The Macho Paradox: A Book Review

MachoJackson Katz’s The Macho ParadoxWhy Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help is a deeply necessary book, for it describes a paradigm shift in the way we view and treat men’s violence against women.  Before reading this book, I knew some of the basic premises—our cultural definition of masculinity relies on sexism and violence against women (“real” men are not women/feminine/”weak” and can demonstrate their control and dominance over both weaker men and women), men bond together via sexism either actively or passively, we engage in victim-blaming and scrutinizing of a woman’s behavior when she speaks out about rape, and our media and language are steeped in this paradigm.  What I didn’t understand—what this book helped me to understand—is what specific steps non-violent or formerly violent men can take to become empowered bystanders in the movement for change.   As Mr. Katz states many times throughout the book, this change is good for men as well as women, for men are deeply affected by the violence entrenched in our definition of masculinity—they are affected as sons, as boyfriends, husbands, fathers, brothers, friends, and victims.  Men’s violence against women is, at its’ core, a men’s issue—and Katz deals with it as such.

One of the best things about this book is its honesty.  Katz doesn’t try to shame or condescend to men, and he speaks about his own experiences and attitudes.  He tells stories on himself about times when he didn’t stand up to another man’s sexism as boldly as he could have, the ways in which he participated in sexist aspects of culture as a younger man, and the ways in which he’s grown as an ally for people of color.  He also pays tribute to the many women who have shaped his thoughts about gender violence and the groundbreaking and important work female feminists have done to increase both awareness and services for the victims of sexual assault and battery.

Katz isn’t interested in making any man feel bad or guilty, but he is interested in male (and female) introspection, which can lead to action:  “Men’s violence against women is a pervasive social phenomenon with deep roots in existing personal, social, and institutional arrangements. In order for people to understand and ultimately work together to prevent it, it is first necessary for them to engage in a great deal of personal and collective introspection.”  (p. 19)

The first several chapters of the book provide material for this introspection.  After opening with some facts about violence against women (for example, nearly one-third of American women report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives), Katz examines how our media deals with this violence.  From passive, victim-focused language in news reports (a woman “was beaten” or “was raped”) to scrutiny of a victim’s sexual habits, dress, and life choices, we live in a society that puts the onus on women not to “get raped” rather than on men to stop raping.  Katz discusses this aspect of rape culture along with many others—street harassment, the proliferation of degrading and demeaning porn (some of which he describes in detail) along with the normalization of strip clubs and prostitution.  He focuses on specific examples of our misogynistic culture that either consciously or unconsciously glorify men who do violence to women:  Kobe Bryant’s standing ovation at a home game during his rape trial, the way women are treated in televised professional wrestling, the murderous lyrics of Eminem.

In addition to critiquing culture, Katz examines male attitudes toward it, focusing particularly on the bystander, the man who isn’t a rapist and wouldn’t hurt a woman and yet participates in sexist practices that contribute to the normalization of violence against women.  Here, it is clear, is the crux of the matter:  “It can be very difficult to challenge other men’s sexism, especially in group situations in school, on teams, in fraternities, or in male-dominated workplaces.”  (p. 127).  And that difficulty on the individual level becomes a difficulty on a societal level—thus, men’s violence becomes a “women’s issue,” and men who are uncomfortable with it, and with a definition of masculinity that institutionalizes it, remain silent.  How can we move past this problem, for the good of both women and men?

That’s the focus of the last few chapters of the book, in which Katz discusses the strategies he uses in his Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program, which works with high school and college student athletes to change attitudes about rape, sexual assault, and battery.  Katz developed this program, along with others, at Northeastern University in 1993.  Part of the idea behind it is that if major sports players speak out against violence against women—the “manliest” of the manly—the stigma of standing against sexism will be removed.  But that’s not all the program does—through a series of hypothetical scenarios and discussions, MVP gets athletes to consider the many options they might have when confronted with another man’s violence or with sexist practices in our culture.  The program is effective in the military as well, and the author has created a version for use with the Marines.  Katz also focuses on the importance of raising boys to question sexism in culture, and of men working together—coaches, teachers, parents, and other concerned adults—to teach our boys that becoming men doesn’t need to rely on hurting women.

The Macho Paradox provides practical advice and much-needed critical insight about both masculinity and rape culture.  I consider it an absolute must-read, a game-changer in our societal struggle for emotional healing, wholeness, and equality.

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