Hugh Ellis

Look, I get it. ‘Men are trash’ sounds offensive at first glance. Worse still, it sounds like the sort of crass gender stereotype that feminism should rise up against, not support and shout in the streets.

If you’re a man and you think this, I understand why. But ultimately, you are wrong, and once you understand the reasons why so many young women are crying, ‘men are trash,’ you, if you have any decency, will do likewise.

Firstly, understand it’s not about you. The phrase ‘men are trash’ originated as a rallying cry of the ‘Me Too’ movement against sexual assault. This movement, primarily but not exclusively made up of young women, has overturned a lot of taboos in the last few years, and its naming and shaming of perpetrators of sexual violence – notably movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and singer R. Kelly – has brought rape into the public consciousness like never before.

The Me Too movement used ‘men are trash’ as shorthand to talk about how us men are conditioned by society into believing sexist ideologies, how other men encourage us to push and cajole women into sex, how films and video games and the news are all too often from male perspectives only, how institutions like the law and religion are more-often-than-not biased against women.

It’s a sociological thing, and as far as sociology is concerned, the presence of a few good men matters little, because on the level of institutions, we don’t make enough of a difference, or often, any difference at all.

Secondly, it’s not – primarily – about relationships. It’s not really about how women can’t find decent husbands, or men have cheated on women, and so on. It’s about sexual violence. However, eventually we men do have to have a conversation about how cheating has become so widespread it’s not even surprising – and how we let our friends and brothers get clean away with it.

‘Men are trash’, seen in context, is also not the crude belief – which every thinking person should reject – that men are inherently bad by virtue of having a Y-chromosome or testosterone or a penis. That’s bull, not just because not all men have penises or Y-chromosomes and women have testosterone too, but also because it ignores the way society and parenting and church shape us beyond nature. Maybe we can’t change nature, but we can change all these things.

Thirdly, ‘men are trash’ came about became of the limitations of more subtle forms of protest. Some of us men are now calling for women to go back to these subtleties – ironic since many of us were all too happy to ignore women talking about ‘institutionalized sexism’ and ‘hegemonic masculinity’ in the past.

‘Men are trash’ is the shorthand and slogan of a protest movement, not necessarily rarefied systematic discourse about a subtle problem. Social scientists and humanist academics are still writing about the nuances of hegemonic masculinity – please do Google terms like that if you don’t already know them, and consider what this knowledge implies for the average bloke.

Finally, paradoxically, a version of ‘men are trash’ can be extremely empowering for men. Yes, you read that right. Although the slogan was never ‘ALL men are trash’ or ‘Men are CONDEMNED FOR EVER to be trash’, the bluntness of it forces each of us men to all confront times in the past when we HAVE been trash, to question our own socialization, to be better.

I was raised in an open-minded household and had a liberal education, yet ‘men are trash’ and the Me Too movement has had me asking myself hard questions about what lay behind my attempts to be a player in the dating game as young fellow in the 1990s, or whether my attempts at activism for a new men’s movement in the 2000s really achieved anything.

It’s this introspection we men need if we are to play a useful part in the gender equality movement, and thus challenge the many ways in which a male-dominated society hurts us men, too.

When lockdown restrictions are lifted, and you see me also shouting ‘men are trash’ at next year’s Slutwalk protest against rape – know why I’m doing it, and that it does not make me a traitor to my sex.

Hugh Ellis is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The view expressed here are personal views. Read his blog at http://ellishugh.wordpress.com