On ‘toxic masculinity’

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Is masculinity “toxic”?

The American Psychological Society apparently thinks so. They issued a long report about it recently. I tried to read it, but I barely made it through the first sentence — “Western culture defines specific characteristics to fit the patriarchal ideal masculine construct . . .” — before I knew I’d be taking a wine break very soon.

I did manage to read the second paragraph, where I saw: “The socialization of the male characteristics mentioned above also onsets at an early age, making it a prime time-period for prevention intervention.” (Characteristics listed? Toughness, stoicism, self-sufficiency, etc.)

OK, I’m no psych scholar, but that seems to clearly say that early childhood is the best time to intervene to prevent boys from developing male “characteristics.”

In the meantime, Gillette released a probably well-intentioned ad about men and the #metoo movement. A lot of it was laudible — violence against women is bad, men need to step up, etc. Nobody disagrees with that, and I was glad to see them speaking out.

But the ad met with a lot of resistance, not because of its anti-violence-against-women message, but because it seemed to paint men with broad brushstrokes. (Or razor strokes, as it were.)  Because hey, if you want to sell a lot of men’s razors, try implying that vast majorities of your target market are sexual predators.

I initially thought the ad would be a little more pro-average-guy than it turned out to be. The still screenshot showed a bunch of men grilling. I like men grilling. But nope, they turned out to be the bad guys, monotonously chanting “Boys will be boys will be boys will be boys . . .” This disappointed me, as did the word salad at the beginning that hit hard on “bullying”, “the #metoo movement,” and “masculinity.”

I just didn’t think that last word deserved to be lumped in with the other two.

Here is my take: I like masculinity. I think it is among God’s most wonderful inventions. I like men’s strength. I like men’s protectiveness. I like their different-ness from me and from femininity in general. I like the way the two play off of each other. I like the way men love deeply, and yet theirs remains a distinctly masculine kind of love.

I don’t think men need to be what society (or the “patriarchal ideal masculine construct”) decrees that they be. I think men should be what they are. Men are strong. Men are protective. Men are, yes, sometimes aggressive. None of these things are socially conditioned. Masculinity and femininity spring from the way we were created, from our natural physical and neurological makeup.  Men’s bodies have, on the whole, a higher percentage of muscle than women’s bodies do. Just as women’s brains have more interconnectivity between the hemispheres. These and myriad other differences in our physiology give us men and women different — and complementary — gifts.

These are tendencies, not stereotypes. Masculinity isn’t about John Wayne riding into the sunset, any more than femininity is about weak women dropping hankies and fainting. Our individual mileage varies. There are as many unique expressions of masculinity as there are men.  Some men are stronger and/or more sensitive and/or more protective than others. Same with women. But our bodies and brains are fundamentally different, and that leads to certain predictable variations.

I don’t believe masculinity is “toxic.” Masculinity is raw material, just as femininity is. Men can use their gifts for good or for evil, just as women can. (But try using the term “toxic femininity” in polite company and see what happens.) For millennia, the goal of society has been to channel those instincts, not to suppress them. Where would we be without masculine strength and aggressiveness channeled toward the protection of society?

But today, there seems to be a movement to neutralize masculinity entirely. I have been saying for a long time that feminism — while laudable and important in many ways — made a fundamental mistake early on in assuming that “it’s better to be a man.” Women are often deemed “equal” to the extent that we usurp male characteristics and excel in traditionally male domains. It makes sense that the next step would be to say that men themselves are no good at being men and need to become more like women.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

Of course, nobody wants to see men using their gifts in ways that abuse women. But I don’t think the answer is to neutralize or eradicate masculinity. Male strength put to a noble purpose is (pardon the expression) a truly beautiful sight.

The deepest answer is transformation. It is holiness. The message of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is simply that our creation as masculine and feminine is fundamentally good, and that only in becoming transformed by the grace of Christ can each become the awesome, beautiful forces he intended them to be.

Holiness is often perceived as strictly feminine. It is not. Male holiness is strong. It is masculine. I’ve never liked the images of Jesus as some kind of First Century Sensitive Hippie. He was a strong man — a carpenter. He knocked over tables and drove money changers out with whips. St. Joseph, his foster-father, the man who formed his masculine nature, was likewise a true man. He protected Mary through a socially-unsanctioned pregnancy, and the infant Jesus from a murderous king. I often turn to him as protector as well. (Joseph, not the murderous king.)

But a world that doesn’t understand holiness, apparently has no idea what to do with masculinity. Or femininity.

St. JPII wrote extensively about the New Feminism. I never understood why he didn’t also introduce a “New Masculinism.”

I think somebody needs to pick up where he left off.  Soon.

COMING UP: Opinion: There is cause for hope amid dire reports of clergy sexual abuse of minors

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By Vincent Carroll

This Dec. 13, 2019 opinion column was originally published by the Denver Post.

When will it end, many Catholics must wearily wonder. And not only Catholics. Anyone who reads or listens to the news must wonder when the Catholic church sex scandals will ever be over.

But in one major sense, the crisis already has passed and what we’re witnessing — and will continue to witness for years — is the aftermath.

To see what I mean, go to Appendix 4 in the report on sexual abuse of minors by clergy in Colorado issued in October by investigators led by former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer. There’s a bar graph highlighting the “number of victims by decade the abuse or misconduct began.” Towering above all other decades for the archdiocese of Denver is the bar for the 1960s, representing 74 victims. In second place is the 1970s with 25 victims, and the 1950s is third with 14. The 1990s had 11 victims and the 1980s three.

As the report observes, “Roman Catholic clergy child sex abuse in Colorado peaked in the 1960s and appears to have declined since. In fact, the last of the Colorado child sex abuse incidents we saw in the files were 1 in July 1990 and 4 in May 1998.”

In other words, nearly 70 percent of all the abuse documented in the attorney general’s report within the Denver archdiocese occurred a half-century or more ago.

Denver’s history differs somewhat from the national experience, but not wildly so. Researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice concluded in 2004 after examining the national data on accusations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy between 1950 and 2002 that “more abuse occurred in the 1970s than any other decade.” The 1960s were also atrocious years for Catholic youth and so was the first half or so of the 1980s.

It appears that accusations in the years since have held to the same chronological profile. Mark Gray, a survey researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, reported recently that CARA has analyzed 8,694 accusations of abuse made between 2004 and 2017 (compared to 10,667 earlier allegations studied by John Jay researchers). The result: The distribution of cases is “nearly identical to the distribution of cases, over time, in John Jay’s results.”

In other words, a large majority of the accusations of abuse that have surfaced in this century are also dated to the horrible era of 1960 to 1985.

This pattern even holds for incidents in last year’s Pennsylvania grand jury report, although news coverage often left the impression that it recounted a fresh flood of new incidents. The report’s scope and details were certainly new and devastating, but most (not all) of the incidents and perpetrators were old (or dead). Those accused of abuse in the Pennsylvania report, for example, were on average “ordained as priests in 1961,” according to Gray.

Given this context, it’s hardly surprising that “the most prolific clergy child sex abuser in Colorado history,” according to the special investigator’s report, namely Father Harold Robert White, was also ordained in 1961.  His depredations “continued for at least 21 years,” the heyday of sexual abuse and church complacency, during which time he “sexually abused at least 63 children.”

Chilling.

I am perfectly aware that the Colorado investigation hardly exhausts the number of victims of clergy sexual abuse. It covers diocesan priests but not those who served in religious orders. Records are likely incomplete and some perhaps destroyed. And the actual number of victims certainly exceeds the number who have come forward.

There is also the question of a reporting time lag — the fact that victims often don’t muster the courage to come forward for years. But if this had been a major factor in the reduced number of incidents after 1985 at the time of John Jay College’s 2004 report, that number would surely have seen a disproportionate surge by now. And yet it has not.

The authors of the state investigation emphasize that they are unable to reliably say that “no clergy child sex abuse has occurred in Colorado since 1998,” and warn against concluding that clergy child sexual abuse is “solved” given ongoing weaknesses they outline regarding how the church handles allegations.

Their caution is understandable given the church’s history in the past century (in the report’s words) of “silence, self-protection and secrecy empowered by euphemism,” and their recommendations to strengthen the diocese’s procedures are for the most part on point. But it is also true that child sexual abuse will never be “solved” in the sense of it being eradicated — not in religious denominations, and not in schools, daycare centers, scout troops, youth sports, and juvenile social service and detention facilities, to cite just some of the venues that predators unfortunately exploit and where an accounting for the lax standards of the past has not been undertaken.

John Jay College researchers also released a followup study in 2011 in which they noted, “the available evidence suggests that sexual abuse in institutional settings . . .  is a serious and underestimated problem, although it is substantially understudied.” Meanwhile, “no other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse and, as a result, there are no comparable data to those collected and reported by the Catholic Church.”

Early this month, Bishop Richard J. Malone resigned from the Buffalo Diocese over gross mishandling of sexual abuse claims. He likely won’t be the last. Meanwhile, Catholics still await the Vatican’s promised explanation for how defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who allegedly preyed on seminarians for decades, could have been promoted time and again. Is there any credible defense?

So the bad news hasn’t stopped. But behavior in the priestly trenches actually is much improved, and that is surely cause for hope.

Email Vincent Carroll at [email protected]