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Everyone's Invited: Author Amber Medland On Toxic Masculinity
The Quietus , July 17th, 2021 09:42

Amber Medland's new book Wild Pets is "an instant set text of the emerging canon of millennial fiction" (The Guardian). In this exclusive essay for the Quietus, she talks about campus rape culture and teaching masculinity in the classroom

Emma Sulkowicz (centre-right) with Mattress Performance at her graduation, Columbia University, 19 May 2015. Photo credit: Adam Sherman. cc-by-4.0

On my first day as an MFA student at Columbia, I saw Emma Sulkowicz carrying her mattress across campus for her project ‘Carry That Weight’. In a casual conversation, a professor mentioned that faculty were told to advise students against going to the police if they were raped. So, while I wish I’d been surprised by the revelations of Everyone’s Invited, I have to ask: Does our cyclical shock (not Hollywood! Not Oxfam! Not gymnastics!) at the latest incarnation of institutional sexual harassment and abuse belie our uncertainty over what to do next? Or does it demonstrate that we still refuse to understand it as something systemic?

Of course it begins in schools. Sevenoaks School, which I attended, was one of the 2,962 schools named before Everyone’s Invited – a movement exposing rape culture in UK schools and universities through conversation – stopped releasing name of individual institutions because they didn’t want them to take disproportionate blame for a systemic problem. Our consent education was limited to ‘no means no’; a single decision, not a process. But teachers tutting over my short skirt with ‘leave something to the imagination’ and boys pulling up the porn site didn’t leave me traumatised. The real danger came when I, like my friends, arrived at university thinking of a certain level of sexual harassment as routine. We were right; it wasn’t acceptable, but it was normal, because it happened all the time. According to the recent Ofsted inspection, most school-aged girls say the same.

I experienced the ‘culture’ part of ‘rape culture’ – in which attitudes, behaviours and beliefs normalise and trivialise sexual violence – with more lucidity, after I had been teaching at Columbia for three years. As part of the University Writing course, I designed a module called ‘American masculinities’ because I didn’t understand American men or how they interacted. After I left, in 2016, a racist misogynist WhatsApp thread from the Columbia varsity wrestling team – several of whom had been in my class – was leaked on ‘Bwog’, a student-run campus news site.

Realising the target was ‘feminist birchs s’, I looked for myself. Even though the vast majority of students had responded positively to the module, suddenly I felt like a likely target – I had been 23, teaching 18 and 19 year-olds and I’m half Indian. Through close-reading essays and analysing music videos, I had tried to guide the students towards the idea that masculinity is a construct. I wanted them to think about how they performed or perceived others’ performances of masculinity. Watching the classes discuss these topics was fascinating; when I asked the most conscientious students to name men they found masculine, they all named American presidents. In the classes dominated by Varsity athletes, The Rock featured heavily, and the girls named animated Disney characters. According to my students, masculinity in the examples we studied boiled down to the acquisition of ‘power’, ‘money’, ‘muscles’, and ‘girls’. But most of the students didn’t transfer their critical analysis to their experience of life. I wish I had been more explicit about the fact that the essays we were reading weren’t just in conversation with each other, but with a culture I wanted them to examine. The irony of having to halt a discussion when a female student left the room in tears due to male jeering was not lost on me. I wish I had been confident enough to make the male students involved examine what had occurred.

I joked about my narcissism in expecting to turn up as a cameo in the messages. The ex-student who told me about the leak admitted that she’d been concerned on my behalf too.
Thankfully I didn’t feature, but I was still naïve enough to feel hurt because I thought I had ‘educated’ those involved. As if misogyny was actually a lack of information. I found the use of ‘entitled’ particularly galling. If someone like me helped students unpack what masculinity might mean, identify the damage its toxic forms could do, and think about what a positive version could look like, surely that should have done the trick?

Hundreds of athletes, alumnae, and parents leaping to defend their children posted about ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘private conversation’ in the comments section which, evidencing the culture, quickly turned nasty. They didn’t seem to understand that no one is a racist misogynist in private, and something else in public. Private discourse is what forms social behaviour. Suddenly, it was obvious that the culture itself is the problem. A Dr. Benway wrote ‘Grow up. And stay away from men because we don’t want another mattress girl on our hands.’

The athletes were funded by Columbia and branded as such, wearing their Varsity stash to every class. In the end, the wrestling team’s season was suspended. No further action was taken. In my class, they had learnt not to make misogynistic remarks in front of me. During the scandal, they learnt to update their WhatsApp security. The experience was disheartening, but that doesn’t mean that talking about masculinity is pointless. The module was four classes long and geared towards teaching students how to write a 1500 – 2000 word essay. I advanced from a point of optimistic naivety – but my class was primarily about how to read and write, not how to be. These students have been exposed to a cascade of messages about toxic masculinity all their lives. To counter that, we have to prioritise education on these issues, both publicly and in private. Everyone’s Invited has brought painful, important focus to schools. Clearly education around what gender inequality is and what it effects (consent, autonomy) needs to start earlier. No individual teacher or whistleblowing student can enact cultural change.

One of the modes of teaching the Writing Course was to provide ‘objects of emulation’ – pieces of writing which showed admirable style or technical skill which students could then attempt to evoke. Though many of the testimonies on Everyone’s Invited are heartbreakingly familiar and can make it feel like no progress has been made, one very important thing has changed. Now we have objects of emulation – films and books – showing all of us how things should, or should not, work. I wish I had seen I May Destroy You in my first year of university. At school, I wish I could have watched the scene in Normal People where Connell deliberately and sexily asks Marianne’s consent. We were not taught how to say ‘I don’t know’, or ‘not yet’; the subtext of what we were taught is that unless it’s a definite no then it’s a yes. Marianne and Connell would have taught me a great deal more about consent than a P.E teacher repeating ‘no means no’ because they would have showed me what it looks like when a woman says yes.

Wild Pets by Amber Medland is published by Faber