It is much too early to draw any definitive conclusions about the long-term effects of a movement as potentially world-changing as #MeToo, but it is definitely not too soon to make some real-time observations about the topic, and to ask some relevant questions. For example, have the same factors that catalyzed women’s activism around issues of gender violence, including #MeToo, also prompted a new level of introspection among men about their role in perpetuating sexism, and the role they could play moving forward in helping to break the pattern? If so, will this new introspection lead to personal, institutional and/or political action?
It’s easy to be cynical about how men will respond to the tectonic cultural shifts in the gender order we’re now witnessing, especially considering how few men have historically been involved—at least publicly—in any kind of sustained anti-sexist activism. But that might not be the right metric to determine the potential for men’s increasing involvement in these issues. In fact, change may well manifest itself as a shift in consciousness whose effects will be felt over decades, alongside cultural and institutional changes carried out by people, including men, with this new sensibility. Some of the most profound change will surely be generational. Early survey research into men’s and young men’s attitudes and behaviors post-#MeToo is encouraging. One study in the United Kingdom conducted one year after #MeToo exploded found that 58 percent of men aged 18–35 agreed that “In the last 12 months I have been more likely to challenge behavior or comments I think are inappropriate,” while only 24 percent of men over 55 concurred.
A fascinating study published in 2018 in the Psychology of Men and Masculinity journal examined men’s reactions to #MeToo through a qualitative examination of responses to #HowIWillChange, a “hashtag activist” Twitter campaign initiated by Benjamin Law, a journalist from Australia. The study’s authors found that men’s responses to #HowIWillChange clustered into three general categories: 1) Men who wanted to be part of actively dismantling rape culture; 2) men who were “indignantly resistant” to social change; and 3) men who expressed “hostile resistance” to social change.
In the first category were men who wanted to examine their own participation in the culture of “toxic masculinity,” teach the next generation, listen to women, call out other men’s sexist behaviors, and promote egalitarianism. The second category included men who did not deny that women face mistreatment in society, but insisted that they should not be held responsible or called to action for violence or disrespect which they do not believe they have committed. They were the kind of men who identified with #NotAllMen, even if they didn’t use that specific hashtag. A characteristic tweet from this category is “#HowIWillChange, I won’t because I’m not a rapist, never have been, never will be. All rapists should be castrated, but not all men are rapists.” The third category of men were much more angry and aggressive in their responses. They used language that questioned and attacked the masculinity of men who supported #HowIWillChange, calling them cucks, SJWs*, beta males and virtue-signalers (*Social Justice Warriors). Some of these men also responded to the hashtag with aggressively and overtly sexist and degrading comments about women and women’s sexuality, denying the existence of rape culture. Others used #HowIWillChange to make racist and ethnocentric statements that mirrored some of the things Donald Trump said and stood for in his 2016 presidential campaign, including the idea that dark-skinned men from foreign cultures, whether from south of the border or from Muslim countries, were the ones truly responsible for rape culture. This study suggests that men’s reactions to #MeToo are far from monolithic, and provides reasons to be simultaneously optimistic and wary about how far we still have to go.
In my work and travels over the past couple of years, I’ve often been asked by women to comment on men’s response to #MeToo, and to provide some explanation for why so many men have chosen to remain silent. Sometimes I detect in the inquiry itself an underlying judgment, as if some women believe that men’s reticence to engage this issue somehow derives from their own guilty behavior, or is an indication of their reluctance to betray their fellow men. I can’t say for sure when and if those are relevant factors, but I prefer a more benign explanation.
I think many men know that #MeToo is long overdue, and they support its goals—at least in theory. But they’re not sure what to say, or do. The subject of gender and power was already fraught, but the increased spotlight on men’s abusive behaviors—especially in the sexual realm—upped the ante. A lot of men are understandably reluctant to wade into those choppy waters. I’m convinced that some of this reluctance is motivated less by guilt than by genuine uncertainty about what role men can and should play in all of this—and anxiety about the difficulties of “getting it right.” For men, is the main lesson of #MeToo that they should step back and listen to women? To be sure, listening is itself an action, and men can learn a lot by simply pausing to hear what women are saying about their lives, including their experiences of men’s violence and their omnipresent fear of it. But once they’ve listened, what’s next? If you’re a man, are you a good ally if you listen well but don’t take any discernible action beyond that?
Beyond the kind of research I discussed above, there are some indications that Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and the #MeToo tsunami a year later have awakened something in a lot of men that over time could result in substantive social change. There is little doubt that the visibility of men speaking out about sexism and misogyny has increased. Anecdotal evidence abounds. Since #MeToo broke in the fall of 2017, for example, I’ve been interviewed more and my work has been profiled in media more than in the previous 10 years combined. Then there’s the hundreds of thousands of men who attended the Women’s Marches on January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, on the single biggest day of protest in the history of the United States. There’s no official tally available that breaks down the protesters by gender, but at the march I attended in Los Angeles with my teenage son, I was startled and inspired by the number of men present. At the time, I estimated that men comprised as much as 20 per cent of the marchers. Even more impressively, they were a dramatically diverse group—a multiracial, multiethnic, and intergenerational gathering of men determined to make a statement of solidarity with women and girls in their struggle to be treated with respect and dignity. And all of this was eight months before #MeToo.
In the time since the #MeToo movement took hold, many of us in the domestic violence/sexual assault fields have noted an even more marked increase in men’s engagement with gender violence prevention efforts on college campuses and in communities in the U.S. and around the world. One Sweden-based organization I’ve worked with for many years, Men for Gender Equality, reported that in the months after #MeToo, their membership increased by 300 percent.
There are even indications that the #MeToo-inspired idea of men questioning traditional notions of what it means to be a man has begun to permeate media culture in the form of advertising and music. In early 2019, Gillette rolled out an ad campaign that played with its classic slogan “The Best a Man Can Get” with a widely viewed (and controversial) video with scenes of bullying and sexual harassment and news accounts of sexual violence underneath a narrative voiceover that asked “Is this the best a man can get? Is it? We can’t hide from it, it’s been going on far too long. We can’t laugh it off, making the same old excuses. But something finally changed. And there will be no going back. Because we…We believe in the best in men. To say the right thing. To act the right way. Some already are, in ways big and small. But some is not enough. Because the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.” Also in early 2019, in an article entitled “The New Angry Young Men: Rockers Who Rail Against ‘Toxic Masculinity,’” The New York Times reported on a new wave of heterosexual male musical artists writing and performing songs about suicide, depression and other harmful effects men experience as a direct result of the emotional and relational limitations imposed upon them by traditional definitions of manhood. (Both stories were featured in the Spring issue of this magazine.)
Despite these and other inspirational examples, it remains to be seen whether such signs of increased awareness and interest from men will result in their taking a lead on these issues and participating more actively in gender violence prevention initiatives once the intensity of the present cultural moment subsides. Also, for all the optimistic talk about a renewed sense of anti-sexist commitment on the part of men in response to #MeToo, the movement has produced a predictable backlash, with many people—men and women—maintaining that it’s gone too far, and that men as a group are being unfairly attacked. The backlash gathered momentum in the wake of the Brett Kavanaugh–Christine Blasey Ford testimonies, as Republican partisans and conservative commentators sought to portray Kavanaugh not only as the victim of a decades-old, uncorroborated account of attempted rape, but also as a symbol of how women’s newfound empowerment and refusal to be silenced could be used to smear good men and drive a further wedge between the sexes. As the sexual literacy educator Natasha Singh wrote on the day of the hearing: “I am concerned that by making his appeal to the masses, Kavanaugh may have unleashed reactive male rage. He may have modeled for countless boys and men the art of deflection, defensiveness, and victimhood. For many men, perhaps Kavanaugh now represents their worst fears: a loss of entitlement. Loss of power. Loss of privileges. And — drum roll, please — loss of impunity for sexual violence. And if that’s the case — then we have our work cut out for us.”
Of course, Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination and ultimately his confirmation were themselves made possible by the fact that Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 with an overwhelming majority of the white male vote. The 2016 presidential contest between Trump and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton was about more than competing ideological visions of governance. It was also in many ways a symbolic struggle about American identity and cultural change — change that included both the increasing ethnic and racial diversity of this country but also (white) men’s anxiety and resentment toward women’s increasing social and political assertiveness. Trump won the election with the biggest gender gap in presidential history, setting the stage for a renewed period of feminist activism and eventually #MeToo, which gave voice to women’s experience of men’s harassment, abuse and violence. All of this underscores the central argument of this book: that the epidemic of “violence against women” says more about the men committing it, and about the old order that for so long has produced and protected them, than it could ever say about women.
Voice Male contributing editor Jackson Katz directs MVP Strategies, which works with educational, military, athletic, and other institutions to train a new generation of leaders to challenge violence against women. This article is an excerpt from the revised and updated edition of his book The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help, © 2019 Jackson Katz (Sourcebooks).