The last six months have been remarkable. At this point, I can simply text the name of a powerful man to a friend, and they know—another has been accused, outed, exposed.
The context is so present in our minds, partly because it always has been, but largely because the public conversation that’s erupted has been so thorough and—for the most part—wonderfully persistent in both condemning predatory behaviour and upholding the testimony of victims. New precedents are being established. Where we would once discuss these crimes with beleaguered resignation about the consequences, we can now be quietly confident that we’re entering a new era. Finally, retribution is being inflicted on the perpetrator and not the victim.
It feels different even from a year ago. Would Casey Affleck have won the Oscar in this climate, we ask? Probably not, we think. I bet he’s relieved, we say. Public opinion has swung: the Weinstein Company didn’t fire Harvey Weinstein because they found out he was a sexual predator, they fired him because we found out. It’s good to see that the house is finally burning down around him and men of his ilk, but we need to talk about that house—who built it, who lived there, and why it was allowed to stand for so long.
Misogyny is, and always has been, collaborative. Its longevity and omnipotence is maintained through embodied structures of support—‘embodied’, because it’s easy to forget that these structures are the sum of choices made by individuals. They are the choices of those with the social, political or legal capital to effect change, but who don’t. More often than not, this means men. This is not an accusation, but an observation, and we need to engage with it as such.
At this point, we must resist the temptation to view misogyny as a spectrum. This is the wrong way to measure harm; it gives way to a complacency that says, ‘it’s just a joke, it’s not like I actually touched her’. Misogyny isn’t a sliding scale of harm where jokes are situated at the low end and rape at the other. Rather, it functions like a human pyramid, where minor acts support the major by providing, at best, a foundation of blithe indifference, and at worst an atmosphere of amusement at the denigration of women.
At the sprawling base of this pyramid are the innumerable silent men: those who stand idly by as sexism and misogyny play out before them. Their silence might be due to ignorance, intimidation or indifference, but its impact is always the same—silence is complicity, and it creates a stable base for other men to stand on without fear of retribution. Standing on the shoulders of the silent are those who laugh along, allowing sexist comments to be treated as lighthearted jokes. The behavior of these men raises the stakes for objecting, falsely conflating the rejection of casual misogyny with ‘not having a sense of humour’. On their shoulders rest those men who take it one step further and join in on the joke. At every level intent is varied, but the impact remains.
Next, ably supported by the more benign behaviours of the men below them, we have apologists. There are a couple of brands—many of whom are predatory themselves—but they all serve to actively protect the interests of abusive men through a systematic minimisation of their crimes. Whether it’s during a private conversation or in a public statement, these are the men who posture this new atmosphere of collective consciousness around sexual predation as a ‘witch hunt’. They’re equipped with euphemisms—bullying is ‘banter’, bragging about sexual assault is ‘locker room talk’, raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster is ‘20 minutes of action’. These men are skilled at victim posturing—they always think the punishment is too ‘steep’—and even more so at victim blaming. Some are a bit more benign, like the ones who say, ‘sorry about my mate, he’s had too much to drink’ when their friend is harassing you—a great start, but unless they’re taking the time to have an uncomfortable, sober conversation with their friend about how to treat women, the apology is regrettably token.
Then there are the brokers of power—the ones who work quietly and menacingly from the corner office to protect the interests of the broader machine. They’re the ones who quash victims’ allegations with ‘think carefully about pursuing this’: a loaded comment used to convince victims of the superfluity of their claims; a reminder that their status means they can easily be hung out to dry. At the top of this human pyramid stand men like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Australia’s own Don Burke, as well as a variety of other powerful men whose behaviour is vile and, to varying degrees, visible. History is riddled with them: these towering men who cast long shadows, within which they comfortably perpetrate.
No man is an island, and no man offends in isolation. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger wrote that men look at women, and women watch themselves being looked at. This is true, but I have often noticed a third party, an equally intimidating presence with a different gaze: men who watch other men as they watch, harass, or mistreat women. This occurs at every tier, and it can be both passive and active. It’s the bystander who averts his eyes as a stranger starts touching you on the train, or the guy who jeers across the bar as his mate harasses you. It’s the guys who will warn you about the ‘rapey guy’ in your social community, but still invite him to things. This awareness facilitates what Tracey Spicer describes as a ‘protection racket’ for men like Don Burke. When men observe or are made aware of sexual harassment, they are faced with the choice of whether to privilege their own comfort and status, or that of the victim’s. It’s always been clear what’s at stake for women objecting to sexual harassment, but we also need to talk about what’s at stake for men.
Misogyny is a human pyramid, but it also functions like a food chain. The pressure to dominate women (and less powerful men) comes from the top down, and men who abuse their power are likely to exert dominance over everyone. It’s not surprising that many of the recently exposed men were, at the very least, notorious for being bullies. In his #metoo status, a transgender friend of mine wrote about his experiences on both sides of the gender spectrum—first, he outlined the objectification (and assault) he experienced as a woman, and then went on to share this:
Most sadly, despite my experiences, I have been introduced to the danger of falling into these thought patterns myself as a trans male because they are so forcefully normalised in society, and one could be fooled into thinking that it is the type of behaviour that constitutes a ‘real man.’ I have been presented with opportunity to engage in this culture and to be honest, sometimes it can be challenging to be/remain deviant to the norms.
It’s significant that this ‘pressure’ speaks to an external force, more than an innate desire. Much of how we enact gender is a performance, but this does not mean we are playing pretend—the consequences are very real, and very harmful.
We urgently need to discuss the construction of masculinity in our society—in particular, the power that it promises and delivers to young boys and men who are desperate to feel powerful. Hegemonic masculinity, as it stands, encourages the need for dominance, and toxic masculinity satisfies this need by providing a series of cheap, destructive avenues by which to achieve it. Toxic masculinity is masculinity’s evil twin—for every trait that’s typically attributed to the masculine, toxic masculinity offers a destructive, weaponised version. Dominance and aggression are prized above all else, and bonding is often a dance between competing with other men, and relishing this behaviour together.
There is something performative about toxic forms of masculinity, and especially the communal harassment of women. And so much harassment is communal: the full carload of boys catcalling a girl on the street; the pair of men at the pub lobbing innuendos across you, and about you, for the benefit of one another; the group of young men on the train talking with explicit vulgarity about girls they know. Revenge porn. Not to mention the velocity at which rejection becomes rage, as a choir of mates chimes in and sanctions it with ‘she sounds like a bitch, man’. There’s a whole terrible continuum of things that happen when men dominate women together, and it’s linked to a crude, ritualistic proving of one’s self through aggression, dominance and ‘going too far’.
Walking through Sydney Airport a little more than a year ago, I became aware that two security guards were watching me. They laughed as I passed through the metal detector. I was embarrassed, thinking I had done something wrong. Still laughing, they told me that I had been randomly selected for a security check. I laughed along tentatively, assuming this was some strange joke because they were behaving so unprofessionally. Straight-faced, they told me they were not joking, and one of them walked me to the end of the conveyor belt. I could see him looking at his colleague over my shoulder. He asked me to put my leg up on a crate, smirking again at his colleague. As he ran the baton up and down and between my legs, he said, ‘How are you?’ to which I replied very shortly with, ‘Yeah, good.’ He then leaned in and whispered, ‘Yeah, you look good.’
Parallel to my attendant anger was the realisation that he derived so much pleasure from the fact that his colleague was watching. This was something they did together; this was how they bonded. Men who bond by denigrating women are intimidating and often dangerous, but they also reflect the lack of meaningful connection that’s available to men who subscribe to this kind of masculinity. When a man puts his hand on my leg and slurs something vile, I am revolted, but I also look at him and see someone reveling in an illusory freedom. The prioritising of dominance means that these men are always taking, but never receiving; they are always exerting, but never engaging. Mutuality is not welcome. At worst, consent is not only irrelevant, but actually runs counter to their objective. Uncurbed entitlement precludes them from the emotional intimacy that comes from shared vulnerability. Objectification thrives where empathy is lacking; the two cannot comfortably co-exist. Hegemonic ideas of ‘manhood’ encourage the former while actively suppressing the latter, crippling the ability of some men to engage with others in healthy and mutually beneficial ways. This kind of empathy vacuum also inhibits men from meaningfully engaging with the consequences of their behaviour; for others, but also for themselves.
The ways in which the patriarchy damages women are severe, and bloody. We have been objecting to them for centuries. We have fought for and gained liberties because our lack of them was so apparent, and we are still fighting. ‘Femininity’ is always in flux—female writers and theorists have been deconstructing our gendered experience for decades, and we are acutely aware of the limitations that patriarchy attempts to impose on our space in the world. Only recently have we begun to do the same with masculinity. It is long overdue. The damage wrought on men is so normalised that, as a society, we’re barely cognizant of it—we don’t read it as harm or limitation, but rather as the natural state of things. ‘Boys will be boys’ is a depressing resignation masquerading as a defence; it acknowledges behavior without accepting responsibility for the norms that encourage it, and it only ever seems to come on the heels of bad behavior. There’s always been a deep incongruence between how society has defined a ‘good man’ and a ‘real man’. As a consequence, the latter has so often been held up as the male gender’s guiding avatar, to everyone’s detriment.
None of this is to say that men are not responsible for their behaviour—part of what has made this moment in time so powerful is that these men are finally being held accountable. But it’s worth noting that they are not anomalies. Men who abuse their power over women (or other vulnerable parties) exist across every industry, every ethnicity, every age, every sexuality, every nationality, every socioeconomic class and every religion. There is no common thread besides ‘masculinity’ and our shared understanding of what this constitutes. To focus exclusively on condemning men like Harvey Weinstein is simple and gratifying—his power was stratospheric, and his abuse of it was equally monumental. He is mythological, unrelatable, far removed. But Harvey Weinstein is not removed from our culture—he is totemic of it. For men’s criticism of Harvey Weinstein to be sincere and productive, they need to reject the urge to vilify him while positioning themselves as the progressive alternative. Men must instead become relentlessly self-reflexive, and recognise the way that the scale of abuse matches the scale of power. They must reflect on the power they hold, and identify the areas in which they could, even accidentally, abuse that power. This includes witnessing misogyny or sexism but not objecting to or correcting it, because the option to disengage belongs only to the powerful.
To claim that misogyny is a pyramid built upon a silent majority might seem like a harsh indictment, but it is also an empowering one. If men can swallow the confronting reality that their silence is foundational to both sexism and sexual violence, then they get to embrace the inverse reality—that their vocal dissent could begin to destabilise these evils at their base. This counts most of all when there are no women around—I have a feeling the most sexist things ever said about me occurred when I wasn’t in earshot, or even in the room. It counts in the all-male text chain. It counts in the locker-room. It counts when there are no women there to pat you on the back. It counts when there’s nothing in it for you.
Toxic masculinity thrives by coding empathy as a fun killer and emotion as weakness, and has engineered hearty consequences for those who display these qualities, ranging from eye rolls and ostracism all the way to physical violence. This starts early, when boys are shamed for crying, or for liking anything ‘feminine’—when sensitivity is discouraged. The result is that empathy is suppressed, and this allows the objectification of others (women in particular) to thrive. But what if all the strength and resilience we foster in boys from a young age were instead employed here—what if we encouraged boys to be empathetic, and raised them to be strong enough to absorb the consequences, and to use their social privilege in service of others? Perhaps this is a good way for men to channel that confusing (white) male guilt; to divert their efforts away from seeking absolution for their identity, and instead orientate themselves toward building a world where that identity is no longer the trump card.
If we can learn to see men as distinct from established understandings of masculinity in the way we have done with women and femininity, then hopefully we can begin to construct a version of masculinity that is more plural, more expansive, and less harmful to everyone. It’s an urgent task, given that men are four times more likely than women to commit suicide, and that violent and sexual crimes are overwhelmingly perpetrated by men. An emergent masculinity might be one where men have the right to be vulnerable, uncertain, and empathetic without feeling shame; where they can acknowledge their limitations, be it physically, emotionally or mentally, and not feel like a failure. This is already happening, but we need to work to elevate this more inclusive model, and we need men who are prepared to enact it in real time.
We need dads to talk to their 16-year-old sons about loneliness. We need men to talk to boys about sexuality and consent, and we need their perspective to be a healthy one that stresses the value of empathy and respect, as this will run counter to much of what boys will see in pornography and other media. We need to teach boys that sometimes the most courageous thing they can do is ask for help. We must allow men to feel and express more than anger, to engage with the reality that anger is a secondary emotion, a mask for pain, and one that isn’t likely to be soothed by outward aggression or dominating someone else. We need all the men at the base of the pyramid to unsubscribe, to withdraw their tacit complicity, and to work together to establish new norms around what it means to be a man. If we embrace the momentum of this cultural moment, if we keep listening to victims while placing the burden of change on the shoulders of those most equipped to enact it—men—then we’ll be able to look back on 2017 as a watershed year in the long and grueling fight against misogyny. The future is looking brighter than it has before.
Emma Pitman is a writer from Sydney. She writes about gender and culture, and her work has appeared at The Lifted Brow and in the UTS Writer’s Anthology.