Toxic masculinity: ‘It feels like a box’

How the ‘act-like-a-man’ box contributes to violence against women

Protestors marching to Frat Row

Content Warning: This story contains mentions of sexual assault, rape, and rape culture.

Faculty, staff and students engaged in a dialogue about sexual violence over the past week following the number of reports of sexual assault at USC.

The protests and demands of students and activists have brought attention to the complexities of gender. Some activists like social justice educator Paul Kivel think the solution relies on shifting the societal expectations of men.

“We — as boys — get socialized into a certain set of expectations, kind of a dominant model of what it means to be a man: to be tough, aggressive, in charge, never make mistakes, don’t ask for help and have lots of sex,” he said.

Kivel is the founder of the Oakland Men’s Project, which seeks to mobilize men in eradicating gender-based violence by addressing the negative expectations of men, a feature of “toxic masculinity.”

“It feels like a box,” said Kivel. “A box that you have to constrict yourself into. We called it the ‘act-like-a-man’ box.”

This topic became a prominent part of the recent protests against Sigma Nu in response to sexual assault allegations reported by DPS and anonymous survivors.

Kivel said men have been socialized to see themselves as superior to women, which can often result in gender-based violence.

“The impact of it is extensive and devastating to women,” Kivel said. “It sets up rape culture. It’s part of what socializes men to see women as sexual objects and available to them.”

To deconstruct this long-held ideology, Rickie Houston, the director of training at the educational organization A Call To Men says it is important to “look at what we call collective socialization of men.”

“When you look at how it’s been passed down for generations, sometimes it’s not what’s said, what’s not, but sometimes it’s just in our body language,” said Houston.

Some students also believe that the rape culture stems from a patriarchal worldview.

“It’s the men trying to be the most masculine one, and in order to do that, they [feel like they] have to put women down for it,” said Katherine McDonald, a business administration major.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Molly Mitchell, a business administration major, feels that in order to steer away from toxic masculinity, men must “know that there are people who can talk to them.” That is vital to promote mental health awareness.

“It’s really important for people to just check in on each other no matter what their gender is and just shatter these stereotypes,” Mitchell said.

Kimya Motley, the director of communications for A Call To Men believes that some ways to promote healthy masculinity include allowing men to express a full range of emotions, valuing a woman’s life, treating all people as equals, and not using language that denigrates women and girls.

“We really believe that when we promote healthy respect for manhood, that helps to end the violence against women and girls,” said Motley.

Motley also said that healthy masculinity can stem from developing an interest in women and helping them in things beyond being a sexual conquest. But more than that, she stressed the importance of modeling that same healthy and respectful manhood to other men and boys.

Steven Vargas and Jillian Russell contributed to this report.

Any student who has been a victim of sexual assault is encouraged to seek out the Sexual Assault and Survivor Support resources offered by USC.