Countering Toxic Masculinity
A review of Vivek Shraya’s I’m Afraid of Men (Penguin, 2018)
By Derek Newman-Stille
It is a discourse on toxic masculinity as much as it is a memoire. Vivek Shraya’s I’m Afraid of Men uses life history to explore ideas of toxic masculinity as they intersect with Shraya’s own body. Shraya explores the way that she began to fear men early in her youth and tried to pass as a heterosexual boy when she was young, fearing the hatred that was directed toward her whenever she showed any aspect of her femininity.
At the time of writing this book, Shraya was only a couple of years into her Transition and acknowledgement of herself as a Trans woman. Her embracing of her Trans identity was impacted (and continues to be impacted) by the culture of misogyny, homophobia, and Transphobia that surrounded her, a culture that she observes is perpetuated when we set the bar low for men, saying their behaviour is ‘typical’, ‘acceptable’, and excusing toxic masculinity with words like ‘boys will be boys’. Shraya illustrates that our entire social system is based around a misogynistic cultural apparatus – one that is not just enforced by men, but by people throughout the gender spectrum. She calls for a radical change in the way that our society views gender, particularly the allowances that excuse men from any repercussions for their actions.
Shraya uses her own life as critical text, examining the aspects of toxic masculinity that have impacted her both through her own acceptance of aspects of toxic masculinity, and through the violence that toxic masculinity has visited on her (from abuse to fear of leaving her house to the regular violence she experiences). She observes that these stories are not just her stories, but rather social patterns, that she is not alone in her violence, and that others who are unable to speak up may have even experienced more violence than she has.
Shraya repeats the line “I’m afraid of men” throughout her book, often in sequence, using the phrase like a chant, to ensure that the message sinks in. She allows us the space to encounter this fear with her, to let our own experiences of fear drift to the surface, and to question (as she does) the culture of toxic masculinity that inspires so much fear.
I’m Afraid of Men is divided into parts – “You” and “Me”. The section titled “You” addresses the reader directly, making the reader see their own complicity in creating a culture of violence directed at Shraya. In this section, she recites parts of her past, but instead of using the offender’s names, she replaces them with “you”, putting the reader in the position of her tormenter, her abusers, but also her crushes, her lovers – all of the roles that men have taken in her life. She creates a form of intimacy through this section, whispering to the reader directly about her experiences and asking the reader to reflect on their role in creating threats to her.
When Shraya later shifts to the section titled “Me”, we are ready and waiting for her exploration of her relationship to the society that has constantly harms her. We are looking for her interpretive framework about how we can make our society better, how we can disrupt toxic masculinity, and how we can reshape gender roles to confront the violence expected of men.
I’m Afraid of Men is a powerful text with an evocative title that uses personal experience and memoire as a tool for liberation. Shraya reminds us of the importance of our voice and of the collective voices of oppressed people.
To find out more about Vivek Shraya, visit https://vivekshraya.com
To find out more about I’m Afraid of Men, visit https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/576857/im-afraid-of-men-by-vivek-shraya/9780735235939