The recent outpouring of sexual harassment cases makes people wonder: what is wrong with men? After all, the vast majority of those accused of sexual violence are men. The simple and perhaps shocking answer is that we, as a society, tell men to be violent. We speak about “real” manhood and call men to “grow a pair” to prove they are manly enough.
And, crucially, we describe men’s anxieties about their changing social roles as a “masculinity crisis”.
In doing this, we suggest that manhood is something universal, even primeval, and thus unchangeable. But masculinity is a social construct. It has a history.
Our ideals of masculinity – the model to which men are supposed to aspire – is very old-fashioned. Even though our culture changed drastically over the course of the 20th century, the qualities we value in “real men” – such as domination, control, physical strength and emotional restraint – are unchanged. These qualities were promoted during the high period of European imperialism in the 19th century – when nations sought above all else to dominate other cultures.
As boys grow up, their peers, parents and even girlfriends tell them “boys don’t cry”, “don’t be a girl”, “be strong”. They learn to feel ashamed of emotionality and vulnerability. They are expected to “prove” their masculinity and, often, that means aggression. Sociologists and psychologists, such as Stephen M. Whitehead, or Victor J. Sadler tell us that only by connecting with their emotions can men look at themselves critically and change their behaviour.
Another old belief is that men can become “real men” through sexual conquest. In 1886, Richard von Krafft-Ebing wrote in Psychopathia Sexualis, the most influential book on human sexuality, that for men, sex with women was a biological force, a “natural instinct … demanding fulfilment”. The idea that healthy men need to satisfy their instinct through sex was commonly accepted as the truth -— the norm regulating relations between men and women. So the traditional and still dominant idea of masculinity means accepting and even encouraging male sexual conquest, the man’s power over others and emotional restraint.
However, emotions, including sympathy and empathy, are actually crucial for healthy social interactions. Thanks to them we understand how other people feel and know how to respond properly -– including responses to sexual harassment.
More recently, we’ve begun to talk about a “masculinity crisis” – commonly used to describe how the changing work patterns and new family demands put pressure on men who feel distress and insecurity about their new gender role. Many straight men find it hard to reconcile the traditional view of gender with the new approach based on partnership and equality of men and women at home and in work. The sense of failing to perform the male ideal promoted by advertisement, Hollywood films and porn movies can provoke defensive reactions in men – machismo, resentment towards women and all-too often aggressive or abusive behaviour.
Clearly, the problem doesn’t lie simply in the pressures of the changing culture but in the old-fashioned ideals of masculinity that can often only be achieved through predatory and sexist attitudes towards women. Sexism is a huge part of bonding among men who define themselves as heterosexual. Let’s be clear, the sort of thing that Donald Trump refers to as “locker room talk” is not just banter, it’s an accepted, encouraged and repeated practice of objectifying and denigrating women. Many men also find it difficult to speak out if they object to it.
A man who is sexist can’t be a woman’s ally –– so why do we continue to value masculinity based on sexism? Even though this outdated and restrictive model of masculinity actually makes men unhappy, it prevails because the culture at large continues to enable it.
Speaking about the masculinity crisis detracts our attention from a real issue: our failure to reform the way we think about masculinity and how unfit it is for the culture in which we now live. The crisis narrative can become an easy excuse of inaction, or a handy justification of some men’s violent and abusive behaviour.
The word “crisis” even seems to fuel a backlash against movements such as #metoo. When some men feel their status is under threat, blogs such as The Voice for Men emerge producing sexist content blaming women for the challenges faced by men.
While it’s extremely important to discuss the changing roles and position of men, the language we use to do that has crucial consequences. The Irish campaign “Man up” is one example how to teach, particularly young boys, positive values and change the meaning we understand strength in men. This project promotes men’s strength as not being in muscles but in active participation of men in preventing domestic violence.
The campaign also encourages men to speak up about their emotions because “silence can kill”. The high number of suicide among men before their 50s is linked to men’s restraint in sharing their emotions.
The negative narrative of the crisis stops men from joining the debate that there can be multiply ways of being a man and there is no shame in breaking with the old patterns.
Turning the story into something more positive —- inviting men to actively participate in redefining the norms of masculinity —- is how our concept of masculinity can be reformed. We should ditch the word “crisis” when speaking about the experiences of boys and men to end the cycle of recrimination.