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Unpacking toxic masculinity and gender roles with Mica Macho

What does toxic masculinity actually mean? Are men the new feminists? We asked Mica Macho’s anthropologist and sex coach Francesco Ferreri.

By Aurelie | 27 March 2022
A portrait of the Mica Macho collective
Ivano Messinese x Le Sex en Rose

Toxic masculinity, intersectional feminism, gender roles… These buzzwords have been mapping our contemporary perception of gender and masculinity. To make sense of it all and rethink the macho narrative, we had a chat with Francesco Ferreri, anthropologist and sex coach from the Mica Macho collective.

1. Thanks for joining us! Would you care to introduce yourself and the collective in a few words?

Mica Macho is an association made up of a variety of individuals, each with their own point of view. Our mission is to question the current male narrative offered by society and how it affects people and men themselves.

For two years we gathered personal accounts and reflected upon a number of cultural contradictions related to gender we experienced on a daily basis (also known as “shortcuts”). We then organised a series of online workshops with our Instagram community to reflect upon masculinity and more. After the various lockdowns, we also organised and took part in a number of offline events, with the same view to rethink masculinity together.

2. What does “rethinking masculinity” mean? Why is it necessary?

The gender role debate has been rather heated over the past few years especially. Masculinity has not been discussed as much. Few men talk about masculinity; very few straight cisgender men do so. To reach true gender equality, we need to rethink all genders, masculinity included, and it is necessary for those who experience it firsthand to ask themselves the right questions.

Gaining a critical perspective on these themes allows us to reclaim an often overly generic narrative (be it male or any other gender), one that cannot possibly define every single individual. These categories aren’t prescriptive and we need to rethink them from a critical standpoint to be free to be ourselves.

3. Does it make sense to talk about femininity and masculinity as antagonistic in 2022?

As we mentioned above, male and female (or any other gender) aren’t prescriptive categories, which means no one can decide what is “right” or “wrong” for any given gender. Thinking of female and male as opposites means these genders must necessarily sit at two ends of a spectrum with no common ground.

We now know we have the freedom to think gender however we choose, and the cultural appreciation of what is “masculine” or “feminine” keeps shifting. This confirms they aren’t antagonistic or incompatible notions, and rather than consider them polar opposites, we should merely view them as two options on a much wider spectrum.

4. What do we mean by toxic masculinity?

“Rethinking” masculinity, and beyond, means deconstructing society’s gender narrative. When using the word “masculine” or “manly”, we know exactly what we mean: strength, courage/bravery, initiative/risk-taking, power and protection. While this is a valid narrative, it can become toxic when exaggerated.

Masculinity becomes toxic when it is harmful, for the person themselves or those who surround them. Masculinity becomes toxic when strength becomes abuse of power, when courage and bravery becomes an inability to develop emotions, when initiative becomes arrogance and when protection becomes control. This happens when this gender category becomes prescriptive, imposing a standard that is different from who we are, or when it becomes exaggerated as a result of fear of losing a number of privileges.

5. To what extent does toxic masculinity stand in the way of personal and sexual expression?

It depends on the extent to which we are “contaminated”, the “symptoms” vary from person to person. Overbearing masculinity can have a negative impact on all aspects of our lives. If masculinity is interpreted as a rigid role to performance, as a prescriptive category, it means that there is only one way to experience relationships, that only specific sports of hobbies are acceptable, that a few sex practises are “right” while the rest are “wrong”. But why can’t we be the ones to decide what makes us feel good?

6. Can embracing intersectional feminism help men reach greater sexual emancipation?

Intersectional feminism promotes dialogue and creates synergies between all kinds of subjectivities, to reach a truly inclusive form of equality and allow everyone to be free. Feminism does not merely serve women only: rethinking all genders is the basis upon we can build a critical discourse that allows us to overcome the notion of gender as prescriptive and stop excluding non-mainstream expressions. This includes men; all men.

7. Is it difficult for straight men to talk about sex amongst themselves? Is erotic masculinity a thing?

Dominating. active, “manly” straight men aren’t necessarily toxic. Feminism is often wrongly criticised for supposedly trying to annihilate genders as we know them, but that is far from the truth. There are many ways to live one’s own gender and they are all valid, just as long as they are respectful of others. The problem stems from only having one kind of masculinity to refer to, which affects sexuality as well.

All “passive” sexual practices have been demonised by the toxic masculinity narrative. There are no “female” or “male” practices. When it comes to sex, the dominant/dominated dichotomy needs to be rethought entirely; domination can exist in the sexual sphere but only and exclusively with consent.

8. Men and sex toys: is there a competition? (In straight relationships especially?)

That might happen. The sex narrative (and beyond) is highly phallocentric: penis or nothing. Intercourse is considered “complete” when penetration occurs. There are a million ways to describe oral sex that involves a penis, but the same cannot be said for vulvas. We are also taught that a penis always ejaculated in the end, while the vulva doesn’t, or does so in “mysterious” ways. Studying and simply talking with one’s partner allows us to understand it is about so much more than the penis.

Shifting from a phallocentric sexuality , with or without sex toys, allows us to lower the overwhelming expectations that are attached ot the penis, leading to less performance anxiety and eventually more pleasure.

9. Any advice for men who wish to get acquainted with sex toys?

When thinking about sex toys, we generally end up picturing the usual objects: a vibrator, a strap-on and maybe a cockring; the reality is much broader. Sex toys help us explore our sexuality and pleasure, including on an individual basi, but there is no injunction to do so and no right way to do it. Playing with a toy only remains a game as long as it is free from rules and obligations. If you’re just starting out, start small and go for something simple you know you will enjoy. And do just that!

We grew up in a world that operates in a very binary manner, but we need to question these notions that have been embedded in our way of thinking since before we were born. Doing so allows us to move away from toxicity, be it masculine or other, and truly experience pleasure, desire and sexuality In the best of ways!

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