Toxic masculinity and my problem with #notallmen

In the outrage after Sarah Everard’s abhorrent murder, there have understandably been calls for men to take responsibility, not just for our conduct, but for ‘picking up the mike’ and joining the conversation on the terrible sexual harassment and violence still being meted out by men to women.  

It’s moved me to share these thoughts around toxic masculinity, the breadth of action we need to take to tackle it, and a couple of problems I have with  #notallmen    

Toxic masculinity drives all male behaviour that harms women because they are women. It covers the whole range from inappropriate language, through unwelcome physical contact, to stalking and all the way to rape and murder.

It is conditioned in men by hormones, the ingrained prejudice our patriarchal society creates and the fact that toxic masculinity still sells, everything from newspapers to muscle cars.

To eliminate toxic masculinity we must eliminate this conditioning, and that requires fundamental and wide-reaching change to women’s place in society. We need to pursue this change relentlessly, but there is still far to go, and women are suffering now, so we need short term action too.  

For me, that means breaking the link between conditioned toxic masculinity and our behaviour as men.

A lot of men already accept this and are doing all they can to stop toxic masculinity infecting our behaviour. Some don’t accept it but can be educated, and for the ones who are left we need sanctions and laws to protect women from them.   

Even men who accept the need to break toxic masculinity must recognise that it’s part of our conditioning, and that we need to be constantly working to stop it influencing our behaviour.

My first problem with #notallmen is that it can soften this imperative by making us complacent.

If you are a man reading this and you’re confident your behaviour is never influenced by toxic masculinity, try asking some female acquaintances if anything you have ever said or done has made them feel uncomfortable, just to check.

If you’re a woman reading this and a man asks you that question, please, even if the guy is a saint, answer ‘Not yet, so keep it up’.

There’s a male fear that sensitivity to toxic masculinity can take the fun out of being with women. It shouldn’t, we just have a responsibility as men to understand where the line lies and not to cross it.

We should know where flirting stops being mutual, how well we need to know a woman for it to be okay to complement her appearance, and we need to be alert to signs that we are making a woman feel uncomfortable and changing our behaviour if we do.

And we need to know never to cross the line into overt toxic masculinity. Telling a woman you like the dress they’re wearing can still be acceptable depending on your relationship. Saying you wish it was shorter or tighter never is.

Education is the next level for men who won’t accept this responsibility, who talk about ‘harmless banter’ or make accusations of ‘woke’ or political correctness to deflect the issue. Starting this education in school would be good, but I believe it also needs concerted ongoing communication across the whole adult male population that behaviour driven by toxic masculinity is always wrong.

As a line manager, I had to deal with a couple of instances of clearly inappropriate behaviour from men in my team, and it was clear they brushed it aside as  just toeing the politically correct line. If they had been seeing media content at home constantly stressing the need for zero tolerance of such behaviour, I feel I might have made more of an impression.  

Even when it’s targeted at the entire male population, education alone won’t stop male behaviour driven by toxic masculinity. We need enforcement too, and I suggest it needs a more radical and holistic approach.

Recording crimes against women as misogyny is a good start, but it only helps us see the true scope of the problem. More police on the street and tougher sentencing guidelines play their part, but strengthening only parts of the existing system doesn’t stop it falling apart in others.

Adequate funding across the whole criminal justice system is critical. if more men are arrested on suspicion of sexual offenses but their cases hang around for years because there’s not enough resource to investigate or try cases, then everyone suffers, especially the victim, and it becomes harder to sustain the change.

And just changing our existing familiar legal system makes it harder to keep specific focus on crimes against women. I believe that radical new processes to deal specifically with sexually motivated crime against women would help keep that focus.

A mechanism to triage alleged offences, staffed exclusively by women, working from a default starting point that the woman is to be believed, and able to hand out fixed penalty notices to a lower standard of proof may be seen as dangerously radical and open to abuse, but it would at least tip a balance that has been far too far in the other direction for centuries.  

At this level, it’s critical that we understand the boundaries of toxic masculinity as a driver for male crime. Far too many women suffer domestic violence and  toxic masculinity is clearly a major factor in these awful crimes. On the other hand, the fact that a much smaller but still significant number of men suffer domestic violence too suggests that toxic masculinity is not the only driver. To end domestic violence against women we need to tackle factors like social deprivation and mental illness as well as toxic masculinity.

Similarly, an end to toxic masculinity should mean an end to women being verbally or physically attacked on the street just because they are women. It doesn’t mean an end to being attacked for your phone or because someone doesn’t like the colour of your skin or your accent; that’s a whole other set of social problems.     

Which brings me to the other problem I see with ‘#NotAllMen’, or rather with the backlash against it.

It has been powerfully put that women know it’s not all men, but because there’s no way of telling which ones it is, women have to be suspicious of all men.  

It’s a natural and reasonable response, but now try substituting ‘Moslems’ for ‘men’ in that statement and see how comfortable you feel about it.  

After 9/11 and 7/11 it was natural for Caucasians to feel uneasy whenever someone who fitted their stereotype of a Moslem got on the bus carrying a backpack. It was natural but also corrosive, because letting that response drive actions led to travel bans and attacks on innocent followers of Islam in their mosques.   

The situation with men is different for many reasons, but still I think we need to be mindful what happens when we, perhaps unconsciously, cast men as the enemy rather than toxic masculinity.

I’ve seen examples of this on social media. One post said that we need to change from reporting crimes against women in terms of the victim, and put it in terms of the male perpetrator – we say ‘so many woman were raped’ last year, not ‘so many men committed rape’. Powerful, certainly, we just need to think about the impact, not least that this would make it different from the way we report any other crime (we don’t report murders or robberies in terms of the perpetrator).  

Men commit these crimes and women are rightly enraged by them, so targeting men is reasonable. I just worry that it takes us down a very different and more challenging path from one which focuses on toxic masculinity as the enemy.

As a man, I am ashamed of men’s behaviour, including my own, where we have let it be led by toxic masculinity. I’m resolved to do better, to stand with women to defeat toxic masculinity, first by breaking its link to men’s behaviour, and ultimately by changing the social norms which create it.  

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