A battle that doesn’t need to be fought
Toxic masculinity is now a familiar term to many. Language is flexible but manipulative. As such, this term has come to mean different things to different people.
I am not advocating for a draconian law with Orwellian thought police. My issue is when these differing opinions are ill-informed — and lacking in evidence that divides genders further apart.
Men have been perceived throughout time as having certain personality traits. As have women. Men were generally viewed as hunters. And later wage earners. Women have always tended to be viewed as home-keepers.
Over generations, these personas have morphed into their respective stereotypes. But neither of these personas equate to sexual equality.
Feminism has come a long way
The 18th-century utilitarian and philosopher Jeremy Bentham deplored the societal placing of women. He challenged women’s legally inferior position to men. Many regard Bentham as the founder of modern utilitarianism. Bentham advocated for complete equality between the sexes. This included the rights to vote and to engage in government.
In 1866, English Law forbade abortion. Ironically named ‘The Offences Against the Person Act,’ this draconian law was low even by the standards of the time.
During this same period, diaphragms and rubber condoms were available. But they were rarely used and not available for unmarried women.
In 1885, The British Government raised the age of consent for sex for women from as low as 10 to 16. Yet this new Act came with a higher penalty for offences against girls under the age of 13.
Stupidity and bigotry were never far away. In the same period, a married woman and all she owned, belonged to her husband. Women also continued to have no access to higher education.
In 1861, a City of London bylaw outlandishly made it illegal to hit your wife between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. Unsurprisingly, it was not the strive for equality that resulted in this by-law. The rationale was that the noise involved in the beating of your wife kept people awake.
In 1891, common sense somehow managed to rear its head again. The right to use corporal punishment on a wife was finally removed.
1925 brought ‘The Law of Property Act.’ This permitted both men and women to inherit property equally.
Women were finally given universal suffrage on the same terms as men in 1928.
The Ford Dagenham sewing machinists’ strike took place in England in 1968, leading to ‘The Equal Pay Act of 1970.’
Common sense appeared to be gaining some traction.
Then there was ‘The Sex Discrimination Act’ of 1975, which made it illegal to discriminate against women in the workplace.
Unlike other years, 1986 came with two changes towards equality of the sexes. The Government introduced statutory maternity pay. And also repealed the abhorrent ‘Bastardy Act’ by way of the ‘Family Law Reform Act.’ This latter change finally gave children born outside of marriage rights. The same legal status as those born in marriage.
And then the swinging sixties arrived. Along with it came the advent of the contraceptive pill.
The scales of equality started to gain even more traction. Women were afforded more rights. Although still not the same rights as men. Nor equality of opportunity on the same par as men.
‘The Abortion Act’ in 1967 gave women abortion rights. Although even those rights came with stringent conditions.
Erin Pizzey opened the charity Refuge in 1971. This was the first safe house in the UK for women fleeing domestic abuse.
1985 brought with it ‘The Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act.’ Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) was now an illegal act.
The UK reached equality between men and women in higher education enrollment in 1993.
As late as 1994, the British Government finally classed rape in marriage as a crime.
In 2015, coercive control became a criminal offence.
What is the concept of ‘toxic masculinity’?
None of the above-mentioned laws prevents chauvinistic, misogynistic thoughts or beliefs. But such legal changes are always the catalyst for much needed social changes.
The above is by no means an exhaustive list of how far feminism has rightly come. But it has come a long way. These changes are at least changes in the right direction. Although we must still do more.
Alongside the ongoing progress to equality of the sexes, we now have the term toxic masculinity. Of late, this term has become familiar to many through mainstream media. But there appears to be confusion and misunderstanding of its actual meaning. And this is causing division between the sexes.
The field of psychology has its own definition of toxic masculinity:
‘Traditional cultural masculine norms that can be harmful to men, women and society as a whole.’
The term originates from the mythopoetic men’s movement. This movement was created in the 1980s. Some argue the creation of said movement was a reaction to second-wave feminism.
The intention of toxic masculinity is not to vilify men or male-specific behaviours. Its intention is to highlight the harmful effects of conforming. Abiding by what is perceived as certain traditional masculine behaviours. Such as self-reliance, dominance, and over-competitiveness.
Toxic masculinity is further defined (in the field of psychology) as follows:
‘Conforming to such male behaviours results in some emotions not being permittable for men and boys to express. The result is that any expression of anger is a default knee-jerk reaction. As their emotional range is restricted.’
“The constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence.” This definition of toxic masculinity is provided by The Wright Institute school of psychology, which takes a more sweeping approach.
Discussion in the public arena has even influenced the American Psychological Association (APA). The APA has now introduced new guidelines. These are for therapists working with men and boys. The guidelines warn that some extreme traditional masculine traits are linked to violence and misogyny.
The misuse of the term ‘toxic masculinity’
Invariably, a conflict has arrived along with the term. This, in turn, encourages a misunderstanding and misuse of the term.
Of course, masculinity can be destructive. But let’s return to the title of this piece. Both ends of the spectrum have a tendency to misuse the term toxic masculinity.
There is one end of the spectrum. Conservatives allege that accusations of toxic masculinity are a demonization of manhood itself.
Then there is the opposite, somewhat progressive end of the spectrum. Who believe the breaking down of masculinity is an integral journey on the pathway to true gender equality.
And then further along the spectrum, there is another perspective. That men have somehow been infected by some form of toxicity.
These are divisive and contentious arguments. It appears these arguments have triggered certain sections of the media to blame toxic masculinity for many things. And without fully understanding it.
Understanding ‘toxic masculinity’
Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell leads the way in presenting a new sociological presentation of masculinity. Connell argues that gender is a product of behaviours and relations. Instead of a fixed set of personality traits.
Connell’s school of thought is now appearing to become the prevailing social-scientific understanding of masculinity. This school of thought states that how a real man is defined can vary dramatically across many spectrums.
Connell and others hypothesize that common masculine ideals become problematic when unrealistic goals are set. Failing to meet these goals make men and boys feel insecure and inadequate. Such feelings may prompt them to use dominance to feel and be seen as being in control.
Connell and others argue that in such circumstances male violence does not come from something toxic. It does come from, they argue, something that has made its way into the concept of masculinity.
Instead, they assert, it emanates from such men’s political and social settings. It is such dynamics that act as the catalyst for inner conflicts in place of social expectations.
Since its creation, the term has moved from being a topic of debate within academic literature. It is now being discussed widely in the media. But, the term now offers a tempting diagnosis for gender-specific violence. And also a failure on the part of men and boys.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama has rightly recognised that there exists a “self-defeating model for being a man,” whereby respect is acquired through violence. Obama champions several mentoring programs that all aim to provide a solution for this self-defeating model.
Although there is currently a lack of longitudinal evidence available, such programs will make a difference. There is a plethora of evidence out there that informs us of the following: Men and boys who have sexist attitudes are more likely to be a perpetrator of gendered violence.
So where do misogynistic views come from?
Have men and boys been brainwashed over many generations? With the aim of raising them to be misogynistic? Do those that have been brainwashed need re-educating? Or are the issues more deeply hidden?
Some blame culture for toxic masculinity. But, as discussed above, such a view results in disregarding societal frameworks. Particularly the forces that hold such frameworks in place.
‘Toxic masculinity’ and where we are now
Let’s be honest here. There is no justifiable moral argument or scientific data that informs us that a state of inequality between the sexes is beneficial to all.
The above brief timeline of oppression of one sex by another is abhorrent. However, please do not take it out on the generations that know better.
Sexism against men exists.
Anecdotal evidence of inequality
I encountered the family justice system in 2016. I went through a messy divorce. I spent in excess of £25,000 in legal fees. What for? To have a relationship with my three beautiful children.
The unabridged version of this messy encounter is in another story, Losing Contact With My 3 Children’
So where did £25,000 and two and a half years in and out of the family court get me? Nowhere. I have not seen my three children since the summer of 2016.
I have no safeguarding issues. All my children and I have a human right to have a relationship with one another.
However, they have been brainwashed into believing that I have abandoned them. They have been given a false narrative of events by their mother.
This form of abuse and contact denial is commonly referred to as parental alienation. Here in the UK, it is only now beginning to be recognised in the family court. But recognition does not result in the best outcomes for children.
My circumstances are not one of separated parents contesting custody of the children. I want to engage in post-separation shared parenting. For the best evidence-based outcome for our children.
A children’s social worker and her manager once told me it was unreasonable for a father to expect to share parenting with the resident mother. I asked why. They responded by stating that it had always been this way.
This is not equality. This is one of many examples of inequality in the family justice system. And my case is just one of many where fathers, post-separation, have lost contact with their children due to this inequality.
The following statistics speak for themselves:
96% of all child arrangements order applications are made by fathers (University of Warwick).
97% of residencies are given to mothers (University of East Anglia).
50% of court orders are broken (University of East Anglia).
Just 1.2% of applications for enforcement of court orders are successful (Ministry of Justice).
In my opinion, this is the most alarming finding from a study undertaken in 2009:
From a poll of 4,000 parents and children, one in three children whose parents separated or divorced over the last 20 years disclosed that they had lost contact permanently with their father.
The aim of this study was to provide a snapshot of the outcomes of the family court system exactly 20 years after the implementation of the landmark 1989 Children Act.
“The adversarial nature of the system invites people to come and use the court system as a punch up and the children get used as pawns.” These are the words of Sandra Davis. The head of family law at Mishcon de Reya, for whom the poll was undertaken.
The latter stages of my marriage involved domestic violence.
Can I ask you a question? If I were a woman writing this, would you have been tempted to speculate that the perpetrator was the husband? I know I would have, until it happened to me.
The flawed family justice system here in the UK favours mothers over fathers — to the detriment of the children. The story behind this obvious biased approach is beyond the remit of this one.
The family justice system may be biased in favour of the mother. But this does not equate to every institution having that biased nature.
‘Toxic masculinity’ and where we are now (cont’nd)
Not all men have experienced, suffered from, been afflicted (or whatever term you use) by toxic masculinity. This is a term for several toxic personality traits that are present in some men. Not all men have them. And not all men that have one or two have them all.
Toxic masculinity does not define men.
I agree with Connel but I also buy into the personality trait argument.
Times are changing and for the better, but we must do better together. An adversarial approach becomes a battleground, not a solution-focused collaboration.
Each generation has the opportunity of being more enlightened than the last generation.
But it doesn’t always happen that way. The path to true equality requires the challenging of some viewpoints.
Ironically, I know several men that shy away from expressing their feminist views. Due to their fear of appearing less masculine. This is Obama’s self-defeating model for being a man at play.
I also know several women that express their feminist views to the detriment of equality. The ultimate contradiction of terms.
The possibility of improvement is faltered by the human fallacy of sticking to past perspectives and outdated assumptions. Such an archaic stance holds us all back from progress and equality.
We should be allowing ourselves to be challenged. To increase the chances of achieving true gender equality.
Originally published in ‘The Bigger Picture‘ 10/10/19.