*Trigger warning: trauma, sexual assault, and violence of all kinds discussed here. Take care of yourself as needed.*
Unfortunately, we have had another mass shooting in this country. The queer community and America as a whole continues to rebuild during Pride month through celebrating love and supporting one another through this time. Meanwhile, everyone still has to deal with the aftermath. This aftermath usually comes in the form of thoughts and prayers, some groups supporting the hateful agenda while many express their concerns. Then post after post will come out detailing why this is a gun control issue (which it is) and even addressing the culture of violence in America (which also plays a role). This will happen for about two weeks, and then life will resume as normal. As a country, we will forget until the next mass shooting happens, even though the families and communities affected by this will never forget.
However, this mass shooting, as with many others, shares a disturbing characteristic with the Stanford case and many other cases like it. In the wake of the Stanford case and now this, the 900th and some shooting in America since Sandy Hook alone, I think it’s time for an important conversation. It’s time to delve deep into the depths of toxic masculinity.
For those of you who may not know, toxic masculinity is a component of rape culture in which men are encouraged to express their rage, anger, sadness, or any other negative emotion through violence. Men’s violence towards others, such as against women or the LGBTQ+ community, is a way of reinforcing stereotypical beliefs about men. In order to be considered a “man,” a male-identified person must be sexually aggressive, unemotional, and react to things that bother you through acts of violence or showmanship. This violence reinforces their manhood because this ensures damage has been done to a less powerful subsection of the population.
The thing about toxic masculinity is that it can explain why Brock Turner felt entitled to rape another person. It can also explain why most perpetrators of mass gun violence are male. Through the characteristics of toxic masculinity, these two acts of violence and traumatization against others are linked, despite their extremely different motives and targeted victims. Despite these overwhelming and important distinctions, these two events are linked because the perpetrators sought to reinforce or support their identity as a “man.”
Let me make this perfectly clear before a swarm of meninists get on my case and accuse me of misandry. I am not saying being a man is bad. I’m not saying masculinity is bad. I’m saying toxic masculinity is bad. More so, as writer Amanda Marcotte at Salon wrote in her piece about this very same issue, “…the modifier toxic inherently suggests that there are forms of masculinity that are not toxic.” When I say “toxic” masculinity, I mean the form of masculinity that uses manhood as an excuse to perpetuate violence of all types.
After a male-identified individual does something inexplicably violent in order to express this form of toxic masculinity, we tend to discuss everything except the tenets of American masculinity. We first turn to gun control and homophobia, which are the primary factors to the shooter’s ability to commit the crimes he did in Orlando. We argue that the shooter was mentally unstable, which then promotes another round of gun control legislation based on mental illness. While these are all ways to discuss this issue that are relevant and important, rarely do people of power bring up the fact that America consistently rewards this type of aggressive behavior from men.
When we are in grade school, boys are told to pick on girls they like, and girls are told that being hurt by these boys means the boys like them. We tell boys not to express any emotions because they don’t want to “cry like a girl.” “Man-up” is equivalent to being brave, while sharing emotions and sensitivities is being like a woman. And when girls try to be active in the playground or pick fights, they are punished, saying “ladies don’t act like that.” Whereas when boys bully, they are excused with the classic “boys will be boys.” Does this playground script sound familiar? It should, because this is the foundation of rape culture. This is the foundation of toxic masculinity.
This type of education begins in childhood. An accepted belief in the psychology of violence is that adults formed violent behaviors and tendencies from an early age. Some theorize that adults who react violently to beliefs opposing their own also learned this behavior at an early age. In cases of mass violence, the psychology of the shooter is often misinterpreted as “psychotic,” when it’s actually a case of a victimized individual seeking control, much like adult abusers who were initially vicitmized by an adult figure. This is the rationale behind perpetrators of violence, in that they had once been victimized and now seek control. In the Stanford case, Brock Turner used the toxic belief that men should be sexually aggressive regardless of their partner’s desires to excuse the violence he perpetuated onto the victim-survivor. In Orlando, Omar Mateen sought to control the changing culture of sexuality around him by specifically shooting people at a gay club. Both of these perpetrators used their toxic perceptions of masculinity to excuse their actions, rationalizing that these acts of violence are acceptable because being a man means to be sexually and violently aggressive. These are fundamental beliefs which take serious self-reflection to change, especially when these perpetrators learned that violence is an acceptable answer to lack of control. As we know, violence is cyclical. These perpetrators, along with many others, learned that it is acceptable to react violently to people or situations that make them uncomfortable. They learned abuse is the way to respond to situations in which they lack control. They learned to regain control, they must be violent. More so, they learned that being a man means to be violent.
So, how do we fix this? How do we fix this presence and acceptance of toxic masculinity? Because this is such a systemic issue, the solutions are just as large and seemingly out of reach as the problem. One way to reduce toxic masculinity is to de-institutionalize sexism in public school systems. Let’s stop telling kids that “boys will be boys,” and let’s stop punishing kids who act violently without educating them about why this behavior is wrong. These are things we could do, but this requires confronting the deeply systemic, fundamentally rooted beliefs many people, such as teachers or legislators, involved in this process share. But if we don’t address these issues, we’ll only augment this violence. If we leave these fundamental questions untouched, we won’t change anything.