In the era of the #MeToo, accounts of sexual assault and sexual harassment and their social, professional and personal consequences for both parties are receiving the attention they deserve to increase awareness and reduce naivety to its harm. A groundswell of victim’s voices has entered the mainstream media, demanding that we all take a closer look at whom and what is affected. Many women have shared their stories in print and online and brought attention to this misconduct.
While notably #MeToo has generated public attention on conversations around gender equality, women’s rights, and power dynamics, as a public health researcher with a focus on sexual assault, I have been somewhat disappointed by the lack of concerted effort to thoughtfully incorporate men into this dialogue. That was, until the recent release of Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” advertisement.
Gillette’s ad does many things very well. It begins by provocatively suggesting that, even in a world where men are the more privileged sex, maybe they don’t have it as good as we (and they) think they do.
The ad shows the dirty underbelly of phrases like “boys will be boys” and calls out seemingly benign interactions like a man telling a woman that she should smile. The ad also applies Social Diffusion Theory artfully: “Men need to hold other men accountable…because the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.”
But most importantly and controversially it suggests that the traditional cultural scripts around masculinity are not just bad for women—they are bad for men as well.
In the United States:
Overall, men engage in fewer health-promoting behaviors, more risk-taking behaviors, are more likely to be the perpetrators and victims of physical abuse and violence, have fewer social supports and less effective behavioral responses to stress, and use fewer health care services.
You don’t have to squint to see that there is something very wrong with this picture. Through mass media, promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man can only help society.
Gillette released their ad just days after the American Psychological Association published their first ever guidelines for clinical practice with boys and men. The main take-away of the guidelines is that traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful. Men socialized in this way are less likely to engage in personally and socially healthy behaviors.
The guidelines suggest that the clinician’s role should be to encourage men to let go the harmful aspects of traditional masculinity (e.g., violence, sexism) and look for opportunity in the potentially uplifting aspects (e.g., courage, leadership).
At Fors Marsh Group, one of our ongoing ways to create positive social impact is to reframe the conversation around sexual assault against men. We do this work in one of the most male-dominated organizations in the country: the U.S. military.
In the military, men make up the majority of sexual assault perpetrators and victims. They are also more likely than civilian men to confuse sexual assault with hazing. In the midst of #MeToo, it would be easy to mischaracterize the military as an enemy of sexual assault prevention given its reputation for perpetuating traditional embodiments of masculinity.
However, to make progress, we should follow in the steps of figures like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg who regularly represented male plaintiffs in equal protection cases to demonstrate that sex-based distinctions harm both men and women.
If we want to effectively challenge the toxic aspects of traditional masculinity and to prevent sexual assault, we must demonstrate to men why these forces hurt them too. We have to keep finding more creative and persuasive ways to ask “is this the best a man can get?” Is it?