LIZ GORDON deserves our thanks. Not only for her most recent posting on the shocking findings of the Christchurch Girls High School sexual harassment survey, but also for her contribution to the collation of its results. By her own frank admission, this was not a painless process. Clearly, what these young women reported does not make for easy reading.
Whenever the results of surveys like this one from CGHS are made public, shocked parents and teachers demand action. Entirely appropriately, the finger of responsibility is pointed at “toxic masculinity” and “rape culture”. Males are the problem – which can only mean that males must also be the solution. Men must be persuaded to change their behaviour. Parents must raise better sons. The male friends, acquaintances and workmates of toxic males and rapists must intervene whenever the ugly face of misogyny surfaces. The offenders must be told: “It’s not okay”.
But many men, when they hear this call for intervention, quietly shake their heads in despair. Why? Because unless they have the fighting skills of a Jack Reacher, most of them wouldn’t dream of criticising and/or reproving the sort of man who mistreats women. In the presence of violent and predatory misogynists, the ordinary man’s instinct for self-preservation will keep his head down and his mouth shut. “Maledom’s” dirty little secret is that most men are extremely wary of other men – especially those who hate women.
Misogyny is a marker no less pungent than the result of a dog’s cocked leg. It signals a male’s readiness to use verbal and/or physical violence to secure compliance with his wishes. More than that, it tells those males around him – most of whom are neither comfortable with, nor proficient in, the use of violence – that they are in the presence of someone highly experienced in the infliction of pain and suffering. In short, these sort of men frighten other men. No, that’s not true. They terrify them.
What’s more, their terror is entirely justified. On God’s green earth there is nothing – absolutely nothing – more dangerous than a group of human males possessed of a common purpose to do harm. Packs of young males are particularly dangerous. Their aggressive urges are not as well-controlled as those of older males, making them much more prone to recklessness. Young men forget that actions have consequences. Ask any non-violent man to tell you the five words he fears the most, and if his reply is anything other than: “What are you looking at?” – he’s lying.
When I was a student in Dunedin – many years ago now – I dabbled in amateur dramatics. I still remember fondly one of the stalwarts of the local theatre scene: a gentle bon-vivant of a man, getting on in years, but with an encyclopaedic knowledge of plays and playwrights, who gave generously of his time and knowledge to a younger generation of aspiring actors. One night, on his way home from the theatre, he was set upon by a group of young males who beat him senseless and left him bleeding in the street. He made a physical recovery, of sorts, but psychologically he was broken. Terrified to venture out, he immured himself behind drawn curtains and locked doors. Within a few months he was dead. His suspected assailants were never brought to trial.
Men’s entirely reasonable fear of violent men is compounded by the deeply entrenched cultural belief that any man who cannot, or will not, defend himself is weak and worthless. When challenged, a man is expected to confront his challenger. Usually, such confrontations involve not much more than a lot of shouting and a little bit of pushing and shoving. Nine times out of ten, the combatants are separated before any real damage is done. “Honour” is satisfied.
In the case of violent men, however, the dynamics are radically different. Violent men recognise instantly those who, being intelligent cowards, will not risk a physical confrontation. They know they can bully and humiliate such men with impunity – wreaking havoc upon their confidence and self-esteem. Significantly, these tormentors often call their victims “bitches”: confirming both their habitual conflation of weakness with womanhood, and how very deeply they despise both.
That there is something profoundly anthropoidal about all this is a very difficult idea to shake-off. Thoughts of dominant male chimpanzees overawing their less aggressive male competitors for access to fertile females only serve to reinforce the overwhelming feelings of inadequacy which the experience of “backing down” and “caving in” evokes in human males. No matter how many times women tell their male friends that “clever”, “kind” and “funny” rank well ahead of “violent” and “intimidating”, the weak and inoffensive male never quite believes them. The admiration/fear of male physical prowess is hard-wired into the mutant Y chromosome of the human male.
There is a reason why the six-foot-plus street-fighter, Jack Reacher, is one of the most popular heroes in contemporary popular fiction. The same reason, one suspects, that the unvanquishable knight, Sir Lancelot, was admired by the young men of centuries past.
In the male imagination, standing up to the bullies, the foul-mouthed abusers of young women on their way home from school, the vicious gang-rapists of their female friends and sisters, is what they should do. And would do, if, in the all-too-real and bloody world of fist and boot, telling misogynists that “It’s not okay” to abuse women would get them anything other than a damn good kicking – or worse.
Women are not the only victims of male violence. Men hurt and terrorise other men with equal relish.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 1 July 2021.