‘Toxic masculinity’ is a term that helps precisely no one

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I recently got on the Tube at the end of the line around 10.30pm, after walking past a dodgy man on the platform asking me, mystifyingly, which way the train went. Forgetting about him, I got into an empty carriage – the whole train was all but empty – and just before it departed, he jumped on and sat next to me, leaning close and forcing me to squash against the driver’s compartment. I asked him to leave me alone. He said he loved me, loved women, and didn’t want to upset me, before weaving into other carriages and returning, behaving in a threatening manner to the two men in our carriage, and getting more persistent with me. I had to wait for a busy station, then jumped out; he did too, but I managed to escape onto another train. 

I am lucky: I have never been physically harassed by a man, on or off the street, but the countless women for whom threat, intimidation or assault by men is a reality would probably agree that increasingly commonplace terms such as “toxic masculinity” are of extremely limited use when a man is actually behaving in a threatening way. The scariest men tend to be those whom the hashtags and demands of MeToo are least likely to ever reach. As for the 1.6 million women in Britain who experienced domestic abuse between March 2019 and March 2020 – rates then went up by 8 per cent between April and June 2020 – their terror and misery is unlikely caused by the type of men who care about trendy insults originating in gender studies departments. 

Which is why I wish exceedingly posh, rich men like Benedict Cumberbatch, falling over themselves to seem enlightened, would stop going on about how “society” needs to eradicate “toxic” male behaviour, cheapening the reality of genuinely terrifying male behaviour by turning it into PR fodder. In honour of his new film Power of the Dog, the Sherlock actor riffed on MeToo, calling on men last week to “fix their behaviour” and adding, in a confusing stab at psychobabble, that they need to “understand that, you have to kind of lift the lid on the engine a little bit”. Presumably he means the engine of men’s brains. Or their social conditioning. Or perhaps their souls. Or the “patriarchy” – a word he also threw in. 

Whenever such statements are made by men keen to demonstrate their virtue, they just sound pompous. Sure, there is much that ought to change in the configuration of gender, from the prevalence of male violence to women’s desperate struggle to keep careers going alongside motherhood. But one of the sad things about MeToo discourse is that, rather than stay focused on specific issues like these, it became a performance of beautiful, enlightened middle class people falling over themselves, in men’s case especially, to show that they were “allies” to women fighting the good fight. It all became something of an echo chamber, with leading lights, like Cumberbatch, preaching to the converted. 

The transformation of “toxic masculinity” into a throwaway term is not just useless when it comes to combating real threat. It also unhelpfully divides the world into men, none of whom can escape toxicity scot-free, and women, their victims. Many women are victims and many men are their aggressors, of course. But our habit of splitting people into identity groups at all times for all things means that we are losing the ability to think discriminatingly, in terms of individuals. Toxicity is a prime example: permanently tethered to maleness, it offers little purchase on the myriad forms of bad behaviour one encounters in life, including from women. Our job should be to spot bad, rude, manipulative, or bullying behaviour in men and women, and either punish or give it a wide berth. Loading all the blame on men isn’t fair, it’s misleading and over time, men with less cushy lifestyles than Cumberbatch will begin to feel resentful. This is counterproductive. 

The other day, I behaved in a toxic fashion. I was breakfasting with someone and, triggered by a trifle, felt a primal misery mixed with rage surge through me and emerge in what can only be described as some very faintly bullying behaviour. But because there is no term for “toxic femininity”, it took me a few days of firm introspection to realise that I had behaved arguably as badly as a “toxic” man. But actually: I’d just behaved badly. No label encapsulates the enormity of human wrongdoing, and sorting it all into male and female doesn’t actually solve the problem. It just sows resentment.

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