Comedy and tragedy masks

 Tori McKee, a PhD scholar in Classical Studies, looks at ancient and modern ways of being a man

When we move away from the idea that perpetrators have to be monsters, we can begin to own and change unacceptable behaviours in our friends, our group and even ourselves

‘Toxic masculinity’ has its roots in Ancient Greece, and some of today’s most damaging myths around sexual norms can be traced back to early literature from the time, as Professor Mary Beard discusses in her latest book Women & power: a manifesto

Euripides Hippolytus has toxic masculinity on every page, Greek myths are populated by rapists who are monstrous or otherworldly while Medusa is an early example of victim blaming. Of course, in some texts, rapists are condemned and victims believed. But the ending is usually the same – triumph for the aggressor, tragedy for the survivor.

In Hippolytus, the titular male hero challenges sexual norms because he is celibate, by some counts asexual, preferring to spend his time outdoors.  He is also a pious young man devoted to Artemis, the goddess of the wilderness, and virginity. 

Aphrodite, as goddess of sexual love, is none too impressed.  Hippolytus refuses to worship her.  To seek her revenge, Aphrodite causes Hippolytus’ stepmother, Phaedra, to fall in love with him.  Phaedra sexually harasses him, and his resistance leads her to falsely accuse him of rape in her suicide note. Hippolytus flees in disgrace and is killed. A sad tale, and far more complex than this brief summary can show. 

My work training University of Cambridge students to be active bystanders, as part of the University’s Breaking the Silence campaign, has made me think more about Hippolytus and the concepts of masculinity that stretch back to ancient times.

Hippolytus’s father Theseus prefers to accept his son is a rapist rather than the fact he does not fit with the definition of a ‘real man’.  What kind of man doesn’t want sex after all; what young prince left at home with his young and beautiful stepmother wouldn’t be tempted to get in bed with her? When deciding sexual and gender norms, we often make emotionally based value judgments. These create false beliefs that are some of the most resistant to truth, according to one US study.

Challenging myths and stereotypes

I cannot help but wonder whether society’s restricted definition of masculinity is contributing to the staggering statistics we see about the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual violence on college campuses, as has been documented in the NUS report Hidden Marks. ‘Toxic’ norms of male behaviour are interrogated in anti-harassment programmes such as Cambridge’s Good Lad Initiative or the Twitter movement #HowIWillChange.

The images in popular culture, from men’s magazines to Hollywood movies, not to mention pornography so readily accessible on the internet, show a very restricted kind of masculinity.  The kind where aggression is rewarded and celebrated. 

Is it surprising, then, that so many of today’s young men seem to lack the confidence to be OK with taking things slow?  With not going out for the sole purpose of getting laid?  Isn’t that what everyone else is doing after all?

Challenging myths and stereotypes is also central to Cambridge’s bystander intervention programme.

We use social norms theory to show that what is perceived as the dominant view may well not be.  The ‘silent majority’ is strong.  And it only takes one or two people to stop being silent to change what is perceived to be normal and acceptable. 

We are empowering the students in our workshops to challenge the stereotypes, to see that it’s OK for them or their male friends to be a different kind of man.  Helping students to understand the culture, and perceptions, that enable sexual violence to take place is an important foundation for preparing them to be active bystanders.

Making a difference

Sex offender ‘monsters’ are as prevalent in today’s media as they were on the ancient stage. Rachel Krys, co-director of the End Violence Against Women coalition describes these stereotypes as unhelpful, allowing unacceptable behaviour short of sexual assault to be disassociated from perpetration. According to the coalition, most perpetrators “look normal, can be quite charming, and are often part of your group”. When we move away from the idea that perpetrators have to be monsters, we can begin to own and change unacceptable behaviours in our friends, our group and even ourselves.

It’s clear these are complex issues, and we know it’s not easy standing up to your friends, or going against the crowd.  Intervening may be awkward, and it may feel uncomfortable.  But it can make a real difference, not just for potential victims but also for potential perpetrators.

A recent study of London commuters shows that only 11% of women who were sexually harassed or assaulted on the Underground were helped by a bystander.

The report describes the devastation of finding that even when surrounded by people, they were unsafe. And bystanders witnessing their abuse and doing nothing left victims with the lifelong impression that no one cared.

There are also so many different ways to intervene, and it is not just about confronting people or taking a stand in a crowd.  The workshops help students practice intervention skills in realistic scenarios that could come up in their day-to-day university life, and explore the different options that may be available to them. 

It has been encouraging to see how the students participating have already started to gain not only confidence, but also awareness of how prevalent some of these situations are, and how what might seem like a very small action can make such a big difference.

Are we taking at least a small step to changing the culture at the University of Cambridge?  I certainly hope so.

Tori McKee is Tutorial Department Manager at Jesus College. Join this week's Breaking the Silence campaigning to increase bystander interventions to stop sexual harassment as part of National Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week 2018. Download materials here or at

Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.