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If men want to be better allies, they must reject the idea of hegemonic masculinity

12 mins read

Trigger warning: discussions of rape and sexual assault

This year, in March, Sarah Everard was walking home from her friend’s house in London. She did not make it home. And in September, Sabine Nessa was walking to meet a friend in London. She also didn’t make it home that day.

In both cases, the perpetrator, a man, was charged with murder. And yet, women’s safety on the streets has not improved, and statistics paint a dull picture.

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A recent survey published by I Walk With Women showed that 82% of women in the UK feel unsafe when walking home alone at night. The survey also revealed that, in Edinburgh, a third of men believe that women shouldn’t go out by themselves if they want to stay safe.

The picture becomes even more horrifying when cases and allegations of sexual assault are added. Rape culture remains a huge problem within Western society. Victims of sexual assault and harassment often do not report to the police or other authorities. And politicians have not successfully addressed this ongoing issue. All of these observations and experiences all bring us back to a topic that we need to start talking about.

Hegemonic masculinity

The history of masculinity is complex and beyond the scope of this article.

In 1976, The Forty-Nine Percent Majority: The Male Sex Role, a book by Deborah David and Robert Brannon, framed masculinity or ‘the man box’ according to four key principles.

The first, ‘no sissy stuff’, was defined as a requirement for men to refrain from engaging in behaviours or traits closely associated with women or femininity, such as being emotional or interdependent. This directive also includes prohibitions against behaving in a way that may be viewed as gay.

Second, the ‘big wheel’, describes the need for men to strive for success and higher status, prescribing competitiveness and ambition as character traits.

Third, the ‘sturdy oak’, requires men to function independently and refrain from expressing any personal information including feelings, hopes and fears.

Finally, ‘damn the torpedoes’, refers to the directive that men should be aggressive and take risks.

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This late 20th century model of masculinity is toxic since it supports men’s violence, aggression and risk-taking; it also tells men to minimise emotional expression and making connections with others. It devalues other groups of men, including gay men, and those who are seen as risk-averse or unambitious – not ‘real men’.

The man box also ranks men against each other. This form of masculinity commands the greatest power in society and is known as hegemonic masculinity. Any man who adheres to this structure receives more benefits than those who do not. Therefore white, heterosexual and upper-class men fulfil the requirements of this group, including most politicians.

Hegemonic masculinity and power to harm

Power has been central to hegemonic masculinity, facilitating sexism, racism and heterosexism. Directives that encourage decisiveness and risk-taking, rather than thinking or feeling, all support the acquisition of power.

Men who commit rape and sexual assault report adherence to the power aspects of hegemonic masculinity. Willingness to be violent may be a way to avoid being dominated by other men, while it also provides a method of gaining status and respect. Men who are violent have difficulty with emotions such as sadness and anxiety, which is displayed as anger and identification of other people as the cause. They then act against those people to remove the source of anger.  

The World Health Organisation reports men are 1.8 more likely than women to complete a suicide attempt. This can be linked to the fact that men who adhere to hegemonic masculinity are more lethal in their methods, choosing action over reflection. The man box encourages men to have a stiff upper lip and play through the pain, resulting in men grappling alone with a problem they are unable to solve. This exacerbates feelings of helplessness and failure. Globally, a man is more likely to take his life between ages 30 and 49.

On a broader level, men have used their power to create laws that provide advantages to some groups of men at the cost of others, and that are less available or unavailable to women. The devaluation of women is also common, with schoolyard slurs like ‘don’t be such a girl’. This structure is referred to as the patriarchy.

Sexist practices promote men’s power and status, while minimising those of women, such as the gender pay gap. These practices also increase susceptibility to unprovoked violent attacks such as murder and rape.

Yet, some men assert that they are naturally oriented towards power and thus, we should stop trying to change them. These are the men’s rights activists (MRAs). Within the MRA world, we find the incels (involuntary celibates).

Incels emphasise male dominance, downplay notions of equality, and buy into the stereotype that men are promiscuous, holding sexist beliefs that women have a duty to fulfil men’s sexual desires. They also believe that they are doing everything right, fitting into the man box in their attempts to be attractive to women and thus, the women are obliged to be sexual with them. Extremely harmful ideas of violence and disrespect towards women are often demonstrated online and in person.

MRAs are particularly fond of the hashtag #NotAllMen, despite the fact that it does not invalidate the true scale to which men harm women and other men, thus making it difficult to address any problematic issues.

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Domestic violence and rape culture

Boys and men are taught to be emotionally stoic and not show vulnerability. This makes it hard for men to recognise when a romantic relationship is failing and less able to deal with any problems.

Holding power may influence relationship dynamics as his goal may be to win the argument and assert dominance, when collaboration and vulnerability would be more beneficial. If this becomes too extreme, the man might engage in violence to retain power and control.

Men that engage in domestic violence are more likely to be insecure and have trouble expressing feelings. Men’s violence towards women is far more physically damaging and women die from domestic violence at higher rates than men.

One of the worst things the man box does is encourage men to sexually objectify their partners and minimise their humanity. Men’s lack of attention to their own feelings and ability to prioritise outcomes can result in promiscuous sexuality. If a man only feels lust towards his partner and has no interest in creating an emotional or intimate relationship, it becomes easier to view his partner as a sexual object.

Masculinity becomes more toxic when men add competitiveness to their sexual desires. It can include dishonesty to one or more sexual partners and can lead to tales of sexual exploits facilitating male bonding, resulting in the deceived partner remaining an active but unwitting part in the man’s social life.

The extreme manifestation of the manbox directives has created rape culture where women are prized for dressing and acting in a manner suggested to be sexual. A woman’s value is based solely on the man’s ability to be sexual with them, ignoring all other parts of her personhood and humanity.

In rape culture, consent is irrelevant, and many men create spaces that facilitate and cover up the sexual misconduct of other men. As a result, the behaviour never gets challenged. This inaction is also attributed to a lack of knowledge about how to intervene. Rape prevention programmes encourage bystander intervention as a result.

The manbox encourages men to devalue sex based on feelings of love and therefore have more sexual partners. Men are encouraged to lie, impair the judgement of a partner through drink or drugs (spiked drinks) and physically overpower them in order to have sex.

What can be done?

Education and knowledge is key, including the history of masculinity, as well as the power structures of the patriarchy, and how today’s attitudes harm both men and women. Sexual education must stress the importance of consent. Men need to be encouraged to open up about their feelings, hopes and fears. Men’s behaviour, such as cat-calling, should be called out. The idea that rape and sexual assault allegations are fake must be challenged.

Gender-based violence must be addressed through appropriate action and support, by those who are qualified rather than those who are upholding the state. The safety of women will not improve until this takes place, along with changing attitudes in the media.

The issues discussed are produced at both the individual and the systemic level, and therefore we need to use a range of different solutions to address them. To be an ally to women and other groups, hegemonic masculinity should be rejected.

Feature image: Pexels

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