You’re 11-years-old when you sit at the computer—the keys too large for your slim, clumsy fingers—and type “am i gay?” into the search engine. You know you have a crush on that girl who’s been in your class since third grade, but some of the guys have been making fun of the way you talk and walk, so you decide to check. But the search results don’t really answer anything, so you turn off the monitor and wonder if the guys know something you don’t.
You’re 13-years-old when you get your first pair of skinny jeans. They press tight against legs of skin and bone, but they’re what’s in and you feel cool wearing them. Self-acceptance, the rare joy you lacked so much in middle school, fills you. When V-neck shirts come into fashion, you feel the same self-love again. All of the joy is undercut when an older relative tells you those are clothes girls wear. You stop wearing both.
You’re 15-years-old when you’re out on the soccer field and your teammates start talking about all the girls they’ve got their eyes set on. They spill the names of those they’ve felt up as you run drills. They talk about how they’re going to smash, rail, and bang countless others. They notice your uncomfortable silence and call you out on it. You take a penalty kick, and then join in, lying that you were distracted imagining all the crazy sex you’ve been having.
You’re 19-years-old when you realize that masculinity kills. You read about Madison, Wisconsin’s first homicide of 2016. A man shoots a woman who turned his romantic advances down. A lifetime of unchallenged masculinity, nearly identical to yours, propelled the bullets that cut into the flesh of her stomach and then her head. It allowed the killer to say that “it was easy to kill.”
And then you read of the first murder victim of 2016 in Greensburg, Indiana and realize these murders are not isolated instances. A woman named Wendy is shot in the back of the head after she refuses a marriage proposal from her boyfriend. Both women are now among the one out of three women who are victims of physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner. At the center of the violence is a blood trail of unbridled masculinity.
When you fail to question the fathers who claim that “boys will be boys” and that “if a boy is mean to you, it’s because he likes you,” you set up young, moldable boys to expect that violence is okay because it’s simply a part of their incoming manhood. When you police the ways boys fit or don’t fit into traditional expectations of what a man looks, sounds, or dresses like, you give this violence space to breathe. You create a trail that begs to be followed.
Calling out sexism and refusing the masculinity expected of you—on a soccer field, in a locker room, or when you see the abuse in action—may be interpreted as weakness. Not confronting these showings of masculinity, however, is even more dangerous because it normalizes the violence that men commit. It starts with demeaning comments about women passed off as jokes. Initially they may seem harmless, but jokes are the basis for disrespect of others unlike them—especially women. When these boys start dating, verbal arguments become physical punches and flying hands become gunshots.
Expectations for masculinity—the chiseled abs in advertisements or the stoic, unemotional father figure in most TV shows—subject anyone who does not fall into these archetypes to violence. It’s not always obvious because it takes many forms. Violence is murder but it’s also self-hatred and suicide. It’s poverty and the gnawing of stomach flesh when you have nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep. Masculinity is in part why gay men have higher rates of suicide and why rates of homelessness are so high amongst trans people. Bones break and flesh tears at the ancient hands of masculinity.
Systemic issues of violence and sexism will not be solved overnight, but if we each accept our personal responsibility to curb masculinity, we can make slow progress. This task is most pressing for men, who benefit from the privileges of unchecked masculinity. When we hear things in the locker room, we ought to speak out against them. If a buddy of yours' expletives of choice are pussy or bitch, ask why he isn’t creative enough to insult without dehumanizing women. Don’t be afraid when men around you decide to try on a little makeup or nail polish. Get comfortable with physical affection between men. And instead of wasting your energy telling men how to be “men,” as if there was a single mold for all men to fit, call out every instance where preserving masculinity requires violence.
You’re 20-years-old when you decide to face the reality that masculinity kills. It tucks people into their grave, sometimes quietly but usually violently. You carry the bloodstains on your hands until you decide to break masculinity down―starting with yourself.
Ruben E. Reyes Jr. '19, a current Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History and Literature concentrator in Leverett House.
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