Letter to the Editor: Toxic Masculinity and Preventing Interpersonal Violence


Chidi Agu

Through a series of fortunate events, I began my work with Campus Advocacy Resources & Education last fall. At CARE, we are passionate about preventing interpersonal violence (e.g. sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking), advocating for survivors, and ultimately working towards an environment where students are free to thrive without fear of such threats to their bodies and minds. Over the past two quarters, I’ve had the opportunity to contribute to events, presentations, and workshops on self-care, how law enforcement agencies respond to domestic violence, fun and appropriate ways to clearly communicate affirmative consent, and the role toxic masculinity plays in the epidemic of interpersonal violence. It has been my work and research on toxic vs. healthy masculinity that has me particularly excited for the big plans CARE has to begin spring quarter.

Everyone wants to make the world a better place, but sometimes it’s hard to know whether what you’re doing is having any tangible positive impact when your wrists are sore from making hundreds of button pins or you’ve just passed out a forest’s worth of event flyers. Yet, it is the accumulation of these innumerable small steps and interactions that create community and progress, and I’ve seen this firsthand. This April, I am proud to see all of this culminate when we bring the national organization Men Can Stop Rape to UCSB for a series of trainings and a keynote speech on consent and hookup culture (Isla Vista may be the mecca for this). The keynote will take place Tuesday April 5th at 6PM in Girvetz 1004 and on Wednesday April 6th at 6PM in the Women’s Center Conference Room. I will be co-presenting with my good friends Siavash Zohoori and Jason Ouyang about detoxifying masculinity.

Toxic masculinity is an often misunderstood term, so I will reference a simple definition from activist and feminist writer Bailey Poland:

“Toxic masculinity is the version of masculinity that values physical strength and aggression, downplays overall emotional well-being and expression, connects men’s value to domination by force and sexual prowess, and often finds its voice in misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia.”

An unhealthy and restrictive definition of what it means to be a “real man” hurts both women and the men who perpetuate it. Men and masculinity are not intrinsically harmful but this toxic strain of masculinity is what needs to be rooted out. I love the men in my life and I want all of us to be able to express ourselves in ways that make us feel happy and self-actualized without harming ourselves and others. Every human being deserves as much.

I am often asked why I’m involved in the work I do since men are woefully underrepresented in issues that disproportionately affect women. Unfortunately, I fear I have no particularly profound explanation beyond that this is simply the right thing to do, and I wanted to do something where I could be effective without simply imitating what a woman could be doing better. None of this has ever struck me as revolutionary and it has been genuinely disconcerting that at some indiscernible point I began to receive labels such as “radical” when saying plain truths.

When someone says that AIDS medication should be affordable for sick patients, we do not consider them to be an anti-pharmaceutical activist nor do we call those outraged by pedophilia pro-children radicals. So it is then perplexing that those who understand sexual violence is a plague both on and off college campuses are frequently referred to by pejoratives like “social justice warrior” or “feminazi” which imply that their critiques are unfounded and nonsensical. That this could be said when up to 25% of college women will be victims to attempted or completed sexual assault and 1 in 6 men will experience sexual abuse in their lifetime goes to show the pernicious harm of toxic masculine ideologies. The truth should not be up for debate nor a position of progressive radicalism, it should be the baseline standard—and men need to be a part of ending interpersonal violence and dismantling toxic masculinity.

However, this is not simply an argument of self-interest; it’s about creating a community where we all can thrive. I say all this with full awareness that bodies like mine have historically rested directly between the crosshairs of a racist patriarchal system and false rape accusations that allegedly sought to defend the honor of White women from the specter of Black hypermasculinity and lasciviousness. The lynching and inhumane violence enacted upon Black men tragically shows how interconnected systems of oppression are.

Thus, the work that needs to be completed must be done by a coalition of the informed and the willing, as is the case with any issue preventing true social justice. Ending interpersonal violence is a struggle that needs to be undertaken by both men and women. White people must be involved in demolishing White Supremacy, anti-Blackness, and institutional racism. Straight men and women must be ardent advocates for the full equality of LGBTQ people. Cisgender individuals need to fully embrace and support their transgender peers. It is those who occupy social positions of relative privilege who must be a part of deconstructing inequality and building true equity. This is not a favor we pay to our fellow human being; it is a moral imperative.

Rape culture isn’t a society where we give thumbs-up and high-fives to rapists; it is much more insidious than that. Rape culture is when popular narratives are so preoccupied with the idea of false rape accusations that they miss the fact that only 2 in 100 rapists will ever be imprisoned. It is that nearly 90% of rapists are the acquaintances, relatives, or romantic partners of survivors. It is the fact that the majority of sexual assaults are never reported due to fear of humiliation or not being believed, or that the legal system will exert further traumatization. It is regarding women as “locks” that can be opened by the “keys” of smooth talk, alcohol, drugs, and persistence. Rape culture is when we are more concerned with what someone was wearing than with what happened to them.

I hope that you will join me and CARE on April 5th and 6th for discussions on all of these topics. Not because we will end rape culture and change society with two days of programming, but so that we can come to a better understanding of ourselves and each other even if we are not in full agreement. Together is the only way we will create the community that UCSB deserves.

The Men Can Stop Rape keynote address on consent and hookup culture will be at 6:00 PM on Tuesday April 5th in Girvetz 1004. CARE’s student workshop on detoxifying masculinity will be at 6:00 PM on Wednesday April 6th in the Women’s Center Conference Room.