Toxic masculinity

Walls of silence around sexual abuse are falling

Nov 20, 2017 by

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Public shaming of sexual predators is pushing toxic masculinity out of the shadows. A surge of reports of men’s abusive behavior has raised awareness that sexual harassment is appallingly common — and not only in the media, Hollywood and government, where recent attention has focused.

Walls of silence that enabled sexualized violence are falling. Women are claiming the right to be treated with respect. Men are promising to stop tolerating sexual aggression. Creating a culture where survivors are empowered to come forward requires much ongoing work. The toxin won’t get washed out in a quick flush. Men who mix the abuse of power with the selfish distortion of sex have gotten a pass for too long, including in Mennonite churches.

There is reason to hope a tipping point has been reached. Resistance to sexual harassment and assault gains strength as men learn how often women endure boorish, bullying and criminal behavior. More women will stand up to perpetrators when they can expect to be believed. More perpetrators will be deterred if they know they will pay a price.

Tragically, some Christians are the leading resisters of positive change. Evangelicals who defend Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate credibly accused of sexually assaulting teen­age girls, destroy the credibility of their faith.

Men bear the responsibility to tear down the culture of toxic masculinity. At a recent gathering on sexual abuse prevention at the Mennonite Central Committee Central States office in North Newton, Kan., a woman identified a root of the problem. When she was growing up, she said, men claimed authority, and women were expected to do as they were told. Men’s entitlement to impose their will on women was taken for granted and often still is.

One barrier to empathy is the male privilege of going through life without giving a thought to being sexually assaulted or harassed. The surest mark of privilege is to be unaware of it. But today all should be able to see the need for every man to affirm gender equality and deter sexualized violence.

Men can be allies with women against sexual harassment by breaking the culture of silence. “Abuse thrives in secrecy and loses power in the light of transparency,” writes Hilary J. Scarsella on ourstoriesuntold.com, an Anabaptist truth-telling website about sexual abuse. Mennonites are beginning to learn hard lessons from our history of protecting abusers.

At the abuse-prevention gathering in Kansas, the father of a child sex-abuse survivor made a point that applies widely: If someone had confronted the abuser or reported his behavior many years ago, he probably wouldn’t be in prison today. Protecting victims is reason enough to take action. At the same time, it might prevent a man from going down a path that could ruin his own life.

Courageous women who speak out force society and the church to take sexualized violence seriously. They are doing the hardest work. Men must do their part to change the culture of male entitlement, treat women with respect and as equals, deter or report harassment and try to wash out the poison of toxic masculinity.


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