Ending Violence Against Women: Male Privilege, “Toxic Masculinity” and the goodies in the “Man Box”

I have been very concerned with how the term “toxic masculinity” is being used and the consistent lack of acknowledging the benefits of manhood in a sexist culture. When someone speaks about the toxicity of manhood, we have to ask the question, toxic for whom? And at what level? I admit there are aspects of socially defined manhood that are not particularly healthy for me, but the benefits far outweigh those costs. I suggest we become more inclusive in considering the cost/benefit analysis.

It’s great to be a guy. Unfortunately, much of that “greatness” comes with great cost for women, girls, and others who identify as female.

I am concerned that some strategies to engage men, and “calling men in” by describing how sexism harms them, speaks to men’s self-interest. Which is the same motivating factor associated with sexist oppression. The “man box” is a good example. We suggest men are “trapped” in the box because if men step out of the box, they are slapped back in by other men. While there certainly is some truth to this, I do not believe that is what keeps men in the box. I believe it is all the goodies in the man box that keeps men engaged in a fairly wide spectrum of “traditional masculinity.”

When asking men who work to end men’s violence and/or the sexist oppression of women what motivates them, their answer is routinely altruism. They care about women’s lives. They have hearts. When we believe the only motivating factor for men to change is self-interest, we affirm our belief that men are, in fact, heartless. I have not found that to be true.

What I have found to be true is that as we access our compassion and put into practice our altruistic caring for women and girls, we collide with our male privilege. If our primary motivation is self-interest, we will not relinquish those privileges and the ongoing benefits we receive due to “toxic” masculinity. We will retreat, become silent, or talk well, but not change significant behaviors, both personally and institutionally. To me, our willingness to give up our sexist privilege/benefits—including our silence—is the foundation of change, not our immediate self-interest.

If we care about women and children’s lives, we will relinquish those benefits. We will use our remaining male privilege and influence (which we cannot totally discard because of sexist social norms), to undermine patriarchal structures of oppression. We will work to end the violence, harassment, discrimination, income inequality, exploitation, subordination, and danger that women and girls live with every day.

So, I agree that the term “toxic masculinity” has some positive aspects to it, but I see male privilege guiding those discussions and the focus, by averting conversations from any emphasis on the very concrete foundations of sexist oppression, the benefits and privileges afforded us.

Is that why men are so silent in the face of sexual and domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, inequality, and abuse? Is that why men have been able to abuse women with impunity? Because it sets the foundation of sexism? And sexism benefits all of us?

I spoke with a young man today and shared some of these thoughts with him. He had not considered them before. The privilege and benefits and conscious decision making. Toward the end of the conversation he asked, “How do I not hate men?” “And myself?” “I am at a loss.”  I was very pleased to hear him ask this. That meant he was authentically considering this reality. And not fleeing from the discomfort. Because he cared!

I told him that is a very good question, and one that he will have to answer himself. I also suggested that facing that question is the first part of undoing privilege. Rather than “fleeing” because it is uncomfortable, and his social privilege would allow him to ignore that question without challenge, he is facing that question directly and finding an answer.

His next question was, what can I do for myself to change, and how can I engage other men? I said listen to women’s experience, their fear, anger, and pain. Absorb that information and change. Change yourself, your friends and colleagues, the social institutions that support the social norms which harm others and do so in a way that supports gender equity and respect. See the norms and dismantle them while building new structures of gender justice. To assist him in doing so, I sent him several handouts and a resource list.

So… in conclusion, I believe it is critical that we expand our conversations on how we engage men and boys and change social institutions within the context of male privilege and the benefits provided us… at the expense of women, children, and female identified or associated individuals. We speak to men’s hearts. We speak to the harm that sexism and male privilege is causing, and we ask men “do they care?”

In solidarity…

Chuck Derry