Thoughts on Toxic Masculinity

I recently saw the Gillette commercial about toxic masculinity, and it’s gotten me thinking, especially when viewed along side the Egard Watches response video. I highly recommend you go watch both of them before continuing to read here.

The perspectives in both are reflected by the polarized responses I’ve been seeing since the Me Too movement picked up steam. Any time I see such extreme reactions to the same thing (the commercial, especially) among people who normally agree about many things, it makes me stop to ponder what’s going on.

Personally, I find it very easy to have enormous sympathy with the Me Too movement.  It is sadly all too easy to find many, many examples of women being treated unjustly in every era, and in every civilization which has ever existed.  Indeed, “unjust” hardly begins to describe centuries of disregard, disenfranchisement, oppression, torment, slavery, mutilation, rape, and murder which women have suffered across the span of human history. Given that the perpetrators have been overwhelmingly male, it’s all too easy to take a dim view of masculinity in general.

However, it is also true that many brilliant, talented, moral, and courageous men have moved our species forward in leaps and bounds. Many of these men were the ones who fought against oppressors of every sort (both literally and figuratively). Indeed, many of them fought, specifically, to oppose the tremendous injustice met out to women by other men of their time. Taking either the view that all men are monsters or that all men are innocent is too simplistic.

I view “toxic masculinity” as being what the philosopher, Ayn Rand, called a package deal. That is, a bunch of concepts grouped together with the effect (usually deliberate) of damning the good by linking it with the evil. In this case, the “package” contains a lot of elements which are, in fact, attitudes, beliefs, and cultural norms which each have been held by individual men. However, not all men exhibit all these traits, and, in fact, it’s very common for the negative traits to be concentrated in certain individuals, and positive ones in others.

But let’s get specific here. When I think of traits considered typically “masculine”, I get something like this:

  • physical traits (size, strength, body shape, genitals)
  • self-control
  • competence
  • courage
  • protectiveness
  • resilience

However, when I think of the kind of behaviors associated with the phrase “toxic masculinity”, I get a very different (and mostly incompatible) list:

  • sexism & misogyny
  • homophobia
  • bullying
  • excessive use of drugs & alcohol
  • macho toughness

I think this is the heart of the division I see between people reacting to this issue. When someone says “masculine”, which of these two lists pops up in their head? You can easily tell by the litmus test of these two videos.

What I find especially fascinating and useful, is to construct a similar list using the phrases “feminine” and “toxic femininity”. To my mind, the first list is nearly identical, while the second list has its own (and different) set of revolting behaviors.

My point, really, is that using deliberately leading phrases like “toxic masculinity” or “toxic femininity” doesn’t actually help what is really an admirable goal: to eliminate the specific nasty behaviors associated with those phrases. At best, they serve to stir up animosity and misunderstanding between people who probably have the same goals at heart. At worst, they create a completely useless debate between people wanting to define “masculine” as meaning the first list versus the second.

Instead, I would urge people to discard the “package deal”, and focus on the real problems specifically, and one-by-one: sexual harassment, homophobia, bullying, and all those other behaviors we should no longer tolerate as a rational, civil society.

A Queer Thanksgiving

I came out as bisexual earlier this year after a long time struggling both with acknowledging my own sexuality, and then building up the courage to come out to others.  As I’ve been thinking about being thankful for various things this year, it keeps coming back into my head that I owe an immense debt to other people who have paved the way for my coming out to be possible.

The first group of people who come to mind are the martyrs.  The countless gays, lesbians, and other queer folk who found themselves living at the wrong point in history, and paid the price for just existing.  Even only considering recent history, this includes millions of people trapped in Nazi Germany, people persecuted in the UK and America under discriminatory laws, and others around the world who were victims of lawfully enshrined prejudice.  This especially includes Alan Turing, one of my personal heroes, whose heroism during WWII, and later epochal contributions to computer science didn’t prevent his government from persecuting him, and likely driving him to suicide.  This also includes martyrs to private hatred, like Matthew Shepard, who was murdered by private citizens in a gruesome case of homophobia.  While tragic, I am thankful that the stories of these people helped to awaken our society to the injustices being done to queer people.

The second group of people who come to mind are the crusaders.  From those who protested in the Stonewall riots at the start of the modern gay rights movement, through to the people who still march at pride parades, protest against unfair laws, and speak out for equal rights for the LGBT community at large.  But for these people, I would have been in legal jeopardy if I decided to come out, and, being bi in a straight marriage, I almost certainly wouldn’t have.  I’m thankful that they have changed my society into a place which acknowledges and respects queer people, and that—by their struggles—my rights are protected regardless of my sexual orientation.

The third group which comes to mind are the scientists and educators.  There’s been a long road which leads up to our current understanding of sexuality as a complex set of variables in which people fall into a myriad different categories describing sexual and gender expression.  In particular, Alfred Kinsey comes to mind as one of the earliest of modern researchers to seriously study the subject and start to move away from homosexuality as a disease to homosexuality as being part of the normal spectrum of human behavior.  In this group, I also include more modern scientists and doctors like Lindsey Doe who promotes positive sex education: including non-hetero orientations.  Without their work, both I and the society I live in would still be trapped in antiquated and prejudicial views about sexuality.  I am thankful to live an a time enlightened by their research and teaching.

The final group I think of are my own friends and family.  The largest portion of this group is made up of all those people who said such kind and supportive things when I actually did come out.  But, this group most especially includes my friends Duane and Blake, both of whom spent hours talking and exchanging emails with me while I worked through whether to come out, how to come out, and why I should want to do such a thing.  That I could be so articulate in explaining myself, and, as Duane put it so well, “tremblingly determined” to make myself understood, is through their friendship and advice.  I am thankful to have such thoughtful and wise people in my life to help me when I’m struggling and uncertain.

But, most of all, I think of my wife, Rachel.  I could have never understood my own sexuality without our long talks, and she was always there to talk, or just listen to me talk.  It was also immeasurably easier to accept myself with the certain knowledge that she would accept me, too.  And she did, and does.  It would also have been so much harder to muster the courage to come out without her love and support.  I am thankful to have such a caring, thoughtful, and loving person as a partner who constantly urges me to be the best and truest version of myself.

Being bisexual in a straight marriage

I was 37 years old when I started to call myself bisexual.  In hindsight, it’s pretty clear I was always bisexual, but it took a very long time for me to put a concrete name to it.

At least early on, it had a lot to do with where and when I grew up.  Calling someone a “fag” was virtually a daily insult among my peers.  HIV/AIDS was still very recent, very scary, and very much a “gay” disease.  And, most importantly, none of the recent acceptance of homosexuality had even begun to surface in my world.  Life was super, super hard for gay people back then, and if you had those impulses you sure as hell didn’t act on them if you could manage not to.  Plus, I was definitely interested in women, so I couldn’t be gay, right?

The second reason it took so long is my wife, and for all the very best reasons.  She is the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met: of any gender.  She is the most joyful, nurturing, and loving person I’ve ever met.  She’s wonderfully smart and dedicated.  Most of all, she’s honest, calm, patient, and rational.  I cannot even imagine finding another person I’d be more completely content to share my life with.  It’s been over 20 years so far, and, happily, I see no change in sight.  And, of course, being a male who is throughly in love with a female means you’re straight, right?


What does it mean to be bi?

I can only really answer for myself, but I think of it this way.  When my physical / emotional gut reaction considers whether a person is attractive or not, their gender simply doesn’t matter very much.  To me, seeing a person who is confident, cheerful, well-groomed, and reasonably fit immediately puts them in the “attractive” category.  If you and I were just sitting in a coffee shop people-watching together, I’d find more women attractive than men—just by the numbers—but I suspect that’s because women tend to look after their appearance more carefully.  Naturally, the exact physical traits I find attractive for each gender are different, but so long as the general traits I mentioned are present, the gender isn’t especially important.

When it comes to having sex, the same indifference to gender applies.  I find the prospect of being with a man and finding mutual pleasure as appealing, exciting, and arousing as being with a woman.  I also find the idea of being the passive partner in sex as appealing, exciting, and arousing as being the active one: regardless of the gender of my partner.  To use the term from gay circles, I just consider myself to be a little extra versatile.

What doesn’t it mean to be bi?

Most importantly, being bisexual does not mean that I want to have multiple sexual partners (polyamorous).  The interest / capability / potentiality of having a male partner is certainly there, and if I weren’t already in a relationship, I would be very much open to it.  However, I am extremely happy in my current relationship, and I have no desire to change it.

Being bisexual also does not mean that I don’t think of myself as male.  I definitely think of myself as male, and am not at all personally attracted by the idea of being transgender, transsexual, transvestite, etc.  To be clear, I don’t have a strong opinion on those things, and to be perfectly honest, I know very little about them.  I just know they don’t appeal to me, personally.

What difference does it make?

It… doesn’t?  I think?  I’m a man in a happy, life-long, monogamous relationship with a woman.  Therefore, it’s easy to say: “Are you even bisexual?  What difference does it make, anyway?”  Believe me, I’ve been asking myself those questions over and over for years now.  As I’ve pondered, I’ve arrived at a few important answers.

Definitely bisexual

Even though I’ve found joy in a traditionally straight relationship, the way I react sexually has always been a part of me, and is still an undeniable part of how I experience other people.  I very definitely find both men and women sexually attractive, and I definitely could be quite happy in a serious long-term relationship with either.

Know thyself

There’s a deep satisfaction in being truly honest with oneself, and in understanding the genesis of one’s emotions.  Understanding, accepting, and talking about being bisexual releases uncertainty, anxiety, and tension I didn’t even notice I’d been carrying my whole life.

Relating to others

Identifying myself as bisexual, and coming out to other people changes how those relationships work.  Fortunately for me, I haven’t yet had a negative reaction, but I also haven’t come out to very many people.  In those cases where I have come out to someone, the experience has generally deepened the connection and helped the other person be more sincere, honest, and open with me (especially with other LGBT folks).

Freedom to explore

The last big difference this has made to me is that it removes a whole set of inhibitions about sex, sexuality, and attraction to other people.  It’s a relief to feel like I can think, write, and talk about these experiences.  And, within the context of my existing relationship, I feel empowered to explore possibilities I wouldn’t have been open to before.

Why tell anyone about it?

Every single person I’ve talked to about this blog post has asked this question, so I want to try to explain why I don’t just do the easy thing and keep it to myself.

It has been over two years since I first “came out” to my wife, my son, my parents, and—most importantly—to myself.  Since then, I’ve been slowly coming out to family and close friends.  It’s been an astonishing sense of relief.  My whole life, I’ve known this truth about myself was there, but I’ve pushed it away.  At every hint, and with every impulse, I’ve felt confused, embarrassed, or ashamed, and then promptly buried those feelings.  Again, and again, and again.  It felt way easier to just ignore that side of my sexuality, and why not?  I’m a guy in love with a gal; why make things complicated?

Why?  Because it’s a lie to say that I’m straight, and because it’s deeply distressing to continually lie to yourself.  The really hard part for people in my situation is that our sexuality is, for all practical purposes, invisible.  To me at least, that makes this life-long journey to understand and accept myself feel incomplete.  Knowing that I’m bisexual and doing nothing feels exactly the same as the hiding and repressing I’ve always lived with—and I’m done with that.

So, first and foremost, this essay is me permanently rejecting the closet in the only way I can.  Being frankly, openly, explicitly bisexual rejects the seemingly easy path of hiding in plain sight, and forever shatters any possibility of continuing to repress that side of myself.

Second, I’m seeking to find community with others who have shared this or similar experiences.  I am grateful to have amazingly supportive friends and family—straight and gay.  But they, nevertheless, can’t entirely relate to my experiences.  I would love to connect with other people who can.

Third, I’m hoping that sharing my experience of coming out to myself will prove useful to others.  Specifically, I hope this helps people who, like me, have struggled with their sexuality for many years before figuring things out: most especially to other bisexuals (closeted or not) who have struggled as I have.

Finally, I also hope this helps everyone else who doesn’t really know what bisexuality is, and who thinks they don’t know someone who is.  You probably do, and didn’t even know it.