Aziz Ansari, Donald Trump, Quentin Tarantino: Are these men guilty of 'toxic masculinity'?

Photo: Getty Images/Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle

Welcome to a new Yahoo Lifestyle column, “The #MeToo Guide to Raising Boys,” which takes a look at where we’ve gone wrong — and how we can go right — while raising caring, respectful, self-assured boys today. Michael C. Reichert is a psychologist, executive director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives, and author of the forthcoming The New Boyhood: The Power of Connections to Build Good Men.

When the unfortunate details of a hookup between Aziz Ansari and a young woman were made public on a millennial feminist website recently, said young woman called it “the worst night of my life.” The story provoked controversy, deeper conversation about #MeToo, and a reaction from New York Times writer Bari Weiss, who argued that while Ansari’s behavior was “aggressive and selfish and obnoxious,” the woman’s complaints were overblown. “There is a useful term for what this woman experienced,” Weiss wrote. “It’s called ‘bad sex.’”

But even the idea of “bad sex” is complicated, meaning quite different things to men and women. In a recent commentary about the Ansari situation, writer Lili Loofbourow pointed out that for men, it has to do with not having an orgasm. “But when most women talk about ‘bad sex,’” she observed, “they tend to mean coercion, or emotional discomfort or, even more commonly, physical pain. 

Reading about this encounter and its parsing, I flashed to the many others regaling us in this time of growing impatience — like the 2015 assault behind a Dumpster by the Stanford swimmer on a fellow student, or the behavior bragged about in the infamous Access Hollywood interview by then-reality TV star Donald Trump. Both of these stories, like the Ansari example, were one-sided, wounding, pathetic, and, in the swimmer’s case, at least, criminal.

I cannot stop thinking about the men in these stories, wondering what they were thinking. The usual explanations spring to mind: They are all men besotted with alcohol, power, and entitlement. They are narcissistically self-absorbed, perhaps sociopathic, lacking empathy and an ability to feel connected to someone else. Still, these explanations raise the question: What are they consciously thinking?

The book American Hookup, extrapolated from interviews and surveys with college students across the country by author and sociologist Lisa Wade, provides some insight. Through her research, she realized that the contemporary mandate for meaningless sex overcomes other human impulses, including connection or emotional intimacy. In fact, nearly 70 percent of both males and females regret hooking up after the fact — and yet most, despite these aversive conditions, are unable to opt out in the first place to avoid the regrets. And Wade concludes that while casual sex is often sad for both males and females, it is a particularly unsavory brand of masculinity — one she characterizes as “toxic” — that defines this aspect of college dating.

“Hookup culture,” she writes, “strongly masculinized, demands carelessness, rewards callousness, and punishes kindness.”

Even though new generations of women can express their voices and their personal agency as never before, social interactions — dating relationships, college culture, classroom discussions — are still dominated by the same cultural norms men have contended with for generations. Social scientists call these norms “masculinity.”

What’s important and hopeful, though, is that these norms are historic, unconscious, and largely beyond the reach of any particular male or female. They are passed along in families and schools, on playgrounds and through media, in ways that are so taken for granted that we speak of the process as “hidden.” And though just about every male internalizes these norms to some extent, extreme versions arise only when a man has lost himself.

In this sense, was Ansari simply playing out the customary male part in the dominant sexual script? And are we confined to this script forever?

In my role as a psychologist and teen counselor, I spend lots of time talking with high school boys. I meet with a group of 40 to 50 of them regularly at a school, in a context where we can discuss topics that are central to their lives.

Last month, our focus was on relationships with girls. A young man, Luis, had volunteered to tell his story while dozens of his classmates listened attentively. He was trying to say what his girlfriend meant to him and what it was like to explore new feelings of intimacy and commitment. Being open in front of other guys was not easy and, judging from snickers and stray comments that escaped from them, I worried it might be a bridge too far. Because in the hookup culture, according to Wade, wanting to be close and acknowledging dependency needs is “the antithesis of masculinity.” And the worst a young man can do is to “catch feelings” or become “clingy.”

Still, Luis persisted, and I offered encouragement. “I love Natalie,” I invited him to proclaim, challenging him to be fully himself. He took the challenge, tentatively at first but louder and stronger as he repeated the phrase again and again. He pushed back against the bro culture both within him and around him, in the room.

In our current cultural of reckoning with the way basic rights have been denied to women, the concept of “toxic” masculinity has become a popular meme. The idea of making such a distinction between healthy identities and ones that are hurtful originated with Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who worked with men in prison and sought to explain their antisocial and self-destructive behaviors. That idea was then taken up by the mythopoetic movement, which held that virtues like courage, responsibility, and service spring from men’s deeper natures and represent their true potential.

Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland and Angry White Men, regrets the “toxic male” concept, finding in his work with men that it basically amounts to name-calling.

“When we talk about toxic masculinity,” he explained in an interview, men “very often think that we’re telling them they’re doing it wrong, that they’re bad, and they have to give up their ideas of masculinity, the toxic ones, and embrace the new one.” He prefers another distinction: between a “good man,” defined by each man’s personal values, and a “real man,” representing those cultural norms. Kimmel has found that men recognize the idea that surrendering their values to cultural pressures leaves them with only a diminished, false sense of self.

“The problem,” as Wade has asserted, “is not toxic masculinity. It’s that masculinity is toxic.” And she noted, about the Stanford rapist specifically, “the problem is men’s investment in masculinity itself.”

Fortunately, new research is beginning to clarify whether it’s men, masculinity in general, or extreme cultural pressures that are most responsible for the problem of sexual exploitation.

According to a new study of young men in the U.S., U.K., and Mexico, which was just presented by global justice organization Promundo at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “a majority of young men don’t harass, don’t bully, and don’t approve of this violence.” Males at risk of hurting someone else come from all classes, races, and countries. And what they have in common is a restrictive and punishing identity taken more deeply to heart. These are the males who can find no alternative but to submit to the pressures, seductions, and rewards, even at the expense of their goodness.

Reflecting on these findings while listening to Luis and his peers that day in the classroom, I realized the boys and I were engaged in a battle for their souls. With backing, boys like Luis summon the courage to resist cultural pressures and step out of the “man box.” Contrary to the view of pessimists, it seems clear that he and most other men, offered a real opening, would be guided by their hearts. It is when they are both overwhelmed and alone that they give up on themselves.

How can we be sure? Because human development is a progressive force, perhaps the most powerful one we have. For a generation that reports alarming levels of angst and loneliness, even while connected to each other like never before, virtue flourishes when we make sure that conditions are right.

Because, when I thinking back to that day with Luis and the other young men at the school, I realize this: There was plenty of masculinity in the room, and yet none of it was toxic.

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