Recent sexual misconduct allegations made against acclaimed Dominican-American writer, Junot Díaz has had me thinking a lot about toxic masculinity, machismo, and what society has conditioned us to believe defines manhood. This might seem like a radical theory to some, but one could argue that toxic masculinity is the drive behind most—if not all acts of violence. It encompasses dominance and control. It’s the constant need to prove one’s manhood by attacking anything that would be considered feminine—hence the violence many times geared towards women. If we want the #Metoo movement to go beyond breaking our silence and calling out men and their unacceptable BS behavior, than we need to be ready to start having some serious discussions around the toxic masculinity problem that has plagued men for years.
“Toxic masculinity is the culture. It’s the way we (men and women) raise little boys to think of themselves as emotionally and physically tough, as inherently different from little girls, as powerful and strong,” says Dr. Isabel Molina-Guzmán, associate professor of Latina/Latino studies and associate dean of the Graduate College, U of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “These gender and sexual norms are reinforced through the media, which is predominately produced by white, straight, men. It’s reinforced in our film, tv, video games, political, and religious culture.”
The primal act of showing one’s power over another human being is the reason why so many acts of sexual violence even happen in the first place. We can’t have a dialogue about Junot Díaz or other perpetrators for that matter, without first understanding this prominent ideology. If you ask me, this discussion has been quite overdue. It’s time we finally have it.
For starters, let’s first acknowledge the impact masculinity has on both genders. “Toxic machismo is harmful to men as well as to women because it does not allow men to have their full range of emotions,” says professor Iris Lopez, sociology professor and director of the Latin American & Latin@ Studies Program at City College in NYC. “When a little boy is told not to cry because “men don’t cry,” this process is damaging because it can lead men to shut down their emotions and cut themselves off from themselves and others. The objectification of women contributes to unequal and problematic relationships with women and with their own children which has an adverse effect on the quality of their lives.”
This would explain why Diaz—who was both a victim and perpetrator of abuse—was constantly struggling with having to prove his own masculinity—mainly to himself. In his memoir essay published in The New Yorker just weeks before the recent allegations, Diaz admits for the first time about his experience being raped at 8 by a male family friend and the life-long trauma that followed. He writes:
“It fucked up my childhood. It fucked up my adolescence. It fucked up my whole life. More than being Dominican, more than being an immigrant, more, even, than being of African descent, my rape defined me. “I spent more energy running from it than I did living. I was confused about why I didn’t fight, why I had an erection while I was being raped, what I did to deserve it. And always I was afraid—afraid that the rape had ruined me; afraid that I would be “found”; afraid afraid afraid. “Real” Dominican men aren’t raped. And if I wasn’t a “real” Dominican man I wasn’t anything. The rape excluded me from manhood, from love, from everything.”
This need to prove not just to others but to himself his manhood and that he was a “real” Dominican man seems to be something Diaz was constantly battling with. In fact, one of the women who came fourth about Diaz’s behavior, Alisa Valdes—a former Boston Globe writer turned novelist—mentioned in a detailed blog post a specific line Diaz gave her after she called him out once on his misogynistic ways. The two had gotten involved years ago while she was still working for The Boston Globe and Diaz had already become a Latino literary darling in New York. She had gone to visit him in New York and he had asked her to clean his kitchen because his depression had made it too difficult for him to do himself.
“Sweetie, you can take the man out of the D.R., but you can’t take the Dominican out of the man,” she remembers him saying. Considering Diaz’s childhood trauma, it’s clear that Diaz’s Latino upbringing and the machismo he was most likely exposed to made it harder for him—like many men— to not feel easily emasculated by his experiences.
“Rape is the ultimate expression of violence, power, and control of one person over another—all of the characteristics boys are often raised to value and perform,” says professor Molina. “So, in the case of Junot that experience of sexual violence viscerally taught him a) that he was not a man or less than a human, and b) that to be a man was to exert violence, power, and control over others.”
We teach young boys to suppress their feelings and that anything that isn’t hyper masculine is a threat to their manhood and then we wonder why so many of them turn into violent, sexiest men. If we want to see significant change in men—in our culture—we need to start expanding the deeply rooted notion of manhood—of masculinity—because right now our definition is still pretty darn limited. We need to let them know at a young age that it’s okay to cry, to express emotion, to be vulnerable, to be soft and to recognize that in no shape or form should that be a threat to their masculinity. We need to let them know that their vulnerabilities and their sensitivities can become their strengths. While none of this is exclusive to race or ethnicity, the idea that men need to be hyper masculine in order to be men is very much reinforced in Latino culture.
“These behaviors start in the household; when girls are taught to be responsible or to ‘clean their brothers room.’ And boys are disconnected from responsibility; and they are ingrained in Latino families as women have traditionally taken those roles as ‘house owners,’ says Jossianna Arroyo-Martínez, chair and professor of Latin American literatures and Afro-Caribbean diasporas at The University of Texas, who emphasizes the importance of not only teaching children that household responsibilities are for everyone—regardless of gender but also having dialogue around how males are also often times victims of sexual abuse. “Junot Diaz’s piece in The New Yorker and the #Metoo movement is also making us aware of the sexual abuse that young boys suffer and it is still silenced in society. Also, the need for conversations and changed behaviors in families to disrupt the pattern of intra-family abuse. I do believe that having these conversations is a path into healing and future understandings.”
Studies have shown that perpetrators are often times victims of sexual abuse themselves. In fact, one particular study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that 35% of perpetrators reported having been victims of child sexual abuse themselves. This was in comparison to the 11% of non-perpetrators. See a pattern here? There’s a strong correlation between sexual abuse victims and sexual abuse perpetrators. We can not stop rape culture without getting to the root of how it all begins. We can’t ultimately put an end to this without having open conversations and holding safe spaces for boys and men to also break silence on their own sexual abuse traumas.
“The first step in any healing process is for the person to acknowledge they have a problem,” says professor Lopez. The second step is to work through the pain and to heal. The third step is to change that behavior and join others to bring about social change. Junot can influence generations of Latinx communities by talking and writing about Latino men’s unwelcome and unsolicited aggressive sexual behavior. He can raise consciousness in the social media about the patriarchal culture of misogyny and the role that media, video games, and certain types of rap music play in normalizing and reinforcing toxic masculinity in men.”
Sexual abuse is monstrous and inexcusable. But we need men to do more than apologize and feel remorseful. We need them to transform and to join us in taking down this long-lived and effed up patriarch system, which can only happen if we start to take a deeper look at masculinity and step by step begin to remove the layers of limitations and oppressive restrictions that have lead to it becoming such a toxic force.