toxic masculinity

The ‘Comments Section,’ Toxic Masculinity, and Domestic Violence

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Alexandra O'Sullivan

I’m not cheap, I’m free.

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Though many people familiar with social media would advise against it, I always read the comments, as I’m sure most people on social media do. Quite often I’m more fascinated with the comments than the article being commented on, particularly in regards to feminism. I try to follow lines of argument, and find an avenue for myself to walk along, though mostly I hop from argument to argument, agreeing with bits of this and bits of that, and being put off by any comments that jump too quickly into degrading the other commenters or using random insults that don’t connect to the issue.

I’ve been noticing a trend in feminist discussions, for supporters of feminism, both men and women, to use insults and name-calling that perpetuate toxic masculinity, in an attempt to disarm trolls and anti-feminists. These insults are often very derogatory, and frequently refer to either a man’s inability to get a woman, or their less-than-impressive male genitalia. This second one is especially a ‘low blow.’ A ‘limp-dick who can’t get a girl’ is both body shaming and virgin shaming, and while it may be tempting to ‘hit them where it hurts’ and deflate the male ego, I don’t believe it’s an effective comeback. Because, according to feminist philosophy, it shouldn’t hurt. A man’s sexual prowess should not matter at all in relation to how he is valued as a human being. So why are some people pretending it does?

When the women and men who support feminism perpetuate this idea, they encourage creep behaviour and dismiss rape culture, which is buoyed by this kind of thinking, because it suggests that any man of ‘value’ automatically deserves women. They also reinforce toxic masculinity, implying that a man can somehow be less of a ‘man’ if he falls short in this area. This is the opposite of what feminism strives to achieve. We should be wanting to break the double standard of sex being an achievement for men and a downfall for women, not using it to prove a point. Using these kinds of insults is just fueling male domination and giving the opponents of feminism more ammunition.

I’d cheer a woman in the street if she were to respond to harassment with a sharp retort like those I have described. I’d cheer her because it would show quick thinking, bravery and sass. It would probably cut short the harasser’s voice and let the woman walk away with dignity. But it’s a different dynamic online. There is no walking away. There is no silencing other people, except with the block button, but their voices will still be heard by others. And our comments can sit there festering forever, attracting more and more similar comments, as the mob justice of social media plays out.

It’s a false equivalence to compare these responses to the initial harassment or trolling that took place in any way, whatever medium is being used, and this is not what I’m trying to do. ‘Letting off steam’ occasionally is healthy for oppressed people, particularly those who suffer from multiple oppressions, and trying to control or silence these voices is something I disagree with. But it is worth considering the implications of using methods or words that contradict the core beliefs of feminism to debate a point, especially in an online situation where more time can be given to crafting articulate and fact-based responses. Not just for our own inner integrity, but also because any comment that is demeaning and is not connected to the issue under discussion, is counterproductive. It will push the opposition into defensive mode and encourage similar, if not worse, retorts back. It will discourage actual discourse and create an increasing polarisation of positions, along with a troubling lack of critical thinking.

It’s not just within the downward spiral of social media comment culture that this paradoxical use of toxic masculinity to fight toxic masculinity has a negative effect. Using insults that contradict the tenets of social equality to fight for social equality is a habit that bleeds from the internet into larger society, and vice versa, creating a broad culture of counterproductive name-calling (I’m not talking about the woman on the street being harassed, she can still say whatever the fuck she likes and have my support). I’m talking about people like Tony Abbot, who thought he was fighting injustice when he proclaimed that ‘real men don’t hit women,’ back in 2015. By referring to ‘real men’ he was implying that it is weak and unmanly to hit women, and very soon it became a catch cry for anti-domestic violence activists and keyboard warriors. Not only does this mantra exclude male victims and victims from same-sex relationships, but the idea of ‘real men’ is a part of toxic masculinity. It insists that men must prescribe to certain traits, in order to be classed as men. So, not only does this mantra encourage toxic masculinity, one of the main causes of domestic violence in the first place, but it also allows the so-called ‘real men,’ which I’m sure most men believe they are, to sit back and feel superior, and not actually do anything to support the cultural change needed to fight domestic violence beyond typing insults onto a screen. After all, they are not the problem, the problem is those ‘not real’ men.

These men, the ‘not real’ ones, who perpetrate domestic violence, will probably not seek help if they are being shamed by toxic masculinity. I would bet that most male perpetrators of domestic violence have a fragile sense of their own masculinity to begin with. Shaming them will only push them further away from change, in the same way that online insults encourage defensive behaviour and polarise opinions. Outrage culture makes us feel good, but does little to fight inequality. Shaming individuals rather than giving our attention to the broader factors contributing to domestic violence, such as toxic masculinity, male entitlement, pressures on the modern family, our twisted notions of ‘romance,’ and many more, does not help. We are satisfying our own feelings of anger, which is understandable, but seeking revenge won’t change opinions or shift our cultural thinking to the degree needed to fight domestic violence or any other important feminist issue. Especially if we are seeking revenge by throwing the opposing side’s weapons right back to them.