The truth: I fear men the way I fear snakes. The lie I tell myself every day: one day you will not fear men the way you fear snakes. But when I dare step out alone, pepper spray in bag, I’m cautious – I’m wary of any man looking at me a second too long because I can’t tell which one is poisonous. And that is a monumental problem.

My friend came to me with a problem the other day. It wasn’t monumental, but it was still a “man-sized” problem that had reduced a brilliant, bold woman to a bundle of nerves. A guy had slid into her DMs and never left, even though all messages were left unanswered.

“Tell him you can’t speak to him because you have a boyfriend,” I said.

So, she politely did so, taking extra precaution not to bruise the guy’s ego (because a bruised ego can lead to vengeance). But, in a predictable, yet still-surprising turn of events, he said this.

“How. I never had any ill-intentions.”

And then, as if he was “owed” something for all the time and effort he put into crafting unwanted messages, he said:

“I still don’t see why we can’t be friends.”

This sense of entitlement shouldn’t have astounded me, but it did – I was left gaping like a fish, wanting to snatch the phone from my anxious friend to give the guy a piece of my mind but resisting because #IFearMen.

My friend and I aren’t the only women fearing men. More specifically, we are most definitely not the only women fearing men in a country that is the poster child for gender-based violence. In fact, the #MenAreTrash movement originated right here in South Africa, not to create generalisations and invite offended men to become keyboard warriors quick with the #NotAllMen arguments but to force people to sit up, take notice, feel uncomfortable, and do something about the violence against women.

And while the #MenAreTrash movement definitely stirred things up and compelled people to be unapologetically vocal about toxic masculinity, patriarchy, and gender-based violence, it also created conflict and division amongst men and women, prompting people to take sides in what should be a united effort to combat the plague that is gender-based violence.

But the reality of the situation is this: a lot of men who feel “righteously” indignant about being called trash, do trashy things. And a lot of men who sit back thinking, “Oooh, I can’t be trash because I don’t harm women,” do trashy things.

“Trashy things” include:
1. Catcalling a woman.
2. Shamelessly leering at a woman and not caring about her obvious discomfort.
3. Slut-shaming.
4. Cracking “harmless” sexist jokes.
5. Thinking that a woman “asked for it” because of her clothing choices.
6. Speaking about women using vulgarities and crude language.
7. Using sexual innuendo when speaking to women colleagues at work.
8. Continuing to send messages to women on social media when it is clear they are not interested (think unanswered messages) and then pushing the matter should they tell you that they cannot speak to you for whatever reason.
9. Sending unsolicited pictures of your “man-parts” to women.
10. Failing to call out male friends and family members when you know that they are being violent towards women and/or engaging in any of the above acts.

In South Africa, there is a culture of devaluing women. A lot of men aren’t even aware that they are being “trashy” towards women because such trashiness has become a norm. And that is, in large part, due to the pervasiveness of toxic masculinity.

Toxic masculinity is a term that is used to describe harmful ideas and behaviours that support the false belief that men need to be aggressive, dominating, virile, and competitive to be considered “manly” or “masculine.” It basically says that men need to be a certain way to actually be considered men, leaving no space for men to explore what “masculinity” means to them as individuals.

It must be noted that “toxic masculinity” doesn’t propose that “masculinity” itself is toxic. No, toxic masculinity describes “traditional masculinity” which focuses on traits like aggressiveness, virility, stoicism, and dominance to define manhood. It is this narrow, outdated definition of masculinity that is toxic because it doesn’t reflect the changing times, and usually results in violent behaviour towards women.

Historically, men have always held positions of authority and leadership, becoming accustomed to a certain way of life – a life in which their masculinity is measured by their ability to acquire money, status, and sex. A lot of men still believe it is this way. Should they feel that they aren’t quite measuring up, that their “masculinity” is diminishing because they cannot acquire those things, they resort to violent behaviour in an attempt to reclaim their “lost masculinity.”

However, there is no longer any space for traditional/toxic masculinity in modern society, and so our actions need to correctly reflect that. We should no longer be saying things like, “Oh, boys will be boys,” when a little boy pushes a little girl off the merry-go-round or pulls her hair in class. Nor should we be saying, “He only acts that way because he has a crush on you,” when a boy pulls at a girl’s bra strap. Because males are not inherently rough and aggressive, and affection is not expressed through various forms of violence.

And it isn’t enough to call on men to act better – society as a whole needs to do better to ensure that we do not fail the men who are taught to prescribe to toxic masculinity and the women who become victims of toxic masculinity.

Parents should not enforce gender roles that label boys as breadwinners and girls as stay-at-home wives. Women should not subject men to toxic ideas of masculinity by saying things like, “Don’t be a pussy”, “Be a man” or “Grow some balls” when men show vulnerability or fear. And men should learn to value women and treat us as equals.

Collectively, we need to allow males and females to explore and conform to their own ideas of masculinity and femininity because there isn’t any single way to be a man or woman. And, as individuals, we need to educate ourselves so that we can identify how we are perpetuating toxic masculinity in our own lives.

I don’t want to fear men the way I fear snakes. I don’t want to think about pepper-spraying poisonous men. And like my friend, I don’t want to have to brandish the “I have a boyfriend” excuse and wave it around like a sword (albeit a plastic one) to keep pesky, persistent men at bay. I want men to respect boundaries instead of treating them like erasable lines in the sand. And I know it’s going to be a while before that happens – I know that toxic masculinity, as deeply entrenched as it is, doesn’t just magically disappear. We have to work to replace it with something better.


Read about one writer’s experience with abusive relationships here

Tell us: What do you think can be done to make society a safer place for women?