Toxic masculinity: The Stanford rapist and the Orlando shooter are two sides of the same bent coin
Brock Turner, the Stanford rapist, and the Orlando shooter (I do not want to type his name; he has had enough publicity) are the flip sides of the same bent coin. I am not claiming that their crimes are equivalent. But I am saying that both men, in their twisted way, represent the poisonous levels at which toxic masculinity operates in our culture. Fundamentalism shores up masculinity. While male insecurities are present in Catholic church documents in the 13th century, they go back further. Anywhere that one reads about the regulation of women — their bodies, their reproductive capabilities, their abilities to speak, to think, to live independently — there you will find a fragile masculinity asserting power over the gender that does not have the physical power to fight back.
Back in 2005, in the days when writers like me wrote blogs, I responded to Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? who argued then (and continues to argue) that the “culture wars” were a distraction. He argued that the real issue — the economic issues that keep working Americans poor — was the most important, driving element in our culture.
Frank thought that arguing about “moral issues” like gay marriage and abortion — for example — was a waste of time. These were unimportant issues, the modern-day equivalent of “bread and circuses.” Unimportant. I argued then, and I assert now, that labeling an issue that doesn’t affect you directly as a “moral issue” is just one of the ways that anyone who doesn’t fit the stereotype of white, male, middle class, straight, and moderate is told that their issues are “single issues” that are not important.
It’s funny how those single issues keep coming up again and again. Perhaps those single issues are, in fact, the drivers of our culture, and economics — the pursuit of money — is the distraction here. It seems to me that the issues that are driving our politics, our discussions, and which play a part in our common crimes, are all various ways of trying to work out what it means to be a man in this society.
Amanda Marcotte, writing for Salon, has argued that toxic masculinity plays a huge role in gun culture. For purposes of a common vocabulary, I’m going to use her definition of toxic masculinity:
“So, to be excruciatingly clear, toxic masculinity is a specific model of manhood, geared towards 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.”
To that definition, I would clarify that male insecurity — the fear that one’s manhood isn’t “enough” is often the driving force behind men denigrating gay men, or women, or claiming that their penises are bigger than anyone else’s. Donald Trump is the current poster boy for what masculine insecurity looks like.
As a feminist, I know that the moment I suggest that problems are related to responses to male insecurity or toxic masculinity, I will immediately be subjected to a lot of men who who will comment that “it’s not all men,” and, borrowing the words of that great intellect, Rush Limbaugh, that I’m some kind of “FemiNazi” out to castrate men by blaming them for everything. But that’s not what I’m doing. First of all, I know generalizations do not include all of anything. This is not a generalization. It is an attempt to wrestle with a problem that I see as an octopus with arms that wrap around so many of the issues that we are debating. And, because I’m wrestling, I have to use words that are themselves subject to debate, but I can’t even make a stab at starting a discussion if I don’t use some terms that we can talk about. And, if those issues were just about the exchange of words, I would think it a discussion for a late night dorm room bullsh*t session. But these issues are killing people. And because of that, I feel — sometimes desperately — that we need to talk about them, over and over again, until we start coming to some ways for us to move forward.
So, in looking at the Orlando shooter and Brock Turner, we have two examples of how young men’s understandings of what it means to be male in this culture have led to death and destruction.
As more details emerge about the Orlando shooter the more the immediate narrative put out by right-wing pundits and media desperate to cleave to a familiar narrative appears wrong. I believe that the shooter may have called 911 and pledged his loyalty to Daesh (or ISIL or ISIS — same entity). He may have spouted off to co-workers that he was a terrorist. But we also know that he beat his wife. That he was possibly bi-polar. And that he was very angry for a number of reasons. But the major source of rage for him appears to have been himself.
He hung out at the Pulse nightclub. His father claims that his son lost his rag when he saw two men kissing. And his father is quick to say that his son knew that homosexuality is not consistent with Islam–or at least the father’s understanding of Islam. More and more, it appears that the Orlando shooter was a closeted homosexual who couldn’t get comfortable inside his own skin, his own desires. And so, in a fit of rage, or psychosis, or mania, he took the weapons that he had bought legally — from a former New York policeman who had railed against Islam and President Obama publicly, but who had no problem selling guns to a troubled young man — and he fired into a crowd of dancing, happy gay nightclubbers and sought to kill the part of of himself that caused him shame.
Islam, like Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism, is beset with the problems of “fundamentalism” Fundamentalist Islam says that homosexuality is a major sin. Daesh fighters have been killing gays. As the Associated Press reports:
According to the Islamic State group’s radical interpretation of Islam, gays should be thrown from a high building then stoned if they are not dead when they hit the ground. The group bases this gruesome punishment on one account in which the Prophet Muhammad reportedly said gays “should be thrown from tremendous height then stoned.”
Over the past two years, the Islamic State group has thrown dozens of gay men from tall buildings in the areas of Iraq and Syria under its control. The group’s online videos show masked militants dangling men over the precipices of buildings by their legs to drop them head-first or tossing them over the edge.
But what fundamentalist Muslims offer to do to gays is not all that different from what fundamentalist Christians advocate. It was American fundamentalist Christians who worked with Ugandan ministers to create legislation that would punish gays with the death penalty. And some fundamentalist Christians have celebrated the slaughter at Pulse. Steven Anderson, the pastor at a church in Tempe, Arizona posted this:
“The good news is that there’s 50 less pedophiles in this world, because, you know, these homosexuals are a bunch of disgusting perverts and pedophiles. That’s who was a victim here, are a bunch of, just, disgusting homosexuals at a gay bar, okay?”
And yes. I know. “Not all Christians.” We seem to have no problem recognizing a fundamentalist Christian when we hear one. It’s the same fundamentalism that drives the ideology of Daesh. The problem is not Islam. It’s fundamentalist interpretations of religion. Fundamentalism is the belief that words on a page have the same meaning literally and figuratively. A word means what it says it means. For fundamentalists, to admit that words can be interpreted, that the meaning of words can change, and that we all have slightly different understandings of what words mean, is to let in doubt. It’s why fundamentalist Christians insist that the words written in the Old Testament about men not lying with other men was God’s pronouncement on the subject, even if Christ never uttered a word about gay people. It’s why fundamentalist Jews — which is a relatively new phenomenon — grow beards, observe strict dietary laws, and require that married women hide their hair and their bodies with long clothing.
The fundamentalist impulse is driven by the idea that modern life is far too complicated and fluid, and that returning to the fundamentals — the ‘good old days’ — will set things right. It was also a belief that the Constitution could be interpreted in a fundamentalist fashion that drove Antonin Scalia when he argued that the Constitution was dead. In other words, its words were not alive in a way so that they could be interpreted. And back when the Constitution was written, in Scalia’s mind, was when everyone knew their place and the white, propertied man was the only one who had citizenship.
In the fundamentalist world, men and women know “their place.” There are no gay people, or people who don’t identify as male or female, and it’s a world where women are subservient to men, fathers rule the family as God rules the earth, and women inhabit a natural role of full-time mother and wife. In order for this world to operate, there can be no contraception. If you have contraception, and even worse, abortion, then women have control over their reproductive systems. They don’t need to obey men because she doesn’t need to protect her children. In the fundamentalist world, a man recognizes what he is. He is a warrior. He is a father. He is a lover of women, propagating children and then protecting them. (In fundamentalist Christianity, for example, the Jesus who suffered is supplanted with a warrior Christ who leads Christian soldiers.)
The challenges posed to that world come from within and outside. The outside challenges are men who want access to your women, who don’t want to sleep with women at all, who argue on behalf of peaceful solutions and against being warriors. The inside challenge is that those outside threats are inside the individual, making him want to sleep with other men, for example. There are other threats, but these internal threats are amplified by the threats that come from outside. The aim of the outside threat is subjugation. And subjugation is something that you do to women. Submitting is what a woman does to a man. She submits to him. Outside men who wish to conquer want to subjugate the conquered. They want access to the women — rape is frequently a tactic of war — and they want to control the conquered men. Being dominated is the fear in insecure manhood. It’s the fear that some other man is going to rape you, and worse, perhaps if you had a choice, you would have sex with other men because you liked it and you felt emotionally vulnerable.
On September 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the Pentagon and knocked down the Twin Towers. It’s hard not to see phallic imagery in the horrifying sight of two tall towers being brought down by men who aimed planes at them. In the aftermath, the hijackers were called cowards and weaklings, but we also saw the emergence of a “manly man” president who wore flight suits and landed on the decks of aircraft carriers, where we admired men like Chris Kyle, American sniper, who used his gun to kill those who threatened us. That rage at having been penetrated by the enemy showed up in songs, in television shows, and in the unhinged writings of chickenhawks who were eager to send young men off to war when they themselves had deferred themselves right out of the Viet Nam war.
If the Orlando shooter is a continuation of the war against other men who aim to subjugate us, then Brock Turner is another reflection of what fundamentalist thinking and insecure manhood bring about. We know from reading the letter to the judge that Brock Turner’s father wrote that he thought of the rape his son had committed as “20 minutes of action,” and spending time in jail for rape would be a “steep price to pay” for those “20 minutes.” In that kind of world, Brock the athlete — the apogee of young manhood — was just a boy who took what he was entitled to. He saw a female who was too drunk to resist, and so he took what he had been raised to believe was his.
Women’s bodies are the prize. The trophy. In this world, rich men demonstrate their dominance over other men by marrying women who are much younger than they are and who can make babies. When the rich men hang these women on their arms as if they were Rolex watches, the message to other men is “this is mine. My property. I’m rich. I have access to her. You do not.” It’s why Donald Trump would post side-by-side photos of Melania and Heidi Cruz, wife of his rival. It wasn’t to compare how smart each of them were. It was to declare to the world that he was a more potent male who was able to sleep with beautiful women.
In a world in which a woman is treated as a commodity, rape culture fluorishes. If a woman is a fetish object, then capturing her by any means becomes part of the operational rules. If you can’t buy access to a woman, you can take her, steal her, rape her. And in 2016, as women in America keep insisting that they should be treated equally, that they should be able to earn their own money and get paid as much as men, that they should be able to decide when and how many times they reproduce, and when women also demand the right to behave as stupidly and drunkenly as young men have for generations, what happens to the guy who is afraid that perhaps these women may end up dominating him? She may be smarter than he is. She may make more money than he does. But she is not as strong as he is, and she can be taken against her will.
Rape culture produced Brock Turner. Fear of not being a man combined with a fundamentalist religious ideology that told him that his homosexual desires were weak and abhorrent and worthy of death drove the Orlando shooter. Fundamentalism of any stripe is offered in a world where there are too many choices. It is offered as a bulwark against a confusing world that threatens to overwhelm the old order. Fundamentalist Christianity sets itself up in opposition to Fundamentalist Islam because it says that “they” want to impose their law onto us. They want to subjugate us. They want us to bow down before their God. The language conveys this constant fear that somehow, somewhere, we’re going to get penetrated. And for the insecure male who offers toxic masculine displays to the world, being penetrated — being made female — is the ultimate fear. Fundamentalism and male fear go together.
The mature reaction to fear is to bring them out into the open and to talk about them. The immature reaction is to destroy anyone who makes us feel our fear. It’s time for us to stop being afraid, and time for us to start having open discussions about what fear makes us do.