by D. Eckberg
As the number of men revealed to be sexual predators over the past year via Me Too and Time’s Up has continued to grow, at first I was shocked at the mushrooming list of familiar names. And then ashamed realizing I shouldn’t have been, thinking back to the very real fear I read in the eyes of female friends in college as they confided to me concerns about other guys being creepy.
The recent cascade of charges, allegations, and revelations only prompted the completion of this essay though. I began drafting it over a year ago in response to a number of conservative politicians blasting the concept of “toxic masculinity”. Specifically, the University of Wisconsin-Madison began offering an optional 6 week course called The Men’s Project, open only to males, partially intended to investigate the ways masculinity can lead to violence. Its stated objective is to, “explore masculinity and the problems accompanied by simplified definitions of it.” As a longtime advocate of increased nuance and breaking down stereotypes, to me this sounded highly promising.
A UW-representative elaborated:
“men are socialized to believe they need to act a certain way to be accepted as ‘masculine’… this can lead to self-destructive behaviors that impair their ability to complete their education… young men are less likely to enroll in and graduate from college, less likely to seek help from campus resources and more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as abusing drugs and alcohol.”
Yet it quickly spurred a national debate. Wisconsin State Senator Steve Nass stated that the class “declares war on men,” and implied he might withhold University funding as a result. Another detractor stated the program was “jihad against what it means to be a man.”
The irony of these claims, when contrasted with right-wing politicians and pundits calling out liberals for supposedly dramatizing issues like sexism and acting too quick to play the victim, seemed to be lost on Nass. The blunt inaccuracy of his statement bears even greater examination, and seemed especially tone deaf as it came just two months after a male UW-Madison student was charged with stalking and sexually assaulting over a half dozen women on campus (for which he was just recently given an embarrassingly light sentence).
The class’s critics went on to assert that any criticism of the traditional Western ideal of men must be a feminist ploy, only embraced by some ‘woke’ men as a way to score with feminists.
To the degree that feminism is responsible, it’s simply through the successful and widely laudable gains the movement has made into earning equal rights for women and wider recognition of the pervasive sexism perpetrated by alpha males. In turn, thankfully, that latter role is no longer viewed as the sole or primary optimal life-course for those of us with Y chromosomes.
As a result, men like me, who never felt inherently comfortable with many of the prescribed pastimes and attitudes of masculinity, faced a much smaller burden to shoulder them. I enjoy some of them, I love watching football and playing sports, I love the outdoors, but as time has gone on I’ve felt increasingly little obligation to embrace them because of my gender. Instead I’ve been afforded the opportunity to pick and choose those that interest me, and leave the rest by the wayside, bolstering the claim that feminism is beneficial to everyone, not just women.
On the flipside, as a straight man I haven’t gone to Les Miserables five times because I’m trying to impress chicks, I’ve done so because I genuinely enjoy it.
In the past when some folks would choose to express these less usual freedoms of choice, guardians of the orthodoxy would try to bully them back into line.
So thank you feminist trailblazers, my life has been significantly better as a result of your efforts. I truthfully never made that connection until it occurred to me while writing this. Otherwise I might still be spending hours in preteen vain trying to appreciate Slipknot and Limp Bizkit to fit in.
No Senator, this isn’t war, it’s progress.
Nass went on to say the class sought, “to purge male students of their so-called toxic masculinity,” putting words in the mouth of a course description that never used the word toxic. A columnist for the right-wing bellwether National Review said the class was a symptom that “feminism has infected child-rearing.”
While they were busy hurling accusations, they were also ignoring or refusing to address any of the issues this old-fashioned masculinity may have caused or perpetuated. As cited by the UW-spokesperson: men abuse drugs and alcohol and drop-out at higher rates than women. Nationwide men commit 78% of all DUI’s and 78% of suicides. Further, a 2017 study of over 19,000 participants found that, “conformity to masculine norms,” defined as, “self-reliance, power over women, and playboy”, “was significantly and unfavorably associated with mental health and psychological help seeking”.
And this hasn’t even touched the much higher (and rising) incidences of violent crime committed by men both against each other and against women. In the U.S. men are responsible for, “90.5 percent of murders, 98 percent of forcible rapes,” and 1/3rd of all female homicide victims are killed by a male domestic partner or former partner.
One of the main issues is too many of the critics actually wish for a war, or some diluted iteration of it, where they can prove their mettle or demonstrate their dominance.
Challenging oneself is a fine goal, and a great way to spur growth and motivation, but physicality or intimidation need not be a part of it; mental innovation or perseverance are just as challenging (and far more often beneficial to societal advancement). Of course excelling in most sports or exercise regimens requires intense mental preparation and determination as well, but there should be no accepted place for either version when it spills over into victimizing the innocent or self-destruction, as evidenced recently by the glut of NFL players arrested for domestic violence.
Virtually all of history’s most recognized accomplishments have been those that allow us to rely less on base instinct, labor, and violence, and become more peaceful, thoughtful, and kind. While we’ve long since moved past subsistence hunting and gathering, even the bulk of occupations a century ago – from the farm to the factory floor – still relied much more on manual labor than intellect. As automation allowed the workplace to shift evermore towards white collar office jobs, and helped level workplace opportunities for females, it assisted the women’s movement’s push for greater equality across the board in other facets of the societal landscape from relationship expectations to legal protections.
Human physiques though, particularly male ones, are still genetically coded for life in conditions much harsher than those in the developed world today. As such, a number of men granted these physical traits at birth find they’re no longer valued the way they used to be, and wish to turn back the clock. These can still come in handy in daily life, are useful in some occupations, and still help them attract some members of the opposite sex, but the value and respect prompted by a chiseled frame has been diminished.
For centuries this was held up as the model of what men should aspire to because it increased chances for survival, and culture reinforced it by punishing those men who strayed from the path with ostracism, humiliation, or tangible force. (As a Christian I feel obligated to point out the patriarchal church has played a significant role in this). That’s important to underscore – while our bodies are built by genes, these behaviors are taught.
Meanwhile, most of the terrifying consequences this had for women from systematic assault and oppression to being legally defined as property, were simply swept under the rug as many men inexcusably sought to extend this dominance into their social or domestic lives in communities that tolerated or even encouraged misogyny. Through intimidation, sexual assault, and even murder, many men still abuse these physical gifts to brandish their power, stroke their egos, or take whatever their libido desires.
The effect this has had on men’s internal social circles has been just as pronounced, and is probably best exemplified today through the debate playing out over football safety.
In a nutshell, research over the past decade has revealed that the repeated collisions of playing tackle football often leave players with long term brain damage, far worse than was previously believed.
And yet, despite a decade of evidence, a large percentage of players and their families are simply ignoring the science. One parent even described it as a “war on football”.
Though the lesson has stuck for some, and progress has been made with leagues informing participants of the risks and pulling out players who show any symptoms of concussions, many soldier on in a state of willful denial. Continuing the tradition that has already led so many retired players to suffer debilitating health effects (from depression, to memory loss, to chronic headaches), many simply keep urging on themselves or their peers or children by telling those who get rattled to tough it out and keep playing. If they refuse some are derided as sissies and their manhood is called into question.
In the midst of this last year I read the story of Zac Easter, a star high school player who committed suicide at age 24 after severe symptoms of CTE. It was perhaps the most visceral reaction I’ve had to reading an article. I was heartbroken for him and his loved ones, but even more than that filled with revulsion at the culture that propelled much of his tragic path.
He was a hard-nosed defensive player who prided himself on making big hits, trying to compensate for his small stature and impress his brother and his father, an ex-college coach and player who egged him on. He was repeatedly allowed to keep playing after suffering concussions, often lying about symptoms, until his last concussion left him with a vacant stare and his helmet was confiscated.
Prior to seeing the effects on his son, his father “never really believed the disease existed. To be honest, even the mention of it kind of disgusted him. CTE was an excuse, he had always thought: a bunch of millionaire athletes who had it made, blew through all their money, fell out of the limelight, got depressed, then killed themselves.”
Yet after his son’s death his wife tried to convince him to go to counseling with her. He retorted, “F%*k, I don’t need no counseling.”
To bring things full circle: Recognizing the link between traditional masculinity and an increased propensity for violence, (or self-loathing for those who fail to meet its standards), isn’t leftist crockery, it’s easily traceable history. Back at UW, the Senator’s knee-jerk impulse to defend the status quo without even permitting inquiry exemplifies part of the attitude this course seems intended to address.
There’s still a place for a tempered version of that conventional masculinity for those who wish to continue it (through most sports, the armed forces, the beach), but to expect everyone to conform to that norm, or perpetuate its place on a cultural pedestal, is both selfish and wrong. Society no longer requires brawn. The marketplace of ideas has largely adapted past that and is being asked to hold back momentum and subsidize those outmoded skills.
And to those who make the vile argument that men shouldn’t have to restrain themselves because they believe it’s human nature to exert their strength: wouldn’t the true test of strength be demonstrating mastery over one’s instincts?
Everyone would prefer a society that values their particular natural abilities most, thus body-builders and blue collar workers are more prone to resist changes in culture and economy that shrink their role. And sometimes stodgy liberals and arrogant academics make it worse by overestimating their own newfound prominence or gloating about how the tables have turned.
But the world has changed. Life used to be a literal game of survival for all. Now, as we’ve civilized through generations of technological and social breakthroughs every child born in the developed world has inalienable rights and a basic safety net of shelter and education.
And none of that is an excuse to deny that the old way of doing things has a horrific dark side – much less to insult and threaten others who attempt to study it. The core mission of a University is to foster greater learning and understanding about our world, and when that research is unpopular or challenges orthodoxy to protect it from being shut down before it has been completed.
The biggest hurdle standing in the way of greater satisfaction for most of the old guard is a simple shift in expectations; to acknowledge both the painful past and present, and the chance for a new healthier reality for all, not to tear down others or attempt to reassert their control.
If it’s competition you crave, the world’s economy is still framed on the free market incentivizing hard work and ingenuity. If you seek physical release, it’s both necessary and healthy to exercise and find outlets to expel frustrations or pent up energy – but sign up for a basketball league, don’t vent them at the expense of others. Or simply verbally venting can sometimes do wonders as well so long as it doesn’t become a cyclical negative spiral.
The questions being asked by the class are simple: Are our customary visions of manhood linked to unhealthy behaviors and is that worth studying? Rather than talking out problems, is it better to appear tough and bottle them down until lashing out in a burst of rage? To combat this scrutiny of masculinity by attacking perceived flaws in the feminist movement, as many men have sought to do, is simply deflection.
Similarly, lashing out at a mere investigation of our masculine culture’s implications comes off as little different than the Dickey Amendment limiting studies on fire arms or the Tobacco industry trying to silence research because they fear the results might point to culpability or need for change.
But in the spirit of positivity, I’ll end with a word of encouragement and shift focus for a moment. At its best the classic form of manhood has held up resilience and bravery as a pinnacle, and thousands inspired by this model have committed acts of heroism, sometimes foolhardy, always courageous. That’s what masculinity should be – a beacon for good, not an alibi for evil.
D. Eckberg is a resident of Middle America interested in bridging the growing cultural and political divide.”