I want to begin with the incident that inspired this post. Two pictures, side by side; the first, a woman explaining to an authority figure that she was so drunk she does not remember giving consent and, the second, a woman behind the wheel of a wrecked car explaining to an officer that she was so drunk she does not remember getting behind the wheel. The question: why is the first scenario okay but not the second?
Well, prospective rapist, allow me some time to explain.
In the second situation, the drunk driver, the issue the police officer and indeed all of society has is the great risk at which that drunk driver placed the safety of others and the integrity of their property. The driver was stopped not because she had victimised someone, but because the risk of victimising someone became unreasonably high. This is also the reason why if one were to hit and kill someone while drunk the charge is not, at least not solely, driving while intoxicated. The charges would include a murder charge of some degree or vehicular manslaughter depending on the circumstances.
In that first situation, the person has placed no one at risk. No crime occurred, and there is little evidence that a crime would occur as a result of drunkenness. The individual referenced in that frame, the one who had sex with the subject, did commit a crime – he assaulted that woman. In this situation, the woman pictured is the victim of a crime: sexual assault. In the second situation, the woman pictured is the perpetrator of one: driving while intoxicated.
But, one asks, in that second situation you admitted that no crime occurred; merely, the likelihood of a crime was so great that we created an offence, driving while intoxicated, to hold people responsible – so to rephrase the original question, why is a person responsible for their own behaviour while drunk in one situation but not the other? Okay, the implied man in the first scenario technically assaulted her, but why does she bear no responsibility for getting drunk and putting herself in that situation? At a minimum, does that not mitigate his responsibility in the situation by shifting some of the accountability to her?
One sees this paralleled in other areas of legal debate as well. If a person leaves their home unlocked and a theft occurs, does the homeowner bear some responsibility? No, the homeowner does not. It was foolish to forego the practical safeguard of physically securing the property, but it still does not alter the inappropriateness of the theft. The person had no business attempting to gain entry in the first place. This argument is like blaming the flammability of a house for an arson.
That is also a crude way of viewing this situation: the door being unlocked is not an invitation for entry. The woman may have knowingly intoxicated herself and put herself in that situation, but the onus was still on the man to determine the appropriateness. Being intoxicated, it compromised her mental faculties and reduced her inhibitions. She was in no position to consent. It was the man’s responsibility to determine that remove himself from the situation.
“But I was drunk, too.”
Now you have gotten behind the wheel of the car and smashed into another vehicle. You sexually assaulted another person. There is now an actual victim and you still bear responsibility. The potential for sexual assault is no longer a theoretical, it is the very definition of what happened.
However, I will concede that the door swings both ways. If both parties are drunk then either one of them who looks back and thinks, “I do not remember giving consent – I would not have given consent to that,” then a sexual assault occurred. Women can sexually assault men. It does not typically happen that way for reasons that we will get into shortly.
Yes, in the broadest sense we are all responsible for our actions and that includes accountability for anything that occurs when we knowingly put ourselves under the influence of drugs and alcohol. In the specific sense, not everyone who is under the influence commits a crime or puts others at risk. That is the distinction that one fails to make in this situation.
By now some people are feeling high praise and some are feeling pretty fuzzy on this whole consent thing. Others are misogynists so far gone that they either abandoned this post or are rage-commenting and rationalising their way around it. Therefore, let us leave this specific example and move on to the broader topic of sexual assault and toxic masculinity.
To bridge the conversation, let us begin by examining the matter of consent itself. Two of my favourite approaches to this subject are the Tea Consent Analogy from Blue Seat Studios (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQbei5JGiT8) and John Oliver’s, “Consent is like boxing. If both people do not agree to it, then one person is committing a crime”. There is rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment – and where does the line fall between those things and sex, courtship, and flirting?
Society moves progressively closer towards getting this point, though painfully slow and we are still much further from getting it than decent people would prefer. It began with “No means No”. Under no circumstance should one interpret “no” as “try harder” or “yes, but I cannot say yes because I am a lady and openly admitting to my sexuality and sexual desire is a cultural taboo that requires your masculinity to overcome”. We graduated slightly to “Yes means Yes”, an effort to address the latter part of the original problem that anything short of “yes” means no. Things moved a step further when society began to understand that an enthusiastic yes meant yes, because a coerced yes is not consent.
Oh, and I should clarify, when I say that “society” began to understand, I mean the patriarchy. Many women have long understood this to be true, but despite their protests things continued as they had. Cue #MeToo, #TimesUp, and the related movements.
Enthusiastic Yes means Yes – what does that mean?
- No means no, every time.
- When someone says yes and then says no, the no wins.
- If someone says no after initiating sex, the consent is gone and the sex stops.
- If you had sex with someone before, that does not create an indefinite window of consent. Prior consent has no bearing on the current encounter.
- If someone is intoxicated, unconscious, or otherwise cognitively compromised, they are incapable of consent. In this case, even, “F***, yeah! Let’s have sex” does not qualify as enthusiastic consent, just as they cannot enter into legal contracts in these states. By definition, the person lacks the cognitive faculty to make the informed decision.
- If some is conscious but becomes intoxicated (I don’t know how), unconscious, or otherwise cognitively compromised during sex, the consent is gone and the sex stops. They cannot consent going forward, you are now assaulting them.
- Likewise, one cannot consent beforehand. If someone is conscious and says, “I am going to get hammered, and then I want you to have sex with me” there is still no consent. The moment the person becomes intoxicated, they lose the ability to withdraw consent and have no ability to give it. The enthusiastic part of the yes is gone.
- If you are lawfully wed to the other person, that is still not consent. Marriage does not entitle one to their partner sexually.
- Silence does not mean consent.
- Uncertainty about consent does not mean, “Try and convince me”. That is not convincing, that is coercion. There is one reason to have sex and that is, “I want to have sex”. If the other person has not reached that conclusion already, any reason you provide is just some bullshit to coerce them because you want to have sex. Here in particular is what some of the powerful men taken down by #MeToo did not seem to get.
Those of you who understand this may be thinking, “why are these things so hard for people to understand?” Those of you laughing at how ridiculously liberal this snowflake is or raging about such Puritanical rules may simply not care. That brings us to the next topic: the patriarchy and toxic masculinity.
Some people equate feminists’ use of “patriarchy” and “toxic masculinity” with misandry, but I cannot impress upon readers enough that this is a false equivocation. Feminism does not hate men, one is not evil for being a man, and masculinity is a distinct thing from toxic masculinity.
The patriarchy is still an ambiguous concept. “No, it isn’t!” shout some fellow feminists, angry that I would open room for interpretation here. No worries, friends. What I mean by ambiguous is that depending on the context, people will refer to particular elements of the patriarchy or refer to it by another name. Naturally, a word like “patriarchy” invites the focus to men, but as I will discuss the focus is slightly narrower than that.
When we say patriarchy we do not refer to all men (“I knew it, ‘Not all men!'” – hold that thought, I will get to you). We refer to the historical structure of society that has both explicitly and implicitly favoured men. “The organising principle of any society is for war. The basic authority of a modern state over its people resides in its war powers”, wrote Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty. When we review the history of modern states we see contributions by all sexes and genders, but organisation for the purposes of war against other states by men.
This makes sense as men are bigger and stronger than women. Specifically, no – any number of women would successfully kick the shit out of me and most men. I do not need to ski against Lindsey Vonn or fight Ronda Rousey or ball against Alex Morgan to know it would not end well for me. Generally, between a random man and a random woman, the man will be bigger and stronger. That formed the historical basis for men to do the hunting and the fighting. (Again, generally, please stop if you are already scrolling to the end to tell me all about the women warriors of various cultures – I know, but those are exceptions and not the general rule.)
The point of this emphasis on the men is to understand that when organising a modern state, the responsibility generally fell (was seized upon) by men with little or no representation from women. The women played critical roles in society, but they had little or no representation in the government of those societies. This is also why I referred to the patriarchy as ambiguous earlier. Some readers are/were already ahead of me and understand that we are referring to white men more so than any other group.
“Yeah, because Kim Jong-Un, Rodrigo Duterte, and Hassan Rouhani are white men.”
First, I cannot stress the “generally” enough, people. Saying that it does not cover one hundred percent of cases does not disprove the entire thing. Second, I want you to keep these individuals in mind for later.
The Roman Empire. Russia. Portugal. Spain. France. The Netherlands. Sweden. Germany. England. The United States.
This is a partial list of major world powers throughout history, forged by white men who then exerted their influence over peoples around the world. The gave the modern world much of the common social structure: law, infrastructure, and so on. They built these things without the representation of women or minorities in the decision-making process and, whether explicitly or implicitly, designed the system in a way that benefited them.
In some cases it was “what is good for the goose is good for the gander”. In other cases the silly natives or savages or [insert disparaging term for minority here] simply did not know what was best for them and it fell to the superior education of the ruling class (white men) to make those decisions.
Therefore, (brace yourselves, fellow white males) the system design specifically benefits white males.
“Oh, so we just screw over everybody?!” – No, plenty of people who are not white males benefit from the system, and not every aspect of it seeks to destroy the lives of non-white, non-male people. In fact, the aspects of it that do harm non-white and/or non-male people may not be doing so intentionally. That is the nature of systemic racism, that is the nature of systemic sexism, and that is why representation of these groups in government and executive leadership is critical.
“Then I suppose it’s my fault that I, a white male, struggle in this country while the women and minorities get to blame racism?” – Again, no. I am not suggesting that your struggles are not real, or even that they have no bearing on your being white or a male. What I am saying is, in a system designed by white males without adequate input from other groups, that system will inherently favour members of the white male group. It does not guarantee the success of white males, nor does it guarantee the failure of non-whites and non-males. What it does it rig the game to make those things far more likely.
Women and minorities make bad decisions, and some members of those groups are lazy or will do things that put themselves in shit situations. Here is the key that everyone needs to understand though. Those bad decisions, that laziness, those other negative qualities are nothing to do with them being women or minorities. One does not make bad decisions because one is a woman; one is a woman who makes bad decisions. One is not lazy because one is black; one is black and lazy. Any of those qualities might apply to a white male. The distinction that equal rights advocates make is that these situations prejudice members of a group whereas the patriarchy is the systemic oppression of entire groups based on their membership in those groups.
Here is another key point that will not sit well with some readers: in the United States, systemic racism against whites does not exist.
“So I am just imagining that people have said things or done things to me because I am white?!” – No. But that is prejudice and not racism. Those people judged you based on your whiteness and may even feel that whites are inferior to other races. However, nothing about the system we established disadvantages whites on the basis of being white. What whites may encounter are specific instances of prejudice, whereas members of other groups face systemic challenges for no reason other than accident of birth.
Enough about race though, let us return to the matter of toxic masculinity – the male aspect of the issue. Similar to what we see with races, those who are not CIS males face systemic challenges because women and LGBTQ members did not have representation in the organisation of that system.
Consider the abortion debate. Feminists generally, if not universally, promote a pro-choice view of the issue. Pro-choice is not the same as pro-abortion, and no one is suggesting that everyone go out and get abortions or that abortion is an acceptable form of contraception – it is not. The argument is that situations exist in which the option to terminate the pregnancy should be on the table. A male-dominated system pushes back on that with the pro-life view and demands that women carry to term regardless of circumstance because anything short of that is murder. That is a lot to unpack and the abortion debate itself is beyond the scope of this discussion. The focus here is males, people who cannot be pregnant, dictating to females what they can and cannot do with their bodies.
At this point we transition from the patriarchy into toxic masculinity.
“If she didn’t want to get pregnant, maybe she should have kept her legs together.”
Society has expectations of men and women built into that organisational structure – the patriarchy. Men hunt. Women gather. Men fight. Women nurture. Men are logical. Women are emotional. The list is far too great to cover here, and even some of the most flagrant offenders of toxic masculinity may acknowledge, “Well, these are general statements. Not all men, not all women”, and that is great. The problem is that these expectations exist at all.
Consider an experiment done where researchers dressed two infants, one boy and one girl, in clothing that we traditionally identify with the opposite gender. That is, to all appearances, the boy looked like a girl and vice versa. Adult subjects then came in to interact with the child in a room filled with toys, and researchers observed which toys the subjects selected in each case. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, subjects who believed they were interacting with a girl would grab toys like dolls and soft toys, while those interacting with the “boy” grabbed toys like robots and puzzles. (watch excerpts of it here, courtesy of the BBC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWu44AqF0iI)
Not only do we assign sex and gender in a binary sense based on our perception of an individual, we then automatically associate qualities with the individual based on that. What is that popular saying about assumptions? How does it apply when we make assumptions based on our assumptions?
“This is all well and good, but why does that make masculinity toxic?”
Masculinity is not toxic, but there is something called toxic masculinity and the distinction is more than mere semantics. Society, remember, already set up by the patriarchy to favour males (specifically, white males) sees an individual and determines based on appearance that he is a heterosexual CIS male. We expect him to be strong, confident, not prone to emotion, protective, and countless other qualities. We implicitly train him to be those things by promoting them, consciously or subconsciously, and reacting poorly when he displays qualities that are not “masculine”.
Quick aside here, one should also note that in this patriarchal system the “masculine” qualities are the ones that inherently mean success within that system. Again, this is the systemic nature of the sexism that feminists fight. “Feminine” qualities have value, but not in the sense that translates to “success” in our society.
What does “success” look like for males in our modern society? Married, in a house, with a career of some esteem and sufficient income is the general picture. Note that this list deliberately excludes children because that is not an accomplishment for men but for women. Men rarely have to field questions about why they do not have children or are not having more children unless their partner is also present.
Indeed, marriage is hardly an accomplishment for a man in our society – finding a woman and keeping her is the accomplishment. Marriage is the ultimate sexual conquest because the man has secured a beautiful woman until death do they part. The beautiful is an important aspect. Ask the average married man about his wife and, even if he values her character, intellect, or other qualities, the first compliment will often regard her physical appearance. In fact, character descriptions for many female characters tend to open with appearance before getting to actual character. Men accomplish through character, women accomplish through beauty.
Now the sex and gender prejudices become increasingly sinister. Men can discuss their sexual conquests openly – we encourage men to have sex. Sex is a rite of passage for men and a point of shame for many who have not had it. Failing to have sex is a failure of character, it indicates lack of success. Women may be “involuntarily celibate” as well, but that is a matter of their lack of physical beauty. If men find a woman physically attractive, she will have sex regardless of her character because she is simply a conquest. The quality of those men may certainly be a reflection of her character, but she will have sex. She will not, however, be permitted to discuss it too openly. That is provocative and indicative of promiscuity.
Women who are sexually appealing but refuse to have sex are Puritanical and prudish. No gap exists between those two points, and the point at which one switches from prude to slut will change from man to man. Sleeping with only two men is prudish, but three is slutty.
This brings to mind another morbidly fascinating aspect of toxic masculinity.
“I am nice to women and they still do not want to sleep with me.”
First, please see the consent discussion at the start of this post. This idea that any sort of decorum entitles a man to sex with a woman – it needs to stop. No behaviour entitles anyone to sex with anyone – the mutual desire for sex among the parties involved is the sole arbiter of the decision to have sex. In fact, one is not entitled to the time and attention of another person, let alone sexual permission.
Second, the toxic masculinity definition of “nice” needs work. Often this proceeds with the appearance of niceties and then ends in a profane tirade from the rejected male, sometimes with threats of violence.
If you are the quintessential gentleman towards a woman and, when the time comes, she rejects your request for a date or for sex, and you respond, “F*** you anyway, bitch. You’re probably a lesbian. I’ll come to your house and cut off your f***ing c***”, you were not nice in the first place. And if you are one of those men who thinks, “I am genuinely nice and women still are not interested. They only go for the ‘bad boys'”, this is the reason. The ‘bad boy’ may be an asshole, but he’s interesting and at least the woman knows what she is getting up front. Many of the nice guys are closet sociopaths – that is toxic masculinity.
In fact, that women will engage with ‘bad boys’ despite seeing their character deficiencies may be one of the most telling aspects of toxic masculinity. The bar of expectation for males is set so low that many women will accept ‘bad boy’ levels of deficiency in partners rather than risk the toxic masculinity of others.
Case in point: on a recent vacation with my friends, my wife helped to organise our lunch plans on the first day. On day two, my wife asked that I organise the lunch plans for five people, three of whom were personal friends, one of whom was my wife, and one of whom was me. I did not have to prepare lunch or do anything else apart from show up at a restaurant to eat. I merely had to talk to three close friends and reach a consensus about where that would be.
My wife informed me later that day that one of my friends spoke to her about it. “You asked him to organise lunch and he just did it? No argument?” That is all it took to impress this woman, that a man would accept this small responsibility without a fight. Also worth noting – not one person thanked my wife the day before for performing the same task.
There are millions of examples of this every day, especially in areas like housework where the division of labour is far from equal. Yet when a man performs a task that is traditionally feminine, even if only in an isolated occurrence, it comes with praise.
And look, if you are married and you come to an agreement with your spouse that “I will do all the housework if you do all the yard work”, that is great. If a woman wants to be a stay-at-home mother, that is fine provided she chooses it. “Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women”, as Emma Watson said. The important element is choice. Expecting a women to perform “feminine” tasks because she is a woman, expecting her to be available sexually to you as a man is not acceptable. Full stop.
I recently encountered a fair amount of vitriol regarding comments that the mass shooting problem was a “distinctly white American male” problem. People had issues with each of those terms being singled out, not least of which was “white”. The indication was not that whites, Americans, males, nor any cross-section of those groups was the problem, but that when it comes to mass shootings (incidents in which a shooter or shooters victimise more than three people in a single incident) the majority of them have been white males in the United States, and, furthermore, many have a history of misogyny and domestic abuse.
The argument put forth was that this was not a gun issue, though the availability of guns is absolutely a problem; that this was not a mental health issue, though clearly anyone able to take lives so willingly has a mental health issue – this was an issue of toxic masculinity. This issue involves men who feel entitled to things and, when they do not get them, feel that violence is an appropriate response. These are the same white males from the system described earlier – a system set up where they have a distinct advantage and achieving a distinct view of success using specific characteristics laid out for them, and they did not achieve it yet.
They rally together in forums with other like-minded individuals who echo back these failures and contort the blame to other groups. They do not have sex because of women, not because of their shitty character. They do not have jobs because of foreigners and immigrants stealing them. The system was set up for them to succeed and they are watching members of other groups as preventing that. They are not lone wolves, they are a symptom of the patriarchy at its worst.
And this merely refers to the individuals who we all mostly agree are terrible. Only their fellow wolves celebrate the actions of those people. However, it still leaves the toxic masculinity of those who are well-intentioned. “If I were there I would have put his ass down with two shots”. Okay, so you will not be carrying out a mass shooting anytime soon, but your response to the world is still reactionary violence. That is a shitty, inhuman, uncivil impulse that we have to check. The shooting already occurred, so your intentions to ride in on a silver steed mean nothing. An appropriate response is, “Why did this happen and what can we do to stop it ever happening again?” “Arm everyone so the good guy on the silver steed is already there”, is, again, not a solution. That is more reactionary violence from a masculine impulse to be strong and to protect. These individuals are almost wishing for these situations so they can be the hero like life is “High Noon” or “Shane”.
Now some will say they do not fit this definition of toxic masculinity, but feel the need to argue for men’s rights. Men are underrepresented in certain industries, more inclined to commit suicide, and face considerable challenges when it comes to paternity issues to name a few. Feminists are not arguing those points against you. Men are underrepresented in certain industries – society views male participation in those fields as weird or inappropriate. We need to change that. Men are more inclined to commit suicide – perhaps that is because men feel the need to swallow negative emotion until they explode, because they feel the burden of their masculinity on them. Those are valid concerns. Lack of paternity leave, near-automatic granting of guardianship to the mother in divorces, and difficulty with visitation – all because society views the women as nurturing. Yes, men can be nurturing.
That is the very point. All of these men’s rights issues are pointing to the same patriarchal system that feminists are. You are born, we assign a sex and gender based on appearance, and we expect you to conduct yourself according to a set of sexed and gendered characteristics. That system was set up by men not to oppress women, by whites not to oppress minorities, but without their input or consent. We do things today, in 2018, according to what worked best for white men in 1950, in 1865, in 1776, in 1400, in 509 BC.
What feminists want, what civil rights advocates want, is a fair shake for everyone. We want to examine that system with input from all parties and develop it in a way that is fair for all. That is a failure of our democracy – the assumption that simple majority will do things correctly. The idea of democracy is not that consensus will be correct, but that consensus prevents the tyranny of individuals. We replaced that with the tyranny of a majority who would not heed the inputs of minority groups and developed, both intentionally in some cases and quite innocently in others, a system that favours the majority class.
White males, I am one of you. If you will not listen to members of those groups, listen to me. This is not a condemnation of white people or of manhood. This is not an appeal for eugenics or some single mixed race. This is not an appeal for androgyny and the repeal of your traditional values. This is an appeal for us to look inwards, to suspend our pride and examine the system we built. This is an appeal to resist the masculine urge to protect others and instead listen and support them. The other groups are more than capable, they do not collectively need our protection. It’s wrong of us to assume, because of their membership in some group, that they do.
Listen to their stories and understand the challenges they face in this patriarchal system we built. Understand that by addressing their challenges we will improve the ones that we face, if for no reason other than we bring countless more resources to the table. Understand the role these systems played in the history of developing problems like relations with North Korea and Iran, of domestic problems faced in places like Syria, Venezuela, and the Philippines. Yes, these are non-white males in non-white countries, but we have to acknowledge the role that our system played in shaping those landscapes. We are not solely to blame, or even directly to blame for all the problems of the world, but our role in it was considerable and we still control the systems that govern much of it, systems designed historically to benefit us that have not kept pace with the times.
I am not saying that all members of other groups are saints or that white males are bad. I am not even saying that most white males are bad. Every group has bad eggs and it was nothing to do with their belonging to that group. What sets us apart in this world, men, is that we do it in a system designed for our benefit. When we do these things it is with impunity or measured consequence, and it affects us as individuals. When others do it we condemn and punish harshly, sometimes even generalising the behaviour to the entire group (be mindful of how responses to white male mistakes typically reference the individual, but mistakes in other groups tend to reference the group).
We have not done a terrible job, but we have not done a good enough job. We have to do better. We can do better. We have the support of the other groups and their eagerness to join the conversation. Let women at the table. Let LGBTQ members at the table. Let people of colour at the table. Let other religious theologies at the table. They do not want to govern, they want to represent. Collectively we will govern in a way that benefits everyone equally, and collectively we will solve our problems.