Making the links between street harrassment, bullying, and toxic masculinity

This is a guest post from the amazing Dena Simmons, who has written for Feministing previously. You can read her full bio after the jump.

I set out to write a piece about the psychological effects of cat-calling on women.  I collected data from more than 45 people, who shared with me story after story of the ways they have been scarred by street harassment from male perpetrators.   As I started to sift through the anger, the agony, and the shame sprinkled throughout the women’s stories of street harassment and men, I realized how easily the respondents and I started to villify men.  Yes, men have objectified me, upset me, cornered me, and touched me without permission, and I so badly want to eradicate all the things that we despise about certain male behavior, but have we ever thought about what it means to be a man in our society?

If we are going to talk about feminism, we cannot ignore discussions of manhood or what it means to be a man in most societies.  I first become interested in masculinity after a year of doing research on teenage pregnancy in the Dominican Republic with a Fulbright fellowship.  While in the DR, my eyes and all my efforts were focused on young women.  However, I left there realizing that more work needed to be done to involve men in the sexual and reproductive health struggles of women and that more groups working to empower women needed to find ways to empower men in the face of a more empowered woman.

With masculinity on my mind, I started a doctoral program at Teachers College and pursued a small project where I wrote a mock-grant proposing a study focusing on the health risks associated with performing (male) masculinity in the middle school setting.  I drew upon my own experiences as a middle school teacher in the South Bronx.  I recalled male students throwing their bravado around in classes and throughout the school.  Most of my male students had to be “hard,” simply as a means of survival.  They had to be tough enough to defend themselves and their friends.  Some boys even talked about their sexual prowess to build themselves up. Others yelled sexual, inappropriate, and disrespectful comments to their female peers—already as middle schoolers! Almost all of my students, boys and girls alike, considered boys who were not manly enough (tough, aggressive, outspoken, confident, violent, and sexually experienced) effeminate and ‘gay.’  ‘Gay’ and ‘faggot’ were the ultimate insults for boys at the school and community where I taught, and that made me cringe.

I fought hard to erase the words ‘gay’ and ‘faggot,’ used as insults, from the vocabulary of my students.  I was successful for the most part, but so often, however, teachers ignore these types of comments and deem them as part of what happens in middle school.  In fact, a 2009 national school climate survey of K-12 schools in the United States by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) revealed that 33.8 percent of school staff did nothing to address incidents of harassment or assault targeting LGBTQ youth. Considering the recent string of suicides by LGBTQ youth as well as by the heterosexual boys bullied for not being masculine enough, this phenomenon is clearly a problem.  Students should feel safe at school, and educators should do more to make this a reality.

In essence, modifying masculine stereotypes is imperative to combat the sexual harassment of female peers, as well as the violence and homophobic bullying in the male adolescent population. But more than that, our boys must receive appropriate education that combats problematic masculine norms and that encourages them to express their masculinity in a healthy, non-aggressive manner.  Sadly, however, when we talk about re-educating men or starting anti-bullying initiatives, people become terrified.  They think we are going to turn their little boys into homosexual sissies.

For example, the conservative global Christian ministry, Focus on the Family, contends that the anti-bullying movement pushes a gay agenda.  Arguments like these are intellectually dishonest. How does having safer schools lead to homosexuality?  Regardless of sexual orientation, all students should have the right to safety and self-expression.  Bullying negatively affects both the victim and the perpetrator.  Therefore, it only makes sense to protect the safety and security of all students by curbing bullying in schools.

While it may seem that a discussion of masculinity among boys and using the word ‘gay’ as a derogatory phrase have nothing in common, it is not coincidental that the recent surge of youth suicides this year were mostly boys.  If men and boys are not aggressive, outspoken, or rambunctious enough; if they shy away from fighting and fail to brag about their sexual prowess (heterosexual, of course); and if they fail to direct others and lead, surely they will be taunted and bullied; surely they will be called homophobic names, and surely, they will be emasculated.

Therefore, we must tackle gender stereotypes and redefine hegemonic masculinity so that boys are not bullied for not being manly enough, and so that boys do not feel the need to have multiple sexual partners, engage in homophobic bullying or in violent behavior, or hiss and holler at women just to prove their masculinity.

Dena Simmons is a doctoral student in the Health Education program at Columbia University, Teachers College. Prior to her doctoral studies, Dena served as a middle school teacher in the South Bronx and was profiled for her teaching in Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists. She finds power and healing in her writing.

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