This article is part of a series that will explore how marginalisation and oppression can affect an individual’s mental health.
In the last few months, several men have had their foundations shaken. The persistent reiteration that dating, flirting, casual interaction and sexual conduct is not how they define them left them on the defensive. The boundaries aren’t clear and these subjects continue to be hotly debated.
Is it flirtatious or an honest accident? Does intention have meaning without action? What does it mean to tread cautiously but converse confidently? Women were expected to provide the answers – and those answers were always contested. The women were frustrated that even after centuries of silencing and invalidation, few men heard them out. The discourse is discomfiting because it involves unlearning and challenging the fundament of how we conduct ourselves.
These references are derived from our environment. – from how we see our parents conduct themselves, how descriptive films and music are, how abusive behaviour is romanticised in literature and examples of how we’ve executed actions in the past. Behaviour is always learned.
The uncertainty that accompanies unlearning is a breeding ground for anxiety. So we practice avoidance and get on the defensive to protect what we know, because we’re too proud to admit that we don’t.
The problem is that men have internalised women’s low expectations of them. Their inflated self-worth comes from their congenital privilege. However, they also see their fellow men commit violence with no remorse. They bear witness to women being dehumanised in their circles. They know someone who has exploited their partner. They have exchanged private information about a woman – including her photos – without her consent. They have accepted that “men will be men”.
The accountability girding #MeToo and #TimesUp may have caught them off-guard but they’re not unfamiliar with the movements’ origins.
In the wake of these movements, they struggle, fumble with emotions, battle anger, hesitation and isolation. A friend recently accepted some of this shame as his own, for his membership to the male gender identity, and accepted that ‘good men’ do bad things. When their emotional intelligence and mental health take a hit, I empathise.
It is not anti-feminist to do so. The patriarchy allows men to experience two emotions: anger and happiness. The rest is grounds for invalidation. Similarly, women are familiar with dismissal and its debilitating consequences. It exacerbates isolation and amplifies defensiveness.
The problem is worse when a man’s mental wellbeing is purchased with a woman’s. It goes further downhill when a man expects a woman to soothe him because he believes it’s her responsibility. I empathise because we need them to do better. Men’s hurt is valid – but so is women’s anger. The dream is to create spaces where both can coexist.
Let’s be clear: men need to create safer spaces for men where they can ask uncomfortable questions, admit to harmful actions, validate their anxieties and remind each other that there’s a problem that affects the entire community.
Men need to expect each other to do better and help deal with insecurities that arise when privilege is challenged. The prevailing culture of solidarity and support dismisses ownership and responsibility. The problem is not about who they are but lies with what they have done.
If false rape charges become the focus of conversation when real rape is mentioned, it disregards the violence that has already been committed. Men need to cultivate empathy for one another by treating hurt as hurt, not by channelling hurt into anger towards women. They need to be able to converse about predatory behaviour towards women with the same ease with which they approach football debates.
It is bound to be triggering and dejecting, but unlearning is always like that. It is also congruent with the political nature of social justice. Privilege is enjoyable until it is questioned. But if men are going to sit on the sidelines and not engage in wholesome reflection with one another, the protest for ‘Not All Men’ will remain completely invalid.
Ruchita Chandrashekar is a licensed clinician in Chicago where she works with participants of a federally funded programme. Her expertise lies in LGBTQ+ mental health, sexual trauma and complex trauma recovery, mood disorders and personality disorders.