Why Fathers Should Tackle Toxic Masculinity and Where to Start

It's on us.

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It was Sunday night. I was working late when I saw the #metoo hashtag trending on social media. It was truly heartbreaking to witness all the disgusting yet common occurrences women face on a regular basis. The magnitude of the trend makes it obvious that the issue is deeply rooted in the patriarchal nature of our society. As such, fathers should naturally play a central role in tackling toxic masculinity.

It is up to us to destroy toxic masculinity.

This is a global phenomenon.

My Facebook timeline was flooded of testimonials from women of all walks of life; from all over the world. There were truly disheartening stories describing child abuse, inappropriate touch, sexual harassment in the workplace and of course, rape. I could not help but wonder how can men in general, and fathers, in particular fail to recognize their central role in this situation? Those women are our mothers, our daughters, our sisters, our cousins, our aunts, our friends. They are being victimized by us; by our sons who feel entitled and safe enough to consider women’s body as a property of their own.

Unfortunately, I have not seen enough men raise their voices. I have not seen enough fathers denounce this disgusting abuse of power. What I have seen however is too many men making excuses. Too many “ifs”. Too many inappropriate and insensitive justification attempts. Let’s make something clear: asking for a “definition” of what characterizes assault when a woman opens up about her trauma is suspicious at best. Disgusting for sure. The cowardice of making sexual assault, rape and domestic abuse a women’s issue reveals a disgusting victim blaming tradition; an apologetic culture fueled by the “bro code”, integral element of the man-box and toxic masculinity. Silence is no longer an option. We must reciprocate the courage those women are showing by standing up with them and by taking an active role in changing the culture.

What can fathers do to change the culture?

Violence against women is a central component of toxic masculinity and fathers have a crucial role to play. We are men and we are also parents. We are the first role models our children follow. Our words and our behavior matter inside and outside the household.

Here are 8 simple steps to get you started:

1. Practice active listening

The starting point is to listen to what women are saying as it comes to harassment and sexual abuse. Listen to their stories. You will be amazed by the commonality and the cruelty of occurrences. Don’t get defensive. Don’t be dismissive. Don’t minimize the pain. Take it all in without taking it personally. Don’t try to mansplain their situation. Visualize them as if they were a member of your family, someone you care about.

2. Audit your behavior

If you are feeling attacked when a woman opens up about issues related to harassment, ask yourself a simple question: why? Why am I feeling offended? If somebody else’s pain is causing discomfort inside yourself, it is most likely reflective of an internal struggle. Be introspective to get to the roots of the issue. You might recall behaviors of your own that make you cringe. You might also identify cultural norms that subconsciously influence your opinion. This step, while painful is necessary to use as a stepping stone to create change.

3. Be mindful of your words at home

If you have children, choose your words carefully when you speak to your partner, especially in a heterosexual relationship. Be extra mindful of your words and your tone when you get into an argument at home. Refrain from raising your voice, slamming doors or using your physical strength to get the last word or express anger. I struggled with this for years and am still guilty of this sometimes. However the way we handle disagreements and stressful situations with our partner will shape the way our children perceive men / women dynamic.

4. Educate your sons early on about unwanted touch

Unwanted touch is at the core of sexual abuse and rape culture. As such, it is crucial to set a foundation of respect, equality, and self-worth at home at a very young age. My spouse shared a story that perfectly illustrates this point and that us, fathers, should also communicate to our sons.

Here’s an extract.

On the particular occasion I had to tell my son to stop kissing me we had been kissing eachother on the cheek back and forth. All was fine and dandy until I decided I had enough (truthfully his kisses were becoming a little too slobbery for my taste). So I told him to stop it; only he thought I was joking and kept kissing me. Finally I took his hands and looked at him straight in the eyes and said to him:

  • “When a girl tells you to stop kissing her, or touching her you have to listen.” followed by,
  • “You don’t touch or kiss someone if they don’t want to be touched or kissed.” Followed by,
  • “You have to respect other people’s bodies.” followed by,
  • “If you don’t want to be touched, you have the right to say so.” followed by,
  • “No one should be touching you if you don’t want them to, do you understand?”

5. Stop glorifying womanizers

It is common practice for men to value sexual conquests. Yet, we are also quick to engage in slut shaming when it is convenient. Using sentences such as “Girls will be all over him when he grows up.” or “Oh your daughter is so pretty, you will have a hard time with boys when she starts dating.” perpetuate stereotypes. They may seem harmless, yet they grow deep in our children’s psyche. They actively fuel the objectification of women. They enable our sons with the destructive belief that “boys will be boys” and that there’s nothing we can do about it. This is a crucial step to defeat toxic masculinity.

6. Monitor your son’s media consumption

I have a personal story that speaks volume. My son and I were watching the classic movie The Sandlot. At one point of the movie, two opposite baseball team members exchanges insults until one says: “you play ball like a girl.” The insult was strong and intense that it quieted everyone down.We unpacked the scene on the spot, and it was a valuable lesson. It is important to monitor what your son is watching so you can act on it right away and explain that boys and girls are equal. To quote the wise words of Tony Porter on his groundbreaking Ted Talk, when he once asked a 12-year-old football player how he would feel if “in front of all the players, your coach told you that you were playing like a girl.” The boy responded, “It would destroy me.”  “I said to myself, ‘God, if it would destroy him to be called a girl, what are we then teaching him about girls?’” 

7. Speak up and call out toxic masculinity

Speaking up as a man against sexual assault and toxic masculinity is not easy. I know all about it. After coming out as a male feminist in this blog, I have received countless attacks from many people, both men and women. In a recent interview, I pledged to refrain using the term “toxic masculinity” but truth be told I simply cannot: this is too big of an issue. We cannot be complicit. Our silence destroys lives and kills women everyday. It is key for men especially for fathers to call out peers, family members and colleagues when they cross a line. By being a bystander, you are fueling the destructive omerta that keeps sexual predators unpunished for decades. This is an act of courage maybe, but this is nothing compared to the trauma women are facing everyday or to the strength it takes for them to speak up.

8. Get informed and get involved.

There are plenty of amazing people, resources and organizations that are doing amazing work. Make sure to get familiar with them. Get informed. Get involved. Support them. As fathers we should be the first agents of change and we should not let women carry alone the burden we have created and perpetrated.

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