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Raising The Men We Really Want To

Photo by Pablo Paulain.

When I was four, I lived down the road from a dark-haired woman who often wore a threadbare sweater emblazoned with the slogan “KILL ALL MEN”. I once asked her why she didn’t have a husband, and she laughed along with my parents. I didn’t know why. When she brought along another short-haired woman to a neighbourhood party, she was introduced to me only as her “Special Friend”, and I didn’t understand what that meant. Weren’t all friends special? Once I heard my Mother crinkle her nose at her and called her a ‘feminist’ – I didn’t know what that was, only that she was one. For Christmas she gave my sister a book of poetry, and I received a plastic dinner plate. At the time I was upset, but I probably would’ve done the same.

All of my favourite characters were women when I was growing up – I would often dress up as Alice and hold tea parties by myself in the garden, or wear a makeshift wig with a battered plastic tiara and parade around the forest as Sailor Moon, vanquishing evil with the help of my cat who was clearly not interested or compliant in the whole scenario. I used to hear my Dad protest to my Mum whenever I donned the outfits, or when she clumsily applied lipstick to my face – “He’s only little, he’ll grow out of it.”

When I was seven, my costumes disappeared.

I had an internet girlfriend when I was in high school. We only met up with three or four times in the flesh, and our few kisses were messy and inexperienced. During a late night session of swapping love heart emoticons, she told me a family member had called her house when she was alone, and I failed to understand the significance of her fear until she confided in me that he’d repeatedly sexually abused her as a child whenever he babysat her. The event was never reported to the authorities, and was handled only within the family, which I accepted as normal at the time. Why would you want anyone to know something like that had happened to you? It was the first time that I’d heard of a man abusing the trust that a woman had placed in him, but it wouldn’t be the last.

My first real girlfriend was only made more anxious than her mother made her by the stares of other people. On the few occasions she wore skirts or dresses when we went out with friends, she set herself apart from the group by covering her legs in long black tights that always looked like a protective afterthought. When I told her that I liked the way her legs looked, she told me that she didn’t want anyone to think she was a slut – and besides, boys would look at her, and they only ever had one thing on their minds. Who knows what could happen to her if she found herself alone at night? I remember insisting that not all men were that way, but she kept quiet. I wish she hadn’t.

My Mum doesn’t speak to her Father anymore. He was absent for most of my childhood, spending most of his time on business trips to Beijing – I wasn’t aware what he did, only that he was very important. I found out about my Grandmother’s abuse at his hands when another skeleton fell out of our family’s closet. I learned he had another family in China, and another here in Australia, and supporting them (along with gambling and playing sugar daddy to various young women across South-East Asia) had bankrupted his company, once valued in the millions. When one of my Mum’s mysterious half-brothers was slated to appear at a family “gatho”, she refused to turn up. Why would she want to be reminded that her own Dad was a cheating scumbag? When she hung up the phone after angrily declining the invitation, she remarked that men were incapable of keeping their dicks in their pants for more than five minutes. I was hurt, but I didn’t understand why. I still don’t.

During my second year of university, I fell head over heels for an unattainable wafer-thin girl – I loved her freckles, and the way she refused to laugh at anything without remarking on how funny it was first. It warmed me in a way that made me want to make breakfast for her every morning until both of us died. When she began dating an equally attractive and skinny boy with my half-hearted encouragement, I vented to my friends after sharing a frustrated joint over some KFC. The whole thing was totally bogus. I was right there! I’m nice, I’m cool, I’m accessible – why wasn’t she with me instead? Not only were the many mix tapes I gave her of stellar quality, I was nicer and smarter than all those ‘other guys’ who won her affection easily. While everyone nodded in agreement, the only dissenting voice came from my buddy’s girlfriend who was working silently from her laptop in the corner – “Did you ever actually ask her out?”

No, but that wasn’t the point.

My last girlfriend broke up with me because of the personality disorder I had. It left me too afraid to leave the house for six months and made me too difficult to be around. She fell back into her law degree and spending time with her family without the distraction of a mentally ill boyfriend, and I spent the next three months alternating between lazily looking at porn and talking to my therapist. I dramatically moved interstate by myself in order to reassess the direction of my life which had ground to a halt ever since graduating uni, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her in every moment I had to myself, and they were plentiful. I’d left all my possessions in a home that was nearly a thousand kilometres away.

I hate myself almost as much as I hate being happy, so I continued talking to her even though I ran away from home to forget we were ever together. I fed off every bit of contact with her in the hope it would result in her realising how wrong she’d been, at which point she’d jump on a plane to love me again. When she told me one morning that she’d had a fling with her old boyfriend that hadn’t worked out because he’d used her as some sort of sexual vending machine, I stayed in bed for three days. The thought of her having sex with another man made feel physically ill – terrible bodies together, an insufferable pair of lips on another. I told her I was still in love with her – she told me that she didn’t belong to me anymore. I know that. She never did.

I keep news alerts turned on in order to look cultured and informed in front of friends whenever my phone vibrates as we get coffee. At around four in the morning on the 23rd of May this year, my self-loathing Tinder swipes were interrupted by a message from CNN – there’d been a shooting near the campus of the University of California. A few were dead, many injured. That kind of crime had become so common of late that I didn’t really think anything of it. Senseless violence was an ambient part of life, and monsters are everywhere. But to describe the crime that took place as being without sense or premeditation devalues the specificity and lucid nature of the toxic beliefs that motivated Elliot Roger to murder six people.

A day later, a friend who shares my fascination for tragedy messaged me a video published by the shooter a few days before he went on the rampage that would end his life. My friend sent it with the message “check THIS shit out”, and he was right – it was shit. Roger was trash, misogynistic, insane, and overly-theatrical, but the measured and coherent way in which he spoke of his rejection at the hands of pretty girls and how they would all suffer for not providing him with sex was chilling. I’ve watched the women in my life suffer at the hands of men more times than I can count, and whether I meant it or not, I often played a part in that. In Roger’s horrifyingly calm rhetoric, I saw the face of every man who’s ever treated a woman like they were inferior to them for having the audacity to be female. I saw the fear of dressing down, the fear of walking alone at night, the fear of ‘nice guys’ who won’t ever leave you alone.

Barring exceptional circumstances, most women live their lives in fear of men in some way or another. And why wouldn’t they? Statistics demonstrate that men are far more predisposed to violence and sexual assault than women are. If a friend was bitten by a dog and was left with a crippling fear of animals as a result, my first reaction wouldn’t be to insist that not all dogs were like that – the scar on their hand would be reason enough to be wary. If naturally masculine traits are ones of strength, dominance, and emotional fortitude, what defines women? Are women expected to be subservient, weak, and mad with feelings they can’t control? My entire life, I’ve been surrounded by men who have betrayed and taken advantage of the women in their lives, and I’ve never met a man who hasn’t in some way fallen into the abusive patterns that bind our gender.

If your first reaction to hearing that all men are monsters is to defend yourself by claiming that not all men are like that, you’ve missed the point of the statement – and maybe you aren’t one of better ones. Until we treat the rift of fear between genders with the kind of legitimacy and respect it deserves, we’ll fall back into the comfortably discriminatory patterns that have defined the relationship between men and women for thousands of years.

I watched too many men in the aftermath of the Isla Vista Massacre defend their gender by claiming that not all men were predisposed to the kind of misogyny that Elliot Roger had – but why bother? Do men need defending? As a gender, men have effectively been in control of the world since we began to measure time. Men earn more money than women for the same jobs, men make up the majority of elected politicians, men have fought on the front lines of war without women as their peers until extremely recently. The assertion that masculinity is a toxic construct is not a personal attack on any one man in particular. It’s merely a way of voicing the concern that despite living in a post-feminism age where gender equality has supposedly been achieved, a marked disparity in the way men and women live their lives will continue to exist until we raise the kind of sons that don’t make us fear for our daughters.

Written by Brenton Cassidy

Categories: Short & Sharp
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