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The use of the term Toxic Masculinity

BY SEBASTIAN UYS

This is an article (1) of (2) addressing the two commonly-held root causes of GBV – Toxic Masculinity and Patriarchy.

Violence against women is lamentable. The rape and murder of women within this Covid-19 lockdown has provided a tragic and disturbing undercurrent to South Africa’s growing list of social issues. Consequently, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that Gender-based violence in 2020 is our second biggest pandemic. The pain and destruction caused by GBV in South Africa is evident as newspapers are publishing images of rape survivors on their cover page. No one can or should deny the reality and depth of suffering caused by gender-based violence for the victims. But not only are the victims affected, their families and the terrible fear-inducing ripple effects that GBV has on our surrounding society calls for justice, healing and answers.

Against this backdrop, an incident occurred at a residence on the Tygerberg campus – where an alleged assault of a female student by a male student took place. This happened in the early hours of Saturday, 4 July 2020. Following this incident, student-led action occurred, and a subsequent a male-driven online discussion (due to Ccovid-19 regulations) was held on the 13th of July 2020. This meeting was titled, ”Let’s talk about it gents”, and will be referred to as such for the remainder of this article. ‘Let’s talk about it gents’ was an online discussion aimed at increasing awareness around solutions to gender-based violence, and was attended by 150 men. For the most part, toxic masculinity and patriarchy were discussed.

Currently, these seem to be the commonly held two root causes of gender-based violence, as per authoritative voices in our culture (Political leaders, University Professors (etc)), toxic masculinity and patriarchy. Therefore, this article will address this cultural diagnosis of toxic masculinity. This article will argue that just as much time should be devoted to the reconstruction and reformation of positive masculinity as is currently spent diagnosing the problem (toxic masculinity). The diagnosis should be differentiated from the cure. Possible causes of toxic masculinity will be discussed – fatherlessness and the widespread consumption of pornography.

Phumzile van Damme, a Democratic Alliance Member of the National Assembly of South Africa has tweeted the following: ”One point: the idea that alcohol causes GBV is nonsensical. Many men drink, but don’t beat, murder and rape. Toxic masculinity causes GBV – not alcohol.” But what causes toxic masculinity? One answer by a male attendant of ’Let’s talk about it Gents’ was, ”Toxic masculinity was born when we defined gender roles.” Despite this accusation substantive answers were also provided that discussed the forces and pressures which influence masculinity in a toxic way – as it develops – not from its birth.

South Africa has one of the highest rates of fatherlessness in the world. Accord- ing to the 2017 Statistics SA General Household Survey, a shocking 61.8% of children under the age of 18 live without their father. Scholars Sara McLanahan, Laura Tach, and Daniel Schneider have investigated the causal effects of Father Absence and have found strong evidence that father absence negatively affects children’s social-emotional development, particularly by increasing externalizing behavior. Externalizing behaviors include physical aggression, verbal bullying and relational aggression – all three of these are essential within gender-based violence. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that the effect of fatherlessness may be more pronounced if father absence occurs during early childhood than during middle childhood, and that it may be more pronounced for boys than for girls.

Pornography is also a destructive root cause of toxic masculinity. Research proves that pornography significantly distorts attitudes and perceptions about the nature of sexual intercourse. Men who habitually look at pornography have a higher tolerance for abnormal sexual behaviors, sexual aggression, promiscu- ity, and even rape. This in turn leads to a clear objectification of women. Sadly, research also shows that 70% of men aged 18 to 24 visit a porn site at least once per month. This statistic is likely to be downward bias (lower than it should be) due to men often hiding their pornography us.

Lying hidden in the shadows of all contemporary narratives regarding toxic masculinity lies a robust idea of what wholesome (positive) masculinity looks like. In fact, whilst many would not admit this, it would be impossible to define toxic masculinity on the bad side of the spectrum – if we did not have a vague or (un-admitted) good ideal of masculinity in our minds. The general underlying principle is simple – you cannot define dark without a conception of light. For one to say that something is wrong (toxic), you are implicitly offering and defending what would’ve been right (wholesome). Of course we all agree that men should not murder, rape and abuse woman – but why is so little effort being put into building a positive ideal of what masculinity should be?

The answer that explains why this is avoided is fairly simple: For one to offer what could be a positive notion or conception of masculinity, one has begun to enter the modern forbidden territory of attempting to define, build and reform gender roles. Therefore, it seems easier to argue that the needed answer would be the destruction of all gender roles ascribed to males, instead of making a genuine attempt to build on the positive conception we all have in our minds of what masculinity should be. This positive ideal is there and used to define toxic masculinity as ”not what it should be” in the first place. As men, we should spend our time challenging and encouraging each other as men to be faithful, respectable, responsible and to be gentle – not violent. As students we should work towards managing our lives and future families well – using the skills we have been given to provide for the ones we love. The response to toxic masculinity should be an effort towards true not no masculinity.

1 thought on “The use of the term Toxic Masculinity

  1. Dear Sebastian

    I appreciate deeply that men are engaging with this topic, whether that be to debate its solutions or its roots or both.

    I found your commentary on the issue interesting and your stats compelling. I will not comment on the roles of pornography or fatherlessness on toxic masculinity as neither has a clear place in my mind.

    I’d like to comment rather on the statement that “toxic masculinity was created when we defined gender roles”. First, there is a fundamental truth in this idea. Without masculinity there can be no toxic masculinity. Second, you imply that positive masculinity is to be faithful, respectful, responsible and gentle. These are admirable traits in a man but are they not admirable traits in all people? Masculine feminine or anywhere in between? What you describe is a good person, not just a good man. Masculinity must be defined in its differences from femininity in order to mean anything. This leads to a question. What action is positive for a one gender to perform but not for another? (Considering only the traditional two) Is it not polite for a woman to let someone walk ahead of them? Or is it not kind for a man to cook dinner for his family?

    A commonly held idea is that men are responsible for romantic and sexual advances. This can be done in a gentlemanly and good way but it is also very easy to see how this idea can be corrupted and turned into unwanted advances and sexual assault. Perhaps if the role was not confined to masculinity, men would not believe that “she’s just playing hard to get and I should try more”.

    However, I agree that masculinity doesn’t need to be done away with completely. It forms a wonderfully useful, traditional anchor by which men can be held to standard. A standard of faithfulness, gentleness, respect and responsibility. But this traditional anchor is an emotive tool by which to convince the traditional among us to be a good person. It is not a fundamental part of being a good man any more than it is a fundamental part of being a good person.

    As Ghandi said: “Don’t be swak, be lekker”.

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