Monday, April 15, 2013

Toxic Masculinity?

Judge Thomas Lipps listening to arguments in Jefferson County Juvenile Court. AP Photo/Herald Star, Mark Law

"If we want to end the pandemic of rape, it’s going to require an entire global movement of men willing to do the hard work of interrogating the ideas [with which] they were raised...."
So says Jaclyn Friedman in her provocative March 13, 2013 Prospect article, Toxic Masculinity. And I am writing today because I could not agree more.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the Army. As a retired Army Officer and father of two teen-aged daughters, I have a personal stake in ending the pandemic of rape within the military. I care about my family, my community, and the military culture in which I served for 28 years. It pains me to think of the lives destroyed by such horrendous acts as have been in the news so much of late: acts of violence carried out mostly by men, and mostly against women or children. Sometimes the crimes are carried out with guns, sometimes with sexual violence, and sometimes with both.

Toxic Masculinity.

Is it just me? Has there been a measurable shift in media coverage on topics of violence? If so, are the reports merely documenting the incidents, or fanning the flames?  Are people worse, or are we just hearing about bad behavior more often because of improved communications technology? Let's agree that the question is rhetorical at this point. The "behavior-or-hype" answer is not obvious, and is most likely due to a combination of these and other factors. Still, based only on my instincts, I feel there has been an increase in gun violence and sexual violence over the past decade that tracks with the following phenomena:

  • increased desensitization to death and destruction after a decade of war
  • increased objectivization of women (eye candy, ornamentation, pornography, provocative fashion)
  • increased female body modification (liposuction, breast augmentation, botox, tattoos and piercings)
  • increased male body and performance modification (steroids, erectile dysfunction pills, penile implants, weight loss pills, hair transplants)  
  • increased media hostility toward successful, powerful, and intimidating female role models
  • increased glamorization of men as gladiators (athletes, actors, Special Forces, super heroes)
  • increased hyper-sexuality and gun violence in video games and movies 

Rape is a global concern, but I am especially interested in the phenomenon of rape within the military. People are people and rape is a human problem, not an Army problem, per se. That said, “fairness, dignity, and respect” are already expressed tenets of Army culture. Army Values (LDRSHIP) reinforce the Army's cultural ideal. Never-the-less, the actions of some within the culture (the perpetrators of sexual violence, in this discussion) do not exemplify those expressed values.

According to Ed Schein, culture may be defined as, “the way we do things around here.” I would emphasize that culture is the way we actually do things around here, not the way we say we want to do things. All the speeches and posters in the world do not define culture as clearly as do the actions of the people in that culture.  Truly, actions speak louder than words.

To the recipient, a caring embrace is worth more than a journal full of written expressions.

There is a bell-shaped curve describing the behavior of a group of people on questions of morality. No one individual represents the entire group. When the bad apple stands out, it must either be pruned, or the whole tree is suspect.

The goal is to teach perpetrators--by any means necessary--what we MEAN by fairness, dignity, and respect—how we measure it, how we reward it, and how we prosecute violations of it.  If we reform or remove the perpetrators, then the Army’s bell-shaped curve will shift. And that is culture change.

So there are lots of ways to bend the culture. Cultural change is an overly broad goal for the Army's Sexual Harassment / Assault Prevention and Response (SHARP) Program. What I like better is the more explicit goal of reforming or, if necessary, removing the perpetrators. Identify them before they offend, if possible, or as soon as possible after the first offense. Remove them and reeducate them. Reintroduce them if possible, or dump them back into society with a big red warning label if not.

I would hate to pass my problems off to someone else, but in the case of the Army, they have a bigger mission than retraining all the society’s bigots, sexists, misogynists, and psychopaths.  They can and must retrain some, but the hard fact is that Toxic Masculinity is a supply-side problem. Today's Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines reflect the society they serve--which is to say, many of them played football in high school.   

In the midst of all this toxic masculinity, it occurs to me that men are not raised to be men. We raise men to be "not girls" and "not gay." Sensitivity is mocked. Empathy is derided. Victory on the basketball court or the hedge fund is praised--even, and perhaps especially, if victory involves a good punch in the throat. Been to a hockey match or a NASCAR event lately? "Rubbing is racing." The stereotypical male is a sex-and-violence machine. We worship star athletes, covering them with adulation and not a little cash, while forgiving every indiscretion and even the odd crime. Kobe Bryant, accused rapist and still star of the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers. Tiger Woods, serial philanderer and once again the top-ranked golfer on the pro circuit, with a gorgeous blonde on his arm. The list goes on.

Is it any wonder the high school football players in the Steubenville, Ohio rape trial felt entitled?

The opposite of Toxic Masculinity is not spineless foppishness. A hunter can hunt and kill with respect for the prey. A father can defend with love for his family. Anyone with passion can advocate for a cause in a non-violent manner. What seems to matter is emotional intelligence and a healthy awareness of one's place in the universe. Focus on developing the health of boys and men, and eliminate the harmful symptoms of unhealthy, even toxic, behavior.

Fixing the pandemic of rape includes teaching boys how to be real men: swift, strong, skillful, smart, and sensitive, yes... but above all, healthy.


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Note: This post was edited at 4 pm, April 15th, 2013.