Toxic Masculinity, Predatory Men, and Male Paralysis

How can anybody know
How they got to be this way?

“Daughters of the Soho Riots,” The National

This is my sixth decade as a human, as a white, straight male.

Here I want to attempt confession, possibly seeking greater understanding, but fully aware of the huge complexities of making these claims, raising these personal struggles in the context of my many privileges.

I am treading lightly but committed to rise above the problematic satire of Ben Folds’ “Rockin’ the Suburbs”—which both speaks to me and makes me cringe:

Let me tell y’all what it’s like
Being male, middle-class, and white
It’s a bitch, if you don’t believe
Listen up to my new CD

My formative years over the 1960s and 1970s were spent in the redneck South. Just as I was reared to be a racist, I was taught very clearly to objectify women, even as that was tempered in my immediate family by direct and indirect messages about respecting and loving women/girls.

Growing up, I was a Mama’s boy, I was very close to my sister (my only sibling), and I had strong and warm relationships with aunts and my maternal grandmother.

As a so-called pre-sexual boy, then, I genuinely learned to feel deep and healthy affection for women/girls—to whom I have always been drawn more strongly than any male bonds.

As a teen, however, I was significantly enculturated into objectifying women, sowing the seeds for potentially behaving in ways that fed into and participated in predatory masculinity and even the various degrees of rape culture.

My classroom was, at first, superhero comic books and then soft-core pornography (such as Playboy and Penthouse)—but the wider popular culture was always reinforcing the worst possible models for how men treat women.

But as all this colored my attempts to be a sexual person, seeking out romantic relationships throughout high school and college, I was also being shaped in how I interacted with the world aesthetically, notably in that I was actively teaching myself visual art by drawing from both comic books and nude photography in the euphemistically named men’s magazines.

One can see a theme in my adolescent artwork:

Storm

Storm from the X-Men

Vargas

I shifted from comic books to men’s magazines and copying the objectifying artwork of Alberto Vargas, popularized in Playboy.

As a teen and young man, I was certainly trapped in very unhealthy but subtle patterns that could only be overcome by gaining critical awareness over my mid-20s into and my mid-30s (when I completed my doctoral program).

Some of that critical awareness was powerfully acquired through my commitment to learning from and teaching important literature such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Margate Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as well as poetry units I taught on Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath.

Ultimately, writing an educational biography grounded in feminist theory stands in hindsight as the crowning experience as I approached 40 for a healthy awakening into fully appreciating toxic masculinity, predatory men, objectifying women, the male gaze, and rape culture.

Just as I would explain about my racial awareness, my sexual and gender awareness remains a journey, and as such, I find myself often paralyzed because, as a man, I represent still the potential for abuse through my status, the threat men pose for women in a society that continues to objectify and marginalize females—especially in terms of failing to listen to women who risk telling of their experiences with predatory men and rape culture.

My adult life has been spent as a partner, friend, parent, grandparent, teacher, and coach—all requiring me to monitor my status of power granted by being male and by my professional and familial positions in relationship with females.

As a coach and teacher, I have been (and continue) to be prone to call young women “darling” in casual moments—rightfully prompting some of my closest friends and colleagues who are women to call me on the language, the positioning.

I remain aesthetically drawn to photography and artwork of women nudes—entirely unsure if I can disentangle my toxic past from what I consider non-objectifying appreciation of art.

And so, as I noted above, I stumble toward 60, a man with good intentions who understands that is never enough; I am often reduced to paralysis in how to navigate the world in ways that are equitable and healthy for everyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or class.

I am genuinely terrified of ever making any woman/girl feel discomfort because of my masculine presence, my inadvertent gaze, my language, or the implicit threat of my status in relationship to her.

Often these days, I must confront these tensions as I snuggle with my granddaughter who I dearly want to grow up with healthy views of gender and sexuality, who I want to avoid any sort of predatory world.

My daughter was raised without corporal punishment, and now her children have been gifted that same dignity.

I work hard to practice what I preach and feel I make contributions small and even large to a kinder and more compassionate world—a world in which women and children need not ever fear men.

But even the best men walk in the wake of the worst men have given this world—the worst men continue to give to this world, and the women and children who must suffer for that.

Each man must moment by moment examine how he is culpable, where and how he stands in this world in relationship to women and children.

The dilemma of navigating the world as a man is couched in the unearned privilege, the potential for an abuse of unearned power that shouts out “First, do no harm.”

For a man committed to that, however, how does he live a full life without being paralyzed by the worst of being a man, behaviors that often go unpunished and even masked to protect some men from consequences.

How does any man avoid paralysis reading about the Stanford rape case or the stories of women as victims of predatory men?

This remains a rhetorical question for any man with an ethical imperative for his life—not a question for any woman or any child to offer their compassion.

For any man, for each man, this is ours to confront, to answer, and to act.

As long as men hold most of the power that shapes the world, it is ours to build a consensual environment in which human dignity supersedes the brute force of power.

Between acquiescing to the basest of male behaviors and paralysis is the true way, about which Franz Kafka wrote: “The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked upon.”

Pause. Listen. Look carefully before taking any step.


For Further Reading

Experts in the FieldBonnie Nadzam

Roxane Gay, Aimee Bender, and More on Assault and Harassment

The Predatory Men of Academic Creative Writing, John Warner

“He knows, or thinks he knows”: It’s Still a Man’s (Hostile) World

True Detective: It’s Still a Man’s (Hostile) World, pt. 2

Doubling Down (Again) on the White Man’s World

“Gravity”: The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Woman

In the U.S., Where the Female Nipple Is More Dangerous Than a Gun

“History proves that the white man is a devil”

The public career and life of Malcolm X are fraught with contradictions and controversy—often complicated by the Nation of Islam and its discredited leader Elijah Muhammad.

Malcolm X’s infamy—as it contrasts with the idealizing and misrepresentation of Martin Luther King Jr. as a passive radical—lies often in his sloganized “By any means necessary” and “History proves that the white man is a devil.”

While Malcolm X himself confronted some of his more controversial and confrontational stances, in 2016, the U.S. is faced with the prescience in what seemed to be hyperbole and racial anger; however, there is much to consider about the evil capacity often behind the face of white men.

Living just across the highways from my neighborhood, Todd Kohlhepp has confessed to vicious murders after police found a woman chained in a storage container for two months.

Kohlhepp represents to a disturbing degree the classic profile of serial killers and sex offenders, central of which is being a white male.

At the University of Wisconsin:

The 20-year-old student, Alec Cook, has been arrested and appeared in court on Thursday, charged with 15 crimes against five women, including sexual assault, strangulation and false imprisonment. His modus operandi, according to police and prosecutors, was to befriend fellow students and eventually entrap and viciously attack them, while keeping notebooks detailing his alleged targets.

Kohlhepp and Cook, white males of relative affluence, are no outliers. Yet, political leaders and the media persist in characterizing for the U.S. public much different images of who to fear: Mexicans, black males, Muslims.

Daily violence—including sexual aggression and assault—is a real threat in a way nearly opposite of these political and media messages; each of us should fear people who look like us, and family, friends, and acquaintances deserve nearly equal scrutiny.

Political race-baiters and the mainstream media rarely stray from the black-on-black crime message, but also always fail to add a key fact: crime is almost entirely intra-racial as the white-on-white crime rate (86%) is nearly identical to the black-on-black crime rate (94%).

Malcolm X’s rhetoric may still seem inflammatory, but James Baldwin’s more measured charges confront the same racial masking and tension:

White Americans find it as difficult as white people elsewhere do to divest themselves of the notion that they are in possession of some intrinsic value that black people need, or want. And this assumption—which, for example, makes the solution to the Negro problem depend on the speed with which Negroes accept and adopt white standards—is revealed in all kinds of striking ways, from Bobby Kennedy’s assurance that a Negro can become President in forty years to the unfortunate tone of warm congratulation with which so many liberals address their Negro equals. It is the Negro, of course, who is presumed to have become equal—an achievement that not only proves the comforting fact that perseverance has no color but also overwhelmingly corroborates the white man’s sense of his own value.

White men control the political and media narratives, and thus, white males are bathed in the compassionate light of the white male gaze of power—everyone else becomes the feared Other.

The hatred spewed by Donald Trump is not solely what should be feared in this context, but that he personifies and speaks to “the white man’s sense of his own value” that seeks to erase that Other, as Astra Taylor reported from a Trump rally in North Carolina:

A few months ago Trump had rallied in Wilmington, North Carolina, the site of America’s only and largely forgotten coup. In 1898, in the waning days of Reconstruction, rioting white supremacists overthrew a multiracial progressive “fusion” government, deposing democratically elected leaders of both races and killing black citizens mercilessly. After that, populism in North Carolina, as in the South more broadly, was a white affair. At his rally near the site of that historic, shocking savagery, Trump suggested “the Second Amendment people” do something about Hillary.

The Trump narrative is essentially racist, and almost entirely false, Jason Stanley explains:

The chief authoritarian values are law and order. In Trump’s value system, nonwhites and non-Christians are the chief threats to law and order. Trump knows that reality does not call for a value-system like his; violent crime is at almost historic lows in the United States. Trump is thundering about a crime wave of historic proportions, because he is an authoritarian using his speech to define a simple reality that legitimates his value system, leading voters to adopt it. Its strength is that it conveys his power to define reality. Its weakness is that it obviously contradicts it.

And thus, Trump has public support from the KKK and Nazi groups for a reason; and that support is distinct from public support for any of the other presidential candidates, none of which draw hate groups into the light.

In A Dialogue between James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, Baldwin argues, “The reason people think it’s important to be white is that they think it’s important not to be black”:

It’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself. You become a collaborator, an accomplice of your own murderers, because you believe the same things they do. They think it’s important to be white and you think it’s important to be white; they think it’s a shame to be black and you think it’s a shame to be black. And you have no corroboration around you of any other sense of life.

Yes, we must be vigilant about the white gaze and the male gaze, both of which, as Baldwin witnessed, corrupt the agent and object of that gaze, but we must be as vigilant about the white male accusatory finger designed to keep everyone else’s gaze somewhere other than where the most power, and too often, the most evil reside.

Hu(man)s Choose Violence

In season 4 of AMC’s The Walking Dead, I recognized an allusion to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Last night, during the first episode of season 7, however, my literary response was much more generalized and visceral—William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

The series adaptation of the comic book has wondered into George R.R. Martin territory in which the primary reason to watch is to determine which major character dies; and last night, viewers experienced the sort of gratuitous violence pornography that the show seems unable to resist. As  harkened in 2012: “The ubiquitous horror and violence of the zombie genre just makes the violence present in our own lives hypervisible”; although Rick Grimes seems to have chosen the lower road anticipated by Oyola.

Dystopian science fiction, what zombie narratives are, tends to render a future world that has come full circle to the earliest consequences of being human—having both an oversized intellect and the ever-present and never-ending need to survive, even if that survival depended on taking the lives of others, possibly even innocent others.

Primitive humans and humans in dystopian futures grapple with the ethics of survival.

But to be frank, watching two popular and engaging characters have their heads battered into bloody pulps by a barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat—to have the dark humor of that being called a “vampire bat”—this episode paled in comparison to the anxiety and disappointment I feel about the actual world in which we live here in the U.S.

America has a litany of fatal flaws, one of which is our belief in human choice that has been idealized into a fetish.

Politicians, the media, and the average citizen call for choice as the magic elixir to cure any and all ills.

Despite the numerous lessons of literature and art, despite the daily lessons of being a sentient human.

With our amazing oversized brains, we have created in the U.S. a world in which we mostly do not have to fear a wild animal stalking us or a rival clan set on raping and pillaging our village.

Or at least among the privileged.

The cynical version is that we have the capacity to make this true for everyone—but we choose not to.

But there is an even uglier choice that we make. The choice of violence.

To return to Oyola’s investigation of the comic book, Grimes has repeatedly created the situations in which characters die because of his choices—choices that force him to step into his own quagmire as the White Knight. It is a perverse cycle with which the AMC series seems to have become nearly solely obsessed.

With two heads battered into the dirt and Rick poised to chop off his own son’s arm, the viewer is wrestled once again into Rick’s manufactured hell within a zombie apocalypse hell.

As I tensed wondering how long the camera would be lingering on the hacked off arm, I realized that this episode paled in comparison to Trump’s rise and the unleashed venom of his supporters.

We are a people who still justify violence toward women and children, sexual and psychological violence as well as pure brute force.

We are a people who will shout about being pro life while pretending that our smart bombs don’t erase innocent children, women, and men over there at an alarming rate.

We are a people who are shocked—I mean shocked—that men conditioned to be violent are violent in their daily lives.

The human condition in 2016 is much more upsetting than the slow and nearly cartoonish death of Glenn beside his dear pregnant Maggie.

The cartoonish Trump and the uglier streak of humanity he attracts, emboldens, and represents—that is where there is real terror, real disappointment in who humans are and what humans are willing to endure.

The Waking Dead as a TV series seems, ironically, to be near the opposite of the zombie narrative; it is a thing that cannot long live.

And some other series with promise will fill its void, and soon flounder, sputter, slip through the fingers of popular demand.

But the actual real world—not the reality show version that kept Trump on life support before his turn as clown-politician—is no passing phase of pop culture.

Yes, hu(man)ns have choice, and we have made that choice violence.

“To Dismantle Systems of Violence”

The geographical coincidence of my birth often leaves me disappointed and embarrassed—mortified.

I am a son of the South, more specifically South Carolina. And while my birthplace and current home are in the Upstate and nearly as far from Charleston, SC, as one can be and remain in the state, the massacre, the racist terrorism now known as #AMEShooting left me yesterday certain that words were destined to be inadequate.

So when I read Sally Kohn on Twitter, I was compelled to respond:

While tone-deaf and insincere political rhetoric neither starts nor ends with Nikki Haley, Mark Sanford, or Lindsey Graham in SC or across the U.S., there is a certain inexcusable arrogant nastiness I hear when these so-called leaders speak.

Why? Because I am from here, and as a white male Southerner, I know what white people say when only white people are around, what men say when only men are around, what straight people say when only straight people are around.

I have done it. I bear witness to it daily.

I live among the Bible thumping “heritage is not hate” crowd that knows next to nothing about either religious charity or the scarred history to which they cling like a decaying corpse.

I have also witnessed a nation morn heinous violence followed by President Obama making a plea for “all our children”—only to witness also how nothing changed because the real American value is not being a Christian nation or protecting the land of the free but a commitment to unadulterated violence and hatred symbolized by the insult to human decency known as the right to bear arms.

As I was wrestling with the futility of words, I read Nicole Nguyen’s Education Scholars: Challenging Racial Injustice Begins With Us, in which she offers a powerful challenge:

As public transit riders shuffled on and off the train, I began to understand that we cannot solve complex social problems like institutional racism within the prototypical ivory tower as armchair critics. Our scholarship cannot merely inform our own ideas and advance our own careers. If we are to train future teachers, principals, and education researchers, we must recognize how schools perpetuate and disrupt systems of inequality, nourish the critical consciousness of our students, model antiracist and decolonizing pedagogies, and build the tool kits necessary for creating more-democratic schools.

If we are to counter the oppressive systems of inequality that brutalize youths, we cannot do it alone. We must marshal the intellect of all those who board the train, young people in particular. We do not need university solutions to public problems.

Nguyen’s words should be read in full, but she concludes with a clear “mission of colleges of education: to serve as political allies of the young people in our communities to dismantle systems of violence.”

I humbly add this is the mission of every denizen of a place called “free,” called “just.”

I also read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Take Down the Confederate Flag—Now, pausing at his “Cowardice, too, is heritage.”

Violence through the barrel of a gun, violence spat in a racial slur, violence flapping in the breeze on statehouse grounds—these are all cowardice.

As is the paralysis that follows that violence each time.

Because not taking action seems to be a heritage that unites every region of this country.

Baldwin