The Ask of Masculinity: What Lewis Howes gets wrong

The Ask of Masculinity: What Lewis Howes gets wrong
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Lewis Howes has brought out a new book called "The Mask of Masculinity: How men can embrace vulnerability, create strong relationships, and live their fullest lives”. This is why I do not believe it.

I have not read this book.

I do not plan on reading it, though he recently offered me a free copy.

I will not read it because I do not want to give any more of my time, energy, or labor — nor my very generous heart and compassionate nature — in the name of sympathy for men who continue to hold on to the privilege of toxic masculinity even when they are aware of how it harms others.

So before I start, I want to be very clear: Sexual abuse and above all child sexual abuse is abhorrent and damaging to our most vulnerable. And it also creates adults who have a hard time navigating what abuse is — in themselves and in others.

I also want to be clear that I am furious that someone did this to him. It pains me in my core. As a human being, on a personal level, and as a woman and mother. And I very much honor the difficult work Howes is doing to end this cycle in himself. Because abuse creates abuse.

My commentary is not out of a desire to shame him for his experience as a child. Nor to silence him for telling his story — I believe the more of these stories are told, the more we can end this.

Instead, I want to focus on Lewis Howes’ core message about masculinity and his actions today, as an adult. Actions that speak louder than books.

Because Howes has not done the crucial work. Even if he has good intentions and is a “good guy” because he has embraced his vulnerabilities, he is still doing harm.

This piece is based off 1) the messages Howes is using to market his book, 2) an interview about his book that he conducted with Marie Forleo and 3) Howes’ own actions — or lack thereof.

1. To begin, I agree with Howes’ assertion that toxic masculinity destroys the ability for men to fully be themselves, having witnessed this every day growing up as a woman with very important boys and men in my life who I love deeply.

By Howes’ own admission, the ways the abuse he experienced as a child is the root of his own abusive behaviour as an adult. But that is where Howes’ understanding of toxic masculinity seems to stop.

Toxic Masculinity is about three very important things: 1) A fear that any power and privilege one has will be taken away, 2) A fear that one does not live up to the masculine definition of what is powerful, 3) Feeling threatened by feminine energy (in oneself or in others) because of 1 or 2.

In the quote in the image above this page, Howes clearly states that he has written this book to help men enjoy more privileges and power, which he codes as “success”.

Not to stop abuse. Not to end misogyny. Not to help transform society. Not to help men release these the compulsion to want to assert — and maintain — their power. But to help men achieve more of it.

Without holding themselves accountable for how doing so harms others.

In fact, he also has some additional shareable images for promoting his book, which say very clearly that men do not need to take any further responsibility for how toxic masculinity damages others and the world. Nor for fixing how they personally contribute to that damage.

For Howes, any benefits to society that may come from “removing the mask”... are simply secondary.

Men are the ones who define masculinity. And men are the ones who practice it, often toxically.

We can talk about how women enable it and perpetuate it and why that is an effect of Patriarchy, but men are the ones who created it to begin with and who refuse to let go of it.

The majority of mass shootings in the US are acted out by white men with access to assault rifles who have a history of domestic abuse against women. Toxic Masculinity at its natural conclusion.

Yet men continue to show a lack of accountability when it comes to why they continue to perpetuate it — because they benefit from the privilege and power it gives them.

Howes seems to have started Step 1 — realization — in the work of detoxing from the addiction of toxic masculinity, but he also seems to have stopped at the point where he decides to release the control of privilege and power.

2.) So here is Forleo and Howes in an interview, discussing his new book, and the story that led him to write it.

He talks about some of the general ways he adopted, perpetuated and acted out in toxic masculinity. Gives a few examples. He says that expressing masculinity was, he believed, the only way he was allowed to act out the anger and pain he was experiencing inside. He confides that it harmed his relationships, particularly with women.

He talks about how that anger and pain mainly stemmed from being abused and raped as a child of 5. It is an extremely upsetting and painful thing to watch, and it is very clear that Howes is reliving his pain and trauma as he tells it. There is no question that this horrific incident has done real damage to him. There is no question that anyone with any compassion would not feel tears in their eyes and a pit in their stomach as they watch. I sure did.

But then he offers an anecdote about how he came to the conclusion that wearing this "mask of masculinity" to hide his pain and shame was harmful to himself as well as others:

He realised that he was being abusive.

He was angry about his girlfriend, got into a fight with a fellow basketball player, beat him to a pulp, got up, went home, looked at himself in the mirror and decided it was time to change.

Let that sink in again. He beat someone to a pulp because he was angry at his girlfriend – a woman – and then gave himself a talking to.

At the end of this interview, Forleo asks Howes if he has a message for her mostly female audience.

Howes' answer shows no real awareness. He does not connect his anger at his girlfriend to his aggressive and abusive behaviour. He offers no apology. Nor does he offer a solution. Nor does he provide any tools for real change outside of his own relief.

His answer is to ask something from us.

He asks women to have sympathy for the way men experience — and thus act out — toxic masculinity.

Howes asks women to do labor.

The labor of having sympathy for the perpetrator.

Howes is a grown man. He is not a 5 year old boy.

I want to assert here, that in his answer, Howes is not only telling us to do the work and put his feelings and reasons over the harm that his own toxic masculinity has caused to others as an adult.

He is also assuming that women have no understanding of why men act out of toxic masculinity.

Even more, he is saying that women do not already have empathy for what this does to men.

...when it just might be that we have even **more** understanding about it than men do because we have been watching toxic masculinity develop and destroy humanity since time. We have watched it directed at us since time.

Women have been mourning how toxic masculinity destroys the men in our lives for ages.

But even more so, we have been managing the bulk of some of the most dangerous, violent and violating forms of toxic masculinity. Simply because we are female and not male.

In fact, we have also watched how boys, LGBQ, trans folks, and men who display more "feminine" traits, are targeted because of the very reason that they display what is considered “feminine” traits.

Toxic masculinity is about feeling threatened by feminine energy.

We women, the ones you are asking to do labor, feel this in our hearts and guts every day.

And while all women have been fed the lie that toxic masculinity is the ultimate form of strength and leadership — and too many women even believe it (52% of white women voted for the current US president regardless of his abusive behaviour) — women have been observing the ins and outs of toxic masculinity since humans walked the earth.

And we can tell you exactly why and how it victimizes everything in its path.

So no, I personally do not have sympathy for acts of toxic masculinity, no matter how much genuine pain they come from, and I do not appreciate being told I have to.

I do, however, have empathy for the pain and harm it causes others.

Lewis, my heart goes out to 5 year old you, to the boy and the man that had to struggle and carry the pain and shame that this abuse did to you.

Not to mention the confusion that toxic masculinity was the only way you could express yourself. It really does. I empathise.

In fact, this is one of the reasons why I am determined to see the end of toxic masculinity. It harms everyone, including men.

The way it stops men from being their full selves is tragic.

But even more tragic: the rapes and assaults, sexual intimidation, the objectification of women, the glass ceiling, the gender wage gap, oppressive hierarchies, classist hierarchies, racist hierarchies, the mass shootings... and the election of one of the most incompetent toxic men in our recent history into the office of President of the United States even when he admitted to the toxic male behaviour of sexual assault on women.

Not to mention the utter hatred displayed against the first Black President of our country -- because nothing threatens toxic masculinity, which ultimately honors white alpha male archetypes, like a dignified, capable, kind, intelligent and accomplished Black man out to nurture America rather than beat on its chest.

But what disappoints me here is, while it is a wonderful start that Howes tells his story, very brave that he opens up about his experience to his community of primarily white men -- giving permission for other men to do the same -- what we need to witness is not merely the self healing.

Ending toxic masculinity is not simply about men getting in touch with their vulnerability and feelings.

It is about men releasing their privilege and power and not being threatened by the very idea.

Howes, I want to see real change.

I want to see you do the **real** work.

I want to know how you are actively working to protect others from toxic masculinity -- and specifically how you are not only having those conversations, but also putting them into ACTION to dismantling it.

3.) About a month or so before Howes brought this book out, he (or someone on his team) posted on his Instagram page an image of Ernestine Shepherd, the senior body builder, and a stock photo of an elderly woman with a cane:

The post claimed that both women were the same age of 80 (which I would argue was far from the truth seeing that one woman on the right is a stock photo) and the message was:

It was misogyny at its best.

With the assumption that 1) women have 100% agency in making such choices and 2) men get to determine what makes women valuable.

Shaming women for growing older, or even more, for not looking younger — and then blaming them for not living up to unrealistic ideals — is a language of toxic masculinity.

Because it measures the value of women based on how attractive (read, young) they are. Based on how we serve men’s desires.

I also wonder how aware Howes is that his very message, when brought to the natural conclusion, glorifies youthfulness with the same sick mentality of a culture that sexualizes girls, boys and childlike-looking women from the same, distorted pedophilic lense.

I think Ernestine is amazing. Especially because she is a Black woman -- having that much dedication to empowering her own body and health, when Black women have been given the least amount of agency in this world, is a beautiful act of revolution.

Yet who is to say that other woman is not amazing simply because she does not have a young-looking body that would turn a straight man on?

Who is to say why she looks her age?

Who is to say it is wrong for her to look her age?

Who is to say she does not have an illness, or was not in a concentration camp as a child, or was not hit by a truck, or did not fall down the stairs and break her hip because she has osteoporosis from not getting enough nutrients as a child?

Who is to say she was not a doctor who saved lives, a writer who changed minds, a teacher who changed lives? That her value could not be found in the story she has to tell?

Who is to say she can not just be an 80 year old (or probably 90 year old) woman?

Howes posted this and so many women spoke up to say that post was painful and to take it down.

He ignored every one of us.

**The post is still up and has not changed, and he has still not responded to the feedback.**

Howes, I respect your process and that you have chosen to go on this journey to healing.

I respect that you have come out with your experience.

But getting real about how you have bought into toxic masculinity, and even how it has damaged you, is not revolutionary.

It is just the start of the detox.

The real work means getting real about how you continue to perpetuate it.

The real work is about reparations.

The real work is about learning to listen to women when we tell you that you are still doing that damage.

The real work is about refusing to profit off of the privilege it affords you -- and making room for those who do not have that privilege. Even if it means you release some power.

What concerns me most, is that your message centers your **own** relief from the initial phase of your "detox".

And that this detox is only about removing the "mask of masculinity" -- instead of stopping and reversing the impact that toxic masculinity has and still has on others.

You talked about an incident where you got into a physical fight with another man that was so bad that you bloodied him to a pulp on the basketball court.

Your story focussed on how you stood up from that fight, left, went home and looked in the mirror to ask yourself who you were.

Your story was not about making reparations, not about doing right by this man, nor about accepting consequences and justice for your actions.

And might I add: how utterly privileged of you as a white man that you could just walk away from beating another man to a pulp without being arrested or shot by police. You make no mention in your story about any such realizations.

In fact, your business, your success, by your very own admission, continued to grow.

If you were a Black man, we would have a whole other story here and it would not be as glorified as the one you tell and it certainly would not have a happy ending where you looked in the mirror, gave yourself a talking to, and all was well again.

The fact is, you benefit and still benefit from toxic masculinity. Your book is benefitting from it.

You. Still. Practice. It.

Most importantly, as a self-proclaimed “Alpha Male”, you are not owning up to the ways toxic masculinity continues in your (micro)aggressions, such as in that post about older women from right before your book came out.

Howes, your mask of masculinity is that you continue to capitalize off its benefits to you — at the expense and harm of others.

This is not transformation.

The transformation comes from taking action, reflecting, correcting, growing, dismantling... and doing the work over and over again.

It serves a communal and universal purpose. Not a singular one.

If you are really looking to remove not only the mask of masculinity, but the destructive effects of masculinity, I suggest start by reading this powerful essay from Charles Blow, where he states:

“...I must follow the advice on sexism that I proffer on racism: If you are not actively working to dismantle it, you are supporting it. It is not sufficient to simply not be a sexist yourself if you are a man. You must also recognize that you benefit from the system of sexism in ways to which you may not even be aware. Every man must become a feminist. Every man must work as hard as every woman to elevate gender equality and to eliminate gendered violence. And yes, I understand how hard this can be. Constant outrage is exhausting, even about your own oppression. I am a black man in America. I’m worn threadbare dealing with the oppressions that men who look like me endure, from racially skewed mass incarceration to being the targets of police violence. [...] But acknowledging this deficiency — to yourself and to others — is a healthy and helpful first step. There is no magical solution here for the infinite and permanent expansion of empathy and awareness. It is work: hard work.”

So again, my heart aches for Howes’ experience of abuse. It literally brings tears in my eyes and a pit in my stomach. As does the idea that toxic masculinity only compounded his pain.

I also appreciate that he is willing to do this work. I appreciate his willingness to get vulnerable about it and share his story.

And I also know he wants to sell his book and not rock the boat too much for his community — and this has priority over getting real.

Howes is a white, traditionally attractive man, which means it is much easier for others to overlook his abusive behaviour and actions as an adult and instead find sympathy because of his childhood past.

But at the end of the day: Howes beat a man because he was angry at his girlfriend.

If he resembled Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby or OJ Simpson, we would be a lot less forgiving when he tells us that his behaviour was the result of his struggles with navigating masculinity.

And might I add, we should not be forgiving about any of it.

Which is all the more reason why it is upsetting that Howes’ one message to women is:

I have written this book to help men forgive themselves for toxic male behaviour so they can become even more successful — and I ask women to sympathize with me as a perpetrator because of my struggles with masculinity.

Yes, women need to be aware of how we perpetuate the myth of "boys do not cry" and "man up". Or even reinforce it ourselves because we have been taught that toxic masculinity is the ultimate form of leadership. Many of us need to wake up and we for sure need to contribute to ending this.

But at the end of the day, men have always been the ones embodying and performing toxic masculinity.

Which is why the undoing is primarily the work for men to do.

But there is more to it.

Toxic masculinity is not just a mask one removes.

It is an abusive system with deep and broad consequences.

Ending this myth of masculinity does not simply require telling men it is ok to be vulnerable.

It requires a long, drawn-out series of awareness, acknowledgement, reparations and systemized actions that removes that harm and burden from those who are victim to it without asking others to do the work for you.

This right here is the real ask.

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