If you're living anywhere in the English-speaking world, you've probably heard a lot about 'toxic masculinity' in the past few years. Men, we're often reminded, are more aggressive than women, and commit more violent crimes. They also account for the vast majority of cases of sexual assault and rape.
All that is true. But it's also true that women engage in significantly more gossip and behind-the-scenes slander, or what's known in the scientific literature as 'indirect aggression.' It's not hard to see why they might have evolved a preference for the indirect strategy - since men are so much bigger and stronger, it's their only realistic chance of getting an advantage.
For most of human history, though, men had the advantage. Physical violence is quicker, more direct, and more effective than gossip, so men found it pretty easy to dominate women.
More recently, all that's changed. Pretty much uniquely, modern developed societies have decided that it's not acceptable for men to use their physical advantage against women. And that's obviously a good thing.
But there's a problem that it's brought with it. The problem is what happens when men are no longer in a position to use their physical violence, but women are still permitted to use their relative advantage in indirect aggression. It's a problem that's compounded by the spread of social media, which amplifies the effect and widens the reach of malicious hearsay.
The results are plain to see. Men being forced to make tearful recantations for wearing sex-positive clothing; being formally sanctioned for making jokes; or even fired for offering intelligent criticisms of the dominant feminist position. And that's without even getting into the #metoo movement, which has damaged the careers of a number of innocent men, even driving some to the brink of suicide or beyond.
What this shows is that toxic femininity can do just as much damage through slander and passive-aggressiveness as toxic masculinity can effect through direct aggression and violence. So what can we do about it?
Thankfully, we're starting to talk about toxic femininity, but we could talk about it more. Men and women (who are often its target) need to be able to recognize it and be aware of the best way of dealing with it.
The more moderate feminists will admit that 'toxic masculinity' isn't something that all men display. It's something that a minority engage in (for example, only 1% of men account for more than half of all recorded sexual assaults). It's likely that the more toxic expressions of the female tendency to gossip are also produced by a small minority of women.
This raises hopes that toxic femininity might well be reined in eventually. What we need is for both men and women to begin defending a clear set of norms. The small set of extremists who try to dominate public perceptions should be held to a few well-defined ground-rules. Ground-rules like not making public accusations without evidence to back them up, or not routinely misrepresenting political opponents as misogynists.
Of course, part of toxic femininity is that it will immediately seek to vilify anyone who seeks to contain or de-claw it, even women. But for the moderate majority of both men and women who want to be able to live, work, and speak their minds free of spurious attacks and accusations, there's no other choice but to start taking action against toxic femininity.
Sam Butler is an English settler in New Zealand, a writer and anti-intellectual. He tweets @ErewhonNam.