We need to talk about toxic masculinity

Melinda Tankard Reist acts locally to confront a widespread issue

“Well, I hadn’t had enough death threats lately,” joked Melinda Tankard Reist when asked why she began Collective Shout, the grassroots campaigns movement she founded ten years ago to fight the pornification of culture.

“I was looking for a good time, trying to make friends online,” she continued, dryly, about working towards a sexualisation-free world.

“The harms of the everyday sexual objectification of women have been well documented.” – Collective Shout

The reality is, of course, quite the opposite. And Tankard Reist knows better than anyone her work is no laughing matter.

Tankard Reist was speaking last week at a public event badged ‘wine, cheese and a conversation about toxic masculinity and God’ – run by Christ Church Inner West Anglican in Sydney.

One of Collective Shout’s strategies for addressing the harmful sexualisation and objectification of women and girls is engaging in conversations at a local, community level, such as the “Toxic Masculinity and God” conversation last week. Toxic masculinity has hit the headlines, hashtags and news feeds during the past few years as it describes the concept of maleness as characterised by stoicism, virility, dominance and aggression.

Explaining Collective Shout more bluntly at the event, Tankard Reist said: “We name, shame and expose advertisers, corporations and marketers who objectify women and sexualise girls to sell products and services.”

Just that day Tankard Reist had been described as “a menace to women and society” and “a real-life version of The Handmaid’s Tale”. The comments were made by Eloise Monaghan, the founder of Australian lingerie label Honey Birdette, a clothing company whose advertising Collective Shout has been successfully campaigning against for several years,

Since it launched, Collective Shout has supported many consumer complaints made to regulatory bodies about objectified portrayals of women and ongoing breaches of Australian Association of National Advertisers Code of Ethics. In the past eighteen months, more than 20 individual Honey Birdette ads submitted to Ad Standards have been found to be in breach of the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) Code of Ethics.

Last week, Honey Birdette unveiled a new campaign called “Red Alert” featuring images of models in lingerie with the word “censorship” labelled across their chest, fighting back against what it says is Collective Shout’s “repressive agenda, which calls for a much stricter and far reaching censorship regime in the media landscape.”

“I certainly won’t let conservative fringe groups [male politicians and female-hating woman] blame women’s bodies for domestic violence,” said Ms Monaghan.

“Our bodies are not up for discussion, how appropriate our breasts are for display in lingerie advertising. Nor does lace underwear consent rape.”

Collective Shout says that “the harms of the everyday sexual objectification of women have been well documented, including links to men’s violence against women”. It points to the Advertising In(Equality) report by Women’s Health Victoria, along with the NSW Government’s 2016 report which found “exposure to media representation of genders … can provide templates for what it means to be a boy/man (equated with sexual conquest and entitlement to access women’s bodies) and girl/woman (sexually available).”

“The NSW Government further maintains, in line with the ‘National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2022’, that such stereotyping contributes to attitudes that support or justify violence against women and girls.”

“Toxic humanity is the underlying issue.” – Andrew Katay

Such work makes clear why Collective Shout’s Tankard Reist was a key part of the discussion about ‘toxic masculinity’ with Tim Bowden, Headmaster at Sydney’s Trinity Grammar School, and Andrew Katay, Christ Church Inner West senior minister.

Their discussion began by asking whether society’s culture of ‘toxic masculinity’ is the result of systems, or people. Bowden said the biological differences between men and women – “men are bigger, heavier, stronger” – explain how men had gained power over women in society. This, he said, means there’s a “chicken and egg” dilemma in determining what has informed our culture of toxic masculinity.

Katay said there’s a “perception that the Christianity church and the Bible have made this kind of thing worse or are part of the problem.” He is confident the Bible has “significant resources to address the problem”. The solutions he’s interested in are ones that “uphold maleness and femaleness”.

“Toxic humanity is the underlying issue,” he said, adding “it may have a manifestation in men.”

“I agree, but I don’t think there is an equivalence of outcomes,” Tankard Reist responded.

She explained that toxic masculinity is about “male attitudes that lead to male behaviour that primarily hurts women and girls.”

“It also hurts boys,” she agreed, but “they can’t be collapsed in some kind of false equivalence or ‘whataboutism’”.

Melinda Tankard Reist knows exactly how bad the problem is

Bowden agreed that the “asymmetry is undeniable”.

“I never thought about these things as a 25-year-old, but now, in my mid-40s, I am.”

“Why?” he asked of himself. The reason, he believes, is realising his “privileged” experience as a man, which has led him to ask the females in his life about their experiences.

As headmaster at an elite private school for boys, Bowden is acutely aware of the opportunity he has to reinforce, challenge and shift the norms and behaviours of young men. “Schools reflect society,” he said, but also “schools are formative institutions.”

“The world needs good men,” Bowden explained. He is determined to “model vulnerability and openness about one’s weaknesses”; teach his male students to “know the power you have” – “don’t pretend you don’t have it” – and to “use your power to build others up, not yourself.”

Bowden isn’t unrealistic. He knows that the worst of his students’ behaviour is unlikely to be seen by him. Yet he nonetheless senses a shift in the student body in recent times and is hopeful that boys are increasingly becoming more aware of the harmful effects of the sexualisation of females and more determined not to participate in its perpetuation.

“I have had to make mandatory reports after visiting schools.” – Melinda Tankard Reist

Tankard Reist knows exactly how bad the problem is, due to the work she does speaking in schools.

At every school, female students as young as 11 years of age, report to her experiences they consider to be ‘normal’. These include: boys asking them for sexual images of themselves; boys ranking their bodies in comparison to porn stars; and boys physically grabbing them.

“I have had to make mandatory reports after visiting schools,” Tankard Reist says of the experiences disclosed to her.

While she believes the sexualisation of girls is worse than it has been, she also says more boys are approaching her to confess harmful behaviours. They also want to make a commitment not to consume porn, and express a willingness to be part of the solution, rather than the problem.

These boys often face social ostracising and bullying as a result of “disrupting the harmful narrative” of toxic masculinity.

Their perseverance and influence gives Tankard Reist hope.