The Crisis of Masculinity

The tidal wave of accusations of sexual harassment is not slowing down and continues to claim seemingly unlikely scalps. The latest are anodyne morning-show host Matt Lauer and that avatar of Midwestern wholesomeness, Garrison Keillor.

The accusations (many of which are credible and have been confirmed by public admissions or private legal settlements) have claimed casualties regardless of public image and stated ideological loyalties. Which is exactly as we should expect. It should not be news that performers create a public image that is different from who they are off-screen, or that politicians are a bunch of opportunistic hypocrites.

But these cases are feeding a certain ideological agenda: that it is masculinity as such that is to blame.

Revelations about the comedian Louis C.K. are described as a warning about “toxic masculinity,” and a whole article on him in The Daily Beast is categorized under the heading “Toxic Masculinity.” Sally Kohn declares that “We Need ‘Extreme Vetting’ for Toxic Masculinity.”

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.

“Toxic masculinity” is supposedly only one kind of masculinity, the bad kind, but we can readily suspect that what they have in mind is masculinity as such. Sally Kohn, for example, sees “toxic masculinity” in “cultural norms that, for example, tell men to be tough,” a description so vague it is likely to rope in everyone this side of Pajama Boy.

And so we see some poor guy in the New York Times limp forward for the ritual self-flagellation of telling us that the problem is “the nature of men in general” and specifically “the often ugly and dangerous nature of the male libido” which requires “strenuous repression.” I always suspected the cultural left would circle back to Puritanism in the end.

What strikes me about most of the allegations so far, however, is how unmasculine the men are. If there is a crisis of masculinity here, the crisis is its absence.

The signature story to emerge from the accusations of sexual misconduct—it pops up with Weinstein, Mark Halperin, Louis C.K., and others—is men forcing women to watch them masturbate. I hadn’t heard of this practice before, but apparently it’s a top item in the sexual predator’s playlist. Yet how can anything so pathetic be described as “masculinity”?

Sexual assault, the act of a man imposing himself on an unwilling woman, is always a confession of some kind of inadequacy. The attacker implicitly assumes that no woman would be sexually interested in him if she had any choice in the matter. This is actually the not-so-subtle theme of the Pick-Up Artist community, a sleazy manchild subculture that starts from the premise that these guys can’t get any woman in her right mind to sleep with them—so instead they have to practice techniques to deceive women and manipulate them. It’s a sliding scale from there to our latest crop of leering assaulters. All of it starts with the kind of man who is unable to achieve gratification in a substantial relationship with an adult woman who accepts him by choice.

That’s true of all forms of sexual assault. But how much more so for these men who force unwilling women to watch them gratify themselves? It says: “I am so worthless I have to physically impose myself on a woman just to masturbate.”

Don’t just take my word on this. The Los Angeles Times interviewed a gaggle of psychiatrists about this compulsion, and the phrases they used to describe it include: “sexual inadequacy” and “regret, shame, and self-disgust.” Not exactly he-man stuff. To be sure, the perpetrator does the deed partly to make himself feel powerful through his ability to humiliate his victim. But this in itself is a confession. The compulsion to commit extreme, illegal, and potentially career-ending acts just to gain a fleeting sense of power is a confession of how worthless and powerless he normally feels. Heck, Louis C.K. has made a whole career out of joking about his neuroses and sense of inadequacy. Maybe we should have taken him more seriously about that.

Other cases that don’t share this particular practice still evoke some of the same elements. I don’t know the details about Garrison Keillor, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to. But take Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who as a grown man apparently used to troll for high school girls at the mall. Most men I know consider it pathetic for any guy over the age of 18 to start dating a high-school girl. It’s a confession that you can’t get a grown woman to be interested in you.

Or look at Charlie Rose’s clumsy come-ons to his interns. Rose comes across as a kind of pathetic figure, puttering around his empty seaside mansion in Long Island, unable to form a real relationship with a woman of independent accomplishments and instead reduced to plying 21-year-old interns with sob stories about how lonely he is.

Missing from all of these stories is the kind of self-confidence and self-possession that are hallmarks of actual masculinity.

If we’re going to throw around terms like “masculinity” we should ask what it consists of. Masculinity and femininity are a special emphasis on the physical and psychological differences between men and women. (And I hope that you do believe there are differences between men and women, because otherwise you are a science denier.) We emphasize these differences because they are part of human nature and therefore part of everyday experience, and especially because they are central to love, sex, and finding a mate. So instead of denying them—or pretending to deny them, which is the fashion among cultural elites today—we embrace them. Vive la difference.

Masculinity is an emphasis on traits like physical strength and endurance, as well as emotional endurance—a greater willingness to soldier on in the face of stress or pain (it’s no coincidence that this requires military metaphors to express)—as well as self-confidence and self-assertiveness. Before you jump all over me, this does not mean that women can’t be strong or confident or assert themselves, any more than it means a man can never be sensitive or nurturing or, you know, cook a meal. It’s a difference in psychological emphasis, particularly in the context of love and sex and relationships, expressed in numerous ways large and small, from holding doors and killing spiders to cutting down trees and fighting wars. It’s not that women can’t do most of those things for themselves. It’s that they like to know that the man in their lives can.

Central to masculinity is self-confidence. This is why women tend to like men to make the first move and ask them out—because a guy who can’t work up the nerve to ask doesn’t have enough confidence to be worth dating. That’s also the characteristic lacking in the creepy band of neurotics whose romantic lives, such as they are, we’ve all been hearing way too much about recently.

So yes, some of our big media and political institutions clearly have a problem with toxic men—men so poisoned with self-doubt and self-loathing that they are harmful to the people around them. But this is not a problem with masculinity, because there is way too little of that in evidence.

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