In the #MeToo era, what does it mean to be a ‘real man’?

Some scholars have labeled the roots of the widespread sexual assault and harassment exposed this year as a ‘toxic masculinity.’ But there are signs younger Americans are starting to break out of such constraints.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Protesters participate in a #MeToo demonstration outside Trump International hotel in New York on Dec. 9, 2017.

Dave Fishman has spent a lot of time pondering what it means to be a man during his four years in college.

He’s a 6-foot-5-inch, 240-pound senior at Richmond College, the all-male coordinate college at the University of Richmond in Virginia. And as a student leader who heads the college’s interfraternity council, he admits that he can sometimes cut an imposing figure with his brush-cut haircut, “huge eyebrows,” and generally conservative “military style.”

But like many Millennial men, Mr. Fishman, who is also a former congressional intern, has been consciously trying to break free of what he and others sometimes call the “man box,” an elusive but deeply-ingrained set of social expectations that have generally defined American manhood for generations.

As a former athlete who spends a lot of time with fraternity members, he’s no stranger to what he calls “macho” culture and its expectations: A man should be tough and aggressive, master his own emotions, and should never, ever show any signs of weakness.

And while such traits aren’t necessarily bad, Fishman says, there is indeed a sense in which they put men in a box, limiting their full humanity. There’s a sense, too, that such limitations have played a role in the country’s widespread problem with sexual harassment, even at the highest rungs of American power.

“As an athlete, and with my involvement with Greek life – it’s unfortunate, you hear stuff that makes you cringe,” says Fishman. “I have a sister, I have a mother, I have a girlfriend who I love, and I really care about these issues that mostly women have to face in our society: sexual assault and violence, patriarchy, harassment in the workplace.”

Indeed, the emergence of the #MeToo movement has helped expose the extent of how powerful men in America’s most powerful institutions have harassed and assaulted women as a matter of routine. The examples have run from entertainment and journalism to the highest rungs of government – from Matt Lauer to members of Congress. In a videotape that became public during his election campaign, Donald Trump describes himself grabbing women in ways that can constitute sexual assault.

Some scholars have labeled the roots of such behavior as a “toxic masculinity,” a masculine code geared toward dominance, control, and a contempt for weakness. It can see tenderness as unmanly and violence as means to prove what it means to be “a real man.”

“And if there are violations of that code, or if you try to get out of ‘the man box,’ you’re policed back in,” says Joe Boehman, dean of Richmond College and one of Fishman’s mentors. “ ‘Stop acting like a girl,’ ‘Stop acting gay’ – all of those kinds of expressions that both men and women use to police guys.”

But there are signs, scholars say, that younger Americans are starting to break out of such constraints. “Millennials, Gen Y men – they’re more aligned with women,” says Michael Kimmel, founder of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University in New York. “And their views on acceptable behavior, they align in the same percentages as women when they all say, this is wrong.”

Millennial men are more likely to behave in more respectful ways than their older counterparts, a YouGov poll, commissioned by The Economist, found this past November. And though it's hardly the case that all Millennial men are models of perfect behavior toward women, the poll also found little divergence among men and women in their early 20s on acceptable behaviors in the workplace.

“There’s a lot of good going on,” says Fishman, who has helped institute a mental health initiative at his school, training men on campus to be “first responders” to the mostly unacknowledged issues that many college men shoulder in silence. “It’s gotten better, and it’s part of huge cultural shift, I think, us trying to get out of the ‘man box.’ ”

From ‘toxic masculinity’ to ‘no masculinity’

For many conservatives, however, such efforts might actually undermine a very real and very essential part of being a man.

“There’s this weird dichotomy that’s been drawn between ‘toxic masculinity’ and no masculinity,” says Ben Shapiro, the conservative thinker and writer who has been called the voice of conservative Millennials. And in many ways, he says, the recent widespread revelations of sexual harassment only serve to show how essential it is for men to cultivate a positive and robust traditional masculinity – in a way that used to be called being a “gentleman.”

Like many conservatives, Mr. Shapiro sees a deeper and in many ways more primitive human nature at work. “There’s an animal part of the male brain that is built to seek sex wherever possible – and be aggressive about it, if you have to be,” he says. “And that’s a terrible thing, morally speaking. So that’s why you build entire civilizations, to prevent men from following those instincts.”

Earlier this year, Shapiro poked a little fun at a men’s organization that promised to teach men “to be a man” for the low cost of $25,000. Recalling his own experience being bullied, he noted how the organization tests men’s mettle through a “warrior week,” which included regimen of hikes carrying logs, endurance challenges that include being punched in the face, and reciting poems like “Invictus.”

But it had a certain appeal, he says, because men have something deep within them, an inner aggressive instinct that often drives men to test their limits. Yes, it’s dangerous, and if it’s not responsibly disciplined, unchecked masculinity can lead to destruction and chaos.

“What society has decided to do is try and basically say, the men that we want are not going to be responsibly masculine – meaning aggressive in pursuit of the right purposes or in defense of the right people,” says Shapiro. “No, that’s too parochial and patriarchal.”

True, society should not allow men to be “toxic” in the ways exhibited by so many men, he says. But when that becomes efforts to “de-testosteronize” men, it will ultimately backfire. “Women don’t like those people, and a sexless notion of men is not something that people either find attractive politically or useful politically.”

Conservative cultural and political writer Donna Carol Voss agrees. “Harvey Weinstein and his ilk have all but killed masculinity,” she says. “The idea that men find women attractive, act on that attraction, are frequently stupid in their behavior, and occasionally commit unethical and criminal acts is music to the ears of the already masculinity-hating Western world.”

“It’s tragic to lose sight of the fact that men are designed to protect women, and both men and women are designed to enjoy that protection when it’s proffered in a healthy way,” Ms. Voss says.

Professor Kimmel, who has been called “the world’s most prominent male feminist,” does not think the idea of a “toxic masculinity” is helpful as he tries to enlist the support of men to combat the problems of sexual harassment.

“I use the idea of, what does it mean to be a good man?” he says. “Most men already have ideals and values about what that means, and I try to help men to live up to those ideals.”

A ‘real man’ or a good one?

He’s been a sought-out consultant for companies such as Amazon and LinkedIn, and when he gives sexual assault awareness lecture, he often asks those in his audiences that question: What does it mean to be a good man?

At a recent discussion at West Point, he says, male cadets listed the virtues of honor, integrity, country, duty, and sacrifice. “They also said, ‘to be a provider,’ ‘to be a protector,’ and ‘to stand up for the little guy,” says Professor Kimmel. Cadets told him that these values were basic, infused throughout Western culture, from Homer, Shakespeare, and the entire Judeo-Christian heritage.

“But then I asked them, are these the values that comes up when someone says to you, ‘Man up!’ or ‘Be a real man!’?” Kimmel continues. “And they said, ‘Oh, no, that’s something completely different. ‘Be a real man’ means to be tough, to be strong, to be powerful, to win at all costs, to suck it up, to play through pain, to get rich, to get laid.’ Where did you learn that? ‘My father, my coach, my older brother, my friends.’ ”

“Here’s what I know,” says Kimmel. “Everyone is carrying around two ideals of masculinity in his head. This is not a ‘toxic’ versus ‘healthy’ thing,” he says, but about a lived ambivalence between what it means to be ‘a good man’ and what it means to be ‘a real man.’ ”

Traits such as aggression, mental toughness, and quiet strength can be traits of leadership, Fishman says, but they don’t need to be exclusively male traits.

The pillars of his own masculinity are “being empathetic and being proximate,” he says, and even being vulnerable. “For me, that became a part of my masculine identity, in order to be a leader for other people,” says Fishman.

“But not because I’m a man, but because that’s something that I’m able to do,” he continues, referring to the opportunity for men generally. “And I hope all those traits are part of my sister’s feminine identity, too. That’s what we were raised on, and that’s what will become a huge part of our identities as leaders.”

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