Try a Little Tenderness

Previous The Bridge participant Jordan Stephens shares his perspective on a new kind of masculinity and why it’s so important for men to learn how to grieve.

‘When I first began using the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ it was in reference to behavioural patterns I had adopted that were negatively affecting my life: a lack of emotional responsibility, the sexual objectification and dehumanising of women, and the demonising of ‘feminine’ qualities in men. A lot of men, like me, don’t even realise that their behaviour is both an expression of damage, and in turn damaging. I thought for a long time that my attitude towards women was impeccable, on the basis that I was raised by my mother, or that I made it my mission to point out the inequality between genders. However, despite my frustration towards the way that men treated women and the lack of support that my mother had, I still found myself replicating the same inherently male cycles. I engaged in the same sex-orientated, mildly competitive, degrading conversations between men.

I found myself addicted to the validation of having several sexual partners. I lacked an ability to be emotionally attentive or commit, finding solace instead in my own company and coping mechanisms such as drug addiction. I had done what so many men do and tried to bury the traumas I’d experienced in my life. I’d also failed to notice the internalised misogyny which comes from societal conditioning. The objectification of women was taught to me via surrogate fathers on screens. A lack of responsibility was something I picked up unconsciously from the imbalance of my parents. I’d thought I was fine – but clearly, I wasn’t, and It was only in accepting my own abuse of power that everything began to make more sense to me.

The reason why I speak so passionately about toxic masculinity is because, beyond the personal, it has recurrent, damaging effects to both genders. Hurt people, hurt people. When one gender continues to carry the mantle in regards to rates of mass killing, domestic abuse, sexual assault and suicide I would say that there’s something intrinsically wrong. And what’s wrong, I think, is the way men understand and manifest their pain. Emotions are not optional. They can be rationalised and put to one side, but they exist until they are processed and released. Emotional trauma is innately physical, and it is our responsibility to heal that pain in a healthy way. In the same way that a broken ankle must heal before you walk on it again. You can of course convince yourself to walk on it too soon or take a load of painkillers, but both of those choices will affect your life. This is highlighted again and again when deconstructing the psychology of murderers, rapists and abusers. It all comes from somewhere.

A few months ago I went on an emotional healing retreat called The Bridge, a six-day intensive programme designed to help people healthily process feelings of sadness, anger, fear and loss. I arrived sceptical and left overwhelmed, emotional and happier. We learnt about the roots of behavioural patterns, coping mechanisms and the healing benefits of vulnerability. We wrote letters of loss and grief, structured in a way to physically evoke memory and emotional trauma. I’m not exaggerating when I say the bodily response I had rendered me physically unable to stand. Others around me shared stories of tremendous loss – sometimes grief spanning the years of my entire existence.

I left The Bridge feeling physically and mentally lighter with a genuine heartfelt love for 12 people I considered strangers just a week before. Shared vulnerability breeds true connection. Even those most in denial of emotional openness will probably find their closest allies are the ones who have seen and accepted them at their “worst”. That mate that was with you after that thing happened. I crave a culture where that connection is more common place between men.

But sadly, there was only one other guy with me at The Bridge Retreat and the majority of women shared experiences of loss or grief at the hands of negligent or abusive men. There’s no way to sugar coat that truth. Women are not without their faults but if this retreat is anything to go by they certainly seem more willing to work on themselves as a result. And yet it’s men who I feel would benefit from a course like this the most.

You are not obliged to use or like the term toxic masculinity. However, I think it would be beneficial to at least understand where it stems from. Men are wanting to feel appreciated and loved. Women are wanting to be treated like breathing human beings. Unconscious misogyny is a disease. Sexual objectification is a disease. As men we are discussing how we interact with ourselves and half of the world. If my experiences are anything to go by, I’d say that these generations of ‘lost men’ and the boys who are now maturing, could help themselves by understanding that their emotional well-being and happiness are their responsibility. It’s difficult, but it’s true.

I urge men to consider the term Tender Masculinity. It describes men who walk this earth understanding that their treatment of all humans is testament to the treatment of themselves. Men who have a genuine desire to understand life from a female perspective, rather than deflect from it and who understand love and respect as wholly reciprocal.’

Jordan Stephens, Writer & Musician