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The Silence Breakers – Time's Person(s) of the Year

Is toxic masculinity a thing?

December 2017

As the year draws to a close and we amuse ourselves with the usual "best of/worst of" awards, this year’s Time Magazine’s "Person of the Year" is more than usually eye-catching. On first inspection, the person of the year is no less than five people. However, on closer examination it turns out that five is actually six. As such the cover could itself could qualify for the "Year’s Most Tragic Picture"; the visible five are amongst the most high-profile women to have come out about the sexual harassment, the one tenth is an anonymous young hospital worker from Texas. The black velvet clad elbow belonging to Ms. Anonymous is undoubtedly the most poignant part of this image and, when all the celebrity brouhaha is done about who grabbed whose tits, one senses the owner of this elbow will feel no bolder, no more comforted, nor nearer to any kind of closure.

OK, OK—the "grabbing tits" comment is in poor taste, I confess, and who knows, indicative of the toxic masculinity of which all men now stand accused. We all know, of course, that it wasn’t Ms. Swift's tits that were groped but her ass—damn it, at it again—lewd jokes in poor taste. Tuh! We men. But actually there’s a serious point here. Please don’t think for a minute that I underestimate what has happened to Ms. Swift or any of Harvey Weinstein’s victims or, indeed any less high-profile victims of celebrity abuse; it’s just that I have an unsettling sense that Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump et al are nothing but social media fodder—bone dry logs tossed onto to the 24/7, rolling news fire. Please tell me that all this rage and anger will bring hope to the owners of anonymous elbows.

Toxic Masculinity?

If this is to happen than we need to consider where is all this coming from? Does it transpire that the adjective "toxic" is indivisibly linked to the noun "masculinity"? Are all men just one whisky away from a grope, one casting couch away from demanding a wank, one packed commuter train away from pressing their genitals against a female thigh? Are we men hormonally hard-wired to predate on the female gender and nothing more than a fag-paper’s width away from grabbing, squeezing, molesting and raping the other 50% of the globe’s population? Is there, indeed, any justification for the notion that we men are nothing but slaves to the tyranny of evolution? We are born, we fuck, we die, and in fucking we pass on our genes so that, in death, we live.

Such a reductionist theory is easy to argue. Strip out human feeling, toss away art, deny our imaginations, ignore the remarkable capacity for the human brain to consider three dimensions of time, reject anything to do with our sense of wonder, our spirituality, our inquisitiveness, our sense of each other and our almost inexplicable selflessness and yes, if we ever find ourselves in situation where we have no other thoughts than how to survive then fucking and eating are important.

In Primo Levi’s account of his time in Auschwitz, he recounts the moment when his dreams descend into a series of desperate fantasies of having sex with a dough woman. The title of the book is If This is a Man and, for lovers of the reductionist view of masculinity, this is a defining moment; in Auschwitz there was no thought other than to survive and what better image of this struggle than the elision of food with sex? However, whilst this is undoubtedly a powerful metaphor for manhood, it’s not Levi’s central message. It was, for him, a kind of baseline for sure, but it was a moment both tragic and comic. As he makes his way through the experiences of the Nazi concentration camp to survival and return home, the book documents the complexity and duality of humanity. Even in, if not in spite of, extremity, neither the study of men nor humans in general stands up to such reductionism.

Means, Motive, Opportunity

So, if the definition of masculinity, which includes only lust for sex, is unhelpful, what then lies behind the seeming epidemic of men forcing themselves on women uninvited? Another tempting avenue—in itself somewhat reductionist—is to consider the behaviourists' guiding principle: means, motive, and opportunity. There’s no denying all men have a penis and thus have the means and, as discussed above, it’s pretty clear that men have a strong motive. Is it opportunity then that is a new ingredient? If so, it raises the question of whether this is, indeed, a new phenomenon or an old one given a higher profile by the "The Silence Breakers." I accept that this is pretty anecdotal but I’m going to say that there is nothing new going on here. For anyone to suggest that there was a moment in human history when men suddenly started to make unwelcome and inappropriate advances towards women (not forgetting gay men towards men) is patent nonsense. If this is so, have the opportunities increased in recent times leading to this apparent avalanche of sexual predation? Possibly yes, since the sexual revolution of the 1960s brought on by the ready availability of the female contraceptive pill, there has been a manifold increase in social opportunities. No longer are men and women reduced to a fumble in the back rows of the cinema, the very word chaperone has fallen out of use, and one of the ironies of the success of the feminist movement is that women are thrown into the path of men in ways that were quite unimaginable in the past. Sexual opportunity has increased in hand with equal opportunity.

But however neat the means, motive, opportunity triad may be, what it doesn’t explain is the unavoidable fact that most men don’t. As with any high-profile news story, the truth becomes skewed by the sheer volume of coverage. You would be forgiven for thinking that, but for better opportunity, all men would act on their evolutionary motives and put their means to malpractice. I make this point not to shine some kind of righteous light on the majority of men, for heaven knows men have plenty else to answer for in terms of aggression, belligerence, competitiveness, the seeking after power and much else besides, but raise the question of what is it that makes the minority behave in the way they do? With such powerful evolutionary chemistry at work, is there a line in the sand?

I can, so I will.

In this context it is useful to consider what calculations are made by a man who sexually assaults a woman? To start with there is the age-old cherry that being jumped by a sexually charged male is what every woman secretly wants. A potent mixture of internet porn, centuries of twisted cultural conditioning and simple male wishful thinking certainly contribute to this idea. Add to this the dysmorphic view that many men have of themselves, especially after a couple of pints, and it’s easy to understand why the act of shoving a hand up a female colleague’s skirt can be construed more as an act of kindness than an assault.

However, one senses that this a somewhat inadequate explanation of men’s sexual activity. Not that it doesn’t explain some behaviour, but as a general theory it feels a bit cartoonish. There will always be pathology around men’s attitude to women—feelings of anger, the desire for revenge, Oedipal urges, a sense of sexual inadequacy, will all contribute, but is it not true that the most powerful driver at work here is the sense that "I can, therefore I will"? Or, more accurately "I CAN get away with it, therefore I WILL follow my urges"?

Examining the cases of the most high-profile assailants this looks like being the case. Men in positions of power inevitably make skewed calculations of actions and consequences. The journey to the top so often has a narcotic effect on the mind where a belief in one's own publicity is the sine qua non of success. To achieve power is to leave so much normal world of behind and enter a realm where I make the rules, what I say happens and what I desire is fulfilled. Small wonder then that the sexual hunt and kill, so inextricably bound with a sense of one’s own worth, with the need for reassurance of one’s attractiveness and desirability, ends in an unfair fight. A calculus which reads: I am successful, therefore I must be attractive, therefore you must want me, therefore I will have you.

Are men entirely to blame?

So much for male culpability. In a year when the focus has been all about the victims, there remains an awkward topic of victim culpability, without which no article on sexual assault would be complete. This, of course, a topic that has the die-hard feminists howling with indignation. They would have it that even if a woman were to walk naked into a room of drunk men clad only in a Playboy bunny tail and nipple tassels, she has every right not to expect any unwanted advances. Rightly so perhaps, but let’s get practical here; to dress in a full length macintosh, buttoned to the neck, and with a hat pulled down over your ears sends one message, to wear a skirt that barely covers your ass, a cleavage revealing blouse and being smothered in pheromone-laden scent is another. Whatever your rights may be, no one can be surprised if, in this case, your message of apparent demure disinterest is misinterpreted.

Similarly if a woman spends the evening hung round the neck of a man in nightclub and whacking back cocktails until she’s senseless, it may be a tragedy but hardly a surprise if heavy petting leads to unwanted sex. "No," of course is unambiguous, but for the sake of balance, it’s important to accept that, in seeking to understand cases of sexual assault, how it happened is not always a black and white issue.

Will anything change?

But 2017 was the year of the victim and setting aside the examples given above, there’s no question that the actions of the five and one tenth of women pictured on the cover of Time Magazine are both noble and not before their time. Let us share the hopes of these women that the publicity generated by their actions does not prove to have been a passing fad. Toppling celebrities and politicians is good copy but is no more than grist to the media mill, and the papers, news, and social media sites will move on in search of other titillation. The danger then is not so much for the Hollywood stars who, precisely because of their high-profile, will probably create a new world in which Weinstein-style casting couch culture will no longer be possible, but for the ordinary women at work, on the Underground, at a party or anywhere they may be vulnerable to predatory male activity and who do not enjoy media muscle. One can only wonder whether there will be any trickle-down effect from the scandals in Olympus. For this to happen it will not be as a result of men becoming less toxic, but from women feeling emboldened to whistle blow. On the evidence of the disembodied elbow of one sixth of Time Magazine’s people of the year, this seems unlikely.

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