What Does It Mean to Be a "Man"?

Updated: Dec 28, 2019

In the pursuit of social justice, valiant steps towards deconstructing the gender binary have been and continue to be made in stride. In spite of this, masculine ideologies perpetuating logics of domination and subordination persists.


Do we have reason to be alarmed? Are efforts being wasted, do they need to be relocated, or are they simply ineffective?


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The #MeToo movement, sparked in 2017 by women speaking out about their experiences of sexual violence on a massive scale in mainstream media, has urged men to think critically about their ideas surrounding masculinity — where they learned them, how they translate to social behaviours, and how they can do better at recognizing and preventing the continued dissemination of ideologies which proliferate gender violence. 


A 2018 survey conducted by SurveyMonkey in partnership with FiveThirtyEight and WNYC Studios asked 1,615 US adult men* a series of questions pertaining to their perceptions of masculinity, their social behaviours at work and in romantic settings, as well as their reflections on these behaviours in the wake of #MeToo


The data collected provides insight into where we currently are in the process of deconstructing masculinity, its causal connection to gender violence, and the directions we must move in order to persist in this pursuit.  


‘Men as inherently violent’ is a trope perpetuated ad nauseam in American culture. It stems from sexist ideologies wherein a logic of domination is applied to the gender binary in order to justify the subordination of women. In doing so, gender violence is portrayed as merely a “women’s issue”, focusing conversations on victims and often erasing perpetrators from the discourse entirely. 


Dr. Jackson Katz, anti-sexist activist and scholar, has fueled many discussions pertaining to gender violence. In his TedX talk entitled “Violence against women — it’s a men’s issue”, Katz attests that “calling gender violence a women’s issue is part of the problem,” because, “it gives men the excuse not to pay attention”. 


This is not to essentialize men (whether or not they are engaging in dominating behaviours) as consciously and actively resisting and/or denying elements of masculinity to be damaging. In fact, 60% of men surveyed answered “yes” when asked if they believed “society puts pressure on men in a way that is unhealthy or bad for them”. 


That being said, has this perceived enlightenment surrounding toxic masculinity translated to changes in behaviour?


When talking about any binary or classification in which the dominant group is routinely removed from the conversation, “the dominant group is really challenged to even think about its dominance,” says Katz.


When asked to reflect on their tendency to participate in physical fights, ½ of men surveyed responded that not only have they never engaged in one, they are completely against the prospect of ever engaging in one. This might suggest a shift in men’s compliance with the trope of ‘men as inherently violent’. However, violence comes in many forms, some much more recognizable than others, and much more recognizable to others. 


Surveys pertaining to partner violence have clearly demonstrated that “men’s understandings of men’s violence against women are consistently poorer than women’s” (Herrero, Rodrigues, & Torres). This lack of men’s understanding suggests that there is a significant amount of gender violence taking place of which the perpetrators are not even aware of themselves as engaging in that role.


A persistent misperception within the discourse of sexual violence is that perpetrators are devients, outliters, and/or ‘other’ men of inherenty sinister natures. Recognizing this, it is no big surprise that men are often only able to identify overt instances of harassment and violence, when in fact, “the normal perpetrator isn’t sick and twisted, he’s a normal guy in every other way” (Katz).


Sociologist Michael Flood drives this point home in his piece “Men and #MeToo: Mapping Men’s Responses to Anti-violence Advocacy”. He attests that, “while many men agree that sexual harassment is unacceptable, often they recognize only the bluntest and most groteque abuses of power. This is similar to perceptions of sexual assault, where assaults by a stranger, in a pulic location, using a weapon, and involving serious injury dominate the community’s perceptions of ‘real rape’”. 


A clear reprocussion of this mispreception is illustrated by the fact that 75% of men surveyed claimed they had never witnessed sexual harassment in their workplace.


This statistic invites three possible conclusions: either sexual harassment in the workplace is almost a non-issue, it is somehow occurring completely outside the sights of all these men, or, perhaps, there is some systemic reason men aren’t able or willing to acknowledge sexual harassment when they see it.


According to a survey conducted in 2017 by the Huffington Post, 1 in 3 women had experienced sexual harassment at work. Further, 8% of men surveyed who claimed they had witnessed sexual harassment at their workplace did nothing in response. From this, there is due reason to believe part of maintaining masculinity as a dominating identity includes turning a blind eye and/or maintaining ignorance to instances of gender violence which are not physically unignorable. 


To uncover and understand the systemic reasons men’s increasing awareness of toxic masculinity has thus far not resulted in significant changes in behaviour, it might be valuable to analyze a common sphere of gender violence: intimate relationships.  


In 2016, 80% of those accused of intimate partner violence were male. The rates of these reports were highest amongst males aged 25 to 34 accused of dating violence. Clearly, masculinity plays a role in constructing and encouraging behaviours that lead to intimate partner violence. 


It is worth acknowledging that women are not the only victims of male violence. Violence against men is also overwhelmingly perpetrated by men. As well, children, regardless of gender identity, are affected as victims and witnesses. 


This is to say, we are all victims of gender violence. 


As previously mentioned, men are often unaware that the social behaviours they are participating in perpetuate logics of domination. This might be due in part to certain behaviours disguising themselves as forms of “chivalry”, or simply social expectations. For example, over half of men surveyed felt as though they are “typically expected to make the first move in romantic relationships”.


While this statistic might seem relatively harmless on its own, the ways in which it translates to methods of sexual advancement tells a much more alarming story. 


Of the 1,615 men surveyed, only 31% said they ask for verbal confirmation to gauge the interest of a potential intimate partner. Of the remaining men who didn’t dodge the question entirely, responses were spread across claims that “every situation is different,'' that they rely on their ability to read body language, or that they simply make an unconsented physical move to “see how their potential partner reacts”. 


Additionally, 85% of respondents answered “none of the above” when asked if they had wondered whether they pushed a partner too far in a past sexual encounter, talked with a friend about whether they pushed a partner too far, or contacted a past partner to ask whether they had gone too far in any of their sexual encounters in the past year.


Again, this lack of action is not owed to a lack of understanding that elements of masculinity are damaging to conform to. And while it might be true that some men are ignorant to gender violence as not merely a “women’s issue”, and/or to what constitutes gender violence in the first place, ignorance does not excuse behaviours and attitudes that justify subordination and gender violence. 


Intolerance of ignorance in this regard is more crucial than ever in the wake of #MeToo. Despite resulting in a proliferation of these topics in mainstream media and discourse, and its direct call to action for men to question their understandings of masculinity, attitudes and behaviours have still largely not changed. 


When asked if they had made changes in their romantic behaviours in response to the #MeToo movement, 89% of surveyed men said no. This might be a continued result of what feminist scholar Helen Lewis outlines as “The Weinstein Problem: the fact that many harassers see harassment as limited to grotesque abuses of power, whereas their own actions can be excused as merely a case of misread signals, inept attempts at seduction, harmless flirting”.


So what exactly do men think it means to be a “man”? And where do we need to focus our efforts if we are to deconstruct damaging conceptions of masculinity effectively? 


As a trend, the more masculine men surveyed felt they were, the more important they felt it was that others saw them as masculine. This demonstrates a powerful influence of peer culture in maintaining and proliferating logics of male domination. 


Katz advocates one of the most effective methods for reducing gender violence is to “create a peer culture climate where the abusive behaviour will be seen as unacceptable”. If we are to move in this direction, the statistic produced by the survey which ought to beg the highest scruntity is that only 5% of men who admited to being witness to a sexual harassment incident at work confronted the accused person afterward. 


Social pressures to conform to dominating male behaviours within a social group are clearly effective in silencing and preventing members of these groups from taking resistant action. This suggests change needs to come from outside of these groups, from positions of influence.  


Katz urges us to ask, “what is the role of the institutions in our society that our producing abusive men?”. In asking this question, we disrupt the assumption that the burden of reducing instances of gender violence is for victims to bear, and place more responsibility on those in positions of leadership — those whose voices and actions speak to the many, and have the power to effectively condemn dominating male behaviours of current or potentially abusive men. 


To put it frankly, it is men in positions of power that we must hold strictly accountable. 


At this point, it might seem as though outlooks are pretty bleak. However, this is not to say that the meaning of manhood is inherently sinister. 


It is increasingly obvious that the pursuit of dissipating logics of male domination has become less about getting men to care; to be sensitive to the harms caused by perpetuating these ideologies. As Katz attests, “there are so many men who care deeply about these issues, but caring deeply is not enough”. 


Care and sensitivity are currently lost in translation when it comes to perceptions of masculinity and actions of gender violence. If we are to continue moving towards a social climate wherein behaviours of domination and subordination are not tolerated, relentless pressures need to be put on institutions and men in positions of leadership to condemn the toxic peer culture which not only allows, but urges these behaviours to persist. 




*It is valuable to acknowledge that majority of men surveyed are white, cisgender, and heterosexual. The percentages have been weighted for age, race, education, and geography using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey



References


Flood, M. (2019). Men and #MeToo: Mapping Men’s Responses to Anti-violence Advocacy. #MeToo and the Politics of Social Change. 285-300. 


Herrero, J., Rodríguez, F. J., & Torres, A. (2017). Acceptability of partner violence in 51 societies: The role of sexism and attitudes toward violence in social relationships. Violence Against Women, 23(3), 351–367.


Huffington Post, https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/1-in-3-women-sexually-harassed-work-cosmopolitan_n_6713814?ri18n=true


Katz, Jackson, TedX talk entitled “Violence against women — it’s a men’s issue”


Lewis, H. (2017, October 17). The Harvey Weinstein allegations are monstrous but it’s not just monsters who harass women. New Statesman. Retrieved December 20, 2018, from https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/ uk/2017/10/harvey-weinstein-allegations-are-monstrous-it-s-not-just- monsters-who-harass.


Statistics Canada, "Police-reported intimate partner violence," 2017

https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2018001/article/54893/tbl/tbl3.12-eng.htm