Good men are a myth.
There are men who do good things. There are men who, by comparison to terrible men, seem pretty good. But categorizing and holding up certain men as unquestionably perfect doesn’t do us any good—especially if we want to reckon with why men behave badly, violently even.
If you need proof of how hero worship has failed us, just look at the recent wave of sexual harassment allegations hitting the mainstream news cycle (or really, just read through #MeToo on any social platform). The men being named aren’t just open secrets like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. Women have come forward to say women’s activist Sen. Al Franken groped them. The face of journalistic integrity, Charlie Rose, was fired by CBS and PBS after eight women said he sexually harassed them. And then there’s Holocaust survivor and author of the book every child was taught to uphold as Great Literature, Elie Wiesel, who reportedly groped a young woman’s rear while taking a photo.
Fundamentally, these men were seen as good, and now that we’ve found out they are not, we don’t know what to make of their work that we admired. But maybe we wouldn’t be in this predicament if we didn’t assume these guys were solid people simply because of their known contributions. What if we didn’t come in with that assumption? What if we just accepted that good men are a myth?
Toxic masculinity muddies the good
When we used to think about men like Wiesel, Rose, or even George Takei, we looked at these men with childlike wonder. They were not just heroes; they could do no wrong. When was the last time Takei slipped up on Twitter? How could Rose exist as anything other than a journalistic legend? When men are good, they’re seen as powerful father figures that deserve our unconditional love and trust. Their public goodness clearly represents their moral character.
But as any fifth grader will tell you, character is built by what people do behind closed doors, not out in the open. And what we know about toxic masculinity suggests there are a lot of terrible things that happen at the hands of men behind closed doors.
One survey of college men revealed that 31.7 percent of respondents would engage in “intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse” if the possibility arose; 13.6 percent had straightforward “intentions to rape a woman” if they could get away with it, HuffPost reports. And these are just the men who feel comfortable enough to answer truthfully.
It’s easy to see in more obvious unbalanced power dynamics, like producers handpicking actresses in the film industry, that men are given plenty of opportunities to “force a woman to sexual intercourse.” But this also happens in the power dynamics of simply being male vs. female—of being taught to get your way by all means necessary vs. being taught that standing up for yourself often gets you only punished further.
Statistics from the University of Michigan reveal that one in 12 college men have committed sexual acts that fit the legal criteria of rape, even though 84 percent don’t consider their actions to be sexual assault. In short, while not all men self-report an inclination to commit sexual assault, a sizable amount are eager to do so and have never considered what consent means or the consequences of their actions.
In 2012, rapists turned to Reddit to explain why they rape women. Most men claimed they “didn’t understand what had happened” because they received mixed messages. Others blamed “blue balls.” Some simply saw women as objects. In many cases, attempted rapists just didn’t understand they were doing something wrong.
“I’m a good man,” one man said. “I have a wife and a couple of kids now and I’m a good father and husband. I’m a pretty moral guy. But I think the thing that has always stuck with me…is how close I came to actually doing it. If I hadn’t looked up at her face and seen what she was feeling, I might have continued [to initiate].”
There’s a running theme here. In each story, the rapists (or attempted rapists) felt entitled to women’s bodies. Whether through “raging hormones” or “mixed messages,” men assumed women were supposed to be sexually available if men felt sexually aroused. Women were there to please men.
What we know about toxic masculinity explains a lot about why these sexual assaults happen. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, Dr. NerdLove calls toxic masculinity a “narrow and restrictive band of behavior, belief, and appearance” that forces men to become “emotionally repressed” and “sexually aggressive almost to the point of mindlessness.” And while toxic masculinity often pops up through predatory and misogynistic behavior, “good men” can act toxic in much smaller ways, too.
Entitlement to women, more often than not, comes down to violating everyday boundaries. Ever heard of manspreading? Whether in New York City’s subway system or international airlines, men across the world regularly take up too much space on public transit. Or worse, women are often forced to put up with men pressing their thighs, arms, butts, and fronts against our bodies in confined spaces.
Any woman who has ever worked in a male-dominated workplace is certainly more than familiar with mansplaining, where men condescendingly explain basic concepts to experienced women working in the field in question. It’s the same sort of unquestioned, unchecked entitlement that causes men to speak over women in meetings, at times even stealing their ideas and claiming them as their own. Astronomer and professor Nicole Gugliucci calls this “hepeating,” and it explains a lot the kind of environment in which sexual harassment is incubated. Women, again, aren’t seen as equals, but as accessories whose minds and bodies are owed to men.
My friends coined a word: hepeated. For when a woman suggests an idea and it's ignored, but then a guy says same thing and everyone loves it— #BlackLivesMatter – I'm on a tweeting break (@NoisyAstronomer) September 22, 2017
Entitlement, apathy, and sexual aggression all lead men to take advantage of women and treat them as nothing more than objects. And since toxic masculinity is a cultural dinosaur that’s learned and reinforced from childhood, practically every man has some level of toxic masculinity ingrained in them—whether it’s not standing up for women who’ve been hepeated or simply not registering that a woman may feel threatened by unsolicited DM or a male-dominated work environment.
Men don’t deserve unconditional trust
So why should women ever trust men? Whether at Disney or in Congress, PBS or Vice, the recent sexual harassment and assault allegations emerging across the U.S. prove that it’s hard to know who has “character” and who doesn’t. If a significant portion of men are capable of sexual assault, and nearly all men grapple with microaggressions against women on a regular basis, it’s obvious that giving men power and the immunity of “goodness” is a recipe for disaster.
The simplest, most everyday way men take advantage of women is by manipulating us until we unconditionally trust them. Innocence until proven guilty, right? Perhaps not.
The harassment and assault allegations sweeping the nation suggest men fundamentally (or just as likely, conveniently) don’t even understand what they’re doing wrong. All of which means they don’t deserve our trust unless they work for it. Because even when men don’t blatantly harass women, they still objectify us by acting like they deserve our ideas, careers, space, and attention. Powerful men are much more likely to face checks and balances from bystanders if we start being skeptical toward men on a regular basis. Sexual harassment and assault are less likely to be a threat to women if we admit that all men are implicated in the objectification and dismissal of women’s worth.
There are men who strive to do better and men who work to right their wrongs—and those men are commendable. But they still don’t deserve to be put on the “good” shelf, never to be thought of otherwise again. Because, in the end, no man is worth the risk of trusting them beyond a doubt.
Hero worship, along with the cult of personalities around “good men,” provide excuses for men who abuse women. No matter how talented a man is, a man who rapes is still a rapist. A man who “overlooks” women being harassed in his office is still a man contributing to the culture that says harassment is OK. Let’s stop calling out the “good men” and instead call out their bad actions so they understand no one is excused.