Last summer, two young football players in the Ohio town of Steubenville carried the unconscious body of a local girl from party to party, violating her in ways you’d probably prefer not to think about. (I’m not pretending this incident is merely “alleged,” because there’s video and this column isn’t a court of law.) Today, she’ll face her attackers in court for the first time. It’s a brave act, as she surely knows she’ll not only be facing down the boys who did this to her, but also the adults whose jobs it is to blame her and call her a liar. Only she can know what will make this sacrifice worthwhile: Is it enough for her to be heard in court? Will it only be healing if the boys are convicted? Whatever it is she needs, I hope she gets it.
But rape prosecutions are argued on behalf of the state, not just the victim, and there’s a good reason: Rape doesn’t just harm one person. It tears at the fabric of our communities. And if we treat this trial as simply the story of what a couple of kids did to another, we’re missing the point. This isn’t an isolated incident, and the incident itself didn’t happen in isolation.
This rape is like most in that it was enabled by a deeply entrenched, toxic masculinity. It’s a masculinity that defines itself not only in opposition to female-ness, but as inherently superior, drawing its strength from dominance over women’s “weakness,” and creating men who are happy to deliberately undermine women’s power; it is only in opposition to female vulnerability that it can be strong. Or, as former NFL quarterback and newly-minted feminist Don McPherson recently put it, "We don't raise boys to be men. We raise them not to be women, or gay men." This starts in childhood for many boys, who are taught young that they’ll be punished for doing anything “girly,” from playing with dolls to crying, or even preferring to read over “rough housing” outside.
Toxic masculinity has its fingerprints all over the Steubenville case. The violence done to the victim was born out of the boys’ belief that a) sexually dominating a helpless girl’s body made them powerful and cool, and b) there would be no consequences for them because of their status as star athletes (If you want to see stomach-churning first-hand evidence of this, check out this video of one of their friends gleefully talking about how “raped” and “dead” the victim was). The defense is basing their entire case on it, arguing that this near- (and sometimes totally) unconscious girl’s body was the boys’ to use because “she didn't affirmatively say no." The football community’s response—by which I mean not just the coaches, school, and players, but the entire community of fans—is steeped in the assumptions of toxic masculinity, treating the athletes and the game as more important than some silly girl’s right to both bodily autonomy and justice. Steubenville residents have been quick to rally around the team, suggesting that the victim “put herself in a position to be violated” and refusing to talk to police investigating the assault. The two players who cooperated with police were suspended from the football team, while the players accused of the rape have been allowed to play. The coach even went so far as to threaten a New York Times reporter asking questions about the case. (No surprise there: When it comes to male-dominated sports, toxic masculinity is the rule, not the exception.)
But sports is hardly the only breeding ground for toxic masculinity. Witness the recent, vicious bullying of Zerlina Maxwell by fans of Fox News. Last week, Maxwell was on Hannity and dared to opine that the best rape prevention isn’t about what women can do to protect themselves, but instead focuses on raising men who don’t rape. She also personally identified herself as a survivor of rape. What followed was a nearly inconceivable onslaught of misogynist and racist attacks, including repeated threats of rape and death. All because a black woman insisted that the work of stopping rape—“women’s work” if there ever was such a thing—requires men’s labor. Under the influence of toxic masculinity, the logical response to a man being forced or even encouraged to do something coded “female” is always violence.
The U.N. is in the midst of its 57th Commission on the Status of Women, this year focusing on gendered violence, a global pandemic made all the more urgent by growing evidence that social change leads to increased violence against women. Why? Because destabilizing established social order—even in the interest of what we might agree is progress—can leave people feeling vulnerable. And when men feel vulnerable, toxic masculinity teaches them the way to reassert their power is by dominating women. There’s a pall hanging over the proceedings, a real risk that this year’s commission may wind up like last year’s, failing to come to any policy agreements thanks to the obstructionism of a handful of patriarchal countries who claim that their traditional and religious customs would be infringed upon if they had to take action to end gendered violence in their countries. You can bet that any customs that require impunity for violence against women are built on toxic masculinity.
It’s time for a serious intervention in masculinity. It’s not enough to not be a rapist. You don’t get a cookie or a Nobel Peace Prize for that. If we want to end the pandemic of rape, it’s going to require an entire global movement of men who are willing to do the hard work required to unpack and interrogate the ideas of masculinity they were raised with, and to create and model new masculinities that don’t enable misogyny. Masculinities built not on power over women, but on power with women.
This is going to take real work, which is why so many men resist it. It requires destabilizing your own identity, and giving up attitudes and behaviors from which you’re used to deriving power, likely before you learn how to derive power from other, more just and productive places. There are real risks for men who challenge toxic masculinity, from social shaming to actual “don’t be a fag” violence—punishments that won’t ease until many, many men take the plunge. But there are great rewards to be had, too, beyond stopping rape. Toxic masculinity is damaging to men, too, positing them as stoic sex-and-violence machines with allergies to tenderness, playfulness, and vulnerability. A reinvented masculinity will surely give men more room to express and explore themselves without shame or fear. (It will also, not incidentally, reduce rape against men as well, because many rapes of men are committed by other men with the intention of “feminizing”—that is, humiliating through dominance—their victim.)
These interventions start with a “feminine” activity: introspection. What did you learn about “being a man,” from whom? How are those lessons working out for you, and for the people you love and your communities? Taking action can be as simple as men publicly owning their preference for “female” coded things, whether that’s child-rearing, nonviolence, feminism, or anything else—and being willing to suffer the social consequences. It can be more formal, working with established organizations like Men Stopping Violence. As more men take responsibility for the work, it will surely also take on forms no one has yet envisioned.
Obviously, the mouth-breathing troglodytes who hailed hate down on Maxwell aren’t going to be interested in this project. And there’s strong evidence that most rapes are committed by repeat offenders who may not call what they’re doing by the r-word, but know full-well they don’t have their partner’s consent. Remaking masculinity isn’t about sweetly beseeching those guys until they don “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts. It’s about two much more practical things: 1) raising new generations of boys much less likely to grow into rapists and/or Fox trolls, and, meanwhile, 2) undermining the social license to operate which allows the current generation of assholes to keep trolling and raping with impunity.
In other words: What if misogynist trolling got you shunned by their friends and family? What if raping someone was actually likely to result in your expulsion from your team, and your conviction in court? If the rest of us shift our relationship to masculinity, ideas like “she was asking for it” or “don’t be a pussy” won’t make sense anymore, and the guys who try to cling to them will find themselves isolated, facing serious social and legal consequences.
There’s already some sign that this can work, and that the work is underway. Vancouver’s new initiative placing the focus on preventing offenders, not victims, is showing early promise. The Feminist Wire just launched a “Masculinities Forum” to create a more explicit dialogue on just these issues. And the organization Breakthrough has launched a global "Ring The Bell" campaign that is poised to take the lead on this very issue, calling for one million men to take concrete action to end violence against women.
It’s not a moment too soon. Just as putting the onus on women to prevent their own rapes on an individual basis is both wrong and ineffective, so to is putting the onus on women to stop rape as a social phenomenon. It’s time to “sack up” and step up, men. I promise it will hurt you a lot less than it’s hurting me.
Editor's Note: On May 17, the two young football players were adjudicated delinquent of rape, comparable to a guilty verdict in adult criminal court.