How Feminists Can Do More to Fight Toxic Masculinity

Tweet from @absurdistwords says, "Sexual rejection is existential rejection. Women hold the keys to our masculinity. Hence the fear and resentment."

@AbsurdistWords had some powerful things to say on Twitter on Thursday about toxic masculinity and the ways we rob men of healthy tools for processing and expressing emotion. (I highly encourage everyone to read his TL for some great insights; the conversation was storified here.) While he’s right to say that men need to fight this cultural norm from within, I have been thinking for awhile about how feminists inadvertently perpetuate some of the very toxic ideas we despise.

When the “men’s rights activists” came out with their #NoHymenNoDiamond campaign and the “Men Going Their Own Way” (MRAs who have sworn off women due to their disgust with feminism) got another wave of attention recently, I was troubled by many of the social media comments I saw from women who I know consider themselves feminists:

  • Derisive comments about the appearance of the men in the articles (“Look at that guy! He’s a real loss to women everywhere. /sarcasm”)
  • Penis jokes or jokes about sexual inexperience (implying sexual incompetence or outright accusing the MRAs of having small penises)
  • Fatphobic statements about any men who don’t fit the conventional body-size attractiveness standard

I see this stuff on Twitter all the time, too, as women respond to trolls with things like “I bet you have a one-inch penis” and “I bet you’ve never actually met a woman.” And so on.

Let me be absolutely clear: This is not a post about how women can prevent harassment or make things better for ourselves online. Harassment is wrong. It’s inexcusable. No comment from a woman justifies a rape threat or death threat or other abuse. It is not our job to protect ourselves from a system designed to oppress us; it is the job of the oppressors to change. But we can only strengthen our fight by applying our values consistently, and this is one hell of an inconsistency.

When we say that a man who claims to hate women is hardly a loss because he’s unattractive, we’re saying that unattractive people are worth less than attractive people, and we’re saying that if the man was attractive, we would be more inclined to be sympathetic to his bigotry.

When we say something similar about a fat man, we negate the work we’ve done (and undermine the work still to be done) to fight fatphobia and promote body positivity. If the worst thing you can say about an anti-feminist or troll is that he is fat, your critical thinking skills need some work.

My biggest pet peeve of all is the penis jokes and snarking about lack of sexual experience. A male friend said to me recently that from his perspective, women seem to claim to not care about penis size, but then turn around and make jokes with their friends that imply the opposite. I suspect it’s much like the experience women have with body positivity: men claim to like women of all body types, but the cultural narrative sets a very specific beauty standard, and the men in our lives often support it without thinking when they comment on a woman’s weight gain or make “thin” the ultimate compliment or imply that fat women are inherently unhealthy.

Studies show that penis size is far less important to women’s sexual satisfaction than men believe it to be. Furthermore, we all know that bodies vary and not all vaginas are the same; bigger is not always better and sex is more than just penetration. And we know that equating sexual experience with men’s value promotes the idea that women are conquests, even property—the cornerstone of toxic masculinity. So let’s show it, and swear off these horrible implications that large penis equals value equals the right to harass women.

If we want to support men in moving beyond toxic masculinity—and we should, since it is the engine of the patriarchy and it comes from a fear and hatred of femininity—we need to stop reinforcing the messages we hate. Attractiveness is not value. Body size is not value. Sexual ability is not value. No one, conventionally attractive or unattractive, has the right to be a bigot. And for Furiosa’s sake, no more penis jokes.


Featured image: Tumblr

Julia Burke

Julia is a wine educator with an interest in labor and politics in the wine industry. She has also written about fitness and exercise science, mental health, beer, and a variety of other topics for Skepchick. She has been known to drink Amaro Montenegro with PB&J.

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  1. The road to progress is always paved with real dialogue. The us vs them mentality doesn’t accomplish anything (actually, it does accomplish “poisoning the well” to block progress), it’s just another layer of our human instinct of tribalism.

    There is a lot of bad or misleading information out there. That’s what needs to be attacked, not the people who believe it.

  2. Our ghastly state of ‘normal’ sexual behavior guarantees that spite and resentment are the first response to any input on the topic.

    I hadn’t really seen the samples Ms Burke quotes, but I certainly recognize them. Men get them without being MRA cartoons. The characters cited DO deserve plenty of scorn and derision, in the terms and content that they have earned it.

    The MRAs demonstrate the problem themselves. Rather than critiquing the patriarchal standards and traditions that have made their lives such a wreck; they vent childish rage at ‘wimmin’ for not behaving the way(s) they THINK they would like.

  3. It’s not only a good strategic move, but it is also good for you as well. Think about it: do you want to be the sort of person whose mind automatically goes to the most hurtful insults when confronted with strangers on the Internet? Do you really care about splash damage as a concept, or only when you and yours are the ones getting hit? It isn’t as exciting or immediately rewarding to take a breath and engage fairly (or not at all) but in the long term it’s better to do what’s right rather than what’s easy (and admittedly fun)… maybe.

  4. Thanks for covering this. I really hate when MRAs or others with bad ideas get insulted for being ugly or virgins. It makes it sound as if that’s the only thing that matters to people. It also does a great job of feeding the paranoid part of me that tells me platonic women friends who don’t think you’re attractive “don’t count”.

  5. Thank you Julia. Social justice should be about justice, not gaining power for one’s interest group at any cost.

  6. This is really great Julia. I’d like to add another area where we feminists could be a little more circumspect. We need to be more careful when we sling “little boy” around as an insult. Like the jabs at penis size to belittle their masculinity are both misleading and harmful, belittling their maturity by comparing them to little boys is misleading, because Little Boys don’t troll women on Twitter, that’s something Men do.

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