There’s a significant problem with the current trend of not only global feminism, but also of policies and propaganda on the ways men should behave (or, better saying, shouldn’t behave).
Instead of a blueprint, there’s just a note with warnings and “don’ts” (with few or no “dos”).
Teaching not to do something is less productive and has more questionable results than teaching to do something. Teaching the right way rather than the wrong way. Teaching what must not be done should only be part of the process, and a small part, understood almost as an unfolding of what is acceptable and desirable.
In part, the big mistake of movements such as #MeToo or of those who try to combat what is very vaguely understood as “toxic masculinity” is the lack of accuracy about what is allowed in the face of the immense amount of negative or prohibitive elements.
We all know that toxic masculinity is a real thing — and a real problem. There’s absolutely no debate about it (okay, maybe there is some debate). Yet countless magazines and activists fail to explicitly describe what is “toxic masculinity” and how it is different from masculinity in itself.
Equity feminist Christina Hoff Sommers wrote a book back in 2001 titled The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men which can be considered premonitory of some of the issues we are facing right now. Common behaviour of males are being treated as some sort of a problem when in reality men are simply different from women, we don’t behave the same way, we don’t do things the same way. Biology matters and not everything is “socially constructed” — and even the construction is based on culture and even on common sense.
There are a lot of issues surrounding masculinity as it is, though I’d say that it seems that now a lot of pundits are just having fun and looking for new ways to sell the same stories with different-yet-not-so-different angles. It is part of what Jesse Singal called “feel-bad liberalism” that “tells you that even though you THINK you have the right politics, really, you’re a piece of shit because of some pesky ID category you can’t dislodge. Luckily, there’s always training or more content you can consume to try to scrub the stain off.”
We know — or are taught — what is wrong, but we know little about what is allowed, how to act, how to talk, how to behave without the masculinity itself being considered toxic — and not specific behaviors or elements. We must not forget that people are and act in different ways, what is not acceptable to some, may be to others (not only a cultural issue, but really a person-to-person matter).
There is no general pattern of behaviour — there is not even a minimum pattern that can serve as a model.
The interesting article by Terena Bell on Quill magazine on how male-oriented magazines gave up writing about sexuality and sex (on a male-centric perspective or directed towards men) gives us an idea of the problem. Men having sex or talking about sex became something problematic — to say the least. Men are not capable of having a date, of having sex because on the #MeToo era everything seems abusive. Even talk about it. Even ask about it and try to figure out the do’s and don’ts of this new era.
That is not to say that the #Metoo is in itself the problem, far from it. In fact, the movement surrounding the #MeToo seemed to have lost a golden opportunity to punish those who had to be punished while making it clear what would be, then, considered acceptable.
The movement, however, limited itself to seeking punishment — including against innocent targets.
One thing that we must have in mind is that sexism and toxic masculinity also harm men. It is terrible for male individuals that do not correspond to mainstream ideals of masculinity and have to deal with a lot while growing up. A lot of male behaviours are abusive, but we’ve reached the point where some men are asking women to clearly state that they consent to have sex on camera in order not to have problems afterwards because, it seems, it is impossible to have a fair dialogue these days.
We need more debate on sex and sexuality, not more boundaries, imposition of awkward silences, witch hunts and victimization.
Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy and German Literature at the University of Cork, Juliana de Albuquerque gives us a valuable insight when she states that “it is possible to infer that the malaise of man in our culture can — and should — be attenuated, without giving rise to resentments against the achievements of women and other minorities. Just as it is no use for radical feminists to combat the vitality of the [Western literary] canon, it is no good for men to adopt macho ideologies to justify any alleged superiority. In this, everyone is equally infantilized by an increasingly alienating society”.
Bottom line, denouncing toxic masculinity, harmful male behavior and promoting a safer social environment for all is necessary, but we are still missing an important component to make it work: Teaching what is acceptable. What is healthy.
And also, being open to the possibility that sometimes people behave differently and understand things differently and that many times honest and open talk are the best way to go.