Toxic masculinity is the new male burden

The Dirty Harry type of man won't cut the mustard in today's gender climate.

The Dirty Harry type of man won't cut the mustard in today's gender climate.

OPINION: I'm hearing a new term and it worries me.

I turn my head and suddenly "toxic masculinity" has entered the lexicon.

For instance fellow columnist Michelle Duff, who is the mother of a young son, withered at the thought her boy would end up thinking like the Wellington College louts who posted comments about taking advantage of a drunk girls.

"It pains me to think that in spite of everything my husband and I do, one day, he might. He could do a lot worse. Because there is no hiding from this country's toxic masculinity."

It's only natural, she believes, that teenage boys demean women because "they are raised in "a culture where sexual violence is trivialised and normalised, where victims are villains who "asked for it" and where other rape myths flourish.."

Well fair's fair, Duff is entitled to call out outrageous attitudes when she sees them but condemning all of masculinity on the strength of them is not helpful or fair.

Men can be the strong and silent type but still have a good attitude to women.

Men can be the strong and silent type but still have a good attitude to women.

I assume Duff does not regard all of masculinity as toxic and is probably advocating for a non-toxic masculinity, whatever that is. Still it's hard to escape the impression when she uses the term – it's been around a while I see – that it's an attack on manhood in general. And what a sad view of manhood she has. Where are all these men who trivialise and normalise sexual violence and spread the cancer so it becomes a culture? Of course there are plenty around but they are a small and dysfunctional minority.  

But I see what she is getting at. Men don't have a monopoly on the traits of aggression and competitiveness but they are certainly more prevalent in our gender and can lead to oppression, violence and a sense of entitlement.

Damaging behaviour, both psychological and physical, towards women, children and other men can be the result. The men's movement of the 90s, which you don't hear about much now, was all about getting men to forget the traditional male mould and conditioning, not only because it was destructive to women but also destructive to themselves. Yes, it's all about us.

But the male traits mentioned can be forces for good and at times be very useful.

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You then have to ask what aspects of manliness Duff and her fellow travellers don't find toxic. Surely they can appreciate the frontline masculine occupations that build cities and roads and fix things. And maybe they could find the hardiness associated with the more masculine male commendable and worthwhile.

Of course some men do rape and beat up their partners and make excuses in ways that women don't.

But as I said last week, I have seen nothing to suggest a rape culture is endemic in New Zealand's male psyche and to stigmatise masculinity on the strengths of some bad attitudes among teenage boys and some men is simplistic, counter productive and unfair. Labelling masculinity as toxic is hardly going to change attitudes, particularly among teenage boys, or enlist the help of men who can make a difference.

That is not to say that improvements can't be made and some have. It may have been the case that rape complainants were treated sceptically and unfeelingly but that certainly doesn't happen now. The system can't ignore the fact that some women make false complaints.

To suggest that women need to exercise some common sense to protect themselves, in the same way people prudently lock their homes against burglars, is also not the same as endorsing rape culture. Of course women should be free to comport themselves how they wish and in a perfect world men would not take advantage but it does no-one any good to ignore realities. 

We come then to another interesting question. Is there such a thing as toxic femininity or do men have a monopoly on the toxic qualities? In other words is there something unique to women which justifies applying the toxic label to womanliness.

I certainly can't think of anything that would substantiate such a label. But that doesn't mean there aren't some toxic attitudes among women as there are among men.

One poisonous attitude is this pervasive sense of grievance against men, particularly among educated women from sheltered backgrounds who tend to gravitate to the soft professions.

The attitude is concentrated not on the problems of the world or women facing true discrimination and terrible conditions, but focused entirely on changing men and perfecting them. These are women who generally have nothing to complain about but yet still feel that men are preventing them from being fully human,  truly fulfilled and properly valued.

The debate about masculinity is a distraction from justifiable complaints about particular attitudes or trends that do need urgent attention. One is the increasing reach of pornography which most would agree is soul-destroying and corrosive to relationships. The other is the alcohol culture which New Zealand shares with many other countries. Both are fuel for our worst masculine instincts and need to be handled carefully.

And Duff should not worry too much about her son. She will not be able to shield him from the culture in which he is brought up, nor should she try, but she and other women around him, will have a lot more influence than anything else. And it might help if she gives masculinity a break.

 - Stuff


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