He was like every other guy I’d dated in Bentonville, Arkansas. Tanner* was manipulative, and he exerted control over nearly every aspect of my life. I didn’t think anything of this treatment. Even after I got to college, men would tell me what to wear, touch me without my permission and continue their advances despite my protests. It wasn’t until a discussion in my women’s and gender studies class last year that I realized this behavior is not normal and should not be tolerated. Yet it is prevalent and pervades the lives of women everywhere.
I am not alone in my experiences with sexual harassment or assault, as shown by the groundswell of support for movements such as #MeToo or the tide of emotions in opposition to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing. One in five women experiences sexual assault during her lifetime, according to a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. And that only accounts for those who have stepped forward.
Sexual assault finds its roots in a societal attitude that perpetuates dangerous behaviors: what some call toxic masculinity. At its core, the phrase refers to the social construction of gender roles and the expectations of dominance and strength among men, says Colleen Clemens, director of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. This value becomes extreme and apparent in the case of sexual harassment and assault. This isn’t instinct, Clemens says, but a learned behavior.
The phrase “toxic masculinity” arose in the 1980s and 1990s, according to a 2017 article in Advocate. It was a response to a men’s movement that comprised organized efforts to understand masculinity in an era characterized by growing feminism.
Even before this phrase surfaced, toxic aspects of masculinity were studied for decades. A journal article published by the National Council on Family Relations in 1957, “The New Burdens of Masculinity,” discusses an emphatic reclaiming of traditionally masculine values as a reaction to the increased freedoms and opportunities granted to women after the Industrial Revolution.
The phrase “toxic masculinity” has proved polarizing. Some argue that it implies all masculinity is toxic. Others feel it has become a sort of “buzz phrase” that, because of its overuse, is meaningless.
The semantics and use of it might be disputed, but the phrase describes a real phenomenon felt by women. Take, for example, a situation in which a man touches a woman’s body without her permission — something that has happened multiple times to me and other women I know. This behavior is a display of masculinity through dominance because the woman loses the power to make a choice.
Masculinity in the media
Depictions of extreme masculine traits in the media can be dangerous depending on the context. Amanda Lotz, professor of media studies at the University of Michigan, examines TV shows and their portrayals of masculinity in her book Cable Guys: Television and Masculinities in the 21st Century. She discusses Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother, who glorifies conquering women through sex, objectifying them while emphasizing male dominance to a point that would be considered unacceptable if he were sitting across the table from you in real life. The behavior is normalized when treating women this way isn’t portrayed negatively.
Fraternities and sexual assault
College campuses, fraternities in particular, often are dangerous territories women must navigate at their own risk. I’ve seen such blatant sexism and traumatizing displays of masculinity play out on my college campus and the fraternities surrounding it. The 2015 MU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct showed that nearly three in 10 senior women have been victims of nonconsensual sexual contact since enrolling at MU. And, according to a 2007 study by researchers affiliated with The College of William and Mary in Virginia, fraternity men are three times more likely to rape than non-fraternity men. Locally, MU fraternity Delta Upsilon was suspended in 2016 after allegations that active members required new members to use date-rape drugs on women to become initiated, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article.
To its credit, fraternity administration isn’t standing idly by. The MU Fraternity and Sorority Advisory Board was formed in January 2018 to develop plans regarding diversity and inclusion, hazing prevention and other issues pertaining to safety and standards within the Greek community.
I experienced the danger of MU fraternities when I attended a frat party during my freshman year. I had one drink, and then a member offered me another. Because I was friends with a couple guys in the house, I trusted them. The next morning, I woke up in the hospital. It has been three years, and I still believe my drink was spiked with drugs. Two vodka sodas shouldn’t have been enough for me to wake up where I did. I didn’t press charges because my friend found me passed out on the stairs of the fraternity, and she said I hadn’t been touched. Another friend of mine, however, did not have the same experience.
As she told me, she was 21 years old and following the advice instilled in her by her sister: For every drink of alcohol, have one glass of water. However, one night, she didn’t apply that rule. She wanted to have some fun and meet new people after transferring to MU. A fraternity threw a party, and she walked in as an excited student ready for her first year at MU. When she walked out, she felt disgusted, dirty and more distant than ever from friends, family and school. She remembered having one or two drinks. She remembered she was downstairs dancing, and then she woke up to a member raping her.
One former fraternity member, Zachary Lahr, says he had enough of the toxic habits perpetuated in frat culture. He says he would try to discuss issues such as gender inequality and race, but those topics weren’t received well.
Lahr adds that toxic behavior in his fraternity went beyond gender. He says he saw hypermasculinity with race. Fellow fraternity members would degrade women, specifically women of color, and they would downplay violence against women. Behaviors such as these were continually accepted and forced upon others. And it’s not just Lahr’s former fraternity. Others are home to members who treat women just as poorly.
After my experiences, I still get nervous when I wear tight pants in public or if a guy gets too touchy with me. That’s not going to change. What has changed is that I know how I deserve to be treated. I dated boys who left me with scars, but I am confident that there are good men in this world who can help us implement change. ￼
*Editor’s note: Name has been changed for confidentiality purposes.