How shutting out men from the conversation is an obstacle to change
When it comes to dating, one confusing thing for men is the discrepancy between how we are told we should behave and how experience and social expectations have groomed us to behave. The me-too movement is rightfully asking men to be more sensitive to the nuances of consent, all the while our culture continues to perpetuate virtues of masculinity that venerate aggression, dominance, and violence.
I recall a first date from long ago with a woman I met at a cafe. We grabbed drinks at a bar and went for a walk as the sun was setting. By the time dusk approached, we found ourselves sitting on a bench in an otherwise uninhabited, poorly-lit, park. I wanted to kiss her, but I was unsure how she felt about me, and sympathetic to what might have felt like ominous circumstances, I asked if I could. She responded with annoyance in her voice, “ugh why would you ask me? Just do it.” Several dates later, she admitted to me that she wanted to kiss me right up until the point that I asked.
A reality we all seem to feel uncomfortable admitting is that sometimes consent takes the mystery and excitement out of intimacy.
Another example is perhaps more telling. I once invited a woman back to my apartment after a first date. At the restaurant beforehand she was talkative and at ease, but as soon as we arrived at my place, her composure changed. She had became far more reticent. Her body language was guarded and she sent several cues, verbal and non-verbal alike, that she wasn’t interested in physical intimacy. For instance, she sat at the opposite end of the couch from me and at one point even explicitly said, “just so you know, nothing is happening between us tonight.”
We spent the evening talking, polished off a bottle of wine, and when 2am approached, I rang her a cab and we called it a night. When we texted the next day, she admitted she was uneasy that night but had hoped I just make a move in spite of her insistence at the time that she wasn’t interested.
I tell these stories to people and the usual response is something along the lines of “that girl sounds crazy,” but the point is that stories like this aren’t rare. It is not just men that are confused about the nuances of consent. The majority of my male friends have had similar experiences. Early on, in the formative days of our dating lives, we men learned a lesson through trial and error: just go for it.
So what is to be done?
The me-too movement is an all-too-necessary crusade to expose the hidden prevalence of sexual assault and the men, particularly those in positions of authority, who abuse and intimidate non-consenting women.
Unfortunately public discourse has not advanced far beyond revelations of celebrity offenders and surface-level slogans as opposed to a constructive conversation about root causes, the complexities of consent, and a culture that seems to condone male sexual violence. The occasional public shaming might be cathartic but it is only a first step towards a solution. And in an environment with zero tolerance for dissent, men feel alienated from the conversation and so destructive male attitudes retreat to silence instead of being challenged.
Early on, in the formative days of our dating lives, we men learned a lesson through trial and error: just go for it.
Some more-moderate activists make points like “of course we know most men are good and don’t support sexual assault” as a way of welcoming men to the metoo party and castigating only a small minority of them as perpetrators. Their goal is admirable, but that rhetoric is perhaps untrue. While it is easy for men to make judgements of black and white cases of sexual assault, what the metoo movement has brought to light is that there are many shades of grey (pun not intended) we are uncomfortable discussing.
Mainstream male attitudes of sexual assault might be more apologist than we believe. In one study, for instance, when researchers interviewed a range of men in college, they discovered that many of them saw nothing wrong with forcing a woman sexually. While many of these men did not commit acts of sexual violence themselves, they sympathized with it depending on circumstance.
We cannot change long-held male attitudes about consent and voilence without discussing one of the root causes: patriarchy. That term, patriarchy, like the term feminism, unfortunately evokes in some a distrustful sense of progressive social re-engineering. But as it goes with the term feminism, even the people most reluctant to use the word often agree with its underlying points. Feminism, in its simplest form is the idea that women ought to be treated equal to men. Patriarchy, likewise, is simply the idea that we live in a social system oriented around men and paternal dominance.
In a patriarchal system, men are socialized to repress most emotions besides anger. Male aggression is taught and rewarded from childhood onward. While girls are instructed from an early age to coexist and to pacify, men are taught to repress love and transmute negative emotions such as sadness, abandonment, or trauma into anger and aggression. When you hear the term toxic masculinity, this is what it means. This learned behaviour is not some right simply passed on from father to son. It is learned from parents, from peers, from the media, and even from prospective partners. Under the umbrella of patriarchy, violence and aggression is not just acceptable for men, it is fundamental tenet of masculinity.
One of problems underlying sexual assault, unwanted advances, and confused dating culture is in part the ongoing cultural narrative that women don’t really know what they want and men in turn must be aggressors, holding a woman’s hand through the uncomfortable complexities of sexual self discovery and sometimes giving a women a nudge the way a father might throw his child into the deep end. This line of thinking is advanced by men and women alike. It is the subject of romance films and coming of age novels, both of which are often written by women, not men.
In fact, boys raised by a single female parent are more likely to adopt patriarchal beliefs and behaviours such as sexual aggression and emotional sublimation because in the absence of a permanent male role model who would have a complex and rounded personality, their expectations of masculinity are drawn from popular culture and mothers who often project their own unmet subliminal expectations of masculinity and patriarchy onto their son.
Patriarchy is not a “male” problem; it is a cultural problem. The same culture that is responsible for men’s attitudes of taking without asking is responsible for women’s desire to be “taken” and not asked.
A measure of a man used to be heavily oriented around a provider archetype. There was an unspoken contract that a man’s sex life, were it to be moral, should be accompanied with financial and tangible support. The noble man provided for his wife, over whom he had sexual dominion, and who, even in circumstances of infidelity, was compelled to support his mistress. As women have grown more financially independent, they have also grown more independent in their sexual choices, and as the male role as a provider becomes less relevant, society’s expectations of a man’s self worth has become inextricably tied to vestigial expectations of sexual dominance. In this way, sexual assault is not just an act of self gratification but also social dominance.
The most deeply rooted and destructive problems are the one we are blind to on a day to day basis and can often only begin to acknowledge when we are confronted with the sheer volume of theirs symptoms, and for which we are compelled to find their cause. There is a severe problem with sexual assault and male voilence that runs deep in the veins of our culture, but real change, if we are to have any will require more than just blame and instructional platitudes of consent. We are told “parents teach your sons not to rape,” but we stop short of examining what that directive means and truly requires. Surely few parents overtly teach their children that sexual assault is permissible. Ironically, even a father that is abusive to his wife will often instruct his children on the virtues of respecting women.
The “good” sides of patriarchy, the sides we openly teach our children and venerate in the media are inseparable from the bad sides. In our children’s movies and books, men are the heroes, often saving a helpless and ailing woman from the cruelty of life and the notable hate and jealousy of other women. In sleeping beauty, a woman can only be saved by the unconsented kiss of man. In beauty and the beast, a woman is kidnapped by, and eventually falls in love with, a violent and hostile beast who only she truly understands. In Aladdin, a lowly common man wins the love of a princess by amassing power and wealth. Even our contemporary accounts of heroism are riddled with gender cliches requiring men to be stoic, tough, emotionally detached, and violent.
These deeply embedded cultural threads of toxic masculinity create the ecosystem for sexual assault. Some might dismiss that line of reasoning as simply liberal overreaction, but to do is to ignore the mounting evidence that early childhood narratives and experiences lay the groundwork for our attitudes and emotional wellbeing in our adult life. The childhood indoctrination of patriarchy in men emotionally stunts their capacity for love and nurtures aggression and in women creates an almost stockholm-syndrome-like expectation that male love be necessarily cruel and female love in-turn be the acceptance of that cruelty.
This is not a defence of sexual assault, nor men’s rights activism. The many shades of male violence and intimidation towards women are abhorrent. And while I have not addressed it in this article, there are serious practical problems with how difficult we make it for victims who speak out and how impotently we prosecute perpetrators. I have dated two girls who have opened up to me about being victims of rape. Many others can list experiences of sexual assault. The resulting trauma from those experience reverberates into their daily lives. None of these women have come forward or even thought of pressing charges against their assailant. Most are resigned to the futility of it. In some cases, they even make excuses for their offenders or trivialize their experiences with statements like “he was just being stupid” or “it happens.” This is all tragic.
The childhood indoctrination of patriarchy in men emotionally stunts their capacity for love and nurtures aggression and in women creates an almost stockholm-syndrome-like expectation that male love be necessarily cruel and female love in-turn be the acceptance of that cruelty.
And yet while women are undoubtedly the greater victims in all this, men have not gone unscathed. Our culture has stunted the emotional development of men and permitted aggression as the most viable outlet for their own traumas. The disproportionate prevalence of male suicide, mass violence, and drug abuse speak to the collective mental health of men. While it is true that men are more biologically wired to exhibit aggression, cultural indoctrination at least plays a part in all of this. Men are taught early on and into adulthood, three things: be tough, suppress weakness, take what you want.
We are undergoing a cultural transformation that is forcing us to reevaluate the roles of men and women, and however positive this transformation is, what we are dealing with is that messy transition period where both men and women alike are confronting dualities of the old and new world, between what is right and what is habit, and between what is logical and what is emotional.
Sexual assault is a serious and unfortunately prevalent problem, but to address it sincerely requires more than condemning black and white cases and periodic public shaming. We need to have a serious and honest conversation about the cultural rot that enables swaths of men to commit and make excuses for sexual assault; about the opaquely complex nature of consent; and about rewriting our outdated tropes of masculinity and femininity. And yes, men need to be a part of these conversations.
Until then, men, in private, complain that they are being pulled in two directions, being asked to be aggressive, yet subdued. To be dominant, yet sensitive. To take what we want, but ask first.