Steve Stephens, the Cleveland, OH murder suspect, landed himself in the middle of a five-state manhunt. Stephens, who was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Tuesday, April 18, has sent many a tongue wagging but with the wrong conversations. Stephens was wanted for multiple crimes including the murder of 74 year old Robert Godwin Sr., a heinous act he uploaded to Facebook. As is often the course of action, everything else has been blamed except the perpetrator himself.
I’ve heard the calls to disable Facebook Live, the native video streaming service of the social media giant. I’ve seen Stephens’ ex, Joy Lane, be socially pressured to give a statement on his behavior. Like clockwork, mental illness comes into play in an attempt to better understand the why Stephens did what he did. In the absence of a history of mental illness or a formal diagnosis, is a discussion around mental illness warranted? Or is it simply another detour from the long overdue conversation about toxic masculinity?
What is Toxic Masculinity?
First, I think it’s important to discuss what toxic masculinity is not. Contrary to dudebro belief, the goal is not to eradicate masculinity all together. There is no desire to effeminize men by addressing/deconstructing toxic masculinity. Well, now that we’ve got that out the way:
Toxic masculinity is a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits – which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual – are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away. — Source tweet
Yes, I already hear the chorus of “not all men” in my comments, mentions, and messages. I know you’re not Brock Turner, whose toxic masculinity led to his sexual assault of an unconscious woman. You’re not even Turner’s trial judge whose hypermasculinity told him that Turner’s serving a full sentence would have a severe impact on him, *actual* sexual assault victim be damned.
Even if you’re #NotAllMen, you’re not exempt from the harm that toxic definitions of manhood inflict. Until toxic masculinity is addressed by men as a whole, we ALL — men and women alike — will continue to be in the path of destruction.
Mental Illness Isn’t a Scapegoat
Still, it is imperative that we look at Stephens’ actions with a critical eye. Mental illness is an easy, and oft-turned to, deflection. However, to dismiss Stephens’ actions as merely a result of mental illness further stigmatizes an already incredibly delicate issue. First, we need to get away from the idea of associating mental illness with inherent bad behavior. While there are people with mental illness who commit bad acts, there are millions who are productive, law-abiding citizens of our world. Mental illness should not be our go-to for addressing social ills that motivate these antisocial behaviors.
The Hyper/Toxic Masculinity of Steve Stephens
Before Stephens began his crime spree, he took to social media to air out the grievances of his failed relationship with Joy Lane. Stephens shoulders the blame squarely on Lane, citing her “betrayal”, lack of attention, and absent affection. There’s evidence of hyper/toxic masculinity throughout these posts.
- The Suppression of Emotion: Stephens alludes to an ongoing internal battle of emotion in an Instagram post, stating that “nobody ever pay attention to me nobody ever show no type of love to me man I’m always getting ignored [sic].” Toxic masculinity only allows men to express their anger emotions. Studies show that suppressing emotions can lead to aggression.
- The Encouragement of Violence: By its nature, hypermasculinity eschews diplomacy in favor of violence as a way to establish and reinforce one’s manhood. Like Elliot Rodger, who carried out the 2014 shooting in Isla Vista, Stephens implies that Lane’s ending of their relationship denied his rights as a man (the right to possess women as a status of manhood) and gives him just cause to react violently.
- Misogyny: Despite Joy Lane’s insistence than Stephens’ was a “nice guy,” his posts show the usual misogyny associated with toxic masculinity. Instead of accepting Lane’s decision to terminate the relationship, Stephens demands (and then threatens) her to explain to his satisfaction why she walked away. The misogyny born of toxic masculinity doesn’t allow Stephens to recognize the full humanity — and therefore full autonomy — of the woman he was romantically involved with.
It Harms All of Us
Almost immediately, others joined in the chorus of blaming Lane for Stephens’ actions. There’s this woman who took the opportunity to disparage Lane’s appearance. And then there’s THIS woman who asks why Stephens’ didn’t just kill Joy Lane instead of others. Yes, these are women participating in the culture of victim blaming. Yes, these are women caping for hypermasculinity at the expense of another woman. Toxic masculinity is a helluva drug with no respect of gender.
We want to give Joy Lane all the hell we can muster for describing her former partner as a nice guy, but even that is simply a byproduct of hypermasculinity. Some women, like those linked above, choose to participate in it as a survival method. Other women, like Joy Lane, silently acquiesce to it in order to survive. It is for this reason, and many others, that we cannot afford to silence the conversation around toxic masculinity and its impact on our communities.
How Do We Fix It?
Stephens’ egregious crime gives us an opportunity to have real, transformative conversations on the matter of toxic masculinity. It comes on the heels of Cedric Anderson, a San Bernardino, CA man who murdered his estranged wife and her student before turning the gun on himself. It is dishonest to believe that emotional repression characteristic of hypermasculinity had nothing to do with these two incidences.
Before we can even begin to fix it, we’ve gotta be willing to talk about it and acknowledge toxic masculinity as a pervasive factor in our culture. For men who tell women “not all men,” it is on you to be at the front lines of the push back. It is your job speak up and take responsibility. Don’t just tell us it’s not all men, do the work beside us until it’s *actually* not MOST men. If we truly want fewer Stephenses and Andersons, we must be willing to explore how they (and the millions like them who’ve yet to make headlines) are created in the first place.
As long as we continue our enabling, we’ll continue to encourage a culture that not only enfeebles men but also puts women in clear and present danger. It is time for us to grapple with the knowledge that Stephens, Anderson, and countless other men are a product of society’s refusal to teach men to respect women and the word NO. With toxic masculinity, like all moving parts of patriarchy, everybody loses when we don’t work to repair and reconcile.