Sally Kohn: We live in a world where male dominance is glorified and treated as something that is natural and sexy
Kohn: The recent allegations of sexual abuse by public figures should make us recast the fundamental roles and expectations for men in every aspect of our society
Editor’s Note: Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
The downfall of Harvey Weinstein has shaken loose a torrent of stories of powerful men accused of sexually harassing, abusing and assaulting people in their orbit. Over just a few hours on Thursday we learned of new allegations implicating comedian Louis C.K. and Alabama US Senate candidate Roy Moore.
We learned, also, that the director of a film that had starred Kevin Spacey, and was set for release next month, will now completely redo scenes with Spacey to replace him with Christopher Plummer, as Spacey faces multiple accusations that he sexually harassed and assaulted boys. (After the first allegation, Spacey issued a statement claiming he did not recall the incident but apologized for what he said would have been “inappropriate drunken behavior.”) And we learned in a New York Times essay written by record-breaking swimmer Diana Nyad, that her coach, she says, repeatedly assaulted her when she was young.
Louis C.K., say his five accusers – mainly comedians or comedy writers – allegedly masturbated in front of or on the phone with women when they did not want him to, according to the New York Times (his publicist said he would not “answer questions” about the accusations); and Moore allegedly made advances on underage women, one of whom told a Washington Post reporter that she was 14 when Moore, at 32, groped her and tried to get her to touch his genitals. Moore denies the allegations.
It’s important to understand that the common denominator in the allegations about Louis C.K., Roy Moore, Spacey and Weinstein (who has denied the allegations) and all the other Hollywood and media and political figures accused of sexual assault and sexual harassment isn’t sexuality, or even sex, but toxic masculinity.
Writer Amanda Marcotte defines toxic masculinity as “a specific model of manhood, geared toward dominance and control. It’s a manhood that views women and LGBT people as inferior, sees sex as an act not of affection but domination, and which valorizes violence as the way to prove one’s self to the world.” We are talking here about a strain of behavior, found in some men – and, as we’re learning more and more, shockingly too many – but of course not all.
But it is most assuredly amplified in our culture; we see it everywhere. We see toxic masculinity not only in acts of sexual violence, but in pornography that celebrates male sexual violence, and mainstream films and TV shows and advertising that portray male dominance as not only natural, but sexy. We see it in our everyday lives, in the cultural norms that, for example, tell men to be tough and boys not to cry and teach our children that aggression equals strength.
And these days we see its reflection in the near-daily revelations about public figures accused of sexual abuse, and in the stories from victims. And in this moment, as we watch this dam break, it becomes ever more plain that toxic masculinity lies at the root of sexual assault and is harming all of us, men and women, in myriad ways.
The allegations that Spacey assaulted several underage boys, for example, has nothing to do with Spacey being gay and everything to do with the same pervasive culture that encourages male hypersexuality at the same time it condones disproportionate male power and privilege. If Louis C.K. did in fact masturbate in front of women, as five women allege, it would be not as much about sex as about literally getting off on the power to make women watch.
Roy Moore allegedly took advantage of girls he offered to look out for, girls the same age as a young Diana Nyad when she was, she says, assaulted by her coach. In these allegations we see a pattern of men repeatedly abusing their power and getting away with it while women and girls, correctly understanding that they would be systematically shamed if they “told,” were silenced and disempowered.
These cases don’t just reflect the aberrant predilections of their perpetrators but the enduring injustices of society that we have all propped up and tolerated.
Indeed, while accusations against Hollywood stars and powerbrokers are getting most of the attention, we know that sexual harassment and assault have no economic boundaries. Yes, those perpetuating such sexual harassment and assault tend to be in powerful positions, but they also include everyone from managers at retail stores to supervisors at fast food restaurants.
Men who are barely earning above minimum wage are sexually abusing employees who are barely scraping by. If these employees speak out, they may face repercussions from a male-dominated workplace leadership, and may not be able to feed and shelter their families.
We must together open our eyes. Donald Trump called for the expansion of “extreme vetting” for people entering the United States. Why aren’t we “extreme vetting” men who are here? Why aren’t we talking about toxic masculinity? Why aren’t we, as a society, seriously scrutinizing men and masculinity – and how the way we raise our children, treat our workers and form our policies perpetuates behavior we say we don’t want.
The answer, of course, is also the problem. It is because men wield disproportionate power and privilege that we have failed to question this reality – and improve upon it – in any serious way. Men may change diapers now and cook and “help” around the house, but consider that more than half of American male voters – and 42% of women – appear to have accepted a presidential candidate’s brag about sexual assault as merely “locker room talk” and elected him President anyway.
One can imagine that powerful men in Hollywood, the news media, political world and other industries throughout America are surprised that they would be scorned for doing what Trump said he was only talking about.
I don’t mean, here, to attack men – or masculinity for that matter. Indeed, men – good men – suffer under toxic masculinity too, from the strict roles and constricting norms they’re expected to fulfill, to the violence in society that toxic masculinity perpetuates and would have them be party to. As actor Justin Baldoni has written, “I believe that men are ready to redefine what it means to be a man today, and that the old ‘toxic’ masculinity isn’t working for anyone.”
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He is right. And men – men wanting a different way forward – are necessarily part of the solution. Too often men and women have sat silent, or even been complicit in this crisis.
Recasting one movie isn’t the answer. We have to recast the fundamental roles and expectations for men in every aspect of our society. And in that solution, there’s a part for all of us to play.