By Elise Cording
When I dove headfirst into the dating scene at Cornell during my sophomore year, I didn’t know that I was sure to meet some classic characters. I immediately became enamored with the “masculine frat boy”—charming, self-assured, flirtatious, always in control. There was a certain sense of safety and danger in a guy who would hold his bedroom door open for me as he welcomed me in to take shots of cheap vodka with him during the mixer. But little did I know then that throughout our ensuing relationship, I would hold only a superficial amount of power. A guise of hospitality while I was at his house prohibited me from taking any actions, even getting a glass of water for myself, while we were together. He held all control over the space, the initiation of plans, and consequently the situation. Unsurprisingly, we would rarely spend time together outside of his fraternity house, where it was necessary to conform to the expectations of an all-male space. I either had to play the role of the girl who didn’t know anything and had to be taught how to play poker and smoke a blunt with the boys (aka the “cute dumb” feminine character who gains favor through the stroking of the male ego) or I had to pretend to be “one of the guys,” meaning I did not protest, be myself, or state opinions (which are actually masculine actions under normative societal standards, but definitely not allowed by a female being “one of the guys”). Instead, I simply drank, smoked, and put on the demeanor that I didn’t give two fucks about anyone or anything. This is how to survive in a man’s world. You either play the inferior feminine role that is expected of you as a woman or you play the slightly more powerful role of a woman enacting and conforming to the masculinity around her. (But don’t forget, although you may feel more powerful while playing “one of the guys,” you will never be taken as seriously as a man, no matter how much masculinity you project.)
You might be wondering at this point, why the hell I stayed with this guy for any amount of time at all. Long story short: men capitalize on vulnerability and use it to their advantage for as long as they can. It’s perhaps a side effect of their tendency to provide and protect, leading to a masculine “Spidey sense” for vulnerable women. The beginning instinct may be to care for her, but this heightened sense of power can easily lead to manipulation. For example, when a man takes advantage of a vulnerable woman seeking love and attention after a recent break-up. He isn’t looking for any sort of commitment, especially not emotional investment because his life is “way too busy” to put in the time and effort of actually caring for another person, but giving her affection meets his sexual needs. So he allows her to believe he might love or care about her deeply, texts her once every couple hours to keep up painstakingly long conversations that don’t ever get far enough for him to be vulnerable or share real information about his life, and invites her over once or twice a week to get his dick wet. With the right girl caught in the right place of loneliness, it’s truly a brilliant system. Kudos to you, fuckboys.
There is a silver lining, however. After my painful “casual relationship” with someone who had more power over me than he had emotional investment in me, I realized I had let my self-worth be determined by someone else, and had given my agency away without even knowing it. I realized that the power imbalances of gender that I see in society can easily transfer into my romantic and sexual relationships if I’m not careful about who I choose to date. In other words, if I was to date a man, I needed to find one who loves women (for more than just their bodies), sees my feminine power, isn’t afraid to be feminine himself, and was not raised on patriarchal mindsets and then surrounded by toxic masculinity in a fraternity house. Now, I’m aware that I’m stereotyping, and I send my sincerest apologies to the soft-hearted, the non-masculine, the non-heterosexual, and the women-respecting fraternity boys out there who are openly fighting the good fight to consistently be decent and loving human beings. But for deeply masculine men, it’s hard to be loving. For those whom masculinity is a hard and fast value and constant state to be upheld, the box they live in is stronger than the love trying to escape its walls. Fraternities, as well as the dominant societal norms for men, uphold the value of masculinity, and by looking down on femininity in men and in the world, they restrict a large part of any man’s lived experience.
Masculinity in and of itself is by no means a bad thing—it is simply an energy of human experience, not restricted to men but present in varying degrees in people of all genders. The continuum of gender as a spectrum between man and woman shows that we all have our own unique balance of feminine and masculine energies. Yet it is when feminine energy is suppressed within individuals and undervalued in society that the concept of “toxic masculinity” comes into play. Toxic masculinity is hyper-masculinity, an unnatural state of valuing the masculine above all other ways of being, denying feminine expression from male individuals, and generally perceiving femininity as inferior. Toxic masculinity normalizes aggression and hyper-heterosexuality, promoting the perception of women as powerless, sexual objects. It creates unfounded feelings of male entitlement to women. Because the feminine is seen as inferior and useful only as a tool of enhancement to the masculine experience, some men come to believe they are owed not only sex from women but also unreciprocated emotional support and nurturing.
I believe it could be possible for toxic femininity to arise, if women and feminine energy were viewed as powerful in our society and masculinity was suppressed as much as femininity is today. But even so, the consequences for humanity would not be as harsh as those of toxic masculinity, because femininity allows for a softer way of being in the world, a way of existence less focused on insertion and more on experience. The feminine energy is constantly moving and feeling into situations, often acting in rhythm with the surrounding balance of energy rather than imposing its own distinct beat. (Pause: I want to remind you that when I say feminine energy, I am not speaking about women since women are filled with both feminine and masculine energy.) On the other hand, masculine energy is assertive and confident to stand on its own. Without femininity, people wouldn’t have the emotional sensitivity to notice what others are feeling without them expressing emotions verbally. It is an important force in the act of caring and empathizing. This is why I believe men who live within the confinements of strict masculinity are lacking in their abilities to love fully and cannot embody the amount of vulnerability necessary to make deeper connections with others.
Because toxic masculinity is such a deep running current within our society, both men and women must be aware of the roles it plays in their own lives and adjust their actions accordingly so that we can live based on our own values, rather than the masculine values imposed on us. Men who embrace their feminine energies and release their fears of being emasculated will soon see that they are much better able to connect and relate with people, both in the dating scene and in everyday life. And women need to stop wasting their time with men whose lack of vulnerability, love, and respect do not match the treatment that they deserve both inside and outside of the bedroom. Women need to be with someone who completely recognizes and admires their worth, who makes them feel powerful, who gives them more agency rather than less, and someone who lives into their own femininity to fully experience the world. If we do not change our own behavior to release ourselves from the masculine status quo, we will all continue to live inside of a man’s mouth.