Rape Culture and Masculinity

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about rape culture and masculinity, which is hardly a new topic for me to explore, let alone the rest of the world, but occasionally I get an idea in my mind like a raspberry seed in my teeth, and I have to worry at it until it finally pops loose. The last few years have sparked an unprecedented level of conversations about rape culture, its origins, and whether society is getting closer to or further away from a world without rape. Most of these conversations refocus on the fact that the issue here lies with rapists, not with victims, and the solution to a world without rape is to stop rapists.

Obviously, a big part of that involves education; parents have written reams about raising sons who are respectful of boundaries, for example, and about the responsibilities that come with parenting boys. There’s a deep necessity to make sure that boys learn lessons early about personal boundaries—their own and those of others—and sexuality. Surveys of college communities often reveal a fuzzy understanding of what rape actually is, and confusion about whether people have participated or been complicit in acts of rape.

That’s not surprising, because rape is often not as clearcut as people seem to want it to be. There are situations that can become deeply nebulous and confusing, and many men do not learn that it’s better to err on the side of caution rather than to proceed in a situation that isn’t clearly defined. One of the reasons they don’t learn this isn’t just a parental failing (raising children is hard) but also a cultural failing: the United States has very specific views and idea about masculinity and what it means to be a man.

To be a man in this country is to be strong, not weak, emotionally and physically. It is to be dominating, not passive. It is to be in charge and in control. Men are providers and workers outside the house, they are sexually aggressive and they are not the sort of people you turn down or say no to. They are also owed things; as men, as providers of sustenance and their manly company, they are owed sex, childraising, cooking, and other services from the women around them. Men are entitled to their private time and their manly endeavors, including sports, running businesses, and essentially anything outside the home.

The layers of entitlement that come with being a man are, in particular, a pernicious contributor to the belief that men are always owed sex, and that they should feel free to take it at any time. At the same time, women are punished for being sexually assertive and confident, in the belief that they are upending accepted and agreed-upon social roles. Sexuality is for men in this cultural construct, it is something men enjoy and women provide, as with so many things in life. For men, sexuality also becomes a way of demonstrating masculinity; multiple sexual partners are a source of pride, and being sexually active is expected.

Unfortunately, many of these ideas feed directly into rape culture, creating a toxic environment for men and women alike as men are pressured to engage in ‘masculine’ behaviours that harm women and others around them, and that may ultimately conflict with their own values and beliefs about the world as well. How do you err on the side of caution when you’re surrounded by a society that urges you to do just the opposite? For young men in particular, how do you fight back against an ancient and horrible legacy of masculinity at the precise moment that you are coming into your own as an adult and you desperately long to prove yourself?

For young men, the simultaneous pressures of highly gendered social roles for men and women and maturing into adulthood can be a very combustive mix. It’s not coincidental that numerous incidences of gang rape or group recordings and celebrations of rape have made their way into the news in recent years; these behaviours are the direct consequence of living in a world where groups of young men pressure each other to ‘act like men,’ according to a model that says men are sexually assertive, aggressive, confident, in control of situations.

For men fighting these views of masculinity, who don’t believe that harming people is in keeping with being a man, let alone being a human being, it can be an uphill battle. Men who believe in enthusiastic consent, in respecting women as individuals with autonomy and the ability to make their own choices, in not viewing women as prey or things to be used are trying to speak out against both harmful models of masculinity and rape culture, but they often do so in the midst of a very hostile audience. Society is quick to tag them as less worthy, often in terms comparing them to women, yet another way to reinforce that there are only two genders, and one of them is better. Who, after all, would want to be compared to weak, whiny, sensitive women?

I am rarely a ‘what about the menz’ sort of person, but this is a case where examining constructs of masculinity is critically important for fighting rape culture. Because one reason that it’s so socially invasive is that men are socialised to believe certain things about themselves and their relationship with society and culture—and because men goad each other to do terrible things in the name of demonstrating or proving masculinity. People of other genders also become trapped in these highly gendered constructs, which is, of course, why people spend so much time exploring gender roles and talking about gender; in order to fight gender-based violence, we must ask about the origins of the attitudes that feed that violence.