I can’t stop thinking about these mass shootings and how they’re so clearly part of a bigger picture, a puzzle with pieces depicting Brock Turner and Ben Roethlisberger next to security footage from the cafeteria at Columbine, next to audio of Donald Trump: “grab ’em by the pussy”. This mass shooting problem* is inextricably related to a culture of violence in this country that we sometimes call “rape culture,” that is actually a much larger and more pervasive thing; that is socialized in our schools, in our prisons, in our homes, that is gifted to our children by none other than ourselves. At the risk of losing half of my audience this early on, I put to you that this is a masculinity problem- that this culture of violence is tangled up in how we enforce masculinity here and refuse to talk about it.
(note: Let’s take a step back for a minute and recognize that we have a major problem in this country with men arming themselves and then shooting multitudes of people they do not know (often children). These are not flukes. This is an actual, common problem that we’re dealing with in this country.)
A few weeks ago I started a facebook group for some specific women- seven of us- to have a space to essentially discuss our relationships and how to keep them healthy and happy and free from toxicity (us all having one aspect of our relationships in common). My partner started an identical group, but for men. My group, though containing women (who in several cases are strangers to each other) has already become a community where we share our highs and lows, our questions and insecurities, our support and care for each other. Our culture deems this kind of vulnerability with each other a weakness, yet we gain strength from this community that we have built together. On the other hand, the men in my partner’s group (according to him) don’t open up, don’t post anything, don’t ask questions. One of them recently said that he was going to post something but didn’t, because he’d “figured it out on his own”.
But he hadn’t.
He had come to me for help, and I had helped him work things out.
Because for some reason men can’t talk about their feelings (at least not much) with other men. Men can’t ask questions or voice insecurities. Men spend so much energy maintaining a facade of strength and unwavering confidence that they have no time or energy to work on the self-doubt that they’re actually experiencing. It’s why women do incalculable amounts of emotional labor for men and it’s why men never feel comfortable with themselves. Men spend their lives struggling to compete with every other man’s carefully curated lie, not to mention the totally ridiculous portrayals of masculinity in the media.
It’s why I have helped almost every man I’ve ever dated sort through the wreckage of his last relationship, and then sort through his trauma over and over when an innocuous action of mine triggers him.
Women are strong. We are beaten and raped and murdered and abused, and this is mundane in the news and in media. We are blamed and ignored and discouraged and passed by and stripped of our voices and agency every day. We are paid less for our labor, and paid nothing at all for the unmatched labor we perform in our homes and with our children. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. We can’t walk down the street or perform our jobs without constant commentary from strangers and familiar faces about our bodies- about how our bodies could be used.
And yet, we outperform men at every level of education. We excel at our jobs and our likelihood for success, though stunted by the very formation of our genitalia, is enhanced by our ability to persevere and to overcome the odds. We somehow chase our dreams and rise to great heights while simultaneously scanning our surroundings for danger.
Imagine what women could do if the world didn’t require us to spend a percentage of our mental energy living on edge, constantly having our boundaries violated, constantly being questioned and treated as though we aren’t mentally sound (Yes, this does absolutely applies in racial discourses too!).
Shel Silverstein wrote a song (made famous by Johnny Cash) about a man who named his son “Sue” to ensure that Sue would have a rough way of it coming up, and therefore be strong enough to face the world on his own- ostensibly the boy would need this preparation because the father was planning to be entirely absent. The man’s right, life is hard for Sue because he has a woman’s name, and femininity in men is punishable by violence. Ironically, women grow up with women’s names all the time, and since being a woman has been punishable by violence for centuries, if Sue’s father had simply left and allowed Sue’s mother to raise him on her own, in all likelihood Sue would be a better and stronger man. Because, although it’s never easy, women are trained survivors.
Men are trained to push down their feelings, that the only acceptable responses to any stimulus are anger, laughter, or disinterest. Men are taught to compete, to be hard, that emotions are weak. But that existence is fragile and far from stable. It breeds resentment, self-hatred, low self-worth, and constant competition. It maims men, and severs them from any understanding of how to process the various traumatic experiences that they may have throughout life. It disallows for empathy. And it’s a system that polices itself. Men constantly use emasculating terminology to police their peers’ masculinity. God forbid a man enjoy fruity cocktails, or ask another man to stop referring to women as “bitches”.
(note: There’s some weird woman-hating shit in here, which is weird for a group of people that is simultaneously obsessed with only fucking women.)
It explains why perceived slights to a man’s self-esteem or masculinity can provoke extreme acts of violence. Here’s an admittedly far from comprehensive list of times that women who rejected men’s advances were brutally attacked by the scorned party in 2015.
Were all these men mentally ill? Are all men who brutally assault women, who beat their wives, who rape, mentally ill? I don’t think so. At least, not in the way that we’re thinking. They have been mentally stunted and maimed by impossible standards of masculinity and violence from the very beginning, and they are weak. Masculinity- the kind of masculinity that this culture insists upon- is about weakness, not strength. It’s about control, about competition. This is what mass shootings are about, this is what rape is about, this is what domestic violence is about.
While gun control would be a much-needed step in the direction of slowing down the rate of mass shootings, it’s simply a band-aid on a much larger wound, an injury that will continue to threaten everyone’s health and safety whether there are guns or not.
What we need is a healthier brand of masculinity, one that leaves room for men to have feelings and create intimate friendships with other men and not constantly be at war between who they are and who they are supposed to be. As women learned how to survive and grow past their restrictions and oppressions, so should men.
Abandoning toxic standards of masculinity is a win for everyone, and it doesn’t mean masculine men have to give up being masculine. It simply means that masculinity would not be a defining element in judging a man’s worth. It means that male victims of domestic violence, abusive relationships, and sexual assaults would be believed and listened to instead of shamed and ignored. It would mean that male partners in romantic relationships would be able to communicate better with their partners (yes, please!), that women would be less likely to be objectified as trophies in dick-dangling competitions. That my sweet, lovely, full-of-feelings partner and many of my male friends would be able to make stronger and deeper friendships with other men (and wouldn’t rely on their female friends and partners so much for emotional labor).
It would mean better sex, for those of us who sleep with men (and for the men we sleep with).
And I guarantee it would mean less violence, less rape, less gun violence.
Now, in closing, a caveat, because I can hear the chorus already:
OF COURSE not every single man is a raping, pillaging, woman-beating, gun-toting child-slayer.
I say “men” instead of “some men” or “many men” in this piece because toxic masculinity impacts all men (and everyone else). It has impacted your life in some way, reader, whether you are someone who has been hurt by it or someone who has hurt others because of it, or (most likely) both. We need the world to allow men to be themselves, to heal themselves, to be whole. We need men to take the responsibility of freeing themselves, as women and nonbinary people have.
I’ve gone longer than I meant to here, and I didn’t even mention how guns are symbolic of masculinity and basically just penises, so expect another post soon.
Go be good to yourself.