Down with the patriarchy: Why it’s time to leave toxic masculinity behind

Breaking away from the stereotype of what it means to be a man

Picture a man. Don’t think about it, just do it. Who do you see? Perhaps you see a celebrity; an Arnold Schwarzenegger or a Jean-Claude Van Damme. Maybe you see a fictional character; a Rambo, a Superman, a Captain America. Or perhaps you see someone closer to home; your dad, your brother, or your boyfriend. Maybe you see none of these – maybe all you can picture is the ripped guy from the Chad meme. That’s okay too.

The point is, being a man is hard because no two are the same. But looking at how men have been portrayed in films for decades now, you probably wouldn’t think that. As dating expert David Chambers notes, this is something that’s had negative effects on young men for years. “A lot of the movies I grew up with were things like James Bond, Rocky, and The Terminator,” he says. “It’s all super manly men, [who are] very masculine in a traditional big, strong, muscly, quiet, broody, stoic [way].”

In only seeing a certain type of man presented on film, young men are only given  one type of man to look up to – and that’s exactly how we ended up with toxic masculinity. 

This toxicity is so deeply instilled into men that it’s hard to move away from

Toxic masculinity, if you’re somehow blissfully unaware, is basically all the bad things to come out of this way of “being a man”. Things like not crying, not talking about emotions, seeing sex as some kind of competition that needs to be “won,” seeing women as objects rather than people – you get the gist. 

The thing is, this toxicity is so deeply instilled into men that it’s hard to move away from, but that’s something we desperately need to do. With the tragic murder of Sarah Everard earlier this year came the return of an important conversation about men, masculinity, and rape culture. 

It’s become clear that the onus is on men, not women, to change their behaviour. But to do this, we first need to understand what that behaviour is and where it comes from. Only once we do that can we even think about moving forward.

The manly men can’t

There are a lot of things that contribute to toxic masculinity, but a big one is the idea of the alpha male – that one guy who’s better than all his peers, who brings home the meat, and gets all the women. It’s a caveman mentality that’s damaged men for decades. We’re told not to show an ounce of emotion, because emotion means weakness, and weakness will not be tolerated. 

For some reason, this never occurred as a bad idea to anyone until recently. David, who is currently relaunching his Authentic Dating Series brand (which includes dating and intimacy coaching for men, as well as a dating podcast) explains, “It doesn’t even occur to most men that they can talk about how they feel because the message we’ve been told is that they can’t, but then because of that, they don’t even know how they feel.”

If we don’t know how we feel, we can’t talk about it, and that leads to difficulties. Caleb Webster, a 21-year-old postgraduate student living in Birmingham, feels this lack of conversation does men a lot of harm. 

“Weakness [is] seen as something that a man shouldn’t have,” he says. “As a result, it’s harder for people to talk about things because it means that if [a man wants to discuss an issue with his friends] he worries that either people will mock him for it, or it’ll be trivialised by people who are unable to respond to it correctly or appropriately.”

If we don’t know how we feel, we can’t talk about it, and that leads to difficulties

Having attended a single-sex secondary school for seven years, Caleb is all too aware of the ways toxic behaviour is normalised as so-called “lad culture.” In a group of all-male teenagers, “The sorts of things people said regarding gender, race, sexuality and religion were very shocking,” he explains. He does note that none of these young men would now call themselves racist, sexist, or homophobic – but that doesn’t mean these things aren’t normalised at those younger ages, and that makes it quite hard for people to get out of them.

But it doesn’t matter how hard it is: we need to get out of this toxic mindset before it’s too late. Because not only does toxic masculinity have severely negative effects on men, it also affects those around us. Where do we draw the line?

How many is too many?

Even if we don’t know where to draw the line just yet, it’s becoming increasingly clear that a line is something we need. A survey conducted by UN Women UK found that 86% of 18-24-year-old women in the UK had been sexually harassed in public spaces. When this news broke around the same time as Sarah Everard’s disappearance was announced, people decided it was time to take action.

One of these people was 22-year-old Lydia Waller, who single-handedly organised a candlelit vigil in her hometown of Harpenden. She admits that the news of Sarah’s disappearance scared her, but felt that she “couldn’t let it lie.” With Covid fears making in-person protesting a risky affair, Lydia felt a candle in the window was a safe and unobtrusive way of bringing attention to the issue of women’s safety.

86% of 18-24-year old women in the UK had been sexually harassed in public spaces

She explains it was not only “Symbolic that we’re shining a light on this issue and bringing a light to this darkness that women and marginalised genders live in every day,” but “something that I felt we could all access, and I think that’s something this issue should be: it shouldn’t be scary.”

If the issue itself isn’t scary, then what is scary is lad culture. This includes the way men are taught to focus themselves on pointless things that don’t really matter – like how many girls they’ve snogged or slept with in the last week. 

“That doesn’t help anybody,” Lydia says. 

So how do we fix it? We talk.

Calling people out on their shit is one way we can make progress. 

“It doesn’t have to be inflammatory; you don’t need to start a big political debate,” Lydia explains. “Just small actions [that tell people] no one’s tolerating that behaviour anymore, because it isn’t good for anyone.”

But men are stubborn, and a lot of us don’t like listening. So where does that leave us? In a bit of a fix, to be honest.

Be quiet, we know it isn’t all men

The men that don’t like listening aren’t exactly keen to change their behaviour – especially when they have a habit of shutting down a conversation with the overly simplistic response of “not all men!” This isn’t helpful for anyone, but in some ways it’s an understandable reaction.

David explains that #NotAllMen comes from a place of defensiveness and discomfort. “It’s not stopping, listening, and being compassionate,” he says, “it’s a reaction that pushes back against something because it’s seen as an attack.” 

It’s a deflectionary act that tries to push the conversation away from the individual because they don’t see themselves as part of the problem.

#NotAllMen comes from a place of defensiveness and discomfort

In a lot of ways, David elaborates, #NotAllMen is pretty similar to #AllLivesMatter – and he isn’t the only one to feel this way. Caleb also feels that #NotAllMen is a way of “derailing a productive conversation,” though he does admit a lot of it isn’t necessarily done in bad faith.

Most of the men spouting this stuff, he says, “are missing the point of the protests, which is why the protests need to go on … a lot of it is either insecure, slightly misguided, or ignorant men who don’t understand that it’s not about them.”

The effect that this has on the wider conversation about masculinity and rape culture is to stop it completely. 

“It makes me feel like people aren’t listening,” Lydia says. “And this is the thing: nobody’s saying it’s all men, nobody’s ever said that; we’re just saying that it always is men … that are the perpetrators.” 

She isn’t wrong: when 4.9 million women in the UK have experienced sexual assault in their lifetimes, and are also more likely to know their attacker, who’s doing the attacks? Because, on the whole, it isn’t women. 

Don’t be a chair

It’s clear that something needs to change inside the male mind – but what, and how? Mind reader Girish Tailor feels that it comes down, in part, to emotional intelligence. 

“The first step,” he says, “is to be aware that the conversation is not happening, or is not happening as much as it could.” The next step? Acting on that awareness. “Once you’re aware, you then need to know, ‘Well, what can I do?’” 

It’s a fair question, with more than one answer – but a common response is to actively participate in the ongoing conversation. Caleb feels “a lot of what we can do as adults is to call people out,” regardless of how serious the comments in question are. 

Lydia agrees, and feels that “Men need to be part of this conversation, because they’re the ones with the tools, not women. There’s only so much [women] can do because we don’t, on average, do the bad thing when it comes to this issue. We can say to [men] that they need to be part of this discussion, but it’s then down to [them] to do the work.”

But solely being part of the discussion isn’t enough: we need to choose to make a difference. 

“If you’re in a room,” Girish asks, “are you truly present [in that space], listening to everything that’s going on? Or are you just part of the furniture?”

We need to choose to make a difference

It isn’t enough for us to just be part of the furniture, lads. We need to do better. Toxic masculinity has forced us to fail our loved ones, and that isn’t good enough. We need to stand up for the women in our lives and show them we’re willing to make a change. It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight, but it needs to be done.

Lydia is especially keen to help bring about change, for the sake of the future. 

“As women, we are scared of [harassment and assault] every day of our lives, but we are optimistic that this can change, because it has to,” she says with finality. 

“I’m not having daughters that have to carry rape alarms all the time – no way. We’ve got work to do.” 

Damn straight we do, fellas – let’s get to it.

Dos & Don’ts of being a Male Friend to Women

→ Offer to walk your female friends home after a night out
→ Keep them away from that creepy guy in the corner of the bar that’s been eyeing them up for hours
→ Ask them if you can help them feel safer

→ Expect sex in return for the bare minimum
→ Be that creepy guy in the corner of the bar that’s been eyeing up someone for hours
→ Buy a fedora and assume you’re one of the good ones – no one needs that dude, c’mon