Is Toxic Masculinity Really on Its Way Out? - Pacific Standard
New data suggests the future of America is one of inclusivity. That doesn't mean we won't encounter speed bumps getting there.

In 1970, former United States Census Bureau director Richard Scammon and electoral demographer Ben Watternberg coined the phrase "demography is destiny." Writing in their book The Real Majority: An Extraordinary Examination of the American Electorate, Scammon and Watternberg argued that a real governing coalition in American political life "is the one that holds the center ground on an attitudinal belief." The crux of their argument, which came in the aftermath of a turbulent 1968 presidential election, was that the ideal America is an inclusive America—and, they surmised, it's only a matter of time before diversity and demographic change make political extremism intolerable.

Indeed, new research suggests that, despite the apparent devolution of American civil society during the first year of the Trump administration, Scammon and Watternberg's thesis remains persuasive. A national survey of young Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 (read: younger Millennials and their Generation Z counterparts) released today by the Public Religion Research Institute and MTV reveals that the budding political generation is defined both by a consciousness of systemic and institutional discrimination and an embrace of racial and cultural diversity.

But, more significantly, the new data also signals a particular power shift ahead for a potent political force: toxic masculinity. And in the wake of the #MeToo movement, young Americans seem poised to expand the definition of what it means to be a man—and how those norms and expectations can shape the future of the country.

"In the midst of the critical national conversation now taking place on issues of sexual harassment and assault, this survey shows that young Americans in their teens and early twenties see serious negative consequences flowing from traditional depictions of masculinity," Robert Jones, the chief executive officer of PRRI, said in a statement. "Young women, in particular, are worried that these expectations carry within them the seeds of sexually aggressive or even violent behavior."

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Many of the conclusions in the PRRI/MTV are consistent with the Pew Research Center's groundbreaking 2010 analysis about Millennials and the changing demographic face of the U.S. According to PRRI, young Americans are increasingly concerned about issues of race and social justice: Eighty percent of young African Americans, 52 percent of young Hispanics, and 46 percent of young white women say race relations are a "critical" issue to them (only 37 percent of young white men agree). The desire for a diverse and vibrant future is alive and well in American youth, despite the calls for a return to white supremacy emboldened by Donald Trump's 2016 campaign.

And that Trumpism, the data reveals, bears its own virulent strain among the white men who catapulted the president to an electoral upset in 2016. The PRRI/MTV survey indicates that 43 percent of white men are more likely to believe "reverse discrimination" is a major problem, and that "efforts that promote diversity harm white people." They are also less likely to express positive views on recent protests and marches (27 percent), and to see gender equality, LGBT rights, or racial issues as critical matters for the nation (26 percent, 19 percent, and 29 percent, respectively). These attitudes have real-life consequences more subtle than, say, a white nationalist march in the streets of Charlottesville: Seventy percent of all respondents had witnessed or experienced discrimination based on race, gender, or religion in the last year alone.

These results aren't totally surprising: Post-presidential election research from the Brookings Institution found that white men without college degrees overwhelmingly supported Trump on account of their cultural anxiety and distrust for traditional political parties (and not due to economic concerns). But the survey also suggests that the demographic trends of Millennials and Generation Z may carry an antidote to the toxic masculinity that's powered the white, "working class" nationalism of the Trump moment. According to the PRRI/MTV data, a majority (75 percent) of young people believe the current American social standards create "at least some pressure for men to act in traditionally masculine ways," while 40 percent say that pressure inevitably results in "violent" (43 percent) and "sexually aggressive" (46 percent) behavior. And although women, as with other social and racial issues, were more sensitive to the potential impact of restrictive social norms, a majority of young men (52 percent) agreed that such norms "prevent men from expressing their emotions in healthy ways."

It remains to be seen whether these subtly changing attitudes toward masculinity are enough to beat back the forces of misogyny and sexism. "With a lot of social and cultural changes, tipping points only reveal themselves in retrospect," PRRI research director Dan Cox explains to Pacific Standard. Cox points to the evolution of parental roles since the turn of the century. "Fathers have become increasingly more involved and more emotionally expressive in the last 15 years," Cox says. "And that's in our culture now: We've moved away from the caricature of a bumbling inept dad caricature toward more nuanced conceptions of fatherhood and motherhood, but it was a slow, steady evolution."

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Americans have been viscerally grappling with the violent consequences of toxic masculinity long before the infamous Trump/Access Hollywood tape that emerged in October of 2016. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data shows that "anywhere from 25 to 85 [percent]" of women had dealt with workplace sexual harassment, and 75 percent of those women experienced retaliation when they made an official allegation; until 2014, the Federal Bureau of Investigation didn't even know how many sexual assaults occur annually in the U.S. due to an outmoded definition of rape. And consider the role of toxic masculinity in mass shootings: As Pacific Standard reported in November, 54 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016 involved a man targeting a romantic partner, and of the 95 major mass shootings in Mother Jones' 35-year open-source database, only three incidents involved female gunmen.

But if the PPRI/MTV data is to be believed, a new generation of young men stands ready to change the culture of masculinity. Although there are clear limits to the extent to which young men are actively reflecting on the role of toxic masculinity—only a third of men see it tied to violence (34 percent) and sexual abuse (37 percent), compared to more than half of women (53 percent and 54 percent, respectively)—the survey data suggests that young men have shifted their behavior to more actively meditate on the nature of American manhood.

Even more importantly, the survey was conducted between July and August of 2017, suggesting this impulse was evident well before the allegations against Harvey Weinstein emerged in September of that year. "The striking fact that this survey pre-dates the recent wave of high-profile sexual harassment cases shows that most young people—especially young women—were ahead of the curve on these issues," MTV President Chris McCarthy said in a statement accompanying the release of the survey.*

The confluence of Weinstein and Trump as twin embodiments of toxic masculinity may, however, be exactly the right catalyst for broad social change. "Generations are defined by their formative years when they transition into adulthood, and coming of age in 2018 is very, very, different than coming of age in the '90s," Cox tells Pacific Standard. "It's incredibly important that young men and women are coming of age at the moment of #MeToo. When you think about the impact of some of these social movements, it's not just what they're accomplishing for individuals, but what they're doing within the environment where young people are growing up, becoming informed, and orienting themselves on lots of issues."

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It's hard to overstate the impact that active reflection and engagement by men can have—not simply in the role of ally or "male feminist," but as transformative forces in the lives of their fellow men. While a reckoning for "boys club" workplaces across the entertainment and media industries has simmered for years before exploding into view with the Weinstein allegations, other incubators of toxic masculinity persist in the mainstream culture. Fraternities, once embodiments of collegiate communality, are now defined by both endemic misogyny and a constant stream of alumni money; the U.S. military is institutionally incapable of tackling sexual abuse and exploitation due to the unwillingness of commanders and the structure of the military justice system; even recreational sports teams that allow men, as Lois West wrote in the Journal of Men's Studies, to "negotiate masculinities in leisure activities," do so with a hefty dose of booze and the comfort of their cultural staying power.

Dan Cox.

Dan Cox.

How ironic that the same hyper-macho commentators who rail against "safe spaces" actually require some of their own: As researcher Michael Flood wrote in a 2008 issue of Men and Masculinities, "male-male relations organize and give meaning to the social and sexual involvements" of young men, regardless of how they may be socialized at home or in the mixed-sex environment of a public school. "Homosocial bonds are policed against the feminizing and homosexualizing influences of excessive heterosociality, achieving sex with women is a means to status among men, sex with women is a direct medium of male bonding," Flood wrote, "and men's narratives of their sexual and gender relations are offered to male audiences in storytelling cultures generated in part by homosociality."

This sociological research on the nature of American masculinity suggests that it's not just important for men to engage other men on the matter of sexism in contexts both public and private. Consider the complicated issue of mansplaining: Publicly, men are more likely to listen to (and less likely to interrupt) other men, a linguistic phenomenon psychologically rooted in power dynamics between genders that has persisted despite gains made by women in the public arena. But private engagement between men are just as important, where moments to engage on familiar terms, in a familiar cultural context, and from familiar sources, create more effective opportunities for education. Besides, recent research suggests that face-to-face conversations remain more influential than audio and digital engagement despite young peoples' long-term exposure to the latter—and conversations are always most effective when carried out by those closest to you: a friend, a family, a brother.

Cox points to the social contact hypothesis, which posits that direct intergroup interactions are the best way to shift personal attitudes in order to foster understanding and mitigate conflict. "When you come in contact with people from many different background and belief systems, where status is equal, your attitudes change," he tells Pacific Standard. But for the white men who stood out in the PRRI survey, it's likely that the homogenous man caves of the frat house and barracks tend to have the opposite effect. "In environments when people have similar experiences and beliefs, they gravitate toward the adoption of more extreme views," Cox says.

Real change isn't affected by a one-time bystander intervention, but by daily interaction and repetition. While the PRRI/MTV data offers a glimmer of hope ahead, it remains merely a representative sample—one that will surely be drowned out by the Trump White House's latest antics. And with the inevitable demographic shift that defines the next generation of Americans comes the inevitable backlash—and that backlash is now in the White House.

*UPDATE — January 10th, 2018: This article had originally stated that the PPRI/MTV survey was conducted in March of 2017. In fact, it was conducted between July and August of 2017.

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