Last Tuesday, former Vice President Joe Biden spoke at an anti-sexual assault rally at the University of Miami. After mentioning President Donald Trump’s notorious Access Hollywood tape scandal, Biden said, “If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him, ” adding that “any guy that talked that way was usually the fattest, ugliest SOB in the room.”
Trump added fuel to the fire on Thursday, tweeting, “Crazy Joe Biden is trying to act like a tough guy. Actually, he is weak, both mentally and physically, and yet he threatens me, for the second time, with physical assault. He doesn’t know me, but he would go down fast and hard, crying all the way. Don’t threaten people Joe!”
Under any circumstances, the thought of two grown men engaging in a war of words and throwing around threats of physical violence is, quite frankly, embarrassing; the fact that these words came from two world leaders in their 70s is deeply concerning. And yet, the situation is remarkably familiar: In a show of power, two men attempt to work out their issues through petty displays of manliness. It is but one example of the hypermasculine culture in which both Biden and Trump were raised — a toxic culture that lies at the heart of a mental health crisis affecting American boys and men, generations later.
At the surface, hypermasculinity and the issue of gender-based violence more obviously manifest themselves as problems affecting women. And while that is certainly true, men also seem to fall victim to these same outdated notions — but nobody notices because, usually, the struggle is internalized.
Put simply, the foundation of our modern yet outdated notions of masculinity is based on the idea that any feminine behavior is inherently weak and shameful. This means that “real” men stay away from dancing, cooking and — specifically applicable to Los Angeles — veganism. But more importantly, this means that men are restricted from communicating their emotions.
This unhealthy tendency to bottle up one’s feelings only worsens the initial issue — often leading to increased risk of anxiety and depression. Lacking an outlet to fully express their issues in an acceptable manner, many men feel they have no way out. In the U.S., suicide is the second leading cause of death in men and boys under 35.
Furthermore, the effects of these emotional struggles are not limited to only the men themselves. In a previous column I wrote about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., I mentioned that when men are as emotionally damaged as the alleged shooter, they are confronted with a choice: further withdrawal or rage. Many resort to the latter, causing harm to just about anyone who crosses their paths; in the shooter’s case, 17 innocent people lost their lives because of his decision.
Aside from physical rage, we can also examine toxic notions of masculinity through the lens of sexual assault. In a culture where young men are pressured to demonstrate that they are, indeed, men, sex often becomes an act not of affection, but domination. While this is not to say all — or even most — traditionally masculine men will attempt to commit sexual assault, a common thread among many such cases is the inherent need to confirm the aforementioned sense of power and superiority. For instance, with the examples of actors Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey and entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein, all of the abuse they were accused of were the results of their need to demonstrate and capitalize on their power over others. Even when these acts are met with disapproval — such as the previously mentioned exchange between Biden and Trump — many men still take it upon themselves to resolve such issues through physical violence, the ultimate display of hypermasculine power.
And yet, as harmful and as prevalent as they are, sexual assault and physical violence are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the damaging effects of being insecure in one’s masculinity. In addition to the homophobic notions that have become largely synonymous with hypermasculinity, this twisted mindset is also responsible for an increased risk of H.I.V. among gay and bisexual men. According to a study by Northwestern University, hypermasculinity and resulting feelings of anxiety and depression often lead to overcompensation, which is closely aligned with an increase in risky sexual behavior.
For everyone’s sake, there has to be a way for us as a society to recognize and address the harmful consequences of perpetuating this hypermasculine culture. No more pressure to perform sexual conquests, and no more pressure to aggressively prove physical strength. No more pressure to “be a man” — just be yourself. Parents need to teach their sons to understand their emotional struggles, and when the burden becomes too heavy to bear, take them to see a mental health specialist — no matter the perceived stigma. No longer should boys be left alone to navigate the complexities of their masculinity.
Once again, I would like to make clear that many boys may not grow up to commit the devastating acts of hypermasculinity with which our society has become all too familiar. But there is a reason almost all school shootings and almost all cases of sexual violence are committed by men. Hypermasculinity is hurting boys, and turning the rest of us into collateral damage.
Ryan Fawwaz is a freshman majoring in journalism. He is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Mindful Mondays,” runs every other Monday.