equal human beings.

“What would you do if there were no men for a day?”

There is a question I have seen posed to women on social media several times, “what would you do if there were no men for a day?” The responses are interesting, but one that comes up frequently is they would take a walk at night without worrying. Imagine that. Most of us men have probably never given a second thought to going for a walk alone at night, and yet if we went to any middle school the girls there could all give us half a dozen ways to not be raped. We will not end male violence by making women dress a certain way, because we think some styles mean “they are asking for it.” We will not end it by women carrying handguns. We do not need more “good guys” to protect women, after all who is it they need protection from? We must create a society where women do not need protection. The only way to do that is to hold men accountable and to teach a different way to be men. True, it is not all men. But no woman is immune from harassment, and there is no way for them to know which guy will and which guy will not perpetrate violence.

We live in a hyper-sexualized society rife with sexualized images of women and girls. In such a society, women are valued based on these images and we model relationships based on these images. Rarely are guys taught how to relate to other people, especially women. That goes for sex also. Until recently, people believed that women did not even enjoy sex, yet women are often looked on as sexual providers but not active participants. Insert hegemonic masculinity, telling us we must be emotionless, tough, aggressive, dominant, and sexually prolific. If guys have an image of who they are supposed to be and an image of who women are supposed to be, how can any authentic relationship grow from that?

Combating toxic masculinity

There is a lot of discussion about toxic masculinity today, and for good reason. Toxic masculinity refers to certain cultural norms – ways of “doing” masculinity – that are harmful to men themselves and the rest of society. Some argue that when we cannot achieve the “ideal” masculinity, actual or imagined violation of these norms leads people to overconform to them and insecurities abound when we feel the gap between who we are and who we are told to be. When a guy does not feel strong, he must still appear to be and for that to happen someone else must appear weaker. What makes this toxic is the idea that men can only achieve masculinity by dominating someone else. It takes true strength to identify these traits in us so that we may begin doing the work of undoing. If we do not decide for ourselves how we want to show up in the world, society will do it for us. As Lao-Tzu said, “Conquering others takes force, conquering yourself is true strength.”

There are many intentional men’s groups out there now teaching new ways for men to be and to relate. There are a variety of avenues for us to find more authentic ways of being if we desire a more fulfilling life. But it does require us to be vulnerable, which is a display of strength not weakness; to admit the current definition is not who we are or want to be, to question if there is a better way, and finally to seek and embrace it. From one of my hobbies, medieval long sword fighting, I developed one way to address these issues. It is called Sacred Warrior Living. The program does not tell guys who to be but teaches concepts to help them choose for themselves. Using a modern application of chivalry to instill the virtues of knighthood it teaches a way to live with honor and reverence. It is not about using religion to try and address these issues as the definitions of those words allow for so much more. Reverence may be defined as deep respect tinged with awe, and research has shown that living with a sense of wonder creates a longer and more fulfilling life. Virtues are patterns of behavior, the root word in Latin translates to power and in Greek as excellences. As such, virtues are powerful, excellent, patterns of behavior.

The problem with the damsel in distress

Many feminists today take exception to the concept of chivalry, which makes sense for a variety of reasons. Today, when we hear “chivalry,” most people think of the knight in shining armor and the damsel in distress, which brings us to the first problem. In such a scenario, women are not capable of handling whatever situation they are in and require a man’s help. The second problem is the idea that if a man is chivalrous and saves/rescues or simply helps a woman, she owes him, and he is entitled to a reward from her whether it is sexual or otherwise. Traditionally these things have nothing to do with chivalry, as medieval chivalry is mostly battlefield etiquette. Our notion of the knight in shining armor and the damsel in distress I believe is owed more to the romantic movement beginning at the end of the 18th century and the stories that came from it. Another issue is in some historical contexts surrounding chivalry, women are put on a pedestal and worshipped. While on the surface this seems to be an answer to the first two problems, it precludes the very thing feminism seeks: true equality. Neither does it allow for a genuine relationship.

The question now is, what are you going to do?

This is for every guy, being an ally is not just for guys with a badge, gun, and a certain set of skills, or a law degree or gavel. This is for everyone, and if you do not fill your space in this movement, it will remain void. It does not take heroics; it takes not perpetuating rape myths or culture, and not victim blaming. It takes speaking up when you hear sexist jokes or comments and holding guys within your circle accountable.

There are two brilliant webinars on The Avery Center’s website, A Call to Guys parts I and II. Those are a perfect place to start and learn more.

It is time each of us decides where we stand, because from here on you can no longer say you did not know. You can be part of the solution or you can be part of the problem and make no mistake, silence is a choice. We’ve all probably heard about the “exotic dancer working her way through college,” and even if that were true, do you want to contribute to a social system in which a woman must take her clothes off for an education? The question that needs to be asked is not “should women have the right to sell their bodies” but “should men have the right to buy access to women’s bodies.” We must look beyond the idea that it could be our sister or daughter for us to get involved, because that is still positioning women as important only in relation to us. That does not create empathy for how this affects all women. The issue is bigger than that, so too must we be.