CAUTION: This article touches on sensitive topics such as rape and suicide. If you feel distressed by the content of this article, please contact a mental health helpline such as Lifeline Australia (13 11 14), Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636) or MensLine Australia (1300 78 99 78).
In Warwickshire in 2006, a child died by falling into a pond. There was one person who saw her wandering around and could have saved her before it was too late, but she was worried that people would suspect her of trying to abduct the child.
In Arizona in 2014, a victim of statutory rape was forced by law to pay her rapist.
In Australia in 2017, a woman wrote an article for the Sydney Morning Herald about the shame she felt at her own suicide attempt, particularly the shame of not being a “good enough” woman.
Sorry, it appears I got these facts wrong. Let me try again.
In Warwickshire in 2006, a child died by falling into a pond. There was one person who saw her wandering around and could have saved her before it was too late, but he was worried that people would suspect him of trying to abduct the child.
In Arizona in 2014, a victim of statutory rape was forced by law to pay his rapist child support.
In Australia in 2017, a man wrote an article for the Sydney Morning Herald about the shame he felt at his own suicide attempt, particularly the shame of not being a “good enough” man.
All of these men are the result of a world that simultaneously preys on “weak” women and shoves men into a box labelled “strong predator”.
The Warwickshire case is a prime example of irony, as a child was harmed because of a potent fear many men share of being seen as likely to harm children. Developed nations’ obsession with stranger danger and catching paedophiles has, at least in this case, proven to backfire as a little girl with her whole life ahead of her had that life snatched away from her. Yes, it is important to teach children to be wary of strangers, but can’t we do it without inadvertently teaching adult men not to ensure children’s safety out of fear of creating the wrong impression?
How does this relate to sexism against women and girls? Well, if girls and women being attacked by sexual predators was not such a huge global issue, this fear of being perceived as a paedophile would likely not be as potent. Women are also seen as helpless victims so our society has come to the conclusion that men must be the opposite. This is such an issue, in fact, that boys who do experience sexual abuse often don’t receive the same treatment as girls who experience the same thing, especially if the perpetrator is a woman and particularly if she is seen as conventionally attractive. After a well-liked female teacher was charged with “sexually assaulting” (keep those quotation marks in mind) five 15-year-old male students, the hashtag #FreeMsDufault was created in response. While some tweets using the hashtag were criticising its intended use, there were still multiple tweets claiming that the boys were “lucky” to be taken advantage of by a woman in a position of power.
— The Muncie Local (@GFugget) September 26, 2014
#FreeMsDufault I wish i had her as teacher …
— Vagos Magos (@VagosMagos) September 23, 2014
The fact that the alleged crime was reported in the linked article as “sexual assault” rather than rape despite oral and vaginal intercourse being involved also speaks volumes about how we see sexual abuse against men and boys. Societies within “developed” nations are so used to treating and therefore seeing women and girls as victims that, when there are male victims, multiple people within that society refuse to give them that label. Even when they are seen as that, their plight is sometimes seen as “lesser” (sexual assault sounds harsh but not quite as harsh as rape).
This, in addition to blaming female rape survivors for “tempting” rapists via skimpy clothing or drunkenness, seems to be rooted in a stereotype that all men and boys are obsessed with sex and therefore always consent, a stereotype that contrasts the one about women being prudish and more romance-oriented. This is ridiculous when you consider the existence of asexual men as well as the fact that these students were legally considered too young to understand the ramifications of sex with an older person. If the teacher was a man, people would have different opinions on the matter, showing that the way society sees women as helpless victims harms men as well as women.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to the “Western” world, as restrictive laws in Saudi Arabia and Iran forcing women to cover themselves up paint a rather negative picture of men. When Saudi cleric Ahmed Bin Saad Al Qarni blames women who have been raped for “provoking” men by wearing makeup and perfume, it comes across as if he believes that men lack any self-control and morality, and therefore can’t hold themselves back from raping women they find attractive. These countries show that sexism against women is a double-edged sword.
It’s not just men’s roles in the metaphorical bedroom that are affected by sexism against women. A lot of people like to act, whether consciously or not, as if men and women are total opposites in every conceivable way, sometimes to the point where they’re considered to be on entirely different planets. Not only does this make opposite-gender relationships confusing, as it’s hard to relate to someone you’re convinced is from a different species, but it also results in negative stereotypes about women being flipped into the opposite extreme for men.
Take, for instance, emotions. While this is slowly changing, for a long time women have been seen as “crazy”, “overemotional” or even “hysterical” (the word “hysteria” comes from the Greek word for womb due to ancient Greek men thinking the “illness” was due to a disturbance in the uterus). So if women are supposedly on one end of the emotion spectrum, where are men supposed to put themselves? The end that feels no emotion other than anger, of course! Is it any wonder that in Australia the suicide rate is higher for men, a gender told to bottle up their emotions in order to not be seen as a “wuss”?
This is toxic masculinity at play. When feminists talk about toxic masculinity, they’re not saying that masculinity is inherently toxic, as “manly” traits such as bravery and resilience can be beneficial in healthy doses. Nor are saying that toxic masculinity is always about men dominating women. Toxic masculinity often destroys men from within and it’s that fear of being anything “like a woman” that can end up being a man’s undoing.
In keeping with the theme of gender discrimination going both ways, this expectation that men channel their “less manly” emotions through anger has the side effect of making women reluctant to seek anger management counselling due to the stigma of it being a “male problem”.
The harmful versions of the societal ideal of masculinity extend past basic emotions and even dictate how a man dresses. As a woman, I feel a sense of freedom in being able to wear basically whatever I want. If I want to wear a skirt or dress, I can do that, or I can choose to wear pants. I can accessorise or keep the look simple. I can even wear high heels and dance the night away. Men? Not so much. This may be changing, with celebrities such as Jaden Smith wearing skirts in public, but even then they receive pushback, sometimes from their own family. Isn’t it depressing how so many men, members of a gender stereotyped as brave and strong, are made to be afraid of wearing cloth that’s cut a certain way? Apparently, anything related to women is horrifying.
There are so many issues affected by sexism that I have barely scratched the surface. There are also the issues of homophobia (with gay men often being targeted by straight men so that they can feel more masculine) and the social restrictions on male-male friendships. There may also be an issue of child custody, with gender roles claiming that women should look after their children more frequently than men, resulting in children (and judges) favouring mothers. However, this would likely be a subconscious bias rather than a legal one.
At the end of the day, men and women are both human beings and this game of opposites often does more harm than good.
Since this is Australia, I may as well use an Australian simile. Sexism towards women is like a boomerang. It inevitably comes back to hurt the men.