Believe Womxn: The Front Lines Are Not Blurred
If we want to stand alongside womxn, then we need to start believing them when they tell us where the frontlines are. There won't always be a sign to demarcate "sexism," "racism," "homophobia," "transphobia," "fatphobia," or "classism," etc. But we don't need a billboard to follow women's lead, or to trust that they know what they are experiencing better than an outsider does. When it comes to the emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse that womxn face, too often we still prioritize the reputation of men when womxn come forward about their abuse. There are ways in which we tell men that they are the “good” ones, that we condition them to think of themselves as faultless and infallible. Even in our families we don’t know sometimes when someone is exploiting our bodies, or our minds. So, if this is true, then it is also true that “good” men can exploit, cause harm, and be abusive – intentionally or not. The toxic ways that men are conditioned to behave, and the ways that womxn are expected to accept that toxic behavior, is due to a culture so steeped in toxic masculinity that it is our “normal.” But it is imperative for the safety of all that the myriad expressions of toxic masculinity are not normalized.
Toxic masculinity is the result of patriarchy and capitalism. It shows up when someone takes something that is not theirs. Toxic masculinity allows someone to continue on with their day without looking back at the damage done. It does not consider or reflect on itself. It is unaware of the natural consequences of its own behavior because it has the luxury and privilege of not having to face repercussion. It takes without giving anything in return. It owes nothing. It holds no accountability. We see toxic masculinity in the history of our country. Stealing. Domination. The behavior of a “Super Power.” Toxic masculinity shows up in men through hyper-competitiveness, aggression, emotional detachment, and gaslighting. Gaslighting is abusive and it is particularly normalized in our society. Gaslighting is utilized to victim blame, to harm and degrade womxn by convincing them that their experiences are no big deal, are not abuse, or are not damaging in any significant way.
Zarna Joshi of Women of Color Speak Out discusses toxic masculinity in depth. Joshi led a group discussion about toxic masculinity in a spiritual context in a session titled, “How to Deal with Toxic Masculinity.” Joshi describes how toxic masculinity pops up in our lives everywhere: in our community organizing, in our holidays (spend! spend! spend!), in our relationships, in our families, and so on. The patriarchy teaches us that we are in a constant state of desire and lust not only sexually, but for things, for people, for power. Whatever you have to do to satisfy your desire is your number one priority. We are always feeling like failures because we are always going to fail at satisfying ourselves in the ways that our society conditions us to seek satisfaction –through shopping, through sex, through things, through money. We strive for satisfaction and to satiate our desires, but this is impossible if we always seek outside of ourselves. Because in this way we will always come up empty. Joshi stresses that we are never going to fulfill our desires because we are not our bodies.
Joshi asks the group, “Who do we take our aggression out on if we can’t satiate our desires and our feelings of failure?” If you are in a position of power, you take it out on those who have less power, those who are vulnerable. Womxn, people of color, and other marginalized communities are most vulnerable in our society. To contextualize toxic masculinity, Joshi points to colonization. Toxic masculinity is how America came to be. Colonization is an ongoing process, and it is how the Indigenous peoples living today on Turtle Island (North America), were systematically murdered, their women raped, their animals slaughtered, their forests cut, their minerals and various other resources stolen. We see the effects of toxic masculinity through colonization in the way Indigenous families today are torn a part due to the racism ingrained in the foster care system, and in the ways that our health care system does not offer culturally sensitive, and trauma-informed care.
Joshi explains that toxic masculinity is even embedded in our language. An example of this is how we say, “fossil fuels,” to replace the fact that what we consider “fuels,” are the parts of the body of the earth. We have objectified and disembodied the earth. We do not see the earth as a whole, living being. This is the same way our society views womxn.
The history that we are taught in school will teach us that genocide was necessary for progress, that it couldn't be helped. We are taught that the "settling" of America was a one time occurrence. It does not explain that colonization is still happening, or that white people today are settlers. We are not taught in our society to look at patterns, systems, and institutions, and how they are set up to intentionally disenfranchise, disempower, and dispossess certain groups of people. We are taught to see things as isolated events, but we need to resist this false narrative. The media often paints national tragedies as frenzied, unbiased, and isolated. This shows up in the ways mass shootings are portrayed, or how Black lives are murdered at the hands of the police. In a patriarchal, capitalist system, however, these tragedies are not random or isolated. These are the repeated outcomes of a system that has created white men as oppressors - as weapons of mass destruction.
The media does not talk about toxic masculinity, and the correlation between domestic violence and large-scale massacres. The undeniable pattern of mass shootings is that they are executed almost always by white men. The undeniable pattern of innocent Black women, men, and children being unjustly murdered, is that officers are acting out of unchecked power charged by systemic racism – a product of toxic masculinity mixed with white supremacy. These are not disparate threads and we have never been able to afford the gloss that mainstream media applies to these crimes.
Toxic masculinity shows up in institutionalized ways, as well as systemic. Being a white woman in a toxic masculine culture, I have experienced many forms of abuse. But it is much worse for Black womxn, Indigneous womxn, and womxn of color (BIWOC) because the stats are stacked disproportionately against them. The resources are often nonexistent for BIWOC (Black, Indigenous, Women of Color) when they need to escape abuse. Many womxn have to turn to the streets because it is sometimes a better option than staying in the same place. Another way this shows up is when a womxn needs a rape kit, an already incredibly stressful and re-traumatizing experience. Police may be judgmental or harassing. For BIWOC going to the police to obtain a rape kit can be incredibly more difficult due to the long history of abuse that communities of color have experienced from police. A womxn may already feel shame from a culture that tells her that it’s her fault what happened, and she may be shamed out loud by the cop who is handing her the rape kit. On top of that, she may go home to a mother, or father, or family member who says, “Why did you put yourself in that position?”
Womxn have to constantly fight to justify themselves. They are in a constant battle to be heard, to be seen, to be believed, to be humanized in the eyes of the law. When the questions are posed, “Why would you hang out with this man?” “Why would you put yourself in that situation?” it is not in an attempt to protect womxn. Though the intention to protect her might be there, what this question actually does is protect the man, the perpetrator, the abuser. For BIWOC these experiences are compounded with racism because misogyny is racialized.
Toxic masculinity is at the root of all of our systems and institutions, and it informs many of our interactions, but it’s so normalized in our society that it often goes undetected. We need to go to war with the ways that we ourselves have been conditioned. The problem is not only external, it is internal. Toxic masculinity shows up particularly in the ways that men have been conditioned to behave, talk, take up space, what and how they create, and how they engage in relationships. Toxic masculinity shows up in our casual relationships and casual encounters, and our society needs to take this seriously. What we deem as “casual” is a reflection of the larger systems. Something deemed “casual” may have violent and damaging repercussions. Take into consideration the following personal experience:
A cishet white woman sleeps with a cishet white man. The man has lied about his emotional availability. The woman has to play the “cool girl” trope in all of their interactions. One night she does not play the “cool girl,” and she gets angry. He tells her that her anger is unhealthy, that she is getting too emotional, and that she doesn’t need to act like that because they are “friends.” He uses the word “friend,” carelessly and flippantly to describe their relationship, though there has been no proof of “friendship,” because that would mean that there is reciprocity and trust between them, but that has not been cultivated yet. All of the terms of their relationship are made by the man. He wrote the contract and the agreements before speaking to her. She is pressured to co-sign.
After some time passes, the woman wants to talk about some things that she has been reflecting on, so she reaches out to have a conversation with the man. She thinks communication is important. She wants to express herself in order to come to an understanding. The man tells her he owes her nothing. So, the woman accepts his unaccountability and the pain that this brings her. It is nothing new to her. She decides to go public and vocal about her experiences. The man calls it harassment. Because he is white, he is comfortable to threaten to call the police about her being vocal. As a consequence, the woman is made out to be “crazy,” “emotional,” and “too sensitive,” about something as small as being “rejected.” But this wasn’t about being rejected. This was about the way a man can get his needs met, without considering the woman, and discarding her when he gets what he desires from her. The woman has given her resources mentally, physically, emotionally, once again, for nothing in return.
One stark way that toxic masculinity has shown up in my life is through intimate interactions with cishet white men like the one described above. I have been disposable to them. In a society that sexualizes and objectifies women’s bodies, where everything is catered to the cishet white male gaze, it is no surprise that white men repeatedly interact with me like I am disposable. They may even claim to be feminist, or use the right words, and read the right books, study all the theories, but ultimately, when I look at their actions, it can only be deduced that they do not consider me a human worthy of their accountability and respect. Their behavior expresses the freedom to do and say whatever they want free of consequence. Because it’s true that we live in a society that cushions men to be able to do this. The odds are not just in their favor; the odds are in their control. This society was built by white men for white men. And if men are unaccountable who takes responsibility? Who carries the burden? Because the burden has to be bared by someone.
In the unbalanced and unchecked power dynamics that manifest from patriarchy and capitalism, womxn are forced to take it. We are blamed for their behavior. And if we express ourselves, speak out, call out, seek help and support, it is often not without consequence or punishment in the form of physical, psychological, or emotional violence. We are accused. We are questioned. We are asked, “Why would you hang out with these people?” “Why would you get yourself into this mess?” We are blamed for the world we are born into. Unfortunately, if we choose to express ourselves it can often wreak havoc and create rifts in our personal relationships, in our families, with co-workers, etc. Toxic masculinity obscures the root of the problem. The person who is bringing the problem into awareness is blamed for the discomfort that arises. Patriarchy and capitalism function by eliminating people who bring injustices to light.
Once womxn speak out, we are exposed to who is safe among us and who isn’t. We find out who we can trust, and who will believe us. We find out who will not question our experiences. We find out who will unblinkingly fight for us.
Sometimes seemingly casual and innocuous occurrences like the one described above are quite damaging and violent. The term “ghosting,” has come about to describe the way men easily leave and detach from a physical and/or emotional relationship with a womxn. Sure, womxn can detach too, but this behavior coming from men is systemic, and it stems from a culture steeped in toxic masculinity. This does not mean that womxn too can’t act in toxic ways, but it is to say that in the toxic masculine patriarchy that we live in, men are bred to not notice when they have caused harm. In a world that is structured to feature the needs of men, to be customized for them, to be one size fits men, womxn’s needs are not even an after-thought, particularly for BIWOC.
There are those who respond with anger when we tell them about the abuse we have experienced because the pain doesn’t just affect the one who was abused. It affects their family members, their friends, the people who they tell. We are all affected by this trauma. We are all at a disadvantage when women are treated as disposable objects. We are all affected when men choose to “ghost,” and leave without accounting for their actions.
Toxic masculinity not only allows men to leave unbothered and unweighted, but it also allows them to take without giving. Toxic masculinity is a man telling me that he wants to “pick my brain.” This phrase terrifies and angers me. Because they literally want to consume me. When a man has told me he wants to “pick my brain,” I never get anything out of the exchange. I have learned that my brain being picked is code for my lived experiences, my trauma, my knowledge, my wisdom, being reaped, and extracted, and consumed for the benefit of him. I’m always left depleted.
In my own relationships with men if I experience toxic masculine behavior from them, I will seek resolution often to no prevail. In my background as a Montessori teacher, conflict resolution is my specialty. Pair that with my sign, Libra, and my goal since being a child is always seeking to understand, to find peace and resolution if there has been controversy. Though I am outspoken and unapologetically angry, my first instinct is love and understanding. With the skills I have developed through teaching and working with children who are just beginning to learn the power of language and how to resolve conflict, you would think I am greatly successful at resolving conflicts in my personal life. But I have been wildly unsuccessful at this with the men who I have been intimate with because their response when called out about their behavior is defensiveness. The only thing that has changed in my relationships with men as I get older is my increasing sense of agency and autonomy. I have become more vocal about my low tolerance for poor behavior that stems from toxic masculinity. I have noticed some patterns. Because these are not isolated events.
Toxic masculinity means that womxn carry the burden of our own emotions plus the emotions of men. The only acceptable emotion that men can express is anger. They are not allowed to cry. They are not allowed to be soft, feminine, or nurturing. This leads to a very unhealthy and unbalanced society for all of us. In a patriarchy of unchecked power where men are not allowed to feel anything but anger, this means womxn are abused, exploited, harassed, assaulted, dehumanized, and treated as a resource. And when we get sick of it, when we grow tired, when we want to express our hurt, or when we thought that we had found a man who can hear the truth and listen, it often ends in the worst way.
Men are so used to being comfortable that if a situation arises in which they experience discomfort, their impulse is either to run, get defensive, or become aggressive towards the thing that is causing them discomfort. Often, all of the above happens. The mindset manifested by toxic masculinity leads cis white men in particular to believe that it’s never their fault for the conflict or controversy. If everything is always falling into your lap your whole life, when you experience friction, you believe it must be due to something outside of yourself. Their impulse is to shirk responsibility. Their impulse is to push away their feelings, all except anger, which turns into defensiveness. In many of my experiences of conflict with cishet men, and there have been many, whether an employer, partner, or “friend,” they have told me that I am too sensitive, too angry, overreacting, irrational, or they have completely denied and glossed over the reality of the situation. This is gaslighting, which is a form of silencing and it is an age-old tool of patriarchy.
The way men can convince themselves and the women in their lives that they are not being abused, is the same way our capitalist system can go on with consuming at an ever-accelerating rate. In a toxic masculine culture, things that should be considered atrocities are normalized. Those who experience the greatest consequences of these oppressive structures and systems are the most marginalized communities in our society: poor, disabled, trans, queer, BIWOC. Our country was built on the backs of BIWOC to serve the needs of white men. Toxic masculinity is how countless communities of Indigenous peoples were extinguished, yet despite this, many continue to thrive to this day.
Toxic masculinity seeps into all of the crevices of our society, but womxn have developed tools and strategies of survival to evolve past men. We have been pushed into being the responsible ones since birth. Society tells us that the actions of men are our fault, so in order to thrive we figure out how to be accountable not only for ourselves, but for them as well. We are told to apologize for our very existence. This emotional trauma needs to be taken seriously.
The dynamics underlying the interactions between men and womxn are inherently toxic due to the imbalances of power, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t work to unlearn and detox. We can avoid the consequences of silencing, derailing, erasing, gaslighting, physical harm, sexual assault, or threats of another nature, if men choose to listen, choose to step back, or at necessary times, speak up if they witness oppressive behavior, language, and actions. The most important thing that we can all do is believe women, particularly Black womxn, Indigenous womxn, and womxn of color.