We, as a country, are facing a reckoning. A wake up call. From Roy Moore to Louis C.K. to the President of the United States, prominent male celebrities and politicians are being accused of sexual assault at an alarming rate. Many of these men have been fired from their jobs as a result. While the country ponders how best to react to this phenomenon, we should be asking one question: what kind of culture allows this?
We live in a society where restrictive masculinity reigns supreme. Where the phrase ”be a man” is not meant to encourage young boys and men to express themselves in a healthy manner, but to fit a societal mold. This rigid definition of masculinity tells boys to strive for physical strength and dominance, sexual aggression, financial success, and to repress their emotions. The truth is that there is no one way to be a man. We all express our gender differently, and this restrictive definition is harmful to everyone in our society.
Restrictive masculinity is, first and foremost, harmful to men. The requirements of restrictive masculinity force men to repress their emotions and aspects of their personality in order to fit this facade. However, when men fail to satisfy these masculine requirements, or fall short when comparing themselves to other men, they often experience lowered self-confidence and inadequacy. Processing these feelings can be frustrating and upsetting, and this lowered self-esteem can lead to mental health issues. Men are almost four times more likely to commit suicide than women (https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/). This anger can also be expressed through outward physical and emotional violence toward others, sometimes as sexual assault against women.
Another crucial aspect to note is that restrictive masculinity enforces a gendered power dynamic in which men must be superior to people of other genders. In general, the man should hold a position of power. This means he should be the breadwinner of his household. In workplaces and industries where a toxic culture of masculinity prevails, this gendered power dynamic may excuse and even perpetuate sexually predatory behavior. Harvey Weinstein was at the top of a hierarchical industry, Hollywood, (https://newrepublic.com/article/145269/hollywoods-inequality-enabled-harvey-weinstein) and he used his power to harrass and assault women hopeful in kicking off their careers. Today, we’re seeing a shift. A shift from quietly allowing systemic sexual violence towards women to listening to survivors as they come forward with their stories. This is a step in the right direction, but how should we move forward if we want the problem to stop?
We need to do more than just tell men “Don’t rape.” Instead, we need to address the underlying culture that leads to men perpetrating sexual violence. I hope we will see this national conversation surrounding sexual assault lead to a conversation about how we raise our boys and the pressures we place on them to act certain ways. There is nothing inherently wrong with many of the traits we deem as “traditionally masculine,” like bravery, strength, intelligence, and taking care of others. But masculinity becomes harmful when we allow a strict definition to put men into boxes. Expanding this definition to allow men to feel comfortable showing compassion towards others, practicing self-love, and expressing their emotions in a healthy way will revolutionize our society. If we can first teach men to value their own emotional and mental health needs, only then can we expect them to respect the humanity of others.
Our country needs a culture shift. To an extent, we are witnessing a change in how we react to the stories of survivors. We are believing them more and taking action against their assaulters. But if we want to create a more peaceful society, we have to start talking to each other. Men, we need to start having conversations about what “being a man” is and isn’t. We need to acknowledge our culture’s link to perpetuating interpersonal violence, and we need to hold each other accountable. We must have these conversations with our male peers. We have to allow each other to be vulnerable and to fail. We have to allow each other to express our gender identity in whatever way we choose so long as it is healthy to ourselves and to others.
Learning how to be a responsible ally takes time. Starting a cultural shift takes even more time. But we have to start trying. It’s important that we, men, take responsibility for the ways our culture promotes violence. Only then can we hope to end sexual assault.