Why we tolerate sexual violence in politics

Why we tolerate sexual violence in politics
Residue from forest fires in Anacortes, Washington

The first thing that hit my face as I walked out of the Seattle-Tacoma International airport was the haze. It was thick, pasty, greyish white and three-dimensional. Make that 4D, actually, on account of the smell that grabbed me by the throat. 

The forest fires that were foretold by the people who have been warning us for years that climate change would cause them are currently raging on the West Coast, exactly as predicted. It’s almost like we should have paid attention or something. 

The fires are making the air thick with an acrid smell that will not go away no matter how much febreeze you snort. The authorities warn you to limit your time outside (strike another one for those who are privileged enough to work indoors), and good luck if your health is already challenging. There’s a coat of grimy ash on everything — lamp posts, mailboxes, cars. I’m tempted to google whether ash makes a good face scrub when mixed with local lager. 

You don’t see the haze as much once you’re by the coast. Except at sunrise and sunset, when the rays hit the air sideways, reminding you that this crap is very much present even when you can’t see it.

Toxic masculinity and sexual violence are exactly like that. 

They are so consistently present in the air we forget they’re there, until something hits them sideways and forces us to notice. Like hashtags embedded in Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre’s YouTube videos aimed at so-called Incels — for “involuntary celibates,” and I have a problem with the “involuntary” part because I believe they deliberately put themselves in that position, but this discussion isn’t for today. Suffice to say for now that treating them like harmless losers is most unwise. 

The hashtags were present in 50 videos. 

This was no accident. And it certainly was not innocent. The toxic current that runs through a solid portion of the support for right-wing politicians in North America is acutely misogynistic and promotes male superiority while viciously attacking people from sexual and gender minorities as mentally ill and deviant. 

When a campaign gets caught actively trying to get people who hang around this violent ideology to watch its videos and support its candidate, it’s like the sun rays hitting the smoke in the air and revealing just how much shit you’re breathing in. 

No wonder you’re feeling unwell.

Maybe it’s easier if we make a small adjustment to the vocabulary. Maybe, instead of “toxic masculinity” we could start using “aggressive heteronormativity.” It’s less gendered, for one thing, which fits better with the ideology itself. 

In fact, if I felt like causing undue amounts of mischief, I’d remind folks that toxic masculinity is gender fluid, since it’s present in genders (yes, in the plural) other than men. But I wouldn’t want too many heads to explode, now would I. 

Aggressive heteronormativity is an ideology that not only promotes heterosexuality as the only truly acceptable sexual orientation but that aggressively enforces traditional gender roles, too. 

I have struggled against it all my life. 

I was born and raised into it. It was all over the society in which I grew up. We didn’t even know any gays. We only knew a handful of people who were stubbornly celibate. Kids like me, who didn’t fit into traditional gender boxes, were forcibly squished into them anyway. I have done a lot of work on myself and have healed a great deal in recent years, but there are still deep scars in my soul from that upbringing to this day.

Heteronormativity hurts people. And then there’s the problem of violent men who use it as cover for their misdeeds. 

I have been threatened with sexual violence on so many occasions I don’t care to count them. I have been raped more than once. “Minor” sexual aggressions like a wayward hand in a crowd or highly inappropriate verbal comments like that time a male television co-host expected me to laugh at his blow-job “joke”? Depressingly common, especially when you are female-presenting and are public and loud with your opinions. 

You learn very quickly not to complain about those common aggressions, because nobody wants to know. The problem is so entrenched, so complicated and so multi-faceted that we feel powerless to fix it. Violent and toxic men know this. They feed on our desire to forget the problem is real. 

Toxic masculinity is not exclusive to right-wing political groups. As I like to say, there are assholes everywhere, very much including on the left. Here is one prominent example

But since 2016, with the election of Donald Trump, they have been, overwhelmingly, on the political right. And they’re coming for the middle. The longer we refuse to acknowledge and deal with that, the more progress they’ll make, the more elections they’ll win, and the harder it will be to safeguard our democratic institutions. 

Because make no mistake: The people who use politicians like Trump to advance their aggressively heteronormative agenda aren’t interested in simply winning elections. They’re interested in controlling other people through the very destruction of democratic institutions designed to protect the rights of minorities. If the January 6 events didn’t make you realize this, I’m afraid you are part of the problem. 

In their world, reproductive rights are non-existent, same as rights for sexual and gender minorities. Actually, pretty much every minority is threatened. You’re seeing this in many southern states today. You saw it during the so-called freedom convoy in Ottawa when vandals deliberately targeted homes flying rainbow flags. 

They’re not even ashamed of parading their uninformed bigotry either. Just watch this clip where the attorney general of Arkansas tries to convince Jon Stewart that denying children mainstream medical care is protecting them. This is precisely what aggressive heteronormativity and the people who belong to that ideology — which includes sexually violent men — want. They want to control who other people can be and what rights they might have. They’re not making a secret of their intolerance. They’re proud of it. 

We need to do better. At the very least we need to look at the situation with our eyes open and acknowledge it for what it is. Otherwise we’ll be eating nothing but ash, and sooner than we realize.