The Devious Voice of Toxic Masculinity

Cultural pressures to “man up“ and ignore your pain are damaging and dangerous

Adrian Gonzalez
Human Parts

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Photo: Ahmed Mohamed / EyeEm / Getty Images

OnOn a recent evening, I was idly scrolling through my emails in the back of a shared Lyft when the driver stopped to pick up a second rider. A middle-aged woman got in, and we exchanged a polite hello, how are you? before swiftly retreating to our phones. A regular mundane ride after a long day of work, I thought. Until I realized I recognized her.

Brown hair, violently floral perfume, sultry voice of a jazz singer. I knew this woman from somewhere. I took a second glance at her and my heart stopped as it sunk in. We had a sexual encounter at a party years ago. Though I recall it being an inconsequential encounter at a college party, nothing particularly memorable or unusual, that recollection seemed at odds with the visceral reaction my body was having in the back of this Lyft.

When we arrived at my apartment, I pushed out a good night! and shakily got out of the car, nearly forgetting my cellphone. The emotions I picked up during the ride linger, but I’m not sure why. What happened during my encounter with this woman that could cause me such bewildering emotion years later?

Before I get into the details of what happened with the woman in the Lyft, it’s important to examine what transpired leading up to our meeting at a house party some five years earlier.

“Boys don’t cry”

You’ve heard the phrase. Maybe you roll your eyes at the absurdity of it and hope we’ve evolved beyond such juvenile fallacies. But take it from a man encountering other men in the world, this ludicrous sentiment is still alive. Much like the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, once you’ve become aware of this hideous dogma, every interaction becomes an unveiling of intrinsic self-harm.

Most men have been raised to be inhumane

I’m often at cigar bars enjoying a smoke when I witness men escaping their emotions after sharing something that’s happened in their life, and the peer pressure from other men encouraging them to “man up.” I hear it in some of my male friends reinforcing the belief that emotions are something to get over, rather than through. I still have moments when I’d rather injure my hand by punching a wall than talk to someone about why I’m feeling angry—something I also see in other men. I notice it every time I get in a car, a severe road rage that leads us to believe that physical harm is the only course of action.

Most men have been raised to be inhumane. We’ve been conditioned to ignore emotions and abandon our mental health in the name of “manning up.” Between less-than-perfect examples set forth by well-meaning parents and the depravity of a society built on gender roles, we carry a devious voice in the back of our heads offering terrible advice.

Devious voice: “There can be nothing worse for a man than being gay.”

Bearing a minimal amount of information (read: misinformation) on homosexuality as a teenage boy playing high school sports, I didn’t remove the word “fag” from my vocabulary until one fateful moment my sophomore year. During an afternoon hangout with several friends, we discovered that one had been looking at gay porn on another’s laptop. This being a group of high school boys raised by traditionally conservative Mexican families, you can imagine how quickly word spread. Having been outed to the entire school, this once close friend was now the subject of shame, ridicule, and bullying. Bullying that included that awful word, and bullying that led to him attempting suicide months later.

Witnessing someone I loved experience such pain took me back to every time I had used that word, be it jokingly or as an irate insult. I became mostly a bystander during my friend’s abuse. There were a handful of times I texted and called him. But when I didn’t get a response, I not only stopped reaching out but avoided him at any cost. I feared social repercussions for having empathy for my friend and supporting his sexuality. It was only years later that I fully realized how my behavior was contributing to the punishment of men for feeling different and to the emotional impact of feeling this was something that necessitated hiding.

My misconceptions of sexuality at the time are not an excuse, but an opportunity to learn and evolve. We cannot make progress if we continue to hide behind notions like: “I didn’t know any better,” or “That’s just the way I was raised.”

Repeat after me: I accept responsibility for my actions and the harm they have caused. I will do better.

The toll of toxicity

The repercussions of toxic masculinity are evident not just in high school locker rooms but on a national scale.

Of the 106 mass shootings in the United States between 1982 and November 2018, 102 of them were carried out by a man. In 2017, men in the United States died by suicide 3.54 times more often than women. This is an epidemic.

Devious voice: “Toughen up. You’re fine.”

Ah, the bedrock of toxic masculinity: “Man up!” This is a sticky one, the effects of which can range from avoiding acknowledging that a puppy is “cute,” to refusing to admit that not bringing a coat was a mistake because it is fucking cold outside. Then there’s the emotional negligence of silencing your sadness and depression. These are not the behaviors of men! The lowest of these moments for me came not long ago.

While struggling with personal tragedy and facing a severe identity crisis, my emotional negligence led to a night of heavy self-medicating. Hard as I fought to ignore my grief and depression, it somehow kept creeping back in. What’s the best course of action for a man struggling with such demons? Man up and get drunk, of course. This is fine and dandy until the party atmosphere fades and is no longer louder than your depression. Then the only things left are your emotions and an impaired ability to understand them.

Here I was, walking home alone in the middle of the night, clasping my phone but refusing to reach out to anybody about the feelings of death I was experiencing. The pain was screaming at me like a toddler trying to get a parent’s attention, but all that tequila had me in no mood to tend to this pressing matter. In the span of two hours, I plotted my demise and drove to a nearby parking lot to execute my death. Somehow, killing myself seemed like a more manly thing to do than reaching out and admitting I needed help. There was a dreamlike moment in which I kept seeing my youngest brother’s face in tears. I couldn’t push through the image of him mourning my death and thankfully did not go through with it.

This toxic mentality that nearly cost me my life has created a system of troubled men discounting their mental health. It’s a system of fallacies that perpetuates the worst in society and encourages twisted ideals, like our perception of consent and sexual harassment.

Which brings me back to the woman in the Lyft.

The encounter

Back in my college days, I was introduced to a friend of a friend who’d just gone through a nasty divorce. An old friend of the social group I was in back then loudly advertising her return to “the market.” The moment we met, she made a comment about my shoulders and proceeded to rub them throughout the night while making comments about me “throwing her around.” There was a mutual attraction, but I had just gone through a breakup myself and was in no place emotionally to engage in a sexual encounter.

This dynamic—her making advances, me feeling uncomfortable but not wanting to offend her—continued throughout the evening, reaching its peak in a bathroom of the house party when she followed me in and began to kiss and unbutton me, my masculinity as naked as my body. Something about it felt wrong but not quite as wrong as rejecting her advances.

Devious voice: “Men are always up for sex.”

Was this rape? It didn’t feel severe enough for the term to apply, but I also knew that I was uncomfortable. I hastily walked out afterward, closing the door of both the bathroom and any chance of reconciling what had just happened inside it.

Devious voice: “Men cannot be raped.”

We saw each other in passing a handful of times after that night, exchanging only polite hellos and a look of silent resignation. I’m not sure how she felt about the encounter, but I do know that with the help of that devious voice, I made enough excuses for her and her actions to keep the event bottled up. I reassured myself that saying no to her had not been an option. The mere fact that a woman had chosen me out of the crowd to be her sexual partner implied my consent; as a man I have to say yes. Plus, I’ve grown up hearing that the best way for a man to get over a breakup is to find as many women as possible to sleep with. And what about my male friends, wouldn’t they deem me unmanly for turning her down?

The coercion came from within me, employing the force of that devious voice to silence my discomfort.

Eventually, my heightened awareness of this toxicity helped me uncover what actually happened in that bathroom. As far as I recall, there was no moment in which I attempted to reject her or express my discomfort, and therefore there was no coercion on her part. This was not rape. The coercion came from within me, employing the force of that devious voice to silence my discomfort with the situation. In other words, she never took a moment to ask for consent—I don’t think she thought it necessary. And I never took a moment to say no—I didn’t think I could. Hearing women share their horrific #MeToo stories has led to a lot of honest conversations about consent and power dynamics in the last several months, conversations that have opened my eyes to this virulent way of thinking.

But in the years following that incident, the mentality that led to it persisted in how I perceived my role as a young single man. That confusing encounter was the beginning of a sexually mischievous period in my life.

Devious voice: “The more women you sleep with, the more of a man you are.”

He is the grandest of men whose conquest yields a great many women (see: James Bond). Here’s a fun exercise: Ask most men what they think of Agent 007 and count the number of times the word “cool” is used. Who doesn’t picture himself in a sharp suit, lighting the corner of a cocktail bar with his swagger, martini in hand (stirred, not shaken), fending off the attention of others? If you’re a modern man in America maybe this is a whiskey or scotch, because martinis are for women.

Where do you think lies the crossroads between not feeling manly enough for only having been with a few women and the dehumanizing feeling of filth with each sexual encounter executed for the sake of a notch on a bedpost? There isn’t one. Because it’s like being fooled by an optical illusion and getting lost until you realize it is indeed an illusion; the illusion will own you until you conquer your perception of it.

In a moment of clarity following that Lyft ride, I wondered to myself, How many women have felt this way on my behalf? Who’s to say I am not as clueless about my transgressions as the woman in the Lyft is about hers?

Here’s another fun exercise: Ask anybody if they believe they are a good person. No one will answer negatively. At best you’ll get a modest, “I think so.” That’s because none of us wants to be in the wrong; any wrong in our past is surely the result of a mere mistake. Still, the greatest anguish of all is wondering if someone’s else’s anguish is tenfold and we may be the reason.

Repeat after me: I accept responsibility for my actions and the harm they have caused. I will do better.

What now?

I’m writing this not because I’m a shining example of a man who’s got it all figured out. I’m sharing this because I’m a manifestation of the toll of toxic masculinity, and if we are to make progress to become a more fair, just, and compassionate society, we first need to accept our shortcomings. Failing to do so would be like finding a faulty foundation and attempting to build a skyscraper above it.

The recipe for evolution begins with identifying the wrong in men neglecting their mental health, subsequently harming themselves and potentially harming society. Let’s call it the vicious cycle of toxic masculinity.
One more time, repeat after me: I will do better.

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Adrian Gonzalez
Human Parts

Bilingual Brand Strategist : Writer : Taco Aficionado