As a woman, I’m generally not worried about being rejected when it comes to dating. I have other anxieties to mull over, such as whether or not I’m about to go out to dinner with an abuser, stalker, or murderer; or, if I decide not to continue dating that person, whether he will become an abuser, stalker, or murderer as a response to my rejection. But I’m not afraid of being rejected myself.

The cis-men I’ve spoken to about what it’s like to date in the 2020s, on the other hand, have a wholly different perspective: rejection isn’t simply an unpleasant experience that one can “get over.” It’s an insult, a source of shame, for which some feel compelled to “get even."[1]

I used to be terrified of any man who thought this way, especially when I’d think about the hundreds of times I’ve been approached by overly-persistent men out in public. If a man wants to ask out a complete stranger, he should at least be emotionally prepared to hear a “no” without falling to pieces, right?

But this is not the case. In fact, so many men respond violently to rejection from women that they’ve been hard at work over the last few years creating the manosphere: a massive, international, online community dedicated to blaming, preying on, exploiting, and tarnishing the reputations of women collectively[2], and sometimes one woman specifically, if they decide a particular woman in a male-dominated industry should not be there (see: politics, or Twitch[3]).

To make matters worse, from a community standpoint it seems like every time we try to talk about this deleterious social conditioning, actively prioritize men’s mental health, and look for options to make the world a safer place for men emotionally — that objective gets lost in translation. It gets drowned out by the throng of abuse and flat-out terrorism this lack of emotional safety is actively causing. It makes communities shrug and assume that men are just naturally predisposed to seek violence and dominance completely unbidden, creating the self-fulfilling feedback loop of a dating scene crammed with pleasure-seeking, emotionally unavailable men who are…how do I put this nicely…not very marketable to women?


men in boxes

The term “toxic masculinity” was coined to address an extremely small, cramped box that men are expected to live in. It’s a box reinforced by cultural norms and the idea that men, who are born with the capacity to feel, should only be feeling “manly” feelings that express power, dominance, and confidence above all else. Because these are some of western society’s most highly-favored values, it’s easy for a man in pursuit of this ideal to quickly become the guy who looks “successful” on paper (at least, to other men).

But this successful-on-paper man might eventually form sexual and/or romantic long-term relationships with women, where at some point he'll find himself completely out of sorts. As is often the case in relationships, uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or difficult feelings might arise, and his partner will (probably) expect him communicate those feelings with compassion and respect…two traits that largely aren’t taught in dominance school.

Some men learn to navigate this easily, or never had difficult with their feelings at all. But for many, a degree of cognitive dissonance can set in: from his perspective, if women are subordinate in the social hierarchy, they should not be expecting, well, anything besides Masculine Things™️ from him. And it’s hard to look like a confident, hyper-masculine man when you have zero confidence in talking about something only you can adequately know: your own mental state. So, men who are hypersensitive to rejection might react with the methods they’re most comfortable with: fight back. establish dominance. prove that you’re not a “loser”. All of a sudden, a simple conversation becomes, at best, a negotiation, and at worst, a battle.


invisible boxes

When we try to talk about toxic masculinity, which revokes men’s permission to feel[4] and ultimately harms people of all genders, inevitably the peanut gallery swarms in to shout “not all men” from the bleachers. As if saying “not all men shoot up malls and schools to retaliate against the autonomy of women!” magically ends anybody’s suffering in this situation!

We need to talk about the cultural norms forcing men into boxes, but we can’t, because talking about it means acknowledging that the box is a real thing, a collective trauma that men would have to reckon with. Commit to therapeutic workarounds for. Introspect over.

Of course, many men manage to live outside of a box steeped in aggression and express their feelings openly. Plenty of these men have been met with insults and shaming from both cis-men and cis-women for not fitting into the prescribed cultural norm. (The legends also speak of a social promised land; if enough people call you “metrosexual” or “sigma male” enough times, you can follow the clues and transcend your mundane life into a social circle that doesn’t care about any of that shit and live happily ever after!)

women in refrigerators

There are bad actors, of course. There will always be a subculture of pick-up artists and serial abusers, citing their “mental health issues” as an excuse to suck the air out of the room and exhaust you down to nothing, while simultaneously guilting you into sticking around to “fix” them[5]. We learn to spot these men. We teach our daughters and sisters and colleagues and classmates to identify and avoid them. They come up with new strategies, and we learn those, too. Tale as old as time.

Not to mention there are so few examples of emotionally intelligent, stable men in media holding lead roles, that we glom onto whichever actor seems to be fitting that role the best and vow to protect him with our lives. (Bless you, Keanu.)

Meanwhile we spend so much time just trying to keep ourselves, our families, and our livelihoods safe from the harm caused by men’s retaliation. We go jogging with pepper spray strapped to our wrists. We wear our keys between our fingers like Wolverine’s claws. We spend years in therapy, learning how to deal with the men in our lives who won’t go to therapy. We don’t have time (or, let’s be real, interest) to engage with the source of the retaliation that we fear. So, we wait for men to be “ready,” to talk to their friends, to get around to doing the work of healing themselves, and focus on our work of navigating a world full of unhealed, dangerous men who may or may not demand our attention in heinous or violent ways.

But more often than not, we spin our wheels and fight across the gender-binary aisle on Twitter over who’s to blame. It’s the men’s mothers, of course! It’s society, says Matt with the Joker profile pic! It’s because all women are prudes, or wh*res, or aren’t being nice or deferent enough! In between clickbait threads pitting Mars against Venus, we pause and ponder from time to time, but have not yet fully considered the question: how can we create space for men to bring their whole selves into the world, and not just their hyper-masculine, Marvel movie self-insert OC version?

And perhaps most importantly: who is truly benefitting from keeping so many lower- to middle-class men trapped in cramped little boxes, hungry for action, attention, hierarchies, and power? Because it sure as hell isn’t doing them any favors.


References

[1] Degges-White, S. (2018, May 24). Rejection: When It Hurts Men More Than It Should [Online Magazine]. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/lifetime-connections/201805/rejection-when-it-hurts-men-more-it-should
[2] Bates, L. (2021). Men Who Hate Women: From Incels to Pickup Artists: The Truth about Extreme Misogyny and How it Affects Us All. Sourcebooks.
[3] Salari. (2022, February 27). Twitch, Women, and Male Entitlement [Video]. https://youtu.be/x5wfbDn8wlE
[4] Brackett, M. (2019). Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive (1st ed.). Celadon Books.
[5] Bancroft, L. (2003). Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. Berkley Books.