Masculinity, toxicity and ‘bro’ culture: Learnings from the locker room
Last month, amidst a seemingly sudden uptick in the number of rape cases across the country, the Brac James P. Grant School of Public Health released a study that showed 63 percent of participants—11,102 male respondents aged between 15 and 24, from all 64 districts (81 urban and 289 rural clusters)—believed that beating their wives is justified if they are denied sex.
What's interesting is the response to studies like these. To some men, studies like these are an attack on their upbringing, their social contexts, on the masculinity they have relied on as a crutch for most of their lives as a way to cover their weak personalities and even weaker coping mechanisms. Some men try to distance themselves from the participants of the study—they would never be capable of such malice, they tell themselves—without realising that they are just as likely to resort to similar measures of getting what they want if the situation called for it. The subtle microaggressions and a quiet hostility towards women continue to persist in their personal spheres, unchecked and unrecognisable to themselves.
It doesn't take long for a young male to fall into the trappings that produce toxic masculinity—one could even get David Attenborough to narrate the sequence of events and accurately describe, to a tee, the environments and the actions that contribute to a manifestation of toxic behaviour in human males. It is, unfortunately, that predictable—across social classes, educational backgrounds and religions.
For a large part of my life, I have been witness to the ways different social, cultural and economic settings produce toxic males. In hindsight, I can see my own instances of toxic behaviour at various stages of growth, each strain requiring dedicated effort and guided unlearning to address. But the more I learned—of consent, mutual respect, of the fine balances of equity and justice and access—the more I found myself to be at odds with the environments that had shaped me into the person I had become.
I remember warm summer evenings in the Dhaka University teachers' quarters on Fuller Road, where, as a child, I had gleefully run around collecting leaves and branches and dirt for some make-believe cooking with my friends in miniature haari-patil. I also vividly remember the jeering, mocking tone with which a slightly older girl had called me "half-ladies" for playing a home-maker with the other children. Children don't form these opinions by themselves; these are fed to them by their parents and relatives, and even in the case of university professors and highly educated academics at the country's premier educational institution, that holds true.
I remember the hallways and playgrounds of my school—an elite English-medium school where the children of industrialists, civil society actors and people of national importance ran around, displaying what they had learned at home and within the classrooms themselves. I remember how, in my early teenage years, I was mocked for having more female friends than male ones, and how the cooties contagion had propagated thanks to me and my non-masculine ways.
And so I toughened up. I left behind the haari-patil and my books for football and video games, receded into a shell where I had to convince myself that if a girl talked to you, it must mean she liked you romantically, and learned to bottle up my feelings and my views when "kicking it" with my "bros". Conversations quickly veered to manly things like sports, rock and roll, teenage rebellion and getting girls. I was an active participant, and eventually it became second nature to crack sexist jokes at the expense of my female friends, to pursue the romantic interests of women, and essentially perpetuate the accepted nature of what it means to be a man.
The unlearning did not start until the grim realities of the world caught up. I was in Dhaka University then—another institution teeming with the frenzied masculine rage that enabled thousands of young men to project their power outwards, be it with cups of tea and lit cigarettes on the roadside or hockey sticks and flaming torches at political rallies. I met quietly brilliant poets from the chars of Barishal who denounced conservatism in society, yet wrote sleazy love letters for unwilling classmates because they didn't know how else to woo a woman. I came across the ex-cadets who were seemingly brilliant at everything from academics to inter-department basketball, but wilted under the female gaze and often resorted to misogynistic rants to counter their inability to handle an ounce of desire from the opposite sex. All the while, I had by my side a friend and a partner who would teach me—in the context of my relationship with her—the countless ways in which patriarchy had robbed her of her dreams and her agency. By the end of my university career, she was no longer a part of my life, and the effects of coming from a cracked and ultimately broken home had started to bear down on me and my views.
Even in a professional setting, the dichotomies were ever present. Engaging male co-workers meant suffering through endless sexist jokes and off-handed comments that the oblivious men had passed on their female colleagues. In maintaining professional relationships with other men, the constant berating of the work ethics of women was unbearable, the ludicrous comments often devoid of the context that they probably had to take care of their own man-children at home through cooking and cleaning as their unpaid wives, in addition to working in an office. Winding down from work meant game nights with friends who revelled in locker room talk—extended soliloquies centred around the intern's breasts, the latest measures enforced by the HR manager in trying (and failing) to stop their advances, and how the New Year's office parties would be prime hunting grounds for some "action". Even after #MeToo reached our shores, men still found a way to doubt accounts, call the characters of victims into question, and generally sided with the greater enclave of their own gender whether or not they knew any of the details of an incident.
These few examples aren't excuses for the way men behave. They are a depiction of the environments that breed the kind of behaviour that permeates every layer of society and ultimately creates an atmosphere that suffocates women and men who identify as feminists. These microaggressions end up creating a culture of intangible violence, till it manifests in tangible harm.
To the men who identify with my words, I implore you to keep calling out harmful, predatory, toxic behaviour. It will seem like an uphill battle, but it is of the utmost importance that you continue to confront, correct and guide your fellow men. You are far outnumbered, but letting that dull your edge in standing up for women—not just in your lives but everywhere—is akin to admitting defeat.
To the men reading this, I would like to say that I've been there. I know how you got where you are. I know how much of a sense of belonging you get when you're part of a group of red-blooded men. But know this: the sense of camaraderie you feel also makes you the biggest part of the problem. You may pass off the raping and the torture of women as a socioeconomic issue and try to absolve yourself of any responsibility, but having been a part of the "in-group" and seeing the kind of conversations you have in your elite, corporate and personal circles, you are just as much a part of the problem as your lower-income brethren. Unlearning the traits of being a toxic male takes time and effort, and going down that path means finding the courage to admit that you have a privilege that you'd like to upend to make society more liveable for the women around you. Having the basic empathy to recognise women's suffering is ultimately one of the truest tests of masculinity—not how it is currently defined, but how it should be.
Shaer Reaz is currently serving as Deputy Editor of the Digital section of The Daily Star. He can be reached at email@example.com.