One day on the playground when I was ten, an older boy, who was a noted for having issues, tried to boss me around and then called me a “whore” when I refused to play along. My mom had recently explained the concept to me and told me how men use the word to diminish women, and so the comment pushed me into a full-on rage fit. As anyone who knows me can attest, I’m not a particularly quiet person—especially when faced with injustice—so we both ended up in the Principal’s office for “fighting.” This boy clearly knew he was caught, so he tried apologizing in that insincere way people do when they’re just trying to get out of punishment. This only enraged me further, but in hindsight, it was the Principal’s behavior that should really have made me mad.
I flashback to this moment often in the #MeToo era, especially as of late. The recent premiere of 13 Reasons Why Season 2 on Netflix, a show that tackles the life of teens in American high school, specifically confronts bullying, sexual assault and harassment and reflects the challenges of young people navigating these issues without the emotional tools or support to deal with these issues productively. As the events leading up to the school shooting over a week ago at Santa Fe High School in Texas continue to unfold, a familiar story emerges that the teenage attacker’s first victim was a girl who had rejected his advances. It was not dissimilar from Nicholas Cruz, the Stoneman Douglas shooter, who was known to be a troublemaker at school and in the neighborhood. His troubling behavior with violent inclinations was left tolerated for a long time before he was finally expelled as noted by one fellow girl classmate who was the subject of his abuse.
These of course are some the worst of the escalations of those whose behavioral issues are not addressed aggressively. Some teenaged boys make to it to manhood before those behavioral issues manifest outwardly like Omar Matten, the Pulse Nightclub shooter was a man who was abusive to his wife had as those who knew him remembered many moments that displayed aggressive behavior with inclination toward violence
But not every boy who learns in school to be verbally or physically abusive to women ends up being a mass murderer—the vast majority end up taking their bad behavior with them into the workplace. Many professions where men are still over represented in leadership suffers from this syndrome that psychologists have called “toxic masculinity.” Toxic masculinity upholds narrow ideas about masculinity such as that it’s good to be sexually aggressive, a competitor, and solve problems through physical or verbal violence. If a boy avoids conflicts, doesn’t aggressively seek sexual conquests, then he is not seen as a “real” man.
When this boy now a man in the workplace’s formative experiences teach him that this overly aggressive behavior works, then he tends to reward that behavior in others, or even to believe that it’s a key to being successful. If someone (male or female) complains about the bad behavior, they find themselves labeled a “troublemaker” or “not a good fit,” and they can get forced out.
When these men make inappropriate sexual comments or physical contact, they try to pass it off as “just a joke” or “just being sarcastic.” The woman who are usually the victims of such lewd behavior are often told they should not “overreact” or they avoid saying anything in order to protect their careers. Such is the case of many men taken down in the #MeToo era, like Hollywood Producer Harvey Weinstein or TV host and journalist Charlie Rose or political tech staffer Clay Johnson, whose careers ended over accusations of sexual harassment and assault. Though sexual harassment or assault may have been the offense that ultimately brought them down, many such men were also accused—often for years—of verbal harassment and creating a hostile work environment.
It’s important to note, masculinity in and of itself is not bad, but when taken to the extreme it can be toxic. It can be learned at home from parents who think it’s normal (or desirable) for a boy to behave this way or from media images that extol this false vision of “manliness,” and it can even be learned in school from teachers and coaches who this it’s desirable behavior.
Or it can be learned from a misguided elementary school principal.
Which brings us back to that boy on the playground and his abusive behavior. We were sat down by the vice principal, a woman, and while he was told that calling names was not appropriate I was told that I needed to be big enough to accept his apology. I was forced to shake his hand and make friends and leave that to the end of it. It never sat well with me, but I was only 10, so I went along with it to get out of that office. And only now, years later, can I really express why that vice principal was wrong.
What does my thirty-something self wish that my 10-year-old self had been able to say? What should a young women in a similar situation do at school today? They should look that adult right in the eye and say, “No. He’s not my problem. He’s your problem. He’s his family’s problem. And you need to address how he acts out and treats girls before it gets worse. Help him fix this before it’s too late. And don’t ever—EVER—ask me again to apologize for standing up for myself.”
It should not only be incumbent on us women and girls to say no and stand up for ourselves, it should be enough, but it’s not always. It’s also incumbent on our schools, workplaces and community to be accountable to creating an environment were this type of behavior is proactively stopped in its tracks and happy and healthy girls and boys can thrive and grow up to be productive adults capable of healthy interactions and relationships.