“#Metoo. Too many times to count.”
Over 12 million times in 24 hours on Facebook. Almost a million tweets in 48 hours. The #metoo hashtag has taken off. Me too went viral after actress Alyssa Milano shared a tweet on Sunday night.
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. pic.twitter.com/k2oeCiUf9n
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 15, 2017
Since then nearly half of all Facebook users in the U.S. have a friend who shared a #metoo post. Some men are sharing their #metoo experiences, but many more men are keeping quiet. Statistics tell us one in six men are survivors of sexual assault.
Deep down we all kind of knew how prevalent sexual harassment and assault is. It may be shocking to see the sheer numbers of #metoo posts come into the light, but for most of us it’s not a surprise. So what do we do?
What we do is ask, what about the men? Yes, articles like “10 Ways Men Can Be Feminist Allies” can help by giving men tangible actions to take. But if we want to really address the problem of sexual assault at its root, we need to ask how are men hurt by our misogynistic culture too.
To be clear, I am a survivor of rape and I’m a trained sexual assault advocate. I am what some might declare a “strong, loud, feminist” or in other circles some might call a “bitch”. But I want to stop rape and I strongly believe to do that we have to look at how men are hurt by our society too. I am not here to make apologies or excuses for predators, rapists and abusers. You can if you want. Typically it’s people who are hurting that hurt other people. But that’s your personal decision how you want to view the perpetrators of such crimes.
I want less men and women, boys and girls to experience sexual assault, harassment, and domestic violence. To get to the root of the problem we need to go beyond telling men what to do to be allies and look at how our culture defines masculinity.
“Be a man.” “Don’t cry.” “Suck it up.” “Don’t be a sissy.”
These are the words are boys are raised on. Maybe you don’t say them to your child, but our culture oozes it into our boy’s brains through movies, music, advertisements, playground retorts. Our boys hear these messages. This is toxic masculinity. Maybe you’ve heard that term before and laughed it off as a silly feminist notion or thought it meant to be masculine is to be bad. That’s not what toxic masculinity is at all. Masculinity is wonderful, it’s how we define masculinity that can be a problem.
Toxic masculinity is about how boys grow up in our culture and how the messages of what it is to be masculine hurts them. When we tell our boys not to cry or to suck it up we tell them to have emotions or feelings is bad. This has a profound impact in many ways. One, it isolates them. Two, it labels characteristics traditionally perceived as feminine as weak. That culture creates men who have no healthy outlet for emotions, men who deeply want human connection but lack depth of connection, and men who view the feminine (and thus women) as weaker. Of course, not all men are like this and the degrees of these traits vary in men.
Our culture compounds this by defining masculinity as the man who all women want, the man who has either physical power through his body or societal power through his job. It creates a culture of men whose masculinity isn’t inherent but hangs in limbo. Their masculinity can be lost if they cry publicly, if they lose a job, if a woman rejects their advances. Suddenly they are told again they are sissies, they’re not a real man.
So they must go prove their masculinity again. They must go prove their physical prowess by winning a physical altercation. They must prove their masculinity by sexual conquests, by obtaining as many women as possible. Or they must recommit to slaving themselves away to get the high powered job. But this is not what makes them happy. This is what they must do to prove themselves as men. This is their response to the pain of being told they are not real men.
In our sexual assault advocacy training, one of the most profound lessons was about male survivors of sexual assault and child sexual abuse. We watched a film that interviewed survivors and how it affected them. Male survivors said things like after being abused they felt compelled to prove their manhood by surrounding themselves with women. One survivor, in jail for murder, said he finally hurt someone else the way he had been hurting. These men had been so profoundly hurt and their manhood questioned, by experiencing childhood sexual abuse that they eased that pain by becoming hyper-masculine. They physically assaulted someone else or collected women like trophy representations of their manhood. Not all men reacted this way, but many do. If our culture challenges their masculinity they must go prove it and that can lead to hurting other people and forcing women to do things they don’t want.
What we need to do is reclaim masculinity. We need our culture to define masculinity as standing up to do what’s right even if means you stand alone. We need to define masculinity as men who have integrity and honor. Men who try to help people, who try to do good in the world. There are lots of these men in the world. The firefighter, the man who helps the elderly women cross the street, the doctor who shows care and compassion for the grieving patient. The man who sees and treats women as equals and strives for healthy relationships.
Sexual assault, domestic violence, and harassment will still happen even if we can redefine masculinity. But we won’t send young men off to college or out into adulthood with the messages that to be a man is to brag about how many women they slept with. Our culture has a choice: we can send men off into adulthood with the message that to be a man is to respect your sexual partner and to talk openly with them and to care about what they want. Or we can send men off with the message to just go for it in sexual situations because their manhood depends on that next notch on the belt.
If we can reclaim what masculinity is and rid our society of toxic masculinity we can raise healthier and happier boys. There will be less “locker room talk”. There will be less pressure to exert male bravado. That will lead to less incidents of sexual assault and harassment. Of course, women commit sexual assault too and people harass and assault for all sorts of reasons. The cause and the answers don’t all lie in a cultural shift, but redefining masculinity would go a long way to a healthier society at large.